TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

I work in a charity second hand bookshop once a week. This was my day. The man who is always outside the council buildings when I walk past and is a shouter, shouts at me as I make my way to the bookshop. That’s OK. It wasn’t the first time he did it, but now I’m used to him and don’t take it personally. It amused me when he used to shout ‘COFFEE F*****G COFFEE,’ at me because I was holding a Caffé Nero take-away cup. Well, yes, mate.

Everything proceeds as normal for the first couple of hours. I throw away old travel guides, I groan at the sight of any Bill Bryson book. It has nothing to do with the contents, it’s just we get so many of them. I clean donated books with baby wipes and pat them dry before putting them out in the shop. Then just when I am looking with pride at the large space I have created, a woman comes in with about twenty large orange Sainsburys bags of hardback and coffee table books. Oh, my knees! We lug them all in and this coincides with another delivery which I can’t help with because I’m doing this one. I then carry all the Sainsburys bags to the back where I have made the large space which is now instantly filled. I have a bleak Sisyphean moment. Now I’ve become so hot my shoes have started to squeak. Each time I put a foot down it sounds as if I’m squeezing the life out of a mouse. ‘Eeep, eeep,’ my feet go. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. The only way to stop it, is to sort of creep about like Mrs Overall or cool off my feet. I take my shoes off, open the back door and stand there waving my feet about watched by a load of council employees, who are on a smoking break. They alternate between looking at their phones, smoking and sneaking glances at me. I imagine that I look like a sweaty elephant doing barre exercises since I am doing weird swinging, pointy things with my feet to air them. Did they do that in Fantasia, I wonder?

When I’m cooler I go back into the shop and a man approaches. There is something about him akin to clinging ivy. ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson,’ he murmurs. ‘Have you heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say which is true but any follow up question is going to be tricky. ‘Where should I look?’ Off the top of my head I say, ‘ Essays, or philosophy or even classics.’ God knows how I even know that. I look. He looks. No luck. He comes up to me, ‘You have heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say rather more snappily than I intend. ‘But he doesn’t come in often.’ His eyes widen, ‘He comes in?’ ‘No, no his books don’t come in. He’s dead,’ I say startling another customer. ‘Dead,’ I reiterate. That much I do know.

book haul

I roam through the shop considering what I might buy. After the earlier delivery I’m feeling rather Ice Cold in Alex-ish so Death in the Bar by Ngaio Marsh catches my eye, along with Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. I love the title although I have to say it sums up my idea of absolute hell. I am hardly Ms Flexibility. I contemplate my ideal novel title. It would be something like. Absolutely Nothing Changes  Ever and  the subtitle would be Ha, Ha You’re So Wrong, I’m not Bored. Maybe I should write that one.  It might be a surprise bestseller. An antidote to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. My response to that book was always, ‘No thanks, I’ll pass.’ Then I see The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Excellent because I am currently reading the Iliad and have just finished Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and The Song of Achilles focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. The Guardian review on the back describes it as ‘An exciting, sexy, violent Superman version of The Iliad.’ That will do. Then there is The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith with her own highly idiosyncratic illustrations and Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, a lesbian love story from Nigeria with a lovely Gay’s the Word book mark.

I find an American copy of my father’s book on Disraeli in the biography section and take it out. I have to force myself not to buy it. I’ve got about three different copies already although not a St Martin’s Press one. Dear old Dad, I think, patting it and putting it back on the shelf.

A man comes in who wants to donate books to us. He is downsizing and says he no longer wants to have piles of books on the floor. ‘Oh!’ I say. He lives three floors up, it’s all too much. ‘Getting rid of the books,’ he says and then he pauses and puts his hand on his heart and says, ‘The pain.’  I stand next to him nodding my head. I want to hug him and tell him everything will be alright but that would be highly inappropriate and you know what, sometimes everything isn’t alright and maybe this is one of those moments.

