Funny how things change…

How you know when you’ve grown up? At one time you rip apart a spider’s web to rescue a struggling fly. Now, you actively coax flies towards the sticky strands.

Drinking tea in the garden reminds me of an almost unbearably hot week in Malta, with three friends as close to me as sisters. The white marble of the stairs, the geckos darting like tiny arrows between cracks in the paving, swinging on a chair slightly peeling paint. No matter how hot it is, one always needs a cup of tea. Malta was where the main blog picture was taken. All we did is lie around in very little clothing reading. That’s what I did again today, an it’s something I ought to do more often because I am very, very good at it.

I’ve had a difficult time with my neighbour. Apart from him being raided by the drug squad (“for cannabis wot was smoked by people next door” he claims) he has taken to coming in at approx 0330 every morning and banging something, just once, but something so heavy and tonal that it inevitably wakes me up. The weather today is so sticky and close that it took me ages to get back to sleep and moreover it interrupted a dream in which I was snogging someone – the first time since SEPTEMBER, dream or real. To get my own back, I hoovered deliberately and repeatedly over his head this morning. Oh to not have neighbours! Or, preferably, to have neighbours, but nice normal ones. Has Ramsey Street written cheques real-life can’t cash?

At least I don’t live in Providence Estate, the tenants of whom I’ve been reading about. (Yes don’t worry I haven’t drifted off on a sea of my own drivel and forgotten what the whole point of this blog is about). The People of Providence is  a collection of interviews the author undertook over a 5 year period in the early-mid 1980s, from a wide variety of tenants. It’s fascinating, and I’d love to read something similar which has been done more recently; if anyone knows of anything let me know. I’m still waiting for someone to respond to one of these things…

In Search of William Shakespeare was FASCINATING. I wanted to devour it all at once like a roast dinner and found myself staying up late to read it. Fact fans: if you want to sleep better, go to bed a bit earlier, and read before you go to sleep, rather than dashing around doing the ironing at half past eleven in front of the TV, jumping into bed, reading 2 sentences and then letting your heavy eyes close before you wake up in the wee sma’s and can’t sleep for ages (noisy neighbour or none). Anyway. It’s about Shakespeare’s life and politics and where his plays fitted in, the myths and conspiracy theories about him, and what was going on around him at the time of his writing. Brilliant stuff, in one of those lovely glossy books with proper illustrations that we don’t see so much anymore.

June has come and gone and with it a very happy wedding in Greece, which was a real treat. It allowed me to dip my toes into the pool of utter relaxation without getting my ankles wet. The island of H – I’m not going to say where it is as there were far too many British tourists there last year! – is the place where I feel most happiest and most at peace. I’ve gone out there for several years thanks to my friend who has a house there, and it’s witnessed several stages in my growing up (sadly not much more growing up has happened of late, more simple deterioration). In fact it’s where I had the idea for this blog last year.

I also read Family Secrets: Living With Shame From the Victorians to the Present Day. It is perhaps fair enough to say we don’t have such a thing as ‘shame’ anymore, when our private bodily functions, dysfunctional families and everything we’ve ever done wrong are trotted out for public consumption on TV and in endless autobiographies of people who really haven’t done enough to fill a book. But how our ancestors dealt with private problems and disasters makes an interesting read, though three quarters of the way through the book I found myself thinking “Enough… move on.” Like one of those all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets; sounds nice at the time, but you can eat a lot less than you think you can.

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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.

ooh

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:

peanuts

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.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….

I have meant to write this post for about two weeks. But I’ve been wrapping presents, baking odd-looking biscuits, partaying at carol concerts (including The Messiah), making pomanders, cleaning, and buying new gerbils. I have to schedule in ‘relax’ in my diary alongside my hair appointment and delivering a Christmas card to the bloke down the road – I don’t know him, but he puts up the prettiest little Father Christmas lights in his tree every Christmas. It look forward to seeing them, and when I do I know Christmas is on its way, so I wanted to say thank you for that. He might think I’m a bit peculiar, but I won’t put my address on it so he won’t be able to alert the police.

This little guy came from a mountain somewhere in Scotland when he was but a sapling and grows happily in my parents' garden all year before coming to stay with me for the festive period.

