Blood and skulls. An average day in the life of a wouldbegood

I am feeling rather melancholy again this week. Not so much the season, but bad news for a dear friend, news which mutes all life’s colours. Little bubbles of happiness rise to the surface; then they bounce against the spikes of D’s sadness and burst, disappearing into the air as if they never existed. It is hard to think how anything can be properly OK again when someone you care deeply about is having his life turned upside down and the knowledge is always there, hovering at the back like the uninvited guest at the funeral.

My black dog has been wagging its tail at me again. I’m not going to blether about it because I quite honestly think there is little more dull – and depressing! – than someone blogging about their depression. I’ve had it since I was about 12 and it’s so much a part of my life if I stopped having it I would feel like I’d lost my shadow. If I wrote a poem about it that might be a little more interesting. I wrote some poems about it during my angst teens which I am not going to share with you either. Sometimes it is good to write about it and sometimes it’s best to let it nestle, a sleeping snake, in the dark. If you leave it alone perhaps it will just breathe deeply and slowly rather than tensing and waving its head angrily in your direction.

I’m sure my mood has not been brightened by reading Bloodlands – about Europe between Hitler and Stalin. I had no idea about most of it; for example that more people starved to death at the hands of these evil men, than died in the concentration camps. Not the best bedtime reading, but one of those stories that deserves to be read, I think. I shall reserve my proper review until I’ve finished it. I also read Twisted Wing by Ruth Newman which is set in Ariel College, Cambridge. Gory and sinister, I enjoyed it, but never really suspended my disbelief. And yes this part does have spoilers, so if you haven’t finished it yet, close your eyes when you read this bit. For anyone who has finished it: if it was all in the killer’s head, then where did the psychic get the ‘twisted wing’ bit from? And also if Olivia wasn’t really suffering from multiple personality disorder why did her friends claim she blanked out, or couldn’t remember certain things? Presumably she hadn’t been setting this up for years. I would read another book by Ruth Newman, but it wasn’t the highest quality crime I’ve read. However it did make me a little nostalgic for university. Rolle College, Exmouth (now sadly defunct) was not of course anything like Ariel College. It was a small, friendly little campus with 14 girls to every 1 boy. If it wasn’t for the marines barracks next door we would all have turned lesbian. It was fun. I learned a lot and I loved learning. But for the first year and a half my real personality was crippled by various mental ailments and by the time it got crutches and started to walk again most of university was over. It makes me a bit sad that most people from university will remember me – vaguely – as the crazy girl who made herself sick a lot and had a Thing about being ugly. I’d quite like to go back and try it again – but they don’t do grants anymore.

One especially special memory of university was an evening in Ottery St Mary, where we went to watch the Barrel-Burning. Men running up and down the streets of the village carrying barrels full of burning tar and everyone yelling. The smell of burning, the intense heat of the fires against the bitterly cold night air, the squeals and excitements, the crackling of light in the eyes. When I went home I blew my nose and the tissue came away black. A brief memory, one evening in 1997 that I doubt many people will remember, but it’s always stuck with me. It was before things got really bad, and I felt they were still going to be OK.

They were OK. Things mostly are, aren’t they, eventually. They just HAVE to get better, or nobody would ever live past the age of 17.

Anyway. The other book I read was Maine by Courtney Sullivan which I promised I’d tell you about in my last entry. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be good or not, but I found it kept itching at the back of my head when I was doing something else, and that’s a sign that you are reading a good book. It’s basically the story of 4 women who all spend some time at their family home in Maine during the summer. There is the terrifying matriach, Alice, the vulnerable and rather weak granddaughter Maggie, the bored twee sister-in-law Anne Marie, and the unconventional daughter Kathleen.  Sullivan’s characters are real: that is, they are believable, and have flaws. The reader looks at them from a distance and judges their actions when one character narrates the interaction they have with another, but then when the story is told from the point of view of, say, bored Anne-Marie, or downtrodden Maggie, the reader becomes a little more empathetic. Nobody in this book is perfect, and nobody is right – but there are reasons why they are ‘wrong’, and Sullivan’s examination of human frailties and failings is believable and touching. The plot isn’t of real importance here: what’s important is the plot of each individual’s life and why they are in the position they are, and the tragedies which have befallen them, and how their behaviour – particularly that of the prickly matriach Alice – has shaped them.

