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 101: The Convalescent Reader

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Fallen prey to the New Year Virus, I have spent the last few days coughing and sneezing and staying in bed, huddled in shawls and tissues and proving conclusively that I do not make a good invalid, inclining towards the bored, the tetchy and the Napoleonic. The news has on the whole been as dispiriting as the leaden grey weather – the world already felt a little smaller, sadder and drabber without David Bowie, and then they came and told me about Alan Rickman – and I have had too much time to ponder on mortality and wonder if, after all, there is not as much time left as I had blithely assumed. Time, definitely, to turn to the books by the bed to find some good cheer and quiet encouragement to pull myself together.

The bright side of a post-Christmas virus is that it offers the opportunity to read all those Christmas-present books that you had longed for, hinted heavily for, but so often turn out not to get round to reading once they are actually yours. Not this year: the lovely haul has been read, mulled over, discussed, lent. Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From fulfils expectations (it’s by Tim Parks, it’s probably going to be good): a wonderful bringing-together of his blogs for The New York Review of Books (incidentally, if you never have, succumb to one of the endless offers to receive The London Review of Books free for a year; you are unlikely to be disappointed). Parks freewheels through the very fabric and meaning of the stuff we read – it is no coincidence that these meditations were first published on the internet – and for all of us with New Year Resolutions to live up to about what we read, or don’t read, or what we write this year, Where I’m Reading From is pretty much essential groundwork. (For more about New Year resolutions of a bookish kind, by the way, hop over to the Book Club pages of this blog to see what we got up to in January).

Even the less-than-good, encountered from a soothing pile of pillows, herb tea (that it should come to this) and acres of dogs to hand, offer pleasures. It has been good to find that I still have some sort of critical faculty functioning through the fog of flu-like symptoms, as proved by reading Donna Leon’s latest in the long line of Commissario Brunetti novels, Falling in Love. A treat as always to be reunited with this most uxorious of detectives, but the book feels as if it has been put together by formula. What would be impressive from a lesser writer falls far short of Leon’s usual standard, with sketchily-drawn stock characters, some irritatingly dangling loose ends and an ending carved out of solid woodenness.

I cannot tell a lie.  I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan's

I cannot tell a lie. I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan’s

But three to restore my joyful faith in books. Father Christmas, a good egg if ever there were one, came up trumps with Kate Atkinson’s heavily-hinted-for A God in Ruins, forcing me to indulge in a re-read of Life After Life and revel in her master-classes in the art of fiction. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn turns out to be every bit as good as the film-of-the-book, so if you haven’t, do (I have carried on to discover that Nora Webster is every bit as absorbing). And Landmarks, written by Robert Macfarlane and recommended at the December NorthernReader Book Club, is every bit as delectable as I had hoped.

What next? As this wretched virus at long last starts to pack its bags, I can at least look further than Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. No more the humbling lesson on how to make the sickroom a place of inspiration. Farewell to contemplating the pre-antibiotic world of Betty MacDonald’s fabulous The Plague and I. No need, after all, to start learning the words of Mimi’s farewell aria. I can once again read Keats, the Brontës and Chekhov without a morbid inclination to identify with their every little cough. Time, clearly, for some bracing pull-yourself-together reading, and a heartfelt sense of gratitude at my good fortune to have been born in a very wealthy country in the second half of the twentieth century. It would no doubt be very good for me to read some harrowing tales of unhappy or persecuted lives as an aid to counting my blessings, but I think I might take the softer path and slip back onto the sunlit uplands of life with something cheery. The Wind in the Willows is the ultimate Convalescent Book, at least in the NorthernReader household, although Emma runs it a very close second. Ah, comfort books: this seems as good a place as any to confide in you, now we know each other a little better, that the night before my wedding, sleep eluding me, I read Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea. All of it. Make of that what you will.

