Week 66: Books for Insomniacs

Leave the poor girl alone! Can't you see she just wants to sleep?

Leave the poor girl alone! Can’t you see she just wants to sleep?

I could sleep for a week. Let me rephrase that: given a bed that does not have three dogs luxuriously stretched out on it, snoring gently and occasionally woofing as they run after dream-rabbits, I could go to sleep and stay there for a whole, unbroken night. But while I work on my master plan to provide alternative sleeping arrangements for the dogs that they will accept and stay in all night – and before you very kindly offer suggestions you need to know that the spaniel is an accomplished lock-picker – I can at least use the still watches of the night to catch up on some reading.

‘O for a beaker full of the warm South’ strongly suggests that little Johnny Keates (as Byron called him, presumably deliberately mis-spelling the surname: we must talk about their feuds and squabbles one day) knew what it is to stare at the ceiling at three in the morning. I’m not sure, though, that his remedy is approved of these days in medical circles, which can be rather kill-joy: but ‘O for a beaker full of Ovaltine’, although scanning perfectly well, does not have the same ring to it. Sleeplessness has not always produced great poetry. Rossetti’s poem ‘Insomnia’ does nothing to put him up there among the first rank of Victorian poets (fair enough, as I don’t think that’s his rightful place: a definite also-ran especially when compared to his sister Christina, who, although tending towards the droopy, left us some really cracking stuff).  Better by far is Dana Gioia’s poem, also called ‘Insomnia’, which begins, ‘Now you hear what the house has to say’, which is exactly right, and ends, ‘The terrible clarity this moment brings,/ the useless insight, the unbroken dark’, which is of course a very useful insight and a reminder not to keep a notebook by the bed for jotting down all those utterly brilliant perceptions that come to you in the wee small hours. Dana Gioia, by the way, is not only a chap, no matter what students who have written ill-researched essays for me presume, but quite possibly the only poet ever to have been Vice-President of General Foods (ah: Unlikely Jobs Held By Poets: I think I spot a topic for another week).

Having known me now for some time, you will be unsurprised to hear that I have not read Stephen King’s no doubt fine-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing novel, Insomnia, which presumably comes with a guarantee to provide you with several sleepless nights and a tendency to keep the light on. Much more my sort of thing, and definitely one for this week’s bookshelf (or bedside table perhaps) is Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which, as well as being possibly the first detective story in English, tells us the dire consequences of taking laudanum as a cure for sleeplessness. Collins was a fabulous story-teller, and once again (he did it in The Woman in White previously) he gives us the plot from different characters’ points of view. When you add a sparklingly exotic plot, an amateur detective, a Scotland Yard man, a locked room and a barrel-load of red herrings, you can see why this is a must-read should you not have got round to doing so yet. It is also really long, which is, for once, a recommendation, as it will make quite a few wide-awake nights go that little bit faster.

That very night in Max's room a forest grew

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

If you are a bit young for that sort of thing, or know someone whose prescribed bedtime is in single figures, you might do better with a couple of completely magical books from the great Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. I have just learned that In the Night Kitchen is much-banned and vilified in some parts of the world because our three-year old hero – shock horror – is naked. Goodness me. What very cushioned places some people live in, where a drawing of a little boy with no clothes on can cause such moral outrage.   We can only wonder how such readers – if they can read – will react to pictures of children dying of hunger or entirely preventable diseases: by rising up and insisting that their governments intervene and eradicate the causes, let us hope. Meanwhile, back in Max’s bedroom (is it alright to look at drawings of a little boy’s bedroom?), Where the Wild Things Are is quite simply the best, the most magical, the most essential book for the very small. Sendak pointed out that children have the great gift of being able to slip easily between reality and fantasy. It is a shame that, somewhere along the line, we put that ability down for a moment and forget where we left it. Reading Where the Wild Things Are, and, of course, revelling in the marvellous pictures, can help soothe the savage breast of adulthood and lull us into a good night’s sleep.

But don’t panic. An objective observer will tell you that you are sleeping for much more of the night than you think you are. It is also very unlikely that a night or two with less sleep than you think you need will kill you. The best advice for the sleepless seems to be a mixture of the crashingly obvious – coffee, alcohol and nicotine are not your friends – and the cheering: a winding-down routine at the end of the day, a comfortable bed and a book that will soothe rather than set the pulse racing is the best prescription. Oh, and keep the dogs off the bed.Punch

Week 62: Ghost Stories

Not too scary

Not too scary

All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Eve. Hallowe’en. Or, with the directness for which the North East is rightly famous, Spook Night. With the clocks going back, this is the beginning of the dark months. In times gone by, our ancestors lit fires and celebrated Samhain, which like so many Celtic words, is not pronounced as it looks and is probably nothing to do with the rather earnest festivities laid on by modern-day pagans (as mostly harmless people from Brighton with time on their hands like to be called). The fire and the fireworks have shifted a few days to mark Guy Fawkes’ Day in England, and Hallowe’en has on the whole become another shopping opportunity based on ill-understood American customs and, I’m afraid, greed. But as we start to draw the curtains at tea-time, light the wood-burner and settle down for cosy winter evenings in, what could be more cheering than some properly flesh-creeping horror?

