Category Archives: short stories

Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

Here is another guest post on Bookword Blog. After my friend and co-author Eileen Carnell’s contribution Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod I invited other blog subscribers to write me something if they wished. The writer Jude Hayland has written this brilliant post which connects her reading and writing.

Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

It’s the question that so many writers are asked and that is so impossible to answer:

So when did you start to write? 

It feels akin to being asked:

So when did you start to read?

And I suppose the honest, but no doubt frustrating answer is – as soon as I could. For me, the reading and writing have always gone hand in hand. Once I had begun to read – with early memories of Milly Molly Mandy, Little Pete Stories, Teddy Robinson, My Naughty Little Sister– I wanted to write. My bedroom was full of small exercise books bought with pocket money from Woolworths, lined pages filled with my ill-formed handwriting spilling out stories of dolls that came to life at night, talking cats and bewitching fairies.

As I progressed onto reading about skating stars and vicarage children with Noel Streatfeild, wallowing in ballerina ambitions with Lorna Hill and harbouring theatrical dreams with Pamela Brown, so more exercise books were filled with attempts to emulate such plot lines. Always a child who enjoyed her own company, nothing was more treasured than retreating to my bedroom when I came home from school, losing myself in a book, then writing the latest chapter of my ballet tale or stage school saga.

When I was a teenager there was no such thing as YA literature. The transition to adult books from the children’s section of the library was via Catherine Cookson and Jean Plaidy before discovering Monica Dickens, Lynn Reid Banks and early Margaret Drabble. I am afraid I can’t claim that I read all of Jane Austen and most of Dickens by the time I was 18 as so many writers impressively seem to do – although Jane Eyre, studied for ‘O’ level, became a lifelong favourite and I remember reading LP Hartley’s The Go-Between one teenage summer, thinking that finally I had left children’s fiction behind. 

But my own writing had stopped – those Woolworths’ exercise books now seemed childishly redundant – as I embarked on an English Literature degree and spent three years reading such awe-inspiring literature that the only way I could put pen to paper or tap away on my manual Olivetti was in critical praise of their brilliance.

What got me writing again?

Then I began to teach. 

And, standing one day in a classroom of 14 year olds, setting them the task of writing a story, I thought I want to be doing this! I want to write stories, have the fun of making up characters, playing with words, inventing settings and conflicts.

And I began to write fiction again.

Not with any high literary aspirations – but for the pleasure of writing and the desire to be read. By this time, I had already had several non-fiction pieces published in national magazines – lightly amusing articles on learning to drive, my sister’s wedding, holidays for singles, flat hunting and sharing – so it seemed the obvious route to take to start submitting short fiction to women’s magazines.

And I was lucky.

Over the course of the next twenty years or so, I was published widely (under a different name than the one I now write under) both in the UK and in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia and South Africa. I acquired an agent and she took over the submissions to magazines such as Woman’s Realm, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Bella, Fiction Feast and similar publications abroad. The market was rich with opportunities at that point with a high demand for stories – providing they fitted in with the prescriptive brief of the magazine.

And I was happy to fulfil it, delighted to derive some small income from sales to supplement my teaching salary as well as to see my name, briefly, in print. The discipline of writing to a given word limit was a good training in editing skills and even the limitations of subject matter provided an interesting challenge.

By now, I was reading Anita Brookner, Margaret Forster, Jane Gardam; Susan Hill and Penelope Lively; Carol Shields and Anne Tyler. Of course my reading of contemporary novels was not limited by gender and writers such as William Trevor, Ian McEwan and William Boyd found their way into my selections. But somehow it was and is the women writers whose books I return to again and again – both as a reader and also as a writer, to examine and study their craft. 

After a couple of decades of writing commercial short fiction, I was straining at the leash to write more freely. The markets were fewer, the parameters imposed growing more restrictive.

Confidence and self-belief were woefully lacking. Who was I to think I could write a novel of some 100,000 words, to believe that I had a story to tell that was worth a reader’s time and attention? 

How did I dare to write a novel?

Two events, however, nudged me into trying. First, I had been a runner-up in the Bridport short story competition, judged one particular year by Margaret Drabble. Not exactly a full length novel, but at least my writing had been favourably judged. Then I graduated with distinction from an M.A. in Creative Writing. My final submission was the first 20,000 words of a novel and the examiners’ comment was: this is worth continuing and completing. 

I would like to say I was off and at the finishing line within the year – but real life, of course, gets in the way of the best of intentions. There were the small matters of earning a living and bringing up a child, combined with increasing visits to much loved, aging parents. 

