Category Archives: poetry

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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Flush by Virginia Woolf

Is it a biography? Is it a novel? No! It’s a dog. It’s a pedigree red cocker spaniel. Flush belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and featured in two of her poems as well as in her correspondence with Robert Browning. He is a literary dog, and Virginia Woolf wrote his biography, an innovative mixture of fiction and fact.

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Flush’s life began in about 1840 in a village with a loving mistress, who gave him to the poet Elizabeth Barrett. Flush gave up the pleasure of the countryside to live in Wimpole Street and to become devoted to his new mistress. He had to learn the life of a pampered housedog, was torn apart by jealousy of Robert Browning when he began to visit, and by the terror of being dognapped.

This is not an anthropomorphic story. Virginia Woolf does not make Flush the dog into an almost human. He has values, affections, emotions, and confusions. But these are rooted in his dog-ness. The reader’s attention is never very far from the concerns of the humans.

As well as mixing fact and fiction Virginia Woolf was exploring the world from the point of view of a dog. That meant that she had to focus on smells. Luckily the Brownings eloped to Italy, which drew from Virginia Woolf some of her most descriptive writing.

But Flush wandered off into the streets of Florence to enjoy the rapture of smell. He threaded his path through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice – he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. (86-7)

And even more than the technique of writing with her nose, the writer was looking at the world in an innovative way, and in particular using a witness to the experiences of a woman poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Flush is a guide for the reader, for example by his reaction to Elizabeth’s fearsome father who visits every evening to check that she has eaten. Having benefited from his mistress’s small appetite, Flush slinks away, leaving Elizabeth to her father’s approval. Through Flush’s story we can look at her life as a young woman under her father’s tyrannical rule, at her time as an invalid, at her growing affection for Robert Browning, and finally at their life in Italy. There is the subtle parallel between a young woman’s life and a dog’s. And Flush is a witness to the social and economic contrasts in London, cheek by jowl so to speak, the poverty that exists adjacent to Wimpole Street. This is not a silly or sweet book.

Publishing Flush

Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) was experimental and had been tough to produce. Flush was written ‘by way of a change’ (diary 23.12.32). As she worked on it she felt restricted by the imperative to complete it, ‘that abominable dog Flush’ (diary 3.1.33) wanting to get on with The Years.

She rightly predicted that in the longer term Flush would be seen as less significant than many of her other novels, describing it in her frustration as ‘that silly book’ (diary 28.4.33).

Virginia Woolf was not at all sure how Flush would be received. She was afraid that readers would react to it as if it were a sentimental book, and that her reputation would be damaged.

Flush will be out on Thursday and I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say it’s “charming”, delicate, ladylike. And it will be popular. Well now I must let this slip over me without paying it any attention. I must concentrate on The Pargiters – or Here and Now. I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler; for one thing it’s not true. But they’ll all say so. And I shall very much dislike the popular success of Flush .No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before. (diary 2.10.33)

It has fewer devotees than To the Lighthouse, or Mrs Dalloway, or many of her other books. But it is a serious experiment and there is much joy, humour and smelliness in it.

Flush the dog

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I was reminded of Flush the spaniel recently by an article in the Paris Review in October by Erin Schwartz. You can find it here. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote two poems to her dog: one To Flush, My Dog is long, twenty verses long. You can find it here. The poem extols the dog’s virtues as a friend. The other Flush or Faunus celebrates Flush’s ability to comfort his mistress when she is upset. Here’s a link. Neither poem is especially striking.

I chose to read Flush because my family has just been increased by a fast-growing cocker spaniel. When we chose the breed, I had forgotten that literary Flush was a spaniel. Our puppy is not red but we think she is beautiful all the same. Her name is Lupin. I will not be writing a novel about her.

NB: on several occasions Virginia Woolf has Flush eating grapes. I have been told in puppy classes that grapes are poison for dogs.

Red Cocker Spaniel 8th Sept 2018 by Canarian via WikiCommons

Lupin October 2018

Flush by Virginia Woolf, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1933. I read the Oxford World Classics edition. 132pp

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More Books for the Desert Island

More than five years ago I posted my Desert Island Book choices. Time to update. Here’s how I began that post.

