Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart

It is distressing and sad that the world seems to be in such a poor state, and that Climate Change and possible disaster loom over us. I lament the wars that seem to drag on in Ukraine, Sudan and the Middle East. I am shocked by the corruption that appears to have put our government ‘in the pocket of fossil fuel companies’ [Al Gore]. And I am horrified by the damage done to our water systems, rivers, seas and the bills we pay to subsidise the dividends to water company shareholders; I am appalled by the physical state of schools and the quality of the education we provide for the children of our nation and around the world; I am in despair about the state of prisons and the conditions in which prisoners are obliged to live; and the official attitude to refugees appals me. And … and … How did it get to this? Since Covid I have been reading more non-fiction alongside my usual diet in an attempt to understand all this.

Politics on the Edge

I enjoy reading books that help me understand how we got here. I am interested, in particular, in why politics and politicians are not working towards answers at this time. What is the context that has created so many areas of dysfunction? What should we expect and hope from our political system and from our politicians? It does seem to me that the fallout from both Brexit and Covid-19 and earlier from the unresolved banking crisis of 2007-8 has meant that different rules, different norms new and lower standards have crept in. Once the banking crisis no longer threatened the viability of the western economic system, the bankers who drove the crisis, were not required to accept responsibility or to atone for their mistakes. Indeed, I am not aware that anyone, any person, any banking group paid any penalties for what happened. Crisis over, move on.

The referendum and the negotiations for a Brexit deal ushered in a new era of untruths, lies, misdirection and political skulduggery. The Conservative party was deliberately cleansed of those who proposed alternative solutions to the complexities of Brexit negotiations. Consequently, the Brexit-at-any-cost brigade could ignore dissent and the processes by which negotiations and legislation are improved: argument and discussion.

And Covid seems to have challenged most of the population and all our politicians. The Covid Enquiry is revealing that government, in particular decision-making and procurement, were out of control. It was far worse than we suspected.

Rory Stewart is an interesting man and his backstory is not typical of a man who went into parliament as a Conservative Party MP and into government for all that he attended Eton. He had experience of the army and the diplomatic service in Indonesia, the Balkans and Afghanistan. He also had experience of running charities in Afghanistan. Additionally he is a long-distance walker and learned more about Pakistan and Afghanistan through walking. He later did the same in his constituency in Cumbria as an MP. 

In short, his life suggests that he is a man who wishes to make a difference to people’s lives. His experience forms the background to this book, which is focused on his political career.

He takes us through his attempts to be selected to stand for a seat in parliament, competing with others who have often done long years of service as local councillors, or as SPADs (special advisors). He was selected eventually to fight the 2010 election in Penrith and the Border, a huge constituency, far away from Westminster. He attributed his selection to the clear-out of sitting members following the expenses scandal. Having won he entered parliament, only to discover that the power and influence of a Conservative backbencher is to serve as lobby fodder: to vote in the divisions, to attend committees, occasionally to make a speech in the chamber, to expect nothing much for the constituency who elected you. 

Those who made decisions about deploying MPs appear to have ignored his expertise, experience and enthusiasms that were rooted in his pre-parliamentary activities. This continued even when he was given posts within the government. He watched as ministers who knew Afghanistan from a few days’ visit made decision about the deployment of troops and the assistance.

The constituency work was hard, but despite the distance from the House of Commons, he made himself known to the people of Cumbria and tried to improve their lives in practical ways. 

He was appointed to the Ministry of the Environment under Liz Truss. His account of his first day at the job is hilarious and shocking. The Civil Servants were careful to the point of obstruction and his boss required news points but no grounded action. And so it went on. He had positions in International Development, the Foreign Office, in Prisons and Probation. Ministers are moved around with such frequency that it is hard for them achieve anything productive.

 

The gates of HMP Dartmoor

My admiration for his work as prison minister is great. There are no votes in prisons, literally, but he was shocked by the state of many of them and set about trying to help the governors and officers improve conditions and work towards their purpose of rehabilitation. 

