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

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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 106: Do No Harm

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

The idea that doctors should aim to do no harm is attributed to Hippocrates, an Iron Age resident of the Greek island of Kos. This has been a week in which doctors have been much in the news, whether taking industrial action in Britain or being deliberately bombed by President Putin in Syria (in the interests of objectivity and fairness, I should point out that the USA also bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, in Afghanistan, in November 2015. I am not sure it makes much difference to those on the receiving end whether bombs are killing you as a result of incompetence or deliberate malice, but one, at least, of these causes should be avoidable). Governments and authors alike have displayed a tendency over the years to appropriate and manipulate the public response to doctors, who have found themselves starring as heroes and villains far more often than the more mundane ground occupied by the rest of us. Why?

Let’s look at some medical heroes first. There are more than a few real-life doctors who have been mythologised during or after their lives to be godlike, capable of miracles. When I was little, the doctor-as-saint figure was Albert Schweitzer, who I suspect is now hardly known at all – a useful lesson in hubris for anyone currently venerated. An intellectually rigorous theologian, a gifted musician, and a perceptive anti-racist at a time of unthinking empire, Schweitzer gained his medical degree in three short years in order to set up a pioneering hospital in Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. You might find his The Philosophy of Civilization interesting, or his autobiography, which has the slightly unsnappy title Out of My Life and Thought.

Schweitzer was to the twentieth century what David Livingstone was to the nineteenth: so famous and yet remote that Henry Stanley’s famously nonchalant greeting, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ clearly covers up an entirely understandable case of flabbergastedness (‘Look mum! It’s me! With him!’: known in the NorthernReader household as Bowie-proximity syndrome but you can insert name of intergalactically-famous star of your choice). Livingstone has been more biographised than Schweitzer, at imagesleast in English, although many studies are quite shallow. Frankly, our old favourites, the Ladybird series, give you the bones: should you be feeling scholarly, David Livingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy, edited by Sarah Worden, would be my choice.

Now for the doctors who managed to practise medicine and write fiction. In pride of place of this week’s bookshelf we can have Dr Anton Chekhov, who once rather archly declared, ‘medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’ Never mind; if he was half as good a physician as he was a writer, his patients were blessed. And indeed they were: Chekhov devoted much of his time to caring, free of charge, for the poor. Funny, angry, heart-breaking, sometimes despairing but always ready to bring his analytical brilliance to the vital task of finding exactly the right words, the right image, to awaken his audience and his readers, his is more modern Russian voice than Tolstoy’s but every bit as compelling. In such company, pretty much everyone appears in a lesser light, but Chekhov’s almost exact contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle, is today at least as famous. Doyle had a rather splendid time as a indexyoung doctor, going to sea on a whaler and on a voyage to West Africa. How tantalising to set The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next to Moby-Dick and The Heart of Darkness (Melville was the older man, and his most famous novel was published before Doyle was born, but Conrad was another almost precise contemporary). Our third choice, working chronologically, can be William Carlos Williams, imagist, modernist, most painterly of poets, who was also a family doctor and paediatrician. Touchingly, the hospital in New Jersey where he worked has a plaque that reads ‘we walk the wards that Williams walked’ and you just know that they feel it’s an honour.

What of doctors in fiction? Setting aside Dr Zhivago, if only on the dubious grounds that (a) we’ve been quite Russian enough already this week, (b) I’ve never read it and (c) I can’t get the image of Omar Sharif out of my mind, here are two heroes and a villain. Trollope’s Dr Thomas Thorne is an absolute sweetie. How splendid it would be if the Barchester ideal of a doctor who is a trusted friend and confidant were the norm (let alone the GP-as-financial adviser: goodness, we have become a lot more wary since Trollope’s time, haven’t we?). Anything that encourages us to read more Trollope is to be welcomed. It’s quite a jump from Dr Thorne to Doc Daneeka, but the squadron physician who first articulates Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s marvellous novel is assured of his place in this week’s pantheon. Daneeka – self-seeking, venal, hypochondriacal, shifty, and entirely human – might seem an unlikely hero, but the urgent and savage point that Heller makes is that (as other writers had it in an earlier time of darkness) this is a world turned upside down: what Thomas Middleton, clearest-sighted and therefore bleakest of all the early seventeenth-century playwrights, called A Mad World, My Masters. You know, I expect, that Heller, when confronted by an ill-mannered reader who complained that he had not subsequently written anything as good as Catch-22, replied, unarguably, ‘Who has?’.

