Posts Tagged ‘wedding’

I Capture the Castle

October 26, 2011

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When I read this last week – under a blanket on our sofa, just after the British Gas man had left us with a new boiler and no thermostat, so that our flat swiftly got blissfully hot – I felt ever so snug and reassured. It has got to be one of the most comforting first lines of all literature ever.

I first read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith when I was ten or eleven years old. I remember very clearly sitting on a bench in the playground of my primary school and telling a teacher that I was reading it. I had hoped she’d be impressed, as it was quite a grown up book, and I thought I was rather precocious to be reading it so young. But she just smiled and said, ‘Oh yes, by the lady who wrote 101 Dalmatians, how sweet.’

I was rather put out. For I Capture the Castle is nothing like 101 Dalmatians. Not that the latter isn’t a great story, but it is something a of a babyish one. This one is a quite different kettle of fish.

I’m not sure if my anxiety levels in the run up to my wedding quite came across in my last post. I was more than a little bit nervous. And stressed. And I found myself unable to concentrate on anything unweddingy. It occurred to me that it was not unlike an illness … which was when I had a Eureka moment.

Whenever I’m poorly – I mean really poorly with a temperature, rather than just a bit snuffly and sorry for myself (which happens at least every fortnight during the winter) – I find there’s nothing better than reading children’s books. When my tonsils were removed last year, I whizzed through loads of exciting books by Philip Reeve, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and – thank you Julia for the best recommendation of all time – A Long Way from Verona, my first Jane Gardam. If I retreat back to my mother’s for extra-special TLC, I tend to read through several of my old favourites. The Narnia books, Swallows and Amazons, even Tintin if I’m feeling really peculiar.

I realised that the only thing I could possibly even hope to read in the few days before I got married, was a children’s book.

So I swiftly reread A Long Way From Verona, which I somehow got through in a single blissful night (perhaps as I’ve read it so many times already) and already felt much more human. The following day I popped along to the bookshop, where everyone was surprised to see me and thought I must be terribly excited. I said that actually I felt rather queasy and nervous, but that seemed to get dismissed as nonsense. Anyway, after much browsing of the children’s shelves and finding that nothing that I hadn’t already read looked quite right, I alighted on I Capture the Castle and realised it was perfect.

And I started to read it that very afternoon, in our warm flat, which felt even warmer after reading all the descriptions of the bitterly cold castle where Cassandra lives in very romantic poverty with her beautiful sister Rose, reclusive writer-with-writer’s-block father, and artistic stepmother Topaz. Incidentally, I soon realised – with a peculiar feeling of a penny dropping – that this is the book in which I originally came across the delightfully silly phrase ‘communing with nature’ (which Topaz does all the time).

But the next couple of days passed in such a whirlwind of activity that I was only on around page fifty by the time we went on our honeymoon! But this turned out to be rather fortuitous.

For the HUSBAND (no longer fiancé!), had caught a nasty vomiting bug, we were both absolutely zonked out and happened to be staying in the swankiest loveliest hotel in the world – in a suite that was larger than our flat!! – thanks to my brother’s very generous wedding present. So although we were to spend a great deal of time wandering around Paris feeling like it was terribly romantic and weren’t we happy and in love, we also spent rather a lot of time cocooned in our enormous suite in a comatose state eating chocolate. All of which was rather conducive to reading a gorgeous novel about a girl cocooned in a castle, wanting to be a writer and falling in love for the first time.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I shall say it again. I adore coming-of-age novels. And I personally find they are particularly good when the main character wants to be a writer. Yessssss, I hiss to myself in my head, I can relate to this …

Of course, our honeymoon was interesting enough for me not to read the entire thing! But yesterday evening, on the Eurostar back to London, while the husband was sleeping, I read so much of it, in such an intense sitting, that when I got home and saw there wasn’t much more to go, I felt I absolutely HAD to finish it before I could get on with real life again. I felt that I was so firmly ensconced in Cassandra’s world, that I couldn’t possibly get back into my own world until I’d left hers behind.

So I did my favourite trick of staying up very late wrapped up in blankets on the sofa, reading until there were only around twenty pages left. Then I went to sleep and woke up half an hour earlier than I would have done, so I had time to finish it off first thing.