And then Boris Johnson, for whom he reserves his most searing criticism, and his circle prevented Teresa May’s Brexit deal and there was a leadership election. Rory Stewart challenged Boris Johnson and made a creditable fist of it. But following his defeat, he left the party along with many others who in various ways challenged the new leadership. The Conservative Party in parliament lost a great deal of talent at that time.

As he relates this political journey, his disillusion becomes ours, the time serving, the lack of power, the need to temper ambition and intentions, the moving ministries to suit political purposes, and finally his ejection through challenging Boris Johnson. His characterisation of Boris as a liar, interested only in himself, is now familiar. As a result of reading this account I was depressed by the inability of the political system to used people of talent, to resist corruption, and failing to achieve much, including in local areas. It has continued under two further prime ministers. Such high hopes, so resolutely defeated.

I also learn a great deal by listening to the Podcast: The Rest is Politics with Rory Stewart and Alistair Campbell.

Politics on the Edge: a memoir from Within by Rory Stewart, published in 2023 by Penguin Random House. 454pp 

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Puss in Books

In recent days at home I have been much absorbed in settling in a cat who has newly arrived in my house from the local pet rescue centre. As a result, I have been thinking a great deal about cats in books. They seem very plentiful in children’s books, but despite cats and readers being very complementary, there are not so many for adults.

My childhood cat books

One of the earliest books I remember is The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter, created in 1907. Tom Kitten was forever losing buttons off his trousers. One year a tin featuring his mother sewing on a button appeared in my Christmas stocking. The toffees in it soon disappeared, but it has found a place in my sewing basket ever since, to store all those loose buttons that we seamstresses collect.

The other feline companion of my childhood was Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. He first appeared in 1938, and the only copy that I have from that series is An Evening Out. Orlando is a caring father and husband. Grace is a rather retiring cat, but their kittens are splendid, and like Tom Kitten, easy to identify with: Pansy, Blanche and Tinkle. Especially Tinkle, who was the smallest, naughtiest and blackest kitten you ever saw. The family go to the circus, and Orlando, by mistake, gets caught up in the acts: Performing Dogs, the Human Horse, Mr Plunkett the elephant, Signora Celia and her celebrated seals and Mr Meek the lion-tamer. The audience think Orlando is part of the show, but when he saves the life of Mr Meek the Circus Manager presents him with a gold medal.

My daughter’s childhood books

Mog the forgetful cat appeared in 1970, the creation of Judith Kerr. Mog was recognisable to any family who had lived with a cat, especially as she was not very bright. But she too earned a medal when she accidentally saved the family from some burglars (pronounced burg-gew-lars in our family).

The other series that featured in reading to my daughter was The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley. Sampson the Cat was befriended by the Church Mice and saved them from threats of extermination.

The Tiger who came to Tea by Judith Kerr was another favourite, mostly for the illustrations that showed the absurd situation with plenty of delightful detail.

My grandson’s childhood book

When I asked my grandson, now 15, what cat book he remembered from earlier reading, he promptly replied The Patchwork Cat. William Mayne wrote the story and it was charmingly illustrated by Nicola Bayley. Tabby was very attached to her old patchwork quilt and when it was thrown out she went to the dump to rescue it, despite all kinds of terrors on the way.

And two for the adults

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

I read this classic Russian novel in 2006 and noted that it was hard to get into – it’s connections with our world are so strange. No doubt the citizens of Moscow who were familiar with Stalin did not find it so. I lived in London at the time and several people commented on this book when I read it on the bus.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966) Penguin Classic. Translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Levear. 432pp 

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide 

Enjoyable story about a man and his wife who are adopted by a cat, and then she dies. They must leave the house and this disrupts their grieving. Every cat lover will recognise the obsession and madness.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (2014) Picador. Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland. 140pp

And for the poets and poetry lovers …

You thought that TS Eliot was a rather dry modernist poet with a high squeaky voice. But his triumph was his collection of cat poems: The Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Mr Mistoffelees, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat amongst other. He also had an irrefutable theory about what cats are doing when they are sitting quietly looking at nothing.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
the reason I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt concentration of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name
His ineffable, effable,
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
[From The Naming of Cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot]

Have I left any important cats out?