From anti-hero to villain. We could – should – have Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, who definitely has ….. issues; or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who does rather let the side down when it comes to giving psychiatrists a good name (although the NorthernReader Rule about names is triumphantly vindicated here, for no parent who calls their infant Hannibal – okay, no parent since the third century BC – can be surprised if they turn out badly). I am also uncomfortably aware that women are unrepresented on this week’s shelf, which is a shame: while I wait for the perfect female doctor in fiction, or her villainous alter ego (and do please point me in the right direction), I can read Jo Manton’s biography, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. But the broken caduceus award for Worst Doctor in Fiction goes to ….. well, it has to be Victor Frankenstein, doesn’t it?

images

PS We are losing great writers this year at an unsustainable rate.  Harper Lee could lay legitimate claim to having written The Great Twentieth-Century Novel: read, or re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend.  And mourn the departure of Umberto Eco, philosopher, semiotician, novelist and all-round man of letters (The Name of the Rose; Foucault’s Pendulum; Baudolino).  Eco lies at the heart of everything I think about our essential need to read; as the great man himself said ,’books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ Arrivaderci

Week 87: Difficult Books

author-writing-writerThe reason, since you ask, why it has taken me until Thursday to write to you this week is that I had a splendid idea for a topic and spent days – and days … trying to get to grips with it. Born with a stubborn streak, it has taken until this evening for me to realise that it’s just not something I can squeeze a thousand words out of (hadn’t you noticed? Each week is more or less a thousand words: which means, if you have been kind enough to read me from the beginning, that we have shared a novel together, in length if not in meaning). Hitting a writerly brick wall has made me think about the books that, for various reasons, have presented the North Face of the Eiger to me: scalable, yes, but not by me.

I have read and enjoyed most of Ian McEwan, but his 1987 novel, The Child in Time, was too painful. I started to read it when my daughter, the lovely KatePonders, was a baby, and the opening chapter, in which a small daughter called Kate is kidnapped, harrowed me so unutterably that to this day I have never been able to return to it. My visceral abandonment of objectivity is my loss, as the book is thought of by many as McEwan’s masterpiece. Should you not have a daughter called Kate, or indeed should you not be at that vulnerable stage of life which revolves around the fragile wonder that is your child, do please read it and get back to me.

While I’m confessing to personal and illogical taboos, the pictures of the Weasel’s House in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books have haunted my dreams since I first came across them when I was about four. And I have told you before about the terrors of Struwwelpeter, my really rather odd grandfather’s preferred choice of reading to his small descendants. Kateponders expressed a profound aversion to Axel Scheffler’s illustrations for Jon Blake’s untitled (18)You’re a Hero, Daley B! and could be reduced to sobs by well-meaning would-be readers-aloud inadvertently retrieving it from the very back of the bookshelf where she had hidden it (actually destroying a book being unthinkable to her even when three: the mixed blessing of an academic household). Should you, or the very little people in your life, be made of slightly sterner stuff, the book – and indeed the illustrations – are delightful and capable of being an enormous hit in your household.