Finishing a book has got to be the best possible way of starting a day. The thing is, normally when one finishes something, it is late and there is a sense of everything ending. Coming out of the cinema in the dark, turning off a DVD or closing a book and looking at the clock to see that it’s well past one’s bedtime, is a bit miserable. To sleep, perchance to dream … I don’t know, I think there’s something a bit depressing about it, especially if one’s very tired.

But finishing something in the morning. Now that is exciting. Then one can breathe deeply, indulge in a moment of reflection, and then look out of the window at a beautiful ice blue sky, spring out of bed for some toast and feel like it is the beginning of something, as well as the end.

And I suppose that today really is the day that I begin something very new indeed. Real life as a married woman begins now. Goodbye to a comforting blissful childhood read of falling in love and yearning and wistfulness, and hello to the very exciting new world!!

A River Runs Through It

October 19, 2011

People keep telling me that I look very calm for someone who’s getting married at the weekend.

Really??? I want to ask. Are you mad? Or deeply unobservant? Or else have I developed a strange glazed expression that hides the neuroses beneath?

Seemingly people like the printer, the florist and the man from British Gas (yes, in an instance of perfect timing, our boiler broke) can’t tell that last night, having given up on sleeping thanks to all the anxious table-plan related thoughts, I was googling options for confetti, and fanatically ticking names off a list while trying to match them to the table plan until two in the morning. As my dreams have all become scarily wedding-related, when I awoke I did wonder if it had just been a nightmare, but then I saw an email full of links I’d sent to myself and realised that this was in fact the rather pathetic truth.

All these little stressful errands that need to be done by Saturday are fine really. I mean, I’ve got the week off work, I’ll get them done, and then the wedding will be so fantastic I’ll soon forget about all this hecticness. It is strange, however, that my to-do lists are defying the laws of Physics and just getting longer and longer, no matter how many things I tick off.

But the slightly more troubling side of this is that I haven’t had a moment to write anything other than thank-you letters (which helps to explain this very belated post) and I’ve been unable to concentrate on reading anything much at all.

It was really quite fortuitous that my last post was about the benefits of reading short books. For short is all I can manage at the moment. And I realise now that I neglected to mention last time that one of the many virtues of a short book is that when one is terribly busy with other things, it makes one feel that at least one is finding time to make progress with something.

And, last week, I did feel incredibly grateful to one short book in particular.

I had gone down to Battersea to pick up my dress from the place where it was being altered. They’d had it there for several weeks, and were supposed to be making various little changes. I’d made several trips down there for measurements and fittings and things, and then they’d changed the date I was to pick it up, until it really was the last possible day I could get it (due to various long-winded complicated reasons).

So, as you might imagine, I was a bit nervous when I went down to Battersea for the final time to collect it. I tried it on and honestly – I know this sounds melodramatic, but it is the truth (I have low blood pressure) – nearly fainted when I saw they hadn’t done several things they were supposed to. Added to which, the lady who had been helping me was on holiday.

Several cross, confused, tearful, stressed words came out of my mouth all at once. The receptionist disappeared to find the manager. The manager appeared with pins and things. She said she could fix it all but it would take at least an hour.

I stepped out into a particularly bleak bit of Battersea in a daze. So much panic was whizzing around my head, I was almost blind. I found my way to a café, and ordered some toast and herbal tea. Sitting down at the table I realised I had to distract myself for the next hour. I had already spent half an hour flicking through bridal magazines while waiting for my appointment, and couldn’t possibly look at another grinning bride or read another sentence about flowers, veils or decorations. Especially one that used words like ‘inspiring’, ‘glossy’, or ‘romantic’. Bleugh, bleugh and bleugh.

I remembered that I had a book in my handbag. A slim one. Out came A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. The story itself is a mere 104 pages, so the book is somewhat bulked out with an introduction by Annie Proux and some of Maclean’s other short stories.

Sipping some hot water which tasted of nothing much and smelt a bit like damp, I recovered my vision and started to read.

Like many women of a certain age, I had a bit of a late-nineties crush on Brad Pitt. Which was the only reason I watched the film as a teenager. I watched it with friends and tubs of cookie dough ice cream, and we talked all through it, telling each other how gorgeous he was and how much we wanted to snog him. But something in the film must have made an impression on me, because I remember a few bits of it really quite clearly. I remember a beautiful river landscape, and lots of fishing, and also an image of a man and a woman, naked, sunburnt, lying on the river bank, and she had a tattoo on her bum. So it was quite funny reading it, knowing that this bit had to happen at some point, yet not sure at all how it would get there.

