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 99: Remember, Remember

untitled (17)In a week which encompasses our wedding anniversary, Guy Fawkes’ Night and Remembrance Day, there is quite a focus in the NorthernReader stronghold on bringing things to mind. What do we remember, how and why? With the tissue paper of years blurring the details of our wedding day, we find we can recall the church, but not how we got there (literally, you understand, rather than metaphorically). Inevitably, our roll-call of the guests has become a recollection of the dead – all four parents, a range of aunts and uncles, a treasured godmother – and of the friends from whom somehow, somewhere, we have slipped our moorings and drifted away. And then there are the people, now and for many years dear to us, of whom it seems surprising that no, now we come to think of it, they were not there, because meeting them for the first time was still around the corner (it is quite comforting to know that we in turn feature in the phantom guest-list memories of these friends). Our recall of the events of the deeper past is of course even shakier, and each firework-and-poppy time brings up palimpsests of personal memories overlaying the public moments they commemorate. So for me, November 11th is a swirl of what we all know, or think we know, of the two World Wars – books, history lessons in school, photographs of relatives I never knew – mixed in with personal memories (watching the Cenotaph ceremony on television; my father, placing the wreath at the village ceremony in his last November). Our lived experience makes this a month of contrasting emotions, melancholy, joy and nostalgia as ever-present as the mists and fogs that have set in, it seems, for the duration. Books, please, to lighten our darkness, share our pleasures, and remind us of the fragile and elusive phenomenon of memory.

Oh, go on then, let’s start by having a crack at Mr Memory himself. Have you read À La Recherche du Temps Perdu? No, nor have I. Our loss, I suspect, and we should probably both start getting round to it now. If it’s the size of the task that daunts (seven volumes: it’s never going to be a popular book-club choice, is it?), we could make a start with Swann’s Way, comforting ourselves by remembering that Proust left the whole enterprise unfinished, as indeed he left much of his work, making him, at least to me, a much more sympathetic character than I was expecting. If something slimmer is more what you are looking for to get you through the long November evenings, try Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. We talked about Bowen before, and, should you unaccountably not have done so, I want to urge you to read her. The House in Paris is a Modernist masterpiece, exploring the very Proustian concept that the present is shaped not just by the past but by our constantly shifting understanding and recollection of the past. And, unlike Proust, Bowen’s novels are short.

We are constantly at work on our memories, sifting and discarding, seeing them from new and unexpected angles as life changes us. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending enhanced-8934-1409654432-3delves into the unstable nature of our memories and the non-existence of any such thing as an objective recollection. I love this book and hope you will too. Barnes shows us that we are all masters of fiction when it comes to constructing our own pasts. Some do this consciously and usually for material gain, of course, but we are all constantly looking backwards through highly selective lenses that owe more to emotion than to actual events. This is precisely why autobiographies can make such satisfying reading: we turn to them, not for a dreary list of pin-downable dates – born then, did this then and then – but for an invitation to see the world through the writer’s eyes for a moment or two. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece is a joy and a delight. The grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, Raverat’s great achievement in this memoir of her Cambridge childhood is to re-inhabit her childhood self. She sees, and lets us see, the world from a child’s point of view, more successfully than almost any other writer I can think of. Do not let me put you off. I do not mean that the book is an arch stream-of-consciousness voiced as a seven-year old (now that really would be ‘Tonstant-Weader-fwowed-up’); the narrative voice of Period Piece is the adult self, but an adult who can recall the utterly different world of childhood. Nigel Slater’s Toast: the Story of a Boy’s Hunger pulls off the same trick. Do not, please, imagine that I am suggesting these two books have otherwise an awful lot in common: Slater’s memories of his childhood in twentieth-century suburbia edge into Misery Memoir territory (I have to confess to being taken by surprise in a chain ‘bookshop’ by a section proudly headed ‘True Misery’, and, no doubt revealingly, having to sit down because I was laughing so much). But, not really unexpectedly for those of us who read Appetite in bed, Slater writes so well, that he is able to steer his narrative past the perils of poor-me indulgence.

