Monthly Archives: December 2016

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture

Walking in December on Dartmoor means low temperatures, the chance of fog and reduced daylight hours. But Dartmoor has beauty at every time of year. On our walk on Thursday 29th December we enjoyed a few of these.

 

After our group photo we set off towards the rocks. People, especially children of all ages, cannot resist climbing them. They are impressive, massive, cracked, elephantine. After the first climb to the saddle between the rocks we considered the view and did some warm ups. The earlier fog was clearing fast and only lingering in the valley below. The fog seemed to follow the Teign Valley down to the sea. Denbury Down rose out of the mists. I can see both Denbury Down and, on a good day, Hay Tor from my study. It was harder to see my study from up on the Moor.

North of Hay Tor, having skirted the quarries, we met the tramway and the Templer Way (a marked walking trail from Hay Tor to the Teign Estuary).

Up here we did our second set of Pilates, in the picture walkers are stretching like a dragon, a friendly dragon. The dogs don’t seem a bit interested.

The next section was a steep descent, tricky and necessitating a walking pole. We could see into a valley, with villages, farms, fields and animals. Through the valley runs Becca Brook, which we crossed twice by clapper bridges. Between the two crossings we climbed steeply to Hound Tor. There is an ancient settlement, long abandoned, on the way to the summit. The map says medieval, but it may be much older than that. It’s hard to remember that the Moor was once much more densely populated than today. There were lots of people out enjoying the Moor, many with dogs, mostly in groups. The air was still and you could hear the cries of delight and summons for dogs and children all through the day.

From Hound Tor we had a more gentle descent back over the stream and then a climb to return to the Hay Tor Rocks and finally the car park.

It’s fun walking in groups, you can talk or walk on your own, enjoy the dogs, share the humbugs. Nearly 20 people came along, and some dogs, supporting Freedom from Torture. Thanks to Paul for leading us, and to all who took part.

Bookish Dartmoor

There was no real bookish connection to this walk. But in the Pintickle and Rhum, where we refreshed ourselves on completion of the walk, there was a portrait of Agatha Christie, and a set of her books over the fireplace.

My walks and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is an extra post in the series. You can read more about the project on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

This extra walk was about 10km, (6+ miles). The map route, by the way, is very approximate.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The fifth regular post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-January

 

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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is a dark book, not so much frightening as – well, dark. Although in her 20s the narrator, Eileen, appears to be obsessed in the ways that adolescents can be: bodily functions, secret passions, easily influenced, hard exterior. She does not have much going in her favour in the novel: a dreary job, a dead mother, a drunken father. And she lives in a town so dull that she calls it X-ville.

It’s a book that has done very well in the literary awards and accolades:

  • Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award 2016
  • Hemmingway Foundation/PEN award.
  • Selected as a Book of the Year 2016 in The Times, Observer and Daily Telegraph

The Story

The story is located in coastal New England, near Boston, in 1964 at Christmas time. The narrator is reflecting on events 50 years before. Eileen is introduced to us as a rather non-descript kind of young woman, with few memorable or redeeming features.

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I look like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out of the window. (1)

All readers know that appearances can deceive.

Eileen works in an admin job in the local prison for young offenders. She has no friends, no interests except for her at-a-distance obsession with the guard Randy. She lives with her father, a drunk and an ex-policeman who is a liability to his daughter and his neighbours. Neither of them make any effort to keep the house clean or pay attention to what they eat. Eileen has taken to keeping his shoes in the trunk of her car so that he will not wander out and terrorise the neighbours. A local policeman takes her father’s service pistol off him and gives it to Eileen for safe keeping. Her father ignores Eileen, or makes abusive comments to her. She considers killing him, much as she wonders about being saved by Randy.

Then just before Christmas Rebecca arrives at the prison to take up an education job. It is clear to the reader that this young woman is unsuitable for the post, but Eileen is immediately in awe of her. Her sophisticated taste in dress is entirely inappropriate. The young women go out drinking together and Rebecca, more knowledgeable about the world, abandons Eileen to the attentions of a barman. Rebecca shows too close an interest in one of the boys in the prison.

