Posts Tagged ‘reading’

How to cook – canals and novels

May 17, 2010

When I was cycling home at the weekend, my back wheel suddenly went clonk. It was completely bent out of shape, jammed against the brake, and I had to half-carry half-drag it the rest of the way home, which luckily wasn’t too far.

I took it into the marvellous Lock 7 bike shop where they said they’d fit a new wheel and I could pick it up later on. Incidentally, I cannot recommend Lock 7 enough.

A couple of hours later, I walked over to pick up my bike. I went along the Regent’s canal, a quiet, secluded path, lined by water on the one side, wild foliaged fence on the other. There was near silence except for the occasional tinkle of a bicycle bell, the rush of water as a lock filled up, an occasional pant of a lycraed jogger, an overheard snippet of conversation as people wandered past.

There were no decisions about which way to go, whether it would be quicker to go right and then left, or straight on and then the next right. The canal is a set route and takes all of those decisions out of one’s hands. I just got on the towpath and walked, knowing that it would lead me, eventually, to the bike shop.

On the way back home, I decided not to cycle along the canal. It’s a bit slow, a bit too meandering, too many pedestrians in the way, I thought. No, I’ll go on the streets, it’ll be much quicker. There were cars, speed-bumps, traffic lights, decisions about which turning would be best. I had to concentrate rather hard on everything that was going on, rather than just enjoying the journey. Yes, it was quicker, but far less pleasant.

I think that these two different journeys can be used to explain many things. Not least why I don’t cook properly.

You see, people who cook the right way decide they’re going to cook something, don’t worry about it taking a while, begin at the beginning of the recipe and then end up with the finished dish. Essentially they go along the canal. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no decisions; they follow the steps set out for them and everything goes smoothly.

People like me, who cook the wrong way, go along the streets. They skim over the recipe and then decide to cook it their own way. They look for shortcuts, ways to make it quicker, and the process is filled with interruptions and distractions – other things that need some concentration while they’re cooking.

So, for instance, they begin chopping onions while on the telephone and then decide, impatiently, that it doesn’t need to be fried for ten minutes but that five will do. Later on, another shortcut can be made by not bothering to leave the mixture to sit and infuse for twenty minutes. They decide, while they’re in the kitchen, they might as put a wash on and unload the dishwasher. They cut as much time out of the recipe as possible, try to multi-task, forget where they’ve got to, and end up with a not particularly good dish, but prepared in less time, with a washing machine going full tilt and a dishwasher half-unloaded.

Why do I follow this second, worse, way of cooking? Why do I not decide, right, this evening I’m going to cook and not do anything else, and I will follow the recipe very carefully and not take any shortcuts? Why don’t I decide to enjoy the meanderings, the little moments of watching onions soften, patiently letting things infuse, the careful browning of the meat, the sudden smell of a burst of herbs?

The problem lies in treating recipes as directions rather than respectable pieces of text. Reading a recipe should be enjoyable, like following a plot, digesting a novel.

A recipe has its own special plot devices, structure, intrigue. Ingredients are brought together, mixed, left to simmer, transferred to a different environment. Adding chilli to onions shouldn’t just mean ‘make it spicy’, but should be more like introducing a fiery love interest to someone with many layers (to adapt a line from Shrek). When reading a book, it’s unthinkable to skip a few pages, add in one’s own bits, miss out a vital character. Now I can see, when I interfere with recipes, I’m bastardising the plot.

As soon as one thinks of recipes as mini novels, it’s clear that cooking isn’t about the final outcome, the end scene, whatever it is that has resulted from the mixing together of ingredients. Cooking is like reading. It’s about enjoying the mixing process, seeing what happens when something new is introduced, when things are left to simmer or, indeed, when everything gets rather overheated.

So perhaps it was wrong of me to think about cooking when I was going to and from the bike shop. Recipes aren’t merely ways of getting from A to B. If that’s how I think of them, then I’ll always be tempted to take a shortcut. But, luckily, I’ll never choose to miss a chunk of a good novel.

Lessons from The Lessons

May 7, 2010

I’m in the middle of reading Naomi Alderman’s new book The Lessons, essentially a Secret History set in Oxford.

Reading it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic, not so much for Oxford (‘Ah, Oxford’) but for that naïve feeling of indestructibility that one can have in a close-knit group of friends.

In The Lessons, the main character James finds his group after just a term. For me, that came much later on in Oxford. It was partly there in the second year, when we were all living in houses out of college. But really it hit at the very end of university, after exams, when we had three weeks of doing absolutely nothing other than lazing around together and partying.

It felt like we were a proper gang. There must have been around twenty-five of us, and we were always together in the most clichéd of ways. Afternoons would be spent playing croquet in the college quad (yes, really), sometimes there’d be punting, or picnics and then there’d be evening drinks, followed by dinners – in formal hall, or barbeques – and then out to the various clubs, back to someone’s house, chatting, dancing, watching the sun come up, asleep around breakfast time. Looking back, I almost can’t believe it was real.

It was sad, after university, to see our numbers dwindle. There were some inevitable casualties of the general move to London. Some people stayed on for an extra year, or moved to different parts of the world. And then there were the ones who were in London but gradually distanced themselves from the group. The ones who I realised I didn’t really know well enough to arrange to see one-on-one, who slowly faded into the horizon.

But as the group got smaller, so it felt more special. It was around three years after university that it felt like there was something truly amazing about our group.

We went down to stay at a friend’s house in the countryside for my birthday weekend. There were eight of us. It felt incredibly special, even at the time. I remember being anxious that someone should take lots of photos, to try to capture the weekend, preserve it against time’s distorting dust. Every moment of that weekend felt as though it could never happen again. So much so that I almost felt nostalgic for it, even while it was taking place.

