At certain times of year, we just can’t wait for the light to show up and flood our homes and rooms. Time to come out of the cave!
I have always enjoyed befriending and talking to older ladies (older gentlemen too, although the relationship was occasionally tinged by complicated dynamics and disappointments). I suppose this comes from the excellent (although in one case far too brief) relationship I had with my grandmothers and my father’s eldest sister (from a big family, with my father being the youngest child, so she was more like a second mother to him). It’s easy to say that I had a better relationship with them than with my own mother (perhaps because I only saw them once or twice a year) as I was growing up, but they always felt much less conventional, with a more modern outlook than my mother.
I could not get enough of hearing the stories of women of their generation – their lives spanned most of the 20th century, so they experienced so many political, social, economic and technological changes. I felt I wanted to preserve and honour their memories, but they were also funny, wise and reassuring, providing me with so much food for thought and guidance on my own life. Perhaps this is what drove me towards studying social anthropology!
I like to think that the ladies in question also got something out of their friendship with me, that they occasionally caught a glimpse of the genuine love, interest and desire to amuse them lurking beyond my gauche manners and ignorant remarks. Of course, the downside of such friendships is that they are sadly all too brief, and that they leave you with a sense of regret that you didn’t listen more, meet more frequently, appreciate them more at the time.
Here is a small tribute to the very special ladies that lit up my life:
- In November/December 1983 I was in hospital with a very nearly ruptured appendix. I was underweight for my height and was given too much anaesthetic when they operated on me, so that complicated matters a little and I ended up having to spend roughly a week in hospital. During that time there were two other ladies on my ward, and we became a fun-loving trio, getting so rowdy with laughter at times, that the nurses would come in and shush us, for fear we might tear our stitches.
Margareta Steriade – poet and painter, born in 1897, she studied in Paris, as was fashionable at the time, and had her first public exhibitions in 1929. She was ver much involved in the artistic circles of the 1930s and, being of Jewish origin like Mihail Sebastian, became a great friend of his and designed the cover of his hugely controversial novel For Two Thousand Years (made even more controversial because he chose to publish it with the virulent anti-semitic preface signed by his hitherto mentor Nae Ionescu – an early example of naming and shaming with their own words). She was the one who told me about Lilith being Adam’s first wife, thereby introducing me both to feminism and to questioning of myths and traditions. I was very unhappy with my looks at the time, felt my nose was too ‘fat’, that I was too tall and gangly, but she made me feel beautiful, said I had the perfect oval face and asked me to model for her.
Mrs Angheliade – I don’t think I ever knew her first name, I just felt it was disrespectful to call her anything less than ‘Doamna’ (Mrs). She was a couple of years older than Mrs Steriade. Her husband was descended from a Greek family and was a highly regarded lawyer or judge in the 1930-40s. After the Communists came to power following the 1947 elections in Romania, her husband was perceived as a hated remnant of the old regime and was sent to a labour camp. She had been a lawyer herself, but was not allowed to practice in her profession after her husband’s arrest. Their home was nationalised, and for a while she had to do manual work on the factory assembly line, and was severely criticised at every weekly workers’ meeting because of her background. She was quite open in telling us about all this, as if she was past caring about what any Securitate might do to her.
2. Betty – this was my landlady when I moved to London and lived in Golders Green for the first year of my Ph.D. I’ve written about her before, how full of life, film knowledge and romantic notions she was. A big child with a booming laugh. I still miss her so much!
3. I met several inspiring ladies at the Geneva Writers Group in 2012 (by which point, I could no longer be described as Spring, by any stretch of the imagination, but these ladies were still way ahead of me in terms of lived experience and wisdom). Many of them were outstanding writers, and I always enjoyed listening to them share their work. Ginny, Sally, Kathy, Susan and Karen in particular stand out. Ginny was funny, lively, always one of the ringleaders when it came to organising Christmas parties, and her little dog was almost as much loved as she was. Sally was what I imagined Barbara Pym to have been: quiet, with a very English reserve at first glance, but a wicked sense of humour and a very observant eye. Kathy was such a true international that for a long time I thought she was from an entirely different country – she was so warm and caring that I’d have liked her to have been my mother. Susan Tiberghien I have talked about before (and reviewed): she was the founder of the Geneva Writers’ Group, a woman with formidable energy and generosity of spirit. And Karen was my wonderful mentor, artist, poet, in whose house in Provence I found so much creativity even at a very low point in my life.