You rarely get to read a book where the characters are so utterly human. It’s more a study of People rather than a simple story. The ending of the book isn’t particularly exciting or fulfilling but that’s beside the point: it’s the getting to the end that matters.

I am going to sign off now as I am trying to be in bed earlier than usual, fighting off just another cold. I am just watching something about drinking wine from human skulls – and I wonder if I would do it, if given the opportunity. In somewhere like Haiti, where they do things like that. And I have decided that I might. It’s not like I’d be drinking blood from it, and it’s not like it would be doing anything wrong, unless it was the skull of someone who’d been killed specifically for the purpose of being used as a drinking vessel, which I consider unlikely.

Mind you, I suppose in places like Haiti, you never know.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

I went to bed in summer and woke up in autumn. It really does happen that quickly. I’ve gone from open-toe sandals flashing browned toes and pink polish and vest tops to cuddling up in a cardigan and wearing two pairs of socks in the evening. It seems so frivolous and pathetic to put on ones heating until 1st October at the very earliest, but I am like a lizard and feel the cold dreadfully – even on a beach in the mid-40s I start shivering and complaining if a breeze gently whispers past me (and don’t even get me started on CLOUDS in midsummer Greece).

Autumn also brings spiders. Bloody big ones. Do you see flies that big? Not in this country – which means there is simply no need for spiders of such a ridiculous size. I am pleased with myself for finally getting the courage to put a glass over these monsters and chuck them out of the window, but my creeping dread of putting my feet into my slippers without shaking them thoroughly first has never died. I have however made friends with one smaller spider. (Perhaps friendship is too strong a word and it is more a truce a la Christmas Eve in the trenches.) He was making a web on my window, and I went to get rid of him before an odd thought struck me. It’s cold. If I throw him outside, he’ll get cold. And some odd, soft part of me has let him stay where he is.

We have lived together for a week now in an uneasy camaraderie. I don’t know where this sudden fellow-feeling with the little arachnid has come from, but it does help that, striped black and white, and small, he is prettier than his furry-legged giant relatives. (Being pretty, he is most likely to be poisonous – just my luck!)

Anyway – autumn is in the air, and despite the chill I feel energised. On Friday, the most autumnal day yet, I felt almost ridiculously excited. By what I had/have no idea, but it felt like Christmas Eve used to. Like a balloon was being expanded in my chest. It would probably be deflated by a couple of good old reliable valium, but I actually liked this feeling. This was good anticipation, rather than the anxious dread that I normally suffer (dread of what I have no idea, but it feels so bad, whatever it is it must be something Awful).

I have tried to think of what it is I am looking forward to and I suspect it is:

– coming home from a cold evening to a warm, cosy little flat (as of October 1st anyway) and curling up with a warm drink

– the smell of bonfires in the air; autumn is technically the death of the summer, but it’s actually the birth of one of our more beautiful seasons

– cooking stews, and roasting vegetables, and making blackberry-and-apple to have with custard

– Guy Fawkes’ Night (even though I always have to wear earplugs, and I always feel a bit bad for Guy)

– Halloween – possibly the third most exciting night after Christmas Eve and ones birthday, although I don’t get many trick-or-treaters in my area (nor ghosts come to think of it)

Rather than have a favourite season I am a (wo)man for all … each of them bring different experiences and foods and sights and smells to enjoy. One may mourn the passing of summer, but we really don’t have proper summers anymore, so you might as well look forward to the future rather than getting depressed over it.

I have had a virus this week which laid me low without there being anything wrong with me aside from melancholy a la Keats and extreme tiredness. I set myself a challenge: to go to bed early every night and eat healthily and not do anything in the evenings. Which means that I got through several books, and I felt quite refreshed (let’s not think about how much weight I’ve put on as I normally hit the gym six days a week).

The Thread – Victoria Hislop

I like Hislop’s books because of their historical interest rather than her skill as a story-teller. She’s not a bad writer, but her stories are formulaic and the dialogue is sometimes clunky; nonetheless the books are immensely readable and interesting because she delves into history that most people don’t know anything about. Her first, The Island, was about a leper colony set on a Greek island, and The Thread is about Thessaloniki during World War 2. I had no idea about how the people of Greece had suffered during the war and the book made for fascinating but harrowing reading. The tentacles of anti-semitism stretched much further than I had realised and than is broadcast. Greece is my favourite place in the world and I feel fond of Hislop because of her love for it too.

