Shuggie Bain was the surprise Booker Prize winner last year. I was intending to read it so when I was lent a copy at the weekend I got stuck in. I’ve finished it now and I think I need therapy.
This has to be the most depressing book ever. Shuggie is the youngest child of a large family in post-industrial Glasgow. His mother is a drunk and his father is a serial adulterer and abuser who moves his family to Pithead, a hopeless dead town outside a closed-down pit, before shogging off to live with his new woman. This story starts miserably, carries on hopelessly and ends in a slough of despond. Shuggie is gay and everyone knows it; he gets it in the neck from everyone at school and all the neighbours. The family are poor enough without the drink but if his mother gets hold of the benefits book it all goes on booze and Shuggie goes hungry. Even so, the hopelessness might be bearable if there was some sort of community but the neighbours are awful to each other; the women stand around gossiping maliciously and slagging each other off and the men only come by when they want something – usually sex. Even the one or two decent men in this seem doomed to impotence. The two older children get out as soon as they can – the daughter marries and moves to South Africa and the other son decamps to a bedsit in Glasgow, leaving Shuggie alone to try and save his mother from herself. He fails of course; she dies, and Shuggie ends up hanging out with a lesbian girl who is his only friend as they both try to save her mother who is now on the game.
I couldn’t find one thing to like about this book. It was a story of unrelieved grimness, of dirt and grime, of skidmarks on pants and snot on armchairs; a story of mouldy bread and damp carpets; in short, an endless litany of disgust. It reminded me a little of We Need to Talk About Kevin, though without the murders; it also put me in mind of Orwell’s description of the shifts that poverty puts you to and how hard it is to look decent when you live in a shithole. I’m not saying it was a bad book but it depressed me so much I really do think I’m going to need therapy.
It’s surprisingly hard to get hold of Proust in the UK. I expect in France he’s everywhere; in station bookstalls and top of every Amazon search – but over here he’s seen as very – ahem! – recherche.
A little in-joke there for those of you who already know that Proust wrote ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.’ This translates as In Search of Lost Time, though for some reason the first translator chose to go all Shakespeare on him and call it Remembrance of Things Past. I think that counts as cultural appropriation, quite frankly because it’s nowhere near accurate. Anyway, I first read Proust in the 1990’s and it took nearly all of that decade because Proust is not an easy read. His sentences are as long as most paragraphs and his thoughts complex and intertwining. It takes a long time to get into but once you’re there you can’t live without him and you come to realise that in fact Proust is God: there is nothing he doesn’t know.
So I have now successfully ordered Volume 1, ‘Swann’s Way’ (I’ve got all the books but they’re in storage and I can’t wait any longer.) I’ll go into this in greater depth when my book arrives.
I wonder what the Anglo-Saxon for shout-out might be? I guess I’ll find out as I plough through Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. I’m starting with the alphabet which is quite easy because most of it is like ours, although they have some different letters such as thorn and ‘eth’ (I think that’s what it’s called, though OH will correct me if not) both of which represent the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ in English – ie ‘th’ in ‘thing’ and ‘th’ in ‘seethe’. Anglo-Saxon is a delight to listen to, such a mouthful of juicy consonants accompanied by goblets full of ringing vowels, you can practically taste the mead and feel the table under your hand. It’s interesting also to put this together with Sutton Hoo – though 500 years separate the dig from Beowulf – to create a picture in the imagination. Beowulf – I’ve read it now – is essentially a tale of shield-bashing men from the time when men were men, wrestling monsters from the deep (and their mothers) and fiery dragons. But what interests me is what it says about the society; the life of the barn where people sat in the mead-hall while wardens were placed outside; how status was dependent on prowess on the battle-field, and above all the importance of exchanging gifts. At the end of Beowulf the eponymous hero, having died destroying a dragon, is buried with much of the haul they recovered from the dragon’s den and placed inside a huge barrow on the cliff-top. Having finished the poem I have an enduring vision of ships crossing ‘whale-roads’, great halls, flowing mead and long speeches – one or two of which are given by women. Though undoubtedly second-class citizens and traded as freely as gold or silver, women are not as silent in Beowulf as I had expected and one, the wife of the lord, makes a lengthy speech of welcome to the Geats (people from southern Sweden) who have come to Denmark to free the people from the monster. It’s interesting to imagine the great mead-hall of Beowulf strewn with the found objects from Sutton Hoo; the shoulder-clasps of gold inlaid with garnet, the helmets laid aside while the heroes eat and the great cauldron hanging from the roof of the barn with perhaps a meaty stew inside. These were already sophisticated people with customs, trade, religion, seafaring routes and a social hierarchy. It’s just a pity that all they seemed to think about was war. Hey, ho – it’s tough studying Anglo-Saxon as a Quaker…
I’ve been watching bits of the impeachment trial on youtube. It’s deeply shocking when you put together Trump’s inflammatory speeches, tweets and statements with the actions of the crowd rampaging through the Capitol carrying nooses and guns and threatening to kill Senators for merely carrying out their duties. But what’s worse is the fact that as things stand the Senate is unlikely to convict. Republican Senators are scared, not so much of Trump as of their constituents (or whatever they call them over there). It really is mob rule, and you have to salute those brave enough to stand up for the rule of law. They are the human barricades in this situation.
