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.
I’m being rather classical of late. I’m not only learning Greek but immersing myself in Roman culture; first, with the DVDs of I, Claudius and secondly with a Mary Beard miniseries about ordinary Roman citizens. Then the other day I got sufficiently inspired to order a copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We studied Gibbon for his prose style during A-level English so I am looking forward to experiencing that again, though God alone knows how long it will take: I’ve been waiting a fortnight already for Reni Eddo-Lodge and the book on how to argue with an atheist. It’s very frustrating. OH frightened me somewhat by asking if I had ordered all thirty volumes of Gibbon; fortunately I’d just ordered the one volume which I assume is some kind of digest. (According to the Guardian review linked above, there are only six volumes – so now I’m totally confused.)
It’s been a fairly typical lockdown weekend. I decline to open myself up just yet as I’m daily more convinced that we are heading for a second spike in infections and that things are being opened up too early. I understand the arguments for doing so, but surely no economic motives can outweigh the fact that lives may be at stake. So I’m continuing more or less as I have been; though every time I go out it gets harder to socially distance.
I’ve been trying to compare the Roman Empire with ours. In many ways they’re very similar: we both told ourselves we were civilising the world and that we had a right to invade other countries. We both kept slaves, though arguably Roman slavery was better in that it wasn’t always a life sentence; slaves could be and often were freed and could reach fairly high positions in society. You could also argue that the Romans were more liberal in that they allowed for freedom of religion: conquered races were allowed to continue worshiping their own gods so long as that didn’t interfere with the running of the Empire. We, on the other hand, insisted on converting all subjugated people to Christianity. Another point in the Romans’ favour is that they respected courage and defiance in their enemies.
But of course the most interesting period of Roman history is the era of the decline and fall; and I shall probably write more about this in due course once I’ve studied Gibbon. If it ever arrives…
I am currently suffering from some lurgy (cause unknown but definitely not the dreaded C19) which has caused my lips to swell and crack, my mouth to ulcerate, my tongue to develop the sensitivity of a paranoid narcissist and my brain to quietly crumble. And what’s most annoying about this is that it makes eating and drinking very hard. Normally when I’m ill and can’t do much I look forward to meals and cups of tea; not this time. For the last few days I’ve eaten hardly anything and I woke up today dreaming of boiled egg and soldiers. A nice soft-boiled egg couldn’t do any harm, could it? Well no, but my mistake was in toasting the bread. The result was coarse brown fingers with the consistency of granite covered in sandpaper, which the softness of the egg did little to mitigate. As for drinking, since swallowing is hard and since I can barely open my mouth without covering the entire area in saliva, it is not pleasurable. Not to mention that any liquids hotter than tepid taste like boiling sulphur. It is not fun. As diets go, this is the most unpleasant one I’ve done in a long time.
I don’t want to put you off whatever liquids or solids you might be ingesting, but for some reason this particular virus has seen fit to, as you might say, demoralise the muscles of my mouth. My lips have not only swollen but lost all capacity to contain liquids and drool continually escapes from the corners of my mouth. Sorry, that’s probably too much information but I just had to offload.
Since I’ve been reading both Hilary Mantel and Heresy, the book given away with it, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction. Until Mantel came along this was not a genre I’d read much, not since going through a Georgette Heyer phase in my teens at least. But along came Wolf Hall and of course I had to read that, and then its sequels. I don’t think it’ll start me reading other historical fiction, though you never know; when I struck out into the unknown terrain of Rebus’s Edinburgh I had no idea that it would lead me to Peter May, Nicci French and Peter James. So we’ll see.
The thing about historical fiction is that unlike crime fiction (unless you choose to write about an actual crime) the plot is already there. History is already written and unless you play about on the borders of fantasy you can’t have Henry VIII sticking with Katharine of Aragon or Elizabeth I marrying Francis Bacon. Historical fiction sticks to the facts and plays around them; so with Thomas Cromwell Mantel takes the known facts and from them constructs a character utterly unknown to us until that point. The plot is there but the characters are all to play for.
Not so S J Parris. Yes, she takes a world where Protestantism is still struggling to establish itself, where Catholics are being weeded out and brutally murdered; and centres in this world the character of Giordano Bruno, himself a Catholic visiting Oxford to give a lecture on the Copernican view of the universe. Yet where Mantel entirely enters her world, lives in it, inhabits her characters and thus allows us to live there too for a span, Parris’s characters are little more than ciphers awaiting the dispensations of the plot. There is no reason why any of them should die, apart from reasons of plot. Why did so-and-so die? He died of plot. Two characters have already died of plot and I suspect there are many more to come. Basically this is Agatha Christie in Elizabethan Oxford, and the research is front and centre: whereas Mantel’s historical details are seamlessly woven into the narrative, Parris gives us great wodges of exposition until like a tormented Catholic we cry ‘enough! No more!’
There are difficulties at times with Mantel’s style – it can be a little convoluted but it is never, ever clunky. She knows the effect she wants to achieve and like an artist applies layer upon layer to build up a complex and subtle effect. Parris, on the other hand, tells without showing and her dialogue is lengthy and at times much too modern.
