Category Archives: poetry

Books that nearly didn’t make it

Writers’ manuscripts sometimes get lost, destroyed, abandoned or otherwise prevented from being published. Here is a selection of publications that nearly didn’t happen, and one that got away. 

Writers write for others to read, so the risks and efforts involved in getting their words published can be enormous. They have often suffered up to this point for their views and yet they are compelled to find a way get the book into print.

  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  • The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta
  • My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin
  • The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt
  • Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya
  • No Friend but the Mountain by Behrouz Boochani

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian émigré, who was a well-established novelist in France before the war. This book was written during the occupation by Germany, in 1940-41. Irene Nemirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and taken to Auschwitz and died almost immediately of typhus. Her two daughters were in hiding for the rest of the war, on the move all the time and hunted by the authorities. 

It was Denise who put it [the manuscript] into a suitcase as she and her sister fled Issy L’Evêque. She had often watched her mother writing – in tiny handwriting to save ink and paper – in a large leatherbound notebook. She took it as a memento of her mother. The suitcase accompanied Denise and Elisabeth from one precarious hiding place to another. After the war, they couldn’t bring themselves to read the notebook – having it was enough.  … Many years passed … (402. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition}

The manuscript of the two novellas in this unfinished suite was unopened until the late 1990s when the author’s daughter, Denise, was about to give the notebook to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, dedicated to documenting memories of the war.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, published in French in 2004 and translated by Sandra Smith for the English version, published in 2006 by Vintage. 403pp

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta followed her husband from Nigeria in 1962 to study in London. It was not a happy marriage. He burned the manuscript of her first book, apparently jealous of the attention she gave it and to hurt the writer. Not surprisingly, she decided to leave him, taking the children. She had to earn her living and continued to gain degrees and to write over the next few years. She rewrote the novel, The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing in 1976. 

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976, there is a Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin was an outspoken Australian novelist, who became notorious on the publication of her first book, My Brilliant Career, in 1901. In it she portrayed a young woman who’s views and actions shocked the Australian public. Miles Franklin was burned by the reception of her first novel and refused to have it reprinted. My Career Goes Bung was written as the second volume of the fictional autobiography. It was completed in 1902, but fearful of its reception it was not published until the 1940s, when attitudes towards women had changed.

In the introductory To all young Australian writers – Greetings, she describes how she put the manuscript in a portmanteau, together with other papers, ‘left with someone in Chicago, USA while I went to the World War, which is now seen to have been merely practice manoeuvres for Global Armageddons’. The trunk was appropriated by someone who needed a travel bag and the papers burned as useless.

I thought My Career Goes Bung had gone with this collection, and had forgotten the copy of it which survived in an old trunk valiantly preserved all the years by my mother. (7)

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt

Charlotte Beradt was a Jewish journalist, raised in Berlin between the wars. She made a collection of dreams of the people, mostly Jewish, who lived under the Nazi regime from 1933. She collected over 300 dreams which she recorded and hid in the bindings of her own library. When even that hiding place was risky, she sent small selections with coded names to her friends abroad. Hitler became Uncle Hans, Goring was Gustav and Goebbels was Gerhardt. 

She escaped Berlin in 1939, to settle eventually in New York. Her book was first published in German in 1966, after she had retrieved the material. It has been translated into English, although it can be hard to find. She organised the 75 dreams in the book into chapters to demonstrate that waking life and dreams are linked, and that the unconscious effects of authoritarianism are noted in the collective unconscious. 

An article in the New Yorker by Mireille Juchau in 2019 describes her achievement. 

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya

Irna Ratushinskaya was a Russian dissident poet, born in 1954, who was sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp in 1983. The punishment was for writing and circulating her poetry. The conditions in prison were very harsh, and to begin with she had no paper. She wrote poems with a matchstick in the soap, and then learned them by heart. Over 250 poems were composed and eventually written in this way.

She was released from prison as Gorbachev flew to Reykjavik to meet Reagan in 1986 as gesture of goodwill. She died in 2017. This is her prison memoir.

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya, published by Vintage in 1989.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

This powerful and horrifying book was written in Parsi while the Iranian Kurdish poet was imprisoned on Manus Island. The island was owned by Papua New Guinea, rented by the Australian government to house refugees seeking asylum in Australia. The conditions were awful and many preferred refoulement (return to their country of origin) to living in the camps. The prison camp was eventually closed because it violated human rights.

