“I Had Been at Camusfeàrna Eight Years Before I Piped Water to the House ….”

Prior to that, the water was brought up from the burn in a bucket.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life Gavin Maxwell chose in remote Camusfeàrna   where he lived with  no made up road, no electricity, one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop,  were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  Gavin wrote a trilogy of books about his life in this isolated place,  in a rented cottage overlooking the Sound of Sleat on Scotland’s west coast between the years of 1948 and 1968.

Here he lived with his various otters,  Mijbil, Edal, Mossy and Monday.    The books Ring of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother became bestsellers and made Gavin Maxwell famous but now inevitably feel elegiac representing as they do things permanently lost.  And like all fame, his did not come without a price.

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More than this,  many of the deep and true country ways of life were vanishing under an onslaught of new roads and telegraph poles even at the time Gavin was writing,  but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has since taken place on so many levels and in so many parts of the country,   Ring of Bright Water (which was made into a film with Virginia McKenna) is less of an elegy and more of an epitaph.

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture round the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea and on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance.”

What I loved about these books – more even than their feel of a Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of what is called the new nature writing.   But Maxwell’s writing feels different. He was pioneer of the ‘new nature writing’ before the term was born or thought of and the empathy that he truly had with his otters and with the natural landscape of Camusfeàrna – and how those elements reflected back at him his own sense of unbelonging –  is made manifest on the page through his lyrical writing.

It  is as if Maxwell writes from the inside out.

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After reading the trilogy, I looked for a biography of the author as I felt generally ignorant of all matters concerning his life.   For example, I didn’t even know that the title of the book Ring of Bright Water is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems:

“He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water

Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea…

‘The Ring’

a poet with whom Maxwell had a tempestuous affair and who is said to have laid a curse on a Rowan tree at Camusfearna, after he threw her out  quite literally in the middle of the night.   The book I found was Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting (Eland) apparently the only authorised biography, other attempts at biography according to Botting having come up against ‘the twin obstacles of family and estate’.

Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland and at one time date of Princess Margaret.  His CV included wartime instructor in the SOE,  Guards Officer, Adventurer, Traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond).  Hero club that is if you discount throwing ladies out of isolated habitions in the middle of nowhere at midnight, which I personally do not discount.

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own writing and from Douglas Botting’s biography,  that Maxwell was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.

These aspects of his life are more acutely realised in the work than any enduring human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for the many trips and adventures he undertook –  there was always an old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

Sadly though it seems Kathleen Raine’s curse may have taken effect.  The final book in the trilogy charts Gavin’s series of financial and personal misfortunes which would lead to his death in 1969.

Perhaps the final irony of Maxwell’s life was that the overwhelming success of Ring of Bright Water  and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved and to which these books are in memoriam.

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Review of The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy, Gavin Maxwell (Viking, 2000)

 

 

Inspirations for Spring: Travel in a Time of Quarantine

Although we are all locked down  in our homes, our apartments, our lofts and rooms, travel books are a way to free ourselves without getting stopped by the police! Here are three of my all time top traveller/writers whose lives inspire me as well as their writing.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor  (1915-2011)

Not many travel writers can claim that Dirk Bogarde played them in the film of their own life.  Paddy could.     On 8th December 1933, aged 18, he left home to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul) taking only  a few items of clothing, a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace’s Odes.

This journey he would later record in two books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).  Both of which I  loved.   Joyful and exuberant every page of the writing seems to bounce with possibility, with hope .  These are truly books to get lost in.  Yet they are set in times and in places which – even as Paddy walked – were already vanishing as war clouds gathered.   A third volume in this trilogy  The Broken Road, was authored by Artemis Cooper after Leigh Fermor’s death using his handwritten notes.    Many decades had elapsed between the young Patrick’s journey and this last book,   which to me didn’t have quite the same feel about it as the earlier works.

Once described by a BBC journalist as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,  Patrick Leigh Fermor was a not only a linguist,  traveller and gifted author, he was a decorated soldier who took a prominent part in the Battle for Crete during the second world war.

When I reviewed Crete: the Battle and the Resistance by Anthony Beevor I said:

One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman,  who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker –  was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels.  Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun.    He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete,  the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water as well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

Paddy Leigh Fermor’s   received a Distinguished Service Order and was Knighted in 2004.

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Less than a year after 18 year old Paddy Leigh-Fermor set out to walk the length of Europe, another young man (aged 19) left his home in the village of Slad in  Gloucestershire early on a June morning and waved goodbye to his mother as she stood “waist deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool.”

