Island in the Sun


IMG_3662This summer I realised I am now older than Jesus, and have achieved not 1/1000000 of what He did while on Earth. I don’t expect to have redeemed the world of all its sins – I am not a saint and moreover there are some people I’d like to redeem a lot more than others, which is not how the Son (or Daughter) of God would think, all men being equal, etc., etc. But I did feel my stomach hitting my toes when I realised I’m 5 years off 40 and not much has changed since I first stepped onto the island of Hydra twenty years ago.

I can still remember the dusty hours spent packing T-shirts in the garage to save up for the flight. Didy’s hedgehog-bright eyes picking me out of the crowd at the airport. The heat of Athens smacking me playfully in the face. The smooth stones beneath my feet, silky and hot with a million days of sun. I filled an entire notebook with the magic of those two weeks: the yacht decked with thousands of lights, like a fairy ship, coming into the port the first evening; the rhythmic chirrup of cicadas; the sweaty pulse of the nightclub at the very top of the hill; the heady scent of an unknown flower I found in a bath oil several months later which made my eyes fill with longing. Twenty years later the island’s Siren song is as powerful as ever. Hydra untangles my knotted stomach, cradles me in its stony embrace, and sends me to sleep, heavy as a ship resting on the seabed.

I don’t do a lot in Greece, which means of course plenty of reading time.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
A fabulous book about French Revolution. I’ll need to re-read it though as it was in the first couple of days of my holiday and I kept falling asleep in the middle of it. It’s in turn amusing, heart-breaking and horrifying, but always fascinating.

Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes
She of Into the Darkest Corner, which is one of the most disturbing books I had read over the last few years. This was better than her subsequent books; chilling, sexy and unnerving.

Curfew by Lucy M Boston
These are really, really spooky stories. Fantastic. I got goose-pimples on the beach reading them; the titular tale made me feel quite sick, in a good way. Get your copy from Robert Lloyd Parry who reads the scariest tales aloud. Honestly, if you have a liking for ghost stories and Curfew is not on your bookshelf, this needs remedying.

The Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young
This book never seems entirely sure of itself, but it is an original and unflinching look at the recovery of two couples, both mental and physical, from WW1. Louisa Young also wrote My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, which I read a couple of years ago. I like her unique approach to the well-trod literary path of the Great War.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Oskar, the narrator of this book, made me want to wallop him with a wet fish. Which is pretty nasty of me considering he’s a little boy whose father died on 9/11. But these thoughts I tend to keep to myself (or, er, publish online for all to see). Anyway, fortunately the people Oskar meets in his search for an answer to his father’s riddle do not want to wallop him. Whether you share my fish-fantasy or not, this is a painful book to read, which is a compliment, as I was wincing reading the final pages.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland
Hoorah! Maitland back on form – spooky, mysterious and great fun. This is a story of witchcraft, romance and intrigue set during the Peasants’ Revolt. As always Maitland weaves a fascinating tale with great historical accuracy and I thoroughly enjoyed this, having been a little disappointed by her books following the excellent Company of Liars.

Beyond the Silence by Andrew Chapman
A quite good book about Van Gogh’s last doctor and the village in which he practised. It was interesting, but the writing felt a bit clunky in places. I think it must have been self-published. Which I don’t mean as an insult, but you know sometimes you can tell…? Anyway it was an original and interesting story.

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
This woman doesn’t put a foot wrong and Carthage is another triumph, a journey through PTSD, mental illness, recovery from violence and forgiveness.

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera
Three generations of an Asian family in a corner shop tell out their tale in a story which is by turns amusing, touching and unsettling. I REALLY enjoyed this and it made me laugh out loud twice, which is always a good sign.

The May Bride by Susannah Dunn
I’ve sung Dunn’s praises before – I consider her writing more delicate and complex than the commercially popular Philippa Gregory – and she hasn’t disappointed with this, her latest, a captivating story about the Seymour family pre-Jane-marrying-Henry-VIII.

I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan
This made me do real life LOLs on the beach which was a bit embarrassing. Apparently the audio version, read by Alan himself, is even better and I can believe it. An absolute must for Partridge fans, or anyone who needs cheering up – someone who’s had a crap day, who’s stubbed their toe, who’s coming back from a funeral (perhaps not that of a well-loved friend or relative).

The Children’s Book by A S Byatt
This is a fabulous rich tapestry of fairytales and history. I need to re-read it already, but my copy fell apart. One of the best books I’ve read in ages, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Christine by Stephen King
I hadn’t read this since I was about 11. It’s more sinister, disturbing, and heart-rending than I remembered. I guess that’s because first time round I read most of it with my fingers over my eyes. Where does this guy get his ideas from? He’s unparalleled.

Three and a Half Deaths, Landing and Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
I love this author because when I was younger I was told by an agent you can only ever have one writing style if you’re going to be successful. This gutted me as my three books I had going at the time – Water Sign, A Makeless Maiden and my ghost stories – were all totally different and it depended how I felt as to which one I worked on. Emma Donoghue proves him wrong. Three and a Half Deaths are haunting stories which do just what they say on the tin; Kissing the Witch is a collection of delicately woven fairytales in the vein of Angela Carter or Michele Roberts; Landing is a contemporary love story which didn’t end at all as I expected it to.

Tommy at War by John Sadler
I may have got a bit of WW1-fatigue, but this book, containing excerpts from soldiers’ letters and diaries, didn’t grip me as others have. I felt it was written in a slightly disjointed fashion and while the primary sources never lose their impact, the book didn’t hang together very well.

I think that’s it. The links have been given to http://www.bookmail.co.uk – if I couldn’t link there then you will have to do your own digging. And if there’s not one book on this page which appeals, this is not the blog for you!

(But, er, please don’t stop reading… you never know what might come up next time…)

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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.

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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:

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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.