OUR MOON

I don’t often write poetry but if I’m ever going to September seems to be the month for it. This one’s brought on by the autumn equinox which is today. It hasn’t quite landed and I’ll probably tinker around with it some more but for now here it is.

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OUR MOON

Oh, there it is.

The new moon rises early, curvaceous among the chimney pots.

Along that road, basements are being dug, extensions extended

But the sky, this moon is ours.

Through another window, the tube rattles past,

The carriages empty,

Light on the tracks.

Like bandits,

From the bus, masked faces peer

Into the living room.

I smile and wave, hoping their eyes crease

In the corners.

Then you shout from the kitchen,

‘Come quickly. The moon is changing colour!’

DAYS: PHILIP LARKIN

One of the poems I have had up on my desk since Covid struck has been this one by Philip Larkin. I don’t know exactly why it’s a comfort because in some ways it isn’t very comforting at all but then that’s the mystery of poetry for you. I think it may be the perfect mixture of misery, humour and cynicism.

DAYS

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?

 

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

 

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No running priests or doctors here but at least some fields. Have you found any specific poems or poets helpful during this unsettling time?

DU MAURIER’S REBECCA

So have you heard? Netflix are doing a new version of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. There are going to be spoilers in this post, so be warned. Live long enough and you’ll have clocked up quite a few film and TV adaptations of this book and I have. There’s the Hitchcock directed Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine film in 1940 (nice overcoat, Larry) with Judith Anderson playing Mrs Danvers. The 1979 TV series with the splendid Jeremy Brett and Joanna David with Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers and finally the 1997 mini-series with Charles Dance and Emily Fox. The recently late but very great Diana Rigg played Mrs Danvers in that one.

Here’s the trailer for the new one.

There might be some I’ve missed but now in 2020 here comes Armie Hammer and Lily James and KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS AS MRS DANVERS. Yes, the capitals WERE INTENTIONAL! I can’t wait. Before I even knew what enjoying schlocky, campy, gothic anythings might mean in terms of my … err… general personality, I loved Rebecca.

I probably read it first in my teens and its excellent teen fare because it’s so overheated and dramatic which is exactly what you are (ahem) I was, as a teenager. However, reading it again recently, I was struck by what an emotionally constipated monster Max is. He has to be because of the plot but even so he really is thoroughly dislikable. He also utters probably the least romantic proposal in all romantic literature:

‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’

To which I would reply, channeling my inner drag queen:

“Say, no darling! Send him packing! Forget Manderley you’ll be far happier in Upton Snodsbury growing begonias and while you’re about it for god’s sake throw that broken ornament at Mrs Danver’s head. Just chuck it at her and then sack her. Sack her, sack her, sack her!

I also found the second Mrs de Winter (the unnamed heroine and ‘I’ of the book) began to pall because she’s so insecure and self-conscious and her thought processes are both neurotic and repetitive.

The more modern versions have brought in certain changes. Some actually cast the character of Rebecca and shoot scenes with her in flashback. She never appears in the book. There is also, not surprisingly, the introduction of sex scenes. Or there were in the Charles Dance one anyway. In the Hitchcock film it is made clear that Mrs Danvers has set fire to Manderley and dies in the ruins. This is fitting because Mrs Danvers is presented to us as ‘a witch’ so Hitchcock decided there was a neatness to ‘the witch burning’. In the book however she’s left the house before that happens. It will be interesting to see how the new version ends.

So here are the questions? Do you mind these kinds of changes? And who is your perfect idea of casting for Maxim de Winter, the heroine, and Mrs Danvers. One thing is certain the best Jack Favell, Rebecca’s seedy ‘favourite cousin’, is hands down George Sanders.

Here he is to cheer you up. You need to shift this along to about 3 minutes in and then you’ll get the bounder bounding through the window. You’ll also get Mrs Danvers materializing Star Trek style. Most unnerving! He’d make a good Max actually, although on the other hand I can’t see him playing someone so utterly lacking in self awareness and so humourless.

He’d probably be my favouite cousin too!

Incidentally Daphne du Maurier came from an interesting family but I’m going to blog about that some other time.

STEINBECK’S ‘PENCIL TRIFLING’

In 1951 while writing the first draft of East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote a letter a day to his editor Pascal Covici. It gives an insight into his thought processes, as he is actually writing the book. In one entry he said this:

It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.

pencil pencils stationary equipment

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On March 23rd Good Friday Steinbeck was clearly obsessed not with plot or character but his pencils. 

You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good one’s but never the perfect one.  And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright one day is no good another day. For example yesterday I used a special pencil, soft and fine, and it floated over the paper most wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.

He goes on to say he has three types of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Then he says:

I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.

As delicate as a rose petal – how lovely! One day stabbing and  breaking and one day soft and delicate. 

When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird (his children) get them.