And my little cat is called Bindi and she is already capable of upsetting a pile of books or dislodging some less favoured tomes from the bookshelf. She is making herself quite at home.

Bindi, making herself at home on the dog’s bed.

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Out of the Window by Madeline Linford 

A few weeks ago I visited the Persephone Bookshop in Bath, on a visit to the Gwen John exhibition at the Holburne Museum. Some years ago the bookshop and I were based near each other in London. I would visit in my lunch hour, enjoy browsing among the republication of so many novels and memoirs by women from the last century. I had been missing this experience and was pleased to find that the relocated bookshop provides the same satisfaction. I bought one of the most recent Persephone publications.

Out of the Window

This novel was first published in 1930, between the wars. It reflects some social changes that were brought by the First World War, but also the conventions that still dominated social interactions between the wars. The author, Madeline Linton, was born in 1895, and brought up in Manchester. She worked for the Manchester Guardian and became the editor of the Women’s Pages. She wrote five novels and a biography of Mary Wollestonecraft between 1923 and 1930. It seems that criticism of Out of the Window led to her giving up that part of her writing career. What a shame! This novel shows signs of a competent and interesting writer. She died in 1975.

I don’t understand the title of this novel. Are we seeing the young heroine as someone looking ‘out of the window’ in her small council house, or is her life being thrown ‘out of the window’? It doesn’t seem to me to be a very effective title, that is it gives no clue to the author’s intentions or approach.

It is the story of the marriage of an upper-middle class young woman, Ursula, and a working-class man, Kenneth. Their marriage results from her boredom with her life in the comfortable countryside, with admirers and tennis clubs and parties. She is a bit of a rule breaker. She meets Kenneth when he is speaking about the hardship experienced by some the strikers at an event organised by one of her friends. He is very good looking and she is bright and brave.

After a brief period they decide that they are in love and they marry despite the disapproval of everyone who knows them, and each of them having a more suitable person ready to pair up with them They live on a new council housing estate where money is always tight, but he is too proud to accept any money from her family. She is hopeless at managing, cooking, cleaning and gardening. Ken’s mother, Mrs Gandy, thinks that she is a spoiled and lazy young woman. They have a row:

‘Mrs Gandy, I know you didn’t want me marrying Kenneth, but you might at least be fair to me now.’
‘And who’s to blame for me not wanting it. When there was a decent, hard-working girl who would have given her eyes for him and made as good wife, too?’
‘I don’t know what you mean, and in any case, there’s no point in saying that now. My mother didn’t want me to marry him either, but at least she always treats him civilly when we go to her house.’
‘I suppose she thought he wasn’t good enough for you?’
‘I didn’t say so, but that’s what you think of me, isn’t it?’
‘And good reason, the way things have turned out.’ (240)

Bitter words have been exchanged and Ursula leaves Mrs Gandy’s house, with Kenneth still eating his tea. We can see that there was a difference even in how the families argued. 

The two Gandys were unused to abrupt decisions and to quarrels abandoned in the very heat of their fury. (240) 

Ursula is hurt because her husband had not defended her. Ken feels a loyalty to his mother. The quarrel illustrates what the young couple are up against. It is never resolved, for events overtake the young people.

Much of this novel is about assumptions, expectations and conventions, mostly unexplored and undiscussed by the young couple. Ken is quick to take offence, and Ursula fears losing his affection and showing up her inadequacies in front of her family and friends. He sees no reason why Ursula should be dissatisfied with her home, and with motherhood. Ursula is used to having help in the home and sees motherhood as a further burden. The only person she can confide in is her ‘maiden aunt’, a ‘virtuous spinster and a member of the Church of England’. 

‘You know, there ought to be some other solution for girls in love. It isn’t fair that they should be tied all their lives and have children, just because they once felt passionate about some man and were blind to everything else. The marriage service should be postponed until they had lived together for a while and the glamorous side of it got less interesting.’ (250-1)

For Ursula it is too late. Such solutions were transgressive even who I was growing up in the 1960s. Reliable contraception and a changing view of relationships and the role of women were needed before Ursula’s vision became possible. 