I’ve been perhaps a little hard on Heresy. After all, I’m still reading it, so it has passed at least the first test of any book. And why am I still reading it? Because I want to know what happens; in other words, because of Plot. (And it is only fair to point out that others have enjoyed the books – there’s a series, apparently – much more than I.)
My next read, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, fell through the letterbox on Saturday and I spent the morning getting through an alarming number of pages. At this rate I thought, it’ll only last me a day. I’d better ration it – and so I put it away and took out Heresy by S J Parris. This work of historical fiction (the initials perhaps a wish to disguise gender since studies have shown that male or gender-neutral names do better with publishers) was given away by Waterstones with each copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and I’m not sure it entirely did it a service since it almost looks likehow to do historical fiction alongside how not to do it. I find it inexplicable how writers are often praised who have an unbearably clunky style, who tell instead of showing and who have characters conveniently calling each other by their full names so that we know exactly who they are (‘Ah, Sir Phillip Sidney! How goes the poetry?’ ‘Ah, Giordano Bruno, as I live and breathe! So you have come to speak about Copernicus’ theory that the Earth goes round the sun?’) OK so that’s not an exact quote, but it’s not far off. Still, in spite of all that it’s a reasonably good read – and I may come back to the question of how to and how not to do historical fiction. Not that I’ve attempted it myself; far too much research for my liking.
So what else did I do with my weekend? Saturday involved a lot of sitting in the garden, but by Sunday I could no longer ignore the rampant convolvulus and (gnashes teeth) horsetail and so I did enter the shed, gird myself with gloves and wellies, arm myself with the strimmer and sally forth to do battle with the bastards. I have driven them back but have no doubt they will advance again – are even now preparing an advance – and we shall have to do battle many more times ere the summer is done. Which at this rate will be November.
Weeds aside, there has been a Nigerian theme to this weekend. It is a frequent rallying cry of OH that men cannot be feminists because they cannot truly understand the female experience; OH therefore had a big problem with Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie’s talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ (I had not so long ago read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun about the brief history of Biafra.) The Nigerian author delivered this TED talk to an audience of mostly black women (and some men) and there was a great deal of delighted laughter when she spoke about attitudes in Nigeria which, from what she said, seem to be parallel to attitudes here in the ‘fifties (I don’t say that to be disparaging, it’s just an observation.) Much of what she said was therefore familiar to a Western audience; but her insistence that men should be feminists also and that they have nothing to lose by so doing, was an important one, and something I feel we have yet to learn. It remains a source of regret to me that feminism in the West came of age concurrently with global capitalism and so has become imbued with the spirit of individualism and competition that Thatcher so vividly personified. We need to rediscover cooperation – and perhaps now is the time to do it.
Speaking of which I rounded off the day with this documentary on Dominic Cummings. I haven’t finished it yet but if I ever wondered whether people were caricaturing him unfairly, I wonder no longer. It’s a horror story. More of this anon when I’ve finished watching it but for now, tatty-bye and have a good week.
Urg. Now I’ve gone and reminded myself of Ken Dodd.
I’ve finished Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning portrait of black womanhood in contemporary Britain, and what do I think? I think it’s highly readable, engaging, pluralistic and refreshingly free of the kind of shaming that cripples the liberal white reader with guilt. I find novels like Beloved so hard to read not because they are not good – Beloved was stunning – but because I feel so horribly guilty. Even though I wasn’t there and (probably – I hope) wouldn’t have done it if I was, I feel guilty by association. But Girl, Woman, Other is correct – but the best kind of correct; not politically correct but sincerely open, not just to the brave new world of identity but to the old-fashioned, the unreconstructed, the anti-feminist.
There aren’t really any main characters as such; the novel moves from one scene to another, one narrator to another with characters who at first seem disconnected but who all join up in the end like dots to make a picture. Nor does she seem to say that this is a definitive picture, merely a snapshot, a view from one writer at one time. There are lesbians and non-binary people, successful theatre directors and cleaners; but the most impressive thing is that unlike most writers, Evaristo does not assume that diversity excludes the conventional.
Nevertheless, wonderful and inclusive as the book is, it leads me to examine once again my own attitudes to race. I’ve just read this article which made a big stir in 2014 when first published on Reni Eddo-Lodge’s blog – and I ask myself, am I guilty of the things she describes? Do I think that unless the n-word has been uttered or some racially-aggravated assault taken place, that there is no racism? I usually try to look at these things in terms of sexism; to translate it into men treating me in a certain way and think, how would I feel about that? To be honest I recognise a lot of what she describes (they don’t want to hear you but don’t get angry or you’ll be stereotyped; they shut down when you talk about your experience) but maybe it’s not the same. I don’t know. But I do know that I have a lot of unconscious prejudice inside me – and whilst I’m not necessarily responsible for how it came there I am responsible for it still being there.
Aside from that, in spite of Boris Johnson’s optimistic ramblings I am staying locked down until the middle of June at the very earliest. But then I’m fortunate in being able to work from home.