Monday, 28 May 2007

Old Filth

Our Book Group choice for May was Old Filth by Jane Gardam. We all thought we would know what it was about because we all knew what Filth in the title stood for - Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. Obviously it was about a guy who couldn't make a living in the UK, went out East and did well there: it turned out that it wasn't that simple.

The story is based on the life of a famous judge who was deprived of his parents at a tender age: his loneliness, resilience and courage overcoming his unfortunate start in life and his wisdom and compassion as a judge. As the story unfolds the reader sees that he is also blind to others feelings and an emotional cripple to boot.

People are often perceived two dimensionally and the novel gets this over so well: most of the characters don't realize that the highly successful man with an apparently easy and blessed life has actually had unimaginable hardship to contend with.

The humour has a touch of rollicking Tom Sharpe crossed with Marina Lewycka's Short History of Tractors in Ukranian: funny but insightful. There are also many touching observations: for instance, Gardam does ageing very well. She shows how elderly partners can become accustomed (and often unfeeling) to each other, how marriages work and people in relationships become reliant on each other – particularly the successful man's reliance on the 'little woman'.

We all (except our American groupie) said we know at least one Raj orphan: those that were shipped off to school in England as small children. We recognized in the characters aspects and qualities of Raj orphans we know. One of our groupies is up on the psychology aspect of these things and explained that traumatic early experiences either produce an 'anxious' adult or one that only achieves 'distant attachment patterns'. These are manifested in later relationships by either jealousy, never becoming totally attached or managing to achieve real intimacy: Gardam got this just right.

The book was well structured and the time shifts kept the reader interested and tension up, although those who didn't read the book in a condensed period of time found the chronology confusing. Chapter headings were a clue but not always a very clear one: present time, past, present, past. But it may have been Gardam's style - which shifts between several different streams of consciousness and also moves easily between present and past – that confused some.

The coincidences in the story annoyed everybody – not for nothing are they viewed with suspicion in literature: in real life they happen all the time but on paper they seem too pat. Some found the novel a bit shallow and all agreed that the ending – by which time the twist in the tale has been flagged once too often - was a bit disappointing.

Everyone of the group read Old Filth and all thought it well written: 60% enjoyed it but wouldn't recommend it or read it again; 40% thought it was good, by which they meant that they thought it was above average and would read other novels by the author.

Old Filth is a great book for the beach: short, smart, full of pathos and humour. I for one will look for other novel's by Jane Gardam and hope that I shall be writing such clever stuff when I'm aged 79.


History nitpick: Jane Gardam intimates that Rudyard Kipling was anti the colonial life when in fact he was not always critical of the British Empire and everything it stood for (although he was certainly critical of being sent away as a small boy to strangers in the UK). Kipling was a fervent supporter of the Boer War and believed that if the colonies were given independence it would lead to their ruin. It was only after his beloved son was killed in the First World War that his attitude to the Empire changed. His early views are as nothing now compared to his genius.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Chelsea - not bigger but better

Yesterday was the first day of the Chelsea Flower Show where every plant, flower and display is perfection itself. Chelsea is one of the first social events of the season and considered the most prestigious event in the horticultural calendar.

Visitors flock to London to order their new roses, unusual narcissi bulbs or sweet pea seeds and to admire the marquees packed with the most glorious flowers and foliage from around the world. A plantsman's paradise. Small stalls along the paths offer pots, paintings, gumboots or plant ties. Large stands have garden furniture, sculpture or lawn-mowers. And there's always some grand conservatory you can buy (if you're very rich) when the show is over.

But the real crowd-pullers are the famous show gardens: these are sponsored by those companies who can afford the tens of thousands they cost to stage and if the 'garden' wins a coveted gold medal the designer is guaranteed clients for life. Unfortunately, on public days they're so popular that it's impossible to see them properly as the crowd is ten deep.

So it's a real treat to come on press day when numbers are so limited; one can actually stand right in front of a show garden and see everything. Although yesterday there was a blip: it was raining. But the weather brings out the stiff upper lip in the British (only Brits sit on the grass and eat a picnic under an umbrella or a woollen rug) and we all pretended it wasn't wet. We wore our linen and our open toed shoes – even though it's only May – and topped it with a brolly.

The large show gardens are very impressive with elegant structures, mature hedges and trees, cascading waterfalls, ponds or rills. And to get the wow factor in the planting they do what no gardener would - 300 plants can go into a small bed only one metre square just to get the right effect: these gardens are designed to be impressive and inspirational, not real.

