Angry Blackberry Picking

This photo is of the tiniest snail ever, which I found on a blackberry bush. I rinsed him in the colander by mistake, then rescued him; then dropped him in the washing up bowl, and rescued him again. Somehow, he survived. I like to think this is a good omen, as most of my life, to the point of OCD, is about seeing omens – none of which are positive ones.

 

I am angry. The blackberries aren’t, or not so far as I know. But they are going over now, and apparently because the devil has spat on them. That is so bloody typical of the devil. Can’t even leave the sodding blackberries alone.

 

Yes, it’s been several months since I last posted. Thank you to the three people who’ve got in touch saying they’ve missed me! I’m afraid while you may have missed my witterings, you haven’t missed me too much. I’m angry and scared and frustrated. But then aren’t most of us nowadays?

 

 

I am angry about Harvey Weinstein and the fact that the reaction from so many is “Why didn’t they say anything sooner?” rather than “Who the hell did he think he is?” I’m angry at 21 year old me who didn’t complain when she was groped in a club because she thought it was just what men did (and it wasn’t the first time, either) and then didn’t understand, for many years, why other women did speak up. Don’t even get me started on the Chedwyn Evans case (not calling him Ched, he’s no friend of mine) and how it’s impossible for a woman to be raped if she allegedly had and enjoyed sex with other men pre/post alleged assault. That case was the main reason I spend a lot less time online.

I’m angry that I’m being made redundant. That’s all I’m going to put in the public domain about that. I’m scared, too. I am angry at myself that I have screwed up my life so spectacularly that I am facing 40 without a penny (well that’s not true, I do have a pension, but you know, right here and right now!).

I thought going blackberry-picking would assuage this anger but then I saw a collection of beer bottles flung into the hedge and this reignited the rage. WHY? Why treat our beautiful countryside like a rubbish bin? Then I saw signs from the local community campaign group protesting against yet more sodding “affordable” – that’s 3 and 4 bed affordable, you know – homes to be built on greenbelt and I felt red hot rage.

After all that, I picked 12 blackberries. 12! I’m now angry at the bushes for their dearth of berries, and myself for not putting in the devoted picking time I normally do. A few weekends ago a couple starting picking on the same bush as me and I went into picking overdrive, my hand a blur from bramble to bucket. That also made me cross. Though not angry.

Things That Have Made Me Less Angry

A walk at lunchtime, kicking through piles of yellow leaves with the canopy of trees embracing overhead. I’ve rushed through autumn; I’ve missed her beauties, her gentle warmth. Hopefully, if I’m still here next year, I will take more time over her.

Cavalier chocolate – it shouldn’t, but it does. And it doesn’t have sugar in it, which makes it less bad.

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert and The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters, read in tandem. It’s taken me ages to read The Compassionate Mind and I’m very glad I did. Even if the end made me curl up in a little ball of despair because the author is heralding a more compassionate age thanks to the inauguration of Barrack Obama. We all know how long that lasted! A reign of compassion appears to have lit the touchpaper for the intolerant, the ignorant, the racist, the phobic, the selfish, the fascist. It’s an enormous backlash as if certain people just couldn’t stand having a decent human being in charge of their country.

I keep having to reign in my own chimp – the part of my mind which is uncontrolled, which is primitive and works on instinct. For the first time I can separate the Wouldbegood from the Wouldbebad and notice when my chimp gets out of her cage. The chimp has her uses – her instinct is to protect – but she’s left me lonely and bruised, if no longer broken. To have control over her, to be her mistress rather than at her mercy, is something to aim for. Perhaps all this anger isn’t a waste of energy if it means I have heightened awareness of when she’s about to go on the rampage.

Those are the only books I’m going to talk to you about today. I’m done, for now. Off to the gym to be, somehow, less angry. To exercise my chimp in a safe environment so that hopefully tonight, unlike the last few weeks, she gets some sleep.

So the devil wants to spit on my blackberries? Bring it on Lucifer – but you needn’t think I’ll let you do it without protest. Like thousands of other women, I’m done holding my tongue.

We’re angry.

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For Love of a Horse Book

I am not a horsey person. I have never had a horse, nor a pony – unless My Little Pony counts (my first was Blossom). When I was in hospital with appendicitis aged 9 my grandparents brought me two books by Patricia Leitch, someone I had never heard of, and this sparked my love of the Jinny books. Night of the Red Horse is the most supernatural of the stories which got my attention straight away. Once I finished the books I then wrote my own version, which were pretty hopeless as I knew nothing about horses. My heroine was called Jenny – fortunately I got more original as I got older.

