Week 110: Happy Birthday William Shakespeare

obamaglobe-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumA‘Yes, we can.’  Dominic Dromgoole, director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, says Barack Obama’s words inspired the fabulously ambitious plan to take Shakespeare round the world on a tour that has visited 197 countries and gripped and enthralled more than one hundred thousand people.  Today, give or take a day or so, William Shakespeare might be celebrating his 452nd birthday, should there happen to be an afterlife and, if so, should it incline towards cakes and ale.  Rather less cheerily, today is also the day (again, give or take a day or so) that Shakespeare left us for that party in the sky four hundred years ago.

We have talked before about the little we know about the life, and about the books that people have spun out of it.  Today I think I want to tell you a story.  This morning we held a party in our village hall here in NorthernReaderLand.  People of all ages came together to drink coffee, eat cake and enjoy each other’s company.  I had advertised this shindig as Shakespeare’s Birthday Party, and what I have found thrilling, wonderful and infinitely moving is the number of people who have come up to me in the street during the last couple of weeks and said, ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’, or ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’, or ‘rough winds do shake the darling buds of may’.  We have Shakespeare wrapped around the beautiful double helix of our DNA.  Our tables this morning were festooned with snippets and quotes, and I wish you had been there with us to hear the joy and sense of ownership with which we read them out.  ‘This is our voice,’ is what I heard, ‘and these are our words.’  Small wonder, then, that my new very small friend Emily, who helped blow out the candles, started us singing Happy Birthday to William and we all joined in.

So what is it about Shakespeare that grabs us, heart and soul?  Well, for a start, there is so much of him.  I bow to no-one in my admiration of his chums, but if we turn to John Webster, there are only two towering masterpieces, one other play and a handful of collaborative works.   Thomas Middleton was more prolific, but again we really only have a handful of plays that are solely or principally his.  Middleton, by the way, is particularly good for deflating the Romantic notion of Shakespeare as some sort of back-lit demi-god, penning his deathless lines alone and in a clean white shirt: among the plays for which we know Middleton to have been a co-writer we can list Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well, and probably Measure for Measure and Macbeth while we’re about it.  Shakespeare is nonetheless very unusual indeed among his contemporaries for being credited with so much solo work.  This was a time of astonishing demand, when the playhouses needed a new play every few days in the precious weeks when the weather, the plague and the powers-that-be allowed them to open.  Get the public mood wrong, come up with a play that no-one wants to see, and ‘chaos is come again’ (Shakespeare’s good on chaos, on the wafer-thin line we teeter on between survival and oblivion, on the tiny gossamer wisps of hope that flicker past us).  No wonder most of the acting companies went for the productivity – and the collective responsibility – of an in-house script-writing team.

The first Hamlet

The first Hamlet

What it must have been to have Shakespeare in the company!  How quickly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – who became the King’s Men when James VI/I pitched up in London – must have realised they had something special among them: a little goldmine who could be relied on to come up with the goods.  We can see and hear that band of brothers in every line he writes for them.  We know when they have a couple of boy actors, one noticeably tall and one noticeably small: you’ll find them playing Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing.  We know when a new and different sort of comic actor arrives; once the playwright and musician Robert Armin joins them, Shakespeare’s clowns become philosopher-poets, melancholics who can sing – Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night.  And, goodness me, we know they had a simply terrific actor who must have fired Shakespeare’s imagination, driving him to produce ever bigger and more complex roles that shape and define the modern English-speaking theatre.  Imagine what it was to be Richard Burbage; to be handed the slips of paper, to be the first to give the lines sound, to make the writer hear what worked and what needed tweaking, what needed re-working, what needed scrapping.  Imagine being the first Hamlet, the first Othello, the first Richard III, the first King Lear.  Branagh, Olivier, Irving, Kean – they all trace their lineage on the stage back to Burbage.

sonnetsAnd all this is to forget Shakespeare’s extraordinary other life as a published writer of poetry.  It’s an odd and slightly paradoxical position that he occupies: writing elegant love poetry was seen as a gentlemanly or aristocratic accomplishment, but no gentleman would be seen dead publishing his work commercially.  Your loss, of course, if a too-nice sense of social distinction lost you the astonishing pleasure of reading Shake-Speares Sonnets.   The very form that he adopts, adapts and takes to unimaginable heights we now think of as the Shakespearean sonnet: four lines setting up an idea –

