Sometimes you come across books in the most bizarre of circumstances. In this time of lockdown with libraries and bookshops being closed, people have taken to putting books out in the street for others to take, and a couple of weeks back I happened to pass a local craft shop where the owner had done just that. On her windowsill sat a bunch of books all thoughtfully wrapped in plastic and just waiting to be taken home and read. Aha! I thought. I’ve never read The Darling Buds of May; I’ll take that one.
Not only had I never read the book, I’d not watched the TV series either, though it was very popular at the time. It starred David Jason and now that I’ve finished reading, I can see exactly why. Though it was published in 1952, it could have been written for him; every time Pop Larkin speaks I hear David Jason’s voice.
Ma and Pop Larkin inhabit an idyllic rural world where without anyone doing too much work there is a superabundance of food and drink. This is lavishly described, as are the prodigious dimensions of Ma Larkin, reminding us that 1952 was still a time of rationing. Into this bucolic world enters Mr Charlton, a hapless tax collector sent by the Inland Revenue to persuade Pop Larkin to cough up what he owes. But Charlton is completely swept away by the overwhelming hospitality of the Larkins and despite his protests ends up staying the night – and the weekend – and, having fallen in love with Mariette, the rest of his life with the Larkins.
So similar is Pop Larkin to Del-Boy Trotter that I can’t help wondering whether the one was based on the other. Both series deal with the rise of the working class; in Buds of May, the Larkins are generally better off than their aristocratic neighbours whereas Del-Boy merely aspires to be so. There’s also a gentle and open-minded attitude to sex which must have been deeply refreshing in the buttoned-up ’50’s; when at the beginning of the book Mariette announces that she’s pregnant, rather than reacting with righteous fury Pop Larkin says ‘Oh? Well, that don’t matter. Perfick. Jolly good.’
It’s all great fun and a far cry from poor old Philip who was writing at the same time, sexually frustrated, pent-up in lodgings and miserable to the core. Nevertheless he was a great poet and here, specially for Beetley Pete, is his poem Days:
This says a lot about the way we live but the total number of deaths of people we knew is about four times the yearly average – and it’s only April. So far Mike Gerrard (a Leicester musician and activist) Sonja Grossner, also a local musician, Pete Regan (friend of a friend) and this week my Uncle Ted, who was 91, have all gone. Then yesterday we learned that Kev Ryan of Charnwood Arts died on 22nd of April. He’d been ill for some time and seems to have approached death in the same calm and smiling manner with which he approached life. He was a lovely guy and will be much missed.
The odd thing is that only a couple of these deaths were directly Covid-related. Yet you can’t help wondering whether a second wave of deaths could be indirectly caused or hastened by the ongoing crisis in the NHS.Whatever the reason I’ve never known so many deaths in such a short space of time. Which just goes to show what a privileged life we’re leading.
Yet every privilege has its drawbacks; and the problem with our way of life is that we are such strangers to death that we fear it far more than those who see it every day. We regard long life as an unqualified good and will do almost anything to prolong our own existence. This can lead to procrastination and an unhealthy fear of death.
Ok that’s enough of the D-word. let’s talk comedy. Last night’s Big Night Inhttps://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p088xf57/the-big-night-in saw a mash-up of Comic Relief and Children in Need with performers doing their piece at home either recorded or via live link-up and people donating online or by text. It was very successful as far as fundraising goes – they made £27m which the government have promised to match – and it seems a little churlish under the circumstances to say it wasn’t terribly entertaining because the fact that they were able to get it together at all was quite something. It was a real logistical achievement and they should be saluted for that.
And that’s about it for today. Stay safe and don’t be like these Pharisees in Ohio who proclaimed that they were safe from C19 from being ‘washed in the blood of Christ.’ Their pastor recently died of the virus.