When Rebecca invites Eileen around to her house for a Christmas Eve drink, Eileen anticipates an exotic evening in tasteful surroundings. Many things are unexpected in this book, but the reader is not surprised that the evening turns out to be very different, critical in Eileen’s young life, even if the events themselves are surprising.

Some themes in Eileen

Patricide by badly fathered children threads its way through this novel. The children in the prison, Eileen herself, and perhaps Rebecca all appear very damaged by poor parenting. Eileen is well on the way to becoming as much of a drunk as her father. She has learned to keep what she calls her death mask face for the outside world.

Another theme is the allure of the other for deprived people, especially deprived young people, and especially if they live in a dull city like X-ville. The unknown is the attraction of Randy for Eileen at the outset of the novel, and of Rebecca as it proceeds. We pick up clues that Eileen managed to create a life for herself, albeit not a very happy one, after leaving X-ville.

And death and physical danger and unsettling details lurk in every scene. At one point you learn that Eileen’s mother died while her daughter slept beside her. We find that Eileen dresses in her mother’s clothes, which are mostly too big for her. She drives a car that is in danger of killing the occupants from a leaking exhaust. Her physical fixations are hardly less than disgusting. The state of the house she shares with her father is no less revolting.

The narrator is aware of some of her own shortcomings.

There was a reason I worked at the prison, after all. I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person. I thought I would have preferred to be a teller in a bank, but no bank would have taken me. For the best, I suppose. I doubt it would have been long before I stole from the till. Prison was a safe place for me to work. (174)

And in case you think that there is no connection between Eileen’s story and your own, she corrects you.

I don’t know where we went wrong in my family. We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw, where we end up, what happens. (256)

The novel is framed as a reflection from 50 years later. Occasionally the narrator addresses the reader, as in the quotation above. But mostly she just reminds you that this is a memory.

by Larry D Moore

Ottessa Moshfegh at the 2015 Texas Book Festival, photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0. via Wikicommons

In interviews Ottessa Moshfegh has made it clear that she was trying ‘to push the narrative to awkward extremes’. She was thinking about difficult questions: Can we ever escape the identity we’re born into? What does it mean to be free? Does altruism exist? As a result this novel is always surprising, always revulsion-inducing, but in the end it is hard to know who was the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life. Happy New Year!

PS Thank you Eileen for the loan of the book.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp

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Claxton by Mark Cocker

Claxton was a great Christmas present, given to me by my daughter last year and finished 12 months later. It’s lasted all year and indeed I can foresee dipping into it time and time again, savouring the detail of the observations, and the language of the short descriptions. The book’s apt subtitle is Field Notes from a Small Planet.

Summary of Claxton

Claxton is a village east of Norwich in Norfolk. Mark Cocker has lived there since 2001, and he makes minute and detailed observations of wild life and landscapes for his columns in the Guardian and the Guardian Weekly. 140 of these are collected here, arranged by the months of a year. I read each month’s collection of about 10 short pieces in the corresponding month of 2016.

There is so much to relish here. Most of the pieces relate to the immediate surroundings of Claxton, but some are from travels further afield in the UK and even in Greece. He has a particular eye for bird life, but other fauna and flora, especially trees, are also lovingly observed.

The significance of place is emphasised in his Introduction.

Claxton is above everything a book about place, but it is also a celebration of the way in which a particular location can give shape and meaning to one’s whole outlook. (1)

Some examples

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

 

11th June 2012 on bumblebees:

Wait by the flowers and watch them traffic back and forth. Follow one for a few seconds and you’ll quickly appreciate the insatiable busyness of these wonderful creatures. We often think of them as amiably slow but the sheer speed with which they assess each flower, take nectar, or truffle through the pollen and move on to the next bloom is astonishing. In a minute they can cover hundreds of flowerheads. … Within a short while the foraging ceases and the bee will swing windward and rise high above the garden, vanishing into the horizon sometimes at canopy level. So much of bumblebees lives is spent in perpetual transit and even when you find a nest its happening as subterranean and largely hidden. (91)

16th August 2005 on meadow brown butterflies:

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Some meadow browns seem almost an exact analogue for the spent condition of the season. During the course of their two-week adult life the wings become bleached to a dull sepia and the edges clipped almost as if a child had patterned them with a butterfly-sized pair of scissors. Occasionally they are so tattered it is a wonder that they can fly at all. The ‘bites’ out of the wing edge can be the work of birds and are evidence – believe it or not – of a canny defence mechanism. At the moment the bird attacks, it is drawn by a sequence of dark spots on the meadow brown’s underside and is tricked into pecking at these rather than some vital organ on the abdomen. Thus the butterfly escapes with no greater loss than a little wing power. (117)

26th November 2012 on the avian disturbances caused by a peregrine falcon:

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

A criss-cross pattern of several thousand pink-footed geese was spread skywards for more than a kilometre. Amid their glorious barking chorus were the more musical anxiety calls of Canada geese and the nails-on-blackboard braying of greylags. They descended then rose several times and on each occasion the waves of wildfowl refuelled a general panic. A tight thousand-strong press of golden plover roved through the others like a mobile storm, while above were thinly spread flights of lapwings, starlings, ruff and black-tailed godwits. (167)

See what I mean? These three examples demonstrate Mark Cocker’s love of language and of the common or English names of natural phenomena. To promote English terms the book includes a glossary of species with both English and Latin names. And the whole is enlivened by Jonathan Gibbs’s illustration that are placed at the start of each month’s entries.

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker. Published by Penguin 2014. 238pp

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After Publication

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman was published by Policy Press in early September. I have lost count of the number of books which I have co-authored or co-edited. That may read as rather big-headed, but I have been at it since 1991 – a quarter of a century!

But I have never stopped being excited about publication, the moment when one’s ideas are launched into the world, when you hope other people will benefit from one’s experience and reflection. It’s like a baby grown up and off into the world.

The delight of the printed book

There is pleasure in contemplating the newly printed book. All new books have a charm, the unbroken spine, the clean pages, the unblemished cover. When it’s a cover which announces one’s name and that title over which we laboured for months, then it has extra delight.

Then there is the pleasure of the pile of new books, see below. This is surely one of the pleasures of entering a bookshop – multiple copies, many volumes.

And, I admit, the smell of a new book is also to be savoured.

The promotional articles are done

Following publication we put ourselves about, writing promotional articles:

Eileen wrote for Mature Times, an article on the fear of ageing and how older people are ignored in commercial promotions. The stimulus for this was Jeremy Paxman’s demonstration of ageism in the FT diaries of 19th August 2016.

At the reception desk of a hotel to which I checked in this week was a pile of free copies of the Mature Times, which calls itself “the voice of our generation”. Oh God, I thought, the cheeky bastards are including me. Back off. For this must be the most unfashionable publication in Britain. Who wants to be called “mature”, like an old cheese? We all know that “mature” means on the verge of incontinence, idiocy and peevish valetudinarianism. They might as well have named it the “Surgical Stocking Sentinel” or “Winceyette Weekly”.

There was a lot more of this kind of thing in his piece. It seemed to us that a man of 66 was not doing his generation any favours, rather it was lazy journalism to accuse us of being on the verge of incontinence, idiocy and peevish valetudinarianism. (I had to look up that last word. It means in poor health or obsessed by poor health, which you probably knew.)

Marianne provided a post for the blog of ILC-UK (International Longevity Centre) on the future challenges of health and care in an ageing society.

She also posted on the Henpicked website, an article called How do you feel about Ageing?

For the Policy Press blog, I did a piece on age-blaming using the example of what people had said about older voters following the EU Referendum.

For the on-line magazine Discover Society we produced a piece about older people and housing, and the need for more affordable housing and for planning to take account of local views and construction that adopts a more age-inclusive attitude.

I found that writing these articles was much like writing the book itself, although more condensed.

Book promotion

Our publishers, Policy Press, have done sterling work to promote our book. In addition we announced the publication

  • on Facebook,
  • on twitter,
  • to every friend,
  • and to every professional connection we could think of.
  • I blogged about it.
  • Some magazine offered copies as a prize.
  • We gave flyers to our local bookshops.

And then …?

We waited.

We waited for reviews.