Eventually, however, I completed that first novel. Then tucked it away out of sight and embarked on the next. And it was only after completing and publishing that next novel, Counting the Ways, that I went back to what was, ostensibly, my first book, redrafted it extensively, and released that as my second, The Legacy of Mr Jarvis. The journey to writing my third novel, Miller Street SW22 which was published in February, was a little more chronological and straight forward and I am now working on my fourth.

What I like to write

Like the novels I love to read, the novels I write are character driven. I am at heart, unfailingly fascinated by other people. About the chance events, the choices and impulses that drive their lives. Ideas start with a character, a relationship or a family dynamic that drives the plot. 

I set my novels in the recent past – in the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. This is partly out of a need to write about a time that is fixed and open to hindsight. It also reflects my interest in domestic and social history and in particular how the nature of our lives is inevitably determined by the era in which we are born. 

There is also a practical aspect for such setting. Technology in the form of mobile phones, internet access, social media et al can run rough-shod through plot lines that require characters to be elusive, capable of dissimulation. Secrets were far easier to perpetuate and thus fester in the past and all three of my novels depend partly on such concealment. 

These days I am still reading and loving Anne Tyler. Additionally, Anna Quindlen, Linda Grant, Ann Patchett, Mary Lawson – to mention just a few of the names that flit into my head. And I am now trawling back to some wonderful 20th century writers that I unintentionally overlooked years ago while reading Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing – writers like Cecily Hamilton, Dorothy Whipple, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor. 

And I am pleased to say that I have never lost that childhood thrill of walking into a book shop, into the local library (lockdowns permitting) and spending time mulling over the shelves, suppressing the smile on my face at the thought of a new book to take home for company.

Reading and its inseparable partner writing are, for me, lifelines – this particular body’s essential daily bread. 

©Jude Hayland

Look out for Jude Hayland’s novels:

Counting the Ways

The Legacy of Mr Jarvis and 

Miller Street SW22

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Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

This collection of short stories was a Christmas present from a sister. ‘I’m surprised you don’t know it,’ she said when I thanked her. ‘I know you like short stories.’ She’s right I do. And I like these ones very much. Wendy Erskine has been widely acclaimed for these stories and has published others. They have a particular poignancy and darkness to them. We are warned that all is unlikely to be happy in these stories, for Sweet Home was the name of the plantation in Beloved by Toni Morrison. 

Sweet Home

The ten short stories are all set in and around Belfast. This is the Belfast of the present day, not of the Troubles. These are stories of ordinary people, leading unremarkable lives, although often full or disappointment, loss and failure. The narration is in a down-to-earth, matter of fact tone that suits each story well.

Take, for example, the title story. It begins with the building of a community centre, but moves into the life of its architect and her husband. They seem to live controlled lives, few excitements. They hardly seem to be a couple. They are childless, but it is revealed that they lost a child at six years. A local couple work for them in the garden and in the house, and it appears that the architect’s husband is trying to appropriate their child. It does not end well.

Take, for another example, the story called Arab States: Mind and Narrative. A middle-aged woman, disappointed in her life, begins to obsess about a man she rejected at college. He is now something of a media pundit on the Middle East and has written a book, which gives its own title to the story. She decides to attend an event on the mainland at which he is due to speak. She mismanages the trip. It does not end well.  

Or, for a truly shocking example, Lady and Dog. This story features a teacher who does not want to change her ways. Olga behaves with passive aggression and this is gratingly revealed at the start of the story. She is delaying her meeting with her headteacher by sharpening pencils. Ms Druggan wants to sort a few things out, especially related to Olga’s use of the computer. This is how their meeting ends.

Another thing, if you haven’t switched on your computer in two weeks, do you not feel you’ve missed a lot of communication?
Olga thinks. Not really, she says.
What do you mean not really?
This is a primary school with eight people working in eight rooms. It’s hardly a conglomerate. If anyone needs to speak to me, they know where to find me. And if I need to speak to someone the reverse holds true.
Olga picks up the handbag that has been resting at her feet.
Is that it? she says. (161)

Olga may be capable of sharpening pencils to avoid a meeting, but she is capable of much more instrumental, self-serving and shocking actions in pursuit of other projects outside the school.

These are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

While her tone is without fireworks, or drama, she is able to be very tender towards her subjects. We are not being asked to despise them. In the story of the widow who looks out at a family of Somalis who have moved in over the road, it is the dreadful son who is unfeeling and self-centred. He does not notice that she also misses his former partner and their son. The story is not about the strangeness of the newly arrived family. It is about Jean’s attention to them, rather than to her son.