No self-respecting bookshelf should be without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget Lon Chaney and staggering around with a bolt through the neck. Among the very many pleasures of reading the book is the sisterly knowledge that it is said to be the product of Mary listening quietly to Percy B and his chum Lord Byron drone on about how marvellously they would write such a story: she then popped upstairs and, unlike the chaps, sat down and wrote the definitive myth-creating novel that defines the Gothic. That showed them. It really is an extraordinary book, poised on the brink of a new age of science and deeply concerned with how we use our new-found understanding. The questions it explores remain piercingly relevant and we would do well to insist that every scientist, and certainly every politician (the ones that can read, anyway), study it very carefully indeed.

Oh, go on then, let’s have Dracula as well. Bram Stoker has much to answer for, not least bequeathing us – and especially the good citizens of Whitby – generations of whey-faced young people drooping around in black clothes and uncomfortable piercings. But the book itself has more merit than that, not least in perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of 1897, the year in which it was published, when Sigmund Freud began his self-analysis, and our sub-conscious minds were hauled out of the shadows and the way back was barred (you freudwill recall Anita Loos’s wonderful Lorelei Lee – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a must-read – being encouraged by Dr Froyd to develop some inhibitions).

Only a year after Dracula first saw – well, ‘the light of day’ might not be the happiest phrase in this context – Henry James played with our minds and undermined our certainties in his compelling novella, The Turn of the Screw. It is fabulously unsettling because it refuses ever to let us decide on a single fixed meaning for it. It gives us joyful literary theorists great pleasure, enabling us to chant our battle cry, ‘meanings are not fixed, or singular, and they can be ambiguous and even contradictory’. And Benjamin Britten’s opera is thrilling, chilling and eerie: like James’s book, it perfectly captures Freud’s idea of unheimlich, the uncanny, the ruling passion of this time of ghouls and ghosts.

The Goths spent a thousand years or so, from perhaps the third to the tenth century and beyond, happily pottering around huge swathes of Europe developing their undoubted talent for laying waste and fighting. At various times, they had a crack at the Roman Empire, the Huns, the Franks and the Moors. As the Geats of Scandinavia, they can register a claim to be the people of Beowulf, and thus enable us to indulge in the joys of re-reading Seamus Heaney’s great translation. But they are not otherwise hugely well-known for their literary bent, which makes it perhaps mildly surprising that, from Horace Walpole onwards, we have appropriated the term ‘Gothic’ to mean melodramatically romantic. This, of course, is where we came in, with Mr and Mrs Shelley and the boys in the Romantic band. Time, then, to add Jane Austen’s delicious Northanger Abbey to this week’s shelf as a helpful antidote to sensational excess. Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is a poppet, and only seventeen, making her longing for the squalid discomforts of mediaeval living almost forgiveable. We can perhaps take Austen’s cheerful practicality with us to temper the marvellous horrors of Angela Carter’s darkly gothic tales in The Bloody Chamber.

completely non-gratuitous

completely non-gratuitous

Will you be lighting the new darkness with a Jack o’Lantern? I have it on good authority that the carving of vegetables to put a candle inside them and make sinister flickering faces is an English tradition, and originally involved turnips and swedes. This is yet another awe-inspiring example of the hardiness and fortitude of the English, because, trust me, turnip-whittling is jolly hard work. How our lives have been improved, in this and in one or two other instances, by the adoption of American habits. Pumpkins are a cinch to hack away at, and a delicious conserve can be made with the resulting pile of golden flesh (think sugar, fresh ginger and lemons). Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, unites ghosts, pumpkins and headless horsemen in a highly satisfactory way.

But tonight the wind is wuthering around the house and the candles are flickering. Was that a creak upon the stair? Put away Elizabeth Taylor’s haunting story, ‘Poor Girl’: leave Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, Macbeth and Richard III – so many ghosts!- for now: turn away, even, from the Border Ballads – yes, even Kate Rusby singing ‘The Unquiet Grave’. Snuggle up in bed with PG Wodehouse’s ghost story, ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have learned that Wittgenstein rated it as the funniest thing he’d ever read. Any fears of things that go bump in the night are at once vanquished by picturing the great, but not necessarily uproarious, philosopher, laughing his socks off.