And for our readers to tell us how good it is, or how they agreed with this or wanted to argue about that …

I have been asked, ‘how’s the book going?’ And I have to say, ‘I have no idea’. I have no idea about sales: what would be good sales, what would be disappointing? Above all, I don’t think the world or even society has changed yet as a result of our book. I don’t know if it has even been nudged. That’s how it goes with most books. You don’t know.

That’s what I have learned, over the years, that after publication one waits. It’s an anti-climax after all that work. And you may never know whether you have piqued the interest of any reader, given them new ideas, encouraged debate. Sometimes people will tell you how important you book was to them, or how they saw it in a bookshop, or they don’t like the cover. But that’s it.

Why do we do it? Why write books? Well why do we?

Copies of The New Age of Ageing are available through the Policy Press website, where you can obtain a discount.

Related Posts

From February until publication day we posted at least once a month about the stages of book production from bright ideas to publication. You can find the posts here:

Publication Day September 2016

Trouble with Titles and Covers (August)

Marketing our Book (August)

Learning to be old by Eileen Carnell (July)

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’ by Marianne Coleman (June)

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

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The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to. You wont understand. You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.

We were in open sea, after all. It couldn’t be anything else.

I had never seen so many people in the water. Their limbs were thrashing, hands grasping, fists punching, black faces flashing over then under the waves. (1)

He is an ordinary man. The purpose of Carmine Menna’s work as an optician is to help people to see better. He lives and works on the little Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. One day in October 2013 he is on a sailing trip with his friends and he wakes up to the most appalling experience; hundreds of people are drowning in the sea around them, refugees whose boat has sunk as it crossed the Mediterranean.

The book

The book was written by journalist Emma Jane Kirby, not written in the first person as the Prologue quoted above is. Rather, she gives us some distance and tells the story from his point of view. But it is a harrowing account none the less.

The friends on the small boat managed to rescue 47 drowning migrants from the sea. Only one of the saved people was a woman. The reactions of the friends on that day, and the following days when they take stock of what they have witnessed, what they have been forced to confront, as the world takes passing notice, these are the subject of this book. On that dreadful day they were forced to stop picking up drowning people as their boat was overloading. They found that 360 people died. They are shocked, feel that there has to be a better way to deal with the migration issues. But they also have new friends with whom they are reunited at an anniversary event.

It’s journalism. It is meant to move you. It is meant to get you to understand better the risks and danger of the boats that cross the Mediterranean. It faces you with the desperation of the people who are trying to complete the dangerous voyage. The story is well told, compelling and vivid. And it raises immense and complex questions about the movement of desperate people.

Humane responses

The optician believes that what he and his friends did is what every one would do. That is despite the knowledge that a passing boat ignored the plight of the drowning people. Nevertheless we hear countless stories of selfless and generous behaviour, especially in relation to the migrants as they land or are rescued from the sea around the islands of the Mediterranean.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

The Lampedusa Cross

Here’s another story of one person doing what he can. In the British Museum, but not currently on display, there is a cross made from the wrecked timbers of a boat. The carpenter Mr Tuccio, wanted to do something to help the survivors. He made crosses for the Eritrean Christians as a reflection on their salvation from the sea and hope for the future. One was also given to the Pope who visited the island in July 2013 and another was donated to the British Museum by Mr Tuccio, and

stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores. (BM website)

The Lampedusa Cross, with permission from the British Museum.

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the fourth post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

 

Please help me reach halfway to my target by making a donation.

December walk

Walking home, in Devon.

My fourth walk began, unpromisingly, in an Esso forecourt and after picking up the path in the Asda car park became a delightful walk home, along the River Lemon with many many dog walkers, and then up through East Ogwell, and then walking through farmland and rain back to my home.

The walk was about 9km (5+ miles) and took place on Thursday 15th December.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The fifth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in early January

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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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In praise of … word hoards

Words are the building blocks of speech and writing used by all people to make meaning. The words we speak and write are what writers must work with. We can play around with them, import some from other languages or invent new ones as Lewis Carroll famously did. Think of the runcible spoon.

