Peace in my time


Glastonbury Tor – for N
Taken by Lynne Newton (see link)

“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
(Ophelia – Hamlet)

Last night I took out my recycling without gloves, and very briefly experienced what it was like to be in the siege of Leningrad. (Really briefly). My hands were so cold they hurt, and I gave a yelp like a dog when you’ve stepped on its tail. (Then I ran back into my flat, sat next to the radiator and put on my Uggs. So – incredibly briefly.)

All of a sudden winter is upon us; the hot, syrupy days of summer are forgotten in blasts of icy air, trees spangled with frost and early morning fog winding its way over the hill. In my new flat I can look out over my neighbours’ gardens and watch as Jack Frost ices their allotments with sugar. I enjoy winter; I do think one ought to make an effort to, seeing as it will come whether you like it or not. So rather than moan about night coming early, look up at the stars which you can often see more clearly at this time of year. You don’t need to turn on all your lights, put on a couple of candles and scry, if you fancy it. No you can’t pop down the shops in your shorts, but surely that’s a great excuse to invest in something warm and snuggly – a chunky cardigan, a onesie if you must, or a maybe a cat. For me the first pleasure of autumn is filling a hot water bottle and curling it around my feet like a little animal. (Yes, I am easily satisfied.)

I am thinking about, and looking for, peace. Two weekends ago I was at my grandparents’ house (I can’t ever just reduce it to the singular) curled up reading after a day walking at Dunwich and visiting the fascinating, and aptly named, Visitors’ Centre at RSPB Minsmere. The TV was off. We were all reading to the gentle pace of the grandfather clock which has ticked since the 1920s. That was peace.

Peace, too, in my attempt to have early(ish) nights; in the evening I listened to a radio re-enactment of JFK’s assassination for three hours with the lights down low and a blanket over my knees; peace in putting aside time to do nothing (or almost nothing), which I don’t tend to do, as I race through life with my foot on the accelerator and my face distorted into a rictus grin by G-forces.

Peace for myself, when others lack it. A close friend died last week after many years of difficulty and depression. Dogged I might be by my own immature demons (who isn’t?) but I am fortunate enough never to have reached that level of despair; to be able to confess to anyone who asks that (touch wood) I have a pretty fantastic life. The cold winter sun burns a little dimmer today because one less good person is underneath it. I’m tongue-tied and dry-eyed, but my hands and mind have bypassed the rest of me and I’ve written a poem for N which the family have asked me to read at the funeral. A huge honour and one I hope I will be worthy of. When I’m ‘presenting’ or ‘performing’ I am not myself but someone quite different, someone who is capable of doing all the things the normal wouldbegood would not dream of.

You can pretend to be someone else or imagine being someone else, but you are never really someone else.

This brings me very neatly to The Woman in Black: Angel of Death which based on an idea by Susan Hill, but written by someone quite entirely, Martyn Waites. Unfortunately, it really shows. There’s none of Hill’s gentle menace, although the concept – children evacuated to Eel Marsh House during the war – is a clever one. As the sequel to the Woman in Black film comes up I think this book was written after the film, rather than before, as it reads clunkily like a film tie-in. I was looking forward to reading it the way one picks the last Revel out of the bag, salivating, and it turns out to be one of the sodding coffee ones.

(By the way, any links on here I will put to, the little independent trader trying to battle against Amazon. If they don’t have what I write about, I’ll leave it to you to get it out of the library.)

Not so with Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining. King did not let us down – the dialogue he does so well, the wild and yet so familiar imagination, the well-drawn characters and tight plot were all there. But the ending was not expected, and I mean this positively. I shall say no more, beyond anyone who wondered how Daniel Torrance of RedRum fame grew up will not regret it. (And for those who loved The Shining but hated Kubrick’s film – which owed very little to the novel – I suggest you rent The Shining mini-series which was written and produced by King and is basically the story of the book. I loved both equally, as can only one who enjoys being scared.)

I also read The Great Gatsby. Which was not bad, and rather sad but I didn’t really get what was “great” about Gatsby. I won’t ruin the end for Gatsby-virgins, but I thought he could have shown a bit more backbone.

Sandcastle Girls by Christopher Bohjalian, about the genocide of the Armenians. Like all his books, it’s beautifully and delicately written, and suddenly he pops in a detail which makes your stomach tighten and your throat close. Which is why his writing is so addictive.

Unseen by Karin Slaughter. Another story from one of my favourite crime writers, and another with an unexpected ending. That’s all I’m saying!