 

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate

 

Another four lines exploring that idea and taking us down a particular path within it –

 

Wishing me like one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Now, here it comes, the twist, the turn, the moment when Shakespeare uses one of his battery of huge ‘little words’: but, and, then, for, yet.  It’s ‘yet’ in this one, which is Sonnet 29, by the way.  So here come four lines which turn the corner and tell us what the poem is really talking about –

 

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

 

Oh hurray! It turns out, dearest reader, that it’s all about you, the person at the heart of this poem and this poet.  Drive on now to the final couplet; two rhyming lines that say it all:

 

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

 

Now that, friends, Romans, countrymen, gentles all; that’s the way to do it.

shakespeare picasso

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Week 109: Flower Power

InstagramCapture_ddf232f4-1b90-4a6e-8ccb-c61c3c37152eIt always comes as a delightful shock to notice that the evenings are drawing out and spring is in full swing in garden, pond and forest.  In a moment of madness last summer – you know how easy it is to agree to anything if it is far enough in the future – we agreed to be part of a village ‘gardens open’ this year, so April has seen us, in defiance of the weather, which has been a bit Novemberish for my tastes, digging and raking and sticking tentative forks into what we optimistically call the lawn.  Frogs have spawned, snowdrops have been and gone and we are now knee-deep in daffodils and blossom, with tulips ready to upstage the lot.  What we need from this week’s books is flowers.

Let’s start with some poetry.  Every garden-lover should have a copy of Poems for Gardeners by the bed.  An anthology put together by Germaine Greer, it is exactly the right mixture of the well-known and the surprising, wandering pleasingly far and wide to remind us that gardens have always been, quite literally, a paradise.  Greer includes Andrew Marvell, because he is impossible to resist at the best of times and especially when talking about gardens.  Always writing in couplets, Marvell can seem clunky to us now, and I always have a lurking suspicion that the thought behind ‘The Garden’ outstrips the phrasing – casting the body’s vest aside, for example: memorable, certainly, but, at least in the NorthernReader household, impossible to read straight-faced, which rather lowers the tone.   In all his poems about the natural or the cultivated outdoor world, in fact – Upon Appleton House, the ‘Mower’ poems – Marvell sticks rigidly to his prevailing mood of a rather gloomy austerity.  No, I think I want someone cheerier as my garden companion for today.

Not Wendy Cope, then; but only because her entirely marvellous short poem, ‘Flowers’, breaks my heart.

Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.The shop was closed. Or you had doubts –
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while

From this it is but a short step to Dorothy Parker’s indispensable ‘One Perfect Rose’.  We have talked about this before (Week 83), but here it is in its full acerbic glory:

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Not yet known to me, but looked forward to, is the collection Reading the Flowers by Linda France, who will be talking about her work next Saturday at the Hexham Book Festival. I have seen her poems described as ‘a work of scholarship and imagine and precise observation’ which make them sound exactly the sort of thing for me.

tulipsOn any bookshelf about flowers, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever has to take pride of place.  Perfectly balanced between Calvinist restraint and Catholic excess, the novel is saturated with the extraordinary, breath-holding world that produced the sumptuous still-lives of the Dutch Old Masters.  If you haven’t, read it; if you have, read it again: time well spent in either case.   And we can indulge in some mild word-play by adding Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and the collected works of Rose Tremain to our shelf: none of them very helpful on the natural history or horticultural front, but essential reading on other grounds.  And lest it was buried in the middle of my little list, let me repeat that Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower has to be read; now, at once, immediately: it is that rarest of rare things, an entirely perfect work of art.

Children are probably better served nowadays than they were when I was little and in danger of being fobbed off with the sugary pleasures of Cicely Mary Barker’s The Flower Fairies.  It may of course be that I was an unusually horrid and insensitive child, but I’m afraid her classic illustrations of little girls simpering about with wings and floaty frocks inspired nausea even at a very tender age.  You may of course have loved them, in which case you are very far from being alone judging from the brisk trade in posters, fabric, ceramics and what the NorthernReader household learned from Betty MacDonald to call toe-covers (such a useful phrase, we find, to sum up all those gifty knick-knacks of no possible benefit to mankind).  Getting the poppets to notice flowers, and spot the differences between them, is a good start to engaging them in a lifetime of pleasure in the natural world.  Flowers are colourful, so give children paints and paper and send them outside.  Anyone brought up on the detailed botanical drawings of Beatrix Potter has a headstart; and, among many other reasons for reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the practical descriptions of gardening constitute good sound advice.  You can always follow up with Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden for a later birthday.