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Laurie Lee, Robert MacFarlane]

Taking no volume of Horace’s odes – at least none that is recorded –  but “a rolled up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle, biscuits and some cheeses” he started a journey mostly on foot,  that would end in Spain at the time of the Civil War.

He was of course Laurie Lee (1914-1997) who would later become famous for his memoir Cider with Rosie – beloved prop of many an exam syllabus – and As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning.   This is the second in a trilogy of books which describes how he walked to London from his home in Gloucestershire,  sleeping rough in fields, journeying on through Wiltshire from Salisbury to Southampton where he plied his trade as fiddler to earn himself some cash.  Thence along the coast to Gosport, Chichester, Worthing  and finally North to London.

Lee obtains work on a building site in Putney pushing wheelbarrows.   He remembers the buildings – a block of flats –  as being ugly:

  “we raised three unbeautiful blocks of flats – squat, complacent, with mean leaded windows, bogus balconies and imitation baronials.”

When the building of the flats draws to a close Laurie knows he will soon be out of a job but it doesn’t worry him.  He is young, free and the world is full of possibility.

He buys himself a ticket on a ship bound for Spain.  A poet as well as prose writer, Lee’s books are full of poetry.

“I’d known nothing till then but the smoother surfaces of England, and Vigo struck me like an apparition.  It seemed to rise from the sea like some rust-corroded wreck, as old and bleached as the rocks around it.”

The third book in the trilogy “A Moment of War” is an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.

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Dervla Murphy (1931)

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Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Dervla Murphy.  The beautiful cover of the original book published by John Murray in 1965.

Travelling is many things to many people but it is rarely – at least if you do it properly – easy or comfortable.  Especially not if you are a woman alone and travel long distances by bike.

People travel to change their outlook, their mindset, their lives, their relationships, their careers, their writing,  as well as their location.  People travel for work, for history, for information, for vision, for education: they travel to lose themselves or to find themselves.   But I do not think it unfair to say that travel is harder for a woman alone, than for a man alone.  I think this is true even today.  It was certainly true in 1960.

Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Laurie Lee both sometimes had prickly relationships with their families – who does not – but their lives were never subsumed by caring duties. They exploited the education and sense of adventure that culturally they had absorbed as their birthright and they did it brilliantly well.   Neither would ever find themselves having to write what cyclist, traveller and author Dervla Murphy (born 1931) wrote in her autobiography Wheels within Wheels : The Making of a Traveller (Eland,  2010):

“For more than sixteen years every day had been lived in the shadow of my mother’s need.  Even on holidays my movements had had to be exactly regulated so that I would unfailingly arrive home on a  certain date.”

Not an ideal resume for an inveterate traveller in the making.  Yet in her thirtieth year, as her caring responsibilities come to an end after her mother’s death,  Murphy admits to a sense of freedom without guilt,

… feeling currents of an appreciation of liberty running through my body…

She visits friends in County Wicklow and sets in motion her plans to visit India.  By bike! taking with her only her bicycle Roz (named after Rozinante, Don Quixote’s steed).

“Having for the past twenty years intended to make this journey, it did not strike me as in any way an odd idea.  I thought then as I still do that if someone enjoys cycling and wishes to go to India, the obvious thing is to cycle there.  Soon, however, I realised that most people were regarding me as either a lunatic or an embryonic heroine…”

The latter I think.  Definitely the latter.  As well as writing books on her experiences in India, Dervla went on to write The Waiting Land about volunteering with refugees in Nepal, and of her further adventures in  Ethopia, Cuba,  Gaza, Israel and Palestine.  She has also written A Place Apart about  Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  All Dervla’s books are available from Eland.

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Do you have any writers who particularly inspire you in this difficult Spring?  I am looking for suggestions for my next reads so please leave me a comment below.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Like a Ghostly Roll of Drums’: Four Inspirational Women Writers Beat the Measure of Life

I’ve been posting about people who have changed or are changing the way we see the world as part of my inspiration for Spring series.  Last week was the turn of the guys . Here are my four  inspirational women writers.

Virginia Woolf

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In Hermione Lee’s 800 page biography of  Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, 1996) there is a photograph of Virginia  wearing her mother’s dress, taken for Vogue in 1926.   The dress appears to be of taffeta silk,  has voluminous puffed sleeves and a lace collar, a fitted waist barely visible in the picture.  It is a lovely photograph, taken at an age when Virginia was in her forties – no longer to be strictly defined as young,  yet she looks it, young, very thin and fragile.