All writing is engaged with memory. Novelists, playwrights and poets scavenge their personal stores of lived experience and the tales they have heard to make anew. Historians time-travel to bring themselves and their current perspectives to bear upon a past they construct. And we, if we have any sense, take heed of John Donne’s words, remind ourselves that we are not islands of separate experience, and choose to be part of the collective acts of memorialisation. They are what makes us human.

imagesYRPHP4YN

Week 83: Funny Girl

article-0-12FB462D000005DC-674_306x501I have been the recipient of a whole range of surprises this week, thanks to the Forum Cinema in sunny Hexham (sunny enough to see and enjoy the eclipse on Friday). The streaming of the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake from Covent Garden undermined my life-long belief that I do not like ballet. Romeo and Juliet eat your heart out. With the starring roles danced – and, goodness me, acted – by look-alikes for Rafael Nadal and a particularly dangerous pussy-cat, and a production that made it riotously clear that the Prince’s Mama had good cause to worry that her son was not the marrying type (Dr Freud please note: this is a boy who rejects a bevy of princesses and runs off with a swan – a swan with issues at that), I have capitulated and am now prepared to sign up for Balletomanes Weekly. Heavens, I’m even going to go and see La Fille Mal Gardée. Second surprise was that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is highly enjoyable. I particularly liked the moment when the only woman in the audience – possibly the only woman on the planet – who did not know that the cast included Richard Gere squeaked and almost fell off her chair with excitement when he entered Stage Left (on screen, sadly, although, Mr Gere, should you be reading this – and why wouldn’t you? – I think we can guarantee you a warm welcome in the North Tyne valleys). And my third surprise came hot on his heels. Reader, in all the wall-to-wall publicity for the film, had you seen any mention that Tamsin Greig is in it? Thought not. Don’t get me wrong: I bow to no-one in my appreciation of the comic timing and anarchic charivari conjured up by the incomparable Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton (has her Damehood been lost in the post?) and Celia Imrie. But Tamsin Greig has been quietly and flawlessly turning out wonderful performances on stage, screen and radio for a long, long time, and it seems a bit churlish of the producers to discount her as an asset.

The problem may well be that she is funny. Go on, name me ten female comedians. It’s getting a little easier since the BBC suddenly looked at itself, was ashamed of what it saw and started to make a tiny little bit of effort to include one or two women in their myriad comedy line-ups, but it’s still right up there with listing Ten Famous Belgians. And – misogynists please realise – this is not because of lack of talent. It is, I think, because of lack of audience power. So much comedy is geared towards a Y chromosome. Now, I do grasp the basic principle of syllogism, but an awful lot of my female friends and I do not fall about laughing at slapstick. Or vicious sexual degrading of women. Or Top Gear.

54b5c271528d774ef54093050d71474aSo can we find solace, and laughter, in books? Well, of course we can. No bookshelf set up to honour Thalia, the comic Muse, can consider itself complete that lacks the Complete Works of Dorothy Parker. The crowning glory of the Algonquin Round Table, Miss Parker stripped the skin off New York with her devastating wit. Like all the best clowns, her humour was always undercut with tragedy. Try her poem, ‘One Perfect Rose’ (one in the eye for Robert Burns). Time has reduced her reputation to little more than a handful of wisecracks and one-liners – yes, it was Parker who, on being told of the death of President Coolidge, replied, ‘How can they tell?’ – but there is so much more to her than that. Playwright, short-story writer, essayist and satirist, friend of Benchley and Wodehouse, if you happen not to have read her, what a treat you have in store.

