If not, why, then this parting was well made. (Julius Caesar)
This Sunday we had to say goodbye to our dear Barney, the most sweet-natured and dignified of elderly gentlemen cats. I knew our time together might not be very long, but he seemed so alert, so lively, that we had hoped to get a few years at least. Sadly, it was not to be.
He was diagnosed with diabetes in August, and didn’t seem to mind the injections I was giving him twice daily. But then he stopped eating, his fur started getting scraggly, his urinary tract infection just wouldn’t go away. I was taking him to the vet every few days, adjusting his dosage, having him checked out, but towards the end of last week he barely had the energy to do anything other than sit under his favourite bush in the garden. Even Zoe, who has not been his greatest fan, was gentle towards him in his last few days.
It only takes a few seconds to fall in love, they say, and I fell in love with Barney’s sweet expression as soon as I saw it on Twitter. But it takes months and years to get to really know someone – and I wish we’d had that time to get to know each other fully. However, this is what we found out about him during the six months we had together.
He was a Zen master. Every couple of days, Zoe would make a run at him, and he never retaliated, merely lifted his paw on occasion in the gesture of a benign and wise Buddha.
He was a great helper for any cook. He would follow my every move in the kitchen with bright, intelligent eyes, as if asking: ‘What else can I do?’ (He would also search the floor very thoroughly for any fallen pieces of food.)
He didn’t come upstairs at all until the very last week before he got really ill. He had a deep miaow which he learnt to use most expressively when he wanted to be let out or some attention.
He was one of life’s natural philosophers. He loved sitting in the garden, breathing in the fresh air, stretching out in the shade.
He was a gentle giant, tall and thin, with big, manly back legs. He had a loping gait and was extremely agile for his age.
His favourite spots were: just in front of the fridge door or on the back of the sofa when we were all watching TV. Or sleeping on the sofa when we all wanted to sit on it.
He was extremely good at guilting you into giving him extra treats (although we desisted because of his health problems).
He had his favourite human: my younger son, who was 15, just like him.
He was not a lap cat, which made it all the more special when he honoured me with his presence.
He had the most beautiful, profound eyes, a gaze that you could just drown in.
The house is just not the same without his quiet presence.
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.
Or should that be ‘Independent Women and Wild Cats’? A change of pace in my reading, with a biography of early 20th century artists and a quiet ode to a beloved cat.
Diana Souhami: Wild Girls – The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks
Natalie ‘the Amazon’ Barney and Romaine Brooks were two wealthy, independent and pivotal figures of the bohemian expat world in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Although they formed an intense personal relationship that lasted for half a century, this book tries to document their entire lives and their (multiple) relationships with other women (and men) before, during and after their own love story. As such, it simply tries to cram too much in and often feels like a long list of famous names and decadent practices (drugs, orgies, infidelity feature heavily). Although the blurb on the back cover suggests that the Sunday Times considered Souhami ‘an exceptionally witty and original biographer’, I found her lacklustre. She managed to make these fascinating women and their entourage, plus their turbulent lives, sound dull. There was far too little focus on their art, too much detail about all of the secondary figures (including footnotes) and as for the personal ‘anecdotes’ interspersed between chapters? What on earth was that all about? It added nothing to the story – if the author wanted to write a memoir, then she should do so separately from this biography.
Nevertheless, there are still many poignant moments, particularly in the final chapters, when the lovers are ageing. Born to a life of privilege but also parental neglect, they seem rather insufferable in the early years. While I cannot quite say that their arrogance and sense of entitlement takes a beating in their old age, it becomes obvious that money, fame, even some artistic success cannot lead to lasting happiness. While Natalie Barney seems flighty and a serial womaniser in her youth, in old age she shows deep compassion and devotion to an increasingly stubborn and aloof Romaine.
Above all, I was shocked by Romaine Brooks pro-Fascist stance (a former lover and admirer of D’Annunzio, she continued to live in Italy throughout the Second World War and turned into quite a xenophobe). Her final years were spent in self-imposed solitude, rebuffing all offers of love and help, supposedly for the sake of her art, but unable to produce any paintings or writing, and in fact suffering from depression and possibly paranoia.
‘I suppose and artist must live alone and feel free otherwise all individuality goes. I can thing of my painting only when alone, even less do any actual work.’ … But however much she thought, no work got done. She sat on her solitary bench by the sea, ate her modest meals, suspected that ‘awful looking Orientals’ were communists, and seemed closed to the world.