The Quick and the Dead – Richard van Emden

Stories of those left behind in World War 1 – the families of the soldiers who never returned. I found this book much more accessible than The Beauty and the Sorrow which I polished off a week or so ago, and I’m not sure why – I think the former simply narrated the stories and his characters were two-dimensional albeit real people, but in this book the author gives the stories flesh and makes the characters human. I actively wanted to pick it up and read it, learned a lot from it and found it painful to read; all of which tend to be signs of a good book. van Emden also wrote about Harry Patch which is the first of his I read and he is one of those rare writers who has the gift to transport the past into the present. Such books should be made compulsory reading for students of WW1 – lest we forget, indeed.

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Mysteries – Giles Brandreth

This was an odd one. It saw Oscar Wilde joining forces with Arthur Conan Doyle, to try and solve a shocking murder. As I am a fan of both these gentlemen I looked forward to beginning it, but ultimately found it unsatisfactory. Rather like the large Rowntrees Pick & Mix bag I have sitting next to me on the desk, I found a few things I liked in it, but it hasn’t sated my hunger and I feel a bit odd as a result of it. Oscar Wilde, whatever you may think of him personally, was both a gifted writer and really rather funny with an acerbic wit which Brandreth brings out in his text, but Wilde’s character is diminished by his infuriating refusal to divulge any of his guessings, detections or theories. Whenever he comes up with a good idea or a Hunch he metaphorically taps his nose and jumps on a train or hails a hansom and disappears – infuriating for the narrator who is a friend of both men, but also for the reader. I won’t be seeking out any more of these mysteries, mainly because I felt like dispatching Wilde myself before the murderer was uncovered.

Next: Maine by Courtney Sullivan. I have no preconceptions of this, nor have I heard of the author, and I like it like that. I like approaching a book fresh, like a first date almost. Opening one from a favourite author is like pulling up a chair to sit down and chat with a good friend – perhaps not as exciting as a first date, but (in my experience anyway) ultimately more enjoyable and requiring significantly less preparation.

Random Thoughts – Cry Me A River

Books wot have made me cry:

 

Emily of New Moon

I remember reading this in bed and getting to the page where Emily has to choose between her cats, and I wept and wept. L M Montgomery’s writing is beautiful – her eye for detail, her lush descriptions, her well-drawn characters and gentle but fascinating tales are the perfect antidote to the hectic self-absorbed digital age. If I ever have a daughter I will buy her them all. I only have gerbils at the moment, who are more likely to chew books than read them.

 

Skin Privilege

Karin Slaughter’s crime novels are original and shocking. I really enjoy the way that she writes stories, with real characters. not just pages of blood. I am in no way going to ruin the ending of this book by telling you why I cried, but I sobbed great gulping tears, and I actually had to get my housemate to read the end of the book too so that I wasn’t “the only one” who’d read it. (When I was younger words had a huge power over me and this rather primitive emotion still comes on me now, without me realising it.) My reaction shocked me and I felt one day I want to make someone cry like that. (Over a book I mean – not in real life!)

 

The Plague Dogs

I haven’t read Richard Adams’s more famous Watership Down but I enjoyed The Plague Dogs, far earlier than I should have done, and rejoiced at the ending. Then I saw the film of the book and realised I’d misinterpreted it, and burst into rather predictable tears which mean I can’t read the book again. I have tried and my throat tightens and my stomach pulls into knots as I get towards the “keep swimming, keep swimming”… bit. The worst bit is knowing that the experiemnts Adams describes all really happened to animals.

 

Let Not The Waves of the Sea

Simon Stephenson’s brother was lost, and then eventually found, following the horrendous Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. This book is Simon’s gift to his brother – his story of the tragedy, his search for Dominic, and his reconciliation with his brother’s death.  It is a true love story – that of one brother to another. It is gut-wrenchingly honest, and I found grief laid bare difficult to read at times, but it was impossible to close.  The book starts in torment, but reaches some sort of quiet peace at the end and you feel like you’ve followed the family through on their voyage of recovery.