Jean’s son Malcolm had decided to make one of his infrequent visits. He took the seat in front of the television and when he turned it on she heard him let out his usual sigh at the poor choice of channels. Jean was positioned at the end of the sofa because it gave the best view out of the window. 
Malcolm was telling her that he had a new boss. The boss had only been in the job a couple of weeks but Malcolm didn’t like him. Some of the others did, up to them, be he didn’t
Only a couple of weeks, Jean said. Still early days then really, isn’t it?
Early days and already not going well, Malcom said.  (35)

These are the opening four paragraphs of Inakeen. You already know everything about Malcolm and his lack of attention to his mother, her life, what she says and his responsibilities. 

In both these quotations you can see that an outstanding feature of her prose is the dialogue.

This is Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories. I will look out for the next one. Thank you Sal for the introduction.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published in 2018 by Picador, and now available in paperback. 218pp

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Well-founded fear: a themed post about refugees

They are among the most vulnerable, feared and despised people on earth. There are about 26 million at the moment, of whom half are under 18. Last year the UK government granted asylum to 20,339 applicants (out of 35,099). You should know that Turkey supports 3.6 million refugees.

We hear of them crossing the Mediterranean in rubber boats, 16,724 in the first four months of 2020. At least 575 died. The English Channel has recently been in the news for attempts to enter the UK: 9500 in 2020 with at least 6 deaths and 3 missing.

A refugee is someone who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence, has been forced to flee their home country.

Every refugee has an individual story, a story of fear of persecution, of war or of violence. Each one has been forced to leave their home country. And yet the policy of our government is to treat them like criminals and to dissuade potential applicants through the creation of the hostile environment.

I am ashamed of our government. I am ashamed of those who treat refugees as undeserving. This post brings together some books that illuminate the reality of fleeing and trying to achieve legal status in a safe country (with links to posts on Bookword Blog).

For younger readers

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

A boy from mixed parentage Ethiopia/Eritrea comes to the UK with his father to escape persecution and war. His father leaves him in London and the Refugee Council steps in to help. At first he is in a children’s home, and later moves to foster care and attends an East London school. When his mother is killed in Africa his father comes to the UK, which sadly means that Alem must move out of foster care. Father and son are threatened with deportation. His schoolmates organise a campaign to oppose this and Alem sees that he must face his future, not alone, but with all the people who have rallied to help.

Written for older children, it touches every child’s fear of being abandoned. 

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah (2001) Bloomsbury. 287pp

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Set in the chaos of massive movements of peoples at the end of the Second World War, the Balicki children from Poland must travel to find their parents. It is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are reunited with their parents in Switzerland.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960.

First-hand Accounts of Experiences

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

She left Iran in 1988 with her mother and younger brother. This is an account of how they arrived in Oklahoma, and how they each made a life for themselves. She also tells the stories of some more recent refugees and of their experiences. She raises many important and interesting questions about fitting in, and what the host country owes to the new arrivals, and the terrible toll of hostile environments in Europe. 

The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via WikiCommons

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer

The German reporter, Wolfgang Bauer, experiences the terrors of the Mediterranean Sea crossings for himself. The reality of the risks, the process and the dangers of the voyage are explored, including the role of the ‘middlemen’ and their business structures. He also tells the stories of other migrants who make the journey, some successfully. 

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp. Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

As told to others

Some experiences of seeking asylum, or of meeting refugees, are so hard that they are best told by others. Refugee Tales have now issued three volumes of stories, which make it evident that the attempts to dissuade asylum seekers are contributing to their suffering, especially when it involves detention.

Refugee Tales 1, 2 and 3

Many people’s lives are blighted by the UK’s response to those who seek safety in Britain. There are the professionals and the enforcers, the victims and their friends, the volunteers, the health professionals etc etc. 

Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

The first volume was published in 2016. The collection was produced by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Groupwith stories and other contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Chris Cleave, Marina Lewycka, Jade Amoli-Jackson, Patience Agbabi.

The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (Afterword 143)

The first aim was successful, but unfortunately indefinite detention is still with us. 

The second volume was published in 2017. When I wrote about it, I focused on the abuse of Human Rights that is indefinite detention. Here’s the link

And in June 2020 I was moved to action by the third volume. I raised money for the group by walking across 25 bridges. In that post I recommended six things that could be done to support the cause.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, published by Comma Press. Proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group .

The Lampedusa Cross, with permission from the British Museum.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

One of the accounts that stays with readers is this tale of ordinary Italians who came across the most awful scene while out sailing. The optician believes that what he and his friends did is what everyone would do. There are countless stories of selfless and generous behaviour towards the migrants as they land or are rescued from the sea around the islands of the Mediterranean.

