Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

This is surely the time to read Mankell's 26th novel, Italian Shoes. Firstly, because the book is shortly to be made into a film starring Judi Dench and, possibly, Anthony Hopkins. (There, you have the main characters of Harriet and Welin drawn for you.) And, secondly, like his Kurt Wallander series, Mankell's story is set in the Swedish archipelago and the wintry sense of place is spot on: the reader can positively see and feel the snow laden countryside and the people that are moulded by this harsh environment.

The central character, Fredrik Welin, is a retired surgeon fleeing from a particularly harrowing professional error. Indeed, abandonment is the central theme of the novel. Welin is also fleeing from his personal life – what there was of it – and from himself. He had already abandoned his mother, his former lover, Harriet, and will come to abandon even his closest relation.

Welin is an outsider, an unsympathetic character with no empathy. He cannot tell the truth but admits to himself that he is a shit whilst he continues to be one: snooping, abandoning, lying. This is the psychological insight that Mankell has come to be known for in his Wallander books. Welin is so estranged from society and so isolated on his island that he has to cut a hole in the ice every day and swim in the frozen water to prove to himself that he is still alive.

When, twelve years on, the dying Harriet arrives looking for him to fulfil a promise, Welin reluctantly has to face his former life with all its painful reminders and start to interact with others. Physical contact is difficult for him. When he finally has close family contact he still makes the sort of wrong decision that has characterized his life to date.

Almost too late, when he is ill, Welin comes to realise that he has wasted his time cutting himself off from society, that he has lost the chance of precious relationships. The secondary characters in the book are all as odd as Welin but while Mankell makes him a fully formed character, they somehow remain marginal. And as it unfolds the story to some extent loses its credibility: belief is stretched too far.

The central character comes into contact with the political beliefs and hobby-horses of the author: the break-down of Swedish society; refuges and asylum seekers; foster families and suicides; the parlous state of the ecology; how pollution is affecting cave paintings in France; the sad fact that no-one treasures the artisan (those hand-made Italian shoes) any longer.

Similarly, the work of the violent and talented artist, Caravaggio, is a theme - the dark and light of his paintings an analogy for those of his character. Unfortunately these factors are too obviously something that the author wants to make a point of and sit uncomfortably with the narrative.

Yet this light book, this occasionally unsatisfactory story, is so well-written (and it is very well translated) that it is a pleasure to read. The descriptions are wonderful, the prose spare, the structure good. Suspense is built up although usually to no end. The possibility of redemption is there, but in true Mankell style there is no reassuring happy ending. This is a book for real Mankell fans but not, I think, one that will automatically convince the uninitiated.


Sunday, 27 November 2011

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

I did not realise that Brazzaville Beach was a real place in the Congo until I heard it mentioned on the radio the other day. So much for my geographical knowledge. However, it is a slightly confusing title because the story is really set in Angola.

Few who have read Golding's other novels would fail to agree that he is a good writer. Indeed, Brazzaviile Beach, written in 1995, was nominated at the time for the James Tait prize. I can see why he is popular: his books are easy to read and appeal to both sexes. I too liked the book. Mostly. Although, sometimes it jarred, occasionally it disappointed.

The main character, Hope, leaves her floundering maths whiz husband and goes off to study chimpanzees in Angola. Soon, Hope discovers that the group of chimps she is studying show aggression. Her boss, Eugene, refuses to believe her theories or findings: funding for further research is dependent upon the publication of his book about the passive chimps.

The denouement of the novel comes when there is a murderous fight between the two chimpanzee groups in the study. This part of the story is most certainly based upon the findings of Jane Goodall, whose famous and expert research in Tanzania (circa 1965) showed that chimpanzees could be very aggressive, killing other chimpanzees if necessary to maintain their social group. And, generally, the theme of the novel is the parallel between how the chimpanzees and the researchers behave.

Allegory is played upon: apart from the fighting chimpanzees being an allegory for the war torn setting of Angola, so it is that Eugene's behaviour towards Hope is as unpleasant as that between the groups of chimps. Then there is the break up of Hope's marriage as an allegory for the crumbling politics of the region.

Obsession is another theme that runs through the novel: Hope is obsessed with her research, to such an extent that she leaves her husband for months to pursue it. Her husband is so obsessed with his mathematical theories that he goes crazy; her boss so obsessed with his theories that it leads to violence and his assistant is obsessed with him to such an extent that she abets his attempts to doctor research.

