Category Archives: Learning

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews, words, Writing

Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures 

Sorting through more of the books that came to me from my mother, I found a copy of Struwwelpeter. It seems to have been given to one or more of us children in the 1950s by ‘Grandpop’ my father’s father. I have two other editions, an earlier one, perhaps from the ‘20s or ‘30s and a more modern one, published in 1972. 

Struwwelpeter can be translated as shock-haired Peter. It is available today from bookshops, including with joint German/English text. Older editions sell for three figures on the second-hand websites. And an e-book is available on-line from Gutenberg editions.

The History of Struwwelpeter

The oldest of my editions has a page by the author, Dr Heinrich Hoffman, translated as the stories in the book are by an unknown translator. In this introductory note Dr Hoffman describes how the book came to be written. He wanted to find an appropriate picture book for his 3-year-old son for Christmas in 1844. He was very unhappy with what he found in the shops.

Long tales, stupid collections of pictures, moralizing stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like: “the good child must be truthful”, or “children must keep clean”, etc.

At the time Dr Hoffman was the medical man at the lunatic asylum, and often had to see children. He was aware that doctors and chimney sweeps were often used as bogeymen by mothers when they admonish and threaten their children. So to allay their fears he would produce little rhymes and pictures for the children. 

A story, such as you find written here, invented on the spur of the moment, illustrated with a few touches of the pencil and humorously related, will calm the little antagonist, dry his tears and allow the medical man to do his duty.

The ‘pretty stories’ found an instant readership, including in Great Britain. 

The Stories in Struwwelpeter

Each of my three editions contains 12 stories, with titles such as 

  • Cruel Frederick: Fred is bitten by a dog that he was tormenting
  • The Dreadful story of Harriet and the Matches: Harriet played with forbidden matches and was burned to a cinder, leaving only her red shoes
  • The Story of the Inky Boys: the boys who were taunting a ‘Black-a-moor’ got dipped in ink 
  • The Story of the Man that went out Shooting: the man who went shooting found the gun turned on him by the hares

In all these stories naughty people get their comeuppance: the hunter should not have fallen asleep; Harriet didn’t listen to the cats that warned her and so on. 

But the story that freaked me out as a child was The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. Guess what? I was a thumb-sucker all through my childhood. I was in constant fear of the ‘great tall tailor’ with the huge scissors.

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out now and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off – and then,
You know, they never grow again.”

She leaves, Conrad sucks his thumbs, the great tall tailor comes and ‘Snip! Snap! Snip!’ his thumbs are cut off. His mother returns and finds Conrad looking ‘quite sad’.

“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Today I am shocked that a mother would go out, knowing her son would suffer this fate, and return and say to the thumbless boy a version of “I told you so!”

Some of the other stories are as moralizing, but with exaggeration, as The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. But few have outcomes as frightening.

  • The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air: although he falls in the river, he ultimately only loses his writing-book
  • Flying Robert: he fails to stay at home in the rain and is blown away with his umbrella, never to be seen again 
  • The Story of Fidgety Philip: he manages to bring the tablecloth, the meal and his own chair down onto the floor, spoiling the family dinner

I was relieved that there was no story about a nail-biter.

While every child likes to see other children getting their just deserts, the spectre of the tailor and his scissors haunted me. As did the exhortation to always be good!

When the children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play
Good all night and good all day – 
They shall have the pretty things
Merry Christmas always brings.
Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Spoil their pinafores and frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these shall never look
At this pretty Picture-book.

And …

Dr Hoffman may have provided some humour and merriness into these stories, but to me they were awfully cruel. I think Dr Hoffman was disingenuous to claim that his stories weren’t moralising, for the sins of these children are just those that annoy their parents and get them nagging their children: thumb-sucking, playing with matches, tormenting animals, laughing at Black children, fidgeting, and not paying attention. I am sure there were other children than me who believed in the fate of these wrong-doers.

I worry that I inflicted this on my daughter. For the newest of my editions was published when she was 4 and I may have bought it for her. She too sucked her thumb, but I never minded, or threatened her with the great tall tailor and his scissors.

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With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge

I risk making some readers jealous, but I have just returned from a 5-day summer school in Cambridge, devoted to Virginia Woolf. Not all of Virginia Woolf, but 5 specified books. And I want to share some of it.

  • Mrs Dalloway
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Orlando
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Between the Acts

The popular view pictures Virginia Woolf as an effete, delicate, isolated, and icy woman. One of my major strands of learning on the summer school is how connected she was to the events of her time, and to the changes that women might be able to benefit from through her social circle, her reading, her thinking and her experiences to the wider world.

So here are a few ‘orts, scraps and fragments’ (Between the Acts) to pass on.

