Five Things to Bring Joy – 20 Aug

Here are just five of the lovely things that have happened over the past week or two, which help me put up with the not so lovely things. (Yes, there were plenty of those!)

  1. Meeting (in person!) fellow book blogger Jacqui, who blogs at JacquiWine’s Journal. She was every bit as lovely as I’d expected from reading her blog, and she is also much more of a film and wine expert than I am, so we had a lovely chat about all of these Very Important Topics!

2. Watching the cult film Brother (Brat) at the BFI. It is set in St Petersburg in the mid 1990s, directed by Alexei Balabanov and starring the charismatic young actor Sergei Bodrov (who tragically died just five years later). Bodrov plays a young man just returned from military service. Although he claims to have been mainly confined to a desk job, he proves a little too handy with customising weapons and bullets, so there are hints he has seen some action in the Chechen War. When he joins his older brother in St Petersburg and becomes embroiled in gang warfare, as well as a love affair, he turns into something of a poster boy for the post-Soviet generation. Unsure what to think or believe after the collapse of all values and certainties, he has no moral compass, no real friends or community around him; he is simultaneously innocent and cynical. Above all, I felt it was a really good portrayal of the Wild East period in both Russian and East European history (although my Russian friend claims she does not remember it being quite so chaotic, but she is younger than me, so may have been more sheltered from the harshness of reality at the time). You cannot imagine what it’s like when one form of society collapses before there is any time to build a new one, when capitalism rages in its most primitive and untamed form, and corruption and crime are as rampant as inflation and poverty. Brother reminded me of those dark days.

3. British Library exhibition about writing, from the origins to the future, including some items that have never been displayed before and others of real emotional significance, such as Alexander Fleming’s lab notebooks, Scott’s last entry in the diary in Antarctica and Mozart’s own cataloguing of his works. Also a wonderfully stroppy telegram from John Osborne to one of his critics! Open until 27th August.

4. More box sets! I can only watch 1-2 episodes a night, rather than binging all in one day, but it is nice to be able to follow a whole series over the course of a week or so. I’ve made the most of my alone time. After Patrick Melrose, I watched another literary adaptation: My Brilliant Friend, which was frightening in its almost casual depiction of everyday violence and misogyny. I was in equal measure saddened and infuriated by FosseVerdon, especially when you realise how parents obsessed with their art and with each other can become neglectful of their own child.

5. Reunited with two lovely, tanned boys and catching up on their holiday pictures and impressions. Now we’re just waiting to hear about the GCSE results… And get them to cook, tidy up, vacuum and do other household tasks more regularly (standards started slipping because of above-mentioned GCSEs).

Friday Fun: Homes to Tempt You in Britain

I’ve been doing so much property search abroad in the past few months that it’s high time I reminded myself that I am still here in the UK for the time being. And there are many fine (if rather unaffordable) properties on this island…

Suffolk retreat, what I imagine a vicarage should look like. From Prime Location.
Clathwaite Hall in Cumbria. From H.H. King website.
© Brian Young Architectural Photography for Bradley Hall in County Durham
Another picture-book Suffolk property, from David Burr.
Georgian manor house for sale in Lancashire, from
Of course, you can’t mention Lancaster without mentioning York… This is Thorpe Hall in Yorkshire, likewise for sale, from

Back to My Teens: Sylvia Plath

I was looking for cheerful, inspiring author memoirs or diaries to tempt me back into writing, but at my local library I found the unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath instead. It might not be cheerful, but in fact I can think of few writers who were more committed to their writing, who persevered despite all difficulties and kept submitting, kept revising, kept going. So she is a good role model (minus the end bit). I was extremely smitten by her in my teens, and had read all her journals and letters, so a lot of this book was familiar to me already. The difference being that this time the names are spelled out, rather than just initials, and, of course, there are some additional, never-before published materials.

What was that nonsense about there not being enough ‘smiley’ pictures of Sylvia Plath, to justify the bikini-clad cover to her volume of letters?

One of the quotes that has haunted me all my life (and especially now, when I feel so stuck in my writing) is the following:

Finishing the next year here, enjoying the pressure of reading, thinking, while at my back is always the mocking tick: A Life is Passing. My Life…. And I waste my youth and days of radiance on barren ground.

She wrote that just before meeting Ted Hughes, while she was still pining after Richard Sassoon, and you can feel she was ready to submit anyone who seemed bigger, stronger, who promised to open worlds (and share a family life) with her. But it’s the ‘Time’s winged chariot’ bit that I fear and that always tick-tocks for me in the background.