Oh, and how he loves his electric pencil sharpener:

I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day … by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. 

As a writer, it is all too easy to fetishize the tools of your trade and indulge in magical thinking along the lines of:

“If only I had that beautiful note book/pen/pencil/cabin in the wood/tree house/house by the sea/lake/Lake Como actually, No, make that a palazzo in Venice/ oh no wait what about mountains? Actually just give me a garden, any garden.” Then I would write a masterpiece.

Looking out onto the street, outside my window I’m currently looking at a smashed TV screen and some plastic bottles rolling in the gutter. Usually I’m also looking at the backs of BT engineers fiddling with wires in those green street cabinets. I worry about their knees. The overground part of the District Line is about 15 meters away. I live on a main road. Someone is usually drilling somewhere very loudly along the road. This is where I’ve written all my books.

There’s the odd occasion when I long for a house with a sea view. When it was 35 degrees for a few days in a row this summer and they were tarmacking the road directly outside, the noise and the heat were such that I got to thinking about where I would live if I won the lottery – Iceland came to mind – but that’s rare. I write where I live like most writers, for better or worse.

And I’m sure you realise that I’d never do anything as crass as buy certain types of pencils thinking they might turn me into a Nobel Prize winner. Oh, no…

Whoops, I’m definitely feeling the metal here! One for the kiddies I think…

Steinbeck used Blackwing pencils and if you’d like to take a look at their very desirable website here it is. They even produced some lovely purple ones last month in honour of the passing of the 19th Amendment and women getting the vote in America on August 18th 1920.

What are the tools of your trade? Do you have a favourite?

HISTORICAL SLANG #4

To speak like a …

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In a …

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To speak like a mouse in a cheese: To speak faintly or indistinctly. Late 16th – 20th century. 

This is ridiculous because no self respecting mouse is going to waste it’s time speaking at all while in a cheese. Would you? It is going to be gorging its little chops off. The only conversation will be with itself and it will go something like this: ‘I’m in a cheese! I’m in a cheese!’ It will save speaking for later and then its conversation will be absolutely scintillating because cheese fueled.

CULTURAL HIGHLIGHTS

One of the things keeping me sane during lock down was the watching of CALL MY AGENT on a loop. Have you watched it? It’s fantastic! If you haven’t, go and watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix and once you’ve done that we can have a discussion about which agent you’d want to represent you. Personally, I favour far left. He’s the only sane one there is and he’s good at nipping at ankles.

Is Call My Agent!: Season 3 (2018) on Netflix Spain?

Another thing I saw was COUP 53. This is a film about the coup which took place in Iran in 1953 in which MI6 and the CIA ousted Iran’s democratic PM Mossadegh and replaced him with the Shah. Ten years in the making, it’s excellent and informed me of something I knew next to nothing about. You can find out more about it and how to watch it here.

I am currently reading SWAN SONG by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. It’s about what happened when writer Truman Capote published a story in Esquire magazine which spilled the beans on a whole load of his closest female friends. Capote is a writer I love and he’s a fascinating personality, so if you like his writing this will probably interest you. The Esquire story, La Cote Basque 1965, can be found in Answered Prayers. One of the enjoyable tit-bits from the book is that Jackie Kennedy and then Onassis produced a number of drag queens one of which was named Jackie Uh-oh.

Love Capote, love this.

Finally, I listened to some Katherine Mansfield short stories on BBC Radio 4 a while ago. They were excellent. I’ve not read her before but these really got me hooked. You’ll find them here on BBC Sounds.

What are you reading? What are you watching? What do you recommend?Spill the beans below.

HISTORICAL SLANG#3

Before lock down I did a few blogs on historical slang, so here we go again. This one is mid 17th century to mid 19th century.

To put a ….

beige and black hat near swimming pool

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Upon a …

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To put a swimming pool on a chicken? No, fool. To put a hat upon a hen: To attempt the impossible. I have to say this hen looks full of mischief and definitely not hatable or should that be hattable?

Since we’re on the subject have you ever tried returning a phone to Vodaphone? I had the misfortune to buy a Nokia 2.3 from them and it had the interesting foible of being fine when it came to calls to and from and fine when it came to texts out but would it receive a text? Oh, no it wouldn’t. The only text it received during a 72 hour period was regrettably the first time I entered a Vodaphone shop saying it wouldn’t receive them. So when I went back the following day, I had to throw a full raging fit, when I was told I had to speak to science and tech. ‘No, I said, I won’t. I have spoken to your virtual assistant the whole of yesterday afternoon.’ Then I went the full Italian, (no disrespect meant to Italians only admiration), I threw my hands in the air and pretty much shrieked, ‘I’m not moving until you sort this out for me. There’s something the matter with it. Give me another phone.’

