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 Roomsoutdoor.co.uk
Inside a Fatpod from Archipod.com
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 cotemaison.fr

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.

5 Things to Laugh About 5th August

Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.

  1. 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.
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 5: The Garry Moore Show, a CBS television comedy variety show. Pictured are guests, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Episode originally broadcast June 5, 1962. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

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.

Production picture, photo credit Marc Brenner.

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.

Six Degrees of Separation: August Wild Card

I only take part intermittently in the Six Degrees of Separation meme, but it’s one of my favourite monthly reading challenges. This month the starting point for the logical chain of six books is the last book you posted in the July chain. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to take part in the July chain, although I loved, loved, loved reading Where the Wild Things Are to my children (complete with singing, howling and dancing for the wild rumpus). So I will start instead with the last one in June, which was I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

Robert Graves was great friends (and possibly more) with Siegfried Sassoon, when they were both officers in the same regiment during the First World War. So for my first link I picked Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, which I read and hugely enjoyed in my youth, when I was craving to come to England to study and dreamt that I would be riding all day (thanks, pony books) and sailing (thanks, Swallow and Amazons), while visiting friends in amazing country piles (yep, Brideshead Revisited). Of course, the real England was nothing like that when I did move over here, but I can completely see the nostalgia element and appeal in Sassoon’s work (a bit like Le Grand Meaulnes).

The fantastic Quentin Blake illustrating Roald Dahl

Of course, fox-hunting is horrible, so my next pick is a fox that gets its revenge on humans: Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. Dahl himself was a difficult man, but I loved his books when I was a child, he certainly got my own children reading and we all loved visiting his house at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

Another Buckinghamshire literary light was John Milton, who lived in Chalfont St Giles for a short while (trying to escape the plague in London) and completed Paradise Lost there. I’ve tried and tried to read Milton, but have never been able to struggle through the whole of his paradises.

Another book I’ve never been able to read all the way through, although I hugely enjoyed parts of it, is Don Quixote by Cervantes. Yes, I know, it’s a damning confession to make. I do like the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, though, if that counts.

Petipa also, more famously, choreographed (or helped Lev Ivanov to do so) The Nutcracker, which is based on a short story by ETA Hoffmann. Although the ballet is regularly performed as a feel-good Christmas special, in Hoffmann’s hands it was much darker (like all of his ambiguous stories).

Finally, as we all know, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a sad tale of a woman being betrayed by a man and yet sacrificing herself for him. Far removed indeed from the Disney version – and I have the feeling the upcoming live action remake is not going to touch these darker aspects either.

So this month we’ve undertaken a journey from Ancient Rome to Buckinghamshire, from paradise to Spain, Russia (or thereabouts) to Denmark. A great pleasure, as always, to take part in this. Where will your 6 connections take you?

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 Archzine.fr
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 maisonsybilles.canalblog.com
Perhaps a little too classical, but I love the colour here. From postcardsfromtheridge.com
Almost monochrome simplicity, from greigedesign.com
Last, but not least, this relatively unrestored chateau has a staircase in very good nick, from sfgirlbybay.com

Reading & Events Summary July 2019

Not a lot of summer holidays for me this year, so my reading hasn’t been copious this month. [This may change over the next 3 weeks, when the boys are with their father in Greece.] Only 9 books completed, but most of them have been quite outstanding – and that is all thanks to the Russians. Their political leaders may be problematic, but boy, can their authors write!

I started off with a short, sharp satire Envy by Yuri (Yury?) Olesha. Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories were a rambunctious delight, but with a disquieting undercurrent running throughout. The Strugatskys were in top form with Roadside Picnic, while Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov captured a moment of tremendous change in recent history with great poignancy and lyricism. I haven’t yet reviewed Light-Headed by Olga Slavnikova (which I read in the French translation), but it’s another great piece of satire, although perhaps it could have been a bit shorter without losing any of its punch.

The Russians were excellent company. I will miss them and, yes, there were some communalities to all these authors (or perhaps I sub-consciously chose works that were of similar nature). Their humour is always rather dark and biting, their stories a mix of laugh-out-loud absurdity and profound sadness. The big questions of life are addressed, even though mostly in a roundabout way that decades if not centuries of censorship have cultivated to perfection. And I find their dash of surrealism not just tolerable but necessary and fun, unlike some works in the magical realism tradition.

In-between these hard-hitting books, I found my brain craved less demanding fare. I was either rereading either old favourites like the second book in the Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith (the one with the art forgeries) or else Adrian Mole (however, the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Mole made me shudder rather than laugh). I also read two contemporary books focused on friendships, marriages, gender expectations and growing older.

I will probably compare and contrast Anna Hope’s Expectation with William Nicholson’s Adventures in Modern Marriage at some point, but although they were fun and easy to read (I deliberately avoided making too many comparisons with my own marriage or ageing), they were rather underwhelming. In any other month of reading, they might have scored higher, but when I put them up against the Russians, they seemed rather anemic.

5 women authors, 4 books in translation (Olga Grushin wrote her book directly in English). Next month will be all about women in translation and I am heading off to Brazil. My selection includes: Clarice Lispector’s short stories, Patricia Melo’s tale of revenge Lost World, Fernanda Torres’ account of old macho beach bums The End and, to balance things out, The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli.

If I get a chance to read any other women in translation, it will be Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (set in my beloved Japan but written in German) and History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir (the latest Asymptote Book Club title, from Iceland). I might also read some Brazilian men, for balance. And, of course, I should read the books I borrowed from the library: Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, as well as dip in and out of Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Diaries.

Beyond the reading, this month has been quite tiring: a lot of deadlines at work, both boys doing their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, plus a lot of visiting of universities (which has its fun moments but involves a lot of driving and organising). I’ve done three things that go beyond the routine: went to the opera, attended an immersive theatre experience of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Oxford and sat in the public gallery at a criminal trial at the Old Bailey.

How has your month been? Do tell me about your holiday plans! I’m not going anywhere on holiday just yet, but this song always puts me in a holiday mood. Thank you, Caroline, for sharing your flash fiction based on this song with me. Do check it out here.