Some books and authors are of course difficult for other reasons. I freely admit that tremendous length is not at first sight a recommendation to me (which is of course precisely why my enthusiasm for a handful of Really Long Books is so striking and worth taking me up on: good God, if I of all people urge you to read Nostromo, say, or Bleak House, there must be something in them). It is worth remembering that many of the weightier Victorian novels first appeared in instalments in periodicals. Perhaps returning to that approach and taking them in regular but well-spaced bite-size chunks will open up a vaster range of fiction for those wary of the long haul. And we should not lose sight of the fact that some authors are just plain hard work. That is by no means a bad thing – think how boring life would be if everything came in condescendingly platitudinous soundbites (an eternal pre-election, for example): but you do have to be in the mood for grappling. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound should both keep you intellectually pinned down for a while if you’re looking for that sort of challenge. James Joyce’s Ulysses and (even more so) Finnegan’s Wake, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, even Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; one of the layers of difficulty lies in the language. Reading them makes us read slowly, taking each word as it comes. This deliberate barrier to glib understanding draws our attention to our everyday habit of impatiently skimming through everything we read. How much do we miss?

And then there are the books that just aren’t for us. Too many of us had teachers – it’s usually teachers, I’m afraid – who got it into our heads that a book, once begun, must be persevered with to the bitter, bitter end. Sadly true if it’s a set text (see, if you feel so inclined, Week 86 for what I think about our exam-ridden education system), but otherwise, arrant nonsense. You cannot know if any particular book is the sort of thing you might like without giving it a whirl (which is why first lines and pages are so important: see Week 20 for details), but only a fool, or, I suppose, someone trapped on a desert island with only one book for company, would carry on reading once it has been clearly established that book and reader have nothing to say to each other. So, dearest reader, if you have been trudging through War and Peace, Moby Dick or Paradise Lost since time began, cast off your dreadful sense of obligation and consign the loathsome volume to Oxfam, where your particular poison will turn out to be someone else’s food for the mind and the soul.

But, should the mood take you, there are times when we really quite fancy something difficult, or at least something different and out of our comfort zone. So here are three that you might possibly not have read: James Kelman’s Not Not While the Giro; Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And if they turn out not to be your cup of tea, fear not. Let them drop from your hand and reach for another. Don’t forget Yeats’s wise words:

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

That’s telling us. Happy reading.Reynolds_BoyReading (2)

Week 25: Books for Walkers

walkingI was so struck when I read about Emily’s Walking Book Club in London (see the lovely EmilyBooks blog) that I immediately wanted to have something like that here in glorious Hadrian’s Wall country.  So, while we start to get that – well, off the ground, how about limbering up with some books about walks and walking?

As a rather lonely child who spent most days playing by myself in the woods near our house (my, how times have changed), there was something about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes that just spoke to me.  I can’t say it has left me with a life-long love of recalcitrant donkeys – although the unforgettable Modestine is one of the great four-legged characters in literature – but it did fix in my young mind an indelible picture of freedom.  Whether I was ever going to stride the length of one of the lesser-known ravishing areas of France might have been, and remains, a moot point, but Stevenson planted the idea that to get out there, into the countryside, is the thing (this week’s blog is probably not aimed at the Woody Allens among you – by which I only mean the convinced, bred-in-the-bone urbanite: although why should you not be your own Dr Livingstone in the concrete jungle?).

From Travels with a Donkey I moved on to Laurie Lee.  As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is of course, as you would hope from a poet, a lyrical description of his journey through the south of England and in Spain, but there is rather more to it than that.  Lee, as I’m sure you know, walked into the Spanish Civil War, and his is as good an evocation of that perilous and terrible time as anything from Hemingway or Orwell. It is disturbingly easy, by the way, to get the impression that Spaniards – especially the non-literary ones – had quite a job of it getting a look-in in their own struggle against a monstrous dictator, being at least as much imposed upon by dewy-eyed writers following their own agenda.  I like Jessica Mitford’s account in Hons and Rebels, not least because its sense of muddle and confusion sounds believable. But it is a strange phenomenon – and possibly one we should talk about some time – that some wars seem fated to become literary landmarks, whereas others get left to hack each other wearily and horribly to death without poets clustering round.

