Week 115: ‘Honour is Purchased By the Deeds We Do’

WP_20150803_16_37_18_ProOur dog Bingo shares an official birthday with HM Queen.  His, admittedly, is a date arrived at for slightly different reasons: less in need than Her Majesty for a date when the sun might be presumed to shine (ha!) on the public outpourings of congratulation, Bingo has rather more in common with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, who has an official birthday to make up for the fact that he has mislaid his own in his long travels to a new life.  While we, of course, feel honoured to have been adopted by this small and determined cocker spaniel, it is the Queen’s privilege to bestow honours from the sweetie-jar of the British array of knighthoods, dameries, and orders of this and that.  This year’s little lot have attracted the opprobrium of the ranting Brexiters, who, glittery-eyed as the madness takes hold, see evidence in the Birthday Honours that everyone’s being horrid to them and you have to be pro-EU to get a medal around here.  Well, it’s a point of view, I suppose, but it does rather miss the point that you have to earn honours by achieving something.  Unlike, for example, the drear lists of the aeons-before-yesterday third-raters driven by grudges, arrant xenophobia and an inability to comprehend (or indeed to think it worth teaching) the basics of history or economics.

So, having got that off my chest (thank you: there will undoubtedly be more despairing pro-twenty-first-century bleatings from me as we move ever more swiftly to the referendum clifftop), how does the Honours system fare in books?

Once upon a time, it seems, things were much simpler.  Some chaps were knights, principally because of their prowess at killing other people in a very sporting manner, and others were lords, principally by dint of being the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of other chaps who had not only been awfully good at killing people but who had impressed some king or other (himself a chap awfully good at killing people but with the added finesse of getting other chaps to do at least some of the killing for him) and been given a slightly casually carved-off chunk of  Britain to go and be mini-me in – sorry, make that ‘go and hold in the name of King Whoever’.   Presumably on the grounds of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’, many of these lords were brothers or younger sons of kings.  The whole thing is the teeniest bit testosterone-fuelled – girls only got to be ladies by marrying, or being the daughters of, knights and lords (which is one in the eye for all those mothers who told their daughters that being a lady is all about good manners and having a hankie on you at all times).  And what all this leads to, in bookish terms, is of course Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (read the fabulous translation by Simon Armitage) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (now I come to think about it, that’s a knight and a lord doing the writing: come on, Ma’am, a knighthood for Mr Armitage please).  It does not take a social commentator of genius to spot that the whole world of Arthurian legend is really frightfully County, where, darling, absolutely everyone knows everyone else and is titled, has a huge country estate and enjoys blood sports.  Oh, and the girls hang g and laround in inappropriately flimsy frocks and lust after the brawny chaps rather than the infinitely rarer thoughtful ones (Gawain, for example; brave and handsome and with an IQ struggling towards a whole number on the evidence of the text; or indeed Arthur himself, the last man on the planet to spot what is going on between his wife and  —  Freud-thou-shouldst-be-living-at-this-hour —  Lancelot).

All this land-owning brings us to Shakespeare.  William himself didn’t have much of it, but what he had he held, grimly moving boundary stones to gain an extra few inches on his fields in Stratford and buying the biggest house in his old home town.  But knights, lords and kings were his stock-in-trade, and his English history plays are awash with people called Suffolk, Warwick and York.  A moment’s inattention at the theatre and one can feel high and dry in a sea of people addressing each other as Leamington Spa or Chipping Sodbury, bringing about strong feelings of solidarity with Winnie the Pooh, who querulously enquired, ‘Three Cheers for Pooh! For who? Why, what did he do?’.  When you add into the heady mix the fact that there were very few Christian names to go around, you can see what a social nightmare living in Mediaeval England must have been, as exemplified in the snappy little dialogue between Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York in Richard III (it’s Act 4 Scene 4 if you’re dying to read on):

QUEEN MARGARET

Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;

DUCHESS OF YORK

I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.

QUEEN MARGARET

Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.

The Queen is cheating at this point, because the Duke of Clarence (the one who gets drowned in a butt of malmsey) has a perfectly good first name, George, which has the unique selling point of being unbagged by anyone else in the play (although to be honest there are so many bit-parts for Lord This and Lord That, any one of whom might have been known to their friends and relations as ‘good old George’, that I’m afraid I did not go and look them all up for you.  Sorry).