This book recounts the voyages from Indonesia taken by Behrouz Boochani as he sought to escape from Iran. It continues with an account of his time in the jail, and an analysis of how the men were imprisoned and oppressed by what he calls a Kyriarchal system. This means several intersecting forms of oppression are made to work systematically and together to keep the prisoners down. These included the never-ending queues for food, toilets, telephones and the presence of the guards.  

The text was sent out of the prison by Facebook and then What’s App, to his translator, Omid Tofighian. 

Behrouz Boochani was held on Manus Island from 2013 – 2017. He was granted refugee status in New Zealand in 2020. 

The book is a powerful argument against detaining refugees, and of what has been called ‘off-shoring’, detaining asylum applicants away from the mainland. It is also a compelling description of a prison system, one that persistently dehumanises people. Remember, they were not criminals. 

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, published by Picador in 2018. 398pp. Translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighian

And one that got away …

In 1848 the publisher of Wuthering Heights wrote to Ellis Bell (aka Emily Brontë) in anticipation of a second novel, which he was eager for the author to complete. No such manuscript has been found. Emily died later that year, her only known novel had been published the previous year.

It has been suggested that Charlotte burned the manuscript after her sister’s death, to save her reputation from another sensational novel. Whatever happened that novel is lost to us.

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Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown

Every now and again in April- July I noticed that on Twitter Kate Clanchy had posted a poem written by a young person. So often these were beautifully crafted lines that made me stop my scrolling and wonder at the young person who had written the poem, and at Kate Clanchy the teacher who had assisted at the emergence of the poem and the poet. Like. Retweet. 

Recently a friend told me about the winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize for the book: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). She knew I would be interested in the writing of a teacher who respected the voice of students. I told her that I was excited because that very morning I had ordered Unmute, the collection of poems written by her students.

Young Voices

I am not whimsical or romantic about young people. Twenty-five years working in urban secondary schools knocked any of that out of me. But my professional experiences also embedded in me a belief in the importance of giving young people a voice, helping them to find it, amplifying it. So what Kate Clanchy has done is quite in tune with my professional beliefs.

Let us have no talk about young people being ‘the future’. They will make their own future, as we did. It will be both worse and better than the one we created.

And no talk of the innocence of youth, because that denies the reality, the rawness of each person’s experiences at whatever age. I was headteacher of a school in Islington where one third of the population had a different mother tongue than English. And where many of those children had been refugees. Helping those young people explore their experiences, their individual biographies was a major task for the English department. It was a validation for those young people of the lives they had led up to that point. And for some it was a very fearful and dangerous and difficult childhood.

Our young students brought us face to face with their experiences and they also did what young people have done: looked at the familiar with fresh eyes. They can question accustomed responses, traditional ways of expressing ideas; they can experiment with form and language and metaphors and images. They can remind us, too, of the younger selves that we carry within us. 

Unmute

The poets met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended the weekly poetry workshops with their teacher when attending Oxford Spires Academy. Some are sixth-formers, some have moved on with their education. They sought each other’s company to make sense of the lockdown experience, together in poetry. 

And in doing that they touched many people, through the Tweets and now the book. They write about hair, masks,  loss, clapping, separation, changed perceptions and mothers among other themes. I chose the poem below as an example because it speaks to each of us of the smallness of what matters, the invisibility before Lockdown of important truths. 

Crossing

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting
at traffic lights, waiting for a burst
of colour, a static sound.
I didn’t know I’d miss noise,
crowds, the breath of rain
as it hits parched tarmac,
being near enough to hear people’s 
breath. I didn’t realise I was only
exactly alone when I was
walking home from school, or 
to the shops. I didn’t
realise it was the in-
between times that held
me together.

Linnet Drury

You can read more poems from the collection by visiting Rathbones Folio Prize. And you can buy the kindle version here. For £5.00

Proceeds from the sales of UnMute go to Asylum Welcome, which is an Oxford organisation. I have made a donation on account of quoting the poem in this review. 

Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown edited by Kate Clanchy (2020)

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The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

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Poems at War

When I began reading French literature I came across Paul Verlaine. Alphonse de Lamartine too became a favourite. I would take especial pleasure in intoning the line from Villon: Ou sont les neiges d’antan. I was in my late teens and easily moved by the dramatic declarations of doomed love. I had no idea that poetry had been used in the war until I returned to studying French after my retirement. 

