Monday, 31 January 2011

The Hand that First Held Mine ~ Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel, The Hand that First Held Mine, has a dual setting in time if not in place. In the first part of the book we follow the stories of two women and the men who are fascinated by them. In the 1950s we watch as Alexandra Sinclair leaves home after a row with her mother and transforms herself into Lexie, a young woman capable of looking after herself and soon deeply engrossed in a relationship with the man she met briefly in her home locale, Innes Kent. Switching to the present time we then encounter Elina, just swimming back into consciousness after a three day labour and an emergency caesarian during which she almost died. Initially Elina has great gaps in her memory of both the birth and of her life with her partner, Ted and we watch her struggle as she tries to make sense of what has happened to her as well as cope with the pressures of a young child.

Switching between the two stories O'Farrell gradually builds a picture for the reader of how Lexie's life in London develops and of how her relationship with Innes, fifteen years her senior and separated from his wife and daughter, grows into an all consuming love on both sides. All the time, however, she makes us aware that, looking back from the time of Elina and Ted, Lexie's relationship will not last. We don't know how these two stories are going to interrelate but having the later perspective allows the writer to take on an omnipotent role and drop hints about the earlier section of the narrative.

The way in which the novel is structured is a direct reflection of one of its major concerns, how the mind plays tricks in respect of memory, blocking out those episodes that we are better off not being able to recall until such time as we are able to cope with them. It isn't only Elina who has gaps in her recollections, Ted is subject to momentary black outs where the world seems to shatter in front of his eyes before slowly reassembling itself and when asked about his childhood he is unable to bring to mind any details before his school years.

Gradually, as the story progresses and we start to understand how the two strands intertwine, the characters also discover what has happened to them and in different ways begin to explore how they might integrate what they have learnt, dreadful though it may be, into a new way forward. Their knowledge is hard bought, but ultimately the future looks hopeful.

The other major exploration in the novel is the nature of motherhood and in particular the pull of the baby and the instinctive bond that comes into being between mother and child from the moment of birth. I am not a mother and therefore perhaps not the best person to comment on this, but even I can see that O'Farrrell captures this magnificently. Some of the passages where Elina is caring for her son are among the best pieces of fiction I have read for a long time and she also deals with the desperate need for a child that can be felt by those unable to conceive or carry their own children and the overcompensation that can result.

This novel won the most recent Costa Novel award and was, I understand, a close runner up for the overall prize. It deserves both distinctions and I now have all O'Farrell's back list lined up in the hope that I shall enjoy her previous books as much as this.


Sunday, 30 January 2011

Food, Glorious Food.

I am still busy learning how to read like a Professor and today I have discovered that when the characters in a novel sit down for a meal what they are actually doing is celebrating a kind of communion.  I am given the warning that I need to understand 'communion' in its widest sense, but nevertheless meals are about bringing people together to further understanding and celebrate the 'union' of their relationship.

Except, of course, when they aren't.

Well, yes, definitely!

Last term, I was teaching Titus Andronicus, which, if you've ever had a strong enough stomach to watch it, you will recall has a pretty powerful banquet scene towards the end that is calculated to do anything except unite the participants in friendship.  By this stage in the play half the cast are wandering about minus at least a hand and the other half are gloating about the fact that they have been responsible for this state of affairs.  When the first half invite the second half to a feast you can be fairly sure that friendship is not top of the bill of fare.

And yet!

Oh yes, and yet, because when you think about it this scene is, if nothing else, the very communion service itself distorted for the purposes of revenge.  We can argue another day about whether or not it is a righteous revenge, but nevertheless, the feast that Titus prepares for Tamora and Saturninus is in actual what the communion service is symbolically.  The dish that Titus concocts for the Queen of the Goths and her depraved Roman lover is assembled from the blood, bones and flesh of her sons, Chiron and Demetrius. There is no need for a service of transformation here.  Titus offers up the real thing.  Mind you, I am right about one thing.  It isn't friendship Titus has in mind.

Apologies if that has completely put you off your Sunday lunch.  Let me try to make amends because there are some wonderful instances of food in novels and instances where I would have to argue with Thomas Foster when he contends that meals in novels would be boring if they were just about the food.  I suspect he must be a man who has never been on a diet and dined vicariously on a fictional character's fictional six course banquet, the only sort that doesn't add inches to your waistline.

The first books that came to mind when I was reading this section of Foster's text were Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.  How come those children never burst?  How come they never made it into the government's stats on obesity in the under twelves?  They never stopped eating.  Everywhere they went the picnic basket went with them and it was always stuffed to the gills with enough carbohydrates and cholesterol to induce heart failure by their early twenties.  Perhaps this is why there have been no more of these books in later years.  It has nothing to do with the demise of the author and everything to do with the demise of the characters - early death from calorific overload.  But the food was magnificent and all you wanted to do was find a space on the picnic rug and help yourself.

There was even, some twenty years or so ago, a Dragon and Dungeons version of the Five.  And did the points that you earned buy you extra powers in the shape of magic swords and skills?  Of course not, you earned points that bought you support in the shape of a picnic basket and the goodies to go in it.  What more could a first class hero ask?

The other series that I thought of almost immediately was Frank Tallis's books about Max Liebermann and Oskar Rheinhardt set in turn of the (19th) century Vienna.  Like all the best crime novels the police and their sidekicks spend as much time eating and drinking as they do detecting, but there is nothing so sordid as grimy Glasgow pub or downtown New York bar for these two.  Oh  no, they spend their time in up market Viennese coffee houses and Tallis describes every last flake of pastry, every single mouthful of whipped cream.  I know people who read these books solely for the second hand delights of gourmandising on forbidden fruits or, more accurately, forbidden cream cakes.  Don't get me wrong.  The books are absolutely fine, but the pastries.....well!

So, while I'm perfectly happy to look with Foster for the symbolic significance of any banquet or afternoon tea that I might stumble across in my reading, I am certainly never going to look on the food as boring.  Stomach turning occasionally if Shakespeare's had a hand in the menu, but boring, never.

Friday, 28 January 2011

For An Ex Far East Prisoner of War

I have been allowing myself just small portions of Susan Hill's wonderful Howards End is on the Landing as a daily treat, one section at a time, and yesterday I read the piece in which she talks about her long friendship with the poet Charles Causley.

Causley was too often dismissed by people who should have known better as a children's poet, in part, I suspect, because he spent his working life time as a primary teacher and some of the poems by which he first became known drew on the experiences he had in that Cornish schoolroom.  Indeed, I first encountered his work through the renegade Timothy Winter when I was studying for 'O' Level.  However, if read with care and thought about deeply there is very little in Causley's work that doesn't speak of emotions far more intense than children would necessarily appreciate and as a primary teacher myself there were few that I felt comfortable offering to the classes I taught.  'O' Level (15-16) was about the right age to read him for the first time.

I love many of his poems and know a lot of them my heart bit if I have a favourite then it is probably the Sonnet For an Ex Far East Prisoner of War.  Causley himself was in the navy during the Second World War and so I'm not certain for whom he actually wrote this.  However, my father was a Far East Prisoner of War and there is much here that I recognise from his own struggle to come to terms with what had happened to him and his determination to put those depravations behind him and not let them destroy the rest of his life.  It is not an easy poem to read, but I hope you think it as good a work as I do.

For an Ex Far East Prisoner of War

I am that man with helmet made of thorn
Who wandered naked in the desert place,
Wept, with the sweating sky, that I was born
And wore disaster in my winter face.

I am that man who asked no hate, no pity,
I am that man, five wounded, on the tree.
I am that man, walking in native city,
Hears his dead comrade cry, Remember me!

I am that man whose brow with blood was wet,
Returned, as Lazarus from the dead to live.
I am that man, long counselled to forget,
Facing a fearful victory to forgive:

And seizing the two words, with the sharp sun
Beat them, like sword and ploughshare, into one.