This was the year she wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’.    In the same year there was a general strike and the first ‘talkie’ films would shortly be produced.  In two years time women over 21 would receive the vote.

Perhaps we think of Virginia as fragile in some respects, her illnesses and need to be secreted away from her London life.  But what enormous strength she must have required as a writer and founder of a new way of seeing, as minute examiner of the internal life of her characters (no one reads a Woolf novel for the plot).   Few would argue that Woolf was one the great writers of the 20th century.  Her work created, witnessed and recorded the extraordinary from the ordinary, the epiphanic moment in going to buy the flowers oneself.

Virginia was also a survivor of sexual abuse and incest.  A sufferer from mental illness – for which she became outcast to Richmond from her accustomed London circles, and scion of the famous Bloomsbury group.   She was wife to Leonard and lover to Vita Sackville-West.

I am fascinated as to why she would choose to be photographed in Vogue.  Perhaps it was just an appealing idea;  who doesn’t love to dress up and have a professional quality photo taken?   But perhaps also she was aware of being watched, as a woman, as an artist,  aware of being visible in ways that women were not meant to be visible.

In the novel Orlando, Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the hero Orlando starts life as a man but along the way goes into a trance like state and emerges as a woman.  As Lee points out Orlando’s biographer keeps disassembling then re-assembling Orlando’s selves: a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s sense of her own great variety of selves….

“Her life can be seen as a complicated range of performances.’

Maybe.  But I believe Virginia’s life can also be seen as having been lived to its best and fullest range and as inviting us to a different way of seeing.

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Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit in 2010

This leading light of the feminist movement and author of the famed essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which eventually gave rise to the use of the term ‘mansplaining’, is also a climate activist and documentarian of the changes that urgently need to be made before ‘we see the world in full colour’.

I have reviewed her autobiography Recollections of my Non Existence here.

For decades Solnit has been writing about unconscious bias against women in society and picking apart the ‘normality’ of ways in which women have every aspect of their lives dictated to them – not just women but persons of colour and non-straight people.

“One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality.”

If marginalised and repressed groups are now reclaiming their own realities and ownership of their stories – including herstories – it is because writers like Solnit are helping to highlight the operation of (mainly, white male) power structures and the many ways such people have previously been silenced.

 

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg 2016 portrait.jpg

Someone who understood those power structures,  and spent her life fighting them especially within the US legal system, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This lady has quite a CV and I will briefly reiterate a few elements of it because if this was my CV I would definitely want someone to briefly reiterate a few elements!

  • Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. RBG was one of nine women at Harvard (class of ‘56) – in a class of approximately 500.   She went on to Columbia Law School and to teach and practise law, becoming Professor at Rutgers School of law in 1963.
  • Only the second woman in history to be appointed to the US Supreme Court as a Judge (the first was Sandra Day O’Connor) Ginsburg is the recipient of numerous awards, was listed as an Icon in Time 100 (2015) and by Fortune as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.
  • Dedicating her life to equality for women, Ginsburg was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

In the preface to her book My Own Words (Simon & Schuster, 2016) she writes:

“[in the 1970’s] …  we were engaged in moving the law in the direction of recognizing women’s equal citizenship stature.”

My Own Words  is a collection of Ginsburg’s articles, reviews, essays and speeches including a moving remembrance speech for a colleague and friend – Justice Scalia – who had died unexpectedly.

“I will miss the challenges and the laughter Justice Scalia provoked., his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp, the roses be brought me on my birthday, the chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera.”

Her book can be a challenging read at times but it is incredibly generous, with constant references to others that have paved the way for women in the legal profession.

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Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland

Born in Dublin in 1944, Boland published her first volume of poetry New Territory in 1967 when she was 22.

That early realisation about the complex relationship between power, politics and poetry came to Boland when as a young mother living in Dublin in the early seventies she came to see that her life experience was not included in the male and bardic traditions of Irish poetry that she had grown up reading.

How then to write, if what you wrote was based on someone else’s history?

Eavan Boland said in an interview in 1989:

 “As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent.  There were none in the nineteenth century or early part of the twentieth.  You didn’t have thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets and what you did have was a very compelling and at times oppressive relationship between Irish poetry and the national tradition.”

Through ten books of poetry and numerous essays Boland wrote herself into numerous awards and Honorary Doctorates but more importantly, she wrote herself and all women into being in a new lyrical and feminist writing,  and in so doing altered the course of Irish poetry as well as opening up its history to include untold stories.