I’ll say straight away (or 800 words into this rather rambling piece) that A River Runs Through It is a great book, or, perhaps, novella. It’s about two brothers – one is always getting into trouble, and the other has his own troubles, mostly to do with his wife’s family. Their way of fixing everything and helping each other is to go fly fishing.

I  grew up with many men in my family fly fishing on the River Test in Hampshire, where my grandparents lived. I never really understood much about it, but was told to be very quiet around people fishing, in case I scared the fish (or, I suppose, the fishermen) but not so quiet that they cast while I was behind them, in which case they’d catch me instead of a fish.

Perhaps it was partly due to the fear of getting caught but I’m afraid I was always slightly repelled by fishing. It was all very well to sit with a grown up by the river, doing some colouring, while they sat quietly watching the river, but when something bit, it all got a bit horrid. First there was the process of reeling it in, which seemed to be a very sad struggle to me. It was easy to see the fish tire itself out, move from hectically thrashing around to slowly resigning itself to death and the frying pan. Out it would come in a net, then lie there, twitching on the wet grass, all shimmery. Then, the worst bit, it would be clubbed over the head with a short fat stick, and that would be that.

Now, my vegetarian days are well and truly over, and I have come to see that one simply can’t get upset over killing animals if one is going to eat them. And surely, if one is going to eat a fish, all the better to have caught it oneself. Still, it does seem a little gruesome.

But fishing in A River Runs Through It is far more than a quiet sport with a sad ending, it is a form of meditation, the answer to any problem, a way of relaxing.

And some of fishing’s soothing effects seeped out of the pages into my head, as I read about it, while feeling less and less stressed out about my wedding dress, in a café in Battersea.

I didn’t quite finish it then and there. Thankfully I was left with enough to get me through the tube ride home, stopping me worrying too much about creasing my dress, and being late for whichever silly princessy wedding appointment I was going to next.

There’s a fair bit of rhapsodising about nature in A River Runs Through It – which I found uncanny to read in an American voice, used as I am to reading similar things by the very British Roger Deakin or Gavin Maxwell. It’s much more matter-of-fact out there. Take the following:

We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.

Maclean manages to be both simple and opaque. The river was making sounds to itself, ‘as always’, totally usual, unremarkable … and yet, somehow these three men, knew what the river was saying – that’s pretty mystical. The language is simple. There’s no attempt to describe the river’s sounds, no bubbling, gurgling, whispering etc, just straightforward ‘making sounds’. Yet, this simplicity only heightens the impression of the strange mystical spiritual intelligence of the three wise men – they don’t need all the descriptive words to understand the river’s sounds.

And as well as the nature-writing element, there’s a great deal of detail about the actual how-tos of fly fishing. From how the flies are tied to look like real flies through the prism of water, to how many to take with you, to how to know which one to use … and then the technique of casting, where to stand, where the fish might be. It’s all pretty technical and pretty skilful. I feel that now I could join in a fishing conversation.

Of course the fiancé managed to go one up on me, and rather just reading about it, actually went fishing for his stag weekend. Although I’m not sure how much of a meditative, thoughtful trip that one was … But I have to say, that little pocket of reading a brilliant book in Battersea turned what could have been the most stressful hour of the past week into one of the most peaceful. Thank you Norman Maclean!

Instead of a Letter

May 23, 2011

My last post was written while recovering from a friend’s hen weekend in Lisbon. That same afternoon, I hurried off to meet a photographer for my own wedding, and the following day I found what might be the most perfect beautiful wonderful wedding dress in the world ever.

There was something about this splurge of wedding-related stuff that pushed what had been a vague, happy excitement into something quite deranged. I found I was unable to concentrate on anything else. I had recurring dreams about walking down the aisle in the dress. I gabbled down the phone to friends about it. I even squealed. I was itching for absolutely anyone to ask me about the wedding. If they didn’t, I’d just drop it, unbearably obviously, into the conversation:

‘So you’ll never guess what…’

‘No, what?’

At this point I have a flicker of understanding that they are expecting me to say, I’m pregnant, or I’m moving to America, or I’m going to run Waterstone’s … Oh well, too late to stop now, ‘I think I’ve found the dress!’

‘What dress?’

‘My wedding dress.’

‘Oh.’ There’s a pause while they get over the anticlimax. Then they realise they’re supposed to feign interest. ‘So what’s it like?’