And it never did quite happen again. We had other weekends away, other trips, other times together. But it was always slightly different. It was never quite as good as that first time, never quite the same. At times it could risk feeling like a rehashing, repeating a performance, knowing that the more it was acted, the emptier it became. All the best hiding places had already been found, the best charades already acted, the best meals already cooked …

I almost think that something awful should have happened that weekend. We should have discovered a dead body, or made some dreadful pact. Or else something really nuts, like an orgy. But we just stayed up all night drinking and playing games and chatting. And during the days we went for beautiful long cold green country walks.

It makes me feel sad reading The Lessons. It makes me think of those days, of feeling so firmly part of something, so inseparable from the others, so bound together.

But I suppose those slightly incestuous hermetic groups can’t last forever. Perhaps they really are best in a novel, where such intense friendships are bread and wine for the writer.

And I shouldn’t really want them to last forever. Surely it’s a good thing that friendships drift apart and then together again, new connections are formed, old ones dissolve? Everything is always changing, and that’s what keeps life interesting.

But during that weekend, it felt like the eight of us were the centre of the world, the still point in the middle of life’s and time’s various whirlpools. It was the most wonderful, decadent, indulgent, naïve feeling. And I think Naomi Alderman captures it perfectly in her novel.

Dreams and poetry

April 16, 2010

Last night I went to sleep feeling quite anxious. I knew I had to write my blog today and couldn’t think of anything to at all to write about. I soon fell asleep, but the worries must have crept into my sleeping brain, as I had rather a peculiar dream. I dreamt that I would solve the problem of having nothing to blog about by writing a poem and posting it on the blog. However, the only way I could compose the poem was by separating a huge lump of cooked spinach into little rectangular clumps on my plate. The size of each clump represented the length of the line of poetry. It wasvery important to make several clumps of spinach exactly the same size or else the lines wouldn’t scan properly – they would have too few or too many syllables.

I woke up and, I have to admit, it took a little while to get over the disappointment of not having a poem perfectly formed in my head. I even had a cursory glance in the fridge to see if there were a bag of spinach hiding in there, which might coax some verse out of my subconscious. Then I remembered I’d had some spinach for lunch – that must have been where that bit of the dream came from – and I realised that it was really just an anxiety dream.

So no, this wasn’t a Coleridgean ‘Kubla Khan’ moment. Or a Keatsean ‘Sleep and Poetry’. Never mind.

But then, Coleridge, Keats or anyone else back then wouldn’t have just dismissed it as a Freudian ‘anxiety dream’. I expect if they’d dreamt about arranging spinach into a poem they would have awoken and written something wonderful – even just a fragment of it. (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a splendid spinach patch decree … ) Freud and therapy and the dismissing of such moments of creative inspiration into ‘anxiety’ or ‘penis envy’ or something similarly disappointing weren’t on the scene at all. 

The earliest dream poems that I know are Chaucer’s. He certainly didn’t put dreams down to anything Freudian. In fact at the beginning of ‘The House of Fame’ he writes:

For hyt is wonder, be the roode,

To my wyt, what causeth swevenes

 He goes on to list all sorts of possible reasons for dreams (or ‘swevenes’), from ‘folkys complexions’ (the balance of people’s bodily humours) to ‘dysordynaunce / Of naturel acustumaunce’ (a disordered routine), or lovers ‘That hopen over-muche or dreden/That purely her impressions/ Causeth hem avisions’ (who hope too much or are afraid that their powerful emotions cause their visions).

I suppose, in poetry, this last explanation can often be the right one. Think of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The ‘knight-at arms, / Alone and palely loitering’ falls in love with a beautiful fairy who takes him to ‘her elfin grot’:

 

 

And there she lullèd me asleep

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too

Pale warriors, death-pale where they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

What a warning to an obsessed lover! Once under the spell of a beautiful lady, you are as good as dead. ‘No birds sing.’ Not even Keats’s nightingale (‘light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’) is there to keep the poor pale love-lorn knight company.

Well, I’m pretty sure my dream about writing a poem in spinach wasn’t a warning about falling in love. And sadly it wasn’t really a moment of inspiration – there is no green-tinged poem to follow.

But at least it gave me something to write about. And it meant I spent all morning happily reading poetry. So there’s not much to complain about at all. 

On a beach

April 12, 2010

There is something particularly perfect about being proposed to on a beach.

A beach is the edge of the country, the crust of the British loaf. And it’s an edge that is changing, shifting. Sand moves along the coast, waves erode away part of the shore as new land heaps up further down. Where else in the world does the landscape change so visibly, so dramatically right in front of your eyes? It’s as though the earth is stripped down to nothing – no covering of trees, plants, grass, or even soil, just sand. No wonder it’s by the seaside that we strip off down to bikinis and swimming trunks, rather than, say, in the middle of the forest.

There’s something almost magical about beaches. I know it’s mega-pretentious to quote my own novel-in-progress, but this bit is from a scene when the main character goes to a beach:

Her feet sank into the damp sand, and the pale wet of the sea cooled her, soothed her frustration. Adele turned around for a moment and saw that her footprints had been erased by the sea. And now, looking down at her ankles, she watched the sand bleach itself as the water shrank back, out of the ground, back into the body of the sea. Again Adele felt sure there was magic here. As though whatever happened here, happened here only – no record of it could seep into real life.

Beaches really are the very edge; where things change almost magically. It’s as though, if you get close enough to the edge, all trace of real life might just vanish.

On the beach there is space. Flatness. Sea and sky meet in a blue horizon, only occasionally interrupted by a distant boat or, perhaps, the outline of France. All the reality of the world, every mundane concern, shoes and socks are left behind, back in the car, the other side of the dunes, nothing can get in the way out here, on the beach, by the sea.

I read On Chesil Beach last week, thinking that I might find similarities with my own situation of being in love on a beach in the south of England. And as everybody is saying how ‘abominable’ (as Florence in OCB would say) McEwan’s new book Solar is, I thought I should try to see if he has written anything better.