But to end on a bright note.  The NorthernReader household has long presumed that Penelope Wilton’s Damehood must have been lost in the post.  Today, hurray and hurrah, it arrived.   To a truly great actress, congratulations.Dame Penelope Wilton

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Week 100: Silence, Solace and Defiance

untitled (18)On Friday November 13th, Paris, my beautiful Paris, was assaulted. What words are there? What you have no words for, you cannot talk about, Wittgenstein said. Rage, fury and fear can strip us of words, so that like Hamlet we splutter in a cry of outrage and pain. But our silence, as we stand bare-headed to remember and to grieve, is itself a response to the barbarity and cruelty we have witnessed. A tiny handful of people around the world take it upon themselves to play monstrous god with the lives of others. They devastate whoever they touch, but they have no power to corrupt the human spirit. We, the humans of the world, have language that brings us together, shares our sorrows and our joys, and outshines the darkness. ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.’ Dylan Thomas said that; and he was right.

So this is a moment for us to let words give us solace. Now is the time to hear again Seamus Heaney reminding us that ‘The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.’ Now is the moment to be comforted by the Mediaeval poet of Deor, translated into modern English by Simon Armitage: as he recounts episodes of sorrow, his constant refrain is ‘As that passed over   may this pass also.’ The Persian Sufi poets who gave us the phrase ‘all things shall pass’ come to our aid with some perspective; and the aggrandising megolamania of would-be tyrants everywhere is cut properly down to size by Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’: you remember the line, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ and its immediate absolute rebuttal; ‘Nothing beside remains.’ The history of humankind shows us that it is not possible for evil to hold sway for more than a moment, because we always turn to what is good. I find myself back at John Donne, of course. At a moment when the unwise are rushing to turn away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free, we need more than ever to calm ourselves with Donne’s affirmation that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. […] any man’s death diminishes me …’. Or in other words (those of Charles Kingsley, in fact), do as you would be done by.

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

As for defiance: the problem with answering violence with violence is only too drearily obvious. Resistance, yes, and an implacable adherence to the moral values of the Enlightenment – yes, our old and dear friends, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but let us know, and live by, what we are for rather than enormous lists of what we are against. So the stories of triumph over wickedness are what we need today. How about CS Lewis’s Narnia tales, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark? But ‘triumph’ is the wrong word here. I don’t want the swaggering and trumpets that it evokes. Rather, let us have the quiet proclamations that the human heart cannot be broken. Remember Galileo – like us, flawed, understandably intimidated by fear, but always and for ever stating ‘and yet it moves.’ Let Antoine Leiris be spokesman for us all in his refusal to dignify his wife’s murderers with ‘the gift of hate.’ ‘Even though that is what you were hoping for,’ he goes on, ‘responding to hatred with anger would be to fall to the same ignorance that made you the people that you are. You want me to be scared, to distrust my fellow citizens, and to sacrifice my liberty for security. I will play on.’

That’s the way to do it.   As Auden says, ‘We must love one another or die.’_86701381_86701380

Week 71: Books for Parties

muppetschristmasWell, that was fun. A period of intense research has produced definitive answers to the important questions, ‘How many people can we squeeze round the table while still leaving room for them to be able to move their arms enough to eat and drink?’; ‘what is the correct thing to do with an excess of tree decorations?’ (no, I didn’t think such a thing as ‘too many tree decorations’ was possible either, but it turns out that it is); and ‘could this become the sort of family that plays board games without gnawing off our own arms with boredom?’ The answers, incidentally, are twelve – and a jolly festive affair it was too; set up a second tree for the dogs (duh); and yes! Yes we could! Provided one of is lucky enough to be given the Great Penguin Book Chase for Christmas (and I’m looking thoughtfully at an ad for Ex Libris, which claims to be a game of first lines and last words and sounds as if it might have been designed specifically for the NorthernReader household). But opportunities for fireside sloth are still pretty thin on the ground as we hop cheerfully from party to party (see Week 69 for the strain this can put on pleasingly meagre wardrobes, unless of course you are a chap, in which case the rule set out in Week 70 still applies). Just time for a quick browse to see how our social whirl compares with parties in books.