Right.  The sun has come, a little fitfully, out.  On with boots and gloves and out we go.

Hurray, as ever, for Bill Watterson

Hurray, as ever, for Bill Watterson

Week 108: Hair Days

images We touched last week on the irresistible draw experienced by the bad at heart towards eccentric and baffling hairstyles. ‘By their works shall ye know them’ still holds good, and the best indicator of a person’s moral worth remains his or her actions. So, President Assad of Syria, a surprisingly normal short back-and-sides does not make you a good person. But hair can serve as a sort of early warning system in life (Donald Trump, the little chap making people’s lives unbearable in North Korea, the unnerving brazen helmet that a former Beloved Leader of our own adopted). How about in books?

Richmal Crompton deftly spotted the reassuring nature of the tousled hairdo (only up to a point, Boris Johnson) and contrasts William’s pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards trademark style with that of the unnervingly smooth and glossy Hubert Lane. It is tempting to see Crompton’s inspiration for this nastiest and creepiest of horrid little boys in the slicked-down Adolf Hitler, but in fact Hubert predates the rise of the brylcreemed dictator. It could just be that, should she have had anyone in her sights as a target for parody, the press baron Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, might fit the bill; ‘pioneer of tabloid journalism’ is a damning epitaph, don’t you think? Even more aptly, perhaps, Harmsworth’s brother Harold, later known to us yokels as 1st Viscount Rothermere, another media magnate and an enthusiastic admirer of Nazism, richly deserves the mockery of being thought of as Hubert Lane’s prototype. Chilling, though, to think of William and his gang and the Hubert Laneites growing to adulthood in time for the Second World War (a fate they avoid by remaining forever eleven as the decades pass). I feel the same sad shadow hanging over the Swallows and the Amazons, by the way: while it is quite cheering to think of Nancy as one of those WRNS pushing the model boats about on charts, John and Roger, clear and obvious naval officers both, would have been lucky to come through the war untorpedoed. How comforting of fiction to suspend them all in a nostalgic glow of everlasting holiday (for a sense of what it was like waiting for news of loved ones on active service during the war, Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn takes some beating).

eb046724349a66c2c58b8ddd47576a44Victorian literature, and in particular male Victorian novelists, fetishised long, luxurious female hair to such an extent that it came as quite a surprise to me that not only did many women in the nineteenth century not have hair like Rapunzel but also that short hair was in fashion in the early nineteenth century among radical dissenters and democrats. In the heyday of the Great Victorian Novel, women’s hair is a shortcut (sorry) to character. Dark, flowing locks, untrammelled by pins and an up-do? Think passion, rebellion and (gasp) intelligence. Fair hair, timidly framing the face? A sweet if rather vapid young woman such as Laura Fairlie, heroine of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, where she is contrasted with her black-haired, sallow-skinned half-sister, Marian Halcombe, with her mannish looks and propensity for action. It’s a code that lingers even into the works of Enid Blyton, in which the drippy Anne is blonde and passive while dark-haired Georgina is such a victim of the girls-have-to-simper rule that she breaks out by exploring androgyny (this is just possibly not how I read the Famous Five books when I was small).

Earlier, Jane Austen knew her readers were attuned to the semiotics of hair, and gives us plenty of telling detail. One of the very many things that Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility gets exactly right is the difference between Elinor’s neatly confined hair and the tumbling wind-blown tresses of her sister Marianne. Much of the plot depends upon our understanding that to touch or stroke woman’s hair is an intimate and erotic gesture, so that when Elinor sees Marianne allowing Willoughby to cut off a lock of her hair as a keepsake she takes this as absolute confirmation that the two are engaged to be married. It is this fondling of someone else’s hair that gives such a decadent and disturbing edge to the scene in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in which Miss Havisham – she whose own hair is macabrely decked with withered flowers – ties jewels in Estella’s hair and on her breast before poor Pip’s helpless gaze. Remember Pip is British: it is a wonder that he didn’t just die of embarrassment on the spot (note to readers who are not British: there is something in the British DNA that makes watching an older woman suggestively stroking a young girl not titillating but utterly, toe-curlingly, mortifying).

