Entries in books (13)

Tuesday
Oct282014

silence II

 

'Some people say you can hear the northern lights, that they whoosh or whistle. Silence, icebergs, musk oxen, and now the aurora borealis - the phenomena of the Arctic. This is why we've come here. This is why we are out on the freezing deck at midnight.

Polly comes up beside me and pokes me as best she can through all the layers of clothes. With head tilted back she whispers, 'They are changing without moving', which is true, and I fall to wondering if there are other ways of changing without moving. Growing older perhaps, as we are. Reforming one's attitudes, maybe.

...

Among the passengers are doctors, dentists and engineers: people, it would seem, of professional certainty. People like myself - and Polly, I suspect - who don't quite know what we are. Who know only that we live short lives, that we float on the surface of a powerful silence on the surface of a mile-deep fjord, with icebergs, that we're driven by some sort of life force, flickering and green.'

 

Kathleen Jamie 'Aurora' Sightlines

Thursday
Oct102013

known unknown


 

I had hardly begun to read

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really 

any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don't write ...

 

W. S. Merwin 'Berryman' from Opening the Hand (1983)

 

In my teenage years I searched for answers in the shake of coins or in the symbols on an astrology chart. Now my divination of choice is the random opening of books. These words, found in an old notebook while I dithered and grumbled and in the full grip of not knowing, came as a stern reminder. You can't really know so get on with it. Sigh. Is it cheating to search again for a message that I would prefer to hear? 

Sunday
Mar172013

wing's beat


Twice weekly I sit pool side as Joel swims into the early evening and those little pockets of time have become an unexpectedly pleasurable part of my week. Once I've thrown off all the layers I need in the world outside, and am better placed to withstand the throat-catching heat, I settle into my nook at the back of the stands and gaze on the activity around the pool.  

For a few minutes it's like watching birds flock and gather: all is flurry, noise and motion as busy chattering mingles with the slip-slurp of wet feet and the colour-flash of swimsuits as girls bend heads to knees to fold long hair into hats. The young boys laugh and wheel their arms in animation; their long limbs lengthened further by the monochrome stretch of knee-length lycra. The older ones hold their bodies awkwardly, watching the girls shyly from under still-dry fringes. Then groups begin to slip into the pool, stopping momentarily with the cold shock of water, before arms and legs start moving and the whole pool becomes alive with the grace of bodies in water. No longer boy and girl, in the water they become swimmer - athlete. Finally, as the air calms into the regular soothing rhythm of churn and splash, the busy hum of my mind calms and I reach into the chaos of my bag and pick out a book.

Over the last couple of sessions I've been reading Kathleen Jamie's intimate, weather-filled essay collection Sightlines. I close my eyes and think about the book. I think of wind, light, birds, sea, sky, home. Transience. A startling, poetic precision of language that sometimes made me shiver. But I can't separate my experience of reading of it from the sensation of itchy, chloriney heat and yellow light on blue water and the simple, touching pleasure of watching children determinedly ploughing back and forth. Watching, amongst others, my child. In the final paragraph of the final essay - Wind - she writes:

'There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing's beat and it's gone. 

That wing's beat echoes in the arc and stretch of the young arms pulling through water in front of me as I read; pulling, striving, growing. Growing up and away. A wing's beat - and they're gone. 

 

Sunday
Jan132013

offering

 

 

You meet people so easily! Mom said, when I smiled at the man who changed the car oil, who smiled back. Certainly I had very little competition, since Joseph smiled at no one, and Dad just flashed his teeth, and Mom's smiles were so full of feeling that people leaned back a little when she greeted them. It was hard to know just how much was being offered. 

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

A curious little book that I slipped through during a late afternoon, it caught me out with scratchy, unexpected and often uncomfortable recognitions. It lingers. 

 

Monday
Jul022012

simplify

In 1978, back in Britain for a few months, we rented a gloomy old vicarage just outside Oxford. This was our sixth move in nine years. Uprooting small children and raising them in other people's homes quadruples the strains of parenting. I was shattered. I was miserable. 

One afternoon, I was stripping down the double bed, barely listening to whatever was on the radio. Then, suddenly, out of it came the sound of dripping rain so real I stopped flapping sheets around and lay flat on my back staring up at the ceiling. 

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Silence downstairs. (One was asleep under the piano she'd been banging for hours, the other deep in a book). And for a few moments I was truly there, in that dripping radio forest, with wet bracken and soft soil under my feet. 