Hiraide Takashi: The Guest Cat, transl. Eric Selland
This is a charming palate cleanser, although by no means as light-hearted as you might be led to believe (see my previous post on ‘mood-boosting books’). It was also a surprise hit when published in Japan in 2014 and then translated into English (and many other languages). It’s the story of a couple in their mid-thirties, both writers or researchers who work from home. They have rented a guesthouse at the bottom of a large and beautiful garden of a 1920s mansion in Tokyo, a bit of a rarity in the late 1980s, when this novel takes place. Their neighbour’s son adopts a kitten and soon this small, delicate creature starts visiting them and occupying a place in their house and in their hearts.
This is not just a love song for a cat that has made the (childless) couple feel alive again, but also a paen to nature that is fast disappearing from the city. A nostalgia for a gentler, more caring way of life, but also respect for the creature’s fierce independence, allowing it to exist in all its mystery and strangeness. A reminder to not forget to live, to play, to love even though your heart might get broken. And, like nearly all Japanese literature, it is a meditation on the transience of life. Set in the final year of Showa and the controversial Emperor Hirohito, at the height of the Japanese property boom, it marks the end of an era.
The author is best known as a poet, and this becomes obvious in the lyricism and illuminating fragments of memories (like flashes in the dark) that he describes in this book. While it’s not strictly speaking a memoir, it is based upon Hiraide’s encounter with a real cat, and you can feel that love and understanding of our feline companions seeping through.
For those of you not interested in Romania or holiday pictures, look away now, as the following few posts will be all about my holiday there. I’ve had a fraught love-hate relationship with my home country all my life (more about the whys in a later post), but this time almost everything clicked to make it a magical experience. Two days of cold and snow (up in the mountains), but the rest of the time we had temperatures in the mid-20s, blue skies and ravishing autumn colours.
I’ll start with the place we stayed in last, as it was the most memorable. Lost in the fertile and beautiful landscapes of the sub-Carpathians in the centre-west of Romania, Pensiunea Dacica was like a place in fairy tale. We had to follow nearly 5 km of unpaved, narrow road alongside a stream, going deeper and deeper into the forest as night was falling. At first I thought the wolves would come to get us (we still have bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and the like in our mountains), but when we arrived, we found all mod cons awaiting us: running water, heating, electricity, comfortable rooms, good food, lots of books and even Wifi.
Not forgetting, of course, the array of friendly dogs, cats, donkeys and occasional stray cows to give you that authentic countryside experience.
The reason for this seeming miraculous retreat in the depth of the forest? This guesthouse is the brainchild of a team of archaeologists who have been working on the Dacian remains which are abundant in this part of the country. [The Dacians were the native population (related to the Getae and Thrakians of the Balkanic peninsula) before the conquest by the Romans in 105-106 AD, as witnessed in the carvings on Traian’s Column in Rome.] They established a publishing house and foundation for educating children and people more generally about history and traditional culture, not just the Dacians.
They have a library and study room, ideal for a historian or writer wishing to work in peace, a common room for socialising, plenty of outdoor spaces to settle down and read. And, of course, lots of mountain trails and archaeological sites nearby to explore. Sometimes the dogs and cats would accompany us to the top of the hill.
I can’t forget the delicious food – with Ioana, the cook, fussing around my children to find out what they would like best for the evening meal and worrying if they didn’t finish off everything on their plate. In the morning, we had more than 20 jams to choose from, home made on site, including unusual varieties such as lilac flower, watermelon, peony petals and even carrot. In the evening, we could choose between home-made apple or plum brandy, mead or sour cherry liqueur. Everyone working there showed the legendary Romanian hospitality and kindness (which is sometimes more legendary than real in the bigger cities).
We only stayed there two days, but I could easily imagine myself staying there for a proper holiday or even a writing retreat for a month. It was quiet when we were there, as there’s no half-term holiday in Romania and so it was off-peak, but the few people who were there were regulars, who kept coming back every year. I am almost reluctant to share details of this little piece of paradise, as I don’t want it to become trampled by too many tourists.
While there, we went to visit Sarmisegetuza Regia, the ancient capital of the Dacians. It is situated in a nature reserve and it’s the most peaceful, inspiring location, even if you don’t believe in ley lines and building for solstice sun positioning.