The D Day Landings

Slapton Memorial

The organisation of the D Day Landings (Operation Overlord) was an amazing achievement. The engineering solutions to the problems presented by moving the combined armed forces from several nations across the sea were stunning. All this had to be coordinated with the resistance fighters in France. The deceptions to keep secret the destination of the invasion were intricate and labyrinthine. And the preparations, especially along the south coast and in the South West, were enormous. Some of these can still be seen. No one can walk along Slapton Sands without becoming aware of its role in preparing and rehearsing the troops. One poem played a small but significant part in all of this.

Chanson D’Automne by Paul Verlaine

On the 1st June 1944 soon at 6.30 in the morning, Radio Londres transmitted the first three lines of a poem by Paul Verlaine. 

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne

It means, roughly, the long sobs of the violins of autumn. It was a coded message. It was heard by many, and you can still hear it here . The sonorous vowels, sound portentous. The message was a warning to one branch of the French resistance fighters. It indicated that within the next two weeks Operation Overlord would be launched, the long-awaited invasion of France by the Allies. It was an instruction to stand by for the next three lines which would signal that they should begin sabotage activities on the railways in France. These were designed to disrupt German transport routes.

Commemorative plaque of Radio Londres in the cemetery of Asnelles, Calvados by Wayne77 via Wikicommons

The second three lines of Verlaine’s poem were broadcast in the same way four days later on 5th June. 

Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Arthur Symonds translates this as My heart is drowned/In the slow sound/Languorous and long.

This second message indicated to the French resistance that the invasion would begin within 48 hours and that they were to initiate sabotage activities on the railways immediately. The parachute landings began just hours after the message was sent out.

The broadcasts were intercepted by German forces. On hearing the three lines in the second of the messages the German Security Service reported to the German High Command, and the army was alerted that an invasion might begin within 48 hours. There had been many false alarms so the Seventh Army took no action. They were responsible for the area in Normandy where the landings were to be made.

The D Day landings began on 6th June. The German effort to respond to the invasion by redirecting troops was severely hampered by the damage from sabotage of the resistance and allied bombing to the French railway lines. 

Paul Verlaine

CHANSON D’AUTOMNE

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure.

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Paul Verlaine (1866)

Poem Codes

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in its communications with operatives in France originally used well-established poems, but gradually they began making up rhymes which would be less easy to decipher. Some of these were rude and sexual. The most famous, which is neither rude nor sexual but moving, was probably written by Leo Marks, the codes officer, and begins

The life that I have 
Is all that I have 
And the life that I have 
Is yours

I sometimes think that literature should not serve armed conflict. It offends my pacifist instincts. But I do find myself moved by the story of Verlaine’s poem.

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The Best Books for … giving

On my ninth birthday my grandfather gave to me a copy of At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. I chiefly remember it because less than a month later I went off to boarding school and that book and my teddy bear (8 years old) seemed to be the only things that remained to me from my former life. No matter that the illustrations by Arthur Hughes were scary and the hero and his horse are both called Diamond, it was a comforting book to me.

This post focuses on books that have been important presents.

Gift for friends

The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane (2017)

I went through a phase of giving this book to many of my friends who I knew to be readers. It’s a beautiful little book with a lovely message and does what it says. It is a celebration of the gifts of giving, and the gifts that come from books and reading. It speaks of transformative gifts from and to other readers. Robert Macfarlane lists five books that he gives away again and again:

  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • A Time of Gifts by Leigh Fermor
  • The Peregrine by JA Baker
  • The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

I gave this little book to a friend. Soon after she gave me a copy of the Nan Shepherd. See what he means?

Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards (2014)

This too is a delightful book, full of the pleasures of sunken paths and exploring these features with friends in Dorset. It’s the best kind of nature writing for it invites you right in. There are a few holloways around me in Devon that should be investigated.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde (1983)

Gifts can be talents, and this book is a celebration of creative work. Lewis Hyde suggests improved ways of valuing and circulating creative work in society. The Theory of Gifts leads him to some socially transformative ideas. A friend of mine says it is a book she often gives people, especially writers.

The Golden Treasury of English Verse edited by Francis Turner Palgrave (1861)

Poetry books can make good presents for people you know. My penfriend on Death Row in Potosi, Missouri, USA and I wrote about our favourite poems. Before they banned gifts of books, I sent him a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Verse. We shared the discovery of many verses. (And yes, he was executed).