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

Fiction

One of the best ways to introduce people to experiences they do not meet in person is through fiction. Here are four novels that explore different aspects of refugees and their experiences in today’s world.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, (2017) translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky  

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2017)

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes (2016)

Other sites

Dina Nayeri wrote a piece about books on the refugee experience in the Guardian in September 2019. You can find it here.

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Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod

Eileen Carnell sent me an email. I asked her if I could use it on my blog. Eileen and I wrote several books together. (Here we are at a reading of Retiring with Attitude at Leatherhead Library in Autumn of 2014).

Dear Caroline, 

A response to your blog of the 10th January: Best Books for … the Long Haul

Hamnet

On Saturday morning there was no possibility of taking a walk. There were chores to do and indoor exercises to undertake but I thought that while I drank my decaff I’d read just for a few minutes. About two hours on, and 71 pages later, I put down my birthday copy of Hamnet*. I was captivated, transported back to 1596, my brain conveyed to a different landscape. I was immersed, time stopped, the outer world no longer existed. This is how I love to read – it feeds my spirit, provides sheer joy, escapism and a sense of well-being. As such Hamnet is a brilliant book to read during lockdown and the terrible connection between the plague of that time and Covid makes it even more timely.

Couch Fiction

I’m not a fan of cartoons. Comics were banned in our family when I was growing up so I never really learned how to read them, not knowing which bit of writing to read first or which part of the picture to look at**. But a second birthday gift this year changed my mind about such reading formats. This is Couch Fiction with its great sub-title A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy. This book is witty, droll and delightful. Phillipa Perry *** is the psychotherapist in question. Flo Perry, her daughter provided the illustrations. 

This book works on two levels. It tell the story of a psychotherapeutic encounter through pictures, speech and thought bubbles. Then beneath each page of the interactions between the two characters there are notes which demystify the encounter providing an easy read of the theory, for example, it highlights if the therapist is moving too fast, her use of hunches, any clumsy interventions and how the person being helped may react, and for students of the process there is some useful stuff on transference and attachment theories. So this is familiar territory for me but a great light but satisfying reminder – a perfect gift for me.

The Best of Me

And speaking of the joy of the familiar and ideal presents I will never tire of reading David Sedaris. In particular his short story about the mouse entitled Nuit of the Living Dead is fantastic. This book The Best of Mewas one of my Christmas presents. Reading what makes me laugh out loud is such a tonic and really does raise my spirits – a treat to come for anyone who hasn’t read it – so witty, so subversive. I was lucky to have heard him reading this story aloud at The British Library a couple of years ago.

Talking Books

I love being read to so Talking Books are a joy to me, especially to send me off to sleep during these troubled times. Instead of watching the news at ten I settle down to listen to stories. Re-reading is also something I enjoy and I’ll never tire of Sissy Spacek reading Scout’s account of her first day at school with that wonderful Southern accent of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve also listened this month to Elizabeth is Missing, How to be Both, The Accidental Tourist (again) and Jane Eyre – hence my opening sentence ****.

Beginnings

Some beginnings are embedded in my brain and while reading I’m looking out for beautiful descriptions and passages that I wish I’d written. I love examining openings, not just of books themselves, but of paragraphs and new chapters. It can often take me a while to read a book because I spend ages re-reading sentences to analyse their construction. I love names too and often make a note of them to steal later for my own novella – swopping first names of some with different surnames – Gregory Page-Turner and Saffron Milford are examples of ones I plan to introduce soon – he a church warden, she a novelist.

And …

I’ve also got waiting for me from Christmas and birthday:

Raynor Winn, The Wild Silence

Sarah Moss, Summerwater

Monica Connell, Gathering Carrageen

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Mark Billingham, Cry Baby

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather

And with a book token given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas I am going to order the second and third in the series of Ian Rankin’s Rebus thrillers. 

I’m confident I have enough reading material to keep me going for ages. Who knows when I’ll get my second vaccination or when lockdown will end but I hope I’ll have one or two books left to take on board a train or ferry to Scotland or Ireland again. Roll on Summer.

Notes

* Hamnet and Hamlet were used in Shakespeare’s day interchangeably. This remarkable book is written by Maggie O’Farrell (2020).

** An exception to this rule was Posy Simmonds in The Guardian

*** Her husband is the more famous artist Grayson Perry.

**** Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

From Eileen Carnell

Related posts on Bookword

Best Books for … the Long Haul (January 2021)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 (September 2020)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (February 2015)

How to be both by Ali Smith (March 2015)

The Accidental Tourist (again) by Anne Tyler (October 2015)

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I wanted to read more Angela Carter. I picked The Bloody Chamber as the timing was auspicious for a zoom lecture and discussion I planned to join. Ah me, the best laid plans and all that. I managed to miss the session. And perhaps there were dark reasons for this consistent with the black tones of the stories?