The Dacians put up a fierce fight against the Romans. Their last king, Decebal, waged three wars against the Romans, but was finally defeated in 106 AD. Together with a few of his generals, he retreated to the fortified capital tucked away in the mountains and they all committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Romans and marched through Rome in chains. Traian had to content himself with only the head and right hand of the dead Decebal. The Romans razed the city to the ground and forbade any access to it, for fear of the growth of cults around the deceased leader or possible rebellions. So, rather like in Sleeping Beauty, the forest grew around it and it was forgotten for over 1500 years, until archaeological interest arose in the early 19th century.
The interpretation of the Dacian legacy since its rediscovery has been very interesting. At first, the Romanians chose to emphasise their civilised Roman ancestry, probably in an effort to underline their Latin origin in contrast to the Slavic populations surrounding them and also to show that they were equal to the Austro-Hungarian empire that one third of the country was part of. From the 1930s onwards, the Dacian roots and the proto-population theories were used for nationalistic purposes. The Dacians were presented as fearless and noble, yet never as aggressors. (The Greek cities on the Black Sea coast, the Boii, Bastarnae and Illyrian tribes might all disagree with that, as they were all conquered or driven out under the first Dacian king to unite all the territories, Burebista.)
Yet, despite the bloody past and biased interpretations, this feels like such a blessed and happy spot. You can imagine people contentedly pursuing their agricultural and animal-rearing occupations here. The stones on the ground all glitter enchantingly, since these hills used to contain gold. Gold treasure hordes have been found in the region as recently as 2014.
You could be forgiven for thinking that people can still live as happily as their ancestors in these spots, albeit with all the mod cons. Pensiunea Dacica certainly makes you believe that all is still well with the world. But you would be wrong. The whole area is under threat from big corporations for fracking, with the government happily issuing licences (so as not to be overly reliant on Russian oil and gas), despite protests by the local population. In an earthquake-prone country, that could be even more of a disaster than in England. And, although this particular area around Sarmisegetuza is a nature reserve, huge swathes of forests everywhere else have been privatised and are being sold off and chopped up for timber or building.
One of the surprising promoters of Romanian tourism with an authentic flair and trying to protect the Romanian ecology is Prince Charles, who has bought a fortified village called Viscri. His foundation has turned this into a guesthouse but he seems to be ploughing the profits of it back into the local communities, attempting to revive local arts and crafts, encouraging the renovation of old houses and using local produce for food.
She was a wild cat really. She never moved inside the house, but would show up at feeding time and sleep on the veranda. She used to be a pristine ball of white fluff. Now she can no longer clean herself, big patches of dry skin show through. She used to be playful and loving. Now she cannot hear so well, jumps and scratches when you come upon her from behind.
I looked at her ageing, diminished body in disgust. I thought of all the unsavoury germs and told my younger child: ‘No, don’t touch!’ But he ignored me. ‘Poor kitty-kitty!’ he said, bending down to caress her, not at all dismayed by decay. I love the fact that he is a better person than me. I hope he will be as tender with me one day.
When frost crackles bones
how sweet to find a warming
spot in river’s flow
A lovely prompt about compassion based on the poetry of Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) from the dVerse Poets Pub.
by the grey rain streaks echoed on my kitten’s fur
as she sits all pensive on the window sill.
All I notice are water-stained window panes.
My brain fries synapses and skips seven beats.
She darts forth on sure-footed pads through the snow
like a lynx in the mountains I no longer have before me
to make up for the fault in my wiring.
I missed the deadline on dVerse Poets for the poetic prompt on anthropomorphism of beloved pets, but I am not sure that this poem would have been quite suitable for it anyway. So I am linking it instead to Open Link Night. Join me there for some poetic fun during this month of poetry celebration!
Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.
I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.
Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable… good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’
What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.
I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.
I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?
This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?
Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!
What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…
What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.
OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write – haven’t you had enough time during the day?
This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.
I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’
I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.
Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.
‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’
This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:
No matter how horribilis an annus horribilis is, there is always a mirabilis aspect to it as well. Translation: no year is so bad that it doesn’t have its golden moments. Readers of one of my more self-pitying previous posts will know that 2014 was not that great for me. But what are some of the things that I will remember with pleasure?