It’s that old scenario, white sandy beach, a single palm tree, gulls shrieking, strings playing Sailing By and Kirsty Young asking you to choose eight books. The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are apparently already under the palm tree, thanks to the DIBSTUS (Desert Island Bible and Shakespeare Top Up Society).

Tobago Cays (shoreline)  Nicolas Rénac on VisualHunt/ CC BY-SA

What criteria to use? After all, millions of people are not listening to your choices, so you don’t have to answer to them, or make your choices represent important people or events in your life. But DIBSTUS will only deliver 8 more books so you do have to find some criteria or other.

It’s clear that I should choose books I want to read again and again, for all the years I will be stranded, listening to Sinatra singing My Way (also provided by DIBSTUS for all castaways). I could go for the top of the greatest books list. The Guardian’s 100 greatest novels of all time begins well enough with Don Quixote, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and then at #3 – just the thing on your desert island – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. There are no women writers in the top eight books in the list. Jane Austen’s Emma and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley come in at #9 and #10. They may be the greatest (longest?) novels of all time, but these top eight are worthy, harsh and actually, rather masculine. I’ll take a different set to my desert island.

My new list, or Desert Island Books in 2018

Still on my list from 2013

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I think I’ll drop some of my original choices and take a collection of poetry instead.

Poem for the Day, edited by Nicholas Albery

I have three reasons to add this.

  1. It would act as a calendar for all the time I am there, having 366 poems, each connected to its allocated day.
  2. My friend Gil gave it to me when I was feeling very down some years ago: ‘for heart healing’ she said. Gil herself has died since then, and so I need heart healing for that loss too.
  3. I would enjoy getting to know 366 poems.

I’m allowed three more choices. I’d probably put in something by Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps a book in French such as La Peste by Albert Camus. And, and … please make suggestions.

Desert Island Books in 2013

And here is the original list:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin

Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Middlemarch by George Eliot

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

I had my reasons, which you can find in the original post here.

Oh dear, Kirsty is asking for a last choice: just one of my choices and one luxury. Reading glasses perhaps. But which book?

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Rereading Women’s Poetry from The Great War

The commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the First World War have passed their second Christmas. Now the centenary events have become muted, part of the background. While male war poets have been justly celebrated, women’s poetry has been heard much less frequently. Indeed you could argue that ‘war poet’ means a soldier, a man.

115 Ipplepen poppies

The Great War impacted upon everybody. Women had to deal with the absence and possible death of their menfolk. At home the suffragette campaign was suspended and women found they were required to take over ‘men’s work’, including in munitions factories. Many did heroic medical work, including at the front. They managed rationing and the other restrictions on their lives. One of the most significant effects were the loss of nearly a million men from the population. I still find myself moved by the implications of these lines by Margaret Postgate Cole from Praematuri:

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young.

Here is the slightly revised post I first published on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

Women’s Poetry and The Great War

How do we remember the First World War? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.

And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication.

115 W Owen

The cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice. This is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An example is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

All the dreariness of war

‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains the neglect – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

234 Scars cover

I know of only one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain, To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (15)

Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.

The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too. God is good
That while his wind blow out the light
For those who hourly die for us –
We can still dance, each night.

The final verse begins with the line

We are dull blind carrion-fly (100)

One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends

Here I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate. (2)

Women paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancées, wives, daughters …

Surviving Survival

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice a woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of surplus women:

But we are young, and our friends are dead …
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (22)

A woman might suffer considerable hardship to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.

Lest we forget

Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be more poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us also remember the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we do not forget.

137 LofGG coverAmong the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose books are still available, we can name five:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
  • Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
  • Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
  • Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981.

Related

You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the allpoetry.com website.

Women in War – Scars upon my Heart from DoveGreyReader Scribbles’ blog in November 2012.

Novels by Winifred Holby reviewed on this blog: The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding.

Over to you

Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?

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Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

It doesn’t happen very often. I opened the book to just get a flavour and I found myself reading the final page about an hour later. It’s a short book at just over 100 pages. There are lots of white spaces, giving the appearance of a poetry book. Grief is the thing with feathers is one of most powerful books I have read this year. I have revisited it several times since that first reading.