Then home. The bus is chaotic. Two baby buggies, too many people. It’s like a lunatic asylum and I’m one of the inmates.  Frail people get on at the hospital bus stop and the whole of the bus has to re-order itself, so that people who must sit down can do so and that babies and mothers are OK. I like this chaotic human shift and shuffle because more so than on the tube the frail and vulnerable are noticed and accommodated. Back home I look up Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oh, I think, that’s who you are. Then I look up elephants doing ballet and discover they are actually hippos. I watch a clip of Fantasia for longer than is strictly advisable. At least I wasn’t wearing a tutu. I continue to fret about not buying Dad’s book. It was in good condition, nice jacket. Oh well,  it’ll probably be there next week along with the shouting man, the creeping ivy and of course the piles of books.

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CULTURAL ROUND UP: PAT BARKER, AGNES VARDA &JR, ALAN BENNETT AND THE OCEANIA EXHIBITION

A book, a film, a play and an exhibition.

First off a book…

silence of the girls

Barker is one of my all time favourite writers and she has a new book out called THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS. It is new territory for her, that of classical history and is the story of Briseis a Trojan Queen who is given as a sex slave to Achilles. She appears in the early chapters of The Iliad, the story of the Trojan war, by Homer. I’ve read all of Pat Barker’s books and I love her more than any other contemporary writer. I’m amazed that this wasn’t nominated for the Booker and doubt there’s a better book on that list. Doubt there’s a better opening than this:

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

All I can say is read it and you won’t be disappointed. An off-shoot of reading it is that I’m re-reading The Iliad. Heavy, I hear you say. Well, it’s a book I’ve always struggled with in the past but am now scything through with relative ease since Barker’s book has left a vivid template in my mind to read it against. So instead of constantly thinking, Who is Trojan? Who is Greek? Whose side is that god on etc all that was more or less sorted out in my mind before I started. It also got me thinking of Alice Oswald’s poem, Memorial, a book she described as ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere’. That atmosphere is a very bloody one. I’ve been re-reading her wonderful poem, Dart, because I’ve been looking for ‘watery’ writing recently due to my current work in progress.

Second a film …

FACES, PLACES with Agnes Varda and JR. She’s a 90 year old film maker and he’s a street artist. It’s a wonderful film, completely life affirming and celebratory. They are so completely sweet together and it was a joy. Put simply, Agnes Varda and JR travel round France with JR’s photo booth which produces huge black and white photos of the people they meet which are then pasted up in all kinds of different places. The film is playful, compassionate and has great humanity. So go and see it immediately. Now. Here’s the trailer.

Third a play …

ALLELUJHA  by Alan Bennett.

Under no circumstances ever, ever go and see this play. Unless your idea of fun is seeing a load of ‘old dears’ singing sentimental songs in a geriatric ward. It’s abysmal. I’m now going to put out a pointless *Spoiler Alert* because taking my advice you are never going to see it anyway, are you? If it’s supposed to be a paeon to the NHS please explain why at the end the first act Bennett turns a nurse, who has up to this point seemed perfectly OK, albeit somewhat dour, into a morphine-filled-syringe-wielding killer. Why? The only reason I can think of is that it was so tonally weird he thought it might make the audience stay for the second half to discover who she kills next. It was simply dreadful. Mind you, I think it’s no longer on and frankly only a lunatic would ever revive it so you’re probably safe.

Sitting through that got me thinking about how much I love theatre but how bad theatre is a particularly agony. I haven’t been going much recently because of a few ghastly experiences both involving very long plays. First off The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. How I hated that. The critics showered it with universal 5* praise but I have never felt so out of sorts with an audience. I actually felt embarrassed to be English because the play was filled with every kind of cliche about the Irish that ever existed and the predominantly English audience lapped it up. I know Jez Butterworth has Irish grandparents but that just means he should have known better. All I can say is never, ever go and see a play in which there’s a character called Granny Faraway. I mean, how could you? Agnes Varda would have put him straight on that. It was a long time before I read anything that equated with my feelings about the play and then Sean O’Hagan wrote this…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/16/jez-butterworth-the-ferryman-irish-stereotypes-sam-mendes

Excuse this digression/rant but before The Ferryman there was a play by Tony Kushner called the Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism … Also very long and also staggeringly bad. I actually walked out of that at the second interval without a qualm and generally speaking I’m not a walker out of anything much. That play involved a lot of discordant shouting by vile characters to no good effect with a bit of Marx thrown in. The worst play I ever saw was The Illustrious Corpse, by Tariq Ali (yes him) at the Soho Theatre in London. By the end of that I felt like a thoroughly Disaffected Corpse myself. That was so bad I’ve never been back to that particular theatre and that was in 2003. Which I suppose shows my ability to hold a grudge. My thinking was if they consider that’s a play, as opposed to a political diatribe, (no plot, no character, absolutely no bloody point) what fresh hell might I be exposed to in the future?

