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 72: Books for Kings and Wise Men

epiphanyausIt seems unlikely that early Christians picked January 6th – Epiphany – solely to mark the day we can take the Christmas decorations down, but how jolly useful of them to have set up a date that can act as a watershed. Before it, celebrations marked by reds and golds, noise and laughter, feasts and cheerful over-doing it; after, a clearing-back to simplicity, calm and quiet. January is the time when even the most cluttered of us find ourselves drawn to a little minimalism, when we can enjoy the sight of a windowsill or chimneypiece untrammelled by cards. A single hyacinth growing in its glass is all the decoration we need as the days begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to lengthen. And now is the time for the lovely peacefulness of evenings by the fire, reading.

Magi_(1)Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t call them kings or wise men and doesn’t say how many of them there were (the most plausible translation, should you be interested, seems to be that they were Zoroastrians – giving rise to a pleasingly frivolous vision of Freddie Mercury pitching up at the stable), but the chaps who followed the star set a precedent for Good Guest behaviour by bringing presents. And, should your tastes or your budget not run to gold, frankincense and myrrh, be of good cheer, because books make the best presents (although if you hanker after frankincense, try a bottle of Tauer’s scent, L’Air du Desert Marocain). Now is the first time since Christmas when we have breathing space to sit down and properly read, rather than flick through, all those gorgeous books lovely people gave us. As well as a stocking-full of vintage Ladybird books, which are becoming a slight obsession of mine, I have the chance to get ahead on at least one anniversary being marked in 2015, thanks to a well-loved nephew and niece and their thoughtful choice of Dan Jones’s Magna Carta as a brilliant present. I am already absorbed in this clear study of how the Charter came about, what happened to it and why it is important. As a consequence, the New Year’s Resolution you will be most pleased to hear about is a determination not to emulate the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and stop one in three to share my newly-acquired fascinating insights (I’ll let you know how successful I am with keeping that resolution).

And I have Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow to enjoy through the year as well. Compellingly written and the perfect blend of discussion, reflection and instruction that puts Don in the same (premier) league as Christopher Lloyd. The catalogues for spring-planted bulbs have started to arrive as well, encouraging a lot of armchair gardening which is, as you know, so much less of a physical and financial drain than the other kind. Now might be a good moment for some more reading about gardens, though: Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History, of course, and Philippa Gregory’s two novels about the Tradescant father and son, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth. I have not read Elizabeth Buchan’s Consider the Lily, but judging from the reviews that might well be my loss and one for the Books To Look Out For list. Oh, and we can have poetry too: Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, you are simply going to have to pop off and read, now that I tell you it seems not to be possible to mention it on the internet without adding the rather crushing phrase ‘one of the most famous poems’ (admittedly they tend to qualify this with ‘of the seventeenth century’, but still, you wouldn’t want to feel left out, would you?). And how about Thom Gunn’s ‘The Garden of the Gods’? And if that gets you reading all of Thom Gunn, well, hurray, and you can thank me later.

snowWhile we wait … and wait … for snow, I can at least re-read the splendid snowiness of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Or – pleasure of all pleasures – revisit Italo Calvino’s playful and mesmerising If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se Una Notte d’Inverno un Viaggatore, but I can’t read Italian, and am lucky to have William Weaver’s assured translation). And if you, like me, enjoy this, that’s 2015 sorted, because you simply must get round to reading Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. You do not need me to remind you of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods One Snowy Evening’ because it stays in the heart of everyone who comes across it, but there is a chance you haven’t read Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, Walt Whitman’s ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ or Thomas Campion’s ‘Now Winter Nights Enlarge’.

While you sit contentedly – oh, and how that lovely word reminds me that now is the time to re-read The Wind in the Willows – book in hand, by all means make resolutions, but make them things to read, not vile self-hating and dreary weight-loss goals. Here, as a New Year’s present to you, are three suggestions. Read something by Charles Dickens. It took me far too many years to realise that there is a reason why he is so famous, and the reason is the very simple one that he is an utterly fabulous writer. So there’s gold for you. Second: read something in translation from a different culture and tradition – the exoticism of frankincense, if you will. For me, that’s going to be Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. And finally, some myrrh. The Balm of Gilead is known for its soothing, healing properties and is beginning to look like the latest wonder-drug from cholesterol-busting to cancer-combatting. Quite a challenge; a book to soothe and console, cure and heal. That’ll be Shakespeare, then. Happy New Year.


Week 22: Books in Translation

Right.  A promise is a promise, and, while I am lousy at keeping New Year resolutions, I am, if you will only give me world enough, and time, very good at (eventually) fulfilling babelpromises.  And I said we’d talk about books in translation.