Better Fetch a Chair by me (2018)

Over the years I have given away copies of books I have written, or contributed to. (Note to potential recipients: contrary to the popular idea writers do not get hundreds of free or cheap copies for distribution. They need the income from royalties anyway.).

Last Christmas I gave copies to friends and relations of my recently published collection of short stories: Better Fetch a Chair. It didn’t help the sales, see above, but I got a great deal of positive feedback. And copies are still available at £5 + £1 p+p. Just  email me if you want a copy: lodgecm@gmail.com

You can read an account of publishing the book on a post from January 2019: My New Bookish Project.

Book Tokens

And I give lots of people book tokens. They can choose a book they want, at the time they want. 

And I give lots of people reverse book tokens, which means that other people who really need books are provided with them by Book Aid International. You can find out more on their website: https://bookaid.org

Gifts for me

And this Christmas I was given some wonderful books:

Circe by Madeline Miller. I enjoyed The Song of AchillesCirce was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019. I expect it to be a good read.

Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. A collection of essays by an American writer of great quality and thoughtfulness. How Bookish People can have Hope in Dark Days was a post I wrote a few years ago.

Judith Kerr by Joanna Carey. These last two were from my daughter who knows a thing or two about me, and with whom I shared the tiger who came to tea. Judith Kerr died in May.

Best Books for …

This was my second post in an ad hoc series which will all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first was The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019.

Over to you

So what titles would you add to the possibilities of the best books for giving?

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My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

My experience of facing children with unfamiliar names began when in 1972 Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda. Some of the families arrived in Coventry, and some of their children began attending the school where I taught history. At the time it seemed to me that a name is the only thing a young person brings to school that is theirs. We had to learn unfamiliar names.

All my professional life I have found it hard to learn names, but it is important for every person, a way of showing respect. So I was shocked to learn that a child, born in Wigan in 1967, but immediately taken into care, was renamed Norman by the social services. His mother had given him the Amharic word for why as his name: Lemn. This was the first act in a history of offensive behaviours that affected this child as he grew up in care. This is the treatment he describes in his memoir: My Name is Why.

My Name is Why

Lemn Sissay’s mother was an unmarried Ethiopian student who had to return home soon after his birth in 1967 because her father was ill. She refused to sign adoption papers for the child. Contact between her and Wigan Social Services Department was lost over time. He was taken into care by Wigan Children’s Department and renamed Norman. Perhaps they thought that as they were not able arrange for an adoption a less strange name would make it more likely that a mixed race child would be found a suitable foster home.

He was fostered by a couple who had no children at that time. Initially the placement was successful and three more children were born into the family. As he entered adolescence relationships began to break down as the parents were rather strict.

Over the next few years Lemn was placed in accommodation that was more and more restrictive and unsuitable. He was also nicknamed Chalky White – cruel playground humour that was common and tolerated in those days. He became more and more unhappy, began to do badly at school, and developed depression. In part this was because he believed that both his mother and his foster family had rejected him. Towards the end of his time in care at 18 he discovered that his mother had wanted him and that his name was neither Norman nor Chalky, but Lemn, the Amharic word for ‘why’. 

The short chapters are illustrated with extracts from the files from Wigan, much of it from his sympathetic social worker, Norman Mills. It took 30 years for these files to be prised out of the local authority. They illustrate the lack of departmental understanding or care for the children for whom they had responsibility, and the racism that informed the decisions taken on his behalf, beginning with his name. 

Each chapter starts with four lines of verse, perhaps written at the time, that also illuminate his emotional state. The ‘happy ever after’ part of this sad story is that Lemn Sissay has overcome these initial disadvantages caused by the actions of the social services. He has become an acclaimed poet.

A connection with this story

Many of the schools in which I worked in the ‘70s-‘90s were in run down places in Coventry, Rugby and London. There were always children in care, and always children of mixed race attending the schools. And there is continued concern that the achievement of these children remains too low, and that schools are less and less able to provide adequate support for those who need it.

During the same time my mother was a social worker, specializing in child care in Leeds and in Essex. She would have recognised the situation described in this memoir and how the young Lemn was treated. She believed passionately in listening to young people, in enabling them to speak out, now – fashionably – to have ‘a voice’. And so she would have been pleased that there is a mention of WHO CARES in this book, an organisation that supported young people to speak up, to speak out. 

The Sunday Times reviewer called My Name is Why ‘an extraordinary story’, and while some of it is, the shame is that the lack of care and racism he experienced has been experienced by so many other children in care. Sadly it is not an extraordinary story. 