This is all very well, and the chapters about the chimpanzees (surprisingly for a person like myself not naturally drawn to chimpanzees) was interesting and very readable, but there were some annoying facets to the book. Some of our groupies did not like the way the book jumped between fist person and third person, which was used to differentiate the past and present. Nor did they enjoy the time-switch itself, back and forth between former married life with nutty professor husband in England and current chimp research.

This did not worry me in particular but I did agree that Hope's husband was a conceptual character and agreed that we could have done without the married bit altogether: it added nothing and did not hang together. We would all have preferred hubby's (nonetheless interesting) maths theories as a separate novel altogether.

However, we were all in complete agreement that the most unconvincing part of an otherwise entertaining read was the characterization of the heroine, Hope. Why on earth did Golding have to make the main character a woman? She was not only unbelievable as one (too masculine and unemotional) but difficult to like. Her love for her husband and her lover did not ring true and her self-sufficiency and obsessions took a very male form.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Brazzaville Beach more than I expected and will read one of his novels again, whenever I happen across one.


Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Turner Contemporary, Margate, Kent

The idea of a new modern art gallery in an east coast less-than-fashionable British seaside town was viewed with caution, disbelief, suspicion, if not considered by many as a downright waste of time. Would anyone go there? Could it bring people into the town in the winter season? Would it be appreciated by those who live out in the sticks?

Well, one hopes that these doubts have been dispelled: the building and facilities have been completed in the best possible taste. I like the clean lines of the structure and the mass of it is in scale with its surroundings. The inspiration, it seems to me, was to be that of the bulk of an ocean liner and it certainly sits comfortably in its landscape: the outline is simple and pleasing and does not jar with either the Georgian buildings on the esplanade nor the coastline.

The expectations of those who had the vision have surely been vindicated. Residents should have pride in a forward looking and classy development and well as having a cultural icon at its centre.

I admit that I went to see the building: it was the structure and its setting that drew me to visit. I also admit that I did not expect much of the exhibition, Nothing in the World But Youth. But I did the exhibition and youth in general a disservice. I was reminded of the creativity of those teenage years: we so often see the ability to take risks and the need for experimentation as negative aspects of youth. They can sometimes be but they were, and are, more often the years that shape tastes in fashion and music and teach the value of friendship or spirituality.

As ever, some youths are rebellious whilst others are saddled with responsibilities in advance of their years. Many are overcome by fears others by fantasy; some agonize over their bodies and sex, others celebrate it. Whilst some youths are bent on destruction others are idealistic and embrace our ecology, feeling passionate about sustainability.

All of these aspects of youth were demonstrated in the exhibition and what struck me most is that none of this is new. Photographs of gangs of street youths in the 1950's looked surprisingly familiar; similarly, sadly, girls gave birth to illegitimate babies. Conformity in the uniform of the gang or the need to be different and make a statement were no different than they were when adolescents were first called teenagers in the 1940's. In between the works of young people were dotted paintings and drawings by such well-known artists as Peter Blake, Daivd Hockney, Andy Warhol and even Turner himself: nothing could illustrate the point better.

Some visitors found several of the images disturbing but I prefer to think of them as challenging. What is the point of an exhibition that is merely window dressing; we all love to see something pretty, to appreciate a beautiful image or a sublime sculpture. But surely we need to question, just as we did as teenagers, and seeing the world through the eyes of a youth can remind us all that we too were once both fearful and brave, experimental and yet desperate to be one of the gang. And in showing the complexities and contradictions of youth I think the exhibition, Nothing in the World but Youth, succeeds.


PS The cafĂ© is excellent – better than those in most London Art galleries – so treat yourself to brunch or a delicious Catalan fish soup for lunch. If the soul is a little less than uplifted I often find good food helps!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain

Winifred Holtby was not a well-known figure until a couple of years ago when her novel, South Riding, was televised. This catapulted her into the Austen/Bronte romantic novel stratosphere although of course she was a very different figure writing at a very different time.

I first came across Holtby when reading Vera Brittain's autobiography, Testament of Youth. This book covered the heartrending period of the First World War and highlighted the appalling loss of life. Most particularly it chronicled the loss that Brittain personally suffered – her brother, fiancĂ© and their close friends – and gave a very personal account of the contribution made by women during the war.

This was the war that was to lead eventually to the emancipation of women, not only by their gaining enfranchisement but also respect for the role they played and could play outside the home. Brittain and Holtby met at Oxford just after the war: both extraordinarily bright young women who had a mutual interest and ambition to write.

