The Double Edged Sword of the Literary Prize – and The Legend of The Tiger’s Wife

Prizes can be a double edged sword.  Yes it’s great to win them, the publicity, the fuss, the champagne, what’s not to die for?  But maybe this draws attention away from equally worthy writing.  But then we have to live in the real world, which costs money, etc.  So I go round in circles.

I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.  What a talented lot of writers are out there.   It occurred to me that I knew nothing about the ethos of the prize so looked it up.

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction came about after a group of people – journalists, novelists, agents, publishers, came together in 1992 in a flat in London.   The Booker Prize of 1991 had included no women at all, and the group got together to discuss whether this mattered and what should be done about it.

The novelist Kate Mosse, one of the founder members of the prize, writes on the website:

“After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!”

Originally sponsored by Orange, the prize is currently sponsored by Deloitte, Nat West and Bailey’s.

I have a  natural aversion to commercial sponsorship of literary prizes.  But I am overcoming that on the grounds that we have to live in the real world and to do this costs money, plus I understand authors badly need the publicity and book sales which a win brings in its wake.   I am also struggling to overcome my even more natural aversion to having Orange or Deloitte tell me what to read.  Yet I have come to the conclusion I must at least to some extent get off my high horse about commercial sponsorship of literary prizes and the arts in general – with the exception of fossil fuel companies or bad pharma naturally.

 

Also I worry what are the criteria against which these things are judged?  It is gobsmacking that even in the final decade of the 20th century books by women were not thought worthy of even longlisting for a major prize.  Yes this is true according to Wiki.  Unbelievable but true!  We’re not talking 19th century here, we talking 1990s.

Since the inception of The Booker Prize (in 1969) 31 men have won, 16 women.    But when in 2019 Margaret Atwood won for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other (the latter being incidentally the first black woman ever to win)  there was reason to hope that things were changing.  I would like to think that this change is in part due to the influence and the success of the Women’s Prize.

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Still I digress, back to the shortlist.  Téa Obreht’s book  The Tiger’s Wife  is set against the background of war in The Balkans fought in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia – therefore in the last decade of the 20th century.

If this book was  a cake recipe it would contain a splash of realism, a large handful of magic realism and (like Jenny Offill’s book Weather) a dollop of insight into the losses we incur faced with our failing relationship with the natural world that sustains us.  As a story, it is quite hard to sum up.  It is a storyteller’s book which juggles a seemingly realist narrative against a world of spirit and superstition.   In short it is rather wonderful.

“The tree stands near the fence where the braided cornfields begin, and Marko Parovic tells me the people of Galina avoid it all costs; its branches he says cast a net in which souls are caught as they rise to heaven and the ravens that roost there pick the souls out of the bark like worms.”

The tiger’s wife is not real – or she is real in the minds of some of the locals – which leads to tragedy and then legend.  There is a deathless man and two Doctors, one the granddaughter of the other who form the backbone of the narrative.  There is of course, a tiger, and some of the writing about him form the most lyrical passages in the book.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December.  Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees; but on that day, the herdsman Vladiša lost a calf in the blizzard and went up the mountain to retrieve it.  In a thicket of saplings, he came across the tiger yellow eyed and bright as a blood moon, with the calf already dead, hanging in its jaws.”

Someone from The Guardian describes  the story as a ‘matryoshka-style narrative’ referring to the Russian dolls that nest one inside the other, which seems to me an ideal description.   The Tiger’s Wife is a story on many levels, some of them real, some mythological.

The question is whether it works overall.  I found it very readable and readily entertaining, thought provoking and humane.  Will it win?  Who knows.  Obreht is obviously massively talented, but there is strong competition.  I’d love to know what others think about literary prizes.

Next up is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.

 

Someone Should Write a History of Snow While we Still Know What it Looks Like: A Review of ‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill

I have made a start on my reading of the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

So first out of the blocks is a book published by Granta Publications Jenny Offill’s Weather.

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This is not a lengthy book, coming in at around 200 pages. Offill plays with technique, but not in a mad way that makes you never want to go to Newburyport or see another duck as long as you live.   Nevertheless there is a certain experimentalism in the presentation of the prose in separated paragraphs throughout.

I love this – that you can breathe in between. Sometimes there is a separate thought or action in the new paragraph  and sometimes there is not. But there is nothing disjointed or irritating about the work which I felt flowed very well.   If this is stream of consciousness  then it is the sort that I can happily live with!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It immediately put me in mind of the work of poet and sometime genius Ocean Vuong who has popped up with an endorsement on the cover. ‘This is so good,’ states Vuong, ‘we are not ready nor worthy.’