Let’s start with Dorothy L Sayers (and the L, if you’re wondering and can’t be bothered to Google it for yourself, stands for Leigh, and, no, I don’t know why she felt that it lifted her name from the mundane to the inscrutable, but she clearly did, because she insisted on it).  Miss Sayers (oh, alright: she wanted her surname to be pronounced as a more-or-less monosyllable, like stairs without the T.  But I do pronounce it like that anyway – I am also guilty of referring to the author of Blithe Spirit as a monosyllable to rhyme with bard – and I don’t find myself thinking, ‘well, thank heavens that L is there, otherwise I would have fallen into the terrible trap of calling her Say-ers, and social death would inexorably have followed.  But I digress) – where was I? – Miss Sayers shunned few opportunities to air her erudition: which is to say, show off.  So, in Clouds of Witness, much of the plot, and your chance of keeping up with it, faint but pursuing, depends upon your ability to translate the conversations and correspondence that appear in French.  Now, I accuse Miss Sayers of showing off more because the evidence stacks up against her, book by book (needing to know about painting in order to twig to Five Red Herrings; being braced and able to follow the decoding of the Playfair Cipher in Have His Carcase, and so on): but is her assumption that we understand French misplaced or not?  Well, her pretty-much-exact contemporary, Thomas Stearns Eliot (and while we’re on the parallel topic of names and middle initials, you can quite see why Tom went for TS given the hand the font had dealt him), freights The Waste Land with French, German, Latin and Greek – among others – precisely in order to make his point: which is that these languages and cultures are where we come from and we jolly well should be familiar with them.  Which is, of course, a bit of a moot point.  It depends rather on who we, and of course TS Eliot, mean by ‘we’.  He’s clearly no paid-up Romantic and has no truck with the idea that the English-speaking world might flaunt its Saxon, Celtic and Norse antecedents and might not, in truth, have an awful lot in common with the-glory-that-was-Greece and the-splendour-that-was-Rome.  He is also, of course, being deliberately – call it playfully if you will – difficult.  Don’t forget Eliot is the great champion of the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century: in many ways, his own poems demand the same depth of concentration and commitment as Donne and Herbert.  We are forced to use our brains to translate from difficult into understandable.

But when we translate from one language into another, what do we translate?  The exact words?  Dodgy enough in prose, but when you come to wrestling with the extra demands of rhyme and rhythm that poetry can impose, you might want to sit on the stairs and cry.  Usually, translators concentrate on letting us know what is going on in the unknown language.  That’s why we can find many different versions of the same text.  Take Homer’s Iliad, for example (trust me).  The collection-of-aural-transmission-known-as-Homer produced the thing in verse –in dactylic hexameters, no less.  The great George Chapman trojan_war– yes, that one, the one whose translation bowled over Keats a couple of hundred years after it first appeared – used a range of mostly iambic forms of differing line lengths.  Alexander Pope popped up a hundred years after Chapman and rendered the whole thing into very splendid rhyming couplets.  And then (I’m skipping and being picky: there are lots and lots of translations), there is Christopher Logue’s fabulous, free-wheeling War Music.  Is it a translation or a response?  Well, obviously, you know I’m going to say, read it and make your own decision.

But, supposing for one pleasing moment that you and Ancient Greek are old chums and you can read your Loeb edition unfalteringly over your breakfast egg, I still ask, what is it you are hearing in your mind?  If you are such a linguist that you think in Ancient Greek, I have to break it to you that you are nonetheless not one.  You have different experiences, a different cultural background, a different view of the world.  You know about antibiotics (all that fighting). You know about agnosticism and atheism (all those gods).  You react differently (I hope) to all that really rather casual female-prisoner swapping.  You may even take a dim view of the Trojan Horse (not very Geneva Convention, which also doesn’t cover the dragging of Hector round the walls of Troy, which certainly isn’t cricket).  In other words, you are not having the same reader-experience, even if you learned Ancient Greek as an academic discipline at school or university, as your Bronze Age predecessors (this is of course also true when approaching, say, Shakespeare, and we will undoubtedly discuss reading the past as a foreign country one of these days).

So is there any point in reading in translation?  Well, yes, of course there is, because some taste of Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy is better than none, some sense of what fired Dante, Calvino and Eco enriches our English-speaking lives; some contact with Zola, Flaubert and Stendhal makes us long to know France better.  And the translated text can be glorious in its own right.  I am in no position to pronounce on the original Biblical testaments, Old or New, but I know that when I get the phone call from Kirsty for Desert Island Discs (it can only be a matter of time, surely), when she says, ‘we give you the Bible’, I will make it clear that I’m only playing if I can have the King James version.  And that, dear readers, was produced by a committee.