This little guy came from a mountain somewhere in Scotland when he was but a sapling and grows happily in my parents’ garden all year before coming to stay with me for the festive period.

I don’t quite know how it’s happened but a few days ago I was getting on a plane to Greece (July to be exact). And suddenly 2012 is in its dotage once again. I was talking about it with a friend, who said that time does go quicker when you get older, but I also think we have so much more to DO in our lives nowadays. I’ve just read a wonderful book – which details how Victorian women passed their time (sewing, cutting up bits of paper, printing things, calling on people). More about that in due course – but think how much more we have to occupy ourselves with. Gyms, book clubs, TV, computer gaming, surfing the net, emailing, charity work, second/third jobs, shopping, and all the rest of it – we fill our days so it is inevitable that you blink and hours have passed. It reminds me of the poem Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox –

What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?

I intend to ‘stand and stare’ (and not just at Father Christmas tree-lights) a bit more in future. That, together with not going into my overdraft, is my resolution for 2013.

SO. I will post about Christmas in a bit because I want to devote a whole post to the delicious time, and I want to recommend some reading especially for Christmas too. But I’ve read some great books recently and wanted to share them with you. I love the fact that people (well, two) mention that they’re going to try books I blog about, or add them to their Kindles. I am doing links to books where I can to Waterstone’s (note the apostrophe!) rather than Amazon now but I would recommend trying secondhand bookshops or independent stores when you can, as they are few and far between and need protecting. I am also going to do more of this in 2013.

So! Here is what I have read in the last almost-month for those of you who fancy trying something new:

The Heresy of Dr Dee by Phil Rickman
I ADORE Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins stories, and his lesser known earlier novels including December, Candlenight and The Man in the Moss. This is his second novel about John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s ‘wise man’, and it’s another fascinating read. Rickman’s stories are human and believable with a supernatural edge which sends a shiver down the most cynical spine. The story is set shortly after the death of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley who was in love with Queen Elizabeth 1 (it is believed she reciprocated his feelings). Amy’s death was never fully explained and Dudley was heavily under suspicion of causing it. Dee and Dudley set off for the dark borders of Wales to try and discover a scrying globe. (Scrying is the ancient art of seeing phantoms or spirits in a mirror in the shadows cast by candlelight or similar. Don’t try it alone!)

Rickman has researched his tale accurately and his characters are believable, modern-day humans amongst a perfect historical back-drop. I really hope he continues with the Dee series as well as the Merrily books. Check out The Bones of Avalon which is his first Dee book and he also wrote under the name Will Kingdom.

The Waiting Room – F G Cottam
This is a ghost story about a haunted waiting-room and is bloody sinister – though I felt somewhat cheated by the end as it was a bit ‘meh’ to use yoof-speak. It went rather melodramatic. Those who’ve read it will know what I mean but I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t. I do recommend you try it as it’s a good old-fashioned ghost story, but the ending did make me feel a bit like Piglet’s balloon.

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro
A fascinating glimpse into Shakespeare’s life, and his world, and what was going on at around the time that he wrote some of his most famous plays. Recommended not just for fans of the playwright but also anyone with an interest in Elizabethan history.

The Victorian House – Judith Flanders
I started this book and felt bored for about the first 4 pages – then it leapt into life and I couldn’t put it down. Flanders takes each room in a Victorian house and uses it as an anchor for which to describe in fascinating detail Victorian lives: food, costume, etiquettes, pastimes, sanitation, illness, beliefs, streets, etc. I had already read one by her about murder in Victorian Britain but this one made me hop to my library and order all her other titles. I really can’t rate it highly enough, not just for someone interested in the Victorian period but it was just absolutely fascinating and so beautifully written. I think Flanders may be quite unique in her method of telling the facts of the past in such readable and enthralling fashion.

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson
This is a story about the Pendle ‘witches’ and it comes from an unusual approach in that the characters accused of witchcraft are not as innocent as history may tell us. I felt very odd reading this book knowing that whatever the truth about the crimes they were accused of, the characters Winterson writes about genuinely went through the torments and tortures that she describes. Odd and very sad. aside from that it’s a spell-binding (sorry) story, very well written (not that that should surprise you from Winterson!).