Is it Thursday already? How did that happen?Where do the days go? Between doing Greek (today is Pemti,I’ve discovered) and streaming my thoughts on paper, between doing Words with Friends (just scored 96, that’ll do nicely) and the crossword, between reading and walking and sitting in the sun, there hardly seems time to do anything else.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that jobs expand to fill the time available. The average length of time spent on housework now is supposed to be the same as it was before the war, though we have many more gadgets to do it for us. Why? Because standards rise. If we’re not careful, rather than appreciating the extra, effort-free cleanliness a dishwasher can offer, we just raise our standards and tut at every speck of dirt.
It’s all down to this very natural human feature of habituation. Habituation is a great strength; it makes us infinitely adaptable. But if we’re not careful it can become an equally great weakness, causing us to take things for granted and just ‘up our game’ instead of being liberated by household gadgets.
There is a saying that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person. Why? Because they are used to being efficient, so they’ll make time to fit it in. If you ask someone who’s used to doing very little they may vastly overestimate the time it will take to do the thing and very likely not want to get off their arse, because they’re not used to managing their time. There’s a nice take on this in ‘Yes Man’ where at the beginning of the film Carl is ‘too busy’ to go out because he has an evening of uninterrupted video-watching lined up.
I’ve been there. I’ve been reluctant to go out or take phone calls and interrupt a planned evening of viewing. It’s good to be able to fill an empty day but then you can become attached to your routine and not want to go out.
I expect the Greeks have a word for that. ‘Antimetanoia’ or something; I’ll let you know when I find out. Or maybe OH will put it in a comment…
It’s Earth Day today, a day when we try to stop doing all the things we normally do which f*** up the planet but which at the moment we are largely not able to do anyway; and it occurred to me that there’s a profound connection between caring about the earth and being grounded. If you have a connection with the soil; if you walk on it, grow stuff in it and nurture it, you become quite literally earthed. You are more stable, less likely to short-circuit, less likely to fly away into realms of psychosis. Nowadays if I ever feel a psychotic episode coming on I stop whatever I’m doing and just stand, feeling myself connected to a particular point in space and time. I am also convinced that our habit of flying not only damages the planet but disconnects us in every way from the earth.
Right now though I’m quite connected to ancient Greece: yes, my long-awaited book came yesterday and I plunged right in.
It’s a little daunting as it’s designed by Warwick University for philosophy students to learn Greek so they can read Plato in the original, and has chapters on various declensions, conjugations and tenses. Greek has three voices (practically a Greek chorus, lol) – active, passive and ‘middle voice’ and an ‘aurist’ tense about which I know nothing whatsoever. But hey, if philosophy students can do it, so can I.
I get extra brownie points today because I started work at 6 am. Yes, you read that right – 6 am. From time to time I get these ideas about getting up early and working right through: this is quite unrealistic because I generally work best in fairly short bursts, but today when I woke at 5.30 and felt I wouldn’t get back to sleep, it seemed meant to be. So I dressed and got to my desk and lo! by half past I’d run out of notebook. So another careful trip to the shops is in the offing.
Incidentally from a mental health point of view I’ve found that getting up early or going to bed late can induce psychosis. These are times when other people are not around and when daily activity is suspended, so they’re good times if you want to meditate but bad times if you need to be earthed.
No disrespect to anyone suffering right now; I don’t ignore those on the front line without proper equipment or those who’ve lost loved ones: it’s just that right now I’m quite enjoying myself. I’m really appreciating having some time out; time where I don’t have to organise anything or interact with anyone (unless I want to) time to reflect, time to read, time to Not go shopping (yes I realise I split an infinitive there but hey! that’s just where I’m at right now. A propos of which I want to show you this, which amused me:
That gave me a laugh.I’m fortunate in that I live in a reasonably-sized house where I can get away from other people; and that we have a garden. I feel sorry for those cooped up in flats – it must be intolerable. But I get to sit in the garden for an hour or so after lunch and read; I get to watch lots of TV without feeling bad about it, and I don’t have to make decisions about whether we should go out and if so where.
Even so, yesterday I broke curfew and went to Sainsbury’s. I’d been more than a week without alcohol and something just snapped; I’d had a difficult day and I just had to have some. So I checked out the aisles, saw they were reasonably quiet and zoomed in, armed with plastic gloves and facial scarf. I have never seen the place so empty and I was pleased to see screens at all checkouts and staff enforcing the two metres distancing rule. I resisted the temptation to stock up on other things and bore home in triumph a couple of moderately-sized wine boxes and a case of assorted Greene King ales.