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Marianne’s lock of hair has literary precedent, of course, and if you have unaccountably not yet got round to reading Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the moment has arrived. Pope’s mock-heroic poem arose out of an incident which threatened to escalate to Capulet/Montagu proportions: an aristocratic young man took it upon himself to snip off a ringlet from the head of his distant cousin, a celebrated beauty whom he was courting. In life, the story does not have a happy ending: Lord Petrie married someone else (great wealth proving even more attractive than great hair) and died of smallpox two years later, aged only twenty-three. But Pope’s poem sparkles and breezes along, joyfully skipping from one hyperbole to the next. His aphorism, ‘Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul’, continues to have much to recommend it and should be on every young man’s reading list before he a-courting goes.

That young man should also bear in mind the good example set him by Shakespeare. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,’ Will tells us, and carries on to say,’ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.’ Oh, you might think, a bit blunt; but that’s the point of glorious Sonnet 130: Shakespeare shuns flattery and shows it up as the empty mockery that it is. Love everything about who your beloved really is, he tells us, and it’s priceless advice. The reference to wires is a technological one, by the way: the fashion of the day was to compare the ideal woman’s hair to finely-spun golden thread or wire. Shakespeare’s is the time when to be blonde is to be, in every sense, fair. Marina Warner’s scholarly study, From the Beast to the Blonde, examines the world of fairy tales and is completely fascinating about our cultural response to hair colour. Long or short, black, brown, red, blonde, green or blue or violet if you really must, grey, silver or white, other people are reading our hair. When you come across descriptions of hair in fiction, just ask yourself why.

You have to admit, a great hairdo

You have to admit, a great hairdo: and we haven’t had an entirely non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

Week 107: Hope

What is it with badness and hair?

What is it with badness and hair?

Donald Trump is leading in the Republican nominations. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and Africa are fleeing for their lives. North Korea, Zimbabwe and Russia are run as personal fiefdoms by fear-driven despots. A confederation of has-beens and the politically greedy in Britain are making up any old rubbish to persuade us to take our toys home and not play with the big boys and girls in Europe any more. And we’ve had two sunny days so far this year. It’s all looking the teeniest bit gloomy. Books, please.

To remind myself that the United States of America is largely peopled with lovely, intelligent men and women who will not be choosing to be governed by a fascist clown, a small part of this week’s NorthernReader bookshelf is dedicated to a celebration of the spirit of shining optimism that is the defining characteristic of all that is best about America. Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution is widely regarded as the if-I-can-only-have-one choice, and who am I to disagree? Skipping forward a couple of centuries, anyone who said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ earns a place among the angels, so let’s hear it for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his 1933 inaugural speech, Roosevelt went on to call fear ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’ Absolutely right, I would say, and just about nails why lesser politicians find whipping up fear such a useful tool to get away with the flagrant abuse of democracy. Be afraid, be very afraid, our beloved leaders tell us; and look into my eyes, for heaven’s sake don’t use your common sense or your own judgment. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time reminds us that cometh the hour, cometh not only the man but in FDR’s case the woman too, with a perceptive study of how much Eleanor Roosevelt brought to the presidency as well as the marriage. For a taste of the positive impact of the New Deal, let us have Betty MacDonalds’ Anybody Can Do Anything, a witty first-hand account of life during the Great Depression and the recovery. And to remind ourselves that the enlightenment view of history does eventually prevail – that slavery, racism and hatred can be overcome – how about Taylor Branch’s monumental trilogy on the Martin Luther King years, starting with Parting the Waters?

