I must go down to the seas again…

…for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

Whitsand Bay Hotel

Whitsand Bay Hotel: photo used with kind permission from Warren Derrington Evans

As I teased you with my last post like a burlesque dancer tickling your twitching nose with a long white feather, I went to Cornwall. I needed to go away because I had become rather anxious, and my memory was becoming unreliable, and I couldn’t sleep properly. So I was shamefully profligate, tore my credit card out of my wallet like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and booked myself into a hotel, without allowing myself to think of the cost, or of the fact I was doing it All By Myself when generally I walk into town in the rain rather than pay for parking and still prefer to visit the ladies’ in a group.

As I breasted the hill the Whitsand Bay Hotel loomed out of the sea-mist, dark and gothic, towering over the little hamlet of Portwrinkle, and I felt the frayed knot in my stomach relax a little. No phone signal, no internet, no email, no Skyplus, no cooking, no cleaning, no online surveys, no gym, no neighbours shagging/killing each other (I am torn as to which is worse to be woken by). Just me, a pile of books, and Dad’s Army.

My room, on the top floor, was small but pleasant, and the view from it – the green-grey water slamming against the black rocks – was breathtaking. I felt like the sea was speaking for me, saying everything boiling inside me which I couldn’t articulate, with each sonorant smack.

I had a cup of tea and then set out on my first walk in the gloaming. I went up the lane where the ghost of the notorious smuggler Silas Finny is said to walk, but uncharacteristically I was too busy concentrating on the map to keep an eye out for him. Which as it happened was a complete waste of time: my map was accurate, but of an entirely different area, where I’d had just kind of assumed I was. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of why because I will get cross with myself again, but the walk to (as it turns out) Tregantle Beach – long, whale-back smooth and empty save two surfers riding white horses – was very enjoyable, if a little disconcerting, as the further I walked the more apparent it became that I had no idea where I was. I scuttled past a gypsy campsite and got barked at by several angry looking dogs, like an episode of Casualty waiting to happen.

I walked to the end of the beach, thinking about stuff I hadn’t dared think about before. Just aware of nothing apart from the sounds and smells and feelings of being by the ocean. The tide started to come in, so I picked up my pace and eventually retraced my steps, sticking faithfully to the path. As I flung myself girlishly over a gate and navigated some fat cowpats I felt eyes upon me, and slowed down until I found I couldn’t move at all. Was it Silas Finny, angry because I had been more concerned with my longitude and latitude than in his spirit?

Well, no. I turned slowly to the left and found I was gazing at two soldiers, lying motionless on their stomachs, aiming rifles in my direction. My automatic response was to yelp and put my hands in the air asking them not to shoot, but when I asked if I might go through their field they said “Yeah of course,” like I’d asked something really foolish. Next time someone aims a gun at me, I’ll know not to make such a big deal out of it.

The return journey to the hotel was more a yomp than the upbeat Val De Ree I had started out with; I was increasingly cold, I was starting to get tired and I was as always lost; and desperate for the loo but too frightened of soldiers and gypsies to wee behind a propitiously-placed bramble bush. After dinner I soaked in the bath for an hour and watched Dad’s Army in bed. I hadn’t watched episodes for years, but it was a great family favourite, and I had forgotten how much I loved it, how straightforward and innocent and loveable and warming. Hot chocolate for the soul.


That night a storm boiled the sea and flung rain at my window, but the next day dawned pale blue and soft gold, perfect for a long circular walk from Cawsand. The pinnacle of my 3 hour trek was St Michael’s Chapel on Rame Point where the Spanish Armada were first sighted in 1558. I couldn’t catch my breath properly, and not just because I’m out of shape; the air was heavy with saltspray and the wind was twisting elf-knots into my hair, and I could imagine the frisson of fear felt by the lookout as the first gunships, pale as ghosts, shimmered through the brume.

When I finally collapsed back into my car I felt ridiculously proud of myself. Back in my room I sank into a bath and practically fell asleep at dinner. Afterwards I sat by the window listening to the sea and reading until I couldn’t resist the droop of my eyelids. I fell asleep at about quarter past nine and slept right through until half seven; I haven’t slept so well in months.

I’m back at home, and just very aware that I wasn’t away for long enough. But I know I can do it now – go away by myself, and put my mind on ‘standby’ and just Be.

