November has not been the best month for a happy reading frame of mind. Budgets and hassles and events to put on at work. French exchange student to host and ferry around. Court case stress, a settlement that leaves me teetering on the edge of poverty and a growing realisation that a financial settlement does not mean an end to bullying by the ex. So I might be excused for finishing just five books this month, of which only one was a #GermanLitMonth (or Germans in November) read, and abandoning a couple of others.
I needed a change from my usual rather dark reading fare and escaped in the pages of two ‘feel-good’ reads: The Star of Lancaster from Jean Plaidy’s series on the Plantagenets (featuring mostly Henry IV and V) and the sly irony of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha (review to follow imminently).
The remaining two books were by the same author; I read them with a professional editorial eye, to see which might be most suitable for translating and publishing in the UK and the US. Two very different books by the talented and versatile author Bogdan Teodorescu: a domestic noir entitled Liberty and a political thriller about the sudden death of an investigative journalist Nearly Good Lads (English titles to be confirmed).
There was one further literary event this month, which filled me with a rosy glow of contentment for at least a few days, namely the charity Write-A-Thon in Windsor, which allowed me to spend a whole day reminding myself just why I love writing so much, in the company of other passionate writers.
Finally, in the last two days of the month, I managed to squeeze in two plays. Stray Dogs at the Park Theatre is a drama about the choices faced by Anna Akhmatova during Stalinist times – will she collaborate with the ruthless autocrat in order to save her son? Sadly, Akhmatova’s son never forgave her, believing that she cared more about her poetry than for him and that she had not worked hard enough for his release.
The second play is another not so cheery but reliable stalwart from my Viennese life: Tales from the Vienna Woods by Horvath, performed by this year’s final year students at RADA. The jaunty background music and farcical moments contrast with the rather stark messages around women trying to survive in a patriarchal, Catholic world.
What a wonderful day we had! Nine members of our Royal Borough Writers group committed to a full day of writing in the attic room at The Old Court in Windsor, all while raising money for the mental health charity Mind.
No conflicting commitments, no distractions, just setting goals for the morning and the afternoon, receiving stickers if we achieved those goals (we all did) and 50 minute writing spurts followed by a 10 minute break to replenish your drinks at the bar downstairs. We kept that up from 10:30 until 18:30 and it was the happiest I’ve been in many, many months.
While I cannot claim quite as many words as some of the other members of the group (6500 in one case, 10 pages of film script, 3 short stories etc.), I did manage to write about 2500 words, edit several poems and completely rewrite one as a ballad. Our total tally was probably over 25,000 words and a total of nearly £800 raised, so something to be proud of.
Thank you so much to all of you who donated so generously to us in cash and via the JustGiving page! In addition to raising funds for Mind, you also reminded me of just how much I love writing. A great way to kickstart my passion for it once more, and a handy reminder that I should stop putting it last, after I do all the tedious urgent chores.
Really struggling to find enough things to be positive about this past week, which has been marred by headaches and insomnia. But as long as I have books, plays and music, it cannot be all bad, right?
I tidied up my bedside tables and bookshelves, as the new purchases were interfering with my geographical shelving.
2. I donated a massive bag full of books to the local library, but I also bought books this week, so my balance is probably zero.
3. Speaking of mother/son relationships, I watched yet another emotionally gruelling play Mother of Him by Evan Placey at the Park Theatre. A play to make the audience think, laugh, cry and gasp out loud! It’s about a family (and especially the mother, who is being judged by everyone) going to pieces when the older son is accused of raping three girls in one night. It should come with a flashing red warning for single mothers of teenage boys – especially when the actor who plays the 17 year old son has the skinny body type of my own 16 year old!
4. ROH Live Encore at my local culture centre: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One of my favourite operas, can never get enough of it and have watched many a wacky production. This beautiful Jack Furness revival of the Kasper Holten production featured a charismatic Erwin Schrott in the title role, a Don Ottavio I could finally empathise with (Daniel Behle) and an amazing if rather discombobulating set with video projections. It hasn’t quite dethroned my current favourite version: this ‘hipster edition’ live recording from the Festival international d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2017.
5. Sadly, I didn’t make it to this month’s writing group meeting, but I’ll be taking part in the Charity Write-a-thon we are organising in Windsor on the 16th of November. All the money we raise will go to Mind. If you do feel inspired to sponsor me, please visit my fundraising page here.
Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.
Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.
Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.
Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert, which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.
*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz
Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.
However, I’d also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…
And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.
Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.
And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.
On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.
On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.
Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.
Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.
On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.
We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.
What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.
We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).
On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:
Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.
I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.
Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.
Catching up on box sets. I never have the time or patience to watch a full series, but I did the impossible these past couple of weeks and watched a few. Chernobyl with the boys: we were all fascinated, if somewhat shaken. Great attention to detail to give you the flavour of living in Soviet Russia in the mid 1980s, but no, people did not address each other as comrade the whole time, except in very official circumstances or in political meetings. The Patrick Melrose series (by myself, I hasten to add), which made me reconsider reading the novels (I’d read the third one but without the context of the others, I was not enthralled), although there’s only so much I can take of a destructive personality. Just started watching Fosse/Verdon as well on BBC2, which promises to be rather heartbreaking though glamorous.