I’m not sure if I feel unworthy or unready for Offill’s work but I sort of see where the comment is coming from. This book is indeed very good and I feel I want to read it again.

So the blurb on the fly leaf posits this work as being about a lady called Lizzie Benson working as a librarian – without a traditional degree (shock, horror). She has supported for years her Mother and recovering addict brother. Lizzie takes on a project to answer mail for a podcast host/philosopher and lecturer called Sylvia who gets too much mail and who throughout the book seems to withdraw further and further into silence.

And although the book does do these things, the blurb fails to mention entirely that Lizzie is primary carer for her son Eli and that she is happily married to Ben, that she acquires a sister in law and a niece along the way. So in common with most women she spends her days juggling multiple responsibilities alongside her paid work. Her brother Henry requires a huge amount of support – particularly when he is rather unsuitably left in charge of a newborn baby – time and effort which Lizzie, in saintly fashion, never begrudges.

But the narrative of events takes second place against a background of 21st century hysteria and incipient climate crisis:

“Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life altering temperatures by 2047.”

Someone should write a history of snow while we still know what it looks like.

Weather must have been written pre-Corvid but it is an ideal and timely read for this crisis. Offill’s writing defies both categorisation and bland description. I recommend reading it to find out what it does. It certainly deserves its place on the short-list. Will it win?  It is so very different in scope and tone from some of the others on the list  – at least the ones that I have so far read – and yet the role of a novel is to describe to people the times they are living through so that they recognise themselves in the story, or the times their ancestors lived through, or the times we might live through in the future.  And all the shortlisted books do this.

I feel Weather crumbles a bit at the end but that is no doubt deliberate because society will crumble a bit at the end

I do hope to have a punt at the winner before an announcement is made, but it is too early to say if I will choose Weather.

This Fight Belongs to Us All. Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dara McAnulty

As we all go quietly crazy during this crisis it is worth remembering that for some the  constant routine, walking the same route day in, day out, knowing exactly what comes next,  is a positive, necessary even, for stability and mental health.  But things are not going to be the same for anyone.  Regardless of the virus, the future has a big question mark over it.

Writers of the future will have their work cut out to represent what it was like to be alive in the year 2020. We have a crisis within a crisis.  Corona within climate crisis. Do present day writers and poets have their heads stuck firmly in the climate crisis sand? Maybe some.

But one young man is already ahead of the game.   Dara McAnulty, a teenager living in Northern Ireland with his family has written Diary of a Young Naturalist published by the excellent Little Toller Books   –  an independent family run press in Dorset which publishes books on the natural world.

I am grateful to have found this press on a list of indie publishers on Susan Osborne’s blog A Life in BooksThank you Susan.

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Firstly, Dara’s book as physical item.  At £16 the book is not cheap.  But it is such a joy to hold a well produced hard cover copy with an attractively designed dust jacket after years of struggling with e-reader annotation systems most of which are clunky and dire.

This copy is a joy to hold;  the pleasing heft of good quality paper .   It reminds me of a time when there were book collectors, and that books were collected as much for appearance as content.

Divided like the year into sections on Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter the book is a diary about a young boy’s love of, understanding of and connections to the natural world.   Despite being only 15 years of age, McAnulty writes with a passionate lyricism,  a wisdom – and yes, vision –  about birds, plants, animals and trees.   And oh boy, can this young man write.

I’m lying on the ground looking up at the branches of an oak tree.  Dappled light is shining through the canopy, the leaves whisper ancient incantations.  This tree, in its living stage, rooted in sights and sounds that I’ll never know, has witnessed extinctions and wars, loves and losses.  I wish we could translate the language of trees – hear their voices, know their stories.”

Sadly some of Dara’s school friends do not understand or share his passion and it is clear that he suffers cruelly from bullying at school and from a sense of belonging nowhere except the forests, nature reserves and gardens that he craves.   The fear of school – its rigid lack of understanding of an individual child’s needs, its focus on conformity  – is a constant although sometimes unspoken presence in the early stages of the story.  Anyone who knows the  feeling of being an outsider, can take comfort from this writing as well as from the victories it describes.  And in Summer, he finds a friend…

In fact the very existence of this book is an indictment of educational systems.    Dara tells us that his parents  were once told by a teacher:  ‘Your son will never be able to complete a comprehension, never mind string a paragraph together.’

Yet, as Dara says, here we are.