jade_seaWe’ve talked a little about Patrick Leigh-Fermor before, so here let me just remind you of your intention to read him if you haven’t and re-read him if you have: you won’t regret it.   But there is a chance that you haven’t read John Hillaby, because I suspect he is out of fashion as well as out of print.  Once the Zoological Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (and I tell you that only because I rather yearn for a time when that sort of job existed), Hillaby popped on his walking boots to make the trek across Kenya to Lake Turkana, a trip of about a thousand miles which therefore puts the Proclaimers’ pledge to walk a measly five hundred miles somewhat in the shade.  Journey to the Jade Sea was not specifically undertaken as an act of love, but in his later Journey Through Britain, Journey Through Europe and Journey Through Love  Hillaby was increasingly able to interweave his sentimental education with his other observations as he walked.

The idea of walking with a philosophical purpose is of course not new.  To walk to somewhere in order to experience the journey rather than simply to get to your destination might be as good a definition of pilgrimage as any other.  O good; that’s Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into the rucksack then.  And we Umberto Eco fans can slip a copy of his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods in there as well.  Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, would be a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which can be guaranteed to put any moaning about blisters to shame.  Any sort of journey lends itself to being a metaphor, of course: we’re back with our old friend Dante as he finds himself in the middle of the journey of his life standing in a dark wood with no clear path forward.  Sounds familiar?

Lee, Leigh-Fermor, Hillaby and Christian all walked alone, on the whole, but company is allowable: indeed, if you are going to join us in the NorthernReader Walking Book Club, company is mandatory.  It doesn’t have to be human, I suppose: as a dog-owner, Miles Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies painted an appallingly recognisable picture of the highs and lows of choosing as your companion in life a drooling fur-ball with serious personal hygiene issues.  Better, perhaps, to set out for the day with compass, grog and pemmican and your siblings and friends like the Swallows and the Amazons, who seem to undertake forced route marches the length and breadth of the fells without turning a hair.  They brought children up to be sturdier then, is all I can say.  Today’s valedictory picture shows that increasingly rare sight, children released into the wild and enjoying themselves.  They survived their up-bringing and even claim to have enjoyed it.  One of them grew up to be KatePonders, so clearly all that fresh air and exercise did some good.Wales

PS The NorthernReader Walking Book Club is going to stride out soon.  Watch this space, as they say, and I’ll email, tweet (or, to be honest, get KatePonders to tweet for me) and put up nice old-fashioned posters in Cogito Books, Hexham Library and local village shops as well.

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 12: a Trip to the Library

Week 12: Libraries

BootsWhen I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to the local Boots’ Booklovers’Library.  For the infants among you who are looking at each other with a baffled air, let me whisk you back to a more civilised age when men wore hats – even, if you believe the really rather splendid illustrations in my parents’ copy of How To Grow and Produce Your Own Food, while applying an oiled feather to an egg-bound hen – shops shut on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays, and Boots – yes, that Boots, the chemists – ran a subscription library.  They often had rather fabulous, sub-Liberty architecture as well.  As I remember it, my mother would scan the Sunday papers’ review pages, note down the new books she wanted to read in a special little notebook and take that into the Boots’ Library to place her order.  To be completely honest with you, I can’t remember whether they also catered for the younger reader, but I do recall earnestly lisping to Miss Harris, the librarian, ‘Ith’s my bairthday’.   Which was strange because (a) I did this every week and so it usually wasn’t and (b) I do not otherwise have a Scottish accent.

We also patronised (something my mother was rather good at) the local Public Library, which was definitely an also-ran on the interior design front but which did have children’s books.  And thus was instilled in me The Library Habit.  I am presuming you have it too?  Unless of course you are a multi-millionaire, and even then, frankly, and while I applaud your extravagant expenditure on books, you’ll kick yourself for buying some of the duds that you get to sample for free at your local library.