I stumbled over this very book a few months ago as I was clearing out my old bedroom, and decided to collect the whole series again. As is my wont, I became obsessed by getting all the books in the same cover I had in my childhood. This wasn’t easy – of course !- the late 1980 Armada edition was rare. I scoured eBay, Abebooks and charity shops (a mistake, as I never found a Jinny book but I did find another book I wanted to buy – always!). Some sellers online told me rather snittily that they didn’t have time nor resources to find out which edition they had for sale and I would just be allocated one when I paid. As any serious book collector knows, the edition of the book is vital and I’m not sure someone who doesn’t understand books should be selling them!

My patience paid off, although it did include having a book sent over from South Africa (fortunately a friend in SA is coming over to the UK soon and was able to act as a carrier pigeon). I now have all 12 of my Jinny books again – including 2 individual copies of the double-book compendium I was originally given.

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Jinny is an 11 year old whose family move to the Scottish highlands from a grey city. On their way to Scotland the family see a circus and Jinny is entranced by an Arabian horse named Yasmin. When Yasmin escapes across the moors, Jinny makes it her mission to find her and keep her safe – never to tame her, as her wildness is what Jinny loves most about her.

Jinny’s passion for Yasmin – whom she renames Shantih – and her determination to win her over – is the main theme running through the series but even if you really don’t like horses you will still find these books engrossing. There are 12 of these books – written for children, ostensibly, but in my view they are much deeper and darker than mere pony stories. They deal with relationships, family, bravery, tolerance, and the various traumas of growing up. In my view Patricia Leitch was right to finish the series at book 12, rather than drag it out indefinitely like the Sweet Valley books (another series I avidly collected). Jinny’s burgeoning self-knowledge would have torn her away from her symbiotic relationship with Shantih and the magic of the Celts. Another joy of the books now is reading Jinny’s innocence through my adult eyes; her frustrations, fears and failures are all too easy to remember as my own.

These books are now republished by Catnip, if you want sparkling new copies – but I found mine on Amazon, eBay, Abebooks and through these sites:

www.childrensbookshop.com

www.clhawley.co.uk

There’s a real joy in stumbling upon and making a connection with independent booksellers. When I next go on one of my little jaunts, I think it will be to Hay-on-Wye: the kingdom of books.

I also stumbled upon The Grapes of Wrath. How have I misssed Steinbeck until now? (Of Mice and Men is a much shorter piece) What an incredible book. I lived it. I could smell the heat of that dreadful summer, feel the pangs of hunger the Boads learned to live with. The ending for me was not redemption so much as utter despair – but did I read it wrongly? Was there some hope for the future in Rosasharn’s action of mercy?

I also read the new Lisa Jewell – Then She Was Gone. BAH! I love Lisa’s warm, perfectly observed, extraordinary story of ordinary people and ordinary lives. I don’t want a psychological thriller from my ‘big sister’ author. The book is as perfectly written as always – Jewell gets emotion, sensation and dialogue spot on in her own inimitable style – but the plot is melodramatic and even I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for the length of it.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore’s last, did not hold me. It’s beautifully written as always enough but dragged – there’s only so long one can care about a builder slowly going bankrupt against the background of the French Revolution. I feel bad about being disappointed by this, and have ordered The Lie, which in my mind should be her last book and is a much more fitting epitaph.

And – because I have never read it – I tracked down Rosemary’s Baby from my library. Fabulous stuff, with much more depth than you would expect; and above all, a real chill which went from the top of my spine right down to the very tips of my toes. I love that chill as much now as I loved it nearly 30 years ago, prostrate in my hospital bed, reading about the Red Horse haunting Jinny Manders.

Snog, Marry, Avoid

The last few months’ reading, in a nutshell…

SNOG.

 The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
I haven’t enjoyed the last few of Anita Shreve’s but I felt this one shows her back on form. The story of Grace, Gene and their children in post-war Maine gradually unravels, in a way you don’t expect it to. I had no idea about the great fire of Maine, so I was reading without having the sense of impending doom that others who know its history will experience. This in no way lessens the impact of the writing and the rebirth of the shattered family. Shreve’s prose is spare, which gives every word a heightened resonance, and can be read in one sitting.

Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes
Sarah lives alone, and is not prepared for an old aquaintance coming back into her life. Nobody in her social circle trusts him, and it appears with very good reason… While not hitting the spot the way Into the Darkest Corner did, this is an improvement on her other work and has given me hope we’ll get back to the strength of her debut novel.

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran’s zany bounce does make you want to squash her like a mosquito sometimes, but I enjoy her refreshing zest for life and passion for everything.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
I very much liked the way this novel was written. The comparisons to Angela Carter are spot on as this is in so many ways a twisted fairytale with thorns of truth poking through amongst the roses. The writing is often beautiful and the story of orphans Rose and Pierrot, separated just as their love begins to blossom, is fascinating. Pierrot hides from his past in drugs, Rose in sex, before they are reunited – but we all know real fairytales do not end with ‘happy ever after’.