Week 11: The Weather in the Streets and Other Places

Within the last three days, we have had warm golden sunshine, gales that have redistributed around the village anything not actually nailed down, bitter blasts and wallops of rain.  Hello, autumn.  Whether it’s turning the lights on at midday or forging across the fell at an unfeasible angle, it’s clear that the weather affects more than just what we wear.  One of the delicious things about these islands is that we have Proper Weather.  The British are famous for talking about it: come and live here and so will you, because it surprises, delights, frustrates and awes twelve times a day.  No surprise, then, that books written here are imbued with a sense of the elements.

This week’s title comes from Rosamond Lehmann.  The Weather in the Streets follows on from Invitation to the Waltz (and I do urge you, if you haven’t read Lehmann, to start now).  A perceptive study of an affair, with some claim to make Graham Greene seem cheery and shallow, the title implies that when we say weather, we are not thinking sunshine and little fluffy clouds. Thinking of which, I did have a copy of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, but it just confirmed that I don’t have that sort of brain and I left it – well, under a little cloud of its own.  More up my street was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (no, not that one), which hops about from narrative to narrative in a way that echoes If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and is only not as good because nothing could be (we’ll talk about Favourite Books of All Time one day: and while we’re about it we’re still on a promise to talk about books in translation – unless of course you are equipped to read Italo Calvino in the original, in which case I am, frankly, jealous.  I suppose you read Umberto Eco too: lucky, lucky you).

For sticky, un-English weather, Nostromo will have you sweltering: in fact ‘swelter’ is one of Joseph Conrad’s default settings: Heart of Darkness, anyone?  But then, he’s good at all shapes and sizes of weather: if you haven’t, go and be engulfed in the mist and fog of The Secret Agent.  Best of all, perhaps, on the weather on someone else’s streets, is the incomparably wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  The cold of the Russian winter follows the heartbeat of the story and gives pathetic fallacy a good name after all.  From the sublime to the – well, the more straightforward –  we might have a peek at Ice Station Zebra: does anyone read Alistair MacLean these days?  Goodness, there’s a lot of plot, mostly uncluttered by any of that tiresome character development or subtlety stuff that so clutters up other writers’ work, but you can’t deny that MacLean could make you feel the cold.

photograph of Hadrian's Wall taken some time between January and December

photograph of Hadrian’s Wall taken some time between January and December

Back home, if we’re putting together a small shelf of books that catch the British weather – and, now I think about it, there would be worse ‘welcome’ presents for someone new to these shores – we will have to include Arthur Ransome: Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post cover the coldest of Lake District winter and the parching that an English summer can deliver.  And then there’s Christopher Robin in his gumboots and Pooh afloat on The Floating Bear while Piglet sends messages in a bottle and hopes for rescue.  For the grown-ups among us, let’s have the pleasures of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, not least for its dry certainty that if summer comes, winter must be just round the corner: one in the eye for Shelley.

But of course it’s the poets who really get to grips with the weather.  Poetry and weather have much in common, after all, being flickering, allusive and elusive, a sudden flash and then whisking on to the next thing.  Above all, they both have the power to lift our hearts and to wring them.  So let’s have that fanfare for the makers that Louis MacNeice proclaimed.  And – oh, splendid! – here is my first opportunity to fulfil an earlier promise and talk a little about Edward Thomas.

If we were to be silly enough to be making lists of top ten this and top forty that, and presumptuous enough to try for a list of top poets, Edward Thomas would be there.  You know the story, I expect: the journalist author of non-fiction books who insisted on volunteering in 1915 and began, under those intolerable and unknowable pressures, to write some of the sparest, bleakest and most beautiful poetry, not only of the First World War but of anywhere or any time.  And of course you’ve guessed the ending: sniper’s bullet at Arras in April 1917.  Eleanor Farjeon, a friend, wrote the most heart-breaking poem, ‘Easter Monday’, on hearing the news of his death.  Thomas could make you feel the rain that beat upon him, hour by relentless hour, but he was such a poet of the countryside that you can also feel the warm breeze at Adlestrop and smell the beguiling earth being turned in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. More envy on my part, I’m afraid, because if you happen not to have got round to reading much Edward Thomas yet, and now you potter off to do so, you will be steeping yourself in quiet pleasure.  I, on the other hand, will be out in the rain, carrying buckets of gravel to make a path.  Oh well.  As Louis MacNeice says, ‘Let us make.  And set the weather fair.’