I have nothing to report since I came back, mainly because I’ve gone down with bronchitis which means I don’t have the energy to do much apart from watch TV and read. Every cloud… I stumbled across a contemporary(ish) Jane Austen in Elizabeth Taylor, whose Mrs Palfrey at the Clairmont is quite captivating. It’s the simple tale of an elderly lady who moves into a downmarket hotel occupied by other old longterm guests and it’s magically observed and written.

The other author I am really pleased to have stumbled across is Elizabeth Fremantle whose Queen’s Gambit was a real find. Katherine Parr is not one of Henry VIII’s wives who has had a huge amount of fiction dedicated to her, perhaps because she is not as bewitching as Anne Boleyn or as cruelly treated as Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth Fremantle has righted this wrong with a hugely readable and enjoyable imagining of what things might have been like for her, and this marks a new voice in historical literature.

Fremantle’s writing style is lush but reader-friendly; her descriptions are beautiful without being twee or poetic and her characterisation is excellent. Seymour’s charisma, Katherine’s down-to-earth goodness, and the grotesque Henry VIII is all brilliantly portrayed. Plus, she focuses on smaller characters who in history may have been merely cameos but who for Fremantle feature prominently in Katherine’s life. So it’s not just the royals and aristocrats who matter in this story, but also the servants, the doctors, and other characters. Fremantle has researched her subject meticulously and it shows. Despite the huge differences between the 16th century and the 21st the characters are still so human.

She also creates a complex character out of Elizabeth Tudor, future Queen of England, who is normally vilified or lauded. For Fremantle Elizabeth is intensely human and of all the numerous fictional portrayals of the young Elizabeth I I have found this to be the most convincing. I don’t know about anyone else but Philippa Gregory seems incredibly anti-Boleyn/Elizabeth I and this gives her books an edge which I found Fremantle to be without; and that is to her credit. Hence I’ve waffled on about her so much.

Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be reading The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among The Dead which I have been excited about for months. It’s about how death and in particular the soul have been viewed for centuries. Yes I know it’s another death book and I should be reading about fluffy kittens and copper kettles and japes and scrapes but – I have done. And I like it, I really do. It’s just I like this too, and as long as I keep an eye on my dark side I don’t see why I can’t live with it, just not let it take me over the way it has threatened to.

I promise though – no more reading-Jack-The-Ripper-by-day-and-watching-Zombie-Nazi-Killers-by-night. I’ve learned that lesson.

Lux et umbra vicissim, sed semper amor
(Light and shadow by turns, but always love)

Will I go back to Portwrinkle, and will I be haunting Finnygook Lane in the dusk to see if Silas deigns show his skeletal face?

Watch this space. (There’s that tickly feather again…)


My Mad Thin Teenage Diary

Only good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don’t have time.

I kept a daily diary from age 9 until the age of 26. I have missed 4 days in total: 2 days when I was at Brownie Camp, and 2 days in 2004 when my boyfriend and I split up and I could not bear to have my feelings recorded anywhere for anyone, least of all myself.

Damn it. Tallulah Bankhead was right.

Reading My Mad Fat Teenage Diary by Rae Earl sent a gentle but persistent wave of nostalgia to lap at my feet, daring me to remember my own youth. She swears that everything in the diary Actually Happened, although I do wonder if she really wrote quite like that, with such colour and vigour, when she was 16. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable, sometimes painful, read, and made me think of my own teens. At the weekend I downloaded some of the dance tracks to which I used to shimmy my cigarette-shaped body in nightclubs, in the days when I wore silver velvet hotpants or pale blue PVC trousers I couldn’t get a thigh into now. When you would get drunk and snog highly unsuitable boys and not feel obliged to swap names, let alone numbers, just because you’d swapped saliva. The music that makes me feel like a dog sniffing out a rabbit: tense and excited and unable NOT to move, as the tune flows like quicksilver through your veins, the beat pulses faster and the notes becomes more and more frantic building to the pinnacle that just makes you want to jump up and down for the sheer joy of living in that moment.

I don’t think my knees would let me get away with that now.