Finally, an exhibition – Oceania, at the Royal Academy.  Beautiful. Go.  All the cultural sensitivities have been complied with but even so I was left wondering if we should be looking at the items on display. There’s a brooding black basalt monument, a god, that sits in the middle of it all. The fiction writer in me wonders what he thinks about it all. What he might stir up… But oh, I felt sad at the end and I’m not quite sure why – something to do with lost gods, lost cultures, perhaps. And on the subject of the gods –  they are behaving really badly in The Iliad, absolute rotters every one. Incidentally if you are a New Zealand and Pacific Island passport holder you get into the exhibition for free.

One of the things that infuriated me about Bennett’s play and also The Ferryman was the depiction of older women – patronizing and cliched. One of the delights of Faces, Places was Agnes Varda – vital, creative, opinionated, engaged with the world. Of course! More of that please.

Tell me what you’re reading, watching, visiting in the comments below.

Q&A with Joy Rhoades @JoyRhoades1 author of #WoolgrowersCompanion

The Woolgrower’s Companion is a wonderful book written by Joy Rhoades, set in 1945 on a sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia. At a time when all the local able bodied men have enlisted, two Italian prisoners of war, Luca and Vittorio, are drafted in to help. It traces the fortunes of a young woman, Kate Dowd, as she struggles to keep her family farm going in the course of a dry desperate year.

JRhoades

“The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.”

The book combines beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape with compelling characters and has a wonderful page-turning quality. It has been shortlisted for two prizes this year, The Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize and The Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown. I loved it and was delighted to ask Joy some questions.

Q. I loved the character of Daisy, the Aboriginal girl, and was fascinated by the part of the book that dealt with the Stolen Generations. Could you tell me a little about the research you did and also about the other Aboriginal women  who you acknowledge in the book?

A. It was essential, and very important to me personally, that I approach the Aboriginal characters and cultural aspects of The Woolgrower’s Companion with sensitivity and respect. While it would never occur to me to write a book from the perspective of an Aboriginal character, it would also never occur to me not to include the Aboriginal characters who would have been found in this time and this place: remote New South Wales in 1948. To exclude these characters would be disrespectful and dishonest.

I feel it one of the great blessings of my life to have come to know my Aboriginal cultural guide, activist and poet, Kerry Reed-Gilbert. Kerry, as well as a number of other extraordinary matriarchs in Aboriginal communities in Australia. They guided me on the manuscript. Kerry vetted drafts for me too to ensure I was dealing with cultural aspects appropriately. They have taught me so much and I continue to learn.  It’s a lifelong process and I see it as my duty, as a white Australian, and as a writer.

Q. You teach – can you let people know how they can be taught by you?

A. I love teaching creative writing. To spend time, helping writers and would-be writers hone their skills? Best thing in the world. Mostly the classes are at libraries around London but I’ve also just begun a new account on Instagram, putting in one place writing exercises, posts on writing craft books, and of course, news of my next writing class. Follow at: https://www.instagram.com/start_write/ I plan to go live on Twitter and Facebook as well very soon, and post podcast interviews on writing craft as well.

Q. Was there always going to be a sequel? When can we expect it?

A. As I was writing The Woolgrower’s Companion, I didn’t consciously plan for there to be a sequel. But when I finished the book, there was still so much I wanted to explore with these characters. So almost immediately, I started work on the outline for what would become the sequel. Penguin (publisher of The Woolgrower’s Companion) has bought the rights and it will be out in 2019.