As I finished this book I read about the large number of children ‘looked after‘ by local authorities who are currently placed in unregulated accommodation because there is a shortage of placements. Such lack of care and oversight has been implicated in the county lines recruitment as well as leaving many young people vulnerable to other criminal and to sexual exploitation. The care system is under severe threat. Here is the link to the article:

Revealed: thousands of children in care placed in unregulated homes [from Guardian 26.12.19]

This book then is a reminder of how things were. It confirms that personal success can still emerge from difficulties. But it must also serve as a warning about how plausibly justified inhumane treatment can be, especially to vulnerable young people. We need to be careful in every sense.

My Name is Why: a memoir by Lemn Sissay (2019) Canongate. 193pp

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A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

So what is a writing festival? And why would you put one on? Who would come? And, again, why do it?

Last Saturday, after months of preparation, nearly 100 people visited the Mansion in Totnes for a writing festival. They wrote in workshops, viewed an exhibition, heard or presented their work at performances, and joined in the great poetry slam. 

So what was all that for?

My writing group, the Totnes Library Writers Group which organised the event, had three clear aims for the festival:

1. To promote participation in writing activities  by writers of any experience

2. To increase confidence  in writing by participants

3. To develop skills  of disseminating and sharing writing within the Writers Group

The group has been quite active in exploring aspects of writing, having published an anthology called Gallimaufry in 2015 (see below). In 2017 we held a performance event to celebrate our fourth birthday. We wanted to do something different after these two experiments. 

We know the excitement of writing and of sharing our work within a community of writers. A festival was an attractive and compelling project at the start. Pretty soon we will have to ask – and what will be next?

So what was there to do at the festival?

We are proud of our programme, its scope, its quality and its appeal. There was so much to do. You could choose up to four from the 12 workshops on offer:

  • Researching your local history
  • Finding your inner storyteller
  • Storytelling (a workshop for children)
  • Music and poetry
  • Journaling – Creating your Morning Pages
  • Writing for magazines
  • Podcasts – writing for radio
  • Turning your ideas into stories – writing fiction
  • Chinese takeaway – inspiration from ancient Chinese poets
  • Blogging is citizen publishing
  • Writing for children
  • Finding your voice 

All the workshops were designed to get people writing and to include people who had not written before, or who were trying a new genre. There were performance events by members of the writers group, and for any participants and by our nonagenarian writer of totally tasteless verse.

Children from the local secondary school had produced and displayed some impressive writing in the same hall as another of our poets offered to write poems in three minutes, and one of our artist-poets sold items that she had created: bookmarks, ex libris labels and greetings cards.

The climax was the poetry Slam, won by Richie Green, organised by Jackie Juno, herself a successful slam contestant at Glastonbury and a Bard of Exeter. I particularly enjoyed this event because it was full of dynamism and excitement, which I had not previously associated with poetry.

Who came and what did they say about it?

From 9.30, when we opened the doors, people arrived to join in. Our audience were aged from 4 to 95 years old. About 73% were female. The feedback indicated that we had reached many people and that our group will enjoy new active writers in the future.

We were pleased that the local MP joined us in the afternoon. She was able to hear some of the performances by members of the writers group and she commissioned a poem from our 3-minute poet. 

And here is a word cloud from the comments made by participants asked to say what was the best thing about the workshops.

Who organised it?

It was a huge amount of work and learning and the planning absorbed us from March to September – six months. I wonder whether we would have set out to organise it if we had known quite how much work it would entail. We were a group of six people from the Writers Group, with help from other members. We were determined to keep it manageable and local. 

The proof of the first intention, manageability, is found in the fact that we were all still standing on Saturday. 

And we fulfilled our intention to put on a local festival: every workshop leader came from the town or near it, and it demonstrated that there is a great deal of local talent. Most of the participants were local as well. And we were able to use a very central location, a space made available for community use by the Totnes Community Development Society: the Mansion. The building needs attention, but we prettied it up with loads of bunting made from books.

Who funded it?

From the earliest stages of the planning we agreed that we wanted to pay the workshop leaders the going rate of £150 for a 90-minute workshop. We believe that writers should be paid for their work. With 12 workshops that would mean quite a lot of money: £1800 for that aspect of the festival alone. We planned to charge no more than £5 per session to ensure the event was accessible to all, and had less than £50 in the kitty at that time, so we had to set about getting funds. I will own up to missing a deadline for a grant from one potential funder. It was a bad moment. But we did persuade enough organisations that it was worth investing in and in the end we found enough money to do what we wanted. Our funders included

Totnes Town Council

South Hams District Council

Network of Wellbeing, Totnes

Arts Council Lottery Fund

Devon County Council

And some generous donations by local people and organisations.