The Bloody Chamber

This collection of ten short stories are based on well-known tales, such as Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss-in-Boots. They were published in 1979, at the height of feminism’s second wave. The stories are of different lengths, one as long as 34 pages, another only two. 

Angela Carter explained that she wanted ‘to extract the latent content from traditional stories’. Just pause a moment to consider that phrase ‘latent content’. How often in fairy stories are young women, nearly always young and beautiful women, rescued by handsome men, or their fathers, from sleeping, or being eaten, or some other gruesome fate? What about the other girls? What about the women who were no longer virginally attractive to men?

What Angela Carter does in their retelling is to suggest some alternatives. Take the truly terrible story of Blue Beard, who murders each of his wives, and keeps each victim in a room in his castle for the next wife to find. The story is retold by the final wife in The Bloody Chamber. She is about to be beheaded when she is rescued by her revolver-toting mother, who hearing distress in her voice over the telephone comes at all speed to rescue her. See what she did there? A little dose of modern day sprinkled into an old tale. 

Feminism in The Bloody Chamber

So the introduction of feminism into these tales is very welcome. The reader, female or male, must ask why, in traditional fairy tales, women and girls are represented in the ways they are. And how would the world look if power did not lie only with men? How would the world look if sexual relations were built not on pain and subjugation?

The result is a flamboyant and exuberant set of stories. 

To begin with, the heroines are often strong young women, with intelligence and respect for others. The protagonist of The Bloody Chamber is a lonely young woman, with a talent for playing the piano. Her new husband has offered her huge wealth, and isolation in a castle with its own piano. Of course, there is a key on the ring which he entrusts to her, that she must not use. But of course she does. And what she finds is horrifying. Because she has disobeyed him, he intends to kill her. 

Or, in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, Beauty is a thoughtful and perceptive young woman. Helped by the beast’s spaniel, she comes to see that she could be happy with Mr Lyon. She is not helplessly caught up in his spell as in the original story. And so on.

One of the themes is that domesticity can be a horrendous trap. Again, the castle in The Bloody Chamber is seamlessly managed, the décor is beautiful, delicious meals arrive, all comfort is provided. But the secret is in the chamber where the previous wives have been horribly murdered and arranged as if in domestic situations; on a bed, under a sheet, or impaled by an Iron Maiden. An Iron Maiden is not very domestic, but note its name.

The dangers in distorted male sexuality is another aspect of these stories that is hard to read. Blue Bear of course, but the tiny story of The Snow Child is deeply disturbing and entirely about a man dominating his wife. (She rejects it, but only after we have seen his vile attempts to impose his will on her).

The style of The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter’s writing is gloriously flamboyant, extravagant and exaggerated, as fits the origins and subversions of her stories. Some of it is joyous. I loved the story of Puss-in-Boots, and our hero, like Figaro in The Barber of Seville that she evokes at the start of the story, is wonderfully naughty, impish and daring. He has his own side-line in feline amorous pursuits, but he happily and ingeniously engages in supporting his human friend to defeat the pantomime older man who has married an attractive young woman. The story is told with swagger and bravado, entirely appropriate to this engaging adventurer. Puss-in-Boots tells how he became the owner of the boots one night as he sang of his passion:

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then after I celebrated his generosity with a fresh obbligato, the moon no fuller than my heart – whoops! I numbly spring aside – down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr. (68)

There is so much fun to be had in that paragraph, and also much to be admired in the language and vocabulary used. It is operatic, although the subject is an attempt to stop feline caterwauling. 

The imagery used in these stories also underlines her purposes. In The Bloody Chamber the protagonist describes the removal of her clothes by her new husband ‘as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’ (15). We can notice again, the male attempt to control the woman and where there is the additional notion of him consuming her.

In the bloody chamber itself, so full of horrors, the young pianist finally comes across the corpse of her husband’s most recent, Romanian wife. 

She was pierced, not by one but by a hundred spikes, this child of the land of the vampires who seemed so newly dead, so full of blood … (29)

Every sense is enticed in these stories, not just visual ones as in the spikes and the blood. But she draws on taste (I love artichokes and they have a rich and complex taste and texture. The image of peeling a young woman like an artichoke I fin to be alluring and disgusting in equal measure.) There are plenty of sounds, and music is a frequent aspect of hearing: the piano, the opera, the caterwauling, locks and keys and birds. And touch, our sense of touch is fully activated: furs, cold keys, spikes, roses and thorns. Smell, lilies, and blood, and wine and other exotic aromas.