Women in her life

My first ort, scrap and fragment is the understanding of how connected Virginia Woolf was to so many different women. The summer school was focussed on Virginia Woolf and her women, and we met many of them. She had a wide range of female friends and connections. We heard about her friendship with Katherine Mansfield, her intimate relations with Vita Sackville West (Orlando), her connection to Newnham College, in particular with the classicist Jane Harrison who was a rule-breaker and a pioneer, and Pernel Strachey, librarian and Principal. She was very fond of the wonderful, larger-than-life Ethel Smyth, whose character echoes through Between the Acts. And the struggles of the painter Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, surely owes something to Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell.

The second ort concerns her thinking about the important issues of her day, which also resonate with us today. What does it mean to be a woman? How shall we understand colonialism? How did the two great wars affect women and the well-lived life? Between the Acts was written during the initial years of the Second World War, when fear of invasion and the unknown clouded every horizon. We were reminded of Covid-19 and that first year when we knew so little and feared so much. We too looked back, made our own pageants, summoned our history to help us deal with the situation. 

Women’s situation was changing fast during Virginia Woolf’s life. In particular, higher education was gradually opened up to women. Both Girton and Newnham Colleges were established and eventually accepted into the University of Cambridge. It was in these colleges that she gave the lectures that gradually evolved into A Room of One’s Own. I loved sitting in the room in Girton where she spoke at the invitation of a student. The walls are covered in amazing embroidery/tapestries. 

Later we got to see the manuscript of the book in the Fitzwilliam Museum archives, seeing something of how she worked on her text – right-hand side of the page only, wide margins, left-hand side for substantial rewriting. This wasn’t simply cultural tourists admiring the very pages she had written. It was more an insight into her craft.

Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi, Research Associate at the Fitzwilliam Museum, shows us the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

I love the playfulness and the in-jokes in her books. Orlando is full of unattributed quotations and references and plays with the ideas of changing gender and living for 400 years. But she is always playful for a purpose and I was appropriately challenged by these books, by the ideas and possibilities that are implied and set out for the reader. So here’s what I am going to think about.

Plans from here

I shall reread (it will be for the fourth time) Between the Acts, thinking in particular about representations of our history, and luxuriating in the possibilities that Virginia Woolf provides ways of understanding history and how we tell it. What, no armies in a pageant of British history?

I shall be reacquainting myself with the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, whose work I have rejected for reasons I can’t remember. Virginia Woolf clearly thought highly of her friend’s writing, so I would like to find out what there was to admire.

I want to look at Lily Briscoe and Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse more closely. Mrs Ramsey wants Lily, and all women, to get married. She had no less than eight children. Lily wants to paint but finds it hard.

And I want to reread the second part of To the Lighthouse, called Time Passes, and to think about that passage with some new ideas in my head. And to think about female language, sentences and approaches to the novel form.

I met many wonderful people, from different parts of the world, and enjoyed their warmth and shared pleasures with them. We benefitted from some excellent lectures and supervisions. How lucky to see the splendid gardens of Newnham College.

 

Thank you to Literature Cambridge for the summer school, and for providing so much on-line stimulation, including when we were locked down. I have many links to previous lectures, photographs and further possibilities to explore, thanks to you. Thanks to Graham for the use of his photograph of people inspecting the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

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Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

Ursula K Le Guin’s Space Crone

When Ursula K Le Guin died in January 2018, it seemed far too soon. She had given us the impression of being endlessly inventive, always wise and a champion of thinking, learning, developing in community with writers and readers. Above all, she had important things to say about language and how humans should live in this world (and other worlds too). I had read The Wizard of Earthsea and been stimulated by the idea there about the power of naming things. And I had enjoyed being provoked by her imaginative ideas on gender and sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness, and by her other sci-fi fiction. And I had begun reading her essays on writing the Tao and her collection of writing advice and exercises in Steering the Craft. I thought she would last forever.

Her death was too soon, although she was 89. She defied conventional ideas about aging, aging as a time when you become more right-wing, aging as a time when you slow down, aging as a time when you have used up all your good ideas. The concept of a space crone challenges all that. The essay of that name was written in 1976, when she was not yet 50, but she looks squarely at the menopause and how older women are not valued. Not quite 50 years on from the publication of that essay, our society is just beginning to take account of the menopause, if not the value of older women.

That essay provides the title to a new publication of essays, stories and lectures by Ursula K le Guin, Space Crone, published by Silver Press (an independent feminist publisher based in London) in 2023.

Space Crone

The publication of this collection, bringing together Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing on feminism and gender, seemed like the continuation of her influence. In this post I recommend two of the items in this collection: a short story, and a commencement address. The short story, Sur uses reversal of gender roles to spin a challenging tale. The address was delivered to graduates of a women’s college and in it she discusses languages, and their importance in feminists’ struggles.

Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-1910

The short story is framed as an account of an all-female expedition to Antarctica in 1909-10. The historically-minded of you will know that the first acknowledged team to reach the South Pole was led by the Norwegian Amundsen in 1912. This story, narrated by one of the female team, describes their alternative expedition, and rather than celebrating heroism and bravery, praises other qualities. You’ve never heard of this expedition, or of any evidence that they were the first to reach the South Pole?

But I was glad even then that we had left no sign there, for some man longing to be first might come some day, and find it, and then know what a fool he had been, and break his heart. (23)

So what happens when women, not men, set off on an expedition in such a dangerous place? They display qualities celebrated in this story, qualities of shared leadership, mutual support, modesty and generosity (such as allowing men to take the credit for being first). They are persistent in the face of challenges, even a specifically female challenge, and other physical difficulties such as frostbite. The power of their friendships, their camaraderie was behind their success.

There are other ways, Ursula K Le Guin seems to tell us, of narrating these heroic stories; there are other qualities that we should value and esteem besides the heroic and the brave. Her fiction shows us this again and again.

Sur was first published in the New Yorker in 1982.

Bryn Mawr Commencement Address (1986)

In this address, Ursula K Le Guin considers how language is used, in what today we might call different discourses. She identifies three. The language of power, of politics, of dichotomy, used by all those with power. The graduates have learned this language for their degrees and like us to heaf the language of people in power.

Then there is the mother tongue. Every person’s first language, which is the language of relationships, connection, of binding together not division, of experience rather than argument. Because it is the language of women, it must be ignored by men as they mature. Those who are powerless can find their voices and a different power by unlearning the language of power, and by recognising the third language, the native language. 

And what she calls the native language reflects the everyday, the creative, the language of experience. She gives many examples of this native language. Many are from first nations peoples which is hardly surprising as she grew up in a household of anthropologists: Sojourner Truth, Wendy Rose (Hopi and Miwok people), Joy Harjo (Creek people), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw people), and Denise Levertov. All are women, most are poets. And they have gentler truths to speak, in softer language. 

Speaking to young women graduates she encourages them in the tones of the native language:

If being a cog in the machine or a puppet manipulated by others isn’t what you want, you can find out what you want, your needs, desires, truths, powers, by accepting your own experience as a woman, as this woman, this body, this person, your hungry self. On the maps drawn by men there is an immense white area, terra incognita, where most women live. That country is all yours to explore, to inhabit, to describe.
But none of us lives there alone. Being human isn’t something people can bring off alone; we need other people in order to be people. We need one another. (43)

I see the connection between these two writings. The story Sur is narrated in this third language, the language of experience, and community. It is a story of community and experience, and challenges the dominant discourse of the explorer: a brave and heroic man who gets there first.  

Both my recommendations are from the 80s. I make no apologies, for I am from the tradition of the Second Wave of feminism, – I’m not even sure how many waves we can count today. I too found a voice in ‘the furies and glories of the seventies and eighties’ (33) as all those women offered their experience as truth. Let experience speak. Let us value those experiences, the importance of relationships, of community. Let us not use only the language of power, but also the language of creativity and life.

Space Crone by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Silver Press in 2022. Edited and introduced by So Mayer and Sarah Shin. 

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

Related posts and books

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (June 2019)

Imagination and the writer: Ursula K Le Guin including references to The Wave in the Mind (August 2018)

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin (March 2018)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin (July 2017)

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998. 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin first published in 1969. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

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Foster and Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Last year I was enthusiastic on this blog about a small novel: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. I was not alone in my enthusiasm. It won the George Orwell Prize for political fiction and was shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio and the Booker Prizes in 2022. It was a tale of quiet morality, and beautiful writing.

So when I was in Orkney and needed a small book for my flight home, I visited Stromness Bookshop. The bookshop is one of the smallest and best stocked bookshops I have ever been in. Squeezing between the stacks I found a copy of Foster, also by Claire Keegan. It was a perfect choice.

Foster

Foster is short, just 88 pages. It’s a story, set in rural Ireland, about an unnamed girl, the narrator, who gets taken by her father to the Kinsella’s farm one summer. They appear to be relatives of her mother who is expecting her next child. The narrator is not sure why she is there, or how long she will remain. In the short time he is at the farm her Da reveals himself to be a drinker and a gambler.

From such an insecure background, the girl is unsure of what is expected of her and she waits to see what happens. Over the weeks the Kinsellas show warmth, love and affection and she slowly comes out of her shell. We learn that this quiet couple lost their son, who drowned in slurry. The girl is happy at the farm, but the summer must end and she must return home.