Lovely. So now I’m all set for another couple of months…
Sometimes a word comes to me that doesn’t yet have a meaning and seems to ask me to find it one; and this morning’s word was Glitfic. In this post I shall try to explore what Glitfic might mean.
Well, let’s start with litfic. Litfic is literary fiction and I’ve been doing a fair bit of that recently. I’ve branched out with my reading over the weekend or perhaps looped back a little to last year (was it last year? Yes it was – here’s my first post about it) when I first came across Patrick Melrose. This is a series of five novels amounting to nearly 900 pages though not remotely as dense or difficult as either The Mirror and the Light or Ducks, Newburyport. I have to say I was disappointed in the latter as it didn’t seem to come to any definite conclusion, though the penultimate scene was exciting enough. But the method of narrative was quite unique and together with the Neapolitan Quartet makes probably the finest depiction of female consciousness since Sappho.
I’m hoping to be able to read Sappho in the original before too long. My Greek is progressing well and I’m now able to read more or less anything – though reading and understanding are of course not the same thing. Anyway, back to Patrick Melrose, Edward St Aubyn’s account of a boy with an abusive father who grows up to be a rich, highly dysfunctional addict and eventually achieves some sort of redemption. It was made into a series starring Benedict Cumberbatch (who else could play a mile-a-minute addict so brilliantly?) but alas, that doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere at the moment – or at least not anywhere I can access. I had a terrific day yesterday just sitting in the garden reading the books and losing myself in the appalling world of the idle rich in which the character grows up.
So I guess either of these things – Greek literature or the glitzy world of Melrose – could be glitfic. I think something should be…
One good thing about the lockdown is that I no longer feel guilty for watching too much TV instead of going out. Going out is now simply Not An Option, so from 7 pm till bedtime I’m glued to the old box. Actually I do read a bit too and last night we went out with saucepans and spoons to do the clap for the NHS and carers. I must say I do wish the government would pay nurses and doctors as freely as they pay MP’s; god knows they deserve it.
So what am I watching? Last night we finished the mini-series Quiz (I always like to hyphenate that word because otherwise it looks like miseries) about the so-called ‘coughing Major’ on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Now obviously this was a drama not a documentary but from watching it, the truth seems much less clear-cut than it did at the time, given the news reports and the guilty verdicts. Then again it’s the defence counsel’s job to shed doubt on the evidence and this was a drama so who knows what liberties they took with the facts? Still whatever the truth, it’s compelling stuff and demonstrates the quite gob-smacking lengths some people will go to to try to win large amounts of money. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Slumdog Millionaire, the dramatisation of Vikram Seth’s novel Q&Ain which the protagonist knows the answers because of the trials he’s been through.
After that I returned to Wolf Hall, the quite stupendous series spanning Hilary Mantel’s first two novels which I rate even more highly the second time around, having read the entire trilogy. The casting couldn’t be better; Claire Foy is superb as the flashing, ambitious and thoroughly nasty Anne Boleyn, Mark Gatiss horribly oily as Cromwell’s enemy (one of many) Stephen Gardiner, and Bernard Hill terrific as the outrageous braggart Norfolk. But better than all these is Mark Rylance’s Cromwell, a figure in the shadows who works his way into the heart of governmentby keeping his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut.
I haven’t yet got to the third series of Killing Eve but I will arrive there soon; in the meantime I have to catch up with The Nest, a Scottish drama set in a lochside house where a rich but childless couple take their last chance at having a child when a strange young woman enters their lives in a dramatic way. But there’s an awful lot about her past which she hasn’t told them…
In between times I’m still struggling with Beloved – struggling not because of the writing but because it’s so heartbreaking – and working my way through The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende’s novel which spans most of 20th-century Chile and the rise of socialism.