Quieter, gentler, but surgically precise, the very English novels of Barbara Pym should also have you laughing out loud at times, and, more frequently, smiling with a wry bitter-sweet sense of recognition. Pym is the twentieth-century genius of the comedy of social observation, the heir to Jane Austen and the mistress of delicately exposing and balancing the wafer-thin line between comedy and tragedy. She burrowed into a world of church appointments and church-going that allies her to Trollope, and she is at least as good. Try Excellent Women as a starting-place. And next to Pym on our shelf this week we can have EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. She was a fairly prolific novelist, but is far and away best-remembered for the hugely autobiographical Diaries, which began in the 1930s (as a serial for the journal Time and Tide of which she was a director). By turns ingenuous, candid and exasperated, the Diary and its sequels exactly capture the voice of their narrator as she tells us all that is going on in her life. When I tell you that the BBC dramatized it for radio with Imelda Staunton as our heroine, you will immediately recognise just the sort of woman Delafield creates: trying to do the best she can, keeping that upper lip as stiff as possible and revealing, without saying, the gulf between good manners and warm intimacy.

Interesting, isn’t it, the ocean-wide gap between that hard-nosed, brash-sounding American metropolitanism and the quieter domestic focus of the English comic novelists? The British seem always to have found their aptest settings in villages and the countryside. I speak, admittedly, as one who finds Wuthering Heights falling-about funny, but the pièce de résistance of the rural setting has to be Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. How disappointing it is to discover that neither of her two sequels, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (a short story) and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, are a patch on the original. Gibbons’ genius was not only to parody the purple prose of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and others of her ilk – and, frankly, Thomas Hardy has much to answer for here – but to nail the sentiment that inspired such works. Hardy, Webb et al were not the authentic voices of the English countryside at all: they were the voices of the comfortable middle classes sitting by the fireside with all the comforts of urban or suburban life, and they wove a sentimental picture of the honesty of toil and being at one with nature quite untrammelled by the dirty, cold, perpetually damp and squalidly impoverished reality. And, rather than rail at them with an earnest diatribe laden with statistics and appealing to our (often vanishingly flimsy) consciences about our responsibility to improve the lives of others, Gibbons harnessed her comic genius to debunk and ridicule the pompous fantasists who wanted to put a stop to improvements and developments. Forget Tess of the D’Urbervilles trailing through the long grasses and living the pure and simple life. Women, rise up and fight for better bathrooms and education for all! Now that’s worth smiling about. Afghanistan Girl's Education

Week 43: Woof Woof

 

The newest NorthernReader

The newest NorthernReader

KatePonders has gone mad and bought a puppy. This means that the NorthernReader household currently comprises three people and three dogs. Some wariness is called for, as the grandmother who began all this by living in Northumberland, and who was the tiniest bit eccentric, had ten dogs. And twenty-four cats. And assorted other wildlife. No surprise, perhaps, that she is still vividly remembered in this part of the world, some thirty years after her death.

So what help, advice, role models and – as if we need any – encouragement can we find in books?

William Brown’s Jumble is a bit of a doggy hero. Clearly possessed of the sort of spirit that would have stood a Battle of Britain pilot in good stead, Jumble follows William fearlessly where other – lesser? wiser? – dogs might have chosen to stand back and let the young master take the hit. For fortitude, faithfulness and valour, Jumble, we salute you. Enid Blyton’s Timmy, by contrast, is a bit of a cipher. Can anyone remember a single thing about him, other than the fact, now that I’ve prodded your memory, that he was a dog and an honorary member of the Famous Five? Like Harpo Marx but without the curls or the musical talent. We’re much, much better off with the dashing Pongo, brave dog-of-action in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