The story goes on too long, and loses its way. Having initially been desperate to eat it up, I found myself wanting it to end. Nevertheless this is a startlingly beautiful and original story and I have already checked out this this author’s other work from the library.

I’m Right Here by Yvonne Cassidy
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. The tale of a teenage girl who starts hearing the thoughts of a slave-girl from 150 years ago is taut, human and very intelligent. Interwoven into the stories of both Cassie and EL are the experiences of slavery, friendship and family. Cassidy understands all her characters very well, and although there are a few loose ends – the story of EL in itself, and that of Cassie’s grandfather – in a way these don’t matter because the reader draws their own conclusions. I walked away from this powerful story finding that I didn’t leave it alone. I wrote my own ending, thought about the back stories of the characters. This is the sign of a good book and I look forward to reading more from this author.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
A visceral tale about a woman who discovers her father has escaped from prison. The story flags a little, but starts to pick up the pace towards the final third of the book and one twist made me gasp out loud. I would be interested in reading more from this author who displays a confident tone with regards to nature both human and animal.

Howards End on the Landing by Susan Hill
A year of re-reading books – an interesting premise, but perhaps more a memoir than a simple delve into the book shelves. Still, there are authors here I haven’t read, and need to investigate so it is worth a read.

The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis
This is a book aimed at young adults, but I enjoyed it as an oldish adult. Orphans Jennet (could that be a taste of a future Pendle-witches story?) and Ben come to Whitby to live with their great aunt. It soon becomes clear that Aunt Alice is not the harmless old lady she first appears. Not great literature, but very readable.

MARRY.

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson
Stretching across gender and class – how people recovered from the catastrophe of World War 1.

A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly
John Connolly just keeps upping his game and this latest Charlie Parker novel is the best to date. Not only is it a tense story about the Brethren, a family linked by dark means to the supernatural, but it is a story of Charlie’s relationship with his daughter Sam and his friends Louis and Angel. There is a hugely unexpected death – one I was surprised I felt saddened by – and I get the sense a denouement is not far away. The story is getting taut and I felt a bit breathless reading it.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant
Fascinating, rich book about the Borgias, particulary Lucrezia in the Italian city of Ferrara. Great stuff!

The Good Daughter – Karin Slaughter
I enjoy Karin Slaughter’s Grant County novels, but I also enjoy it when she goes off piste and writes about other characters. It doesn’t always work well – Coptown was a big disappointment – but The Good Daughter shows Slaughter at her very best. Sisters Charlotte and Samantha Quinn are torn apart both physically and emotionally by what happens one evening in their home. Almost 30 years later they are forced to confront the events of that night, their relationship with their father, and their relationship with each other, when there is a shooting at the local school. As always in Slaughter’s books, things aren’t quite what they appear.

This is a painful book. I found it very hard reading certain scenes, but that is because Slaughter writes so well. She pulls no punches, yet words everything gracefully and tenderly. I gobbled down this book and cannot wait for her next one.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
The emotional side of the book is actually a great deal more interesting than the thriller bit and would have worked perfectly well on its own right. Lehane is such a leader in his genre because of these touches, the care he takes over character history and emotion. I don’t know anyone else who does it so well.

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees
A fascinating study which answered many questions I’d had, thinking of a hopeful “no” as an answer, with  a damning “yes”.

Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes
Fascinating look at Victorian life, blood, guts, beards and all. I will never say “Sweet Fanny Adams” again!

Together by Julia Cohen
This is a book written backwards, with the most dramatic event in the story happening in the early few pages. I like this device, and it encourages the reader to carry on – to find out the WHY. I itched to discover the reason behind Robbie’s suicide and what happened in 1962 throughout the whole book. Cohen doesn’t tease her reader, but she develops her characters and story well, so when the denouement comes, you feel empathy rather than perhaps a more traditional response.

This is beautifully written and while it lost its pace occasionally (the modern family dynamics aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be, and the story stays more in the past than the present) I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also made me think about ethics, morals and all the stuff which appears so clear cut until we’re in these situations. I would recommend this author and read more of her work. While I’m not a big believer in ‘true love’, romance and all that, this book allowed me to suspend my disbelief for a few hours.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Gorgeous, rich, authentic story of two young soldiers during the Civil War.

All That Man Is by Dazid Szalay
Clever, inter-connecting stories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon
NOT a real memoir as I thought! Very convincing though. Michael learns about his past and that of his forebears during the last week of his grandfather’s life.

AVOID.

Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keaneally
This is a worthy book, and similar to Schindler’s List in that it tells of horrendous doings and one man’s attempt to change them, but it leaves the reader strangely unmoved. Perhaps the emotional distance kept by the narrator is what’s needed in this, but I found I was struggling to maintain my interest in the story, which is of a priest who coincidentally meets with several victims of an abusive priest and decides to try and help them bring the perpetrator to justice.

The most interesting thing in this book was the twisted justification used by two of the priests for their actions. Otherwise I, as a reader, felt so much at a distance that I was not drawn into the story at all, and the subject deserves better. A History of Loneliness by John Boyd deals with a similar subject in a much more engaging fashion and with the sensitivity it deserves without shying away from what happened.

Beyond The Wild River by Sarah Maine
On the surface, this is a a pretty interesting story: a young gamekeeper flees the country estate where he has been accused of two murders, and five years later comes face to face with the landowner (Ballantyre) and his daughter. Having said that, the plot meanders. It didn’t grip me and you can see the denouement coming early on. There are a few too many characters thrown into the mix, who aren’t fully developed, although that of Larsen, Ballantyre’s friend, was surprisingly intriguing. I would like to read more about him. The others were not particularly interesting and quickly forgotten.

The book has moments of fine writing, and the book isn’t a failure – it just isn’t one that will stick in my head, and I found myself in a hurry to finish it off. Tighter editing and pacing would help.

City of Masks by S D Spyres
The historical setting of the book is fascinating – Sykes has set Venice up beautifully, and as a lover of the city I really enjoyed the story from this perspective. The plot however is not as interesting, and a little flimsy – I am not doing spoilers, but I saw the denouement coming a mile off. The end was too nearly stitched together. However, the device of the hero’s melancholy is a clever one, and his references to previous crimes he has solved made me idly think about looking out for the two previous novels in the series.

All in all an OK read, but I will not break my neck to find more by this author.

The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont
An investigation into the Polish massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwadbne in 1941, denied by so many and buried for over 60 years. It was hard going to be honest. An important book, but not the most readable.

Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill
Oh dear. What a disappointment! Whimsical, drowsy, dull, obsessed with crows… the second Mrs de Winter loses any sympathy. What a letdown. This has put me off reading anything more by Susan Hill (which is silly) but I need to dive back into Rebecca again to rinse this dreadful sequel out of my brain.

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
Historian Olivia Sweetman, whose father discovered a new breed of dungbeetle, collaborates with awkward, brusque Vivien Tester on a historical book which is going to send her into orbit. All is not well in Olivia’s world though and only Vivien knows. A family holiday in France brings matters to a head. This was not a particularly interesting book, if I’m honest. This just didn’t surprise me enough; I wanted to be on the edge of my seat and I was quite comfortably in the middle of it.

On the plus side, I learned some really interesting things about beetles.

Mourning Helen

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I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Helen Dunmore earlier this week. The loss of one of my favourite wriiters haunts me: I can’t quite believe that there will never be another book from her.

I came across Helen Dunmore when I read Burning Bright aged about 16-17. The assured delicacy of the prose, when compared to its subject matter, jolted and intrigued me. Dunmore’s words were like a cool, clear glass of water on a hot day. Her stories of love, desire, danger, revenge and things done wrong pull you in as relentlessly as the tide in Zennor, the setting of her first book.

When I read of Dunmore’s illness a couple of months ago there was no confirmation that it was terminal. I put a reminder in my diary to send her a letter, wishing her strength and telling her how her writing had affected me. I sent this letter finally about three weeks ago and I really hope she got it, and knew what an impact she has had on me and on so many other readers.

If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness. Mourning Ruby is startling in its raw and paradoxically beautiful depiction of grief. The Lie, published during the centenary of World War 1, is gut-punchingly powerful. Burning Bright is sheer poetry. Your Blue Eyed Boy and Talking to the Dead are darker tales of people not always being quite as we’d like them to be.

She wrote this poem before her death. If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, this must tempt you into doing so.

Hold out your arms

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

 

I am still on the library waiting list for Birdcage Walk, her final book. When I get paid I’m going to stop waiting, and buy it. Right now I am going to start rereading the books I do have in all their elegant, searing, fine-boned beauty, and cry a little more.

Like riding a bike…

 

Schifanoia

Thanks to Ali Smith and her beautiful, intelligent, ground-breaking, startlingly simple complex How to be Both, I am in Ferrara. Somewhere I had never heard of before I read this book. When I saw Ali Smith at the Cheltenham Literary Festival she encouraged everyone to go to Ferrara and see the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos before they disappeared. That was the same night that she talked about how she had made herself ill by not writing, and that made me cry, and I went to get my copy of How to be Both signed by her, and I cried again in front of everyone explaining how she had spoken what was hidden deep in the reddest bits of my heart under yellow layers of visceral fat, and she came round from behind the desk and hugged me.