The beach, in OCB, is the place where the actions of a newly-married couple will affect the rest of their lives. The book is about one particular moment, lasting for probably no more than an hour. Either Florence and Edward will be affectionate towards each other and overcome the gulf in understanding that lies between them, or they will be rendered apart forever.

McEwan deftly moves between Edward and Florence’s points of view, their memories, their thoughts, musings and expectations. He shows, at once, the differences that are key to the characters – the disparity in their interpretations of each other and events – but also, in the ease and fluidity that he jumps from one mind to the other, that the differences aren’t insurmountable, that they can be overcome, that Florence and Edward could exist together.

It is on the beach that the decision is made, that the actions – or lack of actions – happen. It is in a place, barely of this country or this world, removed from the London and Oxfordshire lives of the characters. And it is at night, when the beach is deserted, empty, as though the two of them are completely alone in the world. And although this night will affect them forever, they will try to forget about it; the episode will almost completely vanish from their lives, like footprints in the sand, wiped away by the sea.

But as beaches are the end of the land, they are also the beginning, a point of arrival, an opening into a country. Washed clean of normal life and its mundanities, people are at their freest on a beach, stripped bare of worries, more themselves than at any other time, able to start something new and fresh. And so, on that beach in Sussex, on that sunny windy day just over a week ago, a wonderful, happy, new life together was begun.

Reading and Writing in Cadences

March 18, 2010

Just before dropping off into a snooze in an attempt to heal the wounds, post-tonsil-removal (if only I could use that excuse forever), I often think about my novel-in-progress. I’ve felt quite guilt-stricken about not really doing any work on it for nearly three whole weeks now (ouch, but I shall keep blaming the tonsils) and so these little not-quite-fully-awake thought meanderings tend to be an attempt to feel a bit less slack.

Yesterday I was thinking about the atmosphere that I want to surround the ending. From the very first moment of the novel’s conception – one glorious evening in the bath – I’ve wanted the ending to be about creating a certain feeling, something murky and unsettled, something that doesn’t let the reader walk away and leave it completely behind, something that resists a perfect resolution.

Perhaps because I was in that half-asleep state, and perhaps it was the remnants of painkiller still in my bloodstream (sadly I don’t think I can compare myself to a pre-‘Kubla Khan’ Coleridge), it occurred to me that what I need is to write an imperfect cadence.

Yes, an imperfect cadence, as in music theory. I have to say I’ve always been rubbish at music theory, but I just about grasped the concept of cadences. They occur at the end of a piece, or the end of a phrase, and there are four basic types: perfect, imperfect, plagal and interrupted. You can listen to them all here.

But this isn’t supposed to be a not-particularly-good crash course in music theory. I thought it could be quite fun to think of cadences in books. Bear with me …

Essentially a perfect cadence – from the dominant note (Vth in a scale) to the tonic (Ist in a scale) – feels like certain resolution. Finished, ta-da, the end. So, for novels, although this must be by far the most common closing cadence, it is particularly apt for the end of a detective story. Think of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories. All the characters are assembled in the drawing room, your mind is spinning from all the different possibilities of who the murderer might be, and then Poirot puts everyone out of their misery, unmasks the villain and peace is restored.

The other easy one to spot is a plagal cadence. This is from the subdominant (IV) to the tonic (I) and can be quickly recognised as the ‘Amen’ at the end of hymns. It sounds churchy, religious – the correct resolution but in a bit of a preachy tone. In book terms I’m afraid that Graham Greene instantly springs to mind. I know he’s a brilliant writer but why does everything always have to end up being about Catholicism? The same goes for Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Then there are the two types that are harder to recognise. The imperfect cadence is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of perfect. So the progression is from tonic (I) to dominant (V). It feels unfinished, the listener is waiting for the tonic to come back again at the end and a happy resolution to be found. It leaves one unsettled, uncomfortable, uncertain of what will happen next – because something almosthas to happen next. It makes me think of Twin Peaks – I will never ever forget that final image. And King Lear, when Albany, Edgar and Kent are left standing at the end looking forward into an uncertain future after the horror that has passed. ‘We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’ What will they see? What will happen next? What can possibly happen next when the world seems to have exploded into nothingness? That’s what I want in my novel.

And then, finally, the interrupted cadence. This is from the dominant (V) to any note that isn’t the tonic. It often goes to the supertonic (II), the subdominant (IV) or the submediant (VI). I expect there is a better, more nuanced explanation of this somewhere, but what matters for me is that this cadence always feels utterly unresolved. It’s more of an opening into something new than an ending. I suppose the effect is an extreme version of that of an imperfect cadence – one isn’t so much waiting for resolution, as waiting for a whole new chapter. This cadence brings to mind books that were initially published in serial form, like Little Dorrit, or pretty much anything else by Dickens. And it doesn’t make me think of the final ending, it makes me think of those significant moments in the plot where one episode ends, leaving one desperate to know what happens next. Cliffhangers. Although they’re now to be found more in TV soap operas than in novels.

It’s a comforting thought, that rather than striving for the perfect ending, an imperfect one can be infinitely more haunting. My eyes (and ears) are peeled remain peeled for more.

Tonsils tonsils tonsils

March 11, 2010

I’m sorry not to have posted anything for a while. I had my tonsils removed a week ago and, as a rather unfortunate side-effect, my brain has been turned into mashed potato thanks to the horrid combination of pain and very strong painkillers.

I will post something just as soon as I have something to say again. In fact it will before I can actually say it properly because my voice now sounds a bit like the Elephant Man’s.

Among the various DVDs I’ve been watching and children’s books I’ve been reading, I noticed that by strange coincidence the evil, dreaded TONSILLITIS is mentioned in both Wes Anderson’s film of Fantastic Mr Fox, and in the beautifully eccentric children’s book A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam.  It was almost the best bit of both of them for me, in my rather enfeebled state. ‘Ha,’ I thought. ‘At least there will be none of that for me ever, ever again.’