Here are some more relatable quotes:

What to do with anger?… Yes, I want the world’s praise, money and love, and am furious with anyone, especially with anyone I know or has had a similar experience, getting ahead of me… What to do when this surges up over and over? Last night I knew that mother didn’t matter – – she is all for me, but I have dissipated her image and she becomes all editors and publishers and critics and the World, and I want acceptance there, and to feel my work good and well-taken. Which ironically freezes me at my work, corrupts my nunnnish labor of work-for-itself-as-its-own-reward.

Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing… I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness… Caught between the hope and promise of my work – the one or two stories that seem to catch something, the one or two poems that build a little colored island of words – and the hopeless gap between that promise, and the real world of other peoples’ poems and stories and novels. My shaping spirit of imagination is far from me.

Paralysis again. How I waste my days. I feel a terrific blocking and chilling go through me like anesthesia. I wonder, will I ever be rid of Johnny Panic? Ten years from my successful seventeen, and a cold voice says: What have you done, what have you done? When I take an equally cold look, I see that I have studied, thought, and somehow not done anything more than teach a year: my mind lies fallow.

I do wish I could give that young woman a hug and say: ‘You’ve done so much. Relax now! Hush!’ It’s amazing how she doesn’t see that herself. Even more amazing, of course, how I can say that to her but berate myself for wasting time, for not writing etc. etc.

To Raise Your Blood Pressure…

  • simply take a few news items from around the world
  • read the ‘witty’ and ‘informed’ comments below the said news items
  • scroll down through a Twitter storm
  • realise how lucky you are that you no longer look at Facebook (because the comments there are even uglier)
  • feel the hairs on the back of your neck rising when you recognise that people and countries that you thought were politically mature and sophisticated seem to be sleepwalking into situations you were desperate to leave behind once upon a time
  • breathe in, breathe out, tell yourself you are over-reacting
  • have far more deadlines and projects going on than one person with normal capabilities and normal working hours can accomplish
  • have tricky conversations all day at work
  • get stuck in rush hour delays
  • come home to lazy teenagers who ask ‘What’s for supper?’ but haven’t thought at all about clearing the table or buying milk
  • do not allow yourself be provoked by emails from your ex (i.e. do learn to swallow down all the clever retorts that he might then forward to his solicitor to use against you in court)
  • go out to buy tonic water to make yourself a G&T
  • realise it’s the third time this week you’ve been buying tonic water at the corner shop
  • worry about the amount of alcohol you are consuming
  • wonder if you could drink gin without the tonic
  • agree with your mother on the phone about what a failure your life has been and will be, how she told you so years ago if only you’d listened, and how much better the sons and daughters of her acquaintances are doing
  • oh, don’t forget to hmm-hmm and not answer back when she says about how much children of divorce suffer and how they are irretrievably damaged, she knows of approximately three such examples herself and can remind you of them repeatedly
  • feel guilty for making faces at the phone when you hold it a distance to escape the monotony
  • worry about your father’s health and whether you will have to care for your mother in her undoubtedly difficult old age, full of health problems and loneliness, for ‘age will not wither her… complaints’
  • accept that your children will probably not care for you in old age, although you’ve been a much kinder, more understanding and less demanding mother to them than yours has been to you
  • compose yet another letter for your French pension provider to try and figure out if you will have any pension rights there at all after Brexit
  • try to find an affordable smaller (but not too small) house in your area in case you have to sell the current one – although you have lost the will to move or even to decorate or do any home improvements, knowing that it will just be a stop-gap solution for 4-5 years and a total waste of money
  • make a list of To Do lists and watch the money go down, down, down in your account as you buy all the ‘back to school’ necessities
  • find out the cost of a barrister and watch your account being emptied even more
  • buy a book reviewed by a blogger friend to make you feel better
  • feel guilty about spending £9 on a book or £15 on a film or play, although saving that amount won’t actually help with the legal costs
  • drown your guilt in cake
  • wonder until what time the corner shop is open and if you can still nip over there for another cake and a tonic water

That’s just an average day: anything I’ve missed out?

Friday Fun: Pod or Shed?

If you don’t have enough rooms in your house, then these sheds (or, currently all the rage, ‘pods’ which you can just drop in your back garden) offer a real alternative for a home office or writing retreat.

Armadilla garden pod has all the mod cons, from Ideal Home.
A bit exposed: they might catch you napping instead of working… from Building Projects.
This Rolls Roycel of sheds is bigger than many a house… or garden. From
Inside a Fatpod from
Saw these simple pods at the University of Lancaster – study spaces for students to book. Great idea!
These floating pods at the University of York are intended more for meetings than individual study, but I could work in there for hours!
More like a conservatory extension than a shed, but I’ll take it. From

Political Novels: Old Baggage vs. Middle England

Amongst all the Women in Translation and my country-themed reading months, I also manage to squeeze in a few books that I see on the shelves at the library. I usually stay clear of ‘buzzy’ books, because they are so likely to disappoint me if I get my hopes up too high. But every now and then I succumb to temptation.