So writers should occasionally think words, just words, to sharpen their skills. We need skill to put them together convincingly, in ways that enthral, please, make a case. One way I enjoy focussing on words is to compile a word hoard. I am inspired in this by other writers.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane, in many of his books, examines the details and grand sweep of the natural world and their meanings for humans, and he does this in prose that continually delights. At last I have got round to dipping into Landmarks. In this book Robert Macfarlane draws on writers of the natural world, such as Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) and Roger Deakin (Notes from Walnut Tree Farm). And he has burrowed into the languages of the natural world. He gives us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

304-landmarks-cover

He describes his collections as word hoards. Many of them are local and precise words for phenomenon found in the landscape. I picked out some from Devon, where I live. I love the word ammil, which denotes a particular kind of frost, which edges leaves (p4).

ammil

ammil

My mother brought to my vocabulary clart and clarty, describing mud, and I use it for that which sticks to my walking boots. She learned it in Cumberland, and Robert Macfarlane includes clairt, a Scots variation (p285). Exmoor folk use claggy. Another Devonian word in his hoard is dimmity, used to describe twilight (p223).

Many of the words in Robert Macfarlane’s collections are specific to location and reflect the need for precision in vocabulary in the wild environment. Others are necessary for the pursuit of a craft or skill, such as fishing, farming, woodworking. Words also reveal connections with ancient languages, Scandinavian, Gaelic, Latin or more modern scientific studies and poetic imaginations.

He quotes the writer Henry Porter who lamented the disappearance from OUP children’s dictionaries of words related to the natural world in an article in the Observer in December 2008:

euphonious vocabulary of the natural world – words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it. (4)

euphonious is going into my word hoard.

It pays to increase your word power

While Robert Macfarlane’s book speaks to the mutability of language I think of my father. In a dispute about the meaning of a word, or on meeting an unfamiliar one, he would produce one of his two volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to settle arguments. To him, a scientist, meaning was fixed within the word. No amount of argument convinced him that words could change meanings. Even telling him that ‘presently’ in Shakespearean times meant immediately (ie in the present) while today it means the opposite, even this cut no mustard with him. And yet my father introduced me to Alice in Wonderland.

And what about those people who use frequently when they mean regularly and vice versa? Now I’m straying into pedantry. More objectively I think you can see the changing meaning of words in that exchange of terms. In 50 years regularly will always mean frequently. In principle I like the ways in which words’ meanings evolve, are connected to the lives we lead, even if the pedant in me mutters aloud.

I have been known to invent a word or two myself: a prongadang is the implement with which I operated the gas lighter on my cooker for many years. It was the handle of a wooden spoon should you ask for a description. I thought I had invented spruancy to describe a particular kind of dressing up, mixing glamour and showing off, but Google tells me that it is a Jewish word invented by British Jews. It’s a great word whatever its origins.

Collecting words

I am busy compiling my own word-hoard. It’s an idea I owe to Barbara Baig and her book Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers.

Good writers are people who love language; one of the reasons they write is that it gives them the opportunity to spend a lot of time with words. So they notice and collect words all the time, exercising and strengthening their word minds in the process. (28)

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The writers I used to coach to improve their academic writing were always a little startled when I recommended a practice that might be called theft, except that words have no value if they are kept by just one person. Their value is in shared use. I pinched this from a professor of linguistics.

For years and years (and I still do it, you know) I used to read things not only because of the sort of stuff that was in it, so it wasn’t only reading for learning, but also for stealing stylistically. I ruthlessly exploited other people’s oeuvre as a source of inspiration for particular turns of phrase – especially in English, of course, which is my fourth language. But whenever I saw a beautifully worded argument or whenever I saw a nice turn of phrase or expression that I found appealing, I used to make a note of it. And I really collected it like a sort of butterfly collection – I still do, always with an explicit plan of, at some point, using it. I can say with confidence that I have used most of it. (89)

This is from an interview with Jan Blommaert, in Passion and Politics, academics reflect on writing for publication, (2008) edited by Eileen Carnell, Jacqui MacDonald, Bet McCallum and Mary Scott.

A writer who has consistently stretched my vocabulary is Virginia Woolf. I have enjoyed #Woolfalong in part because my contributions have required me to look closely at her use of language, her vocabulary in different books. Orlando, for example, revels in language.