I do hope my brain gets better soon.

The Great Outdoors

February 22, 2010

‘Do you like the great outdoors, you know, being out in the countryside?’ a young man from Norfolk asked me at a party the other day. We’d been talking to an American chap, who’d said he was longing to go to Alaska, to be out in the wild. The Norfolkian and I admitted that all we really knew about Alaska was that it was big, cold and had bears, and that Werner Herzog made a film about that guy who was eaten by one. The American looked puzzled. I don’t think he’d seen the film. And that’s when the Norfolkian, evidently realising that we needed to get the conversation beyond Alaska, turned to me and asked the question.

It’s a difficult question to answer. The countryside seems to be a bit like that cliché about Communism: wonderful in theory, but not in practice. I like the idea of nature, I love reading about it, but the real thing is often a bit of a letdown. I suppose, for me, the ‘great’ outdoors is in the city, not the countryside.

As Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway says, ‘I love walking in London … Really, it’s better than walking in the country.’ I’m afraid I can’t help but agree, especially the way Mrs Dalloway walks. As I mentioned in a previous post, her walking allows her mind to wander, dart from thought to thought, endlessly inspired by her catching sight of something new. London is paradise for the distracted mind, filled with a million different things to catch a roving eye, countless connections to be formed, infinite paths along which thoughts can meander.

Will Self writes about these London associations in a piece called ‘Big Dome’, which I read in an old issue of Granta (you can buy it here). For Self, however, this is an affliction rather than something to be celebrated. He calls it ‘claustro-agoraphobia’:

The city is filled in with narratives, which have been extruded like psychic mastic into its fissures. There is no road I haven’t fought on, no cul-de-sac I haven’t ended it all in, no alley I haven’t done it down. To traverse central London today, even in a car, even on autopilot, is still to run over a hundred memoirs.

Spending one’s life in London, one can’t help but form ‘narratives’ associated with various streets. But that’s what I love about it. How magnificent to pass through Soho and remember, as I stroll down Frith Street, an awful date I went on in Arbutus, hilarious drunken school nights spent at Cheapskates, an old friend’s birthday party at the Arabic Restaurant on the corner, an argument I once had about which street the Palace Theatre (now showing Priscilla Queen of the Desert, then showing Les Mis) is on – we strode across London together, all the way to the theatre, both determined to prove our point. All of those stories remembered from, more or less, just one street.

Perhaps Soho is cheating. It’s bang in Central London, of course there are hundreds of memories associated with it. But, for anyone who’s been in London for more than a year or so, pretty much every single part of London has a few thoughts associated with it. Even if one’s never been there, it’s on the tube map, a friend lives nearby or it’s come up in conversation.

Take Morden, for example, right at the bottom of the Northern line. If I were to go there – and, I hasten to add, I haven’t yet – I would think, as I emerge from the tube, of my friend who used to be writing a novel about the Northern Line, in which he described Morden as other-worldly, doubting its real existence. I’d remember a silly pretend argument I had with someone about the Northern Line, mostly inspired by my friend’s book-in-progress, in which I’d said that Morden obviously didn’t really exist as it was too far away, and I was told that yes that it really did exist, in fact he took his driving test there. The name would make me think of Lord of the Rings – is it the inspiration behind ‘Mordor’? Tenuous links, perhaps, but links nonetheless – paths that my thoughts can tread along, as I tread along, as yet unseen, streets. I doubt there is a single pocket of London with which I have absolutely no associations whatsoever. It’s the nature of the sprawling, maze-like city.

This doesn’t happen in the countryside. I can’t stroll through the woods and think, ah that was the oak tree where so and so said blah blah blah, and there’s the bush where whatshisname went and had a pee behind, and by that birch over there is where I tied my shoelace that time I went for a walk with thingummy. There is, I suppose, a giddy freedom in this untarnished mindscape. Thoughts can soar, free from association, solve problems, reach inspired conclusions, form lines of poetry.

Fine for Wordsworth and Coleridge, but actually I need city distractions for my brain to function at its best. While my mind meanders through memories, treading already well-trodden routes, another part of it freely darts off and somehow finds the solution to whatever problem has been bothering me enough to make me feel restless and want to go for a walk in the first place. I find that surface distraction tends to enable more important processes to occur subconsciously.

But then, in theory, I love the countryside. I love those books by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, rhapsodising about nature, writing so poetically about wild places and trees. Wildwood is one of my favourite books of all time, ever. I remember most fondly Deakin’s writing about walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, filled with families decamped to harvest the walnuts, proudly presenting him with their prize specimens, everyone gorging on nuts, blackening their hands like charcoal.

The Running Sky by Tim Dee is another stunning book of nature writing. I recently read this beautiful account of a birdwatching life, mingled with poetry (Dee also co-edited The Poetry of Birds with Simon Armitage), and adored it, even though I had never been birdwatching myself. As chance would have it, I found myself in Suffolk’s Snape Maltings a couple of weeks later only to see a sign for a guided birdwatching walk that morning. Perfect, I thought, here’s a chance to experience something I know I’ll love.

We assembled at ten o’clock, a middle-aged couple plus dog, my mother and I, and, of course, our guide – a man from the RSPB. It was cold. We stood in the car park for a while, being told what we might see. Redbacks, gulls and some interesting water features, apparently. We then embarked on our walk, or shuffle, along a field. I was very excited, mostly because the RSPB man had lent me a pair of binoculars (the middle-aged couple had their own). The excitement wore off over the next forty minutes, as we shuffled along, painfully slowly, or stood still, painfully cold, peering through binoculars at a bunch of winged things in the distance, being told ‘those are redbacks, and those are gulls’. I’d rather read some of Tim Dee’s book any day.