I will add more but I am supposed to be in bed before 2200 tonight and it’s 2211 already, and I’ll turn into a pumpkin if I don’t hurry up. Tell me yours in the interim please…

Bring Out Your Dead

Well it’s about time I started posting about what I read, seeing as that’s why I set up this blog in the first place. I’ve been meaning to do this post for about 4 days but am glad that I’ve held off (read: I’ve not bloody stopped all week) because I finished Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the sequel to Wolf Hall. I read it all in one day – first in bed, then in the bath, then in my parents’ garden in my bikini refusing to acknowledge the sun had gone in, then on the sofa, then in the bath again. Yes, it’s been a lazy day. I don’t have many of those so they are worth noting.

Anyway. I started this weekend with Winter King by Thomas Penn about Henry VII, so it went seamlessly into Bodies which is about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in particular. Both books were beautifully written and about an identical period, and similar characters, yet startlingly different. Penn writes historical non-fiction; Mantel is narrating the story from Cromwell’s point of view. I enjoyed both books immensely, not only because I find this period of history particularly fascinating and I love learning more about it, but also because they were well written. Penn has great attendance to accuracy – his bibliography is a library in itself – and Mantel writes as if she were hidden behind Cromwell’s curtain. These black-eyed, stern-faced people we read about in dry text books or watch in inaccurate Hollywood films – they live, they breathe, they are. They have the same feelings and dreams and sensations and concerns as we do today (apart from that we’re not so worried about treason or being executed). It is an absolute gift to be able to give a fresh approach to a subject which has been written about countless times through the centuries, and to make these two-dimensional characters sentient beings. Henry VIII I have always dismissed as a fat, arrogant belcher, but seeing things through his perspective makes it so much more complicated. (I’m not making excuses for him incidentally, but read the book and you’ll know what I mean.) Henry VII is a dark character – Penn himself comments that even Shakespeare steered clear of writing about his reign – and I feel like, having finished this book, I have made a new – not friend exactly, but close acquaintance. I can picture him and know what he was like, not just what a gaunt, pursed-lipped shadowy figure as per his most famous portrait.

I devoured these books – partly because the library wanted them back, but also because (and particularly in the case of Bodies) I couldn’t stop. Both are highly recommended, whether you are a history scholar, or just like intrigue and pretty bad behaviour.

Next: The Thread by Victoria Hislop. I read and enjoyed The Island because it was quite well-written, it was an interesting story, and it was about my favourite place in the whole world after my grandparents’ fireside: Greece. I need to peg through this as the library want it back by Friday and I don’t think they’ll give me an extension on it, so I will let you know how I get on.

Other musings… I painted my nails brick-red this evening, then changed my mind and went for lavender. I still have the last vestiges of my summer tan and I want to wear bright and pastel colours until it fades. Dark colours are more appropriate for autumn and winter, methinks.

My gerbil Ernie died this week. His brother Eric had had major stomach surgery a fortnight ago, and my fears (and credit card) were focused towards him. He’s recovered fantastically, but poor little Ernie dipped very badly on Tuesday night, and was dead by Wednesday. I buried him in my parents’ garden today (I had to keep him in the freezer until I could drive over there, and it was unnerving me) – I do not have the build of a grave-digger, so I’ll have to get dad to redig the grave so nothing sniffs him, digs him out and strews his fur around the garden (as happened with Jettikin, when we tried an ‘eco-friendly’ coffin with her in 1989). I felt fine until as I pulled him out of the freezer bag his little tail poked out of the tissue I’d wrapped him in. Slim and small and black. When I picked him up, his tail used to whirl around like a helicopter rotor as he tried to maintain his equilibrium. Such a tiny thing, but it made my stomach hurt.

My parents’ garden contains, at a rough guess, 1 dog, 2 cats, 1 guinea pig, 2 rabbits, approx 9 gerbils, 1 gecko, numerous birds and several dozen fish. Just as well it’s not an old Indian graveyard innit. We were having a discussion about burial last week and I asked if I could have our dog and my gecko dug up and buried with me, but my parents refused saying it was not seemly. Neither was the idea of a family mausoleum. I did concede that as we can all manage about 3 days together without going mad, eternity in the same building might not be a good idea. (It was the first time I’d said the word mausoleum, and I pronounced it badly. I felt ashamed.)

You may be intrigued to know that I received my Ladybird Dracula from Amazon. The text was longer than I remembered, but the picture of Dracula bending over Mina on a bench was just as spine-chilling as it was when I was little.