And where we are – or desperately need to be – is recognising, encouraging and educating the naturalists of the future rather than disparaging them.  Because we need them badly.    Thank goodness young people are taking the lead – the school strikes for climate for example in which Dara has taken part.   These young people are the ones that will have to solve the problems that self-serving older generations have left behind.  Our legacy of destruction.

Yes this is a fantastic book and yes I heartily recommend it to anyone even vaguely concerned about the disappearance of our natural world.   But mostly it is a call to action.    Dara doesn’t want anyone to tell him how great he is, or what a role model he is. He just wants us to educate our children and grandchildren to join in his conservation efforts.

The RSPB website reminds us:

 Nature is still in crisis, with more than 40 million birds having vanished from UK skies in just 50 years and one in ten of our wildlife are critically endangered.

Nature has powerful allies in the new, young generations who refuse to accept expedience and compromise, who do not rely on vague hopes that it will probably be OK or someone else will sort it.   This fight belongs to us all.

 

Lockdown Summer? With no books!

Well the weather is sunny here in  London but all else seems much awry. Are we facing a whole summer in lockdown? With closed bookshops?   I very much hope not. 

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

The good news is that I have discovered that my local bookshop is still doing deliveries – it took me weeks to have the commonsense to check their website to find out.  I am so over buying things from certain online giants who shall remain nameless that I’m only reading real books from now on!

Here is a look at some of my planned summer reads. These books are from the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 #ReadingWomenChallenge which includes both suggested reads and books from the 2020 prize shortlist. It’s an exciting list.

From the 2020 prize shortlist, I will not be reading the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and the Light because I haven’t yet read the second book.

Some of their suggested books I have already read:

  • Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin which I read some years ago and is shattering and iconic and I don’t think I could add anything to the reams that have already been written about it.
  • Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna which I adored and preferred to her more recent books Flight Behaviour and Unsheltered, the latter reviewed here.
  • I have already reviewed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo here.
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So here are my TBR’s from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2020.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ((Fourth Estate) 2006

This book is so famous I can’t believe I haven’t got to it yet. I am now rectifying that mistake. The story is set in Nigeria in the 1960s against the backdrop of approaching civil war. I am only a couple of chapters in but I already love the compelling character of the house boy, Ugwu, Odenigbo the man he calls Master, and the elegant soon to be arriving Olanna. There is a palpable atmosphere about the early chapters and I look forward to learning much about Africa through the story.

 

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Wiedenfield & Nicholson) 2011

The sound of this storyline is intriguing. There is an intergenerational mystery which is always a winner with me. When a tiger escapes from the local zoo – what happened to the boy who refused to be terrified of the escaped tiger? His grandaughter would very much like to know. Her investigations will, apparently,  lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book …

This is also partly a war time story set during the conflict in the Balkans.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December. Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees…”

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships (Mantle) 2019

Natalie Haynes gives voice to all the women – not just the famous Helen – whose lives were affected by the fall of Troy. No longer are women the minor characters in the stories of men.

The blurb reads:

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greems and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash….

If and when I can get copies, I will add other shortlisted titles including:

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farell 

Weather by Jenny Offill

 Dominicana by Angie Cruz.

and hope to announce my own winner before the Judges decide in the Autumn. 

“You too have seen the sun a bird of fire” International Dylan Thomas Day

For all the great Welsh poet could sometimes be inaccessible – here he is being utterly … well, just utterly Dylan.
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You too have seen the sun a bird of fire
Stepping on clouds across the golden sky,
Have known man’s envy and his weak desire,
Have loved and lost.
You, who are old, have loved and lost as I
All that is beautiful but born to die,
Have traced your patterns in the hastening frost.
And you have walked upon the hills at night,
And bared your head beneath the living sky,
When it was noon have walked into the light,
Knowing such joy as I.
An extract from ‘Youth Calls to Age’

Dylan Thomas: The Poems. Edited and Intro. Daniel Jones (Everyman) 1991
Photo from the offical Dylan Thomas Website
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There is a live reading of Under Milk Wood on May 14th at 8.15pm GMT here.

When writerly technique stares at you with bloodshot eyes …

It’s not often I rant on this blog.  But there are a number of things I feel very strongly about: income inequality for instance,   surveillance,   online giants who put bookshops out of business – oh and punctuation!