I grew up believing fascism was dead, that it had been defeated in my parents’ generation and could not come back. That was a delusion; fascism is back, it’s loud and Proud, it waves flags and totes guns and will stop at nothing to achieve its ends. Fascism has no arguments and no creed; it doesn’t bother to debate, just says get out of my way, I’m going to win here because I’m right. And why am I right? Because this gun, this fist, this flag says I’m right. This President says I’m right. Fascism takes no account of reason or law except as obstacles that stand in its way. Of course, when they get into power they will enact their own laws which they will enforce with draconian severity, but for now laws are there to be broken. Your laws have no legitimacy. Why not? Because I say so. It’s this climate which encourages far-right Senators to insist they can bring guns into the Capitol and go without a mask: because I say so. Because it’s my right. Because I have the freedom. They are quick enough to invoke the second amendment for their own freedom of speech but would deny others the right to go about their lawful business or to cast their vote.
Trump will go down in infamy, sure. But the chaos he caused will carry on. Year on year there may be fewer people believing the election was ‘stolen’ but there will still be some – and in four years time a cleverer person can come along and manipulate these people and in the guise of rescuing America do what Trump failed to do and finish the job. In the end Trump was a useful idiot; he was like the Ape in The Last Battlewho only wants more nuts and oranges and is made use of by cleverer, more manipulative power-brokers. To gain power in a democracy you need at least a measure of self-control and Trump had none; in the end his downfall was that he couldn’t accept losing. Losing was against his code, against his creed (if you can call it that) against his whole raison d’etre. He is simply incapable of accepting defeat; he has not conceded the election and probably never will. This is a terrible weakness. A more sensible person would have conceded, albeit between gritted teeth, and bided their time for a comeback. But Trump has never been sensible.
Whatever possessed a population to vote him in in the first place is a question we’ll probably never fully be able to answer. He was a disgrace to his office and his country. He roused up the worst elements in the population, incited an insurrection and should never be allowed anywhere near office again. Will the Senate have the guts to convict? We live in hope.
In other news, my copy of The Dig has arrived. Yay! I look forward to reading it and I’ll let you know my thoughts. In reference to Wednesday’s discussion on books vs ebooks, I get most of my reading via Alibris, a site which links second-hand bookshops throughout the UK (there’s also a US site.) Typically prices are much lower than in the shops, though not so low as Amazon. But you know why I don’t use Amazon: at least you ought to know, for I have often told you so… You can also find obscure or out of print books, usually for a reasonable price; I’m still awaiting my copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. Greek is not enough: I must learn Anglo-Saxon! I must read the tales of Hroth and Hgoth and their glorious swords and try to detach my feminist consciousness from this chest-beating epic. I’ll let you know how I get on…
I was thinking this morning as OH perused yet another volume on Kindle, about why it is that I so dislike reading a book from a screen. I know it’s cheap, I know it’s easy and I know you can get hundreds of books on one tablet, but I just can’t get along with Kindle. Why not?
First, when reading from a screen I have a tendency to scroll; this comes from a habit of scrolling through stuff on Facebook or email and it’s a bad habit but a necessary one: I simply don’t have time to read closely every communication that comes my way so I scan to see if it merits closer reading and if it doesn’t, I’ll move on. There’s so much information out there and you can look something up on Google and get sucked into a rabbit hole before you know it. It’s not so much that we take in more information than our forebears, but that what we do take in is more scattered; rather than reading the paper over breakfast or sitting in the evening with a book, we check the news online, switch to Facebook, scan our emails, begin the crossword and then maybe dive back into to a news story, perhaps with the radio or TV on in the background – all of which can be randomly interrupted by texts or phone calls and don’t even get me started on adverts. You could say our attention is being stolen moment by moment, but we are also giving it away: we are butterflies fluttering from flower to flower picking up a little bit here, a little bit there and never fully digesting what we read.
A book is something I hold in my hand, and there’s something about the relationship between brain and hand that makes the holding of a book into something more serious than scrolling with a mouse. There’s an intention; you take down the book from the shelf and open it, you settle in your chair and hold the book in your hand, all of which sends a signal to the brain saying ‘this is what we’re doing now’. Result: the brain sits up and pays attention like a class of children when a teacher walks into the room. When I’m reading a book I don’t do anything else but read: I might sip a cup of tea or glance out of the window but I don’t flip back and forth between emails and Facebook because they are not accessible to me. Then when I’ve finished I mark my place and put the book back on the shelf; another signal to the brain saying we’ve stopped reading now.