1) Reading: quantity and quality. 189 books, roughly 56200 pages, exploring new horizons, huge diversity in terms of languages, themes and genres. 14 of those got 5 star reads on my Goodreads ticker tape (mostly poetry and non-fiction, oddly enough). Only 1 got one star (Katherine Pancol, in case you’re wondering. Not that my modest opinion will affect her outstanding sales figures!). And although quite a large chunk of the books I read were published after 2000, there was quite a good spread of decades, going back to 1908. I’m not sure how they count the classics published before the 20th century!
2) Poetry: I’ve not only started reading more poetry this year in printed format (full collections rather than the odd poem here and there online), but I’ve also completed a poetry course via Fish Publishing, from which I learnt so much (even if it has temporarily paralysed me a little with self-censorship). I’ve also been much braver about submitting poetry, even if it has tailed off in the last few months of the year. I submitted to 17 literary journals and anthologies (multiple poems in each submission, I hasten to add) and have had a total of 9 poems published. (I’m still awaiting a couple of responses.) One of my poems was also longlisted for a poetry prize, which was an additional boost to morale.
3) Community: It may seem sad, but the online community of writers, readers and bloggers has become more real to me than the people who physically surround me. Call it expat isolation, arrogance or depression, but I choose to put a more positive spin on it. It’s easier to establish common ground and become friends with people who share your passions, even if they are scattered all over the globe, rather than try to pretend common passions with the people with whom you just happen to be living in close proximity. As a global nomad, I’ve become used to the fact that most of my best friends are an email or telephone call away in another country, rather than within easy visiting distance. It simply makes the times we spend together even more precious!
Having said all of the above, I should add that the Geneva Writers’ Group has been a wonderful ‘real’ community of people passionate about literature. Even if I haven’t been able to attend all of their workshops, it is a wonderfully diverse, supportive and inspiring group of people.
4) My Cat: This year in February, a cat finally came into my life, after about 4 decades of hoping and wishing for one. I say ‘my’ because she is most certainly ‘my girl’, rather than the family cat. She ignores my husband, tolerates my sons and even sometimes plays with them… and adores me. She follows me around everywhere, and is happiest when she is cuddling up to me, kneading the blanket and sucking onto it – I must remind her of her mother. She may be a bit of a wuss when it comes to other cats and dogs in the neighbourhood, but she’s a good climber and outdoorsy type. She is the most gentle, affectionate, obedient cat you can imagine. She has taught me so much about patience, unconditional love, quiet support (with a purr and a rub) and just generally being calm and relaxed.
5) My Boys: Well, you didn’t think I was going to forget about them, did you? They’ve been one of the greatest sources of stress and anxiety this year, but also one of the biggest joys. Intelligent, opinionated, argumentative, droll and completely unsentimental, they make me laugh and cry many, many times… each day! I just hope I won’t mess them up too much on their way to adulthood.
Hope you’ve all found plenty of positives in your year, and here’s to wishing you all a very good 2015! Thank you very much for your wonderful company and see you in the New Year.
My sons were not impressed with the poem I wrote about our cat for dVerse Poets Pub. They suggested (insisted) I should post their ‘Song for Zoe’ instead. They’ve composed it themselves, written the lyrics and regularly perform it as a lullaby for our bemused cat. So here goes: the much better cat poem which perfectly captures her quintessential nature (and it rhymes!).
I am very honoured and pleased to be hosting my first session behind the bar at the dVerse Poets Pub today. Feel free to join me there for an animal-themed poetry session (and link your own animal poetry if you feel inspired).
There are two reasons for this animal theme: first, it is Poisson d’Avril (the fish which the French use to trick you on April Fools’ Day). Secondly and more selfishly, I cannot get enough of singing the praises of my lovely recently-adopted cat. Today is her (approximate) birthday: we think she is roughly two years old. It has been my lifelong desire to have a cat, always thwarted by parents, landlords, spouses, travel and international moves. But my patience has been rewarded with the sweetest, most affectionate cat in the world. Even though she does bring in an occasional lizard or bird…
At night a cat purrs me to oblivion
with rhythmic chant she kneads my mind
wet nose nestled in my blanket
she slows my needs and wants right down
mistress of silent companionship
she asks nothing, no rush to judge or refute
listens with pupils like pools of ancient knowledge.
I live scarcely aware of the encroachment of loneliness