hqdefaultCheery and uplifting books that look at the Middle East and tell us that ‘this too will pass’ might be a little trickier. That particular bag of rats is too close, too much of the present, for us to be able to look forward with confidence. The best that books can do for us is to remind us of the resilience of hope. Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes, his vivid and sometimes harrowing tale of his time in Iraq, does not have a fairy-tale ending, I am sorry to say; but read it together with Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (or indeed anything by the piercingly good Thesiger) to at least deny Saddam Hussein the victory of wiping this entire culture off the face of the earth. An Improbable Friendship should win a prize if only for coming up with a title of such consummate understatement: written by Anthony David, it tells of the long and warm friendship between Ruth Dayan and Raymonda Tawil. Yes, that’s right, the wife of Israel’s Moshe Dayan and Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law. It is impossible to read about these two remarkable women without, just for a hope-filled moment, imagining a world not governed by testosterone. Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, anyone? So very much more optimistic that Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which, coming from the Angry Feminist (or Jolly Cross Feminist) school of the 1980s, now feels a bit wearying and dated. It has become a staple of school and university reading lists, and I do rather wish it could at least be balanced by a more positive feminist outlook. Suggestions please.

As for the so-called ‘debate’ about whether the UK should remain as a member state of the European Union: well, an obvious candidate for our shelf this week is Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. But we can also cheer ourselves up with some simply gorgeous European fiction and rejoice that we are lucky enough to be part of the same loose conglomeration of free-thinking, enlightened, rational men and women as – well, fill in names-of-your-choice here. Mine would include Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Muriel Barbery and Michel Houellebecq (although having taught undergraduates who struggled to spell Keats and Hardy correctly I do wonder what they’ll make of him), Patrick Süsskind, Seamus Heaney, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo …. And so, deliciously and endlessly, on. In fact, retiring into the borderless world of intelligent writing might be the only possible way of getting through the next yawningly long weeks of spiteful half-baked threats and warnings that seem to pass for debate these days. Yes, yes, I know, ‘twas ever thus, and the benches in the House of Commons are set two sword-lengths apart for good, if outdated, reason; although over-confidence in the concept of a standard sword-length, let alone a standard arm-length, might well have proved unfortunate should it ever have been put to the test, so that – hurrah! – we can take this pretty piece of Parliamentary legend as proof that good manners (or at least not actually attacking the chap opposite, however tempted) do prevail. And the idea that rational, considered and courteous debate outranks trying to kill your opponent is the most hopeful paradigm for our fractious and troubled world. A copy of Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners might be the thirteenth fairy’s best gift to us all.

The feast or reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

The feast of reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

Week 106: Do No Harm

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

The idea that doctors should aim to do no harm is attributed to Hippocrates, an Iron Age resident of the Greek island of Kos. This has been a week in which doctors have been much in the news, whether taking industrial action in Britain or being deliberately bombed by President Putin in Syria (in the interests of objectivity and fairness, I should point out that the USA also bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, in Afghanistan, in November 2015. I am not sure it makes much difference to those on the receiving end whether bombs are killing you as a result of incompetence or deliberate malice, but one, at least, of these causes should be avoidable). Governments and authors alike have displayed a tendency over the years to appropriate and manipulate the public response to doctors, who have found themselves starring as heroes and villains far more often than the more mundane ground occupied by the rest of us. Why?

Let’s look at some medical heroes first. There are more than a few real-life doctors who have been mythologised during or after their lives to be godlike, capable of miracles. When I was little, the doctor-as-saint figure was Albert Schweitzer, who I suspect is now hardly known at all – a useful lesson in hubris for anyone currently venerated. An intellectually rigorous theologian, a gifted musician, and a perceptive anti-racist at a time of unthinking empire, Schweitzer gained his medical degree in three short years in order to set up a pioneering hospital in Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. You might find his The Philosophy of Civilization interesting, or his autobiography, which has the slightly unsnappy title Out of My Life and Thought.

Schweitzer was to the twentieth century what David Livingstone was to the nineteenth: so famous and yet remote that Henry Stanley’s famously nonchalant greeting, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ clearly covers up an entirely understandable case of flabbergastedness (‘Look mum! It’s me! With him!’: known in the NorthernReader household as Bowie-proximity syndrome but you can insert name of intergalactically-famous star of your choice). Livingstone has been more biographised than Schweitzer, at imagesleast in English, although many studies are quite shallow. Frankly, our old favourites, the Ladybird series, give you the bones: should you be feeling scholarly, David Livingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy, edited by Sarah Worden, would be my choice.