But here I am this January, restored to health and raring to go on my readerly way. And my treat, my reward, if not for good behaviour exactly then for having come through the porridge-brained phase of ‘flu in which Noddy might pose too much of an intellectual challenge? Well, Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Noise of Time, has just been published to rave reviews. Bliss it is this dawn to be alive. Happy New Year, everyone.WP_20150129_026

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 65: Fly Me To The Moon

Le-Petit-PrinceWoo woo!! Let’s hear it for plucky little Philae – because how can we resist anthropomorphising such a frankly cute little thing with gangly legs. This week’s landing of an extremely mobile science laboratory on a comet hurtling around some unimaginable distance from here is a moment to bask in some reflected glory and think, you know, we humans aren’t entirely a pointless waste of space after all. If only more of us could work harmoniously together over long stretches of time to achieve positive goals with no plan to make loads of money out of it or appear on a (using the term loosely) reality programme. Call me naïve, but I don’t think there is even some dark sinister military purpose lurking in the shadows behind the Rosetta mission. No, the whole thing is inspiring and educational and makes me want to think outside the planet (but first, of course, I must pause for a quick re-read of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful Le Petit Prince, which this week looks more prophetic than fantastic).

We have long tried to imagine ourselves onto a different rock. Once Galileo Galilei looked through his telescope and, crucially, published what he saw, our place in what Douglas Adams christened the Total Perspective Vortex shifted and we became a much, much smaller dot on the ‘You Are Here’ map. (Incidentally, if for some mysterious reason you have not encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … but no, you can’t not be familiar with it. Just in case, let me urge you to listen to it rather than read it. And certainly don’t watch it. The pictures are rubbish). I still mourn my failure to see Ian McDiarmid in the RSC production of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo last year.. Mark Ravenhill translated Brecht’s original Leben DesGalilei for this, and, quite apart from all the other reasons for kicking myself for missing it, I would have been fascinated to see and hear the differences between that pre-war text and Brecht’s own post-war version which he wrote in English with and for Charles Laughton. It is this version that we Anglophones know, not least because it is the text published by Methuen.

Galileo’s discoveries put rocket-boosters under the dramatic and poetic visions of his contemporaries. Ben Jonson’s masque, News From the New World Discovered in the Moon, written for the Court of King James in 1620, pictures a lunar landscape of fields and meadows, rivers and mountains, different mostly from our own world because the people there do not speak. Being Jonson, the play is a satire, with lawyers and the newly-emerging crocodiles of the journalistic trade in its sights; and being a masque, it is full of dances, spectacular costumes and over-the-top praise of the royal audience. Think of it as plush pantomime mercifully bereft of nonentities from television.

At the same time as Jonson was entertaining the Court, John Donne was fizzing with new metaphors from astronomy and the new science. Not just stars, comets and moons, but compasses, telescopes and sextants gave him his startling material for his urgent, compelling poems. Oh, if you happen not to have read any Donne, I envy you for the moment of first encounter you are about to experience. Switch off your computer and your phone, tell the world you’re out, and curl up with Donne’s poems. Be warned: you are about to lose your heart.

A surprising amount of science fiction seems to deny the possibility of metaphor in favour of a rather plonking alternative reality. Terry Pratchett’s first books were very straightforward science fiction of the kind that, were you to change the Slartibartfast-type names to Gerald or Marjorie, would stand revealed in all its suburban mediocrity. But then – o joy! – he lit upon the glorious wheeze of the Discworld, a planet of enormous improbabilities and resonating familiarities that has enabled him, through about a trillion volumes, to satirise our life here on earth, showing it to be hugely peculiar: often hilariously, and sometimes heart-breakingly so. Pratchett’s great precursor was HG Wells, who is perhaps more remembered now for the legend of Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds to a credulous America than he is actually read. His novel, and Welles’s 1938 dramatisation, signal the very depressing tendency of the twentieth century to drop the wonder and excitement when contemplating the possibility of other cultures out there in favour of all-out paranoia. It does seem a shame and a mystery that the century that saw extraordinary scientific and social advances, including access to rational

Thank you, Bill Watterson

Thank you, Bill Watterson

education for more people than ever before, should have opted so merrily and clung so fiercely to a fear-haunted ‘burn them! Burn them!’ mentality that has kept us out of the inter-galactic Good Places to Stay guide to this day. We the people who can look up into the night sky (especially here in the Dark Sky Park of Northumberland) with an intelligent and informed eye can find more than enough to enthral us without needing to invent little green men (no, I don’t know how they came to be little, or green, or particularly associated with Mars). If I want something to frighten myself with, I can read about the behaviour of jihadists or bankers. No, tonight, as I peek out between the clouds to a far-distant universe, I shall be a watcher of the skies seeing a new comet: not like Keats, using astronomy as a metaphor for the marvelling wonder to be found in books, but really, looking up and out. Little Philae, sweet dreams and goodnight.67P-Rosetta-lander-Philae