Q. One of the things you do wonderfully well is produce beautiful evocative descriptions of landscape. Does this come easily to you?

A. I’m laughing here because I’m thinking, does any writing ever come easily? Certainly, my desire to get down on paper the strong feeling I have for Australian bush, that’s always there. Readers tend to say two things: what happens next? And I felt like I was there. That makes me happy. I want my reader to be transported, wrapped in this world.

JRhoades2

Joy Rhoades author of The Woolgrower’s Companion

Q. I loved the quotes you use at the top of each chapter from ‘The Woolgrower’s Companion, 1906’ and in fact I only just realized it’s fictional and not an actual manual for sheep farmers from that time! Tell me a little about how you made the decision to do that and why?

A. I’m so glad you thought it was real! It came about because I love Victorian literature: that convoluted sentence structure and the formality of the vocabulary. And I’m also a big fan of The Shipping News, that wonderful novel by Annie Proulx. Annie prefaces each chapter with a quote from the (real) Book of Knots and the knot chosen illuminates what follows. So my chapter epigraphs in The Woolgrower’s Companion are a mishmash of homages to both these loves: Victorian literature and The Shipping News.  I set about writing a faux guide for Australian sheep growers, as if it had been written in 1906. I was able in that guide to talk about breeding and race and weakness of lines and all manner of things to help show the thinking of the time, and so show how much we’ve moved on. I picked 1906 just because it’s the year of the birth of my grandmother, Gladys Chateau. The Woolgrower’s Companion is very loosely based on stories from her life and her family.

Q. You live in London now. How do you cope with the lack of open vistas!

A. London is flat! But that flatness of landscape is something I grew up with in western Queensland. In Roma, (the town where Joy was brought up) a hill, being so rare, gets a name: Orange Hill. Hospital Hill. But in Roma, once you get out of town, and absent a dust storm or a real storm (both rare) you can see for miles in any direction. I miss that very much and am still, even after the years I’ve lived in London, taken aback when I find myself at the top of a rise, and I can see. I love London, though. I miss Australia, absolutely. But the life and diversity and music and books and history of London: it’s intoxicating. I’m living in Charles Dickens’ city. And I’m not yet tired of life.

Thank you very much Joy! I should also add that the book has recipes (scones, cakes, biscuits …) and also an excellent series of Book Club questions.

To buy the book Amazon has an offer on Kindle for just £2.99: https://amzn.to/2MRofwL
And if you’d like to connect with Joy here are her social media links:

A WORLD OF WOMEN WRITERS #2

Remind me never to offer a prize on this blog ever again. Having written a blog post on an old Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop mug and tempted you into commenting on my lovely list of women writers, insurmountable hurdles presented themselves:

  • Worst and most painfully I realized I love you all! Too late I became aware that I share the belief of the Dodo bird In Alice. “Everyone has won and all must have prizes.”  I wanted to have a mug to send to all of you who commented including Colin who is in Australia but I only have two and I’m keeping one.
  • I developed a severe case of #TPOP – yes that is Temporary Post Office Phobia. It’s a thing, didn’t you know?
  • There was a heatwave
  • I had no bubble wrap. You can’t send a mug out in the post without bubble wrap. No you can’t.
  • I lacked a box to place my beautifully bubble wrapped mug in.
  • The US Open started on Prime Amazon and so I began watching matches that go on a hell of a long time into the night especially if you are Rafa Nadal – two 5 setters so far and it’s very hot out there!
  • I realized I am lazy.
  • I looked at the cup and thought, ‘Oh God no one will want it.’
  • I read two of the authors I had suggested for my hypothetical mug: Herta Muller – The Land of Green Plums and then Han Kang’s – Human Acts and I tell you they’re not jolly at all. Excellent certainly but when I say not jolly I mean not jolly in The Handmaid’s Tale sort of a way and the not jolliness lingered and made my #TPOP (see above) even worse.
  • Then this morning I was reminded that it is Last Night of the Proms (bear with me here). The last time I visited my father before he died was the weekend of Last Night of the Proms. I left him to watch it on his own because I thought that Jerusalem followed by Land of Hope and Glory would be my complete undoing. He was pretty ill at the time. So he watched it and commented in the morning how marvelous it had been. He died exactly a week later. I then had a memory of him shortly after my mother died. He was waving me goodbye after a visit and he was saying apropos of making sure I hadn’t left anything behind. “I will lay down my life for my friend but for God’s sake don’t make me wrap a parcel.” So my point is, it’s genetic. This fear of parcel wrapping. It’s in my DNA. Dad it’s your fault.