Week 19: Thank You and Other Letters

Ah, the erasing hand of time.  As a small person at school, I remember being taught at some length, in obsessive detail and with cartloads of repetition, how to write a formal letter.  My address top right, their address a little further down on the left, hop back to the right for the date, correct spacing for the Dear Mr Thingummy, the anguished question of whether to indent, the social death attendant upon allying a Yours sincerely with a Dear Sir.  My perfect letter-construction may have knocked ‘em dead in the past, but now that job applications, complaints about the utter uselessness of whatever you have been foolish enough to purchase and even correspondence with your representative in Parliament are all done by email, Facebook or Twitter, I think the time has come to focus the rear-guard action on teaching the necessity for and advanced techniques of writing letters of thanks.

posting lettersYou and your angelic poppets have of course already trotted to the post-box with your Christmas thank-you letters.  You know as well as I do that they should be hand-written up to and including the pencil-wielding capabilities of the author – wobbly X and gruesome sketch of parents will do, although less likely to impress your aunt if you are, say, twenty-three.  They should convince as unique compositions and not all-purpose copies: and if your little treasures are thereby inducted into the world of forgery, cheating and bribing others to do their work for them, at least they are learning useful skills for the modern business world.  The ideal (we did agree we’d talk about advanced techniques) thank-you letter manages a paragraph about something other than all the other presents received.  The consolidating-the-place-in-the-will letter even remembers to ask after the health and well-being of the recipient and her family, dogs and memorable friends.

So, this week we need some role models. And, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that Francis Scott Fitzgerald is your man (and may I take this opportunity to urge you to see Woody Allen’s sublime Midnight in Paris, (a) because it is perfect in every way imaginable and (b) because it includes the enchanting Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott F).  He sent a letter of great clarity to his daughter Scottie, instructing her on what to write to the woman who had given her a coat, and what to write in a letter to him that he could then show the giver of the coat.  No wonder we remember the man as a genius.

Letters between parents and their children can make bitter-sweet reading.  In the last year, Darling Monster, Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius (more from him in a moment), made for considerably more charming reading than Roger Mortimer’s Dear Lumpy, a sequel of sorts to Dear Lupin (and therein lay the difficulty, for me anyway: I felt that he was infinitely more critical of his daughter than of his son).  Letters about the family can be purest treasure, as anyone who has The Paston Letters by their bed in case of midnight wakefulness (and who has not?) can confirm. Bright Star, the collection of love letters and poems by Keats, had for me the slight disadvantage of, well, being written by he who Byron rather unkindly (but you could love him for this alone) referred to as ‘little Johnnie Keats’.  Reading someone else’s love-letters should be, by definition, a squirmingly embarrassing experience anyway, and re-reading your own (whether written or received by you) sadly nearly always falls into the same category (reader: if you look back at his/her letters, written to you many years ago now, and neither laugh out loud at the sentiment nor murmur, ‘Who was he/she?’, then yours is a love of the true and lasting sort).

Incidentally, even the most syrupy love letter from your past will have the stuffing knocked out of it if you are as unwise as to follow the advice of some websites and write a love letter to your child.  You will understand that, as with all deeply disturbing material on the internet, having stumbled upon it I hastened on with eyes averted, so I cannot pass on the precise recommendations, but I think the authors are labouring under the deranged belief that a letter written by you, sealed in an envelope and kept for your little ones to open when they are adults will bring emotions to the fore.  Well, you can’t argue with that.  Just don’t be surprised when your adult children never visit you again.

Letters between friends are all the better for being less freighted with emotion.  84 Charing Cross Road is rightly a classic, if a jolly slight one, and Virginia Woolf was a correspondent to cherish: but one of the most enjoyable published exchanges is the collection of letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor.  They are particularly splendid when you know that, asked to list her ten favourite books, Deborah Mitford unhesitatingly chose Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water, announcing that she had never read it because she knew she would miss it so once she had finished it (she also petered out at six books, which shows a pleasingly high qualifying bar).

P12 Days of Christmaserhaps best of all are letters of complaint or rebuke.  Sadly, this takes us back to letters from parents to children, of course, but the barkingly mad letters written to newspapers provide more straightforward entertainment.  And, keeping the flickering flame of the Christmas season alive as we falter to the end of the year, let me recommend to you the shrewdly realistic Twelve Days of Christmas by John Julius Norwich (told you), gloriously illustrated by Quentin Blake (hurray!), in which our heroine writes her thank-you letters for the partridge, the pear tree, and all the assorted flocks, herds and swarms that follow.  Good luck with your letter-writing.