It could have just been bad luck. Over Christmas, I was in Devon and came across a flock of starlings while wandering along the estuary by Budleigh Salterton. They were forming the most astonishing shapes in the air and I stood their transfixed. I didn’t feel the cold, or even a flicker of boredom, then. The starlings’ flight is an astonishingly beautiful, wonderful (literally) thing of nature. And, of course, there are others. Several. And, when written about with deft skill, these natural wonders can be utterly breathtaking. But I’m more impressed by instances of human endeavour.

I went to Dungeness, for instance, to see Derek Jarman’s garden. I’d just seen the Derek Jarman exhibition at the Serpentine and had been moved by his film Blue. I wanted to find out more about him and so made the pilgrimage down to this peculiar knobble of Kent. Dungeness is a strange and magnificent place, where bungalows squat on a shingle beach in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Derek Jarman’s garden, an eerie assembly of rocks, driftwood, found pieces of twisted metal, and local tough sea-resistant plants is incredible.

As it so happened, my visit to Dungeness coincided with a troupe of keen birdwatchers – around twenty of them, who were excitedly running after a particular bird, which hadn’t been spotted in Kent for several years. The thrill of the chase was palpable as they birdily hopped along the shingle, stalking the, apparently unconcerned, bird. They didn’t look at the fishermen’s cottages and bungalows, the nuclear power station, the lighthouse soaring stripily up into the sky, or the garden. They had eyes only for the bird. I had driven all the way down from London to see the garden, to visit the place which I’d heard to be so bleak and yet so valiant. I didn’t think twice about it. But I know I’d never travel for miles, as they had done, to see a bird.

And so walking in the city, where one is accosted with buildings, bridges, streets, squares, lights, statues … millions of things that have aesthetic value, is gorging at a feast of manmade wonder. Walking through the City (the financial bit) at the weekend, is astonishing. With the streets emptied of bankers, one can gaze freely upwards at the playful Lloyds building, the grand heavy décor of Leadenhall Market, feel the ever-present assertion of the Gherkin. I know I’d much rather walk there than through a peaceful, bucolic meadow.

I’m not sure I like the fact that I’d rather be outdoors in the manmade world than in nature. I definitely don’t like the fact that I prefer nature writing to nature itself. Perhaps I need to experience it via someone else’s associations, as I haven’t spent enough time in it to form my own. Or perhaps, unlike William Blake, I simply lack the imagination ‘to see a world in a grain of sand, / and a heaven in a wild flower’. But, for now, I’m more than content to wander amidst London’s ever fascinating, ever complicated maze, thrilled to let it grow ever thicker with association.

My Top Ten London Books … part two

February 13, 2010

On to non-fiction.

6. Journey Through a Small Planet, Emmanuel Litvinoff

I came across Litvinoff in Ian Sinclair’s book, Hackney, That Rose-red Empire, where he was mentioned, alongside Pinter and other ‘East-End’ writers. The name stuck in my head and a few weeks later, when walking past a bookshop window, Journey Through a Small Planet caught my eye, in its glorious Penguin Modern Classics livery.

In Journey Through a Small Planet, Litvinoff revisits his Whitechapel childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century, when ‘the salty vigorous Yiddish tongue filled the streets’ and  Brick Lane was the haunt of ‘herring-women … plunging their chapped and swollen fingers into the open barrels of pickled fish.’ In what must be the ultimate Jewish East-End book, Litvinoff brings the area pungently back to life, with women chattering to each other in the tenements, telling tales from the ‘old country’, and the community’s excitement when the Yiddish theatre troupe arrives. But Litvinoff manages to avoid the trap of saccharine nostalgia. Poverty is ever-present, such as when he scavenges for unwanted vegetables from Spitalfields Market, and he emphasises how important it was to study hard, how much he wanted to escape the drudgery of sweat-shop and factory, the ghettoed existence.

And there is no doubt that it was a ghetto, ‘people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs’. Litvinoff suggests it was more akin to the shtetls of Poland and Russia than London, Britain’s cosmopolitan capital. The Jewishness of the East End, of Litvinoff himself, cannot stray far from the foreground of Journey Through a Small Planet, but Litvinoff does not have a straightforward relationship with his religion. Patrick Wright (author of A Journey Through Ruins among other excellent books) looks at this complicated relationship in his engaging introduction. In A Jew in England (also included in this Penguin edition), Litvinoff finds the Jewish names on shops ‘grotesque and provocative; the Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation’, but yet he stood up at the ICA, in front of an audience which included T.S. Eliot, to read out his poem, ‘To T.S. Eliot’, accusing Eliot of anti-semitism:

I am not one accepted in your parish.

Bleistein is my relative and I share

the protozoic slime of Shylock …

… So shall I say it is not eminence chills

but the snigger from behind the covers of history,

the sly words and the cold heart

and footprints made with blood upon a continent?

Let your words

tread lightly on this earth of Europe

lest my people’s bones protest.

T.S. Eliot, the rest of London’s literati, and, indeed, even London’s Jewish community, were not amused. The poem was slated and Litvinoff’s reputation sunk.

In the years of the Second World War, as Hitler attempted to exterminate the Jewish race, so the bombing of London destroyed the Jewish East End. Reading Journey through a Small Planet makes me feel that this decimation was indeed a mini-holocaust, given the exuberant life in that community, held in its buildings and the Yiddish chattering of neighbours in its tenements. Litvinoff, such a skilled resuscitator, has perfectly recreated that lost world, warts and all.

7. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

Towards the end of Journey through a Small Planet, Litvinoff writes about a time when he was crushingly poor, with nothing to eat, no work, sleeping in dosshouses. The ‘down and out’ existence was one shared by Orwell, chronicled in his autobiographical work, Down and Out in Paris and London.