Now for the doctors who managed to practise medicine and write fiction. In pride of place of this week’s bookshelf we can have Dr Anton Chekhov, who once rather archly declared, ‘medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’ Never mind; if he was half as good a physician as he was a writer, his patients were blessed. And indeed they were: Chekhov devoted much of his time to caring, free of charge, for the poor. Funny, angry, heart-breaking, sometimes despairing but always ready to bring his analytical brilliance to the vital task of finding exactly the right words, the right image, to awaken his audience and his readers, his is more modern Russian voice than Tolstoy’s but every bit as compelling. In such company, pretty much everyone appears in a lesser light, but Chekhov’s almost exact contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle, is today at least as famous. Doyle had a rather splendid time as a indexyoung doctor, going to sea on a whaler and on a voyage to West Africa. How tantalising to set The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next to Moby-Dick and The Heart of Darkness (Melville was the older man, and his most famous novel was published before Doyle was born, but Conrad was another almost precise contemporary). Our third choice, working chronologically, can be William Carlos Williams, imagist, modernist, most painterly of poets, who was also a family doctor and paediatrician. Touchingly, the hospital in New Jersey where he worked has a plaque that reads ‘we walk the wards that Williams walked’ and you just know that they feel it’s an honour.

What of doctors in fiction? Setting aside Dr Zhivago, if only on the dubious grounds that (a) we’ve been quite Russian enough already this week, (b) I’ve never read it and (c) I can’t get the image of Omar Sharif out of my mind, here are two heroes and a villain. Trollope’s Dr Thomas Thorne is an absolute sweetie. How splendid it would be if the Barchester ideal of a doctor who is a trusted friend and confidant were the norm (let alone the GP-as-financial adviser: goodness, we have become a lot more wary since Trollope’s time, haven’t we?). Anything that encourages us to read more Trollope is to be welcomed. It’s quite a jump from Dr Thorne to Doc Daneeka, but the squadron physician who first articulates Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s marvellous novel is assured of his place in this week’s pantheon. Daneeka – self-seeking, venal, hypochondriacal, shifty, and entirely human – might seem an unlikely hero, but the urgent and savage point that Heller makes is that (as other writers had it in an earlier time of darkness) this is a world turned upside down: what Thomas Middleton, clearest-sighted and therefore bleakest of all the early seventeenth-century playwrights, called A Mad World, My Masters. You know, I expect, that Heller, when confronted by an ill-mannered reader who complained that he had not subsequently written anything as good as Catch-22, replied, unarguably, ‘Who has?’.

From anti-hero to villain. We could – should – have Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, who definitely has ….. issues; or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who does rather let the side down when it comes to giving psychiatrists a good name (although the NorthernReader Rule about names is triumphantly vindicated here, for no parent who calls their infant Hannibal – okay, no parent since the third century BC – can be surprised if they turn out badly). I am also uncomfortably aware that women are unrepresented on this week’s shelf, which is a shame: while I wait for the perfect female doctor in fiction, or her villainous alter ego (and do please point me in the right direction), I can read Jo Manton’s biography, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. But the broken caduceus award for Worst Doctor in Fiction goes to ….. well, it has to be Victor Frankenstein, doesn’t it?

images

PS We are losing great writers this year at an unsustainable rate.  Harper Lee could lay legitimate claim to having written The Great Twentieth-Century Novel: read, or re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend.  And mourn the departure of Umberto Eco, philosopher, semiotician, novelist and all-round man of letters (The Name of the Rose; Foucault’s Pendulum; Baudolino).  Eco lies at the heart of everything I think about our essential need to read; as the great man himself said ,’books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ Arrivaderci

Week 105: All You Need is Love (all together now)

valentines_dayGoodness me, one minute it was New Year and now it’s Valentine’s Day. It would be fair to summarise what is known of St Valentine as ‘nothing’. Mmm, our favourite sort of saint, a tabula rasa upon which splendid amounts of stuff can be projected; including, since at least the fourteenth century, stuff about love. Chaucer is commonly credited/blamed for coming up with the link between St Valentine and what I’m afraid I tend to think of as ‘lurv’, but as any fule kno, ‘first surviving mention in writing’ is not necessarily the same as ‘first mention.’ Actually, I’d go a bit further here and bet you a fiver that Chaucer is definitely not the inventor of St Valentine as a mini-love god. Chaucer (like Shakespeare) is a user of snippets and trifles that his audience already knows. His genius lies in what he makes of his material, not in the originality of his sources (originality being an uninteresting and dubious commodity to the mediaeval mind).