This year there are fewer large gardens but, overall, better ones. Although it seems that many of the famous designers play 'safe': gardens are often a combination of formal layout with cottage garden planting and water, for the largest, or cottage garden/natural theme for the medium sized. It's the new boys on the block – Antipodeans among them – that are proving to be the innovators.

But there are more small gardens – in categories of courtyard, city, chic or roof - which need a lot less sponsorship but a great deal more unpaid blood, sweat and tears to produce. These are increasingly popular because they are built to the same exacting standards whilst being more applicable to most people's gardens and this year they are excellent, better than ever in design and finish.

I'm interested in Chelsea on two levels, as a designer and as a writer. As a designer I'm fascinated by the show gardens: the inspiration and innovation, the spaces, structure, combinations and colours. I know how incredibly difficult it is – logistically and physically – to achieve the final effect of a 'show' garden.

As a writer I'm obviously looking for an angle to do an article on Chelsea but I also enjoy the chance to do some celebrity people watching. Big-wigs – usually attired in outfits circa 1950 - generally lack animation (too much good breeding) and the judges – not so many in Panama hats this year - simply stand in a huddle, confabbing and raising their hands.

But when a celebrity breezes by there's a frisson even if everyone is trying to look nonchalant: we move in these circles all the time you know. Famous stars are there in dozens but seldom smile at anyone they don't recognize: petrified someone will ask for an autograph.

Although, there are also plenty of not-so-famous personalities (although I forgot to mug up on soap stars so probably missed some of them) who, like any normal punter, have obviously just come for a good day out: I'd love some of those roses, might order one for mum's birthday; shall we have a cup of tea ..nah! lets have some Pimms.

Overall the show was fun and the quality superb this year - and when I got home I wandered out in to my garden to see what I should or could be doing. I was greeted with weeds, messy corners, unclipped hedges and, heavens, signs of a dog!

But strangely I didn't feel dissatisfied: Chelsea show gardens are beautiful - perfect installations - but give me a seat, a glass of wine, a ball to throw for Freddie and I can live with imperfection. It's so much more restful.


Book Note: arriving in London I spotted A Little Blue Jacket on the bookshelves of WH Smiths store at the railway station; a warm glow that quite set me up for the day. I felt obliged to accept the first glass of bubbly I was offered at the show, even if it was only 11am.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Daphne du Maurier

Yesterday, Sunday 13th May, was the centenary of Daphne du Maurier's birth and, apart from various literary celebrations, there was also the screening on television of a film called – not surprisingly – Daphne.

It seems that the cult of celebrity is so central to our lives now that the media is always striving to give us what they think we want Рan expose of celebrity life and the more salacious the better. But, having been over-exposed to modern celebrities who all seem to be either too thin, too insecure or too spoiled we are surely jaded: journalists, broadcasters and film makers must therefore be delighted when they alight on fresh meat - a famous author with a risqu̩ life-style even if said author is dead.

Based on Margaret Forster's 1993 biography, the film covers Daphne du Maurier's personal love life – her unrequited love for her publisher's wife, her less than successful relationship with her husband and her consummated love for her father's ex-mistress, Gertrude Lawrence.

The trouble with such a docudrama cum biography as this, is that it's sometimes difficult for the viewer to keep in mind that it's not necessarily a truthful account of events but a version of the truth. The film starts after Daphne's husband returns from the Second World War: they are living in their large Cornish house, Menabilly, with their three children. She is still feted for her most famous novel, Rebecca (1936), but has to go to America to answer an accusation of plagiarism. And there she falls in love with her publisher's wife.

Unfortunately, the film didn't add to our understanding of the novelist's motives or talent which is a pity, nor did it really get over her passionate love of Cornwall. It will probably cause even more parallels to be drawn between Daphne's sexually conflicting emotions and her work. Will we hear that it was obviously her pent up emotions that drove her work? Or will we be allowed to hold on to the thought that she had raw creative talent.

The truth is that it was probably a bit of both. Sure, writers use experience to inspire stories or inform characters - it's generally accepted that Daphne du Maurier was the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, Menabilly was Manderley, and the character Maxim was an amalgam of the men in her life - but I like to think that Daphne had an ability that didn't rely on malfunctioning personal relationships in order for her to write convincing novels.