A great deal of the book is set in Paris, where Orwell’s penniless existence begins after a short spell as a plongeur in a restaurant. But it is London it that matters for this list, ‘the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange’. And, like Paris, it is described in brilliant, illuminating detail.

Orwell discovers ‘tea-and-two-slices’, the miserable sustenance of all tramps in cafes across the capital. He becomes friendly with an Irish tramp, who gets all his tobacco from fag-ends dropped on the street. He describes the clusters of tramps who go to tiny church services in order to be given a cup of tea and a bun, and the OAPs who are forced into a tramp-like existence by their miserly pension of ten shillings a week (he is impressed by one managing to eke enough out of it to afford a weekly shave, when consuming nothing but bread and tea). It is an overlooked community, in which stories are told while waiting for the ‘spike’ to open, keeping them going for the miles they have to walk to reach the next spike.

Orwell writes about tramps with great sympathy, urging us to stop believing in a falsely-imagined ‘tramp-monster’ – ‘they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life’. But his true feat is in keeping his sense of humour, including details that occasionally cause a smile, rather than a patronising look of sorrow. In the ultimate mark of respect for the tramps and their tough way of life, Orwell never indulges in an ounce of sentimentality.

8. Derelict London, Paul Talling

From tramps, often-overlooked, to derelict buildings, also often-overlooked. This collection of photographs of disused, crumbling, forgotten London buildings, many of which appear on the website derelictlondon.com. It’s a poignant book, showing how the city has changed and the casualties that occured along the way. The Seven Stars, for instance, Brick Lane’s last pub; Poplar Baths, originally opened back in 1852, following the Baths and Wash Houses Act; the Stockwell bomb shelter from the Second World War; Hackney Marshes and Pudding Mill river – victims to the upcoming Olympics; plus a few forlorn images of those dying but quintessentially British symbols: an estranged milk float and a row of red post boxes. This review from the New Statesman really gets to the heart of it.

Yes, most of the photos can be seen on the website, but the book is a sweet pocket-sized companion, and has interesting facts and stories alongside. The pictures are neatly arranged by type, from ‘working – houses and flats to ‘resting – cemeteries and chapels of rest’. It is definitely not your average book of London photography.

9. Lost London, Philip Davies

And neither is this. Lost London brings together a host of stunning black-and-white images of the capital from 1870–1945. The places have all vanished now, as the photos came into being when the LCC decided to create a historical record of buildings that were going to be demolished. The book combines miserable poverty, as it tours the destitution of slums before the clearances from the East End to Westminster (via Bermondsey and Holborn, with a sense of excitement, as change is brought to the city. It is marvellous to see Tower Bridge, for instance, in construction, its bundles of girders stretching out over the Thames.

Published only last year, we sold vast numbers of Lost London at the bookshop in the run-up to Christmas. So many, in fact, that we had completely sold out by early December. The publishers had, rather short-sightedly, only printed relatively few copies, and, as the printing is done in the Far East, we’re still waiting to get more in stock. The legend of the book lives on, however: at least two or three times a week somebody asks about it. All I can advise is to order one – it’s the most magnificent book, and if you don’t get one of the precious copies to be delivered later this month, you’ll have another few months to wait until the next batch is shipped over.

10. The Secret History of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank

Dan Cruickshank is a bit of a hero. The New Georgian who campaigned to save Spitalfields from destruction, who presents television programmes waving his hands enthusiastically in the air, who knows everything there is to know about Georgian architecture. But, and here’s the best bit, he’s written a book which isn’t really about architecture. It’s a book about the sex industry.

Cruickshank shows through meticulously detailed research that prostitution was huge in Georgian London. He works out that in London, one in six women were prostitutes and he points out quite how unusual this was, quoting from letters and accounts by various astonished contemporary foreign visitors.

He details the wages of prostitutes, where they lived, where they worked – illustrated by a charmingly titled map of ‘the sexual highway’. He looks at different types of prostitutes, high-class, low-class, and not forgetting ‘molly-houses’ (centres for gay prostitution). But The Secret History of Georgian London is much more than just a documentary about prostitutes. Cruickshank’s real skill lies in showing how this huge industry was intertwined with the art of the day. He goes into eye-opening detail with Hogarth’s drawings, and tells the stories of the prostitutes in Reynolds’ stunning paintings. And, being Dan Cruickshank, he doesn’t forget the buildings. He gives a grand architectural tour of London’s sordid side, from Covent Garden’s ‘bagnios’ (or bath houses) and coffee-houses, to the Foundling Hospital – where mothers would deposit unwanted babies, and Whitechapel’s Magdalen House for penitent prostitutes.

Cruickshank makes the point that prostitution was vital to the Georgian economy, key to the development of London and the flourishing of its art and architecture. It’s a unique angle to take, and one that makes Georgian art and architecture glitter in a fascinating, albeit somewhat seedy, new light.

My Top Ten London books … part one

February 10, 2010

I sometimes get asked, at the bookshop, to recommend something that’s set in London. There are so many London books that I’ve loved, it’s hard to know where to begin. But recommending something is trickier than one might imagine, because it has to be recommended for that particular person, not for oneself, or anyone else. For instance, a young man came in the other day and asked for a good crime novel. I suggested a couple, saying that not only were they exciting, they were also very well written and not trashy at all. His whole expression dropped; he put the books down straight away. ‘I don’t like well-written,’ he said. ‘Don’t you have anything like John Grisham?’

So, the following aren’t books that I’d recommend to just anyone. But they are the books about London that I love the most. I’ll start off with the fictional ones; next time will be London’s non-fiction.

1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I know that lots of people hate Virginia Woolf. They think she’s snobby and pretentious, and a bit ridiculous. Fine. She probably was a snob. But she’s an absolutely brilliant writer. The thing is, one can’t just start reading Mrs Dalloway, or any of her books, and expect to follow a straightforward narrative. Reading Virginia Woolf is always a bit of a shock, more than a fraction discombobulating, but if you persevere, you might discover something you absolutely adore. I certainly did.