I wrote to her some months later thanking her for her kindness, and got a lovely note back. This evening  I wrote her a postcard tellng her she had brought me to Ferrara, to the frescoes, to the richest most beautiful art I have ever seen, and how I sat in a restaurant and started writing a book – and then stopped and started planning it. Something I haven’t really done before.

Travelling alone is exciting. Unnerving. Exhilarating. Freeing. Above all, it is a recipe for getting lost if you have my complete inability to read maps. It must be some sort of dyslexia with directions; I find them impossible to take in. I listen politely and my eyebrows raise in grateful comprehension but my eyes glaze over. Then the person goes on their way, pleased to have helped me, and I stay still, as lost as I ever was, but now raging at myself because of this failing. The “15 minute” walk to my hotel took an hour. Someone kindly asked me if I was lost and I blithely replied I was fine, smacking myself across the face with the hopeless map once he had gone on his way. I hauled my suitcase up and down cobbled streets, loathing everyone who was ambling or trotting or jogging or cycling because they all knew exactly where they were going.

The following day I set off to view the frescoes and I dressed carefully, as if I were going to an assignation with a lover (I imagine, having never had one. OK so I’ve had a couple of dates so I felt like I was going on a date: putting lipstick on, choosing a fitted shirt rather than the casual top I had originally flung on). It took me half an hour to walk there, and that delicious pre-date anticipation was with me as I climbed the stairs – stairs which led to a surprisingly small room, a room designed to ‘alleviate boredom’ (a translation of Schifanoia). Two walls of frescoes have been destroyed, and the beauty of those which remain emphasises this loss. They are simply extraordinary. The rich velvet blue of the background; the minute detail of a crowd of ducks; the vivid imagination which went into the designs; the utterly human faces. I greeted the full-lipped, androgynous beauty of Ali Smith’s Francesco/Francesca del Cossa like an old friend; a haughty looking youth whose snooty expression made me laugh out loud; I regarded the genial Bose with one eyebrow raised remembering Francesca’s view of him. I felt the heat of the furious Gemini twins as they wrestled with each other; I envied a benevolent woman her clear-eyed beauty. I could drink from these pictures all day, like Joni Mitchell’s “a case of you”.

But Ferrara has more to offer me. Reluctantly I drag myself away to explore further. The mellow-stoned city is so full of art, history, architecture, all to be enjoyed, that I feel as if I will burst from the desire to see it all.  I proceed from one place to another, not noticing how much my feet hurt, how much my poor knee has seized up, until I finally sit down in a cafe. Then I find it hard to stand up again. It’s cold; I am dressed for the sun which teased me for the first half hour of my walk and then hid itself for the rest of the day. I dive into a lingerie shop, ignoring the delicate lace bras and thongs made for women half my size, and pounce on a functional, utterly unsexy vest. Putting it on is delicious. I buy a cardigan too. Wearing both is of some comfort to my icy frame but my feet, in open-toe sandals, showing off my ‘hot chilli’ pedicure, cannot be comforted this way. As I get more and more lost, the whale-grey sky swells with rain, and bursts just when I am trying to decide whether to go left or right down a medieval cobbled street. I swear profusely and go straight on out of sheer pique. Ironically that turns out to be the right way.  I see the sign for my hotel and, trembling and soaked, burst through the door, gasping for a cup of tea in the life-or-death manner only the English can. The kettle provided is the slowest kettle IN THE WORLD and I am so cold I find it hard to hold the mug. I have a long, hot shower, feeling the strength return to my fingers and joints, but not my feet. I fill the bidet with warm water, balance precariously on the edge of the loo and soak my feet until they have thawed out. It’s the first time I have used a bidet. It’s probably the first time the bidet has been used as a foot spa, so a new experience for us both.

I take a bicycle into town to find somewhere to eat. I’ve found I am thinking too much – mainly about all the bad things I have ever done – and I have made a concerted effort to think about anything *but* myself. Characters have sprung into my head. A story has knocked on my door and is shyly peering around the frame, waiting for me to invite it in. I sit at a restaurant and write the opening pages – then stop, turn to the back of my nnotebook and start planning the story. I have never done this before and to give my story structure builds a little faith in it. I’ve tended to leave the story to my characters to tell, but that rarely works – the two books I wrote during my GCSEs were luck and also due to the fact that I wrote so much it was second nature to me. I didn’t have to work at it, then.   I’m out of practice now.