This is what I’m doing now has become a sort of mantra for me. If my mind becomes scattered or impatient I stop and say, This is what I’m doing now. Sometimes I’ll even narrate: Now I am going into the bathroom. Now I am sitting down... yeah, OK – I’ll spare you the rest.
The most important thing I learned from yoga is to be present in the here and now: I’m also a great believer in seizing not just the day, but the moment. To pay attention to one’s desires and impulses is the key to not being dominated by them. If Trump had learned this when he was younger the world would have been spared a painful four years. More on that story tomorrow… gosh, I’m organised this week.
As I lay awake in the early hours abandoning all hope of sleep (abandon sleep all ye who enter here) I was thinking about the music of the spheres. In ancient times they had an idea that the spheres – ie the planets and the sun – made a kind of music inaudible to our ears, but real to those tuned in to it. It was not literal music but an idea of harmony and it was also linked with dance. Just as you cannot have dance without music, so to the ancient mind the planets could not move without their own kind of music. Everything was in harmony and everything knew its place.
Nowadays we’ve thrown out all such ideas. Any harmony is in the human mind, not ‘out there’; the universe is random and movements are governed by forces we partly know and partly have yet to discover. Yet if we set aside the notion of hierarchy there is something very appealing in the notion that everything in the universe works in harmony in a fusion of music and dance. C S Lewis picks up this idea in the Narnia books: in Prince Caspian the young prince is taken to see the conjunction of two stars, Tarva and Alambil: they are so close together that he asks whether the stars will collide. ‘Nay,’ says his tutor, ‘they know their dance too well for that.’ And in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Caspian actually meets a retired star living on a remote island. Every day he is brought a live coal from the mountains of the sun and every day he grows a little younger: soon he will take his place once more at the Eastern rim of the world and begin the dance.
There’s something hypnotic and deeply spiritual about dance; and perhaps this accounts for why I dislike Strictly so much. I know it’s tantamount to heresy to say this, particularly since Bill Bailey won it, but I just can’t stand it. I can’t quite put my finger on why but I think it may be this; that in all the competition, the spangly-twirliness, the light-flashin’, lip-smackin’, costume-wearin’, the relentless cheering and the acrobatics, something of the soul is missing. Popular it may be; dance of the spheres it ain’t.
I’m going to leave you with a couple of my favourite dances on film. The first is from A Knight’s Tale where a stately dance to medieval music morphs seamlessly, almost imperceptibly into Bowie’s Golden Years:
And this. Almost any dance scene from La La Land would do, it’s a totally magical film but I’m going to leave you with this. It was filmed almost in one take early in the morning just outside L A and it’s stunning.
Enjoy! Have a little twirl yourself – but do it with soul.
Day 1 – Ghost of Christmas Past. Name one book that you loved as a child. I’m going with my first trip to Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Day 2 – The Ghost of Christmas Present. One book that you’ve loved reading this year. For me it’s a toss-up between Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth.
Day 3 – The Ghost of Christmas yet to come, which for me will probably be the next thing Ian Rankin produces. We don’t know what that will be because he has a habit of writing a book a year and so probably hasn’t started it yet.
Day 4 – Bah humbug! Name a book everyone raves about which you can’t stand. Well, I’ve never really understood all the fuss about Catcher in the Rye.Sorry, but there it is.
Day 5 – Bob Cratchit, an old dependable, a book you always go back to. I’d have to go with Pride and Prejudicefor this.
Day 6 – Tiny Tim, something overlooked. I’m going to say E F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels because despite the fame of Mapp and Lucia on TV he’s still underrated in literary circles.
Day 7 – A Muppet Christmas Carol, your favourite adaptation. For me this has to be the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. It cannot be bettered.
Day 8 – A Christmas Carol; what, apart from the aforenamed book, gets you in the mood for Christmas? I’m struggling here because it’s mostly music and lights that get me in the mood, so I’m leaving this one blank.
And finally, Day 9 – have a go yourself and then get others to join in. Spread the fun.
As I finished Tom Holt’s book Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages and placed it down on the table I happened to glance at the back cover and immediately snatched it up again. ‘No!’ I exclaimed to my inamorata. ‘But how thrilling! Mr Holt has written two more Lucia novels!’ I hastened to the website of my favourite bookseller to order them post haste; then I hurried into town to spread the news. ‘Bit late, Elizabeth,’ observed quaint Irene with a puff on her pipe. ‘They came out in 1985. Ha!’ and she turned on her heel and left. Was she alone in the knowledge? Alas, no – every citizen of Tilling had long been apprised of these additional volumes and Mr and Mrs Wyse had gone to the lengths of ordering special leather-bound volumes to go with the rest of their collection. Feeling slightly dashed, I returned home to await the delivery of said books in order to complete my education.