I am not talking about ‘correct’ punctuation or the efficacy of semi-colons or full stops or commas or apostrophes.    But there are a few  books around at the moment that see no reason to use any, ever.  Either that or they bombard you with  legions and legions of commas and little else.     Lucy Ellman’s book Ducks, Newburyport is an example.  ( Galley Beggar Press. )

 

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The fact that this book contains 1020 pages broken down into a mere 8 sentences, the fact that according to the Guardian review you eventually stop noticing the fact that, the fact that may or may not be true, the fact that I never got to the point where I could find out whether that was a fact or not, the fact that the book won awards and was shortlisted for the Booker prize, the fact that it still drives me absolutely bonkers.

My patient and much admired reviewer above said:

“There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type…”

This I can understand.

Our poor brains derive meaning not just from one word to the next – but range back and forth across  paragraphs, pages or chapters, across clauses and sub-clauses because our poor brains need to take a break sometimes, or mine does.   Punctuation, like life,  is an opportunity to breathe. Punctuation is like the rests in a musical notation or rhthym.  Punctuation is the give-me-a-break friend of the sentence, our saviour from massive indigestible and exhausting tons of words piled unceasingly one after the other across 1020 pages.

Yes its true our minds produce things in bits:  ideas, dreams, scraps of proposed speech, memories, anger, to-do lists.  Our thoughts dart from one thing to another.  That was how stream of consciousness started and how Virginia Woolf used it.   But not many people can do what Virginia Woolf did.     And how interesting are the contents of my mind – or anyone else’s – if there are thousands of reams of stuff put down in no particular order?

Aye but here’s the rub.  Because of course in books there is an order so why pretend there is not?   For  all its technical in-your-face-ery Ducks, Newburyport is still a story  about a  woman in Ohio looking back across her life.  And oh boy can this lady look back.

Ducks’ author Lucy Ellman is  the daughter of James Joyce according to my much admired Guardian reviewer,  and therefore I do not get into a discussion about what should or should not constitute stream of consciousness because I really do not know.  I only know what I find manageably readable.  I only know when writerly technique rams itself into your face about an inch away and stays there staring at you with bloodshot eyes going “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah”  for 1000 pages  it’s time to close the book and your eyes in sheer exhaustion.

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From the same publisher comes Toby Litt’s Patience.  This is certainly not anything like 1000 pages long nor is it comprised of one sentence.  Here – oh joy, one may find such luxuries as full stops and paragraphs  although now I look again not very many commas.  Hardly any in fact. OK. None.

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I worry slightly that this stream of consciousness thing is catching.

Litt’s story concerns itself with a  young boy who suffers from cerebral palsy.  He lives in an orphanage run by nuns. The date is 1979.

There are many things to love about this book.   Not least the poignant way even well meaning human beings treat the disabled.    We have access to the narrator Elliott’s interior rebellion  which his disability renders impossible to action.  But when a new boy Jim comes to the ward, the rebellion is definitely on!

Elliott’s  age is not given.  He measures his life in Christmas Cards from his family at the beginning of the book which itself a bit of tear jerker and then later on he measures his life in days after Jim’s arrival.

Elliott has been unable to engage with any traditional education but has spent a large amount of time listening to the radio and taught himself, particularly about music.    He has very cogent and philosophical thoughts some of which are about the nature of god, guilt and Jesus.

“Creation must be forgiveness or else God is not God but Jehovah Jesus is not Jesus by the Thief and the Holy Spirit is not Holy but Hollow and is not a Spirit but a Sprite full of Spite and full of Holes and thus was I angry that afternoon at the Sisters and especially Sister Britta for making a guiltless boy pray to a guilty God or a God who did not exist making him pray for forgiveness for a sin that never existed except in the guilty head of a Sister.”

If you feel out of breath after reading the above quote, the whole book is like this but at least it feels to be like there is some internal logic to this idea.  Elliot cannot speak so the whole book is one long thought.    But Litt, unlike his stable mate Ellman, writes sentences that we know will end sometime although in opposition to Ducks, Patience takes out most of the commas, it is at least possible to tune in to a natural rhythm in these sentences.

Elliott befriends  Jim, a new boy on the ward.  Jim is not pliable.  He persists in defiance.   Taking up a position by a wooden gate between the ward and the lift, between the ward and the exit and freedom and the normal lived world that is inaccessible to these children.   But  to stand thus is very much Against the Rules.   Jim is not allowed to stand by the wooden gate and he knows this.  But he challenges the authority of the nuns by doing so.

I liked the wooden gate.  It was a brilliant metaphor for the shut away-ness of lives that are seen as other, as less.