Hilary Mantel is everywhere at the moment; there’s a documentary on the iplayer and Wolf Hall is back too, the series comprising the first two novels of the Cromwell trilogy. But it’s the third volume that I’m concerned with here. I’ve finally got my thoughts together to give you that long-promised review, so here it comes. Is it any good? Yes. Is it brilliant? Yes and double-yes. Does she deserve to get yet another Booker, making it a hat trick? Well, it’s a hard thing to pull off and it depends on the competition but I’d say she’s earned it, so yes again.
Why is it so good? Well, first of all there’s the character of Cromwell. Mantel has set herself a huge challenge here, to make us love the ostensibly unlovable Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s fixer who at first sight seems to have the morals of an East End gangster. Son of a thoroughly abusive blacksmith, Cromwell is taken under the wing of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he serves till the Cardinal’s downfall. Then, through a mixture of guile, bluntness and sheer hard work, he becomes Henry’s fixer, engineering his marriage to Anne Boleyn and then to his two successive wives.
The novel opens with Anne Boleyn on the scaffold, kneeling in prayer as she awaits the axe; and it continues in the same vein. It is strewn with brutal state-sanctioned murders of which beheadings are the most benign, followed by hangings, then hangings-drawings-and-quarterings and finally burnings at the stake, which can be better or worse depending on the type of wood used and how dry it is. Cromwell witnesses his first burning as a child and it marks him for life.
So how does Mantel get us to love this singularly unlovable character? She does so by making him a democrat; an egalitarian. Cromwell has risen from lowly surroundings and although in serving the King he serves his own ambition, he is generous to his social inferiors, promoting those with ability, treating women as his equals and allowing his daughters to marry whom they wish. Tragically both wife and daughters die early on from a fever, another reminder of the omnipresence of death in Tudor society.Cromwell’s democratic instincts also lead him to passionately promote Tyndale’s New Testament, a dangerous undertaking which challenges the authority of the priests. Cromwell may be modern but he is not modernised: he believes strongly in God and wants people to be able to read His word in their own language.
We know the main thrust of the story of course: divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived is imprinted on our childhood memories. But it’s the details we don’t know: the small beer drunk for breakfast, the prayers said at noon and at dusk, the Lenten fast, the stinking rivers, the rushes on the floor thrown out and renewed daily; the smell of the privy and the stench of Henry’s infected leg. But one of the most fascinating details for me was the HA-HAs: not the sunken hedges so popular in the 18th century but decorations with Henry and Anne’s initials intertwined. These had been put up in all the King’s houses like Christmas tinsel and of course they all had to be removed on her death, down to the very last one. Henry cannot be reminded of his murdered wife, now that he hopes to court another.
The first part of the novel deals with the machinations needed to bring Jane Seymour to court and Cromwell’s attempts to reconcile the King to his daughter Mary. He is successful in both these endeavours and as we know the King marries Jane Seymour. But the marriage only lasts a few years as she too dies, so off Cromwell goes once more to seek another suitable bride. What is clear from these machinations is not only the religious contortions necessary to reconcile Henry’s actions with church doctrine (these would not be out of place under Stalin) but also the way women are traded and moved about like pieces on a chess board purely for the purposes of breeding. It’s a genteel world on the outside but brutal on the inside. Speaking of Stalin there’s a moment reminiscent of The Death of Stalin where Henry collapses and appears to have died and Norfolk unwisely goes about shouting and proclaiming himself as heir. ‘Me! Me!’ It’s a farcical, almost comic moment – and by the way, if you haven’t seen The Death of StalinI urge you to rectify that omission immediately. I think it’s still on Netflix.
After a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing involving painting of portraits by Holbein so each could see what the other looked like (no Tinder in those days) the King is induced to select Anne of Cleves as his next wife. Unfortunately illness spoils her looks and careful contriving is necessary to present her properly to the King. But Henry ruins all by his impetuosity; he rides out to meet her on the way and bursts in to surprise her. The meeting is not a success, and neither is the marriage. Soon another divorce is in the offing.