Sweet Heart – Peter James
I made a note in my diary that this was “a rather superior thriller” but to my shame I couldn’t actually remember anything about it, which says rather a lot. The story of a woman who moves to a new house with her husband and starts having flashbacks was, though (now I recall it!) interesting and exciting, though some of the deaths totting up remained unexplained. I would read more of James, though Mark Billingham would be ahead of him.

The Dark Monk – Oliver Potzsch
I stumbled over The Hangman’s Daughter (the first book in this series) quite accidentally and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Delightfully gory, and fascinating historically, the books also follow good if somewhat complex stories. The hangman Jacob is a most likeable hero: strong, amusing, yet ultimately human, and his feisty daughter Magdalena is a great sidekick.

In this, the second book of the series, a strange death in a church leads to investigations into the Knights Templar for Jacob, Magdalena and Simon, the local medic and Magdalena’s unofficial boyfriend. Simon’s relationship with Magdalena is put under strain by the arrival of a beautiful femme fatale and Jacob also has to deal with robbers near the town, showing touching humanity and restraint considering he is supposed to be the lowest of the low due to his trade.

I don’t just find these books great because they are a bit dark and old; they teach the reader a lot about 17th century Germany: its laws, its customs, its traditions. In particular the advances in medicine, as forward-thinking medic Simon battles with his old-fashioned father and common superstitions, are really interesting to read about. The author originally wrote The Hangman’s Daughter when he discovered the history of his own family, and his warmth and respect for his characters (loosely based on his ancestors) makes these books a real pleasure to read, and more than just a historical potboiler. I look forward to the third volume.

The King’s Spy – Andrew Swanson
I would like to know how much of this story is actually based on historical fact, but whether it is or not is a moot point really as it’s an enjoyable yarn. The story of a ‘simple’ man who breaks the code of a traitor within the King’s court during the Civil War is interesting although, as the endless paragraphs on cyphers and how to crack them are rather laborious. I’m not the most mathematical-minded of people, nor the most logical (!) and the detailed descriptions left me cold (and lost). Passing this, it’s an interesting story with some surprising twists which I wasn’t expecting. Although this isn’t a classic and didn’t get my heart racing, I will certainly search out the next one in the series.

For the Sender – Alex Woodard
This book was a bit of a let down. I closed it thinking, “OK” and then wandered off to do something else. It’s the story of a song-writer who started writing songs for people who wrote letters to him. The stories of the letter-writers are touching, but Alex’s story itself is a bit self-indulgent (I couldn’t believe that it took him 14 odd years to ‘find himself’). I can’t really comment on his music, which was pleasant enough, as music is very personal, and I sort of enjoyed the book, but not a huge amount. Alex is at his best when he writes about Kona, his beloved labrador, and I felt these passages really lived for me in a way that the others didn’t. Perhaps because I could empathise with his writing, as someone who lost a dearly-beloved dog myself; this story touched the soul, but the rest of it was as beige and forgettable as the cover. (Sorry Alex!)

Everything Beautiful Began After – Simon Van Booy
Sometimes writers are a little too aware of their own writing and less aware of their reader, and unfortunately I feel this is the problem with this book. I haven’t read anything else by the author so am not sure if it’s a one-off or this is his style, but the prose felt painfully artistic like a ballerina balancing on the very tips of her toes. I didn’t feel or understand any of the characters, and the desperate love of Henry for Rebecca felt like it came out of nowhere after a few weeks in each other’s company (and again felt utterly self-absorbed and over dramatic).

That’s not to totally destroy the book! There is some real beauty in the writing; but if only those lovely moments could be left to stand as they are rather than the author continually trying to better his previous effort. Actually whatever is beautiful, never actually begins at all, and the reader is left feeling as if he has been force-fed meringues: sweet and tempting, but ultimately empty.

Speaking of sweet and tempting, I’m off to make some more reindeer biscuits. I’ll come back later with my suggestions for Christmas reading and would love to hear anyone else’s (if nothing else it tells me that someone is reading this bloody thing)…