 

From Glow Worms to the Avian Death Count in New York … and a Stork Arrested for Spying ‘Vesper Flights’ by Helen Macdonald

… from climate change to mushrooms to drone warfare, Vesper Flights is the new book by Helen Macdonald ( of H is for Hawk fame).  It’s been a long wait since 2014.   In that earlier award winning book the author wrote an account of how in the midst of grieving for her father, she struggled to train a Goshawk – named Mabel.

As a naturalist, Macdonald’s  work ranges widely across different species and ecologies.  As a writer she always finds the perfect analogy between whatever is happening out there in the natural world and what is also happening to the rest of us.  Needless to say at a time of global crisis that we are going through now, our relationship to nature seems even more confused and tormented.

Macdonald’s work epitomises the new nature writing.  I believe very few people can combine the passion and lyricism of superb writing with deep scientific knowledge born a lifetime of study, the way she does.

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There are things we know about birds and there are still even more things we don’t. Although it lacks some of the focus on narrative of her earlier book, Vesper Flights ranges across the myriad topics on which the author is knowledgeable.   The way we view birds and animals, the way we talk about them, name them, label them, treat them, ignore them, and often kill them either intentionally or not,  comes back in the end Macdonald writes, to the culture we inhabit and how we view ourselves.

Birdwatching, hours and hours spent watching  with the naked eye or through field glasses has been a hobby, a habit, an obsession, a career of us humans for as long as there have been birds and eyes or  field glasses through which to view them.  For beings that don’t talk, they connect to us and we to them.  They connect us to each other and to our history.

Macdonald writes:

“… I remember a British officer called Peter Conder who spent the Second World War in prison camps in Germany.  He survived by watching birds.  Goldfinches. Wrynecks.  Migrating crows picking through the waste spread on the frozen fields.  Hours and days and years on end.  When he came home he  didn’t talk.  He stayed with his sister and stared out of the window at London starlings roosting in long lines on ledges of Portland stone.”

He observed that the birds always stood a certain distance apart but close enough to deliver a rebuke to his neighbour.  He christened it the principle of pecking distance.

And before that around the time of the First World War, a man called Henry Eliot Howard decided that birds held territories too.  That males sang to other males as warnings.  That brightly coloured plumage was warning.  The naturalist Peter Scott noted from the deck of a naval destroyer on which he was serving that somehow the mallards and teal in the reed beds of Slapton Sands were what he was fighting to protect. “That somehow they were England.”

And somehow the birds are still England, enervated, etiolated, disappearing, besieged by wrong headed ideologies.

It has happened before, Macondald writes.    As ideologies and systems collapse we “seek ourselves in the mirror of the countryside”  See nature as refuge.

But nature is more often  encountered on TV and video than in living reality these days,  or through nature reserves’ – living museums of flora and fauna which once covered the land.

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Many thousands of animals and birds – swans, sea turtles even bears and whales – are tagged and tracked every year, in our efforts to understand migration patterns and understand the dangers they face.

“The particulate beauty of unimagined hordes of lives that aren’t our own, tracked minute by minute across the sky and rising out of mystery.”

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We survey our remaining birds as we ourselves are under surveillance. But often the biggest danger that they face is us.  We congratulate ourselves on our ability to watch the progress of thousands of tagged birds on the internet (a cuckoo named David is reported as reaching home in Wales safely) yet are powerless to intervene to save any that meet difficulties.

That sense of powerlessness is playing out all across the globe as we face as invisible virus and our paranoia increases to the extent that a stork can be captured and arrested on suspicion of carrying an electronic spying device!   Technological dominance is reaching out  gory tentacles to encompass the design of and the intentional imitation of birds and insects in drone warfare.  Poignant avatars, as Macdonald describes these avian victims, for human fears and conflicts.

The birds are caught in the middle.  But now, humans are caught in the middle too of things which are completely beyond our understand and control. The twin dangers of Corvid 19 and climate change.

“Summer storms conjure distance and time but conjure too all the things that come towards us over which we have no control.  Such storms have their place in literature, the heavy air and mood of suppressed emotion as the storm brews so often standing for an inevitable catastrophe.   

And I can’t help but think this is the weather we are all now made of.  All of us waiting.  Waiting for news.  Waiting for Brexit to hit us.  Waiting for the next revelation about the Trump administration.  Waiting for hope, stranded in that strange light that stills our hearts before the storm of history.”

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Thank you to #NetGalley and #Grove Press (New York) for this review copy.  All views are my own.

“I Had Been at Camusfeàrna Eight Years Before I Piped Water to the House ….” A Review of Gavin Maxwell’s trilogy ‘Ring of Bright Water’

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)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/91/Full_Tilt.jpg

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

virginia_woolf_quote

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