Week 3: Second Thoughts

I was putting a book back on its shelf this morning (perhaps we’d better talk about books and how to sort them one day) when I bumped into a dear old friend: The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford.  Damn.  The perfect book for our teacher friends’ bedside table when they stayed a couple of weeks ago (oh, you can’t possibly have forgotten already: week 1.  Remember?).  The nine-year-old Miss Ashford’s courageous approach to the difficulties of spelling, and her pleasingly abrasive approach to matters of the heart, are just the thing for the welcome guest.  Revision of guest-room staples required.

This made me start to think about authors’ second thoughts.  Byron didn’t have much truck with them: he seems to have written Don Juan (delicious: try reading it aloud, at a good pace: and you do know, don’t you, that it’s Juan – two syllables, first letter pronounced as a definite jay?  Of course you do.  It’s just me being anxious, and Byron testing his readers for pretentiousness and having done the Grand Tour) ogreat poet, not-so-great handwritingn a roll, adding extra stanzas on the envelope (actually the manuscript folded up with the address written on it) as he posted instalments to his publisher, John Murray.  Smitten by the creative muse between front door and post box.  You don’t get that with e-publishing. Yeats, on the other hand, agonised – repeatedly – over every word of every poem.  How to begin ‘Sailing to Byzantium’? Now? That? Here? This? Yes, this: ‘This is no country for old men’.  No, wait a minute: that. ‘That is no country for old men’. Only another thirty-one lines to go.

Did Charles Dickens have second thoughts?  He finished Great Expectations in 1861, and took the manuscript with him when he went to stay with his chum Edward Bulwer-Lytton (now there’s a challenge: what books should B-L put out in the guest room for his friend?).  In a move that can only have writers in jaw-drop traction, Dickens gave the last chapter to his host and invited comment.  Brave, confident or – just possibly –loosened up a bit by the excellence of the B-L cellar.  Anyway, comment he got – with both barrels.  Funnily enough, neither man wrote down exactly what was said at what must have been  – don’t you think? – quite a tense chat in the library.  I wonder if the house-party continued to go with a swing after that little session.  The gist of B-L’s feedback seems to have been ‘too gloomy for words’.  The phrase ‘commercial suicide’ may have been invented that afternoon.  The upshot was that Dickens upped pen and wrote a cheerier ending (I’m not going to tell you what, or indeed what the gloomy one was, because you might not have read Great Expectations yet.  But you’re going to, aren’t you?  Because you’ll enjoy it, really you will).  So Cheery Ending (the term is relative) made the cut in the first edition in 1861, but Gloomy Ending was made public in a biography of Dickens in 1870.  Most modern editions settle comfortably on the fence (the right and proper place for an editor) and print both versions.

Then there’s Lear.  Chronicle or tragedy?  Well, what we’ve got is The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, printed in 1608.  Oh, but we’ve also got The Tragedy of King Lear in the Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623.  Same play?  Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.  Is the later one better?  Is it Shakespeare’s second thoughts?  Or is it – and I’m really struggling here not to shout ‘yes! This is what it is!’ because I’m pretending that I’m happy for you to make your own mind up – more like a snapshot of the point reached by that interesting, amorphous thing, a play,  in 1623, just as the earlier text is a snapshot of what was working on the stage some fifteen years earlier.  What most editors used to do was to play Pick ‘n Mix.  The play you read in school was someone’s Best Of compilation of the bits they thought we couldn’t be without, no matter which text they came from.  A sort of Desert Island Lear, if you will.  Ah, now you know what all those footnotes you never read were trying to tell you.  Remember all that Q and F stuff in very small print? And then along came Gary Taylor and the Oxford edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Norton if you’re reading this in the USA: and (how exciting) some of you are).  He went for it and printed both texts, arguing that they are essentially different enough to be separate plays.  So, dear reader, it will come as no surprise to you that, if you have suddenly been struck with the need to rush out and get yourself a Complete Works, I am going to say, get the Oxford.  Or the Norton.  Or, better still, don’t.  You’re never going to sit down and read the whole lot from cover to cover.  Are you?  Really? No, of course you’re not.  If you need it to answer crossword clues or prove to your nephew that he is an idiot and you have remembered the quote correctly, use your computer.  If you want to read one of the plays, get a copy of that play.  You’ll get all those lovely footnotes.

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