Anyway, I’ve got over all that now. I gave you all a number put you in the aforementioned mug and drew out a number and  Andrea has won. So if you’d like the mug Andrea please let me know your address and I will wing my way to the post office all #TPOP alleviated and sorry for the delay.

And to the rest of you thank you for your comments and I love you all and my gift to you (if you have Netflix) is watch Call My Agent, it’s hysterical and set in an actor’s agency in Paris. Also if anyone asks you, ‘Are you watching The Bodyguard or Vanity Fair,’ say ‘Actually I’m watching two hours of ‘Allo ‘Allo on the Yesterday channel.’ It will make you appear daringly retro in your viewing choices and loftily above the fray.

Finally, for no good reason at all here’s the moment when Morecambe and Wise had Des O’Connor on their show. Enjoy!

A WORLD OF WOMEN WRITERS

Mugs

Mugs from the Silver Moon Bookshop showing a world of women writers

In the nineties I worked at the Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road in London. It was the largest women’s bookshop in Europe and one of the items we sold was mugs, listing the names of women writers. I came across a couple of these the other day in the back of the cupboard and looked at them with a curious and critical eye. The decision about who to list must have been made close to when the shop first opened in 1984 and I thought it might be interesting for the purposes of this blog to draw up my own list of 33 (that’s the number of names listed) and see who I’d keep from the original list, who I was horrified not to see on the list and and who in current times would definitely have to be on it. Please join me in twisting your fork into this highly subjective plate of literary spaghetti.

First a list of the original names:

MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, ANGELA CARTER, WILLA CATHER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, MARGARET DRABBLE, MARGUERITE DURAS, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, JANET FRAME, MARILYN FRENCH, NANCY FRIDAY, MARTHA GELLHORN, SUE GRAFTON, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, JUNE JORDAN, DORIS LESSING, AUDRE LORDE, TERRY MCMILLAN, TONI MORRISON, IRIS MURDOCH, ANAIS NIN. SYLVIA PLATH, MARGE PIERCY, SARA PARETSKY, RUTH RENDELL, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, SARAH SCHULMAN, GERTRUDE STEIN, ANNE TYLER, ALICE WALKER, E. H. YOUNG.

The ones I would definitely keep from the original list I’ve marked in red. It’s eleven of them, a third of the total.

I then began to consider what writers you would simply have to have in there who are not there at the moment and these are the ones I thought of: BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, ELENA FERRANTE, HILARY MANTEL, J.K. ROWLING, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON.

So that brings the number up to 20.

Thirteen more to go.

But then I had a startling realization – no JANE AUSTEN, no CHARLOTTE, EMILY, ANNE, BRONTE,  no VIRGINIA WOOLF, no HARPER LEE. What were they thinking of! E. H. Young but no Virginia! I should admit at this point, by the way, that I am ashamed to say the only Woolf book I have ever completed is To the Lighthouse and that is because I had to read it at A’Level and I never got over the death of Mrs Ramsay. I love Woolf’s letters, although it made me realize that going to tea with her would be about as enjoyable as swimming with sharks. But she has to be on there, doesn’t she?

So, if I add in Jane Austen, one of the Brontes (sweat beads brow – oh God which one!) and Virginia Woolf then I have a list of 23.

So I have ten to play with.

At this point the breakdown is:13 British, 6 American, 1 Australian, 1 Canadian, 1 South African, 1 Italian,  and my world is looking a bit narrow and a bit white. So what did I do next?

Here is my final highly subjective choice which includes two more from the original 33: My aim was to create a list of excellent women writers and cover a range of eras, sexualities, ethnic origins and nationalities.

MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, JANE AUSTEN, BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, ALISON BECHDEL, CHARLOTTE BRONTE,  RENI EDDO-LODGE, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, ELENA FERRANTE, ROXANE GAY, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, HAN KANG, HARPER LEE, DORIS LESSING, HILARY MANTEL, TONI MORRISON, HERTA MULLER, CHIMOMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, SYLVIA PLATH, MARILYN ROBINSON, J.K. ROWLING, ARUNDHATI ROY, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, GERTRUDE STEIN, ALICE WALKER, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON

THE FINAL BREAKDOWN:

NATIONALITIES: British – 14, American – 9, Italian – 1, South Korean – 1, Roumanian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, French – 1, Australian – 1, Indian – 1, Canadian – 1, South African – 1

ETHNICITY: White – 22, African American – 4 BAME –  3, Indian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, South Korean – 1

ALIVE OR DEAD?: Alive – 23, Dead – 10.

GAY/STRAIGHT: Gay (as far as I’m aware!) – 7, Straight – 26

What do you think of my choices? Too British, too white, too straight, too dead? Or perhaps too alive! And would you buy my (hypothetical) mug? Have I got a good balance? Tell me all in the comments below. But here’s the thing, if you suggest someone who should be on there, you have to take someone off. Those are the rules. Have fun. And before you start in, I know I’m lacking a crime writer and a science fiction writer, although Atwood could be called a science fiction writer at a pinch. I thought of getting rid of Doris in exchange for Agatha or Val but Doris won the Nobel Prize, so even if I don’t find reading her a pleasure, she has to stay in, doesn’t she?

And to help you out or perhaps derange you, here is a pool of writers I thought about but did not in the end include. These do not include the ones on the original mug that I didn’t retain, who you can of course argue the case for, and anyone else if it comes to that:

NAOMI ALDERMAN, KATE ATKINSON, MARY BEARD, MALORIE BLACKMAN, EMILY BRONTE, A.S.BYATT, JULIA CAMERON, AGATHA CHRISTIE, HELEN DUNMORE, BERNADINE EVARISTO, P.D. JAMES, OLIVIA LAING, URSULA LE GUIN, ANDREA LEVY, HELEN MCDONALD, VAL MCDERMID, EDNA O’BRIEN, SUSIE ORBACH, ALICE OSWALD, ANNIE PROULX,  BARBARA PYM, CLAUDIA RANKINE, MARY RENAULT, JEAN RHYS, JANE SMILEY, MEERA SYAL, MURIEL SPARK, KATE TEMPEST, ROSE TREMAIN, ALISON WEIR, EUDORA WELTY, JAQUELINE WILSON. 

The best comment will win one of these mugs. They are not exactly in peak condition but have a few more years of life left in them yet. I’m afraid this only applies to the UK. I’ll leave the comments open for two weeks and announce the winner then. Have fun!

P.S. Just realized I left out Carol Ann Duffy. She has to be in doesn’t she? Gertrude might have to go!

LOVE LETTERS

love letters

 

Love letters straight from the past …

Just reading a couple makes me feel odd; the sentiments expressed here, written ten years before I was born, are the reason I exist.

My Darling Robert …

And so I say to a friend, ‘Here’s the thing. Someone is interested in writing a biography of my father and I found these love letters before my parents were married, nothing salacious just rather sweet. Should I …?’

She cuts me short, ‘Oh yes, I found some of those between my parents and I spoke to my brother about it. He said they’ve got nothing to do with us, so I threw them away.’

[My hands come to my cheeks, my mouth opens; too late I realize that, right in front of her, I am enacting Munch’s scream.]

On one, my mother has sketched her wedding dress

My father’s to her are wrapped in blue ribbon

A month or so later, in other company, I say, ‘Here’s the thing …’ and then another friend leans forward and bellows, ‘Of course you should.’ He’s practically shouting at me, ‘… because you want the biographer to know the TRUTH …’ and then, as if speaking to a child, he spells the word out: ‘T-R-U-T-H.’

Oh, that, I think, that slippery old eel.

I want to smother you with kisses.

Dad?

Is that really you?