The differences between the classes were difficult to manage. The parents who oppose their marriage, however, speak in terms of contrasts in education, money, circle of friends and occupations. The couple cannot see a way to make the contrasts work for them.

The wider social context does not help them either. While things are changing – better housing, job prospects, education and votes for women – the promise of more change does not seem to allow the couple to step out of the restricting expectations of their class and gender.

Out of the Window by Madeline Linford, first published in 1930. Reissued by Persephone in 2023 (#148). 284pp 

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

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

The Queen of Dirt Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will the other members of my book group think?

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

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The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

When this novel was published in 1962 the era of permissiveness (if it ever existed) was just about to begin. I was about to enter my teenage years. It seemed as if everything about our social mores was being questioned, including especially marriage and sexual partners. What I remember most from my first reading was the scene where the narrator broke down in Harrods household linens department.

What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Do I want bed rest, a barbecue, a clock like a plate or a satin stole, or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels printed, most beautifully, with the months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry. I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears. Oh, what has happened to you, Mrs Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of those lovely children dear, and don’t cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.
But I cried just the same. The doctor they sent me to was expensive and Jake said, ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’ (p28-9)

What I remember about the film (1964) was how beautiful Ann Bancroft was and what a bastard Peter Finch portrayed as her husband. His reaction to her Harrods tears is typical of his narcissistic gaslighting.

The Pumpkin Eater

This novel is quite short and easily read within 24 hours. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a woman, who recounts her breakdown and the failure of her 4th marriage. She has many children (unnumbered) and Jake and her doctor assume that she should therefore be very happy. But she finds Jake’s affairs very distressing. She finds his absence on location very distressing. And she is outraged that her husband will support his mistress’s baby despite having persuaded her to agree to an abortion and sterilization. And she is furious when he blames her for her reaction, claiming that she agreed to the operations.

Jake seems incapable of understanding his wife’s point of view. Her psychoanalyst seems unable to understand her either.

‘Apart from everything else you feel about him, all your conflicting emotions … Do you like him?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not very much.’
‘That’s my impression. Why don’t you like him?’
I tried to think. One by one I turned over the possible reasons for disliking Jake: he is a coward, a cheat, he is mean, vain, cruel, he is slovenly, he is sly. ‘I … I don’t know,’ I said. (67)

The title

It’s a strange title, and the epigraph points to its origins. It seems like it comes from a Grimm fairy tale. But Wikipedia tells us that its origins are in English nursery rhymes.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Jake does keep his wife, but not very well.

The 1960s

The introduction to the Penguin Classic edition by Daphne Merkin, makes the point that Penelope Mortimer predated Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer when she wrote about ‘the claustrophobic grayness and casual betrayals of upper-middle class marriage’ (vii). ‘Permissiveness’ was on its way. But she was not celebrating the advantages that less strict social codes would bring women. Indeed you could say she was providing a warning.

Motherhood and maternity

The most surprising thing about our narrator is that she has lots of children, the oldest three are casually sent off to boarding school to accommodate her marriage to Jake. She loses touch with them. Nor does motherhood seem to act as a break upon her behaviour, and certainly not on Jake’s. The damage to their children from their dysfunctional relationship does not appear to have troubled the characters or the writer.

Psychological support

It certainly seems as if the expensive doctor to whom she is sent following her Harrods breakdown, is part of the structure to maintain the status quo, when men can demand that women subjugate their lives and wishes within the marriage. The doctor at times seems more interested in Jake, a successful movie director, than in his wife’s troubles.

Teenage episode

An episode from her childhood gives one hope that Jake’s wife would not sacrifice herself. When her school friend Irene comes to stay, the teenagers find themselves at odds about the imperative to attract the attention of boys. There is a telling scene where Irene arrives at the railway station and is not recognizable.