Incidentally, I am only using the past tense because, sadly, my stay in Geneva ended five years ago. The ladies themselves are still delightful and active, and wonderful friends (even if I haven’t been great at keeping in touch).
4. Nordic walking group – As I get older, so the age gap between me and my older friends gets smaller. Nevertheless, I am the youngest of my Nordic walking group, even if some of them are only 10 years older than me. They have grown-up children, have been through all the worries engulfing me now, and have an endless reserve of anecdotes and good humour. They are also much fitter than me on the whole, it has to be said – so excellent role models on how to keep active and social in the years ahead.
Well, that was enough of venturing outside into the sunshine. Now for a holiday, where all I have to do is sit in a super-comfortable armchair and read! These are the types of armchairs I have in mind.
We’ve spent a lot of time in home libraries, cosy reading nooks, even under the stairs over the past few weeks. So it’s high time we looked at inspiring contemporary architectures (hopefully well insulated and far away from peeking eyes) set in amazing landscapes. Welcome to spring, Easter, and nature’s rebirth!
There have probably been far too many ‘one year on from the start of lockdown’ thought pieces all over the internet and in print, so what more can I add to this? But it has been a year unlike any other, so I feel I want to commemorate it in some way. Not that telling a thrice-told tale ever stopped a writer from sharing their own personal views… However, it ended up being a lot more complicated than I expected.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I started off with a bit of stock-taking and thanking my lucky stars that I still have a house, a job, my health, healthy children, fragile but nevertheless resilient parents even if they are quite a distance away. Of course, there are the worries that would probably have been present at this point in my life with or without Covid: money worries, trying to do three jobs at once, or the nagging concern that my boys, who used to share every random thought with me, are now barely communicating. (But maybe I should just enjoy the silence and read more?) There are worries that are Covid related – my parents still not vaccinated, an ex who thinks taking the boys to theme parks in the United States this summer is perfectly normal behaviour etc.
However, this year has above all made me lose faith in politicians of any country. In the UK, I’ve had a bad opinion of the Tory government for many, many years: I believed them to be self-interested and malevolent towards anyone ‘not like them’. However, this past year has demonstrated that they are also incompetent, corrupt and dictatorial in a way that I wouldn’t have believed possible in a mature democracy. People too have proved disappointing: inspiring stories of selflessness and community spirit in the first lockdown have degenerated as the situation has dragged on. It’s easy to be a hero in one brief moment of emergency – it’s hard to be consistent about being brave, helpful and thoughtful in the long-term, especially when you see so many people around you behaving badly. Clearly, the much-maligned ‘Balkanisation’ is a frame of mind that is easily accessible to anyone, regardless of geography.
How Much of a Shift?
This year is more than a ‘pause button’ or an ‘inconvenience’ or even a ‘global tragedy’. It is a paradigm shift – for me personally, and perhaps for many others, although I hardly dare to hope it will be so for society in general. There is much talk of ‘a new normal’ rather than a ‘return to normal’, but I hardly dare to allow myself to hope for it
The reason for my scepticism? Because I have had the misfortune of living in interesting times and experiencing paradigm shifts before. And while it’s true that in every single case things changed, often dramatically, I am not entirely convinced that societies as a whole or even social groups within them are able to fully reflect and digest these shifts and learn their lessons from them.
The first major shift was the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. For me personally that meant losing my fear of speaking up. I would never pretend again, never censor my thoughts and feelings, I would stand up for what I believe in – without hurting others or being thoughtless about their needs. I would never uncritically accept what ‘the state says’ and would check for facts and evidence, weigh things carefully and listen to diverse points of view. But that was my personal victory. My country lagged behind.