Riding a bike through Ferrara at first was frightening. I was scared of falling off (and of course I did, though fortunately not where anyone could see me). I was scared of being told off for going somewhere I shouldn’t. I was scared of colliding with someone who would insult me in rippling, florid words I couldn’t comprehend (probably just as well). But none of these things happened. Today I cycled nonstop and enjoyed it. I had forgotten how good it fels to have fresh air whorling into your ears. How quickly you can get somewhere. How if you go the wrong way you simply turn around and pedal quickly to find the right direction. I feel comfortable cycling now, although I haven’t done it in over 20 years. Writing is the same. I haven’t properly done it in so long. I’m rusty at it. In an article on writing I read, “You don’t do other things because you ae good at them. Swimming, running, drawing – you do these things because you enjoy them, not thinking whether you are good at them or not. Writing should be the same.” With that in mind, I have stopped writing thinking – does this work? Would people read this? Would someone publish it? – and have stopped thinking writing. I am merely doing. Like cycling, it takes practice. It’s nervewracking starting again, acknowledging the spiteful monkey whispering in your ear: you know that thing you did with no trouble at all when you were little? Well, you can’t do it anymore. You’ve lost the knack. You’re too old. It’s too late. But only by acknowledging that fear and attempting what you’re scared/longing to do will you find out if you are actually much, much better than you ever dreamed you could be.

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Hmm; not a bad title for a book.

The Pleasant Land of Counterpane

So my operation left me with a blissful amount of reading time. OK, so blissful isn’t exactly the word. Blissful is reading lying on white sand with the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean tickling your toes. I was mainly lying in bed or on the sofa wearing bed socks and a very bulky bandage. It does make you wonder what people do if they don’t read – not that I’ve ever stopped wondering this, really, nor had an answer to it. Especially those who spend hours on public transport, or are delayed in the doctor’s waiting room, or are laid up after what is described by medical types as major surgery.

Fortunately I don’t have to feel my brain liquefying and slipping out of my ears in viscous strands. My convalescent companions were the following:

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The Stories of Jane Gardham
I really enjoyed this collection. Some stories have supernatural overtones and others are deceptively simple snapshots of life. I’ve not heard of Jane Gardham before I read this anthology and it’s encouraged me to look out more of her work.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
I read this book in one sitting. It’s intense, and often beautifully written – the author does get a bit carried away with her similes and metaphors occasionally but this doesn’t mean her prose loses power. The book opens with Amber lying in a coma, convinced her husband put her there – and then her story unravels and nothing is as it first appears. I found Feeney was most believable when writing from the perspective of Amber in a coma – this was particularly well done.

The plot is not perfect, and there are several holes which I won’t spoil for would-be readers, but I enjoyed this book nonetheless. Alice Feeney is a fresh new talent and I look forward to reading her next work.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Certainly dated, but nonetheless visceral and enjoyable, this prickly little story about a marriage floundering after an affair makes you laugh even when your eyes blur with tears for Nora. What is poor is that someone has gone through the entire book and marked the pages containing recipes with “R”. Sacrilege! If you want to do this, buy your own copy; do not deface ones bought by a public library! A disgrace.

Holding by Graham Norton
Oh dear. I wanted to enjoy this. I really did.  I started it, disliked it, put it down and then returned to it. The plot was quite interesting – the unexpected discovery of a body uncovers the dark secrets of a village – but the characterisation poor and the behaviour of several protagonists bizarre to say the least. Graham is so wonderful on radio and TV, and his autobiographies are so full of life, perhaps it’s expecting too much of him to be a talented fiction writer as well. I’m not going to tag him in this. I love him too much.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter
For anyone who’s followed the Will Trent series, this is the latest instalment – and in this Angie, Will’s cruel, manipulative ex-wife comes into her own. I started to like her more, and to like the rather simpering, sickly Sara less. I also did not see the denouement coming at all – Slaughter excels in making her readers gawp.

A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century by Jerry White
A sprawling book which takes the subjects of politics, literature, sex, economy and racism amongst others to paint so vivid a picture of London you can smell the streets. A fabulous work, this never loses its pace.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
One or two of these did not sit right with me at all, but the others were indeed dark. I very much enjoyed this spooky little collection.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this, especially as I saw My Cousin Rachel performed in the theatre with Stephanie Beecham when I was 14, but in a way that’s not a bad thing because I think you have to read du Maurier with the slightly jaundiced eye of a grown up. I read it very differently to how I would have done 10 years ago, for example. A classic.

Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox
Not terribly interesting, nor terribly funny. Cat escapades are either entrancing or boring and this fell into the latter.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman
Hoorah for the latest in the Merrily Watkins series. Again another fat pudding of a book to relish curling up with, this focuses on ‘black’ or ‘dark’ Morris which is something I find particularly fascinating in a spine-chilling way.