Testament of Friendship is Brittain's homage to Holtby, who tragically died of Bright's Disease at the age of 34. Both women had a strong ethos of public service, a desire to further women's equality and to work towards peace. Both not only dedicated their lives to writing about the peace movement but also their time to supporting and furthering its causes.

The book tells us as much about Brittain, the author, as it does about Holtby, the subject. Both women were committed, industrious and passionate but where Brittain comes across as intense and serious, Holtby appears inspired and larger than life.

Young Holtby is portrayed very much as the Principal Boy of pantomime. Brittain was devastated by the death of her brother, Edward, her closest and almost only childhood companion. She was desperate for someone to admire and to take his place and Holtby seems to have willingly stepped into this role.

It is as an Adonis that Winifred Holtby is portrayed in Testament of Friendship. She is tall, attractive, confident, kind and clever and - if we are to believe Brittain - there is nothing she cannot do. Nothing except get the man she loves to propose to her. Brittain's style is probably too florid for our taste today, and one wonders if her superlatives regarding Holtby are an attempt to assuage any guilt she may have felt because she often ignored the seriousness of Holtby's illness.

There is no doubt that Holtby packed a lifetime of achievements into a very short span of years and it is fascinating to read of the famous historical figures she met and the places she visited. There is one major flaw to this book, however, and that is its length. Too long by half, it can bore and bog the reader down. This is a shame because there are few books that give us such a picture of life at that time.

Nevertheless, I think the book worth reading (for the second time as I first read it about 15 years ago) if for nothing else but as a sequel to the women's movement: a snapshot of life for the educated middle class woman of the 1920's and 1930's. These inter-war years - after WW1 and before the role of women would change yet again with the advent of WW2 - deserve a closer look and Testament of Friendship goes some way to plug this gap.


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rudyard Kipling 1865 – 1936

Who hasn't read Rudyard Kipling? Many of us did as a child, some as an adult, but even those who have never read Kipling will probably have heard of him and his stories. The few who have not may be unaware that some phrases used by us all are actually those coined by Kipling ("You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din").

Visiting Bateman's last week-end - Kipling's house in Sussex now owned by the National Trust – we were delighted to be treated to a lecture of his life and work given by one of his knowledgeable fans. Even knowing a fair bit about the life of an author – or any historical figure – it always delights me to learn little known facts only the expert has wind of.

Knowing the desolate childhood Kipling had I am still surprised that he appears to have grown into a fairly balanced adult: the fact that he was also a spectacularly successful author and self-made man by the age of 25 is positively amazing. Read his short stories, his histories and poetry and marvel at the breadth of this man's ability and talent.

So much a part of popular culture was Kipling's work that even today bits keep cropping up all over the place. Take the story, .007, for instance. Can some expert tell me, is this where Fleming picked James Bond's code name from? And perhaps, could it be, this little tale written in 1908 was the inspiration for the Thomas the Tank Engine stories too?

When researching my novel, A Little Blue Jacket, set in South Africa, I inevitably came across Kipling as he was a great supporter of the Boer War, a friend of Cecil Rhodes and champion of Jamieson, Rhodes' nemesis. Many years previously I had been given Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads (thought it odd at the time but weird how things come to pass), mainly dramatic monologues written in the London vernacular, the third series of which dealt with the Boer War.

It is the verses of these series that many remember and repeat with affection (If, A Father's Advice to his Son or Mandalay perhaps) and it is the simplicity and general appeal of them that has to some extent caused many to view Kipling's work as 'popular' dum-de-dum poetry. But, in other poetry of his one cannot help but admire the more sophisticated and understated touches not obvious in the ballads.

I think his poem My Boy Jack illustrates just how he can get an emotion over without sentimentality or heavy handedness. Kipling's son, John, was killed in the First World War (even the rich and famous have tragedy in their lives: his beloved daughter – for whom he wrote The Jungle Book - also died prematurely aged six) and this poem is about his loss. Search it out and I defy you – knowing the facts – not to be moved to tears.

Whether interested in the exotic setting of India, the fate of the simple soldier or life of the jungle, there is a Kipling story out there for you. Search it out, read it and understand why so many of the best English authors – including Americans - think Rudyard Kipling was the greatest storyteller of all time.


Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunnant

A mysterious and arresting start, an historical and action packed narrative and an enjoyable read. There we are. That's it in a nutshell. A novel dripping with historical details with a bit of sex thrown in. But the sign of an ex-thriller writer is there right from the start.