High spots

For me there were two very different but special moments: the slam and the day we heard we had Arts Council Lottery Funding. 

What I didn’t do

And while I was involved in all that I failed to pick any blackberries and I found no time to write. Irony, thy name is organising a writing festival.

And now … ?

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

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My Mother’s Books

About a month ago one of my brothers delivered about 20 boxes and bags of books from my mother’s house. I had volunteered to sort them so others could focus on the rest of her stuff. She died at the end of last year at the grand age of 94. That’s about 90 years of reading. And therefore I received an awful lot of books.

The love of reading

I will always be grateful to my mother for her encouragement to read. Other parents, I have been told, would chide their children when they had their head in a book, saying things like, ‘stop wasting time’, or ‘go and do something useful instead of lounging around’. My mother was the opposite. If you went to her saying in that dragging way, ‘I’m boor-ed’ her first suggestion was always to find a book.

Among the bags and boxes are all the Alison Utterly stories of Fuzzipeg, Squirrel, naughty Hare and Little Grey Rabbit. Who could forget what RSVP meant at the bottom of an invitation? (Rat Shan’t Visit Party, which is always reassuring to find out, don’t you think?)

When I got older she made good suggestions to me: two I particularly appreciated, were Katherine by Anya Seaton (1954) and Desirée by Annemarie Selinko (1951). Both featured strong women in historical settings, exercising power and judgement behind strong men, in this case John of Gaunt and Napoleon Bonaparte. 

There were books all over the house where I grew up. I remember that both my parents had piles on their beside tables. And they were members of the Reprint Society, also known as the World Book Club. This brought hardback copies of recent fiction to people by post. The club thrived in the 1950s when it had 200,000 members. It disappeared as I had known it in 1966. There are probably more than 30 from that source that she kept to the end of her life.

A disappointment

I had hoped that a rather nicely bound book, published in 1946 by Vita Sackville-West called The Eagle and the Dove  would turn out to be a novel, but it was not to be. It turned out to be a comparison of two Sts Teresas, annotated by my Great Aunt Helen Davies. I had visited her one or twice in the 1960s or 70s, and have a lovely collection of French verse from her. 

Many surprises and delights

It was in January (the link to the post is here) that I mentioned I wanted to read At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald (1871). I had been given a copy by my Grandfather on my 9thbirthday. But I have no idea where my copy went. How pleased I was to come across an edition given to my mother by her grandmother in 1937 when she would have been 13. Now I have her copy to re-read.

There is an early edition of The Secret Garden, which I reviewed in January. You can find the link here. It also has illustrations by Charles Robinson.

I like to see old penguin editions and have inherited many of these. It’s a bit of a décor cliché, but I like having them around.

Problems Problems

So what am I going to do with all these books? Before they arrived I thought that it would be simple. I would keep the few I wanted and give the rest to charity.

But now they are here, what are the criteria by which I decide? Books are so much more than the text, or even the physical arrangement of text, paper, dust cover, font, white space etc etc. Books carry so much significance.

Another treasure: Tennyson’s poems

Take the leather bound copy of a prize for my Grandfather for his holiday project in 1912. Or the copies of books I should have read but haven’t yet, like Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Or those inscribed by people who I loved. Or those that are beautiful objects, especially those with leather bindings. No, actually, you can’t take them. 

And those which I shall pass on? I have to decide whether they go to Oxfam, as we have a good local Oxfam bookshop. Or to the local second hand shop which I also like to support.

And there are all the books I cannot decide what to do with, the don’t knows.

And where to keep them? Even when I am sorting them they need more space than the footprint of the bags and boxes they arrived in, for I have to find other bags or boxes while I go through them. And then I have to sit down and gaze at the inscription or begin reading, or just remember…

So my house has uneven piles of books, and some in bags for disposal and the boxes that still remain. And I wonder, how many copies of Shirley  or Keats’s poems do you need? Fewer than I have in my house at the moment. 

Books my mother gave me. A lifetime of exploring before they get passed on again. And in tribute, here again is a picture of my mother reading The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda Armitage to my grandson, taken about 7 years ago. All together now: CLEAR OFF, YOU VARMINTS!

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