But does Henry blame himself for being so precipitate? Of course not, he blames Cromwell; and from the moment of that unhappy meeting Cromwell’s days are numbered. He is taken to the Tower and questioned to prove some sort of heresy as a pretext for his murder; questioning to which he submits calmly, only asking as to the manner of his death. Thankfully it is beheading, the most merciful of all the options – but even so he remarks as he ascends the scaffold that the executioner appears drunk. Not a good sign.
And so ends Cromwell and the trilogy.
And this review.Go read the book; available at all good outlets. Just don’t give Amazon any more moneybecause I think they have enough.
In the last few days I’ve heard of the deaths of three people. The first one was a friend-of-a-friend, the second was someone I knew slightly in years gone by and the third – the third was someone I knew quite well. It’s getting closer: death, which so far has hovered in the distance, approaching only to take the elderly or the very sick; death, which so far has given warning of its intentions and only struck after a long illness or prolonged old age; death now grows bold and stalks us all, striking without warning. It’s like a wild animal which so far has only terrorised the outskirts of the city but now comes into the suburbs and threatens the very hub. The Pope said yesterday – or it may not have been the Pope, I can’t remember – that only a fool would fail to think about their own mortality in these times. No it wasn’t the Pope – he said something else – it was Richard Rohr, whose daily readings hit my inbox first thing in the morning. I can’t find the quote but he does have a lot to say about coming to terms with death.
The death of someone known affects us all. I hadn’t been close to Sonja at all yet I felt shaken by the news, and I’ve ‘seen’ her several times on my daily walks; the brain lights up with recognition and you think, Ah, there’s Sonja before realising that it definitely isn’t. I’ve had this experience with everyone I’ve known after their death and I still sometimes see my Dad walking down the road.
The Pope said something very wise and in a way surprising; that C19 may be a plague on humanity because of our desecration of the planet. Itend to agree; if it’s a punishment for anything it’s that, though I prefer to think of it as giving the planet a rest from us and giving us a chance to change. Will we change before it’s too late? I hope so but I fear it may take a lot more than one corona virus. Sometimes I just wish we’d all die out…
Still, there’s one good thing: death was until recently the great taboo. Now we’re all talking about it…
How do you know if you’re awake? It can be very disturbing to think you’re awake and discover that you’re dreaming, and many’s the night when I’ve been convinced I layawake only to be told that I had snored copiously. Then there was the time when I woke up and moaned: ‘I can’t slee- zzzzzzzzzzzzz’.
But it’s one thing not to know you’re asleep but even more disturbing not to know if you’re awake. In the early hours of yesterday I had a very vivid dream in which Peter Capaldi was playing Dr Who dressed in the outfit Peter Davison used to wear which in this particular dream consisted of red trousers under a long flowing red gown. ‘He’s wearing the wrong trousers,’ I thought, a little like Wallace having a nightmare, and when I heard OH get up and I recounted my dream to him. Then I went back to sleep. Except that later when OH came in with the tea it transpired I hadn’t told them at all. It had been another dream – or if you like, a meta-dream.
This morning was even more bizarre. Not only was I awake, I was sitting up and drinking tea when I saw that a friend had invited me to join a Richard Dawkins group on Facebook. While slightly unexpected, this would not be out of character; however when I clicked the link it said I would have to answer two questions before I could be accepted: first, Do you believe in science? and second, do you believe in God? Of course I answered Yes to both and then waited to see if I’d be accepted.
In the meantime I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like. Would the group accept me or would they pound me with questions about god and religion? It was on my mind so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it, but decided I wouldn’t publish until I heard back from the group admin.
But here’s the weird thing: not only did I not hear back from the group, I can’t find any trace either of it or my invitation to join. And the friend in question disclaims sending me an invitation of any sort. The more I think about it the more I think it must have been a dream, but it’s just about the weirdest one I’ve had.
Anyway, I think I’m awake now… last night I watched the much-anticipated drama series Quiz, about the ‘coughing Major’ who cheated on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? So far it’s good; it reminds me of Slumdog Millionaire and Michael Sheen is almost too convincing as Chris Tarrant, so much so that you forget it’s not the man himself. That’s on ITV, Mondays at 9.If I haven’t dreamt that up as well…