My Word Hoard

I started with my hoard with:

Hoard, a noun and a verb, frequently found in relation to museum artefacts, and full of mystery. Hoarding implies secreting, storing, hiding. Why were these coins included in this hoard? Why were the items of value collected and hidden? What about the hack silver (another great word) found in a Viking hoard in Cuerdale, Lancs?

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

Runes, is another word in my hoard. It’s magical, as are all languages. Runes can conjure what is not there. It has a connection to the Vikings. The language of the runes is Old Norse, largely replaced by the Roman alphabet. Runes is a word that ripples on the page to connect with mystery, magic and olden times.

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Lapis lazuli is also in my hoard. I love its sound and I love small samples of the mineral. But it is on probation at the moment. My experience in The Hermitage in St Petersburg was of lapis lazuli used in excess. In two rooms there were gargantuan, vulgar, displays. In each room two huge tables with green or blue lapis lazuli veneers were flanked by the most enormous urns, also covered in veneer. I guess Catherine the Great was only hoarding the stuff.

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I have recently added euphonious (see above)

Words in my hoard have associations, and they need to be connected to meanings that carry integrity, or significance associated with the struggle for human rights, or with my other enthusiasms. So some place names sit, not happily, in my hoard: Nagasaki, Abervan, Gallipoli, Sharpeville, Chernobyl.

And I can’t get the surly bonds of earth out of my head, an earwig. John Gillespie Magee began his poem High Flight with these two lines:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

His poem captures the exhilaration of flying, and the phrase surly bonds reminds us of our roots, grounds us you might say.

Given the nature of hoards, and specifically their association with precious metals and stones, I need a special notebook to hold my hoard. Dear Santa …

Over to you

I think that’s enough of my hoarded words. How about a few suggestions from you?

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin in 2016 with an additional glossary. 434pp

Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers by Barbara Baig. Published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2015

Related posts

Four More Good Reads August 2015

Ten Books to make me think August 2013

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The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Many novelists enjoy writing about writing and writers. I can think of a few novels where the main character is a writer. I guess its what they know about. However the main character in The Crime Writer is not Jill Dawson, but Patricia Highsmith.

So why write a novel about a real writer? Well, it allows Jill Dawson to do what she does so well, write fiction about real characters and events, eg Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover (2009) and the mystery of the Penge murder in the 1920s in Fred and Edie (2000). Her subject matter allows her to mix fiction and fact in a way that the reader cannot quite penetrate. Writing fiction about a writer allows her to explore the processes of writing and challenge us as readers. And it’s fiction so the author’s imagination is not bound by inconvenient truth.

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Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, mostly psychological thrillers, and eight volumes of short stories. She was the originator of the stories behind such movies as Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and, most recently, Carol. This last was published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Her publisher described her as ‘mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving’, according to Wikipedia. These characteristics are evident in the main character in The Crime Writer.

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

The story

It’s the 1960s and Patricia Highsmith has come to a Suffolk village from Paris to escape a stalker, and to work on her novel and a book about writing thrillers. She is interested in what happens in the mind of someone who commits murder. This is what Jill Dawson examines in the novel.

Pat is distracted, first by a journalist, Ginny Smythson-Balby, and then by anticipating the arrival of her married lover, Sam. From time to time her reputation as a writer must be acknowledged. Ginny persuades her to do a radio interview with the cold and calculating Frances. She is awarded a Gold Dagger and must attend the award ceremony.

She mostly wants to be on her own, or with Sam. On her own she writes, draws, paints, and indulges her interest in snails. She also likes woodwork and keeps her tools to hand. One visitor she does welcome is the rather effete but steady Ronnie. He is a version of Ronald Blythe, who wrote Akenfield, portrait of an English village (1969), based on conversations he had with local people.

Patricia Highsmith has her demons. She is revisited by recollections of an unhappy and neglected childhood, and believes that she has been receiving letters from a stalker who may be her stepfather. She lives in fear of being discovered as a lesbian. She is alarmed to find that her stalker knows that she now lives in the village. She drinks and smokes excessively, and suffers something of a breakdown when Sam will no longer continue their affair.

These demons all come together in the climax, the crime at the novel’s centre is committed and hidden, the stalker is revealed, Pat drinks herself into a stupor, and her mother arrives. There is so much mess for Pat to clear up.