duchessBefore the infant reader makes it to Blyton or Crompton, the delights of Spot – rather pleasingly known in KatePonders’ Welsh childhood as Smot – beckon. How sad we were to see that Eric Hill, Spot’s creator – should that be owner? – died this week.  We loved Mick Inkpen’s charmingly dim Kipper, too (still do, to be honest), and we adored Duchess in Beatrix Potter’s The Pie and the Patty Pan (definite contender for Best Potter Book). Our other great favourite was A Dog Day. It was written by Walter Emanuel, and if he is your relative or specialist subjectcecil_aldin_pudding_sm2, I apologise, but I know nothing about him: the point, really, of A Dog Day is the illustrations, which are by Cecil Aldin and, therefore, perfect. How very much cheerier all these books are than Rudyard Kipling’s Thy Servant a Dog. Being Kipling, it is strikingly written and, once you get used to the voice he finds for Boots the Aberdeen Terrier (times have changed and this might be another candidate for Dorothy Parker’s ‘Tonstant Weader Fwowed up’), engagingly sure-footed (pawed?) on giving us the dog’s perspective. But Kipling takes no prisoners and, be warned, you will howl at the end. It marches in my memory together with a particularly glum book inherited, I think, from previous generations, called Jack & Me. Time is a great healer and I am now hazy on the details, but I am pretty certain that No Good comcaldecottes to the puppy that Me and her brother are given. Oh Lord, yes, and there were Randolph Caldecott’s poignant illustrations for Oliver Goldsmith’s The Mad Dog: was mine, I begin to wonder, a particularly strange childhood?

But are there no dogs for grown-ups? Well, of course there are. Montmorency must head their tribe, a deserved accolade for a chap who ‘put his leg in the jam’ when boating with three men. Bartholomew, the assertive Aberdeen Terrier who stars in several of PG Wodehouse’s peerless books, is pleasingly direct in his dealings with mankind – especially, of course, the male of the species. And I retain a soft spot for Muggs the Airedale, ‘The Dog that Bit People’ fondly memorialised by James Thurber. There are, of course, nice dogs in literature as well, but rather like nice people, they are sadly less kc-reg-english-bull-terrier-pups-51e8385ebdb51memorable than the rapscallions, the ne’er do wells and the biters. Bill Sikes’ Bull’s Eye, far and away my favourite character in Oliver Twist, for example: no-one’s idea of a good dog. Jip, Dora Copperfield’s lap dog, is as irritating as her owner (how hugely unkind Dickens could be). The Pomeranian in Anton Chekhov’s superlative The Lady with the Dog won’t do either: we can concede that it is crucial to the plot, but the wretched animal doesn’t even have a name as far as I can recall, and while offering to bite the man’s hand shows it be quite a good judge of character, it probably, strictly speaking, disqualifies it on the Nice Dog stakes.

Another would-be biter is Flush, Elizabeth Barrett’s cocker spaniel. He failed to engage his target, the young Robert Browning, and found himself swept up in the Barrett-Browning romance and whisked off to Italy. A happily-ever-after story, and a true one. Virginia Woolf’s biography, Flush, is too often overlooked, but if you like Woolf – as who could not – both poets (ditto) and cocker spaniels – heart of stone not to, obviously – then a great pleasure awaits you if you happen not have read this yet.

The very nicest dog in literature, it suddenly occurs to me, is Cyril, the canine component of the ensemble cast of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books. It might just be the gold tooth, but I think that it is Cyril’s reasoned philosophical approach to life that wins us over. That, and his pleasing habit of peeing on the command, ‘Turner Prize.’

Vivien Leigh - by Laszlo WillingerAs for the latest addition to the NorthernReader household, at present she appears to be modelling herself more on Slinky in Toy Story than any heroine of literature, although her Vivien Leigh looks suggest she might enjoy reading AEW Mason’s Fire Over England, or of course Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when she’s a little older (and hands/paws up anyone who’s actually read it? Really? All I remember of the film is crying out ‘O please, no!’ when the lovely Miss Leigh declared ‘I will go back to Tara’, and I have an uneasy feeling that the book is even longer. Up to you, of course). Oh well, it could be worse: at least she doesn’t seem to be too influenced by Gerald Durrell’s puppies (My Family and Other Animals), who, you will recall, are named Widdle and Puke.

 

PS NorthernReader Walking Book Club news on Walking Book Club page. Hope you can come.