What started it all off?

So, what was the first book you read? Do you still have a copy? Did it have an effect on you?

The first book I ever read all by myself was Bears in the Night. I was about three, I think.

I had had stories read to me, but this book I could read by myself. I got it from the mobile library which used to come around the village of Fressingfield, Suffolk, where we lived until I was six. I was entranced by the dark front cover. When the library came round again, I refused to give the book up. I can’t remember exactly how it happened but the library agreed to allow me to keep the book (I suspect my mum bribed them!) and I still have it. The pictures, the story, the spine-chilling

up…

spook …

hill…

and the panic as the bears flee back down the hill, which always made my heart race and the skin on my arms prickle. I’ve never really come back down from that thrill and I suspect that Bears in the Night is responsible for my penchant for the dark, spooky and macabre ever since.

Another book from my childhood which sticks very strongly in my mind is the Ladybird Dracula.

The link above shows the original cover, but disappointingly the ‘look inside’ doesn’t show the Ladybird version at all. So I’ve decided to order a copy of it! It’s only £2. I remember very clearly, also, buying Dracula. I had been given some money for my birthday (I must have been age 5 at the time, as we moved a year later, and I think my brother had been born by this time. I went into a small shop in Harleston, Norfolk, and I picked up Dracula. My mum was not very pleased and said “Why don’t you get a nice book about dogs?” showing me one. But I didn’t want the dogs book. I wanted the Dracula book.

I do admire my parents for their decision to allow me to make my own choices. I don’t know if I’d have been so tolerant. I devoured Dracula. One picture which always sticks in my mind – don’t let me down, Ladybird! – is one of Dracula bent over Mina Harker on a bench. I read the book on the drive home, and again for the rest of the day. (Didn’t Ladybird books have fantastic pictures? So colourful and well-drawn and vital. They bring the story to life and are as vital to the book as the text.)

Anyway. That evening I was sent up to bed at the allotted time. I left my Dracula book downstairs, under a cushion. I didn’t tell anyone this, but I no longer wanted to look at it.

Our cottage, Churchill Cottage, was small and very old. The sitting-room had a fire burning in the grate. The stairs up to the next level were narrow and dark. I said goodnight to my parents quietly. I climbed up one or two stairs reluctantly, and then burst into tears. The fear was so strong I could taste it. I could not go up those stairs because Dracula was going to Get Me. It took me some time to get the words out but I was petrified. Again – I admire my parents for not saying “I told you so”. We talked about how the book was made up, and it all ended happily ever after (hmm) and that nobody was going to Get Me. But it didn’t work and in the end we burned the book, in a rather ritualistic manner, on the fire.

It took many years before I could get Dracula out of my head. I would always sleep with my duvet pulled right up to my neck, so that he couldn’t bite me. After a while I decided I might be alright if I slept on my front, figuring my neck would be too thick for him to bite through. I am pleased to say that I have now lost the very primitive fear, but I still can’t sleep without any sort of covering, even if it’s just a thin sheet, as I fee very vulnerable.

I never read the real Dracula until we studied Gothic literature at university. I loved it, and am desperate to visit St Mary’s Church in Whitby which so inspired Bram Stoker. One of my favourite bookmarks was a postcard my parents brought me back from the town which showed the church covered in snow, which I kept for years, but I think I threw it into the recycling by mistake. So, if anyone reading this is from Whitby, or happens to be going to Whitby in the not-so-distant future (or distant … I’m a patient sort), I’d be most grateful if you could grab one for me.

Agan, I think that the Dracula episode inspired in me this great love of The Dark Side. I’m not into the occult or anything, and I can’t bear ‘torture entertainment’, but I love being scared and spooked. I like things that Aren’t Quite Right, which hint at something supernatural and sinister. In my teens I wrote a collection of ‘odd’ stories which are some of the best thing I’ve written (though that’s not really saying much) and one of them came from a dream I had. I still read these back sometimes and think, perhaps someone would enjoy them too… but they are so close to me, they are like my children. I feel too vulnerable to hand them out to all and sundry. I wonder if other people who write feel like this too? As if when someone is reading something you’ve written, they have unzipped you and can see all your insides?

Anyway. That’s the story of how my reading developed. Dracula scared the crap out of me and has had a lasting effect on me – and I am so, so grateful to it.