The story unsettled me, unnerved me. Perhaps things are not as they seem. Perhaps I just have an overactive imagination, living in a village as I do.

The writing

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

The writing deliberately unsettles the reader, I believe. Some of the text is narrated in the first person, the moments of high tension in particular. Other parts are in a more distant third person, but always from Patricia Highsmith‘s point of view.

The isolation and starkness of Suffolk, and especially of the shore at Aldeburgh at night is beautifully written.

Writing fiction in The Crime Writer

I have tried to be very careful in this review, to allow the fictional Patricia Highsmith to exist within the novel and not permit anything I read about her to intrude. And not to assume either that Jill Dawson is trying to speak through her fictional Patricia Highsmith.

There are some interesting discussions about writing fiction in this novel. Here Patricia Highsmith is rejecting the label ‘crime writer’, in a passage that also foreshadows the events of the novel.

She’d had to explain, for possibly the hundredth time in her career, that she didn’t write crime novels; she wasn’t a crime writer. The damn fool girl [Ginny] had protested by naming some of her best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she had patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for writing Crime and Punishment? Edgar Allen Poe? Theodore Dreiser? I don’t happen to care for the label “crime writer”. There is not much detection in my novels. There’s rarely any police involvement at all . . .‘ (3)

She prefers to describe her work as suspense, ‘that is, stories where there is felt to be a threat of imminent danger’. (9)

And she is also adamant about the notion of messages in novels. Again she confronts Ginny:

‘Message? Holy crap, not really?’

Her bottom lip comes out then, a little stubbornly.

‘There clearly are messages in your work. You know, the ordinariness of evil lurking in domestic settings, the doppelganger theme, the bad guy and the good guy who change places, who are the same person. And there’s the murderer celebrated as ultimate rebel, an amoral or subversive hero, the forces of law and order as toothless against evil, the victim as repulsive or contemptible, or silly in some way and deserving of death …’

‘I wonder why reviewers and critics always put it like that? As if I’m writing in another language that they need to translate? Why should I go to the trouble to make up characters, plots and settings and all that? You talk as if a story is just a bottle to hide a message in. Ornamental words to hide a rational thought, which no doubt you think is the true thought.’ (134)

Again this works on different ways, as a provocation to those who speak of messages, as a description of the plot and suspense in the novel, and as a challenge to readers of fiction.

Some people will read it as a suspense novel, and I think they will find it works well. But the title, subject matter and the plot all require the reader to consider the art and skill of writing a novel.

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 242 pp

Over to you

I have been unable to find any reviews of this book on-line that add to my understanding or appreciation. Any thoughts?

 

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The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

I grew up with Margaret Drabble’s novels, keeping step as she pushed the boundaries with A Summer Bird Cage and The Millstone, looking at the lives of intelligent young women in the 60s. The Dark Flood Rises is her 20th novel and still she is asking questions that concern me, and people of my age. This novel is about growing older and facing death in the 21st Century.

The title is taken from DH Lawrence’s The Ship of Death.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

Has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

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This is the 24th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can see the complete list of reviews and readers recommendations on the page About the Older Women in Fiction Series at the top of the blog.

‘What I do worry about is living’

Margaret Drabble wrote about death and approaching death in an article in the Guardian in October just before the publication of this novel. She referred to ‘the delusion of an afterlife’, no longer shared by many, if it ever was. But we still ‘struggle with the meaning of death’, she suggests. And she has this to add about increased longevity, faced by many of us.

Through our mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a biological phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death. We can no longer look forward to the possibility of a sudden, unexpected, merciful release, or falling asleep in bed reading a book (as my mother did), or ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Nor can we make plans to celebrate our departure as a grand culmination of our life’s endeavours, with gracious and grateful and possibly public farewell. That’s because we know that officious folk are going to strive to keep us alive for as long as they possibly can, until we can no longer enjoy anything. Just to prove that hey can. [Guardian 29th October 2016]

I disagree with much of this, believing we should celebrate increased longevity and take advantage of it in others as well as in ourselves. Indeed I have co-written about this and published a book on it this year. (The New Age of Ageing).