No family get-together can completely avoid a faint sense of the Starkadder Re-enactment Society, it seems to me: re-read Cold Comfort Farm as you prepare for your multi-generational gathering and do not let anyone hear you call your party a Counting. But take comfort, cold or otherwise, from the fact that pretty much all parties in books for grown-ups (I hesitate to call it ‘adult fiction’ because the phrase sounds so queasily Fifty Shades-ish – and imagine my surprise when I discovered that that wasn’t a Farrow and Ball hommage after all) – all parties have their steel core of social anxiety, awkwardness or downright misery. Hurray! One of life’s sparkling little lessons safely under the belt: you are not there to enjoy yourself, you are there to circulate. Stiff upper lip and remember that Darcy hated it too. Getting ready for a party can be fraught, as well: remember the Little Women sisters, Meg and, to a markedly lesser degree, Jo, scurrying around before the New Year’s Eve party to which they have been invited. Jo burns Meg’s hair (so much for straighteners) and finds a splendid iron-burn on her own frock and gloves too stained to be worn, while Meg adds to the fun with too-tight shoes (and haven’t we all done that) and a crushing certainty that her sister will behave badly and show them up. And after all that, well, what do you know, they have a perfectly splendid time after all. Hope springs eternal.

SUCH fun!

SUCH fun!

New Year’s parties are set a high standard to live up to, not only by the wonderful Old Year’s Night celebrations in our own Village Hall here in NorthernReader-land, but also and more anciently by King Arthur’s jolly get-together at Camelot as chronicled in Gawain and the Green Knight. When I tell you that this particular knees-up is gate-crashed by a green giant who proposes a friendly Christmas game involving AN AXE, you will see that, put like that, the parties you go to are not nearly as hair-raising as you thought they were. You will also, of course, make an immediate resolution to get no more than a couple of days into the new year without avidly reading Simon Armitage’s translation of the story (translation because the original manuscript we have is from the late fourteenth century and is written in Middle English, which is related to what we speak today but not so that you can read it without limbering up first).

I don’t know whether either of our current Beloved Leaders is planning to go and pluck the gowans fine this New Year’s Eve, but Prime Ministers in fiction have had their partying moments. Alan Hollinghurst deftly captures the horror of the whole decade in his image of Mrs Thatcher, dressed in some sort of Ruritanian outfit, gliding across the dance-floor with the cocaine-sozzled hero of The Line of Beauty. The Prime Minister who attends the party that is the climax of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, un-named in the book but presumably Stanley Baldwin, pays the price, whether he is aware of it or not, of mixing with colleagues and –even worse – voters, when other party-goers take one look and think, ‘One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits.’ Ah. I feel I should point out that, yes, she was a crashing snob, over-burdened with a full and distasteful armoury of bigotries and prejudices, but nevertheless you might well enjoy reading Virginia Woolf. Probably our greatest Modernist, so it would be a shame to miss out. And she does have the distinction of making Evelyn Waugh seem positively kindly – not an easy manoeuvre – by comparison: in Vile Bodies, Waugh contents himself with merely calling his Prime Minister ‘Mr Outrage’ and then feeling sorry for him for being ‘just a Prime Minister, nothing more.’ R & JOuch.

And of course, if you are hosting a party, keep a weather eye out for gate-crashers. Especially if you are called Capulet and you have a teenage daughter.

Anyway, glad-rags on and out you go. If you are very, very lucky, you might find, as we do, that you are among friends and that you are really, truly, enjoying yourself hugely. So have a lovely time and remember that you have the pleasure of a good book to come home to. Happy New Year. (This picture is of the Tar Bar’l Ceremony in Allendale and I think you’re going to love listening to this song from the lovely Unthank sisters)