When I read The Magic Toyshop recently, I said in my post that I wanted to read more of her work. It took something of a strong stomach, and required some trust in the writer because even now I find her to be shocking. It is not just the material, the inversion of traditional subjects, but the language in which she coaches her insights  into the reader’s awareness. In the post I said of The Magic Toyshop, ‘I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.’ 

Angela Carter

Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then to Bristol University. She wrote novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio. 

Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which  contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. 

If you have stuck with me this far, I will reveal the reason I missed the online session about The Bloody Chamber. I am discomforted by the prolonged effects of the pandemic, and this manifests in missing appointments and muddling up times – which I have done a few times recently. No bloody chambers here!

See also the post on The Magic Toyshop (1967) which was included in the Decades Project in 2020 on this blog.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, published in 1979. I read the edition from Vintage, 1995. 126pp

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The Decades Project 2020 and its future

When you have had enough of something, it’s time to stop. I don’t mean to sound like public warnings issued by betting sites in their advertisements. But I can’t see the point of continuing with a series on my blog when I am feeling tired of it. 

So it’s goodbye to the Decades Project, which I have run on different themes for several years.

  • Novels by women (2017)
  • Non-fiction by women (2018)
  • Children’s fiction (2019)
  • Women’s fiction published by Virago (2020)

Every year I picked eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January. I often think like a historian and I am interested in change and how books relate to the times in which they were written. The project allowed me to notice how things changed over the century and to follow themes that emerged.

Brilliant Careers

In 2020 all the choices were written by women, most published by Virago and ten were featured in the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood.

The collection Brilliant Careers reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I own copies of and had previously read many of the books featured. Others I had heard of but was not familiar with. The choices were easy, given the extracts and my desire to extend my familiarity with the Virago back catalogue.

The most obvious theme was of protagonists struggling to control their own lives, especially in the early years. The world wars changed women’s ability to become independent. No longer struggling against their families or against society’s expectations, they began to find opportunities such as entry to higher education and the professions.

The eleven books of 2020 (with links)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988)

Highlights

Three books were especially significant for me. 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) was new to me. The novel was written out of the great pain and suffering of the Czechs in 1938-9, and their betrayal by the Allies, especially the French but also Chamberlain with his ’kid-glove fascism’. Martha Gellhorn was writing from her first-hand experience as a journalist in Europe. It’s a novel raw and stricken.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967) was not the first book by her that I had read, but it made a big impression on me for its boldness, its ability to shock with teenage sexuality, and for the quality of the prose. I promised myself to read more of her work, and have done. Watch out for a post about The Bloody Chamber

Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988) was a collection that impressed me greatly. After I had posted in November I discovered I had previously bought and read the earlier version. So good I read it twice! The stories reveal the multitude of ways in which war was experienced and written about by women. 

Perhaps it’s a result of reading that collection, Wave me Goodbye, that I feel inclined to read more books from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Not only was it a time of great change for women, but also a time when excellent women were writing. 

In the last few decades publishers have reintroduced readers to some of the most distinguished writers of that time: for example Rose Macaulay by the Handheld Press. Persephone Books continues to publish books by neglected writers from the middle years of the century. Virago’s back catalogue will continue to delight for years.

So next year, that’s what I plan to do some of the time on Bookword Blog.

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Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston

What can we learn from the experiences of women in the past? How can their reflections help us think about the occurrences of our own lives? The so-called Blitz spirit has been evoked since the Coivid-19 pandemic began to take hold earlier this year. We even celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May at a distance with scones and little union flags.

In Wave Me Goodbye there are 28 stories, all written in English and from the experience of women from the UK or the ‘colonies’. All the stories were written at the time of the second world war (except one). This is a special and important collection. This is a special and important addition to the posts of the Decades Project 2020 (see below)

Wave Me Goodbye

Different experiences

The first thing to say about them is that these stories reflect the very wide range of women’s experiences of the war. They were not all staying at home and making do and mending, or fire watching, or working in war jobs. And the experiences here range from the so-called Phoney War, while everyone waited for the war to start, through to the first post-war visits to war-ravaged Europe. 

There are stories about

Working in a field hospital
The Blitz
partners leaving for active duty, and home on leave
adventures abroad in the Balkans
land girls
losing treasured things, such as letters from a lover
living with other women
the war in Africa
fantasy 
the aftermath.

In writing their stories they drew upon their experiences and reflected what was happening and how it affected their different lives. Some are about the acute experiences of departure and loss, others provide insights into the arrangements made by women in the absence of so many men.  

Quality of writing

The second thing to note is the quality of the writing, almost every mid-century writer of note wrote a short story that was included in the collection.