If you went with the flow of the film Daphne it was satisfyingly moody in a period way - stunning Cornish landscape, large country pile, moving music and big frocks – although the character, Daphne, was less attractive. She came over as a pretty buttoned up, enigmatic character to me; a person incapable of a spontaneous natural show of affection or fun, or indeed interest in anything in particular.

Except writing, of course, that - when one thinks of her work - would be more than enough for most of us. Starved of anything half decent to watch on TV I enjoyed the film as a period piece but I'm not sure that it does service to Daphne du Maurier's work – it almost belittled her and consequently her talent. But if many who watched it now read – or re-read a few as I intend - some of her novels, the film will have had an impact that I've not given it credit for.


Book Notes: Daphne du Maurier's husband sought her ought on the strength of her first novel, The Loving Spirit, 1931. She went on to write many more of which Rebecca (1936) was her most famous. It was made into a film (3 times) as was My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn and Frenchman's Creek. She also wrote works of non-fiction and several short stories one of which was made into the Hitchcock film, Birds, and two plays.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

How novels work

I'm a member of book group and our choice for April was How Novels Work by John Mullan – or rather, how novels work (sic). I know these groups should be more correctly called 'reading groups' but for some reason in the UK most of us who belong to one refer to them as book groups.

Our group of twelve – members of which I shall henceforth refer to as groupies - has been meeting for nearly eleven years now. Whichever member chooses the book of the month also presents it and hosts the group (8pm, wine and nibbles). We choose a few months ahead – so we can read to suit our lifestyles – and, apart from being cost conscious (the novel should be out in paperback), we've found it best if the person presenting has already read their choice. This cuts down on real duds.

Although 70% of what we choose is fiction, we occasionally read a play, poetry or biography to ring the changes. A few of our group had been to hear John Mullan talk and they said he was absolutely brilliant, so when it was suggested we do his book we were all up for it: it might help us analyse our monthly book choice. The book is only available in hardback but we all happily coughed up £12.99.

John Mullan says in his introduction that it's striking that so much talk about books is about content – the story – and not about form and technique. So, based on a previous column in the Guardian, he's written a book about how novels work rather than what they contain. The previous articles are now all neatly grouped by the topics they examine.

I'm delighted with anything that promotes literary criticism because it niggles me when we only discuss the story at meetings - why? we've all read it - and not the techniques. And the topics covered in how novels work show readers that there's more to writing a novel than just telling a good story.

All of us groupies admired the book, most enjoyed it, half of us finished it, a couple didn't get past the first few chapters. It is, admittedly, not a book to read at one sitting; more a book to dip into and digest a chapter at a time. A good reference book to use when the need or desire arises.

Mullan proposes that, "Behind the reading group is what might be thought of as a tenet of literary criticism: that you don't know what you think of a book until you have heard what others think."

This statement could be construed as derogatory but our group often find this applies – to an extent - to many of the works we read at our meetings; although it's not that we don't know what we think of a book, or whether we enjoyed it or not, but that other groupies open our eyes to features or facts we weren't fully appreciative of. We leave the meeting feeling that we've got more out of the book since discussing it.

Mullan points out in the introduction that his work "is necessarily a criticism of first impressions, largely aimed at potential rather than actual readers of any given novel." Throughout, as examples of his chosen topics, he cites particular contempory novels and juxtaposes or compares them with 'classics'.

But this method, which is admirable, is possibly more useful to the reader if they've already read the literary examples. It's like anything – to describe a place, a taste or an experience, for example, means little to the listener until one has experienced it for oneself.

How novels work is simply too packed with examples and new concepts to remember them all and will most likely be used as - or was intended as - a crib by an individual before presenting a title to their co-readers.

Most of our group said that they would tackle how novels work again once they had read all the works quoted: the topics should then be more understandable and more memorable. So Prof. Mullan has achieved possibly more than he set out to: he's encouraged us to read more (literary) books as well as criticize (correctly) how novels work.


Book Note: another book of the ilk that I think is excellent is The Art of Fiction by Prof. David Lodge (1992). It's similar to John Mullan's in form and in that it makes literary criticism accessible. However, a previous publication on the subject, The Sense of Ending by Prof. Frank Kermode (1967), is the work of a brilliant man but one who is obscurely academic; the sort of work that John Mullan might describe as "designedly inaccessible."