In contrast to Rae’s diaries (or even Mother Theresa’s), my GOD mine are dull, and uninspiring, and self-absorbed, and slightly disturbing. I tried reading them a few years ago and felt a combination of contempt and sadness for the young woman who wrote a large amount about not a lot. The thought of letting anyone else see them, let alone publish them, makes my skin prickle with horror. But I won’t throw them away. They are – second to my epic 40-chapter book about seven sisters which I wrote between the ages of 13 and 22 – my biggest project.

I’ve started diarising again, partly because I need the writing practice, and there’s stuff in my diary (which I don’t write every day) which I would balk at sharing even with you. But still, we are all writing for some sort of audience; as a result I do wonder if what I write is a true reflection of myself. When I was in my early teens I wrote some stories for absolutely nobody else (in fact I burned them as soon as I’d written them) which hinted at a side of me that I don’t think anyone else will glimpse. Which is probably for the best, as it would be rather like being flashed at by Ann Widdecombe.


Anyway. So! That’s what I’ve been reading. I also read Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes; unfortunately (for me) she still hasn’t matched her astounding, chilling debut Into The Darkest Corner, and this story fell flat and ultimately was of little interest. I live in hope, so I’m going to give her another shot. If you enjoyed her debut, skip her second book Revenge of the Tide; try Erin Kelly¬†instead, who in a similar and somewhat superior vein.

Then I read The Examined Life, which is by a psychoanalyst who, with the permission of his patients, collated their cases and his thoughts on them. It rang several bells with me (I dared not ask for whom they tolled) and I couldn’t help liking Stephen Grosz, the author. Analysis and therapy are such cliches nowadays – one is probably considered abnormal if one hasn’t had some sort of psychological ‘work’ – that we forget how hard it is to see our situations clearly when we are actually in them.

Then good ole Shakespeare reared his head again, this time in his Restless World by Neil MacGregor. The author has taken little parts of Elizabethan life – an abandoned fork, a rather pornographic goblet, a cap – and linked them to Shakespeare’s plays, and what was happening in the world when he wrote them. The book is a fascinating read, building up layers around seemingly innocuous objects which open your eyes to not just the history of the plays but the period during which they were conceived. As an abrupt contrast I then went onto Cold Hands by John Niven, which started off as a chilling and discomfiting examination of maladjusted teenage boys and turned out to be a disappointing and over-the-top serial killer with a villain who Will. Not. Die. (That’s not a spoiler.)

Cleansing my literary palate, I went onto¬†The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland. A rather captivating story of a hirsuite young girl, Eve, and a man who cannot die; and their life together in a Victorian ‘freak show’. The story was a little peculiar, but I like odd, and it held my attention. It was kind of like eating candyfloss; not particularly sustaining or nutritious but very enjoyable all the same.

I then devoured the third book (this is like the feast of Saturnalia) by Oliver Potzsch about the hangman Jacob Kuisl and his daughter: The Beggar King. I think I’ve mentioned these books in previous rambles, but if I haven’t, I encourage you to look up the series which is hugely enjoyable despite the slightly clunky translation which sometimes jars dialogue. Potzsch’s stories are based on his ancestor who was the town hangman and executioner, and he has found a very likeable character in Jacob Kuisl who is strong and heroic, but also human and at times vulnerable. Potzsch is not a brilliant writer and this is not great literature: but it is original, imaginative, and great fun. His stories are painstakingly researched and the historic detail in them is a joy to read, if a bit grisly at times (those of a more sensitive disposition may wish to skip the torture scenes).

Anyway. Most of this reading I did in Cornwall, where I went for a few days to recover from the last few weeks/months/years. I’ll write about that another time. Bet you can’t wait. If I hint that, as I drove over the hill, the dark gothic hotel loomed up out of the sea-mist like the House of Usher, is that enough to whet your appetite?

NB: After writing this post I was overcome by sudden fierce hunger and had to eat two bowls of Muesli.

You Are What You Read

I’ve decided to make a rather late New Year’s Resolution – which is to read for pleasure again, and find the real joy in reading, rather than trying to educate or enlighten myself. There is, and always will be, tons of stuff I want to know and understand. Partly because I like sounding like I have some level of intelligence but also because I genuinely like learning stuff, being able to piece things together, and know how and why and wherefore.