Irene was wearing what I later heard her describe as a powder blue costume. Her hair was rolled in a perfect sausage at the nape of her neck, and another bobbing over her rather low forehead. She wore high heels, a necklace and lipstick. She was carrying a handbag as well as a suitcase. I thought she looked perfectly frightful. I was horrified. (46)

The contrast between the two girls could hardly have been greater. Irene, who is 14 and a half, plans to spend her time provoking the attention of boys. ‘I felt sick with shame for her.’ But although she doesn’t follow Irene’s example, and although she has had three previous marriages, the narrator has expectations of the marriage that she cannot share with Jake and it causes her great pain.

Rereading this novel made me realise how far things have improved, as well as how far they still have to go, in the matter of marriage and relations between men and women. It would not be acceptable today for women to suffer the gaslighting that Jake subjects his wife to. And he would be expected to have more sympathy and understanding of her life, not assume that because they are married it is all okay, everything he does. 

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Classics edition from 2015 with an Introduction by Daphne Merkin. 144pp 

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Beowulf – 5 The remarkable revival

The ancient story of Beowulf has had a remarkable revival. 

Beowulf’s story was composed around the 6th or 7th centuries, written down in the 10th or 11th centuries, and has survived for about 1500 years. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Whether it was composed by one artist or several is not known.

Originally the story would probably have been told or sung in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations, films and retellings. 

Beowulf is a Geat and a hero. His story tells of his defeat of Grendel and of Grendel’s mother, and a treasure-loving dragon. Grendel was terrorising the Danish mead hall, the pride and joy of its builder the king. After defeating Grendel, the monster’s mother came seeking revenge and there was another epic battle, this time underwater, but again Beowulf prevailed. Much later in life, when he was a king himself, Beowulf took on a dragon who guarded the most fabulous pile of treasure, and although the dragon died, so did Beowulf to the dismay and misery of his people.

As far as I am aware, the revival of Beowulf’s story is a recent phenomenon.

Why is Beowulf so popular today?

It’s a good story. It’s the story of good triumphing over evil and with a couple of twists. Just when Beowulf and his admirers think he has solved the problem of the attacks on the Danish mead hall, along comes another monster for him to dispatch. Later he becomes a king and does the kingly thing of defending his people, even at the cost of his own life. 

Beowulf appeals to children as well as adults. The plot can be simplified, omitting the genealogies, back stories, and sub plots. The hero defeats three monsters. He is brave. He is young and one of a gang at the start of the story and becomes king in his mature years. 

Beowulf is a hero. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment. His power, his superpower, is to have the strength of 30 men in one of his arms. He is more than a human. He finds a magic sword and has the ability to fight for hours underwater. He fits right in with the spidermen, supermen, and other film heroes.

We like a little of the supernatural in our fiction. The powers of the hero and of his defeated monsters and dragon are all supernatural. They don’t quite belong in our world, so we can return from ancient Denmark and feel happy at the outcome, and relieved that such things do not exist in our world. 

The antagonists are sympathetic. Both Grendel and his mother have been made the focus of novels: by JohnGardner and Maria Dahvana Headley respectively. Maria Dahvana Headley updated the story not only to interpret it through feminist eyes, but also to place it in a modern context, which seriously challenges the goodness of Beowulf. John Gardner views the story from the eyes of Beowulf’s first victim, who might even be a human of sorts, seriously challenged by the bragging Danes in the mead hall, and much misunderstood by the other characters and by the original storyteller of course. 

Other times, other places. There is also the mystery and attraction of this being a very old story, capable of retelling in ways that say something about the teller and their context and time. I have not yet read Edwin Morgan’s version, but I note that he says this about his original version published in 1952.

The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World Wat, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, I would not want to alter [in a new edition] the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss. Inter arma musae tacent (“In time of conflict the Muses are silent”) but they are not sleeping. (Preface to 2021 edition)

These themes are timeless, conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss and just as Edwin Morgan experienced them in the Second World War, so do we today.