222 Grief cover

The Story

A father and twin sons are grieving at the sudden death of the wife/mother. Crow arrives to look after them all and stays until he is no longer needed. The text is presented in the voices of Dad, Crow and Boys. There is no narrative, although the progress of Dad’s book about Ted Hughes marks some changes over time. Grief must be endured. You don’t need time and you don’t move on. You endure. It’s hard, lonely and very, very raw. That is what Grief is the thing with feathers communicates.

The style

Max Porter’s style is a mixture of poetry and prose in stream of consciousness. Poetry runs through the novella, from the appearance, title and epigram. The epigram by Emily Dickinson has been altered by Crow: That love is all there is, … Crow is a great invention.

222 epigram

And the poetic feel runs through the subject matter, Ted Hughes, R S Thomas, Crow’s passages, to the final two sentences. Father and sons are at the sea to scatter the ashes.

And the boys were behind me, a tide-wall of laughter and yelling, hugging my legs, tripping and grabbing, leaping, spinning, stumbling, roaring, shrieking and the boys shouted

I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU

and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)

The novella is in three parts, A Lick of Night, Defence of the Nest and Permission to Leave. And as the whole text is in the voices of those three, the reader is kept very near in the closed world of grief.

Crow

Crow enters, his smell arriving before Dad sees him.

There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather and yeast. (6)

Crow is amusing, perceptive, arrogant, caring and violent. He tells the father that he wont leave until he is not needed any more.

It could be argued that Crow is Ted Hughes’s creation as the novella acknowledges.

‘Thank you Crow.’

‘All part of the service.’

‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

‘You’re welcome. But please remember that I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

‘Lucky me.’ (70)

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

Crow is a mysterious delight. He writes notes for Dad for his own literary memoir; he puts him straight about ghosts, sets comprehension questions for the reader (a brilliant pastiche of those book club questions you find in the back of novels), and is poetic in his description of the triptych of death (Father, Mother, Twins). Crow, I think I should meet you in Ted Hughes poetry, Crow, also published by Faber & Faber. Ted Hughes knew a thing or two about wives who die.

222 Crow Hughes cover

Dad

The bereaved husband carries the story, but his contributions are labelled Dad and thus his contribution is located in his relationship to his sons. At times he can’t cope and Crow steps in to babysit, but mostly he is there for them.

Dad shows us the full range of his grief: the incompetence of the days following her death, his memories, the continual presence of the absent one, physical missing as well as the practical woman.

The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet. (50)

Dad allows the reader to both see and empathise with his grief, while he is also able to reflect upon it.

There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow’s natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdness. It seems to me to be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now. I could learn a lot from him. (22)

Boys

Sometimes the boys speak independently, but are not differentiated. They are gentle, kind, fun, sad, amusing, interested in death and imaginary crows and all the things young boys should be interested in. They accept the change to their father, miss their mother and occasionally their father.

Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom, where he often is because he likes the acoustics. We are crouched by the closed door listening. He is speaking very slowly, very clearly. He sounds old-fashioned, like Dad’s vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas. He says SUDDEN. He says TRAUMA. He says Induced . . . he coughs and spits and tries again. INDUCES. He says SUDDEN TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF THE ALERT STATE.

Dad comes back. Crow changes his tune. (23)

The boys add some lightness to the novella, but lightness true to their youthfulness. And they also represent continuing life and change and will live with the death in a way that their father never can. And they will carry their father after Crow has gone as we learn from those final words:

… and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)

Recommended

222 crow rspbIt’s a beautiful book, the design (cover, paper and arrangements of words on the page). I love to have book like this on my shelves, even if I am not sure whether to place it among poetry, philosophy, psychology or fiction.

I was so affected by this book that I was relieved to read that Max Porter lives with his wife and children in London.

Shortlisted for Goldsmiths Prize 2015 and Guardian First Book Award 2015.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

Related links:

The review by Kirsty Gunn in The Guardian in September 2015 alerted me to this book.

Max Porter wrote about writing Grief in the Guardian in November 2015. Of Crow he says ‘I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write him until I did.’

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