However I am not sure if my brain can cope with it. I worry that Archimedes’s (I had to Google him) theory of displacement is taking place in my ‘intellect’ and when I put some new facts into my brain, other facts drip out through my ears, fall on the pavement and get trodden on. What’s important to know? I know that Katherine Parr was, like me, a rather sensuous lady (I mean she liked baths and nice clothes rather than being Dita von Teese, incidentally) but I couldn’t tell you her date of birth or when she married Henry VIII or any of that jazz.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter so much? I’ve always been a more people person than a figures person anyway. An old boyfriend gave me this cartoon as it reminded him of me:


The last couple of weeks have been a bit odd, as one would expect them to be. I’m either in denial of losing Grandpa or it really is possible to deal with it, because it feels like he hasn’t gone at all. I find the hardest thing is going into his old surgery, still part of the house, which smells of medicine and leather despite the fact he retired 25 years ago. I love the tatty old chair in which he saw his patients. That’s the coldest room in the house, and that’s where it hurts the most, so I am avoiding it. I’m not terribly big on avoiding things because I don’t consider it helpful, and as I’m rather like the cowardly lion I have to force myself to do things I don’t like – but perhaps it’s a bit soon to be prodding ones sore points, like needling a wobbly tooth.

Readingwise, I must confess to being dreadful, hence my Resolution. I tried Dreadnought again; I really did. But, gentle Reader, it is 10,687,592* pages – and I’d read about 1/5 of them and still hadn’t got to 1914. It was also full of military words and descriptions of ships and I’m afraid I started getting horribly confused; especially when people started having several different names. So I ditched it and tried Ways of Seeing by John Berger which is a collection of essays about how we see things, particularly Art. And I realised I didn’t know very much about that either, and more to the point I didn’t care. This is not to say the book is rubbish, far from it – but it wasn’t for me.

I also tried The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles which was supposed to be an American classic and it promised much: intrigue, incest, murder … but I didn’t like either of the characters and didn’t wish them well, so I had no desire to find out how they ended up. Then I picked up Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, fables of 1930s America, but blimey. One of them is about an agony aunt/uncle who winds up dead and the other is about a young boy who goes out to seek his fortune and winds up dead. I ought to stop taking recommendations from The Week I think. I’m not linking to that one because I’ve totally spoilered it.

One Educashunel book I did manage to finish and ultimately enjoy was Blood and Roses by Helen Castor. It’s about the Paston family, and 70 years of letters between them – a true correspondence goldmine, as they were written during the Wars of the Roses. I found my mind wandering in places, but that is my fault, not Castor’s and certainly not that of the Pastons, who were a most interesting family. The story also helped me learn more about the Wars of the Roses which is something I’ve always found very complicated.

Finally I tried Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain by Judith Flanders. I was quite enjoying it, but my brain got stuck on some statistics and couldn’t get unstuck, and I suddenly thought – sod it. I’m not enjoying this. I want to read something I actually can’t wait to pick up, the kind of book you wake up an hour early on a Sunday to finish. So I put that to one side too and am now on Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes, she who wrote the wonderful Into The Darkest Corner (and the disappointing Revenge of the Tide). Is it great literature? No. Is it going to teach me anything? No. Will I be able to quote facts from it and sound like I garnered more from my degree than just a student loan? No. But is it making me happy? Yes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (fellow English students of Rolle College will remember him) said:

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten;
even so, they have made me.

He has a point – what we read affects our minds as much as what we eat affects our bodies. It’s why I have never touched Fifty Shades of Grey and stopped reading The Daily Mail when I was 19 because I found it was turning me into someone I didn’t like. I don’t like reading crap, any more than I cannot bear to watch ‘rubbish TV’. It’s not because I’m special or anything; I want to read stuff with some intellect because I’m trying to feed mine! I’ve also tried to cut down on depressing and sinister books; Hitler’s Willing Executioners, anyone? But trying to continually improve oneself is a bit bloody exhausting, and one cannot continually try to educate oneself. Most people are kaleidoscopes: turn them and hold them up to the light, and you’ll see different aspects of them, so perhaps I have been not holding myself up to the light enough. My memory has really gone to pot, so perhaps this will help it recover.

P.S. I am joining a Shakespeare Society though. He’s kind of like Vitamin C for the brain. You can do without him for a bit, but you’d go a funny colour eventually.

* Slight exaggeration… but it’s A Lot.