Jonathan Coe: Middle England

Imagine a soap opera populated predominantly by middle-class characters, set against the backdrop of the political turmoil in England in the period 2010-2018. That is what the author sets out to describe in this novel populated by a fairly large cast of characters, all related by blood or by the fact that they went to a grammar school in Birmingham together. The characters are sometimes in conflict: parents and children do not understand each other, couples drift apart, unsavoury political opinions come out in discussions. Some are Labour voters, some are Conservatives, even though their lifestyles might not match their beliefs. Some are Leavers, some Remainers, and xenophobia rears its ugly head from time to time. And some are rivals who take themselves far too seriously, like the ever-escalating conflict of the children’s entertainers.

I haven’t read the earlier books that feature the same characters, but it’s easy enough to warm up to the somewhat hapless Benjamin Trotter, looking after his increasingly cranky widowed father while dreaming of becoming something more than ‘the best unpublished writer in the country’. His niece Sophie and the Lithuanian cleaner Grete are also sympathetically drawn, but you can’t help feeling that all of the nice characters share the political views of the author. By contrast, Sophie’s mother-in-law Helena is absolutely awful. This is what she tells a Chinese visitor about the fox-hunting ban in Britain:

“Mr Hu, I have never visited China and I have no wish to make light of the difficult conditions in which you must live there. But here in Great Britain, we face similar problems. In fact I would alsmot say that our situation is worse. You have overt censorship; ours is covert. It all happens under a mask of freedom of speech… But we do not have freedom, of speech or of anything else. The people who once kept a great British tradition alive by riding to hounds are not free to do so any more. And if any of us try to compalin about it, we are shouted down…”

This Italian cover of the book is rather fetching.

Although there are funny moments, it did feel at times as though I was reading a summary of Twitter rants, Facebook posts or newspaper features collected over the course of the last few years. It paints a panorama of social life, rather than trying to probe too far in the depths. I don’t know if it is possible to debate these issues without losing fictional tension and veering towards the realm of polemical essay. However, this possible explanation for angry trolls made me laugh:

‘People like to get angry about anything. A lot of the time they’re just looking for an excuse… I think for a lot of people… there’s nothing much going on in their lives. Emotionally, I mean, maybe their marriages have dried up or everything they do has become a kind of habit, I don’t know. But they don’t feel much. No emotional stimulation. We all need to feel things, don’t we? So, when something makes you angry, at least you’re feeling something. You get that emotional kick.’

This is literature for the polite and puzzled classes, who try to recycle, be civil to others and yet fall into the trap of nostalgia on occasion themselves. (All the characters watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games and getting teary-eyed about it, for instance.) Coe’s a marvellous observer of foibles (and speech) and he probably was wise to stick to the milieu he knows best. This is not quite as bitter and satirical as the recent TV series Years and Years, but it’s probably a good snapshot of a certain class in a certain period in recent social history.

Lissa Evans: Old Baggage

This one was an utter delight, and in some ways it felt closer to our times and more revolutionary than Middle England. Yet most of the story takes place in 1928, when Mattie Simpkin, former Sufragette, is feeling a little… middle-aged and useless. She is searching for a new cause into which she can pour her considerable energies, and believes she has found it in a girls’ club that is more about equal rights and learning to fight rather than Girl Guide badges. But her own nostalgia for the past leads her down the wrong path, despite what her faithful companion, The Flea, tries to tell her.

Mattie is a larger than life character, a bit of a steamroller and simultaneously imagining all sorts of slights from the people around her whilst also oblivious to any of their anxieties or suffering. Yet the author manages to make the reader care about her and understand where she is coming from. High comedy coexists amiably with quite gruesome political history (which takes place mostly off-stage, in the past), but there are many parallels to today’s world. Despite what the Sufragettes believed, society did not progress as much as they had hoped at the time, which gives the book an added poignancy.

Unlike in Middle England, where it does feel at times like an info dump, the political background and research is used sparingly in Old Baggage. Erudition with a light touch. Several fellow bloggers had recommended this one as a high-energy, ‘cheery’ book to take my mind off things – and it certainly did the trick.

Friday Fun: Staircases to Heaven

You know by now how obsessed I am with beautiful hallways and staircases that entice you upstairs with the promise of heavenly delights to come…

Champagne and … is that pot to tempt you? From
Bit of a mish-mash of wallpapers going on there, but that parquet is to die for! From Elle Decor.
Tiles and intricate metalwork – my idea of heaven! From
Perhaps a little too classical, but I love the colour here. From
Almost monochrome simplicity, from
Last, but not least, this relatively unrestored chateau has a staircase in very good nick, from