Preparing the corpse of an elderly nun for burial, two sisters find she has not only a stinking mass of rotting intestines strapped to her and not the tumor they supposed, but also an erotic snake tattoo around her torso!

As it is almost impossible to guess how this could possibly come about the reader simply has to read on. Transported to Florence in 1492, we meet the fourteen year old heroine, Allessandra. Dunant has done her research and describes the setting in the most colourful way. We see the beauty of Florence, we smell it, touch it, sense it and eventually are shocked by the historical turn of events.

The narrative is in the first person so it is through Allessandra's eyes that we understand the restrictions – not allowed to leave her house un-chaperoned, to be alone with a man, to be employed in anything other than household skills – that were current in the merchant and upper classes at the time and that she felt so keenly. Her passion was to paint and that was definitely not a suitable occupation for a girl.

Historical knowledge of the banking dynasty of the Medici family is well known. We are aware of the beautiful architectural structures they built, the wonderful paintings and art they commissioned and we are aware in a cardboard, factual way of the political machinations of the time. But what Dunant does is to bring it and the other Florence alive too, the one that is peopled by the lower echelons, one in which by the side of beauty and knowledge is pestilence and the fear of persecution. Where rabbles jostle to hear the mad monk, Savonarolla, preach Christian restraint and similarly jostle to witness torture and death and the original bonfire of the vanities.

This novel has been published for some years now and many readers will have read it or read the reviews so I won't repeat the plot. Because, for me, it is the sense of place that Dunant conjures up that is the most impressive feature of the novel. Read it if you intend to travel to Florence and, when you stand in front of a piece of stunning architecture or a beautiful painting, conjure up Dunant's description of the city at that time and be even more amazed.

I mention the mystery in the opening scene and Dunant continues to feed us clues throughout the story: "He will give you the freedom you desire"; "For Tomaso a silver belt rather handsome I thought". But, eventually, it is as if the author having thought of a great opening chapter, and having taken us back to the start of it all, cannot then quite complete the circle convincingly: the dead nun cannot be elderly, the tattoo has no authenticity, the method of faking the disease is improbable, her female life companion could not possibly have travelled to find those she sought.

Those are my only criticisms, and it sounds churlish to mention them when there is so much that is excellent about this novel. Dunant has very successfully changed her genre to historical novelist – she writes well, fluidly and colourfully – so the quality of the ending of The Birth of Venus is a mystery.


Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Birds of a Feather

It is always a lovely surprise to look out of the window, often soon after dawn, and see some unusual visitor on the bird table. Greenfinches are one of them, as are the other finches: chaffinches and goldfinch. Their beaks are a little too wide for the wire on the nutfeeder but once they have cracked it (terrible pun) they make short work of the contents.

Our regulars, however, as if aware of the competition, have managed to come up with a pleasant new angle: their chicks. Obviously to date we have only watched the parent birds having a feeding frenzy in order to satisfy their hungry brood. But now the chicks are nearly reared they accompany their parents to learn table etiquette. Basically this is: give way to anyone bigger and more threatening than yourself. As one of our largest visitors - with a very big beak to make the point - is the woodpecker. When the chick first appeared I could not believe it was one. Nearly as big as its parent, only the fluffly feathers gave it away.

At first it hung on the nutfeeder with mum or dad by its side: a bit for me a bit for you. But by day two the exhausted parent absented itself and Woody soon managed to feed himself. Not as nervous as his parent - he still has to learn to be wary - he
managed to cling on and finish off most of the feeder.

Our second best nut eater is probably the nuthatch owing to its long narrow very effective beak. And today, with a thrill, I noticed that it was a nuthatch chick that was feeding. Again, only the last few remaining fluffy baby feathers give it away and, again, it was not nearly as nervous as its parents would be as it allowed me to creep right up to the window before it flew away.

But perhaps the most exciting birds to visit the table again have been a pair of long tailed tits. I have yet to see their offspring, but to know that they have survived the winter is a very cheering and wonderful sight. Their bodies are so very small that one wonders just how they did manage to stay warm thrugh our below freezing temperatures this year.


Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

"I really love Ishiguro's books", several of the groupies opined when Never Let Me Go was chosen as out book group novel. I had only tried to read one of his before - not successfully – I had obviously not tried hard enough.

So it was with a positive and determined attitude that I tackled it. He's a good writer. No doubt about it. The novel is set in the closed world of a school, one in which little of the outside world ever impinges. It is the story of three childhood friends (Kathy, Ruth and Tommy) who have a destiny – slowly this unfolds – that they will have no choice but fulfil.