A period of wild capitalism followed in Romania in the 1990s, yet it was always coupled with the sort of populism that was not any prettier for being left-wing. Those of us coming from Eastern Europe have always been puzzled about the distinctions between right and left wing – our left was right-wing and retrograde, our right-wing seemed liberal for a while but was probably far too enamoured of anyone from the West and accepted capitalism too uncritically. The extremes seemed to be plastered all over the media, especially in the dozens of TV stations that everyone seemed to be setting up in their front room, but at least they didn’t become the mainstream or majoritarian government in Romania, unlike in some of our neighbouring countries.
Then I watched the Romanian documentary ‘Collective’ on BBC4 (nominated for Best Foreign Feature at the Oscars) about the scandal following the fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, and the high number of burn victims who died subsequently in hospital because of diluted disinfectants, incompetent management incapable of admitting their mistakes, corruption and cronyism at all levels. Although this all happened 5 years ago, the parallels to the current mishandling of the pandemic in many countries are too striking.
One scene in particular might have been written for me. The young, somewhat naive and idealistic interim Minister of Health tries to be the new broom, sweeping away the dysfunctional way of doing things… and is subsequently accused of lack of patriotism by the populist Social Democratic Party (descended from the former Communist Party). His father asks him: ‘Why don’t you just pack it all in and go back to your job in Vienna?’ That sentence struck a dagger to my heart: because that was in fact my choice 20+ years ago.
I tried to change things back home, I failed, repeated it a couple of times. Then I began to realise that I might be wasting decades of my life struggling for a societal change which might never come about. So I gave up and ran away. I still have moments of feeling guilty about it, although I notice that those friends who did stay on ended up accommodating themselves to society rather than trying to change it anymore. It is so hard to change things when others are comfortable with the old way of doing things.
I thought I was moving to a country where I could make a difference, through my vote, my community service, my expertise and so on. While I started doubting all of this in 2016, this past year has orphaned me of any illusions or country I can call home. I cannot run away as easily anymore as I could in my twenties, for both family reasons and boring practical ones.
So, What Changes?
It may be challenging to change the world on my own, or even my small corner of it. But, at the risk of sounding like hundreds of self-help books, I can change my attitude towards things.
- I can stop putting up with people spouting nonsense or hateful bigotry or conspiracy theories, because I am too polite or too scared of conflict or have simply resigned myself that they will never change their minds.
- I can make the most of the last few months I have with my older son – and the two years I have with my younger one – without the pressure of ‘entertainment’, but simply talking, getting to know each other all over again instead of assuming that what was true several years ago still describes them well.
- I can focus on ‘my legacy’ – a grand word to describe what I really want to achieve before I die. Do I want to be remembered as the reliable, good value for money (i.e. cheap) employee who tried never to let anyone down but nevertheless still failed to please everyone all of the time? Or would I rather be a translator, poet and novelist, who has also shared her love for books and authors who deserve to be better known?
- The greatest joy in my life (other than nature and the arts) has come from friends. This year has made me realise how fragile we all are, how we never know when our time to meet friends might be cut short. I have always kept an open house for friends to visit – but in future I will also make the most of any opportunity to visit them and keep in touch more frequently.
Final thoughts on this very long personal ramble: I’ve illustrated this post with pictures from this morning’s walk in Marlow, as a reminder of what I love about England in spring. Will I be accused of lack of patriotism if I say that I have five countries in the innermost chamber of my heart: Romania, Austria, Britain, France, Japan? I think there is room enough in there for them all.
The picture below shows a tremedously impressive pile of books read, but that’s because it is more like 5 weeks rather than a month’s worth of reading (I wrote my February round-up rather too early), plus I was also doing a lot of ‘professional reading’ for Corylus Books. Plus, a few of them were DNF – and of course, my reviewing has not kept pace with my reading. Nor will I force it to!