It is so moving, so precise in its observations, through the child’s eyes, and a pleasure to read, like Small Things Like These.

Foster by Claire Keegan, published in 2010 by Faber & Faber. 88pp

Walk the Blue Fields

We read Small Things like These in my book group and shortly after I was lent this collection of short stories by Claire Keegan. They are also set in rural Ireland, and concern lonely men, for the most part, men who are inadequate at dealing with women and with their feelings about women. There is a slowness and understatedness about these stories which makes them captivating. The damage people do to their lives through drink, religion, gambling and ignorance is carefully revealed.

I thought that the title story was exceptional, in its subject matter (a priest who agonises as he officiates at the wedding of his former lover) and in how it is treated. It is not surprising that her short stories have also won prizes. 

Walk the Blue Fields Claire Keegan, published in 2007 by Faber & Faber. 183pp

You can find my review of Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan on Bookword blog, at this link.

And good news: So Late in the Day, a new short story by Claire Keegan, will be published by Faber and Faber in September.

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The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio

What did I know about Cape Verde? Very little, except for an appreciation of their music. I did know that it is an archipelago off the western coast of Africa, and that it was uninhabited until the Portuguese found it convenient for their slave trade. It gained independence from Portugal in 1975. It has a population is about half a million people spread across 10 islands. The national language is Portuguese.

With so little knowledge it was with enthusiasm that I picked up this novel, first published in Portuguese in 1998, and now translated into English. It says quite a bit about the state of African women’s fiction that this is the first translation of an African woman’s novel into English from Portuguese. The publisher, Dedalus, began celebrating the centenary of women’s votes in the UK, by publishing six titles each year by women, many in translation. This one was in the first tranche. It’s an intention to be supported. 

The Madwoman of Serrano

The novel’s location could be anywhere. The village of Serrano lies in a beautiful remote valley but has no name until the midwife tells it to some surveyors and immediately dies. We are not told the name of the city to which the inhabitants eventually retreat. We are everywhere and nowhere.

The men and women of Serrano have very different roles, but their conventions are strong: there are 193 residents, including the midwife (a role that is taken over by another woman as soon as the midwife dies) and the madwoman (who also reappears every thirty-three years in a new body). 

The midwife not only helps the women of the village give birth and dispense herbal remedies and advice, but also initiates the men of the village into their marital duties. Birth rates are poor so she also sends many women to the capital to become pregnant through ‘pharmaceuticals’.

The village is beautiful, well-regulated with customs stretching back for years. But this conservatism comes at a price.

… but it was true that almost everything was considered a threat by the poor villagers, and that any sign of danger became an omen of epic proportions, sending people into hiding, peeking out only as much or as little as their fear or perversity would allow. (106)

This fear had led the villagers to chase one poor girl to her death in the river, and for generations she is known to haunt the valley. 

People would later say that there was little evidence that the Serranoans lived by the same lores that governed human beings elsewhere. The villagers never embraced imagination the way others did; they never looked around corners or sought to conquer new territories; they never explored new means of existence or ways of casting off their shackles. Such things only happened beyond Serrano’s borders. (121) 

Readers expecting a story in the European tradition will be surprised. There is a fair bit of magical-realism, and the timeline of the novel circles and returns so that each episode appears to relate to other episodes.

In essence this is a story of lovers, who must find each other after separation. But it is also about generational love. A further theme contrasts city and village life. 

Jerónimo is a young man who has completed his military service and so he has experience of the city. He returns to the village and takes up his life according to the customs of generations. But he is not happy, even when he marries Maninha, who like so many of the women of Serrano fails to become pregnant. Later he finds Fernanda, a young woman who has fallen from an aeroplane. He takes care of her, and when she produces a child, everyone assumes it is Jerónimo’s. Fernanda disappears to the city leaving her child with Jerónimo. Filipa is brought up in the village until her mutism is considered serious enough to merit a visit to the city, where she stays.

Jerónimo has lost the woman he loved and her daughter. Much of the novel concerns the lives of these three unhappy people, until, despite, knowing so little of each other, are reunited at last. 

I did not learn much about Cape Verde from this novel. Serves me right for trying a little cultural tourism.

Dina Salústio

Born in 1941, Dina Salústio is the nom de plume of a journalist, social worker and teacher. This novel was the first novel by a woman to be published in Cape Verde, and the first to be published in an English translation. She was awarded the PEN Galacia award for lifetime achievement. Her work features the issues experienced by women, which is to be welcomed as so much African post-colonial literature is dominated by men.

The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, first published in 1998. The English translation from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar was published by Dedalus in 2019. 228pp

Related posts

Some thoughts from the translator Jethro Soutar in Brittle Paper in July 2021.