THE STORY OF FERDINAND

ferdinandWhat makes a classic children’s book? Perhaps the most obvious sign is that a book you had read to you as a child becomes a book that as an adult you can’t wait to read to the children in your life. For that to be the case there has to be something about the book that feels as modern and relevant now as when it was first written, a universality that transcends generational change.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND written in 1936 by Munro Leaf is just such a book. Illustrated by Robert Lawson, it is the story of a young Spanish bull, who instead of running and jumping and butting heads, likes to sit quietly under a cork tree and smell the flowers. When five men come to pick “the biggest, fastest, roughest bull” to fight in the bull fights in Madrid, Ferdinand is mistakenly taken. This is because during their visit he is stung by a bee and shocked by the pain he has a violent response and his kicks and snorts are mistaken for aggression.

However, once he enters the ring all he wants to do is sit down in the arena and smell the flowers which are in the beautiful women’s hair. He will not fight and nothing that the banderilleros or picadores or the matador do will make him. Eventually, they give up trying to make him fight and take him home where he goes back to sitting under his tree and ” is very happy”.

The book can be viewed in a number of different ways.

  • as a story against bull fighting,
  • a story of the importance of being true to oneself, and
  • politically as a story demonstrating the power of pacifism.

At a time when toxic masculinity is under the spotlight with the #MeToo movement and revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Ferdinand provides a welcome male role model. He is a full grown bull, that symbol of masculinity, strength and power, and yet he behaves with gentleness and sensitivity. He will not fight because that is not who he is, it is not his true nature, and in sitting down and smelling the flowers, he is being true to his essential, peaceful self.

The book’s first run by Viking Press in 1936 sold 14,000 copies. The following year saw sales increase to 68,000 and by 1938, the book was selling at 3,000 per week and became the number one bestseller in the United States.

The historical context is particularly poignant here. The  book came out nine  months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. That brutal and bloody conflict raged from 1936 -1939. At the end the nationalists led by General Franco had won and he retained power until his death in 1975 at which point Spain began the long journey towards a democratic, pluralistic society. THE STORY OF FERDINAND was banned during Franco’s life time.

As it happened two thousand five hundred Americans did not take the advice of Ferdinand or indeed of their own government which was pursuing a policy of non-intervention in Spain during the Civil War. Those were the people who enlisted in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade and came over to Spain to help the Republicans fight Franco. It was the first American military force to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis and it suffered a very high rate of casualties.

At the end of the Second World War 30,000 copies of THE STORY OF FERDINAND were printed and given out free to German children. So far the book has been translated into 60 languages including Latin and has never been out of print. In 1938 it was turned into a cartoon by Walt Disney which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons).

To end a rather dreadful clip of the Lennon Sisters  singing a song based on the book. Have you ever read the book? What did you think?

JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

I used to do jigsaw puzzles with my mother when I was a child and recently due to a need to sort through some family papers I discovered them again. My mother had some very specific criteria for the puzzles she would do. They should be of works of art and they should have interesting shaped pieces. Not for her the kitsch of the country cottage or any lurid flowers or cute puppies. And she had absolutely no interest in swathes of sky. Waddington Fine Art Puzzles fitted this criteria perfectly. And so over the years she bought a lot of them, some of which I kept. This one below is by Johannes Vermeer and is called A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (1670-72) and it’s in room 16 of The National Gallery in London.

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The main thing I remember about doing them was the companionable silence broken periodically by a murmur of satisfaction as an elusive piece was slotted into  place.

Recently, I’ve been feeling anxious and my concentration has not been good and finding the puzzles gave me a craving to do them again, so I have been interspersing my writing with a bit of jigsaw-ing. I’ve been finding it soothing and according to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles there’s a reason for this.

“An activity that can help us experience some of the many benefits of mindfulness is focusing on completing jigsaw puzzles. In a similar fashion to popular adult colouring books, jigsaw puzzles allow the brain to relax while keeping the hands busy. They provide a calming distraction from hours spent staring at screens, whether that’s a computer, TV or even a phone. An easy way to channel the imagination, a jigsaw puzzle gives you a creative outlet whilst keeping your mind focused. This activity allows us to achieve a state of creative meditation as well as leveraging the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of the brain.