In a nutshell there is a sinister aspect and definite exploitation in this story. It raises ethical questions about medical science – trying not to give the story away here - and how far a society will go in order to benefit from it.

Ishiguro always writes in the first person and so the reader does not get much description. There is – he planned it this way – no colour and no sense of the outside world in the story. The setting feels like the 1950's – right from the start it felt like I was reading the Midwich Cuckoos for the first time. Used as we readers are to appreciating rounded description the lack of it lends a very sci-fi clarity – some may say bleakness – to it.

It is all about the here and now of experience, about emotion and about people and the setting is filtered out. Ishiguro would argue that by filtering out the setting he is allowing his readers to get to know the characters. However, the only character any of us felt any empathy for was Tommy. Possibly because he was not like an automaton – he did have feelings.

The characters often fail to act and Ishiguro uses pathos to good effect. His structure and slow revelation is masterful and his craftsmanship – that almost sounds like a criticism but far from it – to slowly let the reader in on the sinister secret is impressive.

All of us appreciated that it was well written – clever in fact - but many of us found much of it repetitive and the detail mundane. In a nutshell, we liked the way Ishiguro writes but did not necessarily like the story.

For my part I would not have chosen the book if it had not been a book group choice and I would never have read it all if we had not been going to discuss it (it did, however, give rise to much interesting and informative discussion). I appreciated the author's undoubted talent – to a great extent it is always a pleasure to read a well written novel – but I guess it is just not my sort of book!


Friday, 22 April 2011

Dreamy Garden Borders in April

When March turns to April I know the time has come when I can procrastinate no longer: my herbaceous borders need me. The seed heads and sheltering dead foliage have done their bit for the wildlife over winter.

Now is the time to get out there, chop it all down, dig out the odd weed and mulch like crazy. Leave it another week or two and the weeds will have taken hold and the plants grown too large for much to get in there.

But as I clip and snip, gather and discard the border looks more bare with every action. Where are all those perennial goodies? Have they died? Been eaten? There is still the odd clipped evergreen certainly, the occasional rose bush. And the lime trees to pleach on the nearby path.

These thoughts fester as the clearing goes on and the mulching with compost is done bit by bit. But by the time I'm finished the odd inch of rain and even odder days of sunshine have worked their magic. Suddenly the phlox and tradescantia, the aqualegia and bistort have burgeoned.

Geranium phaem and Bleeding heart is flowering prettily; Heuchera and Alchemilla mollis seem to have doubled in size overnight. What was I worried about. I had forgotten that every year – cradling some purchase bought in a weak willed moment at a plant stall – I walk around the garden searching for a spot in which to squeeze it in.

By now the purple beech tree has been through its wondrous leaf opening cabaret. First small leaf buds tentatively open, salmon pink, soft and ethereal. After a day or so of sun they stretch out their leaves and with more confidence start to turn that glorious shade of copper. Another few days of good weather and, overnight, every branch is covered in the richest of copper leaves.

In fact a few days of absolutely glorious weather has fast forwarded spring to such an extent that plants and flowers normally performing in May are out now. And blossom that usually lasts a week or two is over in a couple of days. The lilac is in flower but the blossom of the weeping pear has already faded.

If I work like crazy from now until June getting all the worst weeds out, then it should set me up for the summer. In the wall border the plants grow until they are cheek by jowl. The idea is that they will choke out the weeds and I won't have to do anything for the rest of the summer. But that remains a theory for now.

There is one border so overgrown with ground elder that we have had to take all the soil out, burn it, and start again. Cow parsley self seeded to such an extent under the beech and Judas tree last year that its going to take days to dig it out. And the nettles! How come they have colonized every corner? Another digging job, I'm afraid.

I am happy for pockets of nettles – similarly buttercups – to grow in the wild garden, I'm trying to do my bit for conservation by encouraging habitats. Why else was I down on my hands and knees trying to balance rotting logs into a tidy pile like nature never intended? But nettles, buttercups and dandelions in my herbaceous borders are a step too far.

So I better keep at it. There's a long way to go. But it's hot. Too hot to garden. I better sit down – it's tiring this gardening – have a rest in the dappled shade of the beech tree and dream of manicured lawns, meticulous flower beds and..........

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Was this going to be another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania? We've read Secret River and The English Passenger and didn't need more of the same. Wanting was promoted as something quite different: a novel to "show how the colonized and the home territories are inextricably linked."