A review from the blog A Year Reading the World in October 2019.

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Filed under Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Reading insomnia 

The irony was far too obvious to be ignored. I was unable to sleep for thinking about the books I was reading about insomnia. I was thinking about writing a post (this post) on the subject. The ideas and words and the books kept circulating in my brain, as those things do when you can’t sleep.

Insomnia

It began, my insomnia, in the time of Covid. My circular thoughts turned over fears about social isolation, especially for those over 60, about falling ill, about what we would lose in this pandemic. These thoughts engulfed me and interrupted my normally healthy sleep. I was not alone. Even without the anxieties over Covid, sleep experts had been referring to the widespread incidence of insomnia as an epidemic.

For the first 70 years of my life I had not bothered much about sleep. It came easily, refreshed in the way good sleep did. The worst impact was to be annoyed by how much time it took out of my life. I had had episodes of not sleeping when I worked in a very stressful job: headteacher of an inner-London secondary school. Then I had developed the technique of noting down whatever was troubling me and adding an action to take the following day which would move me towards a resolution of the issue. And then I would fall asleep. I did not regard this as insomnia, more as an inevitable outcome of the stress of the job. My blood pressure remained low, my appetite remained good but my sleep was infrequently interrupted.

But since March 2020 sleep has frequently eluded me, usually disappearing between 2 and 3 am. I developed several responses, all of which took at least an hour, sometimes two, to get through.

  • I would complete another Sudoku or crossword
  • I would scroll through my twitter timeline, or news apps
  • I would listen to podcasts
  • I would read, frequently this was several pages from Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, or a short story.

After two or three hours of this I would eventually sleep, but when I woke I felt terrible, and even a restorative doze in the afternoon did not make me feel better or avoid the same thing happening again the following night.

My insomnia retreated somewhat with the restrictions we all hoped would deal with the virus. I am aware that Covid is still around, doing its own rising and falling activities. I decided to read a bit more about sleep and what might help me get more of it. 

First up was The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter (2017). The title and author seemed to promise everything I needed: a definition of the problem (aka a diagnosis), a solution, provided by a doctor no less. It was quite chatty, full of diagrams, chapter reviews and sub-headings. All very reader-friendly, and full of good advice and sound information. I learned about ‘sleep hygiene’, which is a terrible name for some sensible actions. And it reinforced what I knew about smoking, drinking and other drugs on the quality of sleep. But it did not help me work out why I wasn’t sleeping well, or indeed what I should be doing differently.

More frightening was the second book, because it emphasises the function of sleep in keeping our bodies and brains in good health and I learned I was in danger of damaging mine: Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I’m not sure in what ways the science he is reporting on is ‘the new science’, but I got a good sense of the work being done while I sleep and dream to maintain my health, memory, and wellness. But no diagnosis and no cure.

And most recently I have been dipping into The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey (2020). This describes a year of hell by the author, the effects on her life, her writing, her relationships, her sense of herself as a result of what she calls ‘hard insomnia’. There is little evident structure to this book, and it embraces many different approaches: a case study, a conversation with a friend, a novel she might be writing, straight forward accounts and some consideration of the medical encounters she endures. I think this lack of structure echoes the experience of unwanted awakeness. Although the writer stresses that there is no solace, the book ends hopefully:

This is the cure for insomnia: no things are fixed. Everything passes, this too. One day, when you’re done with it, it will lose its footing and fall away, and you’ll drop each night into sleep without knowing how you once found it so impossible. (175)

My go-to book, however, remains Insomnia by Marina Benjamin. I can start reading it wherever I have left off. I love it for its accessibility, for its artistry, intellectual insights, lateral thinking, gems of cultural disclosure and the picture of the writer and her dog, together on the sofa in the depths of the night. The dog is asleep. 

Related post

Sleep in Fiction (Bookword, March 2020)

Books referred to

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018.

The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter, published by Scribe in 2017.

Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker, published by Penguin in 2017.

The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey, published by Vintage in 2020.

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House-Bound by Winifred Peck

I am intrigued by the changes in this country, brought by the Second World War, especially in the lives of women. House-Bound is the second of three books, published by Persephone that I recently bought, and I chose it because it looked at the disappearance of domestic servants and the effects on the households they had previous served. In addition, the Persephone catalogue suggested that Winifred Peck wrote with a lightness of touch that made this an interesting and diverting novel. 

House-Bound

It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairlaw suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was. Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a busy and useful member of society. (1)

Rose lives in Edinburgh (called Castleburgh in the novel) during the Second World War. She is middle-aged and in need of maids and a cook to help her run her house. But it is 1941 and there are none to be had at the registry office. They have been called up or gone to better paid situations. Like many well-off women Rose faces having to manage the domestic duties of her house herself. She is struck by the comment of Mrs Loman.