Some studies, such as the MacArthur Study, have even concluded that people who solve jigsaw puzzles in addition to other activities that provide a mental workout, can actually lead to longer life expectancy, better quality of life and reduced chances of developing certain types of mental illnesses (e.g. memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) by up to a third.

Because of their calming qualities, completing a hard or challenging jigsaw puzzle can have serious effects on your mood. We all know the satisfaction of finally finding where that last piece goes, but this actually encourages the production of dopamine, the chemical in your brain which helps keep us happy and healthy. These mood enhancing effects help to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, allowing us to release stress and tension. These benefits make jigsaws extra beneficial for those who suffer from stress or anxiety.

Completing a jigsaw puzzle can even put our brains into the same meditative state that we experience while dreaming!  So why not take some time out away from work and your phone to complete a jigsaw and see how it can help focus your brain and relax.”

My novels have always come in fits and starts. Rarely have I seen how they fit together until very close to the end. I do not plot them all out. I do not know what will happen. This creates anxiety which I recognize as  part of my creative process but sometimes it can feel like a curse. A jigsaw however can be physically completed; I can create a whole picture.

I’m approaching the end of this one now and what I’m left with are the dull brown pieces. There’s an expression bird watchers use to describe the multitude of birds which are barely distinguishable from each other: LBJs or little brown jobs. Doing this puzzle, I completed the blue of the dress first and then the orange of the string instrument on the left. The colours stand out and are easy to separate. The LBJs may not be flashy and colourful but without them the picture is not complete. They hold the fancier bits together. As I’ve got older I have grown to appreciate more the non-flashy bits of writing, the craft that finishes a paragraph well or sets the scene vividly but with economy. These bits can be hard to write but they make the whole story run smoothly. Anyone can write a fight scene or a funeral.

Towards the end, progress stalls because putting all those brown bits together is more difficult. And that definitely corresponds to my writing experience. The first 30,000 words can feel easy, fun and filled with hope. And they take probably half the time of the last 30,000. Why do I always forget that?

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Doing a jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting has another advantage. It puts you up close and personal with it in an intriguing way. You have literally pieced it together, so you know it intimately. I remember the shock and delight of seeing Winter Scene by A.B. Avercamp for the first time. It was much smaller than I expected but there was the turquoise jewel like roof of the main house, there were the birds sitting on the branches I had struggled to put together and there was the red shirt of the boy on the left. I was stunned. I was taken back to being a child, sprawled out on the floor next to my mother, filling in the pieces.

So, if anyone’s got a nice Waddington Fine Art Jigsaw Puzzle of between 500-1000 pieces – no sky, no pets, no cute cottages, no rushing trains – you might just have yourself a buyer. And if you’re interested in the very beautiful wooden puzzles produced by Wentworth Wooden Puzzles take a look at the link below. I’m very tempted by The Art of Painting and who is it by? Oh, that man Vermeer of course!

And if anyone ever sneers and asks you what the point of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, tell them you’re leveraging the left and right hand side of your brain. That should stun them into silence long enough for you to fill in at least a couple of  LBJs.

https://www.wentworthpuzzles.com/

“THE BLOSSOMEST BLOSSOM”

Blossom

So Spring arrived finally and wasn’t that a relief! And obviously I went out into the sun and stood under cherry trees and so forth and the phrase ‘the blossomest blossom’ kept going round in my mind and I could not remember where it came from. And then I did remember watching an interview of the writer Dennis Potter by Melvyn Bragg. It took place in March 1994. Potter was dying of cancer of the pancreas – he died three months later – and it’s a remarkable interview by any standards. I remember watching his plays as a child on television. Pennies from Heaven and the Singing Detective in particular; extraordinary televison with incredible performances by Bob Hoskins and Michael Gambon respectively.

So here’s the link to the interview. It’s fifty minutes but well worth watching all the way through. There’s a real affection and respect between the two men and there is of course ‘the blossomest blossom.’ An interview to treasure. A celebration of spring and of life in the face of death.