Charles Causley

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair ~ Elizabeth Laird

Although she had already had a long career writing picture books, I first came across Elizabeth Laird when her novel for older children, Red Sky in the Morning, was published in 1989.  The book, which is about a girl taking care of her hydrocephalic baby brother, marked her as something very special, a writer whose voice rings with truth and integrity in every word she writes.  With each subsequent book Laird has only reinforced that first impression.  Her 2007 book, Crusade, was one of the best and most balanced accounts of the Holy Wars for children that I have ever read and was deservedly short listed for both the Costa and the Carnegie Children's Literature Awards.  Now we have her latest book, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, which I have had the privilege of reading pre-publication via NetGalley, and I have to say that I think it is well nigh perfect.

Based on events from Laird's own family history, the book tells the story of sixteen year old Maggie Blair, who lives on the Island of Bute with her maternal Grandmother.  We are sometime in the 1680s and the peace of the country and of the folk who live there is ravaged by two manifestations of prejudice, intolerance and self-seeking;  the pursuit of those deemed to be witches and the persecution by royal forces of the Covenanters.  Disliked by the islanders for her sharp tongue, it takes very little for a grasping landowner to turn the local people against Maggie's Grandmother and have her condemned as a  witch.  Barely escaping with her own life, Maggie is forced to flee the island and seek shelter with the family of her father's brother, a family she has never met before.

Rather than finding herself in any form of haven, Maggie discovers that her uncle is a staunch Covenanter and, as such, likely to be arrested by the Red Coats and forced to take the test of loyalty to the Crown; to declare that the King is the Head of the Church and stands between his people and God. There will be no peaceful life for her on the mainland either, it seems.  Matters become even worse, when the girl who betrayed Maggie on Bute turns up at her uncle's farm and looks set fair to continue to act in whatever way is most likely to line her own pockets regardless of who is harmed in the process.

One of Laird's great strengths is that she knows just how far to take a young reader into the horror of some of the situations in which her characters find themselves.  She shirks nothing of what happened to witches in the seventeenth century, nor of the tortures and depravations that were inflicted on those who opposed the Crown.  Nevertheless, she still leaves the reader with enough grounds for hope to make the reading experience a positive one.

Neither does she shirk the questions raised by the religious and political disputes that the characters find themselves engulfed by.  Just as in Crusade the reader was asked to see the conflict from both sides and to recognise the cruelty of belief carried to its extremes whatever the faction involved, so here, Maggie questions the faith that asks a man to sacrifice himself for his beliefs at the expense not only of his own life but also that of his family.

And it is here that the ambiguity of Laird's title comes to the fore.  Who is being betrayed?  Is it Maggie, or is it that Maggie herself is the one who is guilty of betrayal.  Certainly, Maggie is betrayed by people in whom she should have been able to place her faith, but there is also a question in her own mind as to whether or not in trying to persuade her uncle to take the test and return to his family she is betraying him.  There are no simple answers in this book.  Laird never lets you take the easy way out.

I suspect that The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is too late to be considered for this year's Carnegie, but whenever the opportunity does arise it should certainly be on the short list and I have to say that it will be a book worth reading that beats it into second place.  I don't think Laird puts a foot wrong in this novel and I can't recommend it too highly.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Political Fictions

One of the reasons I first took up blogging was a need to celebrate and clarify the serendipitous connections that seem to turn up in my life on an almost daily basis, so you'll have to excuse me if I let the latest in the series take me off on a ramble round my always rather chaotic mind.

Last week, quite by chance, I happened upon the writings of Michael Dirda, a book critic who really thinks about what he has to say and who, as far as I can discover (you have to remember he is a new discovery) writes mainly for The Washington Post.  Having ordered every collection of his that I could find, I then decided to see if there was any of his work to be had by mining the paper's archives and what was he writing about last week?  He was writing about the very book on Andrew Marvell that I posted about two or three days ago, Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon, by Nigel Smith.

Dirda has obviously got further through the book than I have.  He writes:

While most of us think of Marvell as the author of the best seduction poem in the English language, he was known to his contemporaries as private tutor, a hardworking civil servant and an occasional diplomatic emissary (to Holland and Russia).  He was also quite probably a secret agent.

Serendipity Number One.

Yesterday evening I settled down with a pot of good tea (someday I'll tell you about me and tea, but not today) to listen to the Sunday Evening drama slot on Radio 3.  It turned out to be a play by Stephen Wakelam entitled Living with Princes and was about the essayist Michel de Montaigne.  Last week I was fortunate enough to win a copy of Sarah Bakewell's new book on Montaigne from Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles.

Serendipity Number Two and Number Three.

Serendipity Number Three because the play was not about Montaigne's writing career but about his role as a diplomat, specifically about the part he played in the struggle for the succession to the throne of France.

This set me thinking about the number of writers who have had their fingers in diplomatic pies, whether overtly, like Marvell, or, as Wakelam's play suggested, rather more covertly like Montaigne.  It is pretty much accepted now that Christopher Marlowe was recruited to Walsingham's spy network while he was at Cambridge and that it was this, rather than a tavern brawl over who was to pay the bill, that led to his death.  Pepys, of course, seventy odd years later, was Secretary for the Affairs of the Admiralty, which is simply a fancy way of saying he was an important bod in navy matters.

Of course, it wasn't just writers who were engaged in affairs of state.  It was common practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to recruit composers and musicians to act as couriers between various monarchs and their men of state because such people had easy access to the courts of Europe and could carry messages without their activities being remarked upon.  There is some evidence, for example, that the composer and lutenist, John Dowland was involved in this way.

Then there are those people who we think of first and foremost as statesmen, but who have also had careers as writers of fiction.  Benjamin Disraeli comes to mind straight away, his best known novel probably being Sybil, but more recently there has been the Conservative Peer, Lord Archer, whose books I can't abide, but who nevertheless fits the pattern.

I'm sure there must be others that haven't yet crawled out of the darker recesses of my mind, but you will rectify that for me, I know.  And this, of course, is before we even start on the current crop of memoir writers from every conceivable corner of the political spectrum.  To what extent their writing might be classed as fiction I wouldn't even dream of speculating.

Sunday, 23 January 2011


I was in our local Oxfam Bookshop yesterday morning and picked up a book with the title How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C Foster. I'm a complete sucker for any book like this. In theory, given the career I've had, I ought to know how to read literature like a Professor, or at least like a Senior Lecturer, but I can never resist finding out how someone else thinks it should be done and so the book found its way off the shelf and came home with me.

Foster's style is very engaging and I can see that whether I always agree with him or not I am going to get a lot of pleasure simply from spending time in his company. If he lectures as well as he writes then his students are fortunate indeed. I set out this morning to read just the introduction and before I knew it I was half way through the first chapter as well.

In that first chapter Foster discusses the concept of the quest, the driving force behind literature from Beowulf through The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. What I found most interesting about this discussion was the text that Foster chooses to illustrate his thesis, Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. I have to admit that it isn't a book I know well, but those of you who are familiar with it will recall that the protagonist, the person who is on the quest, is Oedipa Maas, who, just in case you weren't sure, is a woman.

This set me thinking about the idea of the woman as quester, because I wouldn't mind betting that they are about as rare as the dragon's eggs your average quester might be searching for. It's noticeable that when Forster is talking in more general terms the novels he mentions all feature male protagonists and he always uses he as pronominal reference.

I toyed for a time with the notion of Jane Austen's heroines as going on quests. Certainly, they meet Foster's requirement of attaining a greater level of self-knowledge by the end of their respective novels and I suppose you could argue that they are on a quest for marriage, but if you're going to accuse Lizzie Bennett of setting out to look for a husband can I please get out of the line of fire before you do so. So perhaps not.