The mystery of the text. The story of the survival of the version of Beowulf that we have is fascinating, not least because it is so ancient, and the language in which it was written is obscure to most readers, despite being a version of very old English. It is not clear whether it is written by more than one scribe or composed by more than one poet. We know that the poet and the scribe cannot be the same person, for the poem predates the written version by some centuries. Survival of texts and arguments about versions and who wrote what and authenticity are the very stuff of fascination. For example, Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to a huge amount of scholarly examination in the various versions that still exist. I have looked at the versions listed below, which include prose, and poetry, adaptations and translations. No doubt there are others, and in different genres, perhaps a computer game, anime or film. Whatever version Beowulf is in, the story will be read into the late twenty-first century. Not bad for a text that started as a spoken or sung poem fifteen centuries ago.

Pile in order 2

Versions of Beowulf discussed in this series

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1961) reissued by Puffin in 1966.

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, (2006) by Walker Books.

Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, (1982) Oxford University Press.

Beowulf by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, (1999) Faber

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021) Scribe. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (2018) Scribe. 

Grendel by John Gardner, (1971) Picador. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Beowulf by Edwin Morgan (1952) republished by Carcanet (2002)

Links to previous posts in the Beowulf series

Beowulf 1 Some versions February 2021

Beowulf 2 in which he meets a feminist July 2021

Beowulf 3 – Grendel by John Gardner March 2022

Beowulf 4 – Charles Keeping’s Illustrations December 2022

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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

It seemed to happen a great deal in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A book would capture the attention of readers, especially women readers, and the question people asked was ‘have you read it yet?’ That doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but here is a book that I find all my reader-friends have read or are planning to read. I overheard two women talking, last week. ‘I’m reading that book.,’ said one. Her friend replied, ‘Oh yes, that Demon book. I wanted to read it in my book group, but they said it was too long. Their loss. How far have you got?’ ‘Only about halfway. Don’t tell me what happens. It’s so good though. I’m enjoying it so much.’

I am puzzled by a book group that resist reading a prizewinning novel, and one that so many people are talking about, ‘because it’s too long.’ As she said, ‘their loss’. I look back through other recent novels, and I think that another winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction caused a similar sensation: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It too was long (453 pages).

It’s taken me a little time to read Demon Copperhead. And to put my reactions into a post for the blog. It is a long book. But I wonder what there is new or different for me to say. As usual I’ll say what I think. You can add your thoughts or differ with mine in the comments.

Demon Copperhead

First, it is very Dickensian. Of course it is, Barbara Kingsolver acknowledges her debt to the Victorian writer.

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend. (547)

So it is Dickensian, first by being an adaptation of the story of a disadvantaged boy, and a brilliant one, to her context. More than that, she matches his ability to tell stories, conjure characters, keep a plot alive. And by matching Dickens’s outrage at society’s failure to care for children who slip through the cracks, who are not well treated by social services, and who are preyed upon by opportunists and others who should know and do better. The social injustice permeates this story. Dickens showed novelists how to do this.

Second, despite adapting David Copperfield for her novel, Demon Copperhead stands in its own right. You do not need to have read Dickens’ novel to follow the plot. And if you have read it, you do not need to spend too much time identifying the parallels between the two. One or two are a bit clunky: the upside-down boat for example. But mostly the original story is so strong that Barbara Kingsolver’s adaptation lightly makes the connections. I found Coach to be the least convincing character in Demon Copperfield, and I can’t think from which original character he would have been adapted.

Having said that, I found that for the most part she created authentic characters, many with great quirkinesses. Mr Dick is a joy. U-Haul is suitably creepy and oily as Uriah Heep. The Peggot family are as warm and embracing as you could wish. The belief by Mr McCobb that something will turn up is as misguided as in the original. And so on. The main joys of this novel are the characters, their influence on Demon and the interlacing of their stories with his. 

Third, it’s a story worth telling. It is told by a boy who wants to make the best of himself, but life keeps knocking him down: born into poverty, in a rural setting where the mining industry has collapsed, Appalachian Mountains, to a single mother who cannot cope without alcohol; he is looked after by the state’s social services which means his labour is swapped for accommodation and payment, on a deadbeat farm, and then with a struggling family. He learns much from this degrading treatment, but it is only when he takes his destiny in his own hands – running away to find the truth about his father – that things slowly begin to get better. He is knocked down many times before he finds true love and happiness.