But right now we are stuck with Valentine as the patron saint of tacky cards, scentless roses and supermarket meal deals involving fizzy wine and chocolate. Pausing only to wonder why everything has to be pink, I think we can do better. If all will go ill for you should you not mark February 14th by a display of devotion – passion, even – then let me recommend the seductive power of words. Here, then, is the NorthernReader Indispensable bookshelf for lovers.

john-donneLet’s start with the master. I have been promising for a very long time now to try to persuade you to love John Donne, and now the moment has come. I do not have a hard task on my hands. Try the first line and a half of ‘The Good Morrow’:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?

Lovers take note: there is no-one alive who would not give their eye teeth to have you gaze at them across the breakfast toast and marmalade and say that. Before you, nothing; since you, the whole world. Or as Donne puts it:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest
Or try this, from ‘The Sun Rising’:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.

It’s the fabulousness of those thumping slowed-down syllables in the second line that catches at the heart. Shakespeare of course, and others too, could put into words that overwhelming realisation that everything, from climate change and global terrorism to putting the bins out and the cap back on the toothpaste, fades into invisibility in the face of all-absorbing love: but no-one but Donne could do it in four spare beats (a trochee and a lovely, stretched-out, lingering spondee should you be feeling metrically inclined). One more, although I know you must – couldn’t possibly not be – hooked already. This is from ‘The Anniversary’:

Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

Add some Marvell, some Auden, some Browning (her and him) and, yes, Shakespeare’s sonnets too, and our Bookshelf for Lovers will have made a fair start.

And prose? The difficulty, as we noticed way back in Week 27, is that the course of true love, should it happen for once to run smooth, does not tend to run particularly grippingly. Boy meets girl, boy and girl settle down happily, The End, while lovely in real life, is frankly dull in fiction. Literature abounds with tragic entanglements – Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, Dido and Aeneas – but they scarcely set a tactful note for Valentine’s Day. Even romantic comedies depend upon near-misses with catastrophe to drive their plots onward and keep their readers turning the pages. We can definitely add an Austen or two to this week’s shelf, but bear in mind that they range from the long hard road to realising that he’s not the one to the equally stressful trek towards second chances (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion: I invite you to compose one-phrase summaries of all of her novels should you be at a loose end). Colm Toíbín’s Brooklyn is enough to give the genre ‘romantic novel’ a good name: come on boys, be brave and read it even though it has a girl on the cover. And of course, one perfectly good way of countering all the slush of the Valentine’s Day industry is to settle down with any of the sweepingly, swooningly, lavishly romantic novels that categorically side-step the happy ending. How about Kashuo Ishiguro’s haunting, buttoned-up The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s searing Atonement and Rose Tremain’s pitch-perfect Music and Silence? And there are gorgeously-cast films for the first two (the BBC seems to have been in talks since God was a boy to bring Music and Silence to the screen, but without results so far), so all those chocolates could come in handy after all.

indexAs for tales of long-enduring domestic bliss, I see problems. Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man? Two minds with but a single thought, I grant you, but that thought is usually ‘where’s the next cocktail coming from?’ which is bound to take its toll in the long run. Better, perhaps, to take Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane as our ideal detecting couple, as brought to life by Dorothy L Sayers and kept in robust marital health by Jill Paton Walsh. But for a quiet celebration of the mundanities of married life, we could do an awful lot worse than a joyful re-read of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, in which Jane and the Reverend Nicholas Crampton muddle along just fine.

As the years together mount up, I have come to realise that the best advice Mr NorthernReader and I have ever received was not anything red-lipped and passionate (now you come to think about it, can you imagine Romeo and Juliet, irritating adolescents as they are, ever having made it to middle-aged settled-downness?). No, I hope that our guiding light has always been the long-married chap who said, ‘the secret of a happy marriage is to lead parallel lives. She goes her way and I go her way.’ That’s the way to do it.  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

You know what they say: nobody's perfect

You know what they say: nobody’s perfect