I thought then about some of the children's literature I know. I'm in the middle of reading an ARC of Elizabeth Laird's forthcoming book, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, and although I have yet to finish it that does seem to be moving towards meeting the criteria. Set in Scotland in the time of the Covenanters, it is about a young woman who is forced to go questing by the superstitious minds of the people amongst whom she has been brought up. She is certainly meeting with perils on the way and although it asks for role reversal there is the equivalent of the evil knight and the beautiful princess who is going to need rescuing. Whether or not it will finally resolve itself with Maggie growing to greater self-awareness I shall be better placed to tell you towards the end of the week, but it looks as though it might.

So, perhaps there is greater scope for the female quester in literature being written for children growing up in an age where woman have more expectation of being allowed to follow paths traditionally prescribed for men? Can I think of any others?

Well, there's Philip Pullman's Lyra, of course, who is certainly the protagonist in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) and without a doubt ends up with greater self-knowledge. That, after all, is what the sequence is about. Even there, however, the main role is taken over in the second book by Will and Lyra never completely regains the ascendancy she had in the first novel.

And perhaps I don't have to stay with modern children's literature. What about Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden? Her quest, it could be argued, appears to be to rescue the garden, but she definitely finds out more about herself in general and comes specifically to a greater self awareness as a result of the journey she undertakes. I'm not sure how Colin would feel about the role of princess in distress, but as far as I'm concerned he fits the bill nicely.

But where are the adult female questers? Who am I missing? Who are the obvious contenders? What do you think?


Saturday, 22 January 2011

Public Private Libraries

The History Group to which I belong has reached the time of the English Civil Wars and at the moment we are all busy researching the period around 1650. Because I know almost nothing about him other than that he wrote the poem To His Coy Mistress, I offered to explore the life of Andrew Marvell, who was not only a poet but also a man active in many different aspects of public life; indeed, if the rumours that he was a spy are well-founded, also active in less public aspects of government enterprise as well.

I have to admit that there was a second reason why I offered to carry out this research, namely, that I wanted an excuse to read the new and highly praised biography, Andrew Marvell: the chameleon, written by Nigel Smith. This book came last Autumn to stunning reviews and I've had it on my radar ever since.

This week I've been reading about Marvell's early years with his family in Yorkshire where his cleric father served as Master of Charterhouse in Hull. Andrew Marvell senior seems to have been a man of some vision and certainly very aware of being a public servant. He also clearly understood the value of books. As Smith tells us,

Marvell senior wanted to build a ceiling in the [Charterhouse] hall and above a new room that would function as a library, no doubt warmed by the large fireplace below in the hall. The library would be open to any in Hull who could make use of it.

Marvell left a very large part of his own collection of books as a foundation for this library.

If you live in the UK you cannot have escaped over the past few months the phrase, 'The Big Society', the current government's idea that the public at large should step in to replace the services that are being forced to cut back as a result of their (the government's) financial stringency. No doubt they would have heartily approved of the Rev. Marvell's actions. As, it should be said, (as long as you don't therefore draw the inference that I approve of the government) do I. But in the 1620s and 30s, which is when this was being discussed, there were far fewer books and far fewer readers. I can't think that there are many private libraries now that could seriously be made available to the public in this way. Despite the fact that many book bloggers probably feel they have more books than they can ever hope to read, maybe even more books than they can ever hope to count, if we were to open our doors we'd soon be forced to recognise that not only could we never satisfy the sheer volume of the demand we'd also be lacking the necessary variety required.

Certainly, there are still some wonderful private libraries around in various stately homes. I remember my father gazing longingly at shelves full of racing form books going back centuries in one such establishment. He would have given anything to have taken them down and buried himself in their pages for the rest of the day, if not the rest of the entire year. But, of course, he wasn't even allowed within breathing distance of them for fear his working class breath might damage a collection that didn't look as if it had been disturbed by the gentry in decades.

Realistically though, opening private collections to the public, whether they are yours, mine or those of the British aristocracy, isn't going to solve the dilemma that our library services face today. However, it is heartening to know that in the past there have been people like Andrew Marvell's father who have been far-sighted enough to recognise the importance of books to the public at large and who have done something practical to advance a vision of a wider reading community. I only hope that we can find the equivalent answer for our own times before our smaller, local public libraries have been allowed to vanish undoubtedly never to return.


Friday, 21 January 2011

Gifted ~ Nikita Lalwani

This month's Bookworms' read was the first novel by Nikita Lalwani, Gifted. The book is the story of Rumi Vasi, a young Hindu girl growing up in Wales in the 1980s. Rumi's parents have come to Britain, immediately after their marriage so that her father, Mahesh, could complete his studies and gain his PhD. Mahesh has promised his wife, Shreene, that as soon as he has completed his thesis they will return to India, but this hasn't happened and so the opening of the book sees the family settled in Cardiff with Mahesh travelling each day to his post as a lecturer in Physics at Swansea.

Rumi has always been fascinated by numbers and one day her teacher accompanies her back to the family home to explain that the school think that she is 'gifted'. Despite the antagonism he feels towards the teacher, who he sees as interfering in his family life, this prompts Mahesh to take an even greater control over his daughter's development than he has done previously as she is groomed to become the youngest child ever to gain a place at Oxford to study Maths.  Initially compliant, as she reaches puberty, Rumi finds more and more ways of subverting her father's strictures. And, though she does make it to Oxford, the results are not what anyone in the family was expecting.

Unusually for Bookworms, we found ourselves discussing the issues raised by the book in greater depth than the book itself. In part, this was because we are mostly educators in one field or another and so the question of what is meant by a gifted child and what the implications are for the child so labelled was pertinent to us all. However, I think we also followed this line because we all felt that the book itself was typical of a first novel and flawed in many ways. To give just one example, while the ending is certainly not unexpected to the reader and is, in fact, based not only on an actual case but also reflective of Lalwani's own life (she dropped out of a medical degree at the end of the first year) it is unconvincing in the writing mainly because of problems with pace and the sudden switch of character focus.

We could, I think, have completely deconstructed the book had we focused just on the text itself and as a group we don't like doing that, so instead we found ourselves debating the difference between the concepts of gifted and talented and asking if it is ever to the child's ultimate advantage to be labelled as being gifted. It is clear in Rumi's case that while she may have a facility for numbers and for recognising patterns, she doesn't have the capacity for original thought that goes with real genius. We all felt, I think, that she would have been far better left to move through the education pathway at the same pace as her peers, broadening her understanding of the world outside Maths and then moving on to Oxford at a time when she had greater emotional maturity and could have handled the expectations that surround her more successfully.  Too many of us had horror stories to tell of children who had been pushed by their parents, beyond their physical, mental and emotional capabilities to the point where their health and in one cases their mind, had broken down completely.

We also spent time discussing the question of whether or not the first generation immigrant (whatever race or culture) isn't inclined to cling to traditions and social expectations long after the families they have left behind have moved on. Certainly, when Rumi and her mother return to India it is clear that their relatives there have a far less rigid approach to western influence than do Mahesh and Shreene and ultimately Rumi is damaged as much by the difference in cultural expectations as she is by the rigid regime of study.  Whatever we thought of the book, the reader can't help being sorry for this teenager who is caught in the double bind of having to meet the expectations of both a culture she doesn't understand and a label she doesn't want.

If Lalwani writes an second novel then I will read it, because I think she has some promise, but when, as a group we look back over our reading year, this book is one that we will remember for its subject matter rather than for the quality of the writing.


Thursday, 20 January 2011

Power to the Reader

I'm simply passing through today, having just got in following an extremely hair-raising and foggy drive through the Warwickshire countryside.  However, I thought I would share this with you.  We discovered last night at Bookworms that if you order Nikita Lalwani's book 'Gifted' (last night's read) from the UK branch of Amazon they automatically ask you if you want to order a copy of 'Daniel Deronda', which is next month's book.

Now how is that for the power of one small reading group to change the thinking of a multi-national company?  More power to the little reader's elbow, that's what I say!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Ink in the Blood ~ Hilary Mantel

Book browsing round the internet can be every bit as serendipitous as browsing round a bookshop or a library.  The other evening I came across something I hadn't realised existed, the text that is available in e-book form only.