The late Irish poet Seán Dunne wrote:  “She has widened the landscape to include things that were always a part of it, but were ignored.”

 

“You can see nothing of her but her head

Bent over the page, her hand moving

Moving again, and her hair.

I wrote like that once.

But this is different.

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.

 

From:  Is it Still the Same?

(References and poem in Eavan Boland : A Sourcebook (Carcanet) 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Existence is a Skill Learned Early

Recollections of my Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit

Recollections of My Non-Existence by [Rebecca Solnit]

“Most urban women, you know, live as though in a war zone …”

When I started Recollections I expected that I might feel some passages were exaggerated or unpalatable.   What is unpalatable of course is not the book – but the gruesome stories Solnit recounts of abuse, rape, murder of female victims – a virulent flow largely unstaunched even today by law making institutions.

What I found instead was a picture of my own life as a young woman only without Solnit’s awareness.  I have lived my own life in fear but considered it normal.   I lived unaware of the compromises I routinely had to make, so normalised were they, adapting what I ‘should’ wear, the things I ‘should’ talk about – especially any needs or wishes of my own. I have left unvisited places I could not safely visit alone or at night.

Even if it is ‘only’ a constant stream of wolf whistles and inappropriate comments that are faced when a woman walks down the street, the message is the same.  They are entitled.  She puts up with it.  Or faces ridicule – no,  hostile disbelief – or blame  and inaction. So she remains silent.

Non existence is a skill learned early.

I have made these adjustments to my life the perfectly valid reason of wishing to remain unmolested, unraped.  But until I read Solnit’s work I never questioned why my universe had to be this way.

A war zone indeed, and one from which the only escape is to grow old.

The adjustments that women have to make in their lives are so normalised and unquestioned that the assumptions upon which our lives are built – any man can treat any woman as he wishes without condemnation or fear of the law – go equally unquestioned.  This may not be the case in the letter of the law.  But the letter of the law is not available to most, and the law is useless where unenforced.

Recollections is Solnit’s own story.  Growing up in San Francisco, her first apartment, friends she made and lost, the choices she made as an artist and a writer, as a reader.   Years of finding a lyrical way of writing away from mere journalism.  Yet much of this book feels elegiac.  As if it has been written for the thousands – probably millions of women – who have been abused and even died at the hands of violent men. Who have been silenced.

What is changing is not – despite Weinstein –  the fact of the matter, but the dialogue. The conversation. The awareness.  And that this is changing is due to some very courageous women.  As Solnit has written sexual assault thrives on the silence of its victims, but not all women are prepared to stay silent any longer.

“I understood that not everyone would welcome my information, and I was prepared for a variety of outcomes, including being dismissed.”

said Dr Christine Blasey Ford who questioned Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to be appointed as a Justice to the Supreme Court of the US alleging that he had sexually assaulted her in 1982.

Yes, we have had the #MeToo movement which claimed Weinstein as a high profile victim and yes we have had the TimesUp movement.  Yet many thousands of attackers and rapists walk the streets without any of the fear of condemnation or blame that their victims must daily suffer.

Solnit is not anti-man.  It is a barb easily thrown at any feminist, a cheap shot offered up by people of both sexes to avoid any questioning of the status quo.  She does not assume that every man is violent –  of course not every man is violent.  Most are not.  But in cultures all over the world the dice are loaded against women in all sorts of ways.

Society is even now reluctant to hear the stories of abused women.  Last autumn I found myself sitting with a friend in the waiting room of a police station (waiting for someone else!) when a young woman came in and started talking to us. She had she said been assaulted at the local college that she attended but had been unable to get the college authorities to intervene or to take any action to support her.   In short, she was not believed.  But at least she had found the courage to bring herself to the police station.

I believe this is due in part to writers like Rebecca Solnit.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Granta Publications for this review copy.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration for Spring: People Who Changed the Way we See The World

There are many who would qualify as having changed the way we see the world,  but I could only pick four, both for my sanity and yours.  Before anyone gets in touch and says they’re all guys, next week I shall be writing about four ladies that changed the way we see the world.

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Is there any more inspiring artist than Van Gogh  both in the intense suffering of his personal life and the transformative and (still) stunningly original nature of his art?.

In letters to his brother Theo (Penguin Classics, 1997), Vincent wrote:

“I don’t know myself how I paint it.”

VanGogh

Although Vincent was unable to describe his working methods,  from his substantial body of letters it is possible to follow the workings of his mind and stand in awe of his  powers of observation.   For example this description of a wood.

Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red ground, is a sky of a very delicate blue-grey, warm, hardly blue at all sparkling.  And against it there is a hazy border of greenness and a network of saplings and yellowish leaves.  A few figures of wood gatherers are foraging about, dark masses of mysterious shadows.

In 1884 Van Gogh wrote to Theo after the latter had complained about the quality of some drawings Vincent had sent and told him his work needed to improve a great deal!

Vincent’s reply was:

“As far as saleability or unsaleability  is concerned, that’s a dead horse I don’t intend to go on flogging.”

One of the prime lessons  Van Gogh’s  life offers us is how to believe in yourself as an artist, when the rest of the world doesn’t.  I often wonder what would he and Theo make of the crowd control measures now necessary outside the Van Gogh Museum in Amerstdam?

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Including poems inspired by the work of Vincent Van Gogh –  No Enemies,  No Hatred  is the title of  a collection of writings by  dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017).

For the role he played in drafting and advocating the human rights manifesto called Charter 08 which called for democratic reform in China,   Liu Xiaobo was arrested and in December 2009 sentenced to 11 years in Jinzhou prison.

In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize much to the chagrin of the authorities in China who tried to prevent any celebration of this award.  Unable even to send a family member to Oslo,   Liu’s Nobel lecture speech was given in absentia and read by the actress Liv Ullman.   He died in July 2017.  Here is an extract from his speech:

“But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed … twenty years ago – I have no enemies and no hatred.  None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.  Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity ….”

 

And on free speech:

“Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.” ~ Liu Xiaobo

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Daisaku Ikeda is one of the world’s foremost living Buddhist philosophers, spiritual leader to millions across the globe who practise Nichiren Buddhism.  He is the recipient of numerous peace and humanitarian awards and author of more than sixty books.

Here he is on the power of reading.

Ikeda

“Reading is dialogue with oneself, it is self-reflection which cultivates profound humanity. Reading is therefore essential to our development.  It expands and enriches the personality like a seed that germinates after a long time and sends forth many blossom laden branches.

People who can say of a book “this changed my life” truly understand the meaning of happiness.  Reading that sparks inner revolution is desperately needed to escape drowning in the rapidly advancing information society,  Reading is more than intellectual  ornamentation, it is a battle for the establishment of the self, a ceaseless challenge that keeps us young and vigorous.”

(Middleway Press, 2006)

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No post on inspiration can be complete without a poet.  But which poet to choose?  I have decided on Rainer Maria Rilke not because I can read him in the original which I can’t sadly, but because the soul tearing profundity of his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is the same in any language.

On Solitude:

And to speak again of solitude, it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something we can choose or reject.  We are solitary.  We can delude ourselves about it, and pretend that it is not so.  That is all.  But how much better it is to realise that we are thus, to start directly from that very point.  Then to be sure, it will come about that we grow dizzy; for all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is infinitely far.

Next week I shall be posting about four inspirational ladies who changed (or are changing)  the way we see the world.

 

 

 

5 Books of Solitude and Isolation

There is a difference between choosing solitude and being forced into isolation.   From the writer’s point of view at least.  But I think for the reader too.  I have struggled in the last week or so to turn to the books on my TBR pile.  My mind is searching for solace.

Before all the chaos started I had finally got into reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy.  But with the greatest respect to her genius, who the hell wants to read about 16th century plagues and beheadings at the moment!

History has left us littered with determined literary isolationists from Thoreau to Yeats, they perhaps were more easily able to arrange their lives to be free of any domestic responsibilities and never once had to go to Lidl or worry about standing six feet apart.

Now in our forced isolation we no longer have the luxury of popping home for Sunday lunch or nipping into town to get a packet of seeds for our nine bean rows.

Here are  five books that find solace in isolation.

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Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton

I first came across this journal of American poet May Sarton about a decade ago and I still return to passages.  She could turn the simplest observation into a wonder.

solitude

“The autumn crocus is marvellous and the lavendar asters, blue flames among the fallen leaves. I picked crocus for the Venetian glass on the mantel in the cozy room, and a few late roses. Then I cooked supper. The puffball was a terrifying mustardy green and tasted rather bitter.”