The two strands run side by side in the novel. Mathina, a young orphaned aboriginal girl, is adopted by Lady Jane Franklin who seeks to experiment with civilizing the natives. She never gets close to the child but appears to be achieving her aim of civilising – but not educating – her when unexpectedly the child's natural desires break out. Unfortunately so do those of her husband, Sir John Franklin.

Sir John had been the governor of Tasmania, still living on his reputation as an arctic explorer. Finally expelled from his post he journeyed once more into the arctic where he disappeared. Back in England Lady Jane tries her best to rescue his reputation – and her own – by exonerating him from the slur of cannibalism. And to do this she employs the help of Charles Dickens.

Mathina was cast out before the Franklins left Tasmania and let us just say that her life thereafter was all downhill. Her story mirrors the plight of the natives and the dramatic irony of the tale – and the true story - was that the savages were more humane and civilized that the Westerners that chose to subjugate and civilize them.

This aspect is personified in the character of Dickens far away in civilized England. He champions family life in his books and in his outward persona but is not happy with his lot. He has fame, he has family. The first he relishes, the second he finds disappointing and eventually betrays.

It seems to me that Flanagan said to himself: I can't write yet another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania. What can I do to give it a new twist? I know, think of a well known character and link them in some way. And up he came with Dickens and desire. But the result feels contrived. The two stories do not sit comfortably together; although the form is cleverly constructed it is a clumsy concept.

Flanagan is quite obviously a good writer and it is an easy book to read because it is deceptively well written. Like the curate's egg, it is good in parts. When Mathina's desire finally gets the better of her and she dances as she feels, the writing is as passionate as the act. The same could be said of the desire that Dickens finally succumbs to. In fact the groupies found the part about Dickens so interesting they thought it deserved to be enlarged as a stand-alone book.

Those who had read Flanagan's other books and loved them were perhaps disappointed and this coloured their criticism. But none of us enjoyed the novel for various reasons. No-one was drawn to any of the characters in the book. None would recommend it. And yes, the part concerning Mathina was yet another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania. And a pretty depressing one at that.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Garden in Spring

The snowdrops have faded and the daffodils about to burst. Both of them late this year owing to the snow. And in between times aconites, hellebores in all their glory, iris and crocus have flowered. Violets and pulmonaria have sneaked in between them and now the tiniest little blue gentian has flowered in the gravel drive under the oak tree. A glorious abundance of colour.

The shrubs have not been quite so quick off the mark: walking up on the wooded hills at Emmetts, the National Trust garden in Kent, rhododendron and azaleas are in wonderful colour and I can only imagine in such gardens at Exbury in Hampshire, or Stourhead in Wiltshire, the display of these dramatic shrubs must be coming into their peak.

In my garden, less acidic, the wonderfully scented pink flowered viburnum bodnantense and the winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, are in bloom. The first flowers on the bare wood and, although leaf is a wonderful clothier, one can really appreciate the flowers when they are not disguised with green. The honeysuckle is actually an evergreen – but it is such a straggling, poorly leafed bush in the winter that you could be forgiven for thinking it deciduous. But the scent! And both are hardy – they have to be in my frost pocket.

This is the time of year that I look at my borders and think they are empty. Some sign of life is there: the odd shoot, the occasional leaf, the first inkling of a mound of something. I must mulch and quick. Keep down the weeds now and warm up the soil with a blanket of compost and, you never know, the plants might be the victors. Leave it another few weeks and I'll have a fight on my hands; the weeds will win.

Lately, on a freezing day, I spent a happy couple of hours online planning my vegetables. What a list I've ordered! I can see them now all growing in glorious technicolour, looking like all those beautiful potagers we see in magazines. Oh yes, I'm good at the planning. Great at imagining. It’s the growing and the looking after I'm not so hot on.

So it's only the foolproof I grow – the ones that don't take too much TLC. Nothing too precious. Courgettes of course. Perpetual spinach with the addition of ruby chard this year - I fancy a bit of colour; cut and come again lettuce; beans; tomatoes - preferably the bush variety that needs no care and attention - herbs; pumpkin and squash. Best Beloved has cracked leeks, so they are on the list. And I have heard the golden beetroot is delicious so I'm having a go at that.