Mrs Dalloway was the first of Woolf’s novels that I read, and I remember reading it very clearly. It was during the holidays before my second term at Oxford. I was sitting on the living room sofa with a cup of tea, feeling a mixture of tremendous excitement and great trepidation. My tutor was a specialist in Woolf, you see, so it would have been a bit of shame if I’d hated it. But as soon as I began, there was a kind of BANG. A WOW. A complete amazement that writing could be this different, this exciting and this good. I ended up specialising in Woolf, reading all her novels, most of her essays, many of her letters and diaries, but Mrs Dalloway was the beginning; it was where I first got hooked.

Now, whenever I reread Mrs Dalloway, I still love accompanying her on her walk through London. The geography is so precise, I can trace her route through Victoria, Westminster, St James’s almost perfectly in my mind’s eye. I like the way Mrs Dalloway’s mind jumps around – as one’s mind does when one’s walking – following one thought, and then, catching sight of something, hastening along another. Then, when she walks past Hatchard’s on Piccadilly and sees that line from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages’, Woolf brings death into the picture. And the shadow of the recent First World War begins to creep over the page, making its presence more and more keenly felt.

Mrs Dalloway is filled with brilliant detail, but one I’m particularly fond of is Big Ben, which chimes throughout the book. It first strikes a page in:

one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribably pause; a suspense […] before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolve in the air.

I was at school just around the corner from Big Ben, and could hear the ‘irrevocable’ chimes on the hour every day. There really does seem to be a slight gasp, a pause, before it strikes.

2. ‘The Waste Land’, T.S. Eliot

From Woolf’s Big Ben, to Eliot’s rather grimmer ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ from a city Church …

This is the last of the Moderns I’ve chosen, I promise. I read this one when I was at school. We’d studied ‘Prufrock’ and I wanted to read ‘The Waste Land’ to find out what all the fuss was about. I can see, like with Virginia Woolf, why Eliot doesn’t appeal to everyone. The Latin and Greek at the beginning are pretty off-putting, and he does jump around a bit, making one’s head spin. But, a bit of a perseverance pays off …

The London image that sticks most in my head is the following:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth keep the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

When I was living in Whitechapel last year, I used to cycle in to work every morning, crossing over Southwark Bridge, one west of London Bridge, en route. The streams of lifeless commuters were shocking, hideous, inhumane. I often tried to time it so I was mid-bridge bang on nine o’clock, when I would hear various churches chime out the time – with that dead gloom of a sound.

Somebody once quoted that bit of Eliot to me to prove why he thought Eliot was a terrible snob. How dare he be so condescending towards people who have to go to work everyday to earn a living? But the thing is, Eliot spent years working as a bank clerk, before quitting to work in publishing. It’s not like he never experienced the deadly commute; he wasn’t looking down at it from an ivory tower. Eliot had been part of that deadening sight, and the image is all the more affecting because of it.

3. Metroland, Julian Barnes

There’s a passage in Metroland that always makes me think of those lines from ‘The Waste Land’.  Christopher (the main character) takes his friend Toni on the Metropolitan line, showing him his journey to and from school. They look out of the window when they’re passing over Kilburn:

Thousands of people down there, all within a few hundred yards of you; yet you’d never, in all probability, meet any of them.

There’s the same feeling of the city’s anonymity, inhumanity.

I read Metroland at school for AS level coursework. My English teacher had a habit of at once patronising us and also seeming to want to be one of us, talking with fondness of his days of being a teenager – so impressionable, so passionate, so young … So Metroland, a novel about a thirty-something-year-old looking back at being a teenager, was a particularly appropriate book to study. It’s a great coming-of-age novel, and it also effectively captures what it’s like to be in suburbia, coming into central London and leaving it again every day.

Julian Barnes brilliantly crafts a particularly suburban feeling at the end of the book. The main character makes his peace with compromising, settling for an easy middle-of-the road life. He realises that his teenage dreams were naïve and is happy to pursue them no longer. It must be a common phenomenon, but Barnes executes it so perfectly, the feeling becomes almost poetic.

4. Unsafe Attachments, Caroline Oulton

This stunning collection of short stories rails against the disconnection of London life, touched on in that Kilburn passage of Metroland. Oulton subtly weaves the narrative strands loosely together, so the various characters move between the different stories, slipping from main character in one story to cameo in another. The stories explore the instability of relationships, flirtation and infidelity, and are unsettlingly well-observed. London’s geography is firmly etched into each story, but Oulton’s real feat is in capturing so acutely the hectic, brittle fragility of London life.

I read Unsafe Attachments when it came out a couple of years ago. I was working in a nine-to-five London publishing job, and I found that the book really chimed with the daily grind of working life. It’s filled with people searching for excitement in the margins of their days – leaving work at six, knowing they need to be back in the office the next morning at nine. Oulton casts London as a city with a workforce, a workforce that often misbehaves.

5. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

The exhausting number of characters and sub-plots in Bleak House left me feeling, at times, like I was reading a collection of linked stories. But as the plot twists and turns and connections are made, it comes together into one magnificent novel, and one that is utterly London.

The Londonness is clear from the very first sentence, which is just ‘London.’ The opening is incredible, conflating time so that the city becomes at once prehistoric and apocalyptic:

As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Whenever I’m passing through Holborn I cannot help but think of this opening. Then I try to imagine seeing a dinosaur waddling along.

I read Bleak House when I was in Nepal. It was on my Oxford reading list, along with several other classics, and I wanted to get through some of them while I had so much time to read. It was a very strange book to be reading out there. Dickens creates a world that is so grimey, smoky, claustrophobic, and there I was in the boiling chaotic sunshine of Kathmandu, where everyone else was reading something by the Dalai Lama. Whenever I opened Bleak House, I was transported straight back to London. And, although it was an unnerving experience, perhaps that is the ultimate test of a London book.