Burning Air by Erin Kelly. Oof, it says quite a bit that when I wrote those words I couldn’t remember what it was about – but when I did it reminded me it was actually a bloody good story. Hell hath no fury like a teenager scorned, and this particular teenager wreaks havoc on a family culminating in the disappearance of a baby. I enjoy Kelly’s stories; she has a streak of original unpleasantness running through her writing (and by that I mean original unpleasant characters, I’m sure she’s ever such a good sort) which I like to bite into.

The Hive – Gill Hornsby. Not my kind of thing at all. Sorry. It felt rather full of forced jollity and two-dimensional characters.

Squatting by my pillow like the toad in Paradise Lost (but a nicer version than, er, Satan) is the new Phil Rickman, The Magus of Hay. I intend to settle down with this this weekend and if someone tries to make me be sociable or do something else I will be very cross. I missed NaNoWriMo because I got swept up in my reading but I am determined to do at least half an hour a day writing something. Like my knee exercises, which I always find time to do even if I am knackered. The same should be with my brain. I’ve recently joined the Shakespeare Society which has been running in my town since the 1920s. I am the youngest there by approx. 30 years, but I love it. We sit around drinking tea, reading the plays aloud and discussing them. Tonight was Hamlet; its text twists and torments like a frantic snake, something you don’t get when you just read it to yourself in the bath, or even when you see it performed as you’re distracted by the action. Good old Shakespeare. That play is anything but peaceful, but I think I’ll sleep well tonight.


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.

A Catfish in the Kalahari?


How pissed off would you be to be a giraffe and still have to stand on tiptoe?

Good evening, Gentle Reader. I am of course watching David Attenborough’s Africa, and loving it quite immensely. Not just because Attenborough is one my most favourite men ever, because everything is quite alright at the moment. I’m not saying it’s perfect, Gods of Fate, if you’re listening, so you needn’t accuse me of complacency – but it’s just nice.

Let me tell you about the oddest thing that happened to me this week which has made me extraordinarily happy. The story starts when I am approximately 3 years old, playing in my grandparents’ garden. When my mum’s at work this is where I spend most of my time. It’s in Ye Olde Days, which means that summer is hot, fiercely hot, grass-scorchingly hot, and I’m doing something with the dog, dressing her up in Great Auntie Min’s shawl I suspect. My gran is in the kitchen, probably bashing a crab with a mallet or putting clothes through the mangle (yes it was a while ago) and she has Radio 4 playing. I half-listen to it and then my ears prick up because the story is about a little girl who goes missing, and her name is Christine – which is my mum’s name.

The shawl slips off the dog. I stop paying attention. Even at this age I’ve got an interest in the unusual and the spooky and I creep closer to the kitchen window so I’m standing on the patio, right underneath it. The story ends with the little girl never being found, and the odd involvement of a boy named Harry. The last lines are “And that name. Harry.”

It frightens me, and fear is something I’ve not yet learned to rationalise or contain. I struggle with my cold prickling dread for a while, but eventually it overwhelms me. I burst into tears and run inside to tell my gran that I’m frightened that my mum will be kidnapped by this ‘Harry’ because her name is Christine, too.

The best thing to do when something frightens you, no matter how old you are, is to tell someone Grown Up so they can put their arms around you, press your tear-stained face into their flour-dusted apron and tell you everything is just fine.

That story stays with me. Every so often I try to track it down. I spend a lot of time ordering old copies of the ghost story collections I remember from primary school in case it’s in there. With the advent of the internet I log on forums to ask if anyone knows the story, and google the lines to no avail. I did this as recently as Christmas 2012. My fascination with the story and longing to know what ‘Harry’ did has never abated.

Last week I decided to treat myself to a few things on my Amazon wishlist, and I got Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories which had been on my list for about 4 years. When it arrived I idly flicked through it to get an idea of what was in it; and it opened on the last page of a story called ‘Harry’. There was the final line:

And that name. Harry. Such an ordinary name!

I couldn’t believe it. I looked frantically to the story’s beginning and yes, there’s Christine, a little girl with red hair. I’d found the story I have spent nigh on 29 years looking for and it is far more spine-chilling and dark than I’d remembered. The anthology in itself is a masterpiece; Dahl says in the introduction that he thinks he has chosen the best ghost stories ever, having read about a billion, and I don’t think he’s far wrong. I’d like to see If She Bends, She Breaks by John Gordon or The Shadow-Cage by Philippa Pearce in there (as a starter) but each story in there is a real gem and I encourage anyone who enjoys being spooked to have a look.

SO. What else have I been reading, I hear you cry?