The themed reading this month was ‘Plays in March‘ and I managed to read five plays, a couple of which I had even seen performed. Penelope Skinner’s Linda is the only recent one, the others are all from the 1920s and 30s: I compared Arthur Schnitzler to Noel Coward (somewhat improbably) and have still to review Horvath’s Don Juan Returns from War (which I thought was his weakest effort) and Figaro Gets Divorced (which I really liked) – which fit into the #1936Club that I intend to pursue throughout April.
I read five Romanian crime novels for possible further translation and publication purposes: one I really liked but the author is dead (a bit of an issue for panels at crime festivals), two are part of a series so I had to decide which one to translate first, and one is a sort of ‘And Then There Were None’ – where someone seems to be killing off authors at a crime festival set in a beautiful mountain fortress location. I’m quite partial to that last one myself, but keep hearing that no one likes reading about writers as characters… except other writers.
I reviewed two translated books I had been sent by publishers, even though I didn’t expect to have time for them, because I really enjoyed them and think they won’t get as much signal noise as bigger bestsellers: The Field by Robert Seethaler and Touring the Land of the Dead by Maki Kashimada.
You are probably wondering which books I didn’t finish. Well, I abandoned both Graham Norton’s A Keeper and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. The former was just so ploddingly mediocre, I couldn’t summon up interest. The latter I really, really wanted to love, because I like experimental fiction generally and so many readers whose opinions I respect did love it. However, I found it a real slog. I kept skipping pages to see if it improved at all, but it just felt wilfully obscure and somewhat pretentious. I have to admit I didn’t get very far with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell either, so perhaps Susanna Clarke is just not the author for me. We all have our blind spots.
Of the remaining books, I have reviewed Swiss Summer and Asylum Road, both of which impressed me in different ways. I thought The Other Black Girl was a cracking read, although there were some frankly unnecessary sci-fi concepts sneaked in towards the end to make it more ‘suspenseful’. I read The Manningtree Witches because someone in our writing group is writing about witch accusations and executions in the Windsor area. Although there is something inevitable about any story of this nature (we all know how this is going to end, don’t we?), there was a bit of an element of surprise, an ambiguity about characters and their motivations, and an earthiness to the women accused of witchcraft which I really enjoyed. Plus, the author AK Blakemore is a poet, and this shows in the way she selects and places each word so carefully.
However, my favourite book this month is by that writer who seems to have cast a witchy spell on me (oh, how she’d enjoy hearing me say that!): Shirley Jackson ‘s Hangsaman. A strange tale of bad parenting, bad relationships, going away to college and failing to find friends, loneliness and despair. One that certainly deserves a detailed review.
18 books, 12 by women authors, 9 originating in a language other than English, 5 new releases.
April will immerse me even more into the world of the 1930s, namely 1936, and the works of von Horvath, Max Blecher, and Karel Capek’s War of the Newts. Also, two different works by Liviu Rebreanu on passion, lust and jealousy (neither written in 1936, unfortunately, although 1934 is close enough).
For May I am planning to take a look at Arabic literature – with an emphasis on Egypt and Lebanon.
One day I will have a corner that is dedicated solely to reading – or even better, a whole room dedicated to my favourite hobby. Best, of course, when paired with a fireplace and a bit of view…
Can you just imagine what masterpieces I might write at these super-tidy desks if I didn’t have random pieces of paper, piles of books, ten leaky pens, heart and car crafty pieces by my sons and a million other things competing for space on them? How did that saying go about a clear desk leading to a clear mind – or an empty one, possibly?
What’s the point of having a house without bookshelves filled with books? Here are some of my recent favourites (by the way, I have to keep on deleting old pictures, to make sure that I have enough space on my WordPress site, so you may find some posts are missing pictures, although I am trying to delete those rogue empty posts).
Whenever I search property websites for houses for sale in my dream locations, I am nearly invariably disappointed by the lack of books in most people’s houses. I’m not just thinking empty shelves, as is the case in one of the examples below (where the owner has clearly moved out before marketing her property), but no shelves at all, almost as if books were a dirty concept that should be kept hidden from view. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find some examples that prove that books really do form the best kind of backdrop in your home. And not just on Zoom calls.