And, yes, I am still struggling on with my asparagus bed. Every year it is threatened with annihilation but every year it gets a reprieve. How come everyone else has asparagus coming out of their ears and I am still only producing enough for a monk on a diet? Mind you, Freddie was caught in the act - eating the spears just as they surfaced. Thought he had found the perfect grass (for medical purposes of course) for a quick nibble. Chicken wire over the top should put paid to that little trick. Any tips (excuse the pun) gratefully received.

Now I only have to make sure that I plant them in time, rotate as I should, remember to water and hope the summer brings forth fruit or, in this case, veg. Vegetable gardening for me really is a case of hope over experience.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Writing is Daft

Well, the time has come. The MS is complete enough. Chapters chosen. Agents researched, letter drafted. It just needs that one last little thing: confidence. Because once the first rejection comes back it's the start of the chipping away. At expectation.

Here you are, an aspiring writer, tapping away morning, noon and night. Or maybe just grabbing the minutes where you can. There is no pay, no kudos, no reward. The result could be a self-obsessive outpouring or a modest novella. Whatever it is it is a little piece of yourself. Served up raw. Ready for dissection. Or ready to be spat out.

If you write something with a 'story', you want to be read. I keep that picture of A Little Blue Jacket for sale on the shelves of the WHSmiths and try to imagine this one. If it's not to be read then what is it for - therapy? Fair enough. Brilliant therapy, writing. But that sort of writing is about getting experiences or emotions down on paper. Out of ones head and into the light of day. Released. We most of us have done it at some time.

The sort of writing many of us do needs a lot of planning. First the genre. Then the idea. But how to make the embryo develop? Deciding how to narrate it is far from an easy decision - what tense, who will tell? And the viewpoint – a choice must be made before a word is written.

An idea, a plot, a story - call it what you will, but whatever you call it there is one fact – it needs to begin and has to end. Deciding just where these two points will be is not as obvious as it may seem. And between these two, what will the shape be. The structure.

Nobody is going buy a boring book, let alone publish it. It will have to be different, in content or style. No mean feat. Then the tone should reflect the character or the subject, period or genre. Easier said than done. Added to which there are additional factors - pace, texture, devices, humour – we don't want the reader to be bored.

And characters? Characterization? A subject far too difficult and diverse for any but an expert. You've either got it or you haven't. Not that most things can't be improved on. Dickens had it in spades. But then so did Jane Austen and the two could not be more different.

Decisions, decisions. And once made they are not so easy to change. So it takes an enormous amount of confidence to send your opus out with so many factors to be taken into account; so many decisions that may not have been the right ones. To be judged and found wanting is not a pleasurable experience.

I think it best (for me anyway) to think of rejection as a necessary fact. It will happen. If a tiny word of encouragement can be gleaned from it then that is a kindly sop to injured pride. If constructive criticism comes that is a real bonus. It might mean that the next recipient of my work is better pleased.

This all makes me sound very balanced and realistic. But the truth of the matter is, in spite of my reasoning, I shall be disappointed when I see that self-addressed envelope come through my door. A little down for the day, a little less chipper. But after a while I will gird my loins and send another letter, another few sample chapters out. I am a determined optimist. One has to be to do anything as daft as write.


Thursday, 27 January 2011

Alan Bennett, Talking Heads

Alan Bennett's monologues Talking Heads are surely classics now, the first of which are as funny today as they were when written and recorded for television in 1987.

But what is quite different now – at least in the western world – is the role of women. Those in most of Bennett's work are the age of his mother and, until the 1960's, many such married women were restricted, sometimes repressed, often frustrated. Trapped. Some knew themselves to be more able than their husbands, capable of much more than they were permitted to do.

Pre-war, wives were judged on the cleanliness of their homes, mothers on that of their children, and so many put their vigour – and sometimes their vitriol – into it with a vengeance. All this comes across in Bennett's monologues - fortunately with the most wonderful humour.

Eavesdrop at a bus stop today, a works canteen or social club, and you might still overhear much the same sort of conversations as Bennett relays. But the directness and deadpan delivery of northern humour is not universal. And it needs someone with an 'ear' for such things as innuendo and a masterful ability to form it into something that an audience wants to hear. Not as easy as it may seem.

Although in the majority of the monologues we associate with the views of an elderly mother or grandmother, in some - Bed Among Lentils and Her Big Chance for instance - we can recognize characteristics or emotions that could apply to those of any generation. We all know a character like Lesley in Her Big Chance who tries to convince everyone of her worth – a woman who thinks her talent is greater than it is and whose morals are unimpeachable – but who is quite unaware that she is fooling no-one.