Almodovar’s ‘All About My Mother’ and Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

February 4, 2010

I watched Almodovar’s All About My Mother (Todo Sobre mi Madre) last night. It inspired a few thoughts about translation, which I shall endeavour to write about here.

Early on in the film, Manuela, the main character, takes her son to see a play. He wants to be a writer and it’s his birthday treat. The play, like the rest of the film, is in Spanish. But, as soon as the camera alights on it, there’s something very familiar about this play. It is clearly a moment of climax – three men sit at the rear of the stage playing poker, while a nurse chases an eccentrically-attired woman around the stage. It’s only moments before I recognise the play to be Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, confirmed in an instant when another actor address the woman as Miss Dubois.

The play takes on a great deal of significance in the film, and Almodovar shows excerpts of it several times. We are clearly invited to see links between the play and the film, perhaps made most explicit when Manuela says, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life’. Almodovar has etched this American text into his character’s existence.

This line reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in particular the moment when Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz:

Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English …

Bear in mind that this was originally written in German. Pannwitz goes on to say that the translator ‘must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language’.

According to this principle, Almodovar has achieved a feat of translation in the character of Manuela. Manuela’s life has been so influenced by Streetcar, so ‘marked’ by it, that she only makes sense with this foreign text. Almodovar has taken Pannwitz’s idea of expanding the mother-tongue and extrapolated it to show how a mother-narrative, so to speak, can be expanded and deepened by means of a foreign narrative.

For instance, Manuela says she is ‘moved’ by Streetcar’s character Stella, who, when we first see Streetcar in the film, leaves her husband, taking her baby with her. Manuela met her husband when they were both acting in Streetcar and we can hazard a pretty good guess that when she left Barcelona for Madrid, running away from him, carrying her unborn son inside her, this idea was inspired by Stella’s actions at the end of Streetcar.

But something jarred while watching the play in the film. The thing is, I studied Streetcar at school, and I was sure that something about Almodovar’s excerpts from it didn’t quite add up. I found my old copy of the text, filled with sixteen-year-old scribbles, and watched those bits of the film again, play-script in hand.

I realised that something quite uncanny had happened. The first thing that became clear was that the scene had been cut, less significant parts removed and more dramatic ones sown together. I imagine this was to make it more simple, more understandable to the viewer who only sees a minute or so of the play. But the really crucial change is that, in Williams’s play, Stella stays with Stanley. The final image is one of Stanley soothing Stella:

Stanley [voluptuously, soothingly]: Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now love. [He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.] Now, now, love. Now, love …

Stella remains in Stanley’s modern (echoed in the repeated ‘now’), sexual (suggested here with ‘his fingers find the opening of her blouse’) world. She doesn’t run away with their baby.

In the play that Almodovar shows, however, the final image – and the one that has been so significant for Manuela – is Stella leaving Stanley. The subtitles go like this:

[Stanley] Come on. The worst’s over.

[Stella] Don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me again, bastard!

[Stanley] Watch your language. Stella come here. Stella.

[Stella] I’m never coming back to this house. Never! [Stella walks off stage]

[Stanley, calling after her] Stella, Stella.

[Ends]

So the effect of the translation is not straightforwardly one-way. While it seems as though the American text has marked the (Spanish) narrative of Manuela’s life, it is actually the Spanish translation of the text that has marked her life – if it had been the American version, perhaps she would not have run away from her husband with her unborn child.

Examining the two versions of the play more meticulously, it is clear that the words themselves – not just the narrative thrust – have changed. Translation is evidently a radical process. Instead of getting the original English of Tennessee Williams’s play in the subtitles, we get something very different indeed. We get the end result of two translations: an American play, translated into Spanish, and then translated again into English for the subtitles. The word ‘bastard’, for example, isn’t used once in the original play. For every part of the play that Almodovar shows, there is a marked disjuncture between the text of the English subtitles and the original text of the play.

In the original, for example, Blanche asks Stella to get something from ‘the heart-shaped box I keep my accessories in’. In the version we see in All About my Mother, this is altered to:

[Blanche]: Where’s my heart?

[Stella]: She means her jewel-box, it’s heart-shaped.

Almodovar then cuts to Manuela watching the actors, closing her eyes in, what we infer is, pain. The question, ‘where’s my heart?’ is of great significance to Manuela, harking back to earlier in the film, when she went to Coruna to see who received the heart of her dead son in a transplant operation. A ‘heart-shaped box’ would not have the same resonance. The re-translation of the play back into English has been vitally affected by the Spanish.

Some phrases are sacrosanct. ‘Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, uttered by Blanche to the doctor at the end of the Streetcar we see in the film, is identical, word for word, to the line in Williams’s play. There’s a remarkable scene about half-way through the film, when Huma Rojo, who plays Blanche in the play, is being driven through Barcelona by Manuela, who she has only just met, to try and find her girlfriend and fellow actress Nina. Huma turns to Manuela, in the car, and repeats the infamous line perfectly. The phrase is utterly characteristic of Blanche, and is also utterly characteristic of Huma. This is an example of Pannwitz’s ideal translation: a phrase, albeit spoken in Spanish, that has kept Williams’s unmistakable tone, deepening and expanding Spanish with the American-English idiom. The retranslation in the subtitles shows it to be identical to the original version; the phrase is meaningful enough, strong enough, to survive intact.

But this is the exception rather than the rule. Almodovar’s translation of Streetcar into All About My Mother is far more dialogic. The American play affects the Spanish, but the Spanish also affects the American play. I can only conclude that while Streetcar may have ‘marked’ Manuela, All About my Mother has also, indelibly, marked Streetcar.