‘Millions of women do just that.’

She announces her intentions to her friend Laura, and to her husband Stuart.

‘But – but –‘ Stuart plunged among a host of objections striding up and down the room. ‘I can’t have you opening the door to tradespeople.’ (52)

Rose has not had any experience of housework or cooking, and protests at the ‘uselessness of people like me’.

‘But you’re not useless,’ protested Stuart. ‘Women like you uphold the standards of civilisation.’ (53)

Rose immediately becomes quite overwhelmed and exhausted by her new responsibilities for the house is old, and although there is only Rose and her husband, he makes no changes to his routines. The registry office sends her Mrs Childe who instructs Rose on how to clean and comes in ‘to do’ in the mornings. Rose is also assisted in her housework by the advice and practical example of Major Posner, a psychiatrist with the American army. He is full of practical suggestions, and occasionally comes by and fixes a meal.

The courage of Rose in taking on the housework is one theme of the novel. It represents a profound social change, for Rose does indeed feel useless, and unproductive at a time when everyone seems busy with war work. The novel’s title, House-Bound, comes to have a literal meaning.

Everything in a house reminds you of something else you’ve got to do. You start up from the hall, and remember you must carry the laundry up, and when you are halfway you see you didn’t dust the chest on the half-landing. And two steps higher up you remember you left the apples stewing and must run down to take them off. And that reminds you that you must telephone to the greengrocer, and while you are doing that you remember that you ought to fill up the salt-cellars, and when you take them to the dining-room you see the flowers are dead, or you didn’t finish polishing the floor that morning. …And of course … none of these things are of any sort of use to the world at all, and yet I suppose they’ve got to be done!

Not only is the work never done, but it is not of use to the war effort. Rose’s predicament throws up questions about the work and conditions for house servants, and how their employment supported women such as Rose in idleness. There is an appalling old relative, Mrs Carr-Berwick, who appears late in the novel when she cannot manage without help and believes herself entitled to it.

A second, and less successful theme of the novel concerns Flora, Rose’s grown-up daughter. She comes across as a dreadful character: moaning, perpetually jealous, and yet with moments of great heroism when she left home to work on ambulances. It transpires that Major Posner, the US army psychiatrist, knew Flora previously and wishes to help her and the family deal with her, for she is indeed a selfish horror. This theme concentrates on accounting for Flora’s attitude and behaviour, providing psychological explanations.

The war brings untold grief to the family, and the house also suffers. Rose has done much soul searching, about war, sacrifice, the work of women, and how useless her class has been. But through her own suffering and courage she finds her way to first adapt and then make a good contribution to the war.

The tone of the book is light, and there is much humour to be found, especially in the relationships between the various characters, all of whom are well drawn, and in the slow realisation of social change that the war brought to such households. 

While reading this I wondered why the housework consisted of so much dusting. And then I remembered that the rooms were heated by coal fires. Someone has to fetch the coal, remove the cinders and re-lay the fire again. I saw it in my own childhood home. Coal fires create dust, which then gets moved from room to room, surface to surface by the activity called dusting. Housework binds you to its routines and requirements. 

Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck

Born in 1882, Winifred came from a distinguished family of writers and thinkers. She began writing with a biography of St Louis, and went on to write 26 books altogether, and House-Bound was the 15th of these. Among her novels were several crime mysteries. She is relatively unread today, but Persephone has republished this one. 

House-Bound by Winifred Peck, first published in 1942. Reissued by Persephone Books in 2007, with an afterword by Penelope Fitzgerald. 304pp

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Blitz Spirit edited by Becky Brown

Was there such a thing as the Blitz or the Dunkirk spirit? How were people feeling during the war? Did people pull together, willingly make sacrifices and submit to detailed rules and regulations? During Lockdown we were invited to believe they did as we ate our scones, drank our tea, and waved our union flags to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, all while socially distanced. And in some ways the Lockdowns felt like war, against an unknown, new, and powerful enemy. 

This collection from the wartime diaries, collected at the time by Mass Observation, reveal a variety of views and beliefs. The diarists wrote about every topic: rumours, Churchill, invasion, uncivilised world, funny stories, outrage, fatigue, food and rationing, rules and regulations, V1s and V2s, class divisions and ‘after the war’.

Born in the aftermath of that war, I am fascinated by how people responded to the conditions of the time. What was changed, what was preserved, how were the post-war years and children shaped by those long six years? Many of us have experienced the silence of our parents on the topic, and most of that generation have since died. But the war seems to me to have had a profound influence on my childhood, so I seek to understand it, in literature, in films, in photographs and in diaries and to see some parallels with our responses to Covid-19.