And then I heard: "Simplify, simplify." I realise now it must have been a reading from Thoreau's Walden. But then I didn't know and didn't care. I just got up and switched off the radio. It really did work like the voice of God. From that day on, my life changed. I know what I care about. Everything else - I let slip. I barely shop, except for food and necessities. I have fewer possessions - and am happier - than almost anyone I know. 

Years later, in a Chinese restaurant called Blue Sky, I read the mesage in my fortune cookie. "You can have what you want most in the world, but to pay for it you must give up what you wanted second and third." Everyone else round the table looked glum when I read it. But I just thought, I know. I was so glad I'd learned the lessons all those years before. Otherwise, I'd have wasted so much of my life. 

Anne Fine to Annie Taylor

Tuesday
Mar132012

correspondence

It's odd how things come together. Yesterday, to make space for a new piano, I had to find a place for everything that currently lives in a large and accommodating chest of drawers. And in a small house, that means sorting and throwing and finding new containers for things that fit perfectly well in their current home but seem utterly wrong anywhere else. 

I wasn't full of joy about my task. And the sun was shining so warmly that it seemed ungrateful to be indoors, so I made a strong espresso and told myself briskly that after a short break I'd get back to the job with no more excuses. Grabbing a well-thumbed copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women from the pile of books that no longer had a home, I settled on a bench outside. 

It was a full two hours later when I rushed back in, full of guilty zeal, to fling books and boxes into at least an approximate order before making a dash to collect Joel from school.  I'd been charmed again by the irresistible voice of Mildred. Regarding herself with that particularly English form of self-deprecation and reluctant self-knowledge, and others with an eye that vacillates between dutiful generosity and sharp accuity, she's a perfect guide through a small slice of post-war English life.   

And then, while hastily sorting a drawer stuffed with cards and notebooks I came across an old postcard that I picked up years ago. I'd bought it solely because I was amused by the text. Who was the rather imperious, leggy Cynthia and why need Joan buy her stockings? But coming straight after my reading of Pym's book, it was as if the characters had come to life. I immediately imagined that Joan was a sort of Mildred; living alone in a relatively smart address, but perhaps in a small series of rooms, with washing drying on a rack and simple suppers that she resented eating. And Cynthia her glamorous friend, too busy with her romantic dramas to buy something so banal as stockings.

The synchronicity pleased me and made me feel that my distraction had a higher purpose. Plus, I had topped up my levels of vitamin D. Rather a satisfactory day after all. 

Tuesday
Jan242012

of books and colours

After the darkness of yesterday, today has been surprisingly colourful - despite the rain that's falling relentlessly. With time to spare before my pottery class I lost myself in nostalgia in a second hand bookshop. As a child I spent far too much time reading and the books of Enid Blyton, Louisa May Alcott and Susan Coolidge were amongst the first I read independently. I haven't dared dip back into Little Women or What Katy Did because I'm sure I'd find much to disapprove of, but I'm currently ploughing through the Blyton back catalogue with Joel and remembering how vividly alive the characters of the Faraway Tree and the Famous Five were to me. Indeed how alive those other favourites were; Jo (boyish and brave), Anne of Green Gables (loveable and strong), and Pippi (so unlike me in her complete disregard for the regard of others). 

Suddenly aware of time I bolted for the pottery room and lost myself in the steady, cold press and smooth of clay as a bowl gradually took shape. Around me, slips were mixed and oxides applied and the colours and possibilities began to build. Meanwhile, I wedged and smoothed and enjoyed the gentle press and whirr of the wheel, as colour combinations passed in front of my eyes.

And seeing that the hyacinth bulbs discovered in the corner of the shed and hastily crammed into pots are doing just fine is a satisfaction that rounded off an afternoon. Now - sitting in front of the wood burner with a glass of cold white and Radio 4 and a peppery, oniony, potato frittata just ready for cooking - everything feels good.   

 

Monday
Jan232012

walking back 

Sometimes only a long walk will work. I fled the house to stamp sightlessly along bridleways and through fields until eventually I could slow and breathe and start to look again. I walked to connect myself back to a world I recognised.