The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur – Jean Claude Ellena
I ought to start this review by saying I am a bit of a perfume fanatic (Jean Claude Ellena created my favourite ever scent L’eau d’Hiver) so it might not interest those who aren’t. The book explains the origins of some very popular scents and how synthetic fragrances are built from certain elements. I’d never really thought before about the complexities of creating a new perfume, and how long it takes: not just the fragrance itself, but the bottle, the name, the advertising. Ellena says something about how the advert makes you want to be the woman in the perfume and only the fragrance itself should make you want to wear it (I haven’t got my copy to hand so forgive me if I misquote that line) and the history of fragrance is also touched upon.

“Touched upon” sums the book up really: there’s nothing deep about it, and it’s a little thin. I suppose it is as hard to pin down the beauty of fragrance, just as hard as it is to pin down the beauty of music without experiencing it, so perhaps the best thing to do is read the book and sniff some of the perfumes Ellena writes about when you next pop into DutyFree, letting one element complement the other.

The Sick Rose – Erin Kelly
Oh rose, thou art sick! And Kelly, thou art good. If you enjoyed The Poison Tree on TV, get the book by Erin Kelly out. It’s about a billion times better than the TV series based on it and Kelly just gets better in The Sick Rose, the story of two very damaged people coming together. This book reminded me of Barbara Vine which is about as high an accolade as you can get (from me).

A Christmas Carol (on Christmas Eve!)
Of course.

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton – Diane Atkinson
Mr Norton decided to sue the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, over his alleged adultery with the aforementioned Mrs Norton. Caroline Norton, nee Sheridan, turns out to be one of the first feminists, fighting her husband and the law to get her children back. A devastating book and a story which should be much better known than it was.

Still Standing – Paul O’Grady
Paul O’Grady’s autobiographies are laugh-out-loud funny and this one, about the birth of Lily Savage, is no exception. I’d really like to go out for dinner with Paul who I think is fabulous, followed by a nice cup of a tea in a pub somewhere. So Paul, if you’re reading, drop me a line.

A Possible Life – Sebastian Faulks
This is more a collection of short stories which have very slight interlocking elements. Some of them are better than others. The story of a POW during World War II is very disturbing; another, set in the near future, is not so gripping. But it was a gripping read nonetheless.

I am not going to link to these books as I feel a bit embarrassed that I didn’t finish either of them – Swimming Home by Debra Levy, which was just rather dull, and Not Me, by Joachim Fest, about a childhood in Nazi Germany which wasn’t very interesting either. I am sure that this reflects worse on me than it does on the authors. So I moved on to

The Prince of Mist – Carlos Ruz Zafon
This is a really unusual and beautiful book. It’s written for young adults but I am a not-so-young-adult and was captivated by this sinister story of magic and the supernatural. It’s set during World War II when a family move into an old house and discover some disturbing old films.

Into That Darkness – Gitta Sereny
This was the story of Franz Stangel, who started working on the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme and then became commander of one of the four extermination camps. It’s written as a study on human behaviour rather than the Holocaust and, as with all Sereny’s work, is carefully observed and written to examine rather than to shock. By the end of it though I had made a decision – no more dark books for a while. I felt ill and unhappy. I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around the dreadful things people are capable of no matter how much I read or attempt to understand – so, after finishing it, I ‘cleansed my literary pallette’ with dear Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody.

I then went onto

The Origins of Sex – Farmerz Dabhoiwala
No it’s not Adam, Eve and the snake who went places he shouldn’t. It’s about the sexual revolution, enlightenment, and so on. How we went from being madly prudish to madly relaxed and then the other way around and where we are now. It’s historically very interesting and most amusing without being obscene.

One on One – Craig Brown
Craig Brown has taken small incidents in history – meetings between famous people like Rodin, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Hitler, Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and others – and written entertaining little stories around them. He’s obviously done a huge amount of research and it pays off. This is the kind of book you might find in someone’s loo. I mean that as a compliment, incidentally. The loo would have a warm mahogany seat and carpet; the kind of bathroom where you decide to spend the afternoon because you don’t really want to join everyone else making polite conversation in the sitting-room.

Anyway. The Kalahari has a great lake in it and in the middle of it, in the pitch black, are blind catfish, swimming around, hoping that something might fall in the lake by mistake so they can eat it. What a way to live. Also, giraffes (giraves?) have to stand on tip-toe sometimes. What’s the point of having a long neck if it isn’t long enough? Sometimes I’m glad I don’t live in the Kalahari. Quite a lot of the time, actually, come to think of it.

Oh by the way – that story, Harry, was by Rosemary Timperley, and now I know what it’s called it’s bloody everywhere. It’s in about sixteen different languages. Someone is reading it on Youtube in Swahili.