Blitz Spirit

Many people will be familiar with Nella Last’s War, and the film Housewife 49 which Victoria Wood made memorable. There were many such personal records in the form of diaries sent regularly to Mass Observation. From these archives Blitz Spirit has been made.

In 1940 the phoney war came to an end, during which extensive arrangements had been made, including for refugees and evacuees. Some responded to the plight of others with generosity, others did not.

Diarist 5378. F. Writer and Artist. Tadworth, Surrey. 17/05/40
V. has been going around billeting refugees. I asked her if she had had much luck. ‘Oh rather,’ she replied enthusiastically. ‘I think people have been marvellous. One man said they had no spare room but they would put up a bed in their lounge. I only came across one woman who was difficult. She was very sniffy and said she thought we had enough troubles of our own without worrying about other people’s – silly creature couldn’t see that other people’s troubles in this case are our own.’ (50)

The Blitz itself began in the Autumn and tested the population to the limit. Enduring the Blitz on London and other areas was a most difficult experience. One diarist resented the official upbeat response.

Diarist 5205. M. Shop Assistant. Great Baddow, Essex. 10/09/40
The ‘Daily Sketch’ today: ‘Six hundred enemy aircraft came and made heroes of our Londoners … on Saturday. How the fact of being bombed makers anyone a hero I fail to understand. The nonsensical emotionalism which some papers are now printing is annoying and disturbing. (75)

Rationing of food was a frequent topic in the entries.

Diarist 5364. F. Secretary. Kingussie, Inverness. 28/07/41
Oh for pounds & pounds of fresh, cream butter again. (I’ve no direct war comment today. All I can think of is delicious or varies meals!) (115)

Bombing raids and fire watching were also frequent topics although as the war progressed the dangers receded until the final year.

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons Children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, waiting outside the wreckage of what was their home. September 1940. New Times Paris Bureau Collection. (USIA) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 306-NT-3163V WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1009

The war dragged on for six years, with little to celebrate for the first three. One response was to use humour.

Diarist 5412. F. Teacher. Beckenham, Kent. 06/02/43
Placard reported from Manchester Fish Shop

WE HAVE PLENTY
OF PAPER
PLEASE BRING
YOUR 
OWN
FISH (195)

And some diarist reported some very frightening events:

Diarist 5004. M. ARP Worker and Food Packing Manager. Belmont, Surrey. 02/11/44
With my wife we were exercising the dog on the Downs in the late afternoon, and whilst I was telling her of my impressions about an ‘unknown missile’ which fell near me in London today, there was suddenly a terrific flash and an explosion which is indescribable. […] Rather shaken we got up, and the sky overhead was covered in black smoke reaching up to about 2,000 feet. Yes, of course, it was a V2. The bomb had fallen about 200/300 yards away. (274)

And eventually people began to dream about not just ‘the end of the war’ but even ‘after the war’. The Beveridge Report had led to some policy proposals, which eventually led to the setting up of the NHS, and the Welfare State. Not everyone was happy about peacetime prospects.

Diarist 5358. F. ATS Clerk. Grays, Essex. 06/02/45
The gratuities to be awarded to the forces on demobilisation have been announced. […] Once again however, the old distinction creeps in – A.T.S are to receive two-thirds as much as the men. I am not a feminist, but I do like to see equal pay for equal work. At the Headquarters where I work in London, A.T.S work side by side with soldiers unfit for overseas service, doing exactly the same work and duties. Why should these men receive half as much again as the girls? (287)

(ATS stands for Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the Army.)

I have quoted some examples from this very dense book. After I had got over the awkwardness of checking the diarist’s number, gender, occupation, location and date I found much to absorb me here. The entries range from very short (two or three lines) to a page. They come from all over the country, from all walks of life, and as far as can be ascertained all ages. Some of this felt familiar, from Nella Last and Jean Lacey Pratt (see below). Some challenged the notion of Blitz Spirit as we have been encouraged to think of it: grumpy, mean, outraged at neighbours or those who deliberately flouted the spirit and even the letter of regulations. 

When the experiences of Covid-19 pandemic become more distant and have been subjected to more reflection, and when the varieties of opinions and experiences have been gathered, perhaps we will see ourselves much as the people are revealed in this book.

Related Posts

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (Bookword Blog January 2017)

Mass Observation and the writer (Bookword Blog August 2017)

Blitz Spirit: voices of Britain living through crisis 1939-1945 edited by Becky Brown, with the Mass Observation Archive. Published by Hodder in 2020. 312pp

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Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick has a reputation of being a great stylist. This was the first book of hers I had read, despite 17 other works listed in this volume. I can’t remember what attracted me to this novella, her most recent work, but it may have been to do with her being 93 when it was published. 