Rosamond Lehmann
Jan Struther
Mollie Panter-Downes
Rose Macaulay
Olivia Manning
Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Taylor
Barbara Pym
Sylvia Townsend Warner …

It reads like a combined Virago and Persephone catalogue! 

In the introduction Anne Boston quotes Elizabeth Bowen:

All war-time writing is…  resistance writing. (xxi)

In a sense the resistance is oblique: it is to the distortions that war brings with it; distortions in relationships, time, clothes, food, careers, homes, life itself. And that is one of the parallels with the pandemic: that too is distorting our lives as well as killing thousands of people.

Some stories of resistance are triumphant. I loved Sweethearts and Wives by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which concerned a household of women managing their domestic arrangements, largely without men, in a haphazard and cheerful manner. 

Short stories and the war

And thirdly the short story was the genre of those days. Many of the writers were established novelists, but turned their attention to short stories during the war. The fragmentary nature of short prose captured the disconnected experiences that war handed out, rapid and catastrophic change. An example is Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay, in which Miss Anstruther frantically tries to find her dead lover’s letters after she has been bombed out. This was Rose Macaulay’s experience, and it reflects the fragility of material belongings. With the quality of writing, it is easy to find insights, description, experiences narrated with great skill.

The depth of damage resulting from six years of war is beautifully captured in Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a couple visiting France and trying to reconnect after their different experiences of the war. It is called Gravement Endommagé and considers damage at many levels.

I can’t review individual stories here, but refer you to JacquieWine’s blog (see below) where she looked at many individual stories in two posts when she explored this collection earlier this year. 

Covid-19?

So what can we learn from the Second World War that might help us with Covid-19? We need to be resourceful and resilient. We need to adapt our lives to the profoundly anti-social aspects of the response to Covid-19. We can expect experiences as different as people are. We can expect great responses and more feeble ones. Humans, women have done it in the past. We can do it again. The values that underpin the good life must be held onto in difficult times: community, care for others, decency and integrity.

Related posts

On HeavenAli’s blog she recommends this quite marvellous collection in her review in June. 

Another enthusiastic reader is JacquiWine who provided two posts on her blog to do justice to the collection. 

Novels from the Home Front (on Bookword in November 2019)

The War-Time Stories and Letters of Molly Panter-Downes. (January 2019)

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (November 2018)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston, first published in 1988 by Virago and republished in 2019. 360pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I explored ten novels by women, one a month, framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. For November I have added this important collection. In December I will review the year’s blogs and consider a theme for 2021.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

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Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.

This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge. 

Olive, Again

In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror –  with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.

We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.

Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.

Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)

The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.

In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.

Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.

At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:

“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)

The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)

I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.

The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death. 

It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)

She concludes in this way:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289) 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.

paperback version

Links to related reviews

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Refugee Tales III

It’s Refugee Week 15th – 21st June 2020 and I am launching my Crossing 25 Bridges challenge to highlight the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) who since 2015 have been making an annual walk

in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees.

In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, as they walk they tell stories, which are collected and published. Some refugees tell their own stories, and some are retold by accomplished writers. 

Human Rights?

The UK is the only country in Europe  that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. For all kinds of reasons this is wrong. One reason is that it is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrart arrest, detention or exile.
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Refugee Tales III 

In the third volume of Refugee Tales, six stories are told by individual refugees in their own voice and 13 more are presented ‘as told to’ some notable authors such as Monica Ali, Roma Tearne, Patrick Gale, Ian Samson, Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo.

Tales are told by the stateless person, the orphan, the foster child, the father and the son and more. The people are identified by activities that we can all understand. 

A terrible picture emerges. Each person’s story has a brutal start in their country of origin. These stories are individual, often violent and involving betrayal, torture and always fear.

Once the refugees have arrived in the UK the themes coalesce into a horrific story of the obstacles to being granted asylum. They all involve indefinite detention.

For a moment pause and consider what it might mean to have left your country, often your family, your identity, your language, culture, food and history. There is likely to be trauma in that story. You arrive, looking for safety and find yourself met with a wall of disbelief, distrust, cruel and labyrinthine administrative and legal processes, and ever-changing personnel. And imprisonment, without apparent reason, often removed when signing on as required, and often released again with as little apparent cause. 

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or detention?

But more significant perhaps than the transgression of the UN Declaration is the inhumane aspects of this policy. Most people are aware of the Hostile Environment initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, in 2012. Fewer people are aware that it involves indefinite detention. More people need to be aware that refugees have few rights to benefits, or a job, and only to meagre accommodation and, until very recently only £5 a day to live off. The current Home Secretary raised it to £5.26p in early June.

Responding to Refugee Tales

I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something.

Here are some things to do:

• Buy and read one of the three collections of the Refugee Tales.