Sarton said: The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the light of a changing room…

Of Virginia Woolf – inventor of A Room of One’s Own, the work that more than any forged an indelible link between peace and quiet and the writer’s art – Sarton says:

“Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless – not only the novels (every one a breakthrough form) but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, the social life…two houses…”

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My second choice is the wonderful Olivia Laing’s meditation on the art of being alone which I reviewed some time back.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing (Canongate)

lonely

“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

The author writes:

“What does it feel like to be lonely?  It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”

Now here is something interesting.  At the moment no-one is feasting.  No matter where you might go on the planet (in your imagination of course) would it be possible to envisage any feast.   Misfortune is a great leveller in that respect.

Maybe it is harder to feel lonely and isolated indoors when everyone else is in the same boat.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

This story about a young woman trying to transform her life against all the odds is definitely an isolationist’s dream read.

When I originally reviewed this In April 2018 I wrote : ….

“This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.”

Many people loved this book and I was one of them with its message that even the loneliest of us can be fixed if we can just find the will to get up and out the door and address our problems, preferably leaving the vodka bottle in the bin where it belongs.

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For me one of the most perfectly formed literary ‘outsider’ characters is the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

Beirut is a city which has survived numerous attacks and invasions, sometimes from within, sometimes from without.  As with most wars, to those trying to save their ordinary lives from damage and destruction, it hardly matters who the aggressor is.

Aaliya is an elderly woman living alone in an apartment in Beirut. She has lived there alone since her husband left, fighting off the impredations of various half-brothers, in-laws and her despised mother –  who would like to take the apartment away from her.

Aaliya’s life has been books.  She spent her working life in a bookshop and read her way through most of the stock and then some.   All the learning she has acquired has been by reading.  She has an intellectual life which manifests in translating great works of literature into Arabic, including Anna Karenina, and then carefully storing the results away from prying eyes.

Looking back over her war torn city and her life,  Aaliya often feels small and worthless.  She says:

“In order to live,  I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe.”

From the reader’s perspective this lady is no more or less infinitesimal anybody else.  It does have an upbeat ending though.  The narrator thinks she is friendless and alone but finds in her hour of most need that people pop out of the woodwork.

***

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens (Corsair)

crawdads

 

“The Marsh was guarded by a torn shoreline, labelled by early explorers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because riptides, furious winds and shallow shoals wrecked ships like paper hats along what would become the North Carolina Coast.”

From a shack in this environment in the early 1950s, a young mother walks away from her life with a violent husband and from her children.  The youngest child, Kya, is just 7 years old.  For a couple of years she still has the remnants of her family but later Kya’s older brothers and sisters are driven out too.  Eventually the father walks out, leaving Kya alone aged 10 years old, in a shack in the middle of a swamp.

Within the context of the story,  Kya’s survival as the ‘Marsh girl’ as she comes to be known by the locals, is credible although from a modern sensibility it seems unlikely.  Living on the ragged edge of a forgotten and derided community, at a time when there was no social services and certainly no surveillance.   No one noticed much if a child was not in school.

But the scientist author is obviously extremely knowledgeable about the ecology of the marshlands and there are many passages of lyrical description which make up for any slightly suspect plot points.

 

 

Daemons, Giants but Mostly Elves – A Brief Walk Round the Literary Marketplace

Unlike the real literary marketplace which is peopled by giants with 3 for 1 tables and  websites with a zillion hits,   the blogosphere literary reviews marketplace is peopled by elves.

Book elves,  that’s us folk who love to read and who do an awful lot of it and some of the books we love we hope and pray that someone else may love as well.  And even if they don’t or they can’t get to it right now well, there’s still a conversation to be had.

***

Sometimes I think there is too much ‘should this’ and ‘should that’ around reading.Too much of the latest thing, the big hype.  Happy the writers who are on the beneficial end of being the next big thing but that is a small number of people.

Meanwhile there is the rest of us.

At a time when we are sharply being reminded of the porous nature of our national borders have chosen I would like to share something from one of Philip Pullman’s essays ‘Children’s Literature without Borders’ from his collection entitled Daemon Voices (David Fickling Books).  The  His Dark Materials trilogy writer talks about the art of storytelling and why children’s literature ‘shouldn’t need passports’.

Can we read the wrong things or read things for the wrong reasons?  There are those that will say we can.

Reading for the wrong reasons is something that the guards on the border never do, but which other people do all the time unless they are supervised.

What Pullman is referring to  is the reading of adult books by children or vice versa.  This is different, he points out, to feminists writing books for other feminists, or gardeners writing books for other gardeners.  Children’s books are written by adults and most usually bought by adults.

When we categorise books and reading we are more likely shutting folk out than being inclusive.  He likes to imagine the literary marketplace as if it were precisely that.