Meanwhile we have seen the damage caused by the opioid epidemic, neglectful social services, and greedy individuals in a brutal and raw story. Here she is, at her most outspoken, describing an evening on the farm where the foster carer relied upon children’s labour.

A ten-year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we are meant to say. Look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words don’t pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. An older boy who never knew safety himself, trying to make us feel safe. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands. (76-77)

Blame disadvantaged and deprived children for making bad choices and then go off somewhere and leave them to it. 

Don’t be put off by the American setting – it has a great deal to say to us in the UK as our public services collapse. And don’t be put off by its length. There is a huge amount to enjoy and to think about in this novel. I’m not surprised it won so many prizes and has been so highly praised. Have you read it yet?

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2022 by Faber. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 548pp

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Returning to Judenplatz, Vienna

This is my 801st post on Bookword. For some of this week I am in Vienna and to celebrate being here and so many posts, I am recycling one of my very first. Just over ten years ago I visited this city and was profoundly moved by the Judenplatz, Jewish Square. I plan to revisit this moving place on my current visit. Here is what I wrote ten years ago.

From Bookword March 2013

It is a Catholic city on a Sunday morning, but Vienna was quiet and without church bells. The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) was calm. The metal ring of the horses pulling the tourist carriages could be heard from the surrounding streets. The churches were emptying, and families were returning home after mass, bundled into coats and scarves against the spring cold. As they greeted their neighbours or stopped to talk their voices rebounded from the genteel walls of the buildings, five storeys high, painted in white or palest cream and with tall, elegant windows.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Lessing, an Enlightenment figure, hated by the Nazis who destroyed the original. The replacement was made after the war and at certain angles the head appears to be out of proportion and awkward. Mozart lived for a while in a house on the corner. There is a plaque commemorating this on its wall.

Near Mozart’s house is a second plaque, brass with Latin lettering, celebrating the cleansing of the city of its Jewish population in 1421. Above it is a little vignette, an angel witnesses a cleansing. The story goes that the Jews were burned at the stake and to save others from such a death the Rabbi himself killed many of his congregation.

A heavily built young man came into the square while we pondered the celebration of this barbarity. He was in his early 20s and a little overweight.  He wore a t-shirt, faded gingham shorts and moccasins. He took off his shoes and placed a small pile of short candles and a rose bud on the floor. He lit the candles and lay beside them on the concrete. After about ten minutes he replaced his moccasins and loped off over the cobbles and disappeared, leaving the candles to burn. 

They guttered in a pool of wax in front of the library door. This is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Around the base of the monument are listed in alphabetical order the names of the 45 places where the Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Zamosc. It is a library, but you cannot enter. There are no handles on the doors. It is made of concrete, resembles a bunker. The external walls of the library are made from books, cast in concrete, their spines facing inwards. They are closed books. We can never read their stories.

We stand and contemplate this grey structure, such a contrast to the other public memorials and statues in this city, most of which are decorated with gold. In the fashionable Graben shopping street (think Bond Street), for example, stands the Pestsaule, which celebrates the departure of the plague from Vienna in 1692. Even this writhing column is topped with golden tangled figures. The Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in October 2000. It is monumental yet understated, absorbed into its surroundings yet unmissable, calming yet shocking, moving yet without human figures.

I think these contradictions arise because of the books. The idea of a concrete book is one from which we recoil and then return. The library represents what could have been, what should not have been and what, having been imagined and realised, must be chronicled and not forgotten; and from which we must learn. And the Jews are the people of the book. 

Later that we day, after we had witnessed Don Giovanni taken down to hell at the Opera House, we passed through Judenplatz again. Evening was turning to night and easing the contradictions of the memorials in the square. The exquisite beauty of Mozart’s music could coexist with the horrors of the Fifteenth and Twentieth centuries. It was possible to fancy a hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books.

NOTE

Since that visit I have also been to Auschwitz and wrote about my visit and some bookish connections on this blog. You can find that post here

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Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures 

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

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

The History of Struwwelpeter

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

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

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

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

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

The Stories in Struwwelpeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And …

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

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

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