allendale

Week 68: Chairs

house that jack builtIt’s a bit like The House that Jack Built. Only – blessed relief – without the sinister dog and the insipid young man of the Caldecott book that slightly haunted my childhood. But today we have bought the fabric to cover the chair that we bid for at auction to sit by the table that can come into the room instead of the piano. Because realisation that we are never going to learn to play the piano has dawned, and it has gone to a splendid young woman who is not only doing so, but enjoying it. The result of all this furniture moving has been a fixation on identifying the perfect chair. As I’m sure you have experienced for yourself, anything thought about too long becomes completely surreal and improbable. I can report to you that this holds true for chairs. Stare at enough of the wretched things and they start to look very unlikely indeed. Squat and sitting on their haunches, most of them, like a rather stout gentleman with his hands on his knees, just about to stand up and launch into loud conversation. Not what we want in the corner of the sitting room. Or there are horrid little spindly things that will obviously cringe if anyone of normal proportions so much as looks at them. At the point at which my dreams are full of chairs, swirling through the air and looking as if they might start staging their own Disney film, a hasty retreat into the world of books is called for.

In this mood, the most noticeable thing about Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair is that three children can sit in it comfortably. Its tendency to swoosh about from place to place disqualifies it from serious sitting-room consideration, however, and when you add the wings… there is a fine line to be drawn between eccentric and Just Plain Weird, and chairs that sprout wings have picked which side they are on. CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair will not do either. Not only is the plot so convoluted that it requires a notebook and pencil as well as exam-level knowledge of the previous Narnia novels, but the whole thing strays dangerously into Hobbit territory for this Tolkien-allergic household, which maintains that if you want truly terrific questing stories (and who doesn’t?) stick to Gawain and the Green Knight, especially in Simon Armitage’s translation into modern English. And whatever chair I was seeking, it was certainly not one to which I have to be bound at night so that I don’t start rampaging about eating people and turning into a worm. No, I am not making this up, and this indeed is the nub of my argument that CS Lewis, though no doubt a good egg (and I loved the film of Shadowlands with wonderful Anthony Hopkins as Lewis), is the last author on earth that children, or indeed anyone of a nervous or morbid disposition, should have dealings with. Oh, for heaven’s sake, go and read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf instead: all the blood-tingling horror with none of the tinge of voyeuristic sado-masochism that makes Lewis quite an odd hero of children’s literature.

TS Eliot’s chair in The Waste Land starts more promisingly, perhaps:

‘The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne’

Mmm, sounds good. But wait! Just as the line is a distortion of Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, ‘The barge she sat in, Like a burnished throne’ – and remember what happens to her – Eliot’s chair starts slipping in and out of focus, a hallucinogenic ingredient in a cloyingly rich and disturbing inner landscape. And all I wanted was comfortable. ‘The chair he or she sat in’ holds a strange allure for curators and collectors, and many which are known, or at least thought, to have supported the frame of a famous author as she or he toiled over their work have become icons, heavy-freighted with significance. The Museum of London and the Charles Dickens’ Museum in Broadstairs both have His Chair: not quite as unreasonable as, say, the myriad foreskins of Christ which have been cherished and venerated in shrines across the world, given that it is extremely likely that Dickens, over a long life and the production of umpteen novels and short stories, sat in any number of places to knock out a few hundred words a day. No-one lays claim to having one of the Austen family’s dining chairs, as far as I know (but you should still have a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, on your To Do list – and they do have her writing-table). And if anyone tries to sell you Shakespeare’s chair, call the Fraud Squad. Tolstoy – and why are we not surprised? – shaw's deskseems to have sat on The World’s Most Uncomfortable Chair to write what, in that context, really do look like extremely long novels. And George Bernard Shaw (bother! A shoo-in for our cogitations on middle names ) had a captain’s chair. All I can tell you is that I have one just like it, and I love it, because it was my great-great-grandfather’s, and it has been – well, part of the furniture -all my life. But I would not willingly sit in it for hours at a time.

Pooh visits OwlThe secret to choosing the right chair is, I suspect, that it is right for you. Owl’s chair, for example, is clearly perfect for him, allowing good perching-room (not a consideration in the NorthernReader household). For reading, there must be room to curl up, a light peeping over your shoulder, and a table nearby for coffee and cake or a glass of wine (if it has become impossible to sit through a film without major calorific intake, I’m damned if I’m stinting myself when lost in a good book). And, should I fleetingly miss academic life, I can always pretend my new acquisition is not just a chair, but a Chair.