It is indeed true, and why I didn’t know it until now I can’t say, but Tom Holt has written a pair of additional volumes in the Mapp and Lucia series. E F Benson died in 1940 leaving his characters utterly bereft, and Holt came to the rescue. The question was, could he do them justice? I opened Lucia in Wartime in some trepidation, but I need not have worried: the answer is that yes, he could – and did; in fact I annoyed OH so much with my laughter that the earbuds were brought into play. The books are glorious. Tilling lives again; the shops where gossip is exchanged, the corner house called Mallards (in reality Lamb House where both Benson and Henry James lived), Twistevants the grocer’s, Hopkins the fishmongers, quaint Irene’s Taormina and Glebe, where Elizabeth Mapp is forced to live having had to sell Mallards with much grinding and gnashing of teeth to her arch-rival Lucia. The central feature of these stories is of course the rivalry between these two and the delicious balance in which Lucia, by virtue of having a (slightly) larger soul, always wins in the end. All the comedy of the original style is kept – tiny events being described in terms of a Homeric epic – and all in all I thoroughly enjoyed both Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant. Only two things are missing: why do the characters not, as they always did, use au reservoir as a valediction? And what on earth has happened to Mistress Mapp’s little piggies which she always greeted in the morning if Withers was present and counted as soon as Withers had left? I think we should be told.
If you have not yet been to Tilling I urge you to visit as soon as possible. Here are the originals and here are Tom Holt’s additions to the canon.
PS No! But how thrilling! I’ve just discovered a third, a novella. I must order it immediately.
I read just this morning some advice which suggested a blogger should always make it clear what their blog is about. But this presents me with some difficulty because when it comes down to it, what actually is this blog about?
It’s easy to say ‘it’s a blog about writing’ – and in the main it is; but it’s about so much more than that. The one thing I discovered when I began to blog regularly was that it is impossible to stick to one subject. The mind lists where it will; there are many things I’m interested in and I want to share those interests with readers. I want to connect: I want to philosophise and politicise and talk about anything I damn well please, from bricklaying (yes, I did that once) to road materials testing (also done) to knitting and poetry and short stories and poems about knitting and road materials and bricklaying (I haven’t yet written about the last two but knitting has proved a fertile metaphor for many things.)
I also want to blog about culture: I want to organise my responses to films and TV programmes, I want to write book reviews and share the poetry I love. So in the main, it’s about connection. Only connect would be a good alternative title for the blog if ‘A Writer’s Life’ weren’t clearer and more likely to – ahem – connect with readers.
One of the writing quotes I read recently was: ‘A writer knows a little about everything and is an expert on nothing.’ Now I think that’s exactly true: I am compelled to find out about all manner of things and would be just as engaged in finding out how fork-lift trucks work (indeed I have had that conversation with a friend who works at JCB) as with hearing about how other writers write. I’m fascinated by these processes and not with any conscious intent of ‘doing research’ for writing: they just interest me. As Chaucer said (or at least the Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) ‘all human life lies within the artist’s scope.’ So there it is; all human life lies within this blog’s scope.
Where does the week go? It’s Thursday already and yesterday was Monday – wasn’t it? Now that I think about it, there were events in between Monday and today, it’s just that they seem compressed somehow. There’s a time schmoosh (to use the technical term) and everything’s crammed together in one brief span. And now, to add to my woes, I keep thinking it’s Friday and I’m demanding that people send me links to programmes that haven’t aired yet.
I’m also thinking about my granddaughter, who’ll be one in a few weeks’ time. Her entire life is less than a year at this point, so how long must a day seem to her? If time perception is proportional to age then a day to her is like two months to me. That’s a very sobering thought and makes you reflect on the intensity of childhood experience – that we should always be wary of dismissing their suffering as short-lived.
I am a follower of this blog about C S Lewis and his legacy. Lewis was a man of many contradictions; a devout Christian and confirmed bachelor who ended up marrying an atheist, and a writer of excellent children’s books who was uncomfortable around children in real life. Although many of his attitudes were of their time I can’t think of another writer of that generation who wrote stories for boys and girls where both male and female characters took part in the adventures. It’s true that Narnian society is largely patriarchal; it’s equally true that he has a problem with women in positions of power: both the White Witch and the much talked-about Susan problem testify to that. But I can’t think of another writer of his time who writes such excellent stories for both sexes.
This article has some interesting things to say on the problem of Susan: I love the phrase ‘Renaissance fair cosplayers.’ And there are some further thoughts here.
Oh, and you’ll be relieved to know that I got my mouse sorted out. As Ratae suggested, it just needed its eye cleaned. It now has 20/20 vision.