‘Do you want to see a photo?’

I’m sure you get the picture.

Everyone’s heard stories about ‘bridezillas’. And stories about girls who managed to get their entire wedding sorted in under a week, because they’ve known since they were fifteen exactly what they want, so it’s just a case of booking everything in. I’ve met other brides-to-be who have been utterly shocked at my lack of concern about things like colour schemes and bridesmaid dresses.

I’ve always told myself that I’d never be one of those brides. I’ve tended to feel faintly insulted when people ask about wedding plans. I’m still me, I wanted to shout at them. I still have a life, and interests and am writing a novel and read books and do all sorts of things. There’s much more to life than a silly wedding.

But actually there isn’t once you’ve caught wedding fever. Then there is nothing but overwhelming, almost unbearable excitement. I can’t wait for it to happen. And I still can’t really think about much else.

So last week was rather a peculiar time to be reading Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter. This classic memoir is Athill’s recounting of an idyllic childhood as part of an, albeit impoverished, aristocratic family in a big house in the English countryside. It’s all delightful – horses and hunts and the occasional spot of sailing, until she goes up to Oxford, is engaged to her childhood sweetheart and then is jilted by him in the cruellest possible way. The remainder of the book tells how this loss crippled her – how her ‘soul shrank to the size of a pea’ – and then how, over a period of twenty years, she recovered, largely thanks to her discovery that she could write.

What is so marvellous about Athill’s writing is that her ambition is to ‘get it just as it was’ (her italics not mine). There’s no overblown wailing of emotion, no overindulgent nostalgia, everything is told with a certain coolness, a frankness, a straight-to-the-point-no-messing-aboutness. In this respect she reminds me very much of Jane Gardam. (See this post for more on the delights of J.G.)

Instead of a Letter is choc-full of perfectly nuanced, thoughtfully recounted moments. Each is described ‘just as it was’. There is everything, really, from memories of school – ‘I was not able, and did not see why I should be expected, to go beyond resigned endurance, and enjoy it’ to those of working in publishing – ‘once meetings start being held in lawyers’ offices, you might as well give up’, and from reflections on travelling to her decision to have an abortion. It is all written so calmly, so perfectly, and everything rings so cleanly true, that reading it as a writer is both inspiring and humbling.

The most striking moment of the book – its essence, its crux – is Athill’s renderings of the pain of being jilted by her fiancé:

The times when the pain was nearest to the physical – to that of a finger crushed in a door, or a tooth under a drill – were not those in which I thought, ‘He no longer loves me’ but those in which I thought ‘He will not even write to tell me that he no longer loves me.’


A long, flat unhappiness of that sort drains one, substitutes for blood some thin, acid fluid with a disagreeable smell.

Her pain is so well articulated that it is surely impossible to read these sentences without a physical sensation of empathy, some kind of sharp pain in one’s belly. One can’t merely shed a few tears and enjoy some kind of catharsis from reading about her pain – it is too well-defined, too precise for that. Her scrutiny of pain forces the reader to scrutinise it too, makes one wonder about different types of pain – acute and near-physical versus ‘long, flat unhappiness’, and in this thoughtful probing, the pain becomes all the more excruciatingly real.

This experience of reading is similar to Athill’s description of reading her sister’s diary:

The shrivelling sensation of reading those words is something I still flinch from recalling.

Her sister was recounting an evening with an older, raffish man:

Once, driving her back from some party, he held her hand. When they got home they sat for some minutes in the car and she, dizzy with expectation, thought that he would kiss her. He did not. ‘He told me that he was not going to kiss me although he wanted to. He said that I was going to be a fascinating woman but that I mustn’t begin that sort of thing too soon or it would spoil me. Look at Di, he said, you don’t want to be like her. And of course I don’t.’

This is yet another type of pain – the pain of seeing how undesirable and pathetic you appear to others, and the sad realisation that you care what they think. It is impossible not to empathise with Athill and share her ‘shrivelling sensation’, her ‘flinch’ing away from such a horrid revelation.

So you can imagine that reading these painful descriptions of a woman being jilted by her fiancé makes for an uncanny experience when read in the heat of wedding fever. Whereas before I might have been able to think, I can’t imagine the pain if he were to leave me now, thanks to Diana Athill, now I’m afraid I can imagine it all too well. I shall have to console myself with thoughts of the dress. And perhaps I better get the fiancé to read Instead of a Letter too.