A busy place with lots of people buying and selling, stopping for a gossip, a cup of coffee, or to watch a juggler or stop to listen to the storyteller…

The real literary marketplace is not like that.   There are many intermediaries who come between the storyteller and his audience, who come bearing gifts or influence, or gifts of influence, advice, marketing, ticket sales, book signings.

When Pullman wrote this in 2001 we were pretty much pre-internet.  But to me the blogosphere has become the nearest thing we have to that bustling market place that Pullman envisaged – unlike the shop with its regulated shelves for this age group or that age group,  books specially for women, or specially for men, cookbooks for those who like to eat, diet books for those who like to diet, books on politics for clever people.

A book blog is not a place of  commercial influence, or very few.  I guess that’s not why people do it.  It’s certainly not why I do it.   So why do it?  Do I hope to make a fortune? Hah!

I blog  to be part of a community.  Because someone may stop by for a chat or a virtual coffee, agree or say I’ve read that book too and it was amazing (or total rubbish).     At other times people may rush on by.   And that’s fine too.

Meanwhile, excuse me, I need to go and watch the juggler and listen to that storyteller over there …

 

 

 

If you do not like the way we tell our story then you are an enemy of the state…

Who shall have control over the story? The grand narratives.  Who allows or disallows them? Who decides what punishments shall follow on from perceived breaches?

Salman Rushdie’s  posed this question in his autobiographical work Joseph Anton (2012) which I have recently re-read.   It is a question that is more urgent than ever.    For the ‘crime’ of having written The Satanic Verses – a novel claimed to be anti-Islam – Rushdie was sentenced to death, by a citizen he had never met of a country he had never visited.



Anton

Attempts to control ‘the story’ are only increasing as the world turns back to nationalistic governments and the word ‘security’ is regularly  used as carte blanche for  breaches of human rights.

Famed whistleblowers, journalists, artist and writers await their fate either in prison or exile, it is a question more urgent than ever.   Do we know how much fear stalks the world of writing and publishing ?   For those who peddle it, fear is its own reward.

Right now, there are countries in the world where journalists and writers live under constant threat of imprisonment or worse. Bloggers too.  Pen International, an organization that works to protect freedom of thought and expression, regularly updates its website and hosts a Day of the Imprisoned Writer which reminds us:

Without literature, there can be no meaningful freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, there can be no meaningful literature…

With a murderous team of jihadists after his blood Rushdie entered  a tunnel of fear, surveillance and protection, for himself and his family as well (at the time he had a young son), a scenario mostly terrifying, sometimes bleakly comic,   trailing from borrowed property to borrowed property with a team of protection officers with varying degrees of patience.

He was fortunate (if that’s the right term) that these events just predated the internet age.  At least someone had to look you in the eye to kill you back then.  In fact the author admits that is probably the only reason he survived.

The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered; there were savage attacks on the Italian and Norwegian translators of the book although the latter two thankfully survived. These were people stood up with courage for their beliefs that somewhere, there has to be a bottom line.  But what was the bottom line? Rushdie describes it as:

  “the freedom of the imagination and the overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech, and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own countries without fear.”

We think that (within the laws of libel) we are free to think and write as we wish but it isn’t true.   Whose story is this and who has the right to tell it?  Who owns our history, our mythology, our religions? As Rushdie states:

In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased.  It was the argument itself that mattered.  The argument was freedom.  But in a closed society those who possessed  political or ideological power tried to shut down these debates.  We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means.  We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it any other way.  If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state…

In the age of Julian Assange, the questions posed by this book are as relevant as ever.  Perhaps not for people who like to believe everything they’re told by the newspapers, but for the rest of us, I recommend it.

 

 

 

 

In the place where I grew up, and in the time that I grew up  I never felt safe on the streets. 

This is not because I grew up in a particularly violent place – not at all.   I never felt safe on the streets because I was an object.   An object about which or to which people could say or do more or less as they chose, and with impunity.  I did not understand this at the time.  Or if I understood it,  it was normal.  We objects, we just carried on, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions of us.   We wore hotpants,  thought we were liberated, worked in offices where single paragraph letters were dictated to us, as if we were the machines which would shortly be invented.

I was not a child in Victorian England (!) but I may as well have been.  But hey that’s all history, now.  We’ve moved on right?

I take my hat off to Keira Knightley. In a recent newspaper interview to promote her latest film Misbehaviour (2020 Dir.  Philippa Lowthorpe) about the Women’s Liberation Movement and the 1970 Miss World contest. she said she was keen to work with more female directors.  You go girl.  But it may not be the path to awards heaven, however good you are.