We Are for the Dark by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I was thrilled to discover a friend is EJH’s grandson, and he very kindly lent me this as it’s impossible to get anywhere else. Not the best ghost stories I’ve read, but to be honest I was so excited to be reading it that the substance mattered less to me than it normally does.

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory
Not Gregory’s strongest, this focuses on Margaret, sister of Henry VIII. I’m not sure how much of it is based in historical truth; Margaret’s character tosses and turns like a sleepless bedfellow and I didn’t find it convincing.

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like this but I’m so glad a friend recommended it. Triss gradually recovers from a fever with strange after-effects. She’s hungry, but not for food; and her little sister is convinced that she’s “not the real Triss”. This is a fiercely original story meant for young adults (which I am sadly no longer!) but I very much enjoyed it.

The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Hmm. This wasn’t a brilliant book and to be honest I think she was lucky to get it published as it’s not terribly interesting. 😦 The good news is that she got better from hereon in!

If anyone rich is reading this, please please would you consider buying me this chair. Or one of these? http://womandot.com/2014-11-18/creative-book-chairs

I can’t think of anything lovelier than sitting in the lap of a whole heap of books.

Bedpan Humour

I’ve been in hospital for 5 days and sitting on my backside for 4 weeks. This has not been easy for me. I twitch unless I am doing at least two things at any one time as I fear Something Bad will happen due to my sloth. But once I recovered20170112_134705 from the anaesthetic, which felt like a really dirty Bank Holiday weekend with Morpheus, and learned to handle the fact my knee joints feel like horrendously short elastic bands on fire, I did a lot of reading. And a lot of thinking. The first was good (mainly). The second was bad (mainly). ‘Twas ever thus.

So for the record, here is what I have been reading:

The Victorians by A N Wilson saw me through the first few days when I was entangled in a cats’ cradle of sleep and pain. I doubt I did the book justice.

Himself (Jess Kidd) was an odd little thing, about a man returning to a village where his mother disappeared.

Die of Shame is Mark Billingham’s latest, about people undergoing therapy – though if you’re reading the post in 40 years then you will consider it one of his earlier works. What an odd thought. Will this blog still exist in 40 years? Will the internet still be around? Think of how may amazing letters, journals and notebooks we uncover from many centuries ago. What will we, our generation, have to offer historians of the future? Emails in draft form? Fake News and Facebook posts? Has history finished?

Blimey. Went on a bit then. Where was I. Yes. Die of Shame. Mark on sparkling form again, with an ending as satisfying as scraping up the crispy bits that stick to the bottom of the Yorkshire Pudding pan.

Saturday Requiem, the latest Frieda Klein book by Nicci French, and the first time I actually like Frieda. Which is a shame seeing as if the series follows chronology the next book will be the last about her.

The Haunted Library, a collection of ghost stories by Tanya Kirk. Wonderful gothic stuff – obviously ghost stories set in libraries, but apart from The Tractate Middoth (the MR James classic) I’d not read any of them. This was a real gem.

My Story by Jo Malone. An interesting autobiography and particularly pleasurable for anyone who feels fragrance is a vital part of life. I do – my quest to find a replacement for Dune by Dior (the new formulation is a bland shadow of the rich, salty 1990s version) has been going on for about 7 years and I still haven’t found the new Me.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer. An easy to read, sinister thriller. I liked this, so much so that I ordered Dark Side from the library immediately afterwards.

A Life in Questions, Jeremy Paxman’s autobiography. Oh, how I loved this! It was like going out to dinner with Jeremy and ordering a twice-baked cheese souffle, fillet steak in peppercorn sauce with fries and chocolate mousse, all washed down with very fine red wine. It made me howl with laughter, but also made me think. I stored up some of the more pertinent sentences to use in conversation and make myself sound intelligent. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of them now but it is the perfect excuse to read it again.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Quite good, but not something which I would rave about. I will still read the others in the trilogy then. And yes before someone gets smart I know she’s not really called Elena Ferrante but that’s what she wants to be called, so she can bloody well stay Elena Ferrante.

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years is a different reading of Elizabeth I by John Guy. The strong, sharp-tongued Gloriana we have come to adore throughout history is not completely disassembled in this telling of her life, but the myths built around her as tall as one of her collars melt away to reveal someone utterly human. In fairness, you couldn’t be a child of Henry VIII and expect to come through life completely unscathed. Fascinating stuff.

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadya Hussein – only it’s not by Nadya Hussein, she of Bake Off fame. It was ghost-written apparently. An average story; interesting to learn about Bangladeshi customs and ways of living, but not something which will stay with me unlike the taste of one of her cakes.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths. This is apparently the latest in a popular detective series. Popular why I’m not sure as the book wasn’t particularly well written, and as a crime story it was pretty dull. There were holes in the plot (cannibals? is all I will say about that) and the end of the book was supposed to make you want to read the next one. It has just made me more determined not to – but I’m funny about things like that. No spoilers in this post! Move along, nothing to see here! But anyone who has read it will know what I mean.