Most of Bennett's characters do not 'see' themselves at all, and he cleverly lets the character reveal this bit by bit as the monologue progresses. Muriel, in Soldering On, really knows that her husband is reprehensibly responsible for his daughter's 'problems', and that their son is a conniving cheat, but she still keeps up appearances and maintains a stiff upper lip – in denial right to the end.

His characters are often disappointed or disempowered in some way. I guess this is simply because happy, jolly characters would not make for such interesting stories. The bitterness of the narrator of A Lady of Letters, and the extent of her meddling, slowly unfolds. In Bed Among the Lentils, the dissatisfaction of the vicar's wife in drives her to drink, but the joy of an illicit affair gives her the strength to carry on.

A Chip in the Sugar, written in Alan Bennett's 'voice' – and indeed recorded by him – is one of the best. This one is not a monologue and the straight talking characters are sometimes cruel but their love for each other is not only a taken, it is spoken. This mother and son are - to the onlooker at least - 'married'. They are as close to bickering husband and wife – with their point scoring and their pretence at independence – as any real married couple might be. Their inter-dependence is clear, humour their saving grace.

Bennett picks up on social taboos and bigotry and shows us how easily these infiltrate and affect ordinary peoples' lives. The stories are sometimes poignant, occasionally sad, but the way that Bennett manages to convey this with humour is nothing short of masterful. Dig out a copy, read and enjoy.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Planning on Gardening

The ground is soggy after the snow and nothing looks appealing in the garden. Surely no-one enjoys gardening in the cold, wet, winter weather anyway. I know I don't. Fair weather gardener, me. But it is the perfect time for planning. For looking at your plot and seeing the bare bones. Because the structure is obvious now, not overshadowed or softened by billowing plants.

The structure in many an urban garden may be the hedges, fences and walls, the paths and pond. But in my country garden it is trees and evergreen shrubs that constitute most of the structure. Sure, there is a wall, and a stone and gravel terrace, but the clipped box and yew are just as important.

Here hedges mark the boundary, trees give the sense of enclosure. But lest I mislead, darker forces are at work threatening this idyll of nature controlled. It is now, in the depths of winter, that all the evils – in summer covered by leaf and deciduous shrubs – are apparent. The bank of brambles that has got out of hand, self-sown saplings grown into trees, hedges too large, shrubs too leggy.

So, waterproof, thorn-proof gear donned, we go as if into outer space, pruning saws drawn, secateurs pocketed, to battle with the triffids and enormous green monsters. Slashing and burning, hacking and chopping we grapple with the overgrown shrubbery and the vicious brambles. My romantic little border of ferns and lily of the valley has been ravaged by ground elder. Sneaking in undercover in some alien pot plant.

Rubus cockburnianus, which looks so wonderful with its frost blue white stems, has taken cruel advantage and gone where not intended. Sambucus, common elder to most of us, has multiplied and magnified to terrifying proportions whilst Clematis montana, which flowered so prettily and pofusely for so long, is now a mass of twiggy stems. All my fault for not pruning hard enough.

And that under appreciated evergreen, Eleagnus ebbengei, has somehow grown to take up three times its allotted space, completely smothering some shy little shrubs close by. I love its glossy silver green leaves, and the perfume from its retiring flowers, but it's time it was cut down to size. Slash and burn. Hack and chop.

And whose bright idea was it to plant Euphorbia characias, in the Pet Cemetry. Meant to be a quiet corner – only white and pastel pink flowers allowed – where beloved dead pets could be assured they'd not be dug up. Get this, plants chosen: the tiny white rose 'Little White Pet', a pink and a white bleeding heart; the above mentioned ghostly rubus; snowdrops; geranium; lilies; heavenly scented philadelphus and lilac and a Kiftsgate rose climbing over the pear tree.

Should be the sweetest place. Pretty, perfumed and subdued. Instead it has become a battle ground with the euphorbia and Geranium sanguinem fighting for supremecy. The euphorbia is not only the wrong colour (though I love the acidic green), it is a positive thug that looks like overpowering everything in sight. And the Kiftsgate rose – a wonder for two weeks in June – has decided to wage war and send out its vicious thorny shoots over everything including the fence, the wall, the lilac and the veg patch, quietly minding its own business on the other side of the hedge.

It is a relief to get inside to the gardening books and warm fire. To plan and dream that my jungle will look like the beautiful photographs of tranquil gardens where shrubs are pruned to perfection, lawns roll smoothly out into the distance and borders display the most wondrous, tastefully chosen flowering plants. Fat chance.