A Letter From America



What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand on our hands?

A couple of kind readers have asked when I’m going to write another post. Which is a great compliment, and also a great kick up the backside because I have indeed neglected this of late, just when I was really getting into the swing of things.

I have thought a lot about what I’d say about my trip to America last month, but ultimately I’ve decided to say very little. I’ve spoken a lot about it and spammed Facebook with photographs but there are a few things I want to keep to myself. I kept a journal during my time there: something I hadn’t done in a long time. I remember when I was younger I used to write in it every night, even though sometimes my entries were little more than “nothing much happened”. I found the diaries a few weekends ago in my parents’ garage. Weird to think that my entire life from age 9 to approx 27 is detailed in those fat, tatty books. I can still remember when my parents brought me my diary to catch up in hospital as I recovered from an unexpected appendectomy, and that I felt guilty for missing 2 days at Brownie camp. The only other time I didn’t write in it was when my ex boyfriend and I split up. I didn’t have any words let alone wanted a record of the almost unbearable pain. I suppose I was rather like a poor man’s Samuel Pepys. don’t think I could ever let anyone read those diaries even if they wanted to; it’d be like having all my innards pulled out and laid on a slab in front of a load of medical students.

SO. New York was busy, tall, grey, shiny and electric. The Grand Canyon had the sweetest, cleanest, lightest air I have ever breathed. I wanted to open my mouth as wide as I could, fill my lungs up and up and never exhale. Las Vegas was crazy, opulent, lavish, glaring, bright, exhausting, exhilarating. I felt like I had been given permission to do anything I wanted. Perhaps I did one or two of those things – after all it stays in Vegas…

I have of course kept up my reading, and discovered some wonderful books. On the plane I read Quiet by Susan Cain which was about the power of being introverted. I’m an introvert, though if I ever make this claim people scoff because I like performing and can be a show-off. According to Susan, I am, so there. I love being on my own, I am not big on noise or crowds, I like my own company (probably more than anyone else does). Reading about being introverted has helped me realise there are some things I can do better just by being myself. Normally I’m trying to do anything but be myself, as that never seems to help matters. Perhaps a change of tack is in order.

I very much enjoyed The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. It’s the first one of hers I’ve read, and it was like a naughty (and a bit more enjoyable) Jane Austen. I put down the book desiring both to be Sophy’s best friend and to be a little Sophy myself (I don’t aspire to be remotely Grand).

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins was delicate and subtle and rather depressing, about adultery in unexpected places (people I mean not behind the mulberry bush or in the coal cellar). It was good, but I ended by being relieved that I didn’t know any of the characters, and that I was not in their situation nor circle.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messoud was frank, almost excruciatingly so, about a rather lonely woman and an intense friendship which leads to a huge betrayal by both parties. Again, I was glad that I didn’t have to have anything to do with the people in the book once I’d finished it.

The Three Emperors by Miranda Carter should be read by anyone who wants to learn about WW1 and why it started, or who has an interest in human relationships and behaviours, or who enjoys a damn good read. The hefty tome was difficult to put down despite its weight – as a result I now have arms like Popeye but I also have some insight and understanding into one of the most complex and tragic events of recent history. I’ve learned a huge amount about something which I have wanted to understand more for years. Everyone should should read this, particularly as this year is the centenary of the outbreak.

Couples by John Updike was another depressing book about lots of rather unpleasant people. It’s very well observed, but I kept hoping for some decent behaviour from everyone and nobody came forth.

To Sir With Love by E R Braithwaite was about bad behaviour and a decent bloke who helped turn around a difficult class in a difficult school. I felt like standing up and cheering for him. As I finished the book on a plane, I did not do this. But, Mr Braithwaite – Sir – if you’re reading, I wanted to do it!

Love In The Time of Cholera – my first by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I had never read him before, and knew little about him apart from that everyone thought he was ace. Now I agree.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore – yet another heart-stoppingly engaging story from Dunmore who has yet to put a foot wrong. It’s set after WW1, when a soldier returns home from the trenches. I got embroiled in a discussion about what the lie was online, which made me a bit cross as I thought it was kind of obvious, but you read it and tell me what you think.

Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson. Sylvia Plath was engaging, and very talented, but I don’t think I’d have wanted to know her either. She sounds pretty irritating. (This post is full of people I wouldn’t want to know isn’t it. No wonder I like being on my own so much.)

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. Several voices come together to tell one story, in the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse. I really enjoyed this original approach to writing: it’s like putting layer on layer of muscle and flesh on a skeleton until it blinks and opens its eyes.

Deserter – The Last Untold Story of the Second World War by Charles Glass. Is it really the last untold story? I’m sure there are thousands more waiting to be heard, some of which we will never have the honour of learning. But this collection of experiences adds another valuable voice to the crowd we should listen to, lest we forget.

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble. Not bad, not particularly good, not really my kind of thing but I’m glad I read it because – well, now I know what happened in it. If you read it, you will too. But I wouldn’t rush to.

The House at Old Vine – this is one of a trilogy about a particular house through the ages and I’m hungry to get my hands on the other two; it’s original, historically detailed and eminently readable. Norah Lofts also wrote The Witches (as Peter Curtis) which was a surprisingly enjoyable, though why this was so surprising I don’t know.

The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge – when this author used the word ‘ejaculated’ fairly early on for exclamation (it must have been twice in three pages) I found myself wincing. I remember at first school our teacher, Mr Warwick (he of the waterfall beard), reading Moondial by Helen Cresswell (this was one of my favourite books as a child) and pointing out a bad sentence, in which the word ‘swiftly’ was used twice. Ever since then (so since age 8) I’ve been hyper-sensitive over repeating a word in at least two paragraphs. But I’m glad I forgave Ms Goudge as The White Witch was thoroughly enjoyable, taught me a lot about herbs, and was a delicately woven tale of the English Civil War.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by the extraordinary Alice Hoffman. Hoffman lost her way a bit with some of her books such as The Story Sisters (in my humble opinion) but she has returned in triumph with The Museum and before that The Dovekeepers. I can heartily recommend her once more.

Have I updated you sufficiently? Only one way to find out…