A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant. Incredible that I knew so little about epilepsy, and yet the first time I was introduced to it was aged 11 when we read Julius Caesar and the poor sod “fell foaming at the mouth”.

The Collected Stories of E F Benson  – fabulous ghost stories, like M R James but just a bit nastier. There were a lot of them though.

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola. A historical crime story based on TruFac – the murder of  a young woman whose body turns up in various odd places around London. I enjoyed this because the author built up very genuine characters and didn’t embellish the facts too much, but still created a bloody readable book. I will look out for more from this name.

The Matrix by Jonathan Aycliffe. I do enjoy this chap and his spooky little stories. This one is about finding a way to bring the dead back to life.

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier (and other stories). Why has it taken me so long to read the story upon which one of my favourite films is based? Oh I loved these short stories. Each with a sting in the tale as delicious and sharp as sherbert.

The Binding Song by Elodie Harper. A story about a psychologist investigating several suicides in a prison. Not perfect, but intriguing. The story lost its way towards the end, but it was spooky and brutal enough for me to read more by the author.

Her by Harriet Lane. This built up beautifully, although blimey doesn’t the writer like describing EVERYTHING…. and then the denouement (that is before the actual denouement – when you find out why Nina is so full of loathing for Emma) is really disappointing. The ending of the book though has stayed with me. I keep thinking about, wondering if what I imagine happened next really did, and what was in the author’s head. That is the sign of a good book; like you can forget the disappointing egg mayonnaise in the middle of a sandwich if the last crust is really chewy and tasty.

That was the reading. Now for the thinking.

Two weeks ago I used a bedpan for the first time EVER. Even when I had my appendix removed I didn’t get to use one – the nurse brought me a commode and I had a meltdown when a boy in the next cubicle peeked through the curtains at me. I was naked (why, I don’t know.) I was 9 – they don’t care about segregating you by gender when you’re little. This time I was in my own suite at the private hospital. I got to choose food from a menu and my sheets were changed on a daily basis, whether they needed it or not. 

The evening of the operation, I  wake up at about 1830. I’m cold, so cold. The nurses are talking to me and they lift my sheet up and blast me with a massive hairdryer which is the best feeling I have ever had IN THE WORLD because it makes me warm instantly. I go back to sleep. I wake up again this time in bed. The hairdryer has been turned off and two white pads pummel my calves. They are attached to the bottom of the bed. I’m pinned to the top by oxygen to my right and fluid to my left. It’s like a pleasant version of Misery. 

Come midnight I need a wee. Really, really need a wee. I can’t move – even lifting my hand to have my blood pressure checked is such hard work the nurse has to do it for me – so she says she will fetch a bedpan. The thought makes me go cold, remembering episodes of Casualty where the patient has an icy stainless steel pot slipped under their hips. But this one is cardboard and environmentally friendly. She pulls back the sheets and expresses surprise that I am still in my “knick knacks”. Not for long! With one deft tug she sees more of me than anyone has in seven years. The bedpan is slipped efficiently in place and I am left alone relaxing with my thoughts. 

I

literally 

can’t 

go.

I am stranded on my bed in a half-bridge position like a desperate whale. When I was very little I had bed-wetting problems. And when I was not quite so little, if I’m honest. (I mean aged 10-11, not last year.) The horror of that I’m-on-the-loo dream and waking up to find out you’re really, really not has never left me. Now I’m entitled to pee in the bed, nay, encouraged, and I simply cannot. My manners and upbringing refuse to give me the release I need. 

The nurse, Rosa, comes in. She is foreign – that is all I remember in my sedated state – with very tight shiny brown curls and a glossy pink mouth like an exotic flower. She mumbles something kind at me. I drool something back. She goes away. Twenty minutes later she comes back. She mumbles something again and I bleat my distress at her. “It will come, it will come,” she says phlegmatically, as if predicting the arrival of the second Messiah. 

An hour later – I even fell asleep in that position, like a cat – she comes back in, slips into the bathroom and subtly runs the tap. That does the trick. Boy, the trick is done. “Heavens, you can pee,” she says, visibly impressed, as she staggers out of the door under the weight of my bladder. Please God, I pray, don’t let her bump into the fit anaesthetist on her way out (he really was very handsome, the kind of man they don’t make any more, like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart) – and please God don’t let her TRIP.

Hmmm.

I don’t think I want you to know the things I have been thinking about … and I don’t think you would like to know them, either. So I will leave it there.

Next time I write a blog post I promise I won’t have a glass of wine beforehand. Yes, that really is all it takes…