Ok, so my choice of subject matter is not the most cheerful, but it’s just nice to be able to follow a story arc from end to end without interruptions.
2. Going to the theatre, of course. My other great passion, beside reading, is seeing words come to live on the stage, as in the production of Europe at the Donmar Warehouse. This is a really moving play about displacement, refugees and the rise of intolerance and Fortress Europe by David Greig. Written in 1994 and clearly inspired by the war in former Yugoslavia, it is once more extremely topical. Two moments in particular had me in tears: 1) when the refugee father says his daughter blames him for not leaving earlier, but ‘you can’t just leave the country to the wolves’; 2) the feeling of suffocation in this small town without any jobs, without any trains, without a future, and the desperate desire to feel part of Europe. I’ve experienced both of those feelings, and still occasionally feel a traitor for leaving my country when it needed me most… until I remember that it decided it didn’t need me. Despite the tears, it was a riveting performance and I’m really glad I saw it. A powerful start for the new artistic director at the Donmar.
On a more cheery note, I also attended an off-stage performance, in an industrial estate beside woodland, with the really fun immersive experience of The Tempest.
3. Hosting a writing retreat at my house
The founder of our writing group severely said to me, as she entered the house and I was showing everyone where the coffee, tea, food was: ‘I hope you are not going to use your duties as a host to excuse your lack of writing.’ Touché! But I didn’t, and managed to edit all of the poems that I’d received feedback on, as well as select (and slightly edit) a new batch to send. Also, it was lovely catching up with what other people were working on. Last but not least, I was most impressed with one of our members, who had rescued and fostered a kitten this weekend. Someone had dumped the sweet little thing out of a car near his workplace, he caught her, looked after her and managed to find an adopted mother for her all within less than 72 hours. Bravo!
4. Older son. While he is on holiday in Greece, we’ve been chatting nearly every day. He’s taken a ton of books with him, has even done some homework (in preparation for the start of his Maths A Level course). I’ve tried to talk to the younger son too, you mustn’t think I neglect him, but he is usually playing computer games and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But what made me really proud of the older son is that he called me last night indignantly and told me that his brother hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days. Normally, I don’t like tattle-tales, but the next bit of his rant amused and reassured me (at least about him, not about his brother): ‘When you’re young, you do things because your parents tell you to, but at this age, it’s high time you realised yourself how important it is for you to be doing certain things. That it’s for your own good, not to shut up Mama’s nagging, that you do it.’
5. Japanese neighbour. A former neighbour, whom I had befriended back in 2009-2011 during my interlude in the UK between our two stays in France, rang my doorbell unexpectedly yesterday. She had returned to Japan with her family while I was away in France but was over for a short visit, revisiting some of her favourite English places, and wanted to see what had happened to her neighbours. It was so nice to see her again and to tell her about our plans to visit Japan in two year’s time! I hate losing touch with people and am always grateful when I can meet up with them again.
There are so many things in my life right now just waiting to be complained about, that I decided to thwart them all and take a page out of Meggy’s blog. For those of you who don’t know @choconwaffles blog, she has a Friday positivity wave post, in which she lists all the good things going on in her life, big or small. I can’t promise this will become a regular weekly feature, but it can’t hurt to remind myself of fun things from time to time.
After two weekends away, Zoe is incredibly grateful to have me back. Reading with her purring on me is the cosiest feeling ever!
After a gap of years, if not a decade, I finally went to see a live opera again. The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House. The prices are prohibitive for what was a vertigo-inducing and not at all comfortable seat. The production itself was a little frantic and over-acted at times (with the large cast of servants etc.), the orchestra’s horns seemed to have a dissonant mind of their own at times. But Joelle Harvey as Susanna was magnetic, especially in her duet with Julia Kleiter as the Countess, and her almost heartbreakingly wistful ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ aria in the fourth act. All eyes were on the countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Cherubino – the traditional casting being a woman – but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise it was a man until afterwards.
Mozart is good for the soul and quite possibly a rejuvenator. I was exhausted that evening, as the work week had been horrendous and I’d not been feeling well for several days. On my way back to the train station from Covent Garden, I had an unexpected experience – well, unexpected in this day and age, as it hasn’t happened to me for a good few years now. A man ran after me and tried the pathetic chat-up line: ‘You’ve got such a tremendous aura. You don’t seem to be walking, you are floating.’ Clearly, Mozart gives you wings!
My local friends and fellow mothers, who have been with me through thick and thin, banded together to get me a voucher to buy books at The Second Shelf for my birthday. It’s the first time anyone has ever given me a bookish gift voucher, so I was very touched and pleased! I finally got to visit The Second Shelf this week and came away with lesser-known works by two authors who meant the world to me when I was growing up.
Thank you to Eric (aka Lonesome Reader), who mentions in his latest Booktube an event at LRB bookshop in late August: Ali Smith and Nicola Barker in conversation about writing. I booked my ticket rightaway! In fact, this week I’ve started to commit to my writing again: attended a Write together/Feedback session with my local writing group after a long gap, received detailed notes on my poems from my mentor Rebecca Goss and arranged to attend a writing retreat in 2020 with the writing friends who inspired and supported me so much in the summer of 2016.