Antiquities

The title could refer to the seven old men, former pupils of the now defunct Temple Academy for Boys, who had become trustees of and lived in the converted buildings. Or the antiquities might refer to the items left to the narrator by his father who acquired them from an archaeological dig in Egypt. Or it could refer to the memories of the narrator, of his school days, and of one particular boy. The narrator is writing in 1949, so his memoir itself is something of an antiquity. He introduces himself – as he would say – ‘thusly’:

My name is Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, and I write on the 30th of April, 1949, at the behest of the Trustees of the Temple Academy for Boys, an institution that saw its last pupil thirty-four years ago. (3) 

Who uses the word ‘behest’? Who says ‘saw its last pupil’ instead of writing ‘the Academy closed’? This formal, rather pompous style, where no noun is without an accompanying adjective, reveals a great deal about the narrator, Mr Petrie. He has had a career in the law, which might explain his ponderous style, but he is also a very self-satisfied but lonely man. Despite being asked, alongside the other trustees, for just a chapter for the Album of Remembrance, he has provided a whole book. However, by the final section he is no longer writing as a trustee but as a man who has been challenged by his own memories and reflections. Notice how in the final section his writing has changed: from long sentences, containing arcane words and phrases, to short sentences, using everyday language, but with an obscure message.

I give this writing no date. I am unsure of the date. I dislike putting on my shoes. The windows cannot be opened. There are no fans here in summer. The air conditioning blows cold.
I think I know the significant thing. Ben-Zion Elefantin too knows the significant thing.
Only the two of us know.
Not in the heavens, not in the sea, not a god made of stone buried in the earth. A temple in a lost kingdom of storks on the Nile, is that what it is?
Only the two of us know.
We two kings. (179)

In the 167 pages between these two extracts, Cynthia Ozick shows us Petrie’s gradual disintegration, from stuffy self-importance to lonely slightly mad old man. 

Much of the short novel focuses on Petrie’s unhappy school days, when he was an isolated and unpopular child. The Temple Academy was a school run according to ideas about English religious and scholarly principles, so they wore blazers, played games, learned Latin and French and horsemanship. Chapel was compulsory. 

As he writes Petrie recalls the arrival of Ben-Zion Elefantin, another isolated pupil. He has an odd name, and a strange appearance, having long red hair. He speaks with a slight accent. His parents are known to be traders from Egypt who are very rich, travel a great deal and place him in a succession of boarding schools. While all this makes Ben-Zion Elefantin stand out, the feature that ensures his isolation is his Jewishness. 

The boys were at school at the turn of the century, but Petrie is writing in 1949. He makes no reference to the horrors that had recently been unfolding in Europe, the meaning of the ‘Final Solution’, and liberation of the concentration camps. Petrie cannot quite overcome the antisemitic attitudes of his childhood, even at the distance of adulthood and uses inappropriate language and generalisations. 

The young Petrie and the newcomer are drawn together by their isolation. They play chess. Ben-Zion tells Petrie that his ancestors are a little-known Jewish sect, originating on Elephant Island in the Nile, with their own rituals. Petrie wishes to impress the new boy with his father’s Egyptian antiquities. These play an important part in Petrie’s idea of his family, as the circumstances in which they obtained were very strange and not explained. His father had simply disappeared for months, returning from Egypt where he had been assisting a cousin, William Flinders, with an archaeological dig and bringing the artefacts with him. Petrie senior never spoke about what he had done during the time he was missing.

Ben-Zion is not impressed. The boys become estranged and Ben-Zion leaves the school soon after. In later years Petrie tries to ascertain the truth of the story his young friend told him. 

In the timeframe in which he is writing, Petrie is again assailed by his school mates, the remaining trustees. His precious typewriter, given him by his lover (now deceased), is covered in Indian ink. More of the Trustees die, and the remaining residents must find new accommodation. Petrie has few connections to help him.

Cynthia Ozick draws our attention to the part played by the past and our memories of it and how it is used to make sense of our lives, in the creation of our identity. Petrie reveals himself to have created his importance from his distorted memories, despite a poor relationship with his son, his fellow residents, and the isolated school friend. He has a view of himself as tolerant and mild but reveals himself to be contemptuous and vindictive.

Memories are embodied in artefacts such the typewriter, the inherited archaeological objects. Some objects are given strange and tenuous importance, such as the portrait of Henry James, who once was in the presence of someone who shook hands with his father and visited the school. 

This is a strange book. But if being a stylist means conveying the gradual disintegration of a sad man through his own text, then I agree. Cynthia Ozick is an excellent stylist.

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick, published in 2021 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 179pp

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