In 2019 The Souvenir directed by Joanna Hogg starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke.  The film is a lavishly photographed, beautifully restrained, semi-auto-biographical story of a young film maker student and her relationship with an older, enigmatic man.  It was completely ignored at the awards as were – from a directorial point of view –  Greta Gerwig’s two films Ladybird (2017) and Little Women (2019) both starring the inimitable and profoundly talented Saoirse Ronan.

This year’s celebratory awards went to a macho spin off from a 1950s comic book glorifcation of violence  (in the place where I grew up and in the time I grew up, I never felt safe on the streets)  and the ultra violent, gruesome and in my eyes completely pointless Parasite  which raised the spectre of equality to the level of ‘everybody dies’.  In that at least it was accurate.   

“Patriarchy kills off women and stories to maintain its power.  

(Rebecca Solnit)

And our film industry celebrates that.  One of the ways it does this is by either completely ignoring, or at least failing to promote,  stories about women told through the eyes of women.

 

 

 

 

 

Pussy Riot – voices of protest in the new revolution

Lacking nothing of courage and determination to fight for human rights,  comes this book  Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina a member of the collective Pussy Riot, a new generation of Russian dissidents who made world headlines when in 2012 they performed, a punk rock song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in support of feminist and LGBT issues and in  protest against Putin whom Alyokhina describes as “the little grey KGB agent”.

Riot Days

After the Church episode, Alyokhina and another band member were arrested, granted no bail and held in prison for months until their trial whereupon they received two year sentences for ‘hooliganism and religious hatred’.  Whilst in prison Alokyina kept a record of various trials and tribulations suffered by herself and fellow prisoners and worked to protect the prisoners rights.

‘Riot is always a thing of beauty.  That is how I got interested,’ writes Alyokhina.  Certainly she must have needed every ounce of that vision to survive what was to come.   Following on in the footsteps of Varlam Shalamov, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Osip Mandelstam (not in literary achievement but definitely in courage)  this energetic and thought provoking diary deals briefly with the events themselves which led to her arrest, and more fully with her time in prison.  Described variously by critics as the ‘literary equivalent of guerrilla street art’ and ‘a punk call to arms’, what came across most for me was the writer’s refusal to lie down and accept the lethal logic of an oppressive system even when it would have been easier for her to do so.  At the end of the day how many people have the courage to go to prison for their beliefs – especially a prison in Russia! Only a handful of human beings.

Activism is always the hardest choice.  Who wouldn’t rather be at home – Aloykhina is the mother of a child –  than freezing on a pavement somewhere or in prison?  But the point of activism is that those who undertake it, feel they have no choice.    And Russia has a long history of people who felt they had no choice.

***

Anna Akhmatova was able to document the suffering of her country in sublime poetry.  Although she herself was not imprisoned – they took away her son Lev and banned her from the Writers Union and from selling her poems so that she almost starved to death.  She wrote:

Our separation is imaginary:

We are inseparable,

My shadow is on your walls,

My reflection in your canals,

The sound of my footsteps in the Hermitage halls

Where my friend walked with me

And in the ancient  Volkov Field

Where I can freely weep

Over the silence of common graves.

 ‘Poem without a Hero’. The Collected Poems of Anna Akhmatova.

Trans. Judith Hemschemeyer

 

Osip Mandelstam I have read although of course only in translation and the two volumes Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned written by Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda about their life together under Stalin’s murderous regime, trailing from place to place,  exile to exile, trying to keep body, soul and papers together.  Mandelstam died in a transit camp, awaiting deportation to the gulag.  He had signed his own death warrant writing a 13 line poem calling Stalin a murderer and peasant slayer.

What a tormented relationship Russia has with its literati.    The poet Irina Ratushinskaya wrote two books Grey is the Colour of Hope in which she describes the punishing conditions of women prisoners in a labour camp where she was sent in 1983, aged only 28, for writing poems about freedom and in which she endured four years of  brutality and extreme deprivation.

After the success of this book, Ratushinskaya wrote a prequel In the Beginning in which she wrote of her formative years and childhood in Odessa, meeting her future husband Igor Geraschenko,  her growing awareness of human rights abuses and the desire to do something about it and how the two of them worked together to circulate samizdat literature (illegal books like the works of Solzhenitsyn).  Although Ratushinskaya survived her time in the camp – eventually leaving Russia and going to live in the US, there is no doubt that the privations, hunger and illness she suffered during her time in prison shortened her life.