I was actually looking to see if there was any indication as to when the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was likely to be published.  What I found instead was a book by her that came out at the back end of last year, about which I'd heard nothing, Ink in the Blood.

Why hadn't I seen copies of this when I was bookshop mooching last week? Well, the reason soon became apparent.  The book is only available in digital form.  And, I assume it is only available this way because, even in quite a large print format, it only runs to twenty-four of my I-Pad pages.  Now I can't see any publisher putting out a print run of a book that has just twenty-four pages.  It surely wouldn't be economic.  But, issuing it via the e-reader is another matter entirely, suddenly all sorts of vistas open up.  I can foresee a renaissance of that stalwart of previous centuries, the pamphlet and it would be a wonderful way of reaching a wider market with short stories.  No more waiting until you have enough for a collection, issue them one at a time.  Perhaps this is already happening and I've just not yet caught up?  Any way I'm glad to have discovered this example, which I have to say is nothing at all like Wolf Hall.

Ink in the Blood is, as its subtitle says, A Hospital Diary.  I hadn't realised but apparently Hilary Mantel was extremely ill last summer and in hospital for a very long time after surgical complications.  Indeed, she was lucky to have survived at all.  During her recovery the combination of pain, infection and the medications that were supposed to be fighting her illness induced the sort of hallucinations that you really wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.  With typical Mantel humour she calls them her 'hallies'.

Later the hallies, as I think of them, become less threatening, but more childish and conspiratorial.  I close my eyes and they begin to pack my belongings into a pillow case, whispering and grinning.  One sharp-faced dwarfish hally pulls at my right arm, and I drive her off with an elbow in her eye.  After this they are more wary of me, intimidated.  I see them slinking around the door frame, trying to insinuate themselves.

And then there are the nightmares.

Sometimes I incorporate the sensations into nightmares and imagine, for instance, that the bed is on fire.  One night in my dreams I meet the devil.  He is 32, 34, that sort of age, presentable, with curly hair, and he wears a lambswool V-neck with a T-shirt underneath.  We exchange heated words, and he raises a swarm of biting flies; I wake, clawing at my skin.

Well, you just know, don't you that anyone who combines a lambswool V-neck with a T-Shirt has to be up to no good.

Her grasp of the guilt that I'm sure we all feel when we are sick is so exact; that 'I shouldn't be here causing all this trouble' reaction.

The staff are there to reassure me, and I am there to reassure them; in this way we shield each other from the experience of darkness.  One day soon after the surgery I vomit green gunk.  'Don't worry!' I exclaim as I retch.  'It will be fine!  It's just like 'The Exorcist,'' I say, before anyone else can.

I could go on quoting from this wonderful book all afternoon.  There isn't a page without something memorable to be enjoyed.  But what about the writing of all this.  I can't imagine that I would be able to put two words together let alone something as sharp and telling as this.  For Mantel it was her life line.

The black ink, looping across the page, flowing easily and more like water than like blood, reassured me that I was alive and could act in the world.  When Virginia Woolf's doctors forbade her to write, she obeyed them.  Which makes me ask, what kind of wuss was Woolf?

And I find something very reassuring in this small book that is the result of Mantel's need not to be wuss.  I loved Wolf Hall and eagerly await the sequel (presumably now, somewhat delayed) but I missed the dark humour that is to be found in books like Beyond Black.  If that sort of Mantel is to your taste as well then you really should get hold of a copy of this and while sympathising with her suffering relish the writing that has resulted.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Term Begins

And so term begins and from hereon in I won't be able to post every day.  Although my duties are now only honorary ones, I do take them very seriously, being well aware of the privilege that it is to hold a fellowship such as mine.  In practice, what it means is that I spend Tuesdays with our English Language postgrads and Thursdays with those doing their research in the Shakespeare field.  On both those days I'll crawl in too late to be able to write here, although the seminar sessions we have, with expert speakers from all over the world, will furnish me with a lot to think about and to write about  as well.  This week we have talks on 'Business English' and 'Performing Despair on the Early Modern Page and Stage'.  On paper I can't say that the first topic exactly thrills me, but I know from long experience that something which sounds as though it's going to be as dry as dust can turn out to be the most insightful lecture of the entire term.

Some Wednesday's might be a problem too as occasionally I creep into the seminars presented by the Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies to catch up with the latest thinking in the historical world of Shakespeare's time.  Just before Christmas we had a brilliant paper on the gynaecological text books published in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  With Pictures!  I bet you didn't even know those existed?  If anything like that turns up this term then I promise that I will scan the relevant documents and let you see them.  Although I have to say that some of the notions of a woman's anatomy doing the rounds in seventeenth century London would have turned your stomach over and made you very glad indeed that you weren't depending on their accuracy for your survival.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Staffordshire Hoard

I've been meaning for some time to write here about The Staffordshire Hoard which, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is one of the prime examples of evidence that the Dark Ages were anything but Dark.

It was discovered, little more than twenty miles from here, quite by chance, in the summer of 2009, by a metal detector user working on what he thought might turn out to be the site of a Roman villa. The amazing thing was that it had not been discovered earlier because a major road development had cut through the countryside a few years previously only yards from where the find was eventually made.

Initially the work to uncover the hoard had to be carried out in complete secrecy for fear that the site would attract thieves. Once the news was allowed out, however, interest was immense and for weeks there were queues of people snaking round our local museum in order to get a look at treasure which had been buried over twelve hundred years earlier.

Money has been raised locally to enable us to keep the hoard in the area where it was discovered and members of our Archeology Department are now involved in its conservation and in finding out as much about the treasure as they can. I was discussing this with a colleague the other day and latest speculation is that the various pieces, almost all made of gold, were probably the battle spoils of a senior military man who hid them with every intention of returning to collect them after whatever campaign he was on was over. For the most part the hoard is made up of the gold decorations from swords, which he would have taken from the men he had defeated. The swords themselves would most likely have been melted down to make more weapons for the fight. The gold would have been seen as the equivalent of a portable pension pot.

Not everything is military, however. There is a stunning gold cross and several very beautiful rings. One remarkable feature of many of the pieces is that they are studied with beautiful garnets which apparently would have come from India. How did such remarkable gems find their way to England? We can do no more than guess.

Conservation is going to be difficult. The hoard was found in plough soil and, as those of you who know about these things will be aware, this means that the individual pieces have been subjected to a fair amount of bashing about. Some items, such as the cross, for example, are so folded back in on themselves that it would be dangerous to try and bring them back to their original form. In those cases the plan is to make sure that no further distortion takes place and to display them alongside digital representations of what the piece would have looked like in the seventh century when it was carried in front of the army to give hope and encouragement to the troops.

Now you can see various exhibits from the hoard in the museums in Stafford and Birmingham and because of the money raised by local people that is where they will remain. I think this is so important. Too often finds make their way into central collections rather staying in the location with which they are associated. They are part of our history and I'm very proud to have them here where they belong.


Saturday, 15 January 2011

Dickensian Kindred Spirit

I can't claim, as Susan Hill does in Howards End is on the Landing, to have ever read one of Dickens' novels while seated behind the sofa. In fact, I don't think I've ever read anything behind the sofa. I've always lived in houses where sofas stood flush against the living room wall. However, in the chapter headed Great Expectations behind the Sofa Hill does admit to having the same three favourite Dickens novels as my own.

[I]t is time I went back to Little Dorrit. Is it the best? I sometimes think so. Then again, I change my mind. Bleak House is the greatest of all the novels. But Our Mutual Friend has, I think, absolutely no flaws, and there is something about its description of London's river at its blackest, most secret, most terrifying, and the low life that lurked about its quays and alleys and pot-houses, that takes me back to those Michaelmas terms, and the chill mist drifting off the Thames.

And, with Anne Shirley, I want to exclaim at the finding of a kindred spirit.

Which is the greatest? I couldn't possibly say but, while I love most Dickens, it is these three to which I find myself returning time after time. If not to read the entire novel then to comfort myself with favourite passages or to spend the evening in the company of a much loved character, Arthur Clennam, or Mr Wilfer.

While I love most of them, you will have noticed. And again Susan Hill and I walk hand in hand. My husband, she says, is welcome to laugh at Pickwick because I never could...
Me neither, me neither.

However, one of Ms Hill's pronouncements has given me pause for thought.

In the silly game of which authors to throw overboard from the lifeboat and which one - just one - to save, I would always save Dickens. He is mighty. He is flawed. His flaws are huge but magnificent - and all of a piece with the whole.

Could I really save Dickens at the expense of Shakespeare? Could I manage with just Shakespeare if there was no Dickens to add narrative variety? The question has been tormenting me all day, much to the puzzlement of the friend with whom I had lunch, who pointed out that unless I was extremely unlucky it wasn't a decision I was ever likely to have to make. Well, I know that. But what if I did? Sometimes the most unlikely things do happen, otherwise they wouldn't be simply unlikely, they would be impossible.

Which should I choose? I'm going to fret about this all night. Be blowed to questions of international finance and political corruption. Let's stick to the really important dilemmas in life.


Friday, 14 January 2011


I've just added the reading schedules for our Wednesday evening book group, Bookworms, to the pages available on this blog. We started getting together over eight years ago now when a friend and I were looking for a group we could join, couldn't find one and so decided to form our own. If no one else is doing what you want then sort it out for yourself. It's the only way. I did the same thing last summer with literary summer schools and they worked as well as Bookworms has.

With only minor changes in personnel eight of us have met in each other's homes regularly once a month to discuss books chosen by the group members in rotation. We miss out August because, as several of us are teachers, we tend to be away then and in September we have a meeting with a difference, getting together for a whole day on the second Sunday and discussing a book in the morning, having a pot-luck lunch, then seeing the film of the book in the afternoon before finally discussing the adaptation over tea and cake. I have to say that only rarely have we had kind things to say about the films and some we have torn apart mercilessly. No one who had anything to do with the film version of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda would want to come within a hundred miles of us.

One of the best things about the group is the way in which our ability to discuss books has developed over the years. At first we were very tentative, even those of us who worked with literature for a living. Very often we had run out of things to say after half an hour or so. Now we have to call a halt to our discussion or we would go on all night and we all have to be up for work of one sort or another the following morning.

We don't always agree about the books chosen my any means. In fact the evening often goes with more of a swing when we don't. We had a very heated discussion of Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ just before Christmas, deeply divided, interestingly, not about the author's religious stance but about the worth of the book as a piece of literature. Other books, such as A S Byatt's The Children's Book, we all enjoy immensely but for very different reasons. And novels like that provide just as well for long and intense discussion.

I value Bookworms tremendously. I have been introduced to writers I might never otherwise have read and been forced to read others whom I have avoided for years only to find that they weren't so bad after all. After two false starts I finally managed to read Byatt's Possession and think what I would have missed if that hadn't been on the list. Above all though, I value it for the friendships that I have built. If any of the other Bookworms are reading this then thank you. You're the best.


Thursday, 13 January 2011

Keeping the World Away ~Margaret Forster

So, there I was with my reading list for January drawn up and the books already taken down from the shelves and left in a pile in the middle of the study floor where I would fall over them every day until I'd work my way through them and what happened? Well, the inevitable really. I went along to my library group last Wednesday and someone waved a book I'd been wanting to read for ages in front of my eyes. Reading resolution number one shattered.

The book was Margaret Forster's 2006 novel, Keeping the World Away. It came out at a time when reading anything more complicated than the Beano Annual was beyond me and so, even though Forster is one of my favourite novelists, I missed out on it first time round. It was, however, despite some reservations, worth waiting for and definitely worth destroying my nicely drawn up reading schedule to fit in now.

Keeping the World Away is primarily the story of a picture. I assume of this picture on the right. Painted by Gwen John during her early years in Paris and at a time when she was infatuated with the sculptor, Rodin, it is depicted in the book as her attempt to capture a moment and place of quietude, to present Rodin with evidence that she has conquered the passionate nature that makes her a difficult person to live with.

The novel then follows the fortune of the painting as it makes its way from owner to owner and fills each woman who comes into prolonged contact with it with a need to try and find for themselves the quiet world it seems to present, a world in which they are free to develop as artists without having to give up their desires for the demands of family and societal expectations. But, woman after woman is forced to face either their own lack of ability or their lack of freedom to follow a path that is seen as being not quiet the thing for one of their sex.

In one sense this is a book about the way in which life has different expectations of a woman, expectations that make it impossible for her to develop a career that demands total absorption on the part of those that take it up, while a man can more easily follow that path. However, I think there is more to it than that. One woman, Lucasta, does forge a career as an artist but in order to maintain that life she has to give up her other relationships. While this might just be seen as another manifestation of the imbalance that makes it impossible for women to experience more than one life, the existence that Lucasta has and the way in which her personality develops forced me at least to question just what sort of life anyone has who becomes obsessed with something in the way that an artist has to. I know it wouldn't have been a life I would have wanted.

I always enjoy books that move through generations as this does and I would have been placing this high on my list of best reads had it not been for a couple of small, but nevertheless irritating, gripes. Firstly, I wasn't convinced by the way in which the picture moved from owner to owner. The 'need' on Forster's part to create a link between the people who found the work began to feel very contrived. The story would have held together just as well without those links.

The other point that worried me was to do with how well the writer had done her background research. It always concerns me when I come across an error of fact that I am sure about because then I worry about all those facts that I've taken for granted and can't check. In this case it is what she has to say about one of the characters, Sam, who is at the fall of Singapore and then incarcerated in a POW camp. She talks of the fifteen months between his sister hearing from him and the war ending. In fact, Singapore fell in February 1942 and the men who were captured there were not back in England until November 1945. While their relatives in the UK heard from the Red Cross as to their wellbeing on a six monthly basis, there was no direct contact. Believe me, I know, I've lived with the aftermath of this all my life. It doesn't take much to check that sort of thing out and I wish Forster had taken just that bit more care with what is otherwise a very good read.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Tone Poems

I'm not certain whether the meal I've just eaten should be classed as the last Christmas Dinner of 2010 or the first of 2011. Whichever, our music group has had our January meeting this afternoon and because of the snow last month we began it with a pot luck Christmas meal. Consequently, I'm late coming to write today and possibly too full to be able to think clearly enough to say anything worth reading. I'm just warning you in advance.

We spent last year exploring various aspects of chamber music and so today were moving on to our 2011 subject, Tone Poems. You couldn't really have anything much more different. Chamber music is for the most part for small scale groups and tone poems are often for very large orchestral forces. Chamber music is normally highly organised, whereas tone poems broke away from the classical forms and were much freer in conception.

There are some big works on the horizon. In April, for example, I'm going to lead the group in an exploration of Smetana's Ma Vlast, a series of six symphonic poems that depicts various aspects of the Bohemian countryside. Today, though, we started easily with Mendelssohn's wonderful music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. His depiction of the woods outside Athens, the fairies, the lovers and, best of all, Bottom and his friends is, in every possible respect, magical, especially when you think that there was seventeen years between his composing of the overture and the rest of the music that makes up the entire piece.

I have twice had the pleasure of seeing a joint production between our local repertory company and the city's symphony orchestra bringing the play and the music together and the two work so well that it is hard to believe that they are separated in conception by around two hundred and fifty years. However, my strongest memory is not of anything very magical at all, but rather, in the first of those productions, of Moonshine's very real dog, who took one look at all those music stands and clearly thought he had been transported to doggie heaven. The musicians, especially those nearest his point of entry, were not so pleased with the situation!

I'm looking forward to exploring this area of musical composition because, with the exception of the Mendelssohn, I know very little about it.  Do any of you have any suggestions as to pieces we should consider?  We are a self-teaching group and all assistance is gratefully received.


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Gwen John

Despite the fact that it wasn't on my to read list for January (best laid plans and all that!) this evening I should finish Margaret Forster's novel Keeping the World Away.  The book is about a painting by Gwen John that plays a significant role in the lives of several women as it moves from owner to owner, from the time when it was painted to the present day.  Although I can't be completely certain I'm assuming from the way in which it is described that the painting is the one I've included here.

I knew very little about Gwen John other than that I had heard somewhere that her brother, Augustus John, also a painter and in his time much more highly regarded, is reported to have said that fifty years after his death he would be known only as the brother of Gwen John.  I'm not certain that has entirely come to pass, but doing some background research to accompany the Forster book, Gwen John does seem to be much more highly thought of now than was ever the case in her life time.

The one painting by her that I did know previously was the one on the right, which is in our University gallery. This portrait is one of several versions she made between 1915 and 1925 for the Meudon nuns, who had commissioned a painted copy of an existing picture of Mère Marie Poussepin (1653–1744), founder of their order, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin of Tours in 1654.  John was received into the Catholic Church around 1913, after her affair with Rodin had collapsed around her.  She moved into Meudon and must have felt that she wanted to give something back to the nuns who had helped her at a time of great turbulence.

The portrait that Forster draws of Gwen John is certainly that of a woman whose life was marked by turbulence.  At one point one of her friends reflects that

after a mere hour in her company she felt drained by the emotional demands made on her, that urgent need for constant sympathy which was so exhausting to give.  And Gwen, in that respect, gave little in return.

My heart lurched when I read that because I used to work with someone who was exactly the same and even the memory made me want to put the book down and run away.

And yet, both of these works have, for me at least, a certain air of tranquility about them and this was only strengthened when I discovered the third painting here which, appropriately enough is called The Perfect Book.  I don't know anything about this painting, when it was executed or who the sitter was, but a feeling of absorption and contentment radiates from it.  Whoever the sitter was, I want it to be me.

I am fascinated that a woman whose own life was apparently so permeated by strong, even violent, emotions could paint in a way that transmits such feelings of peace to me and at some point during the year I would like to find out more about her.  We have a new member of staff in the gallery, who used to work for the museum in Wales where many of John's works are now on show.  I shall have to try and waylay her in the coffee lounge and get her talking on the subject.  There is no point in having experts about the place and not making use of them.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Spring Releases and Library Cuts

Over the weekend The Guardian website had two interesting, if not actually complementary, articles. The first was on the books that we can look forward to as the Spring releases become available. I worked through their list jotting down a title here, crossing one off there and eventually came up with my own

Not To Be Missed



By Nightfall ~ Michael Cunningham
We Had It So Good ~ Linda Grant


A Discovery of Witches ~ Deborah Harkness


A Visit from the Goon Squad ~ Jennifer Egan
Anatomy of a Disappearance ~ Hisham Mater
Bracelet of Bones ~ Kevin Crossley-Holland


Bullfighting ~ Roddy Doyle
A Man of Parts ~ David Lodge
The Possessed ~ Elif Bautman


Smut: Two Unseemly Stories ~ Alan Bennett


The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress ~ Beryl Bainbridge
River of Smoke ~ Amitav Ghosh
Pure ~ Andrew Miller


The Stranger's Child ~ Alan Hollinghurst


On Canaan's Side ~ Sebastian Barry

Having decided what I absolutely could not miss I then went over to the library site to see if they had the January books at least on the catalogue so that I could pre-order them. Not a one! Not a single solitary one. In fact, the only book from the entire list that they had put in an order for was the David Lodge and as he is a local author his omission would have been completely unprecedented.

But, should I have been surprised? The previous week, when the five category winners of the Costa Awards were announced, I went onto the library site then to reserve those. Only three of them were on the catalogue. Now remember, these weren't titles just picked out of thin air. The short lists had been available for some time and the library service could have at least put in an order for the chosen titles, but no.

Now, before any librarians out there get hot under the collar, believe me I'm not blaming you. I know where the fault lies. And that takes me to the other article posted by The Guardian, an article to do with the library cuts being enforced by the Government. Across the country as many as 800 libraries may have to close and 40 in my own area are facing, at the least, severe cut backs in hours and staffing levels. At a time when the majority of people are facing a reduction in their disposable income will someone please explain to me why it makes sense to limit the only access some will have to books?

My own local library is ripe for culling. It is tiny, housed in a space over a hundred years old and not much bigger than my living room. If it is still open in a year's time I will be amazed. But, it has access to a large municipal collection and it serves one of the poorest communities in the area. Half the people who live in the ward don't have cars. Half are one parent families struggling to find enough money to pay for food and fuel. Where are they supposed to get their books?

And yet there is an appetite for reading. When I ran a developing reading project here a couple of years ago not only 200+ children joined in but 40 of their parents as well. And the books they read came through the schools and the library service.

I'm more than happy to do my bit in 'The Big Society' and volunteer to help in the library, but I don't think that will make any difference. The savings the local council have to make are just too great and the clout libraries have just too small.  Sometimes I simply despair.


Sunday, 9 January 2011

Where Should I Start?

I am slowly working my way through Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing, her account of a year selecting her reading just from the books already on her shelves. Slowly because there is so much in each chapter that sets me thinking. I need time to take in what she's saying and reflect on how it applies to me and my own reading journey. Originally I borrowed the book from the library. I'm on a very fixed income and I have to make as much use of the library as I can. However, it soon became apparent that there was no way that I was going to be able to keep it as long as necessary and so I've just bought my own copy. So far I've made it about one tenth of the way through and I intend to savour every single moment.

One of the first things that stopped me in my tracks was Hill's query when discussing reading Barbara Pym as to which of her books she should begin with.

Would I like Barbara Pym? Where should I start? Anywhere, really. Odd that. It is not always the case. You should never begin reading George Eliot with 'Middlemarch', nor Trollope with 'The Way we Live Now', and one of the lesser Muriel Sparks might put you off for good...I am glad I did not read 'The Mill on the Floss' first or I would never have tried another George Eliot, and 'Travels with my Aunt' is not a typical novel by Graham Greene, so it does not much matter if you do not care for it.

Wherever possible I have always tried to begin an author's works at the beginning, to make my way through their bibliography chronologically. In some instances this is essential. I found myself saying of two crime writers last week, "even though each book tells a separate story you need to read them in order to understand the relationships amongst the ongoing police personnel.". And, I have just put a novel to one side because I discovered it was a sequel and to understand it I was going to have to read its predecessor first. However, this doesn't really explain why I feel this compulsion to begin and the beginning and read until I get to the end.

I think the real motivating force here is the desire to understand how a writer's thought processes develop. When I did my first substantial piece of research into Shakespeare's plays, looking at the way in which he portrayed the character of the Fool, instinctively I read each play in the order written (as far as we can ever ascertain that) and found that it was possible to chart a change in his understanding of what the Fool stood for and was capable of, what the character was about. Reading chronologically was essential. I have never understood why people insist on reading the Narnia books in the order the story happens in fictional time. This isn't how Lewis wrote them and the growing darkness makes much more sense if you follow his growing distaste for the female characters as the writing process develops.

But, I can see that it some instances this might be a problem. What if the first full length Dickens I had read had been Pickwick Papers? I'm sorry if that happens to be your favourite Dickens; it leaves me totally unmoved. While I don't suppose I could have escaped without ever reading him again, I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have developed the abiding love for him that is one of the hallmarks of my reading life. I'm trying to remember what was my first. David Copperfield I expect. It was a set text in my first year at secondary school, but I think I'd already encountered a television version.

And, some writers take time to find their metier. I always think of the British children's writer, Jacqueline Wilson, in this respect. Best known now for her work for eight to twelve years olds that hides cutting edge exploration of social problems behind telling humour, few remember that she started writing much more straightforward stories for older teenagers. They were excellent and I wish they were still readily available, but if you were to start at the beginning of her output and find you didn't enjoy them you might never discover the later work which might be more to your taste.

In the end you find your way in to a writer's work in the way that best suits you and very often it will be through an act of serendipity. What matters is that you get there. I've never read Barbara Pym, so I shall take heart from what Hill says and just pick up whatever I can get at the library and hope that she is a writer I take to. Then perhaps I can work through her books chronologically and see what that experience has to say about her.


Saturday, 8 January 2011

Love is my Sin

I've just come in from Stratford, where I've been to The Swan to see Natasha Parry and Michael Pennington in Love is my Sin, a piece devised and directed by Parry's husband, Peter Brook, and based on a selection of Shakespeare's sonnets.

I'll write at some later point, perhaps, about what I think of the newly refurbished RSC theatre, especially as I haven't yet been into the reconstructed Main House. As far as I can see pretty much all they've done in The Swan is reupholster the seats. And thank goodness they haven't messed it about in anyway because as a space for live theatre it was pretty much perfect as it was.

Shakespeare's plays haven't yet made a reappearance in either the Main House or The Swan. Wisely, the management have chosen to stage a number of smaller events to get the theatres up and running and thereby give themselves a chance to iron out any teething problems. And, when they do introduce full length plays they will be productions moved over from last season's repertoire in The Courtyard rather than anything new.

So, what I've been to see today was a travelling show that took thirty-one of Shakespeare's sonnets and used them to create the story of a love affair between two people no longer in the prime of youth but still more than capable of all the intensity of feeling that goes with loving someone and for one reason or another being uncertain of the reciprocity of the emotion. I have to say that it was one of the most beautiful and touching pieces of theatre I've ever experienced.

The sonnets were split into four groups: Devouring Time, Separation, Jealousy and Time Defied. Brook says of his selection:

At first, Shakespeare evokes a shared tranquility, but little by little the pains of love appear: there is separation, then infidelity and treachery which lead to a disgust of the body and flesh. But in a final phase, Shakespeare affirms the reality of a love that can transcend all barriers that is even more powerful than age or death.

For love can conquer time.

For the most part, the sonnets selected were not the better known ones, but they led up to probably the most famous of them all, number 116,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Parry and Pennington are both brilliant actors, but even so I think the two facts that hit me most forcibly would have been apparent had that not been the case. The first was something that should perhaps have been obvious, namely that these texts were composed by a man who wrote for the voice and who wrote to tell a story. At no point did it appear that we were listening to poetry. These could all have been speeches being made one character to another in any of Shakespeare's plays.

The second feature that was brought home to me, even though, again, it was something I shouldn't have needed reinforcing, was how close iambic pentameter is to natural English speech patterns. If you hadn't been aware that on the page these words were laid out as fourteen lines of ten syllables each you would never have guessed. And this just makes the works all the more miraculous, because it infuses them with a truth that transcends the structure and takes on a life of its own.

One other factor that was interesting in respect of my Titus Andronicus studies was the use the Brook made of music. I've spent the last couple of days researching his 1955 production of the play and apparently one of the things that made it so effective was his use of sound, often very minimal, often discordant and unexpected. He did exactly the same here, including at one point having the single musician use the bellows of a piano accordion to echo the sighs of lost love. It always seems miraculous to me when you can feel events reaching to each other across boundaries of space or time or culture and this was one such occasion.


Friday, 7 January 2011

Anatomy of Murder

Before I could start on my revised list for January I had one of the far too many crime novels that I read over the holiday period to finish; this one for my Wednesday morning book group.

In fact, Imogen Robertson's Anatomy of Murder is a cut above a lot of the other books I read over the Christmas period. Set in 1781, it is her second novel and like the first, Instruments of Darkness, deals with the fortunes of Mrs Harriet Westerman and Mr Gabriel Crowther, a sort of CSI team of their day. These two characters were brought together by force of circumstances and the coincidence of their locale in the first book to solve the mystery of the Earl of Sussex and his missing heir after the discovery by Harriet of a dead man bearing the Sussex family coat of arms. The second in the series finds them in London where Harriet's Royal Navy husband is hospitalised having sustained a blow to the head while pursuing the King's enemies.

The thrust of the story is to do with the uncovering of a spy-ring set on revealing the secrets of the country's forces to any foreign government that is prepared to pay. In fact one of the things that makes much of the book ring true to modern ears is the accommodation that has to be reached with villains who are apprehended because of the service they have done the British Government in the past. In the course of discovery Robertson takes us into the world of Georgian opera and the public's love affair with the castrato voice as well as introducing us to some very likeable low-life Londoners who fortunately look set fair to reappear in future volumes.

There are several reasons why I'm actually very glad to have read this book. Firstly, I am always pleased when a good first novel is followed by an even better second. No one book wonder here then. Secondly, this is a period about which I know very little and when linked with my third reason that is important because the other feature that makes this a book worth reading is the quality of the research that has gone into it. The acknowledgements make it clear that Robertson has gone to considerable trouble to make sure that her facts are correct and the accuracy of what she has to say about the one area I do know something about, the theatre of the period, suggest that her other background reading has been put to similar good use.

There is a third book due out in April, Island of Bones, and although in general I want to read less crime fiction this year, that is one that will be on my library list as soon as it becomes available.


Thursday, 6 January 2011

Great Tennis Novels

I've had the most strange e-mail this afternoon asking if I would like to lead a discussion at some point during the summer on a (and I quote) good novel in which tennis plays a central part. One of our local galleries is staging an exhibition this summer on tennis in art and as a complementary activity they want to run a monthly book group centred on books that feature tennis.

Now, I have to admit that titles didn't exactly come flooding to mind. In fact the group of friends I happened to be with, several of whom belong to the same reading group as I do, racked their brains for a good hour but could only come up with Lionel Shriver's Double Fault, which had not been a universal favourite, and Stephen Fry's The Star's Tennis Balls, which we weren't sure was necessarily referring to the sort that bounce!!! There are novels like A Room with a View and The Thirty-Nine Steps where a game of tennis plays a very peripheral role and I wouldn't mind leading a discussion on either of those, but I'm not certain that they would be deemed relevant enough.

So, a plea for assistance. Are there obvious books out there that I'm missing? Are you all yelling "What about......?" Or is this something that the gallery education team has not thought through properly and an idea that is really going to be a non-starter?


Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Shakespeare and the King James Bible

Over the last three mornings the BBC have been broadcasting a series of programmes commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. We are no longer supposed to refer to it as the Authorised Version as apparently officially it never was, authorised that is.

The story of how the King James Version came about is fascinating in itself but far to long and complex for a single post. However, listening to the discussions over the last few days I've been reminded of a lecture we had last term from a scholar who has been working on the text in preparation for this year's celebrations. He came to speak to us on the subject Did Shakespeare Have a Hand in the King James Bible.

Of course, there has always been speculation. When you look at the published works of the people who were responsible for the translation it is hard to understand how the beautiful language which is the hallmark of the text ever came about. Indeed, it is all the more remarkable when you remember that the work was given over to a committee. This group gets to work on these books, that group on those! When I think of some of the committees on which I've served the wonder is that they ever came up with a text at all, let alone one that has inspired artists, composers and writers ever since. And, let us not forget that Shakespeare was King James own personal playwright. He was the company writer for the King's Men and while James didn't exactly pay his wages pleasing the monarch was definitely the way to go.

But, speculation is not evidence and much as it would make a wonderful story to be able to say that the bard was involved the general thought is that it would be just that, a wonderful story. However, our speaker did say that he had got a little excited, enough to wonder perhaps if one of the translators wasn't an ardent playgoer paying tribute to his hero, when he discovered that the forty-sixth word from the beginning of Psalm 46 was shake and the forty-sixth word from the end was spear. Shakespeare, of course, was himself forty-six when the King James Bible was published.

Alas, even that much of a link was denied him when he went back to earlier translations and discovered that the words shake and spear have always been rattling around somewhere near the beginning and the end of that particular psalm. And we all know what would happen if we were to leave a monkey alone with a typewriter for long enough, don't we?

Nevertheless, the mystery of the magnificent language contained in the 1611 Bible remains and it would be nice to think that all the scholarly attention that is bound to be given to the text over the course of the year might come some way towards explaining it.


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Corral de Comedias

This morning I finished reading Woza Shakespeare, the account of the South African Titus Andronicus and reached the section where Doran and Sher describe the time the company spent in Almagro in Spain. Here they are taken to see the Corral de Comedias, a courtyard theatre with timbered galleries in which productions were being staged at the same time as Shakespeare and The King's Men were Performed at The Globe. This isn't a reconstruction like our own Bankside Globe, this is the real thing.

As you can see, in design it is rather more like the indoor theatres, such as Blackfriars where Shakespeare and his company moved for winter seasons after 1608, than the polygonal Globe, but like The Globe it is open to the elements, so perhaps the more apposite comparison would be to the inn yards that preceded the purpose built theatres of the 1570s and later. And its preservation is simply stunning. Of course, given the Act of Parliament in 1648 which not only banned public performance but also made it illegal to watch plays it's not surprising that none of the London playhouses survived. Nevertheless, I can't imagine that we would have gone out of our way to preserve a theatre building as this has been; the theatre has just never been seen as that important.

There is another tantalising link to be drawn here. Almagro is in La Mancha, the home of Don Quixote. I always have to shake myself to remember that Cervantes and Shakespeare lived and wrote at the same time and that Shakespeare knew the Spaniard's great story. Robert Shelton's translation of the first part hit the St Pauls' bookstall in May 1612 and at the end of that year Shakespeare and the new young playwright, John Fletcher, presented their joint venture, Cardenio, based on one of the episodes in Cervantes book, in two performances at court. Apart from a 1727 version very much bowdlerised by Lewis Theobald, called Double Falsehood, we have no record of the play. However, there have been a couple of attempts in the past two or three years to reconstruct the original and this Spring, Greg Doran, the director of the South African Titus, is going to have another go at staging Cardenio in The Swan Theatre at Stratford.

Only time will tell how successful this will be. We have had a number of speakers at the Shakespeare Institute and at the Birthplace who have all drawn attention to just how difficult it is to decide which lines in Double Falsehood belong to Shakespeare, which to Fletcher and which to Theobald. There is also the question of the missing sub-plot. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the extant plays from that period have a sub-plot of one sort or another but Double Falsehood does not. It rather looks as though Theobald didn't so much adapt Cardenio as fillet it. I'd like to think, though, that Doran's attempt might be successful and then perhaps the production could be taken to Almagro and staged at the Corral de Comedias, returning its characters at least to their spiritual home.


Monday, 3 January 2011

Thoughts on Macbeth

Even though today is officially a bank holiday in the UK, I really felt that the time had come to get back into my normal workaday routine. What with the snow and Christmas it has been far too long since I last did any real study or preparation for my upcoming teaching commitments. So, bearing in mind the fact that I still have three sessions to take on Titus Andronicus, I spent the morning finishing Greg Doran and Antony Sher's account of the production they staged of that play, with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, in 1995, Woza Shakespeare.

Once they'd got the play up and running there was the opportunity to go and watch other productions being staged or rehearsed in the Johannesburg district including Umabatha, the Zulu Macbeth. Sher writes:

I'm on the edge of my seat from the word go, when a tiny figure dashes from the back of the vast, open stage, kneeling at the front, muttering and shivering, and then sneezes. She is one of the witches and the sneeze is a ritual in Zulu witchcraft...Seeing the play done in this context, in a society with a real relationship to witchcraft - like Shakespeare's society - makes me realise why ninety-nine per cent of modern British Macbeth's fail.

And, reading what Sher has to say about this production made me realise why, when the publicity handouts came last week for next season's repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, my heart fell at the announcement of yet another Macbeth. In all my years of theatre going I have only once seen a production that completely stopped me in my tracks and I have seen several that have been so awful that the only remedy was to laugh.

The worst of these was perhaps twenty or twenty-five years ago and starred an actor so famous both on stage and in Hollywood that were I to name him I could guarantee that you would all know to whom I was referring. Given just how terrible his performance was I'm not going to do that. It would have been bad enough had it just been the lead who was so appalling, but it wasn't. If the entire cast had been replaced by a pack of Daleks they could not possibly have been more wooden and disjointed, in speech and movement both. And the props! Suffice it to say that when Macduff held up Macbeth head in the final scene the entire audience collapsed in gales of laughter. It was embarrassing.

The only Macbeth I've seen that really worked was the RSC's production with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench which was originally staged in the company's small theatre, The Other Place, when it was still housed in an old hut with a corrugated iron roof. (You tried to avoid performances when it was raining and those of us who knew the town well never went on a Tuesday when the local church had bell-ringing practice!). This production has been immortalised on DVD, so you may have seen it, but you had to experience it actually in the space for which it was devised to really appreciate the intensity of the original concept. The audience formed the outer ring of concentric circles, the actors were the middle ring and performing space was at the heart of the action. Played without an interval, the evil invoked grew in that inner arena and was trapped and intensified by the people around it. It was one of the most mesmerising theatrical experiences I've ever known.

Between those two extremes I must have seen at least a dozen other productions none of which have been particularly satisfactory and so I have to say that I'm not exactly leaping up and down with excitement at the thought of yet another foray into this most difficult of plays. I notice that the publicity handout doesn't say who is going to play Macbeth. I wonder, is this because of the company's policy of emphasising the ensemble nature of their work? Or is it, perhaps, that they haven't yet succeeded in persuading any actor that he wants to take the risk?


Sunday, 2 January 2011

I'm Making a List.......

I've just been listening to Howard Jacobson, the winner of what is now last year's Booker, talking with a selected BBC audience about his earlier novel, The Mighty Waltzer. When The Finkler Question won the Booker award someone told me that as I'd never read anything by Jacobson, The Mighty Waltzer was probably a better place to start and hearing him discuss the more autobiographical aspects of the book this afternoon, I can see why they might have thought that to be the case. So, my first reaction was, as always, a quick trip to the local library website to see if they had a copy that I could add to a list of requests that is already long enough to keep me in reading matter for the rest of 2011. And that was when realised that if I'm going to read more selectively this year trips to the library website have got to start to be more discriminating. As a consequence, while I didn't make a Christmas list I have just made a January reading list that I hope will ensure that I don't get stuck reading only one genre and that my reading will not be dictated by the return dates stamped in library books.

There are some books that I have to read for groups to which I belong and the first two

Gifted ~ Nikita Lalwani
Felicia's Journey ~ William Trevor

come into that category. I shall also have to make an early start on

Daniel Deronda ~ George Eliot

to be ready for the meeting in February when I'm leading the discussion on it. Because I realise that I'd bitten off rather more than I could chew expecting myself to read

Middlemarch ~ George Eliot

as well I've swapped the print version for an audio recording and that will take care of the hour before bed each night quite nicely. In addition I've added a Virago, a Persephone, a children's novel, a detective and the latest book by one of my favourite current novelist so

The Weather in the Streets ~ Rosmond Lehmann
Saplings ~ Noel Streatfeild
Reckless ~ Cornelia Funke
Trick of the Dark ~ Val McDermid
The Death of King Arthur ~ Peter Ackroyd

complete my list. As I finish each one another can be added to replace it and again, I'll take stock at the end of the month and see how this has worked out. I may be asking myself to be far too organised but I am really ashamed of where my lazy reading habits have taken me over the past year and I'm determined to try and put things to rights.