Or used to.  Now, it may be my dark suspicious mind, but I am not the only person around here to think that the newly-refurbished Hexham Library now has fewer books.  Do not let me in any way put you off going there, however: not least because of the joyful serendipidity of whoever is putting the books back on the shelves entirely randomly, so that I have just tripped over Michael Wood’s Story of England in Fiction (must go and check out the Smallholding section in the eager anticipation of bumping into Animal Farm).  Times are hard, and, for reasons that escape me, councils are preferring to spend money on – well, I’m not quite sure what: certainly not pothole-restoration – rather than on books.  Poor show and short-sighted.

University libraries are quite good fun.  The very greatest pleasure of a spell living in Oxford was the possession of a Bodleian Reader’s Card.  The trick with these is to wait until there is quite a gaggle of tourists clustered round the ‘No Entry: Readers only’ sign at the threshold before weaving importantly through, looking scholarly (don’t lie to me, professorial readers: we’ve all succumbed to this particular shallowness).  So, for those of you who don’t have one, sorry to rub your face in it but it is terrific.  Especially Duke Humphrey’s Library, where you can actually smell the books decaying and the only sound apart from the faint scratch of pencils (no pens allowed) is the full-volume jolly chat of the librarians.  My, they lead trivial lives.  I have a very soft spot for the gorgeous library at Trinity College Dublin, and I love the (admittedly a tad arcane) Dr Williams’s Library in Bloomsbury, but my all-time favourite is probably the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room at the British Library.  I am, of course, so old that I cut my academic teeth under the rotunda at the British Museum – unparalleled fabulousness – but, once I had got over the appalling Walk of Death that takes you, Indiana-Jones like, across the yawning abyss of the atrium (yup, you guessed, I get vertigo) from the (compulsory) lift to Rare Books – the King’s Cross Building is just lovely.  It’s not often that we readers get treated as well as plants, with thought given to our access to light and air.  Take your own pencil-sharpener, though.  But, children of the digital age, forget Sinead O’Connor or indeed the unfeasibly tiny Prince: NOTHING compares to the realisation that you are the first person to have handled some particular book since, say, George III’s librarian.  Or the discovery that the book you have ordered from the stacks is somewhat carelessly bound in a 12th century manuscript, cut to fit.

Children of the internet (and let me take the opportunity now to say thank you, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, not least because he seems to be a terrifically nice self-effacing chap as well as the inventor of the World Wide Web), we have had the immense privilege of living in a world in which we can sit at home and, with the click of a mouse, trawl through a thousand libraries or turn the page of a million books.  At a loose end for an hour?  Go and play on Project Gutenberg or, indeed, the British Library website.  Better still volunteer with Project Gutenberg.  And while you’re on the computer, read Neil Gaiman’s spirited defence of libraries which was this year’s Reading Agency annual lecture: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Back among the deliciousness of paper (I used to teach a course called – a bit pretentiously – ‘The Materiality of the Text’, which simply means, ooh, let’s stop and wonder at the paper, the ink, the layout, the size, the physical history of some particular volume, and unravel all the philosophy and politics that have resulted in it being the way it is), I am looking forward to reading The Library Book, which I am expecting to be a lovely, rambling (very often a recommendation) collection of writers’ responses to the idea of the library.  We’ve talked about Unseen University’s sublime simian librarian before, and we can reel off The Name of the Rose and the slightly ubiquitous H. Potter as books-with-important-libraries in them.  But I haven’t mentioned Jill Paton Walsh’s The Wyndham Case before, which is remiss of me, because it is highly enjoyable.  Bodies have a propensity for libraries, now I come to think about it, from Agatha Christie onwards.  And, no, it wasn’t because they were overwhelmed by all those books.

But the best library of all is available only to you.  Each of you.  It’s the one in your head, and, dearest reader, you can replenish and add to it every day.  At no cost to your local council, if need be.  A simple, daring, thought: lend people your books.  And borrow theirs  (and give them back, please).  And leave books behind you when you go: no, not that sort of final departure (though that would be good too); once you have read a book and will probably not need to do so again, leave it somewhere – a train seat, a public bench, a café table – for the next reader.  It just might be the best thing you ever do.