But increased longevity does mean paying more attention to that period we call old age. ‘What I do worry about is living,’ says Margaret Drabble. I agree with her. This is new territory, and as the author has said, (in the Paris Review in 1978) it is the function of fiction to explore it, and she has made an accessible approach with The Dark Flood Rises.

A summary

Fran and older people connected to her, and some younger ones, look at death. Fran is in her 70s but fit, caring for her bedbound ex-husband by preparing and delivering meals for him. Her son Christopher lost his partner suddenly in the Canaries. He returns there and is befriended by two gay men, Bennett Carpenter renown but sinking slowly into genteel disability, and Ivor increasingly acting as Bennett’s carer rather than his partner. They are trapped by European economics, and the failure to invest when they had capital. Fran’s daughter Poppet is concerned about the death of the earth. Two of Fran’s older female friends face and then undergo death.

Fran

It is Fran’s story with which the novel opens and to which we return at frequent intervals. She is doing ageing very well: she has a no-nonsense approach to it, keeps healthy and active, even undertaking paid work advising on meeting the housing needs of the elderly. This is a good device for some discrete observations about how these needs are widely neglected. Fran is determined not to become a burden on others, in fact to remain useful. She is, we can see, doing all the right things. This does not make her happy (see below for the opening paragraph).

Margaret Drabble is not afraid to enumerate the physical aspects of the ageing body. Or to refer to those things that are no longer problematic. There is a kind of tongue in cheek pleasure in the writing about these, for example the dream Fran has about Tampax. She has driven to a hotel the day before and in the morning she puts her reaction to the dream in order.

… she wonders whether it had sprung from the redness of the meal of the night before, or from her motorway thoughts about Macbeth, or from some new and about-to-be-apprehended aspect of time and the ageing experience.

For ageing is, says Fran to herself gamely as she presses the lift button to go down to her breakfast, a fascinating journey into the unknown. Or that’s one rather good way of looking at it. The thin flow was the blood of life, not of death, reminding her that she is still the same woman, she who once had been the bleeding girl. (20)

The writing

The novel is not divided into chapters, but into short segments. And it is written in the present tense. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, from Fran’s point of view.

She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in the world will prove to be ‘You bloody old fool’ or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, ‘you fucking idiot’. As the speeding car hits the tree, or the unserviced boiler explodes, or the smoke and flames fill the hallway, or the grip on the high guttering gives way, those will be her last words. She isn’t to know for sure that it will be so, but she suspects it. In her latter years, she’s become deeply interested in the phrase ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’. Or no woman come to that. ‘Call no woman happy until she is dead.’ (1)

The present tense narration brings a curious slow but immediate impact. It reminds us that these people live alongside us, are us. Time moves onwards, but we can linger in this time of life. The prose has a slightly superior tone, which may be intended to represent the mindset of this group of older people.

The novel does not stay with Fran, but roams among the other characters as they pass their days in the shadow of death’s approach. We see the preoccupations of Fran’s women friends, her ex-husband Claude, Bennett and Ivor trapped in the Canaries and attend a hospital bed and a funeral or two.

43 Wreath & Hide

There are many erudite references in The Dark Flood Rises. One I especially enjoyed was to Elizabeth Taylor, and her novel A Wreath of Roses. Margaret Drabble is very well read and her well-educated cast of characters have various interests which enable her to refer to many other writers and what they said about ageing and dying.

There is a great deal of humour, and pathos, in the doings of these characters. There is selflessness and selfishness, affluence and poverty, friendship and admiration. Some of these people have been very eminent in their professional lives in earlier times. Bennett Carpenter is a notable historian of Spain. Claude was a highly regarded surgeon. Some of the older people are immersing themselves in rather narrow interests. For example, Jo develops a researcher’s interest in novels about marriage to the DWS (deceased wife’s sister). Claude wants to listen to endless Maria Callas, while cuddling his carer. Many of these old people are lonely, have lost partners and are fearful of intruding upon their children’s lives.

And I want to mention that the story references population movements too, especially across the Mediterranean and especially the treacherous, desperate voyages that see the end of so many lives as people escape violence.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble, published by Canongate in 2016. 326 pp

Related posts

Margaret Drabble’s article in the Guardian, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I worry about living’ October 2016.

My review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.

The previous post in the older woman in fiction series was A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.

 

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