I'd been reading from a book examining the excavation of the mass graves in Bosnia and the importance of the work of forensic anthropologist Ewa Klonowski, who directs the recovery and classification of human remains. The physical recovery of clothes, of bones, is central to those left behind; a key element in their process of mourning. It reminded me of the first time I saw Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam and the photographs on the wall of those piles of shoes and of glasses that were discovered in the camps. In the same way that the ordinary objects left in a house after a death are so heavy with meaning that they're sometimes too painful to bear, it was seeing those careless piles that finally released the tears. 

The book is careful and rigorous and utterly devastating. When I'll have the courage to pick it up again I'm not sure, but how I admire those people who are prepared to face down their own horror and bear witness. 

The day outside is still and muted. There is nesting beginning already and the daffodils are pushing through. The world outside my window hasn't changed but inside me all is adrift. I think I need to get my boots on again. 

Thursday
Jan052012

gift

Ten years ago, when she was eighteen and was not called Arrow, she borrowed her father's car and drove to the countryside to visit friends. It was a bright, clear day, and the car felt alive to her, as though the way she and the car moved together was a sort of destiny, and everything was happening exactly as it ought to. As she rounded a corner one of her favourite songs came on the radio, and sunlight filtered through the trees the way it does with lace curtains, reminding her of her grandmother, and tears began to slide down her cheeks. Not for her grandmother, who was then still very much among the living, but because she felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that it would all come to an end. It overwhelmed her, made her pull the car to the side of the road. Afterwards she felt a little foolish, and never spoke to anyone about it.

Now, however, she knows she wasn't being foolish. She realises that for no particular reason she stumbled into the core of what it is to be human. It's a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won't last forever. 

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo

Wednesday
Oct262011

everything's rosy

  

I had an unexpected little hour of happiness the other day that began with the discovery in a second-hand bookshop of The Pocket Encyclopaedia of Roses. Emerging into a suddenly blue sky with a spare half hour, I sat outside my favourite cafe and ate Swedish carrot cake. It had a cheery little icing carrot on it and I admired the extra effort. So I sat happily in the sunshine and ate and sipped and read about roses.

Published in 1963, it's a technicolour beauty. The styling is so of its time it's easy to imagine those formal displays sitting alongside a table set with wine bottle candleholders, a bit of Engelbert Humperdink on the wooden record cabinet and a hostess (already hot in her long, patterned, polyester gown) worried if moussaka is a little 'foreign' for a dinner party. My favourite bit of the book though are the descriptions of the roses themselves. Clustered together, they read like characters from a play.

Emily Gray : shapely buds golden yellow opening to buff. summer flowering. foliage small, dark and glossy. vigorous but inclined to die-back.

Cecile Brunner : blooms miniature and perfectly formed. bright pink, yellow base. fragrant. foliage sparse, dark greeen. growths long and slender.

Countess of Dalkeith : vermillion flushed orange flowers. very fragrant. bushy growth of average height. an attractive variety but similar to parent, subject to black spot.

Hugh Dickson : rich crimson shaded scarlet. very fragrant and recurrent. growth vigorous and upright, and best grown as semi-climber. unsuitable for formal beds.

John S Armstrong : blooms large and flat, freely produced on good stiff stems. attractive colouring, rich scarlet crimson. slight fragrance. foliage dark green and plentiful. a vigorous variety of good habit.

I see myself sneaking into the action as Clair Matin: blooms medium size, cupped, semi-double, slightly fragrant. pink. moderately vigorous, best suited for pillar...

 

Saturday
Oct152011

make do and mend

Susan Collis 'Made by work' 2001 Royal College of Art, MA Sculpture show

Seeing Karen Barbé's glorious fantasy darning of a favourite dress unexpectedly ripped, I was reminded of this degree show piece, consisting of a pair of dungarees with repair work and bleach marks. I remember coming around the corner, in a bit of a hurry and full of the itchy irritation I sometimes get at the shows, and looking around to see where the exhibit was. Then I realised those old dungarees were it and I smiled. They reminded me of the tenderly mended clothing I've sometimes unearthed during my years of trawling flea markets and vintage shops: aprons, work shirts, nightwear, jackets. I love the old and frayed and patched. I like an object to be a little imperfect. And there is something about the utility of darning that moves me, perhaps because it reminds me of my grandmother. She wasn't a keen sewer but she could darn beautifully; a skill she learned during those years of necessity in the second world war when everything was in short supply.

As I rue the lack of wearable autumn clothes in my wardrobe (moths have holed both jersey and wool) I'm thinking of re-purposing instead of replacing. I love the descriptions in E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia books of competitive dress alterations: