Give Me a Sign!

Just behave.  OK?

Just behave. OK?

Once you start looking, the world is full of signs, information, exhortations and prohibitions.  Usually my eye would just skim over them as part of the noise in the city that it’s simply easier to filter out.  I was fascinated by the number of different demands that were affixed to the gates of this otherwise very modest building site in Southwark.  Especially odd, when you take a moment to think about it, is the ambition to improve the ‘image of construction’.  Really?  Like this?

Later that week, with my temporarily heightened awareness of signs, I saw this one on the Regent’s Canal

2013-05-08 13.06.44

Now this one is interesting for the fact that the words are essential to the comprehension of the instruction – the pictograms seem too capable of alternative interpretation: only people in pairs?  Only men’s cycles? Only adults with an appended child?  The evidence of the behaviour of most cyclists we encountered that day suggests that literacy is not well established in their community, so really, the sign-makers should reconsider the visible attributes that make a cycle ‘considerate’.  And perhaps an audible prompt to remind them of the ‘two tings’ concept?

Talking About Sir Walter Scott

2013-04-25 14.03.08-1I suppose when you’ve been named after a character in a novel, it’s inevitable that you develop a complicated relationship with its author.  And if the name is a relatively unusual one, and the book a well known one, or at least one that is the inspiration for many teatime television classic adaptations, that relationship can go through distinctly fractious phases.

It was a difficult time when Ivanhoe was on the school curriculum, and everyone who cracked a joke about the book to me thought they were the first; but since then, I have been more pleasantly surprised when people I have met around the world have unexpectedly commented on the name and made the link to the book or to actors who have played the characters on television.

Taking a moment to think about it though, I couldn’t recall if I had ever read any other Scott books.  (Indeed of all the 19th century Scottish literature I read at school, I had to spend a few moments checking which were by him and which by Robert Louis Stevenson, so little did I enjoy them at the time.  That research revealed that the ones I did recall were by RLS, apart from Marmion, noted especially for its soporific qualities.)

So when I heard that, as a part of a wider programme of commemoration of Sir Walter Scott, Radio 4’s ‘Open Book’ was recording a special discussion of his contemporary relevance, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reassess my own knowledge of his work.  The recording took place in the Crush Bar at the Opera House Covent Garden, a red and gold plush interior lit by a splendid chandelier, and was filled with a crowd of what must have been typical members of the Radio 4 audience.  Interestingly, a show of hands revealed that fewer than half the people present had read a Scott novel, and only a handful had read more than one.

The panel comprised Scott enthusiasts Stuart Kelly and Allan Massie, and recent convert, Denise Mina.  All of them praised the humour of the works, but recommended developing the ‘laudable’ art of skim reading to overcome the more verbose sections of the novels, but then pointed out how many well known literary tropes had originated with him: Robin Hood splitting an arrow when he fired his own into a tree, Sir Walter Raleigh laying his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth to step over, two rival heroines, a blond and a brunette, re imagining history by recounting the third Jacobite Rebellion that never was ……

At the end of the discussion, a second show of hands showed that the majority of the audience had been convinced that they would try one of his books sometime soon.  Maybe you can be persuaded too, now you know about the skipping?  What do you think?

The programme featuring my contribution to audience ambience and applause will be broadcast on Sunday.

‘Rook’ by Jane Rusbridge

2013-04-22 16.20.11-1It says more about the height of my ‘to be read’ pile, and the slowness of my reading, than about my enthusiasm for this book, that it has taken me so long to read Rook by Jane Rusbridge.  The slightly battered edges of my copy of the novel also testify to the fact that I have lent it to a couple of people telling them that although I’ve not read it yet, I’m sure they will enjoy it.  So when it was last returned to me I made it my priority.

It is a story about secrets, those of a community and of a family; about what is buried, both literally and metaphorically, and what one might find if one digs in the right place.

Set in the richly observed town of Bosham, it is a tale interweaving known historical facts, local folklore and a central conflict between mother and daughter, Ada and Nora.

Ada has an increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, spending much of her time reflecting on the past, through which we gather fractured fragments of her life.  She resists the care of Nora, who has returned home, without warning, leaving her life as a concert cellist to spend her time giving music lessons to local children.  The women’s uneasy home life is further disrupted by the arrival of a documentary film crew, researching the legend that an 11th century king may be buried in Bosham church, and seeking permission for an exhumation.

In order to distract herself from her own uncomfortable memories, Nora tries to keep herself busy with running and involvement with the local community, but when she finds an injured fledgling rook, the bird becomes her main focus of attention.  It lives in the house with her, and as it grows, it sits on her shoulder to be petted, or ferociously attacks unwanted visitors.  As it grows and recovers, so  does Nora.

I’m afraid, I found this aspect of the book a bit tricky, as the idea of a bird in the house, or on someone’s shoulder, sends unpleasant visceral shudders down my spine.

What I did enjoy about the novel was the rich language and the evocation of place, of the environs of the town of Bosham, and the idea of the layers of history that lie there.  It made me want to visit and explore, and to see the clouds of birds in the sky (from a safe distance birds are fine!) and feel the wind from the sea on my face, so vividly can I imagine them from the descriptions.

‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace

‘Harvest’, Jim Crace’s new novel, begins as the barley harvest is nearly over, the cutting has been done and the women and children are gleaning the last pearls before the pigs are allowed onto the fields to rootle around for the scraps.  It’s a routine familiar to every resident of the unnamed village, but their traditions are under threat.

The omens are poor when three strangers, a mysteriously appealing woman, and two men set up camp on the village’s common ground, and, on the same night, part of the manor house is set on fire.  At the same time, another man, nicknamed Mr Quill, is walking around the village scratching things in a book.

These events lead to violence, suspicion and destruction.  Over a period of a week, Walter Thirsk, the narrator, sees his adopted home ruined and his neighbours scattered.  The villagers punish the strangers cruelly, and as things worsen, turn on each other; while the landowner, newly arrived to survey the area, takes advantage of the resulting disorder.

The story is set in a past on the verge of change; old ways will be set aside to make way for sheep on the land.  It’s a time when a man might be fearful of being injured at night in case the pigs come to attack, and when the trouble caused by the arrival of strangers will so disrupt a community that they can think of nothing else, and leave farm and housework undone in order to plot revenge.

This is a book which is likely to provoke a variety of responses; dip into the discussion of it on Radio 4’s Saturday Review and you’ll get a flavour of the disparity of strongly held views.

I enjoyed it for the lyric fluidity of the prose, the evocation of an unnamed place in a time I will never know and the creation of a character I was not sure I entirely believed or trusted. But I was frustrated by the slow pace; what had felt like luxuriant description in the early chapters, got on my nerves towards the middle and end; and I was also puzzled by the narrative voice, by the complexity of expression of Walter, who declared himself to be such a simple man, but who had an extensive and elaborate vocabulary. While I was enjoying the read, I surrendered to the beauty of the voice, but, inevitably, enjoyment turned to resistance when I became impatient with the pace.

This has, however. broken a spell of my not enjoying reading anything I attempted, a time which made me feel out of sorts, and now, having found much to admire in this book, and having read it with an appreciation that took me away from being aware of the passage of time, my proper relationship with books has been restored, for which, a heartfelt thanks.

The Need to Read

IMG_2946I’ve not been reading enough lately, even though I am an adherent of the belief that it takes a better reader to make a better writer.  I’ve had a couple of false starts with novels that I began to resent having to carry around with me, and found myself reading newspapers left behind in train carriages rather than take the offending volumes out of my bag.  So I’ve abandoned the attempts at these worthy books from ‘the canon’ and instead am about to launch myself on the pile of new (ish) releases I’ve recently acquired variously through the generosity of others, and out of seeking refuge from the snow in a book shop yesterday.

I’ll let you know how I get on, but in the meantime, it’s always good to have a photo of some books.  These were in the window of a second hand shop in Galerie Vivienne in Paris.

The Bottom of the Pile

IMG00718-20130111-1137What do these two books have in common?  I’d almost forgotten I had them, but now I’ve rediscovered them, they have made me feel a little guilty because these are but a couple of the books that I have started, but never finished reading.

It’s not really apparent from the photo but both volumes are water damaged – they were at the bottom of the piles of books on the floor by my bed and were the badly affected when I had a water problem in the flat.  In a way, these are the sacrificial ones, by soaking up so much they protected the stacks above them; so even though there were 20 or so piled up handy for bedtime reading, only these two were damaged.

But the fact remains, I’ve never finished them.  Now that they have resurfaced, should I attempt to read them again?  Can I even read the water damaged pages, some of which are a little stuck together; or should I replace them and try again?  They have a war theme in common, but I’m fairly sure I bought them several years apart.

I bought Stalingrad because I had talked, or rather, encouraged my Russian teacher to talk about, the siege of the city in the Second World War, as it was his home town and he had family stories to tell.  It’s a dramatic story, but somehow I couldn’t stick with the book.

The Kindly Ones originally published in France, was a celebrated there as a literary phenomenon, and a number of my French colleagues recommended it to me.  I didn’t feel up to reading it in French, but when I saw it had been translated I bought it fairly quickly, and I tried really quite hard to persevere, but abandoned it after about 100 pages, which as you can see didn’t make much of an impression on the whole thing.

I’ll let you know if I do go back to them…..

So, what books have you never managed to finish, worthy or otherwise?

Reading or Studying?

I often listen to Radio 4’s A Good Read on a Friday night as I’m getting ready for bed, and so sometimes, I admit, I fall asleep before it’s got quite to the end.  But last week I heard it all the way through, more alert than usual perhaps because of a comment made by one of the contributors which set me wondering.

The format of the programme is very simple.  Two guests are invited to recommend a paperback book as ‘a good read’ and, together with the host, who has also nominated a book, they come together and discuss them.  Generally, as with so many discussions, the most interesting programmes are the one during which the contributors disagree.  Where one person fails to see the charms of the others all time favourite volume from childhood, or where another admits to not being able to finish something because they hated it so much.

Last week had some elements of that when opinions differed on Anne Enright’s The Gathering, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield. But it was the work that united them that generated the most thought provoking comment, which each of them repeated in their own way.

TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was selected by historian Ruth Richardson.  It is unusual in itself for a book of poetry to feature on the programme, which mostly focusses on fiction, with a dash of history and popular science, so it was not unexpected that this would be a point of note.  Ruth Richardson explained why she loved the poetry, picking out lines that meant something particular to her, or which had struck a chord with her on different times.  She also confessed that although she didn’t understand it all, she loved it none the less.

I’ve never studied it, she said at one point, rather defensively, as if failure to have ‘studied’ it might disqualify her from liking it.  Later, when giving her reaction to reading it, Harriet Gilbert, the host, also said that while she had read the book many years ago, she too had not studied it.

And I wondered what they meant.  Are there things that have to be studied rather than just read? Is reading a lesser activity than studying?  Which novels that you love might you have to qualify your enjoyment of by admitting a failure of study?

Is it about understanding every inter textual/mythological/ historical/ philosophical/ biographical reference contained in the text, or enjoying the rhythm and richness of the words; rather like understanding all the allegorical references in the bits and pieces around the edges of a Renaissance painting without actually looking at the rich colours or the sweep of the drapery?

Or does study imply that you have both read the thing itself, and read what other people have had to say about it?  My first thought was the idea of studying something at school or university, where the act of being taught it, revising it, and writing an essay about it, drained most things of any kind of excitement or enjoyment.

Are there any novels that you’ve enjoyed but which, if you were to recommend them, you feel you’d have to confess that you’d never studied?  I’ve certainly never done so, therefore for one day only, I’m going to give it a go…. looking back through the 19th century canon……

I read War and Peace (*)when I was a teenager, and loved it.  I don’t think I understood all the philosophy bits because I’ve never studied it, but it’s a great story.

* Insert as appropriate

Anna Karenina

Madame Bovary

Crime and Punishment

Cousin Bette

Tale of Two Cities

Course Work?

A few days ago I went to the last class of my evening course on Terrorism in Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck.  An odd choice of course, or perhaps an odd choice of literature categorisation, you may think, but I was interested in the way language twists and turns to express this aspect of the contemporary world.

People who resort to acts of terror must believe that words will not serve them in the way that violence will.  And yet the vocabulary of the underlying conflicts twists and turns in each of our mouths.  Your freedom fighter is my terrorist; his jihad is their crusade.  When does an ‘insurgency’ become a ‘civil war’?  When did coups go out of fashion?  Who invented the euphemism ‘regime change’? When did you first hear the phrase ‘weapon of mass destruction’ or use the acronym ‘WMD’ yourself?

One question to which we frequently returned in the class was whether it is firstly appropriate, and secondly, possible, to explore, in fiction, the point of view of the terrorist, to imagine them as individuals with specific motivations.

My own conclusion was that it is a legitimate endeavour to seek to understand all aspects of humanity, no matter how unpleasant, through literature.  After all do we not have great monsters populating most of the cannon, setting up the conflicts that are the meat of most plot and drama?

Having said that, I don’t think any of the books we read on the course were successful in achieving any significant insight. Maybe it’s too soon; maybe the issues are too difficult and complex?

It’s the first time I’ve done a pure literature course since I left school; the reading and critiquing on my MA in creative writing was more focussed on the techniques being used, to learn from a craft point of view.  The process of subjecting novels to a purely literary critique, doesn’t always serve them very well, does it?  For example, I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist very happily, and enjoyed it as a sort of coming of age story, of a young man trying life in the big bad city, but then finding his place in the world only when he returns to, and accepts, his origins.  When forced to concentrate on the allegorical aspects of the story and the silly naming conventions the author used, we were all groaning with the portentousness of it.

I’d read two of the books on the reading list before.  John Updike’s Terrorist and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.  I remembered enjoying both of them the first time round when I read them for pleasure.  Only one of them withstood the test of a second go, and it wasn’t Saturday, which on a repeat viewing felt insubstantial and smug, with one of the most ridiculous plot devices involving poetry imaginable.  I’d erased it from my mind after our first encounter, but revisiting it made me throw the book across the room.

Updike’s novel, although not perfect, stood up much better, and, when, at our final meeting, we came to deciding which was the most successful, and which the least, of the books we’d read, this was the unanimous choice.

Here’s a little extract of my arguments for it:  I like the Updike style of understatement and slightly cool phrasing.  Fancy imagery is kept to a minimum.  He builds the images through small details and hints.  I always knew where the action was taking place, in the sterile, yet slightly threatening environment of the school or the squalor of Terry’s apartment; the novel is set in a very recognisable America, in which it is possible to believe that radical Islam is being preached in a room above a shop in a strip mall.

The characters he draws most effectively are the white middle aged – the teacher, his wife and the unlikely girlfriend.  The portrait of Ahmad, the young, potential terrorist, is perhaps less convincing, but it is possible to look at the novel as a portrait of the people around Ahmad who have failed him.  As this, I was better able to understand why an American boy, embarrassed by his sluttish mother, abandoned by his father, and not well served by his school, might come under the influence of a radical Imam and others who would try to turn him to violence.

As an attempt to investigate the failures of the all American authority figures of the teacher and the parent, I thought this novel did shed some light on how malign influences could bring a boy to the brink of violence.

(The least successful book, also unanimously, was The Last Night of a Damned Soul by Slimane Benaissa, translated from the original French.  Interestingly, all of us had bought pristine decommissioned library books, being the only copies available…….. sometimes things need no explanation…….)

Having said all of that, I don’t want to give the impression that the class was a grim experience.  Perhaps my favourite bit was the pre-class discussion of the sex scenes in each of the books.  I think it would be fair to summarise the consensus view as ‘generally poor’, largely because the female characters in the books were generally cyphers, there to be abandoned, rejected or exploited.

An Insight Into the Economics of Book Buying

After I signed up for an adult education class in ‘Terrorism in Contemporary Literature’ for next term, I went online to acquire the books on the reading list.  I’m such a slow reader these days that I wanted to get a head start on the reading that needs to be done.

As the novelty of having a kindle hasn’t worn off yet, I had assumed that I would download the books and be done with it, so I went onto the amazon website.  I stumbled at the first hurdle, however, as the first book I searched was not available on kindle, in fact it’s only there as a hardback.  Second hand seemed to be the option to look at, and there it was at a significant discount to a new copy.

I clearly wasn’t the first person to use amazon before the course.  At the bottom of the website page in the ‘people who bought that also bought these’ area it displayed the complete reading list.

It was a surprise then to discover that a second hand copy of each book on the list was a fair way cheaper than even the kindle version, using the clear technique of offering two main alternatives: 1p plus £2.50 postage, or £2.49 and free postage.  You’ll know which I opted for.

While I did consider the fact that I was not doing the authors any favours, buying a physical book did have a satisfying retro feel to it, and the pricing structure was a revelation to me.

When the books arrived, there was yet more to learn.  One of them, the not-available-on-kindle, is a former library book, in pristine, unused condition.  It has the library sticker inside without a single stamp on it, and has all the signs of never having been read.  It didn’t fill me with confidence about the attractions of the novel.

 And two of the other novels have clearly been through charity shops.  Is this a way for the charities to shift their stock, or are people buying up books cheap and then selling them online?  For the moment I’m going to believe the former.

When I signed up for the course I hadn’t quite anticipated that all of the literature would be focussed on post 9/11 Islamic extremists, but now I’ve received the books, I can see it is.  I’ll have to think about that in the context in the broader history of terrorism in the 20th century.  Has contemporary literature failed to address terrorism in other contexts?  I’ll let you know, if I find out.

‘The Devil’s Music’ by Jane Rusbridge

This looks like the type of book I might pick up in a bookshop, read the blurb and then put back; indeed I think I may even have done exactly that.  I was however encouraged to read it by a comment from a friend who recommended it on the basis that it examined the impact a childhood memory might have on an adult life.

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about in my own writing recently, and it’s always good to see how others have approached it

I’m very happy that I have now read it; it’s beautifully written with an underlying uncertainty verging on a mystery that propels the narrative.

The story focuses on Andy, as a child in the  late 1950s, early 1960s, and then, in a present day 1990s.  His first person narratives in both periods are punctuated with the perspective of his mother Helen, in the second person, during his young childhood.

Andy has a baby sister, Elaine, who is described by their father as ‘not being all there’.  As an adult Andrew is haunted by the memory of the day he is left to look after the baby on the beach while his mother and other sister Susie go for ice creams and his belief that he was responsible for the death of his sister.

To keep order and control in his life Andy practices the knots his grandfather has taught him.  A thick vein of rope and knot imagery runs through the book, from nooses with which Andy ties up Susie, to doormats he makes as useful gifts as an adult.

But as the novel progresses there is a metaphorical unravelling of the stories Andrew has told himself about his family.

This felt to me like a tale of abandonment.  Helen, the mother, leaves her young children Andy and Susie behind when she disappears.

The father, although physically present, is emotionally absent from his children, a state which extends past death, when he leaves them the difficulty of tracking down Helen when he leaves part of his estate to his abandoned wife.

Andy, as a child hides away under the stairs, or in his stories of Harry Houdini, whenever he is afraid, and as an adult simply runs away from anyone who tries to care for him.  He is no help to his sister and her awful children, and even at the end of the novel he runs away just as his mother is about to return, although he does send her a knotted bracelet, as well as invites his girlfriend to go with him,  marking the first time a woman has been more than just a transient to him.

Andy is a character who evokes a lot of sympathy as a confused and troubled child, while at the same time being clearly someone with whom it would be very difficult to live.

The character of Helen, the mother, is a morally ambiguous one; is she so overwhelmed by grief and depression that she cannot cope, or is she weak and selfish?  I think the question is left open.  She couldn’t defend and protect Andy when he was a child, and then  she abandons him when she leaves the family home to live with her lover.

Her subsequent life might be an extreme attempt to assuage her guilt, by spending her life looking after two handicapped children and a badly injured lover, without realising that Andy, the child left behind, is emotionally crippled.

The exploration of what a child understands of the adult world, his perception of cause and effect, and the assumption of blame for events which happen around him, is thought provoking.  Left without any effective communication with either of his parents, the child takes these fractured experiences with him into adulthood.  It’s an idea that bears quite a lot of reflection.

The novel is interesting structurally; written in the present tense, with two first person points of view, a second person, and finally, in the prologue, the third person.  First person aids the immediacy of perception and the portrayal of the thought processes of a character not always behaving rationally, while in the second person, our view of Helen is at a distance; we’re more actively encouraged to judge her.

Do give it a go.

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