At that point another Vodaphone employee looked across and said ‘What phone?’ and I said ‘Nokia 2.3,’ and he said ‘I had a man in here with that problem yesterday.’ And had he managed to sort it out? No, he hadn’t but there was something on their forum about it.So then I knew they could not fob me off with science and tech. So at this point the hat was almost on the hen’s head. It then took about two hours to get everything resolved because Tobi, the virtual assistant had done something he shouldn’t and the system wouldn’t refund me, until it did.

When it was all over the man who had been dealing with me looked at his boss and said he wanted a day working from home which made me feel slightly guilty even though none of it was my fault but he definitely had the look of a man who had been trying to put a hat on a hen, as did I, and as did the very long queue of people who were waiting outside the shop and giving me the evil eye as I left.

How about you? Have you been attempting the impossible recently? Tell me all about it.

HELLO, AGAIN.

I’ve been away from the blog for a while (ahem, five months) and thought I’d dip my toe back in with some book recommendations etc. Those of you who read a certain newspaper will recognise the questions. Also I want to see if I can get to grips with the new wordpress editor which is, let’s be honest, highly unlikely. So off we go with some questions I am asking myself and my apologies if <code;’*&^%$£”> happens.

Q.The book I am currently reading:

The Ashes of London: The first book in the brilliant historical crime mystery series from the No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling author (James Marwood & Cat Lovett, Book 1) by [Andrew Taylor]

 

Andrew Taylor’s THE ASHES OF LONDON. Historical fiction about the fire of London. He’s very readable. This starts when the fire has already been raging for a few days which is interesting. I was expecting a more disaster movie framework but it works well and I’m enjoying it.

Q. The book that changed your life.

Bit of a grandiose question. Probably ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson. Daring, funny, original – and she was so young when she wrote it.

Q. The book I wish I’d written.

 

Little: A Times and Sunday Times Book of the Year

LITTLE by Edward Carey, writer and illustrator. It’s about Madame Tussaud but so much more than that. It’s brilliant – a story of magnificent, triumphant, survival which given what we are all living through seems timely. Since Covid-19 struck, Edward has been doing a drawing a day on twitter. Well, worth checking out. @EdwardCarey70. His next book is THE SWALLOWED MAN out in November.

The Swallowed Man by [Edward Carey]

Q. A book you’ve read recently that you think is underrated.

Ash before Oak

ASH BEFORE OAK by Jeremy Cooper is described as fiction. Part nature diary and part chronicle of mental health crisis. Beautiful writing about the natural world. I loved it.

Q. Book I’m ashamed not to have read.

Well, probably everything by George Eliot.

Q. What book do you give as a gift?

LITTLE recently but to be honest I tend to ask people what they want.

Q. The last book that made you laugh?

A Rising Man: Sam Wyndham Book 1

Abir Mukherjee’s A RISING MAN. Historical crime set in 1920s India. I can’t recommend this series highly enough. This is the first in a series, the fourth, DEATH IN THE EAST, has recently paperbacked. Abir does everything effortlessly – character, dialogue, plot. He’s the real deal. Read him and enjoy.

Q. What’s your earliest reading memory?

9781840246131: Janet and John: Here we Go (Janet and John Books)

 

That would be Janet and John. There was also the Ladybird Book of Trees and Sam Pig by Alison Uttley.

Q. So what happened with the blogging?

Oh, you know, life … but I’m glad to be back. And could someone tell me how to caption photos now? And could someone tell wordpress to stop telling me I can’t edit my own b****y blog, thanks.

 

HISTORICAL SLANG: BADGER-LEGGED

BADGER-LEGGED: To have one leg shorter than the other. Colloquial from about 1700. Coming from the erroneous belief that a badger has legs of unequal length. So here is a picture of a badger showing a bit of leg.

Badger, Animal, Forest, Mammal

In other news the washing machine is banjaxed. You know you are doomed when the repair man says he’s never heard a machine make that kind of noise before. It was like a deranged metallic cricket. The replacing of a circuit board was mentioned but it’s 15 years old. Then he broke open the door and I got my laundry out. I hope they don’t shut down London before next Thursday, when the new one is due, because if they do I’ll be washing my pants in the sink for the next 3 months.

An attempt at normality was foiled by the absence of croissants in the Co-Op. I knew I was doomed when I saw a substantial woman coming out of the shop cramming a croissant in her mouth. Incidentally, I know the feeling both the substantial part and the cramming part, although I usually wait to get home before eating them. All gone and not a can of sardines to be seen.

On the badger front I have started following a twitter account called Mr Lumpy and Friends. It consists of films of badgers eating things and also an excellent one of a baby badger having its ears scratched. Very soothing. I highly recommend it, especially for those moments when you return home and tell your partner you haven’t got the croissants.

http://www.twitter.com/LumpyandFriends

JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

For those of you who might be doing some jigsaws. A re-post of one I did earlier. 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.

jigsaw2

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?

jigsaw4

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/