• Listen to what refugees have to say

You are not really going to listen. No one listens
You’re not really going to hear. No one hears.
But I will tell you my story anyway. I will tell you my story because you have asked to hear my story.
But that is all. You want my story from me. I do not want anything from you. […]
Now you have my story. And I still have nothing.
[From The Fisherman’s Tale as told to Ian Sansom]

  • Hear what refugees have to say, be a witness, enter the community that acknowledges these stories and these lives.

So I ask him, why does he want me or anyone else, to tell his story? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming directly from him? His response is that he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience, to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he heard and saw. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing itself; because it signifies that in a world that so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.
[From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Be a vigilant witness against evil and heartlessness and stand up for solidarity, beyond all seeming borders or nationality and creed. Jonathan Wittenberg knows the importance of this from researching the history of his own parents who were refugees from Nazism.

As I listen and record, I become a companion in defiance against the silence in which vicious regimes try to bury the knowledge of the crimes they have committed against the dead and disavow the living trauma of those who manage to survive them.
S needs me, us, to be allies. [From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Support my lockdown walk over 25 bridges in support of retelling the stories of flight and detention and the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
  • Join in the weekend of online events with Refugee Tales –  3rd – 5th July – details on their website.

My Lockdown Walk with Refugee Tales

Staverton Bridge, Devon.

My walk this month will, as far as possible, cross 25 bridges. Some may be crossed twice. I hope to walk with friends and family, including remotely. The bridges will be photographed and I’ll put them on Twitter, Facebook and my Just Giving page.

You can donate to the Just Giving page  and the  here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp

Other connected pages

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

Diana Athill is something of a heroine in my eyes. Here are six reasons why:

  1. Her contribution to post-war fiction in the UK was enormous in her role as founding director of Andre Deutsch publishing. She worked with him from 1952 until she retired aged 75 in 1993.
  2. During that time she edited (among others) the works of Molly Keane, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and without Diana Athill’s patience and care we would probably never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea.
  3. She wrote about all this in Stet (2000), and it is an essential insight into editorial work. Also into her relationships with some of the writers she had to deal with.
  4. She wrote about ageing in an interesting way, and in life managed her final years with dignity and generosity. Read Somewhere Towards the End (2008)
  5. Her short stories are highly enjoyable. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was published in 1962 and republished by Persephone Books in 2011.

And the sixth reason is this novel Don’t Look at Me Like That which was published in 1967 and has been reissued by Granta.

Don’t Look at Me Like That

The novel is set in the early ‘60s, and mostly in London. Meg is the main character and the narrator of this novel. She is a clergyman’s daughter and up until the point she comes to London Meg’s life has been directed by her parents and by social expectations, reinforced by school. There she had had few friends, and it was only Roxane, who lives in Oxford with her widowed mother, who is willing to be close to her. Roxane’s mother invites Meg to live in her house while she attends art college in Oxford. Mrs Weaver, is a complete contrast to Meg’s mother. She directs Roxane’s life to the extent of picking out and grooming her husband Dick.

The novel is partly about how Meg from childhood feels out of place, a misfit, unable to consider marriage, unable to make friends easily, unable to find her way in the world. But by the end of the novel she found her own friends, living independently and in some poverty in a succession of rented rooms. She has come to belong within her own circle. But she has also carried on an affair with Dick and therefore comes into conflict with her own family and with Mrs Weaver. Eventually she makes a decision knowing that it will shock her family and people’s ideas about young women.

So this novel notes the changing expectations for generations during this time, and especially for young women. It reflects the different pace of social change in rural areas and London at the time. And it is about making good relationships, and the difficulties of doing this whether you reject the traditional social patterns or accept them.

The character of Mrs Weaver is carefully observed and built up. She is a shocker. Much of Meg’s reflections seemed to me to expose the dilemmas and tensions that develop for any young women at any time; the importance, or not, of marriage and relationships with men and with women; clothes; independence; having children; fidelity and loyalty; managing on limited resources; parental influence and so on. 

Diana Athill

Diana Athill was born in 1917 and died aged nearly 102 in January 2019. Her death was the occasion for obituaries, and the republication of this novel for reviews. For example John Self in the Guardian in December 2019 called it a ‘reissued gem’. Here is the link.

And this is from an obituary by Lena Dunham, which cacptures the spirit in which to read this novel and the other works of Diana Athill.

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity — marriage and children, specifically — were rethought and redefined. (Lena Dunham in the New York Times. January 2019)

Other reviews can be found by bloggers: for example JacquiWine’s Journal in February; and A Life in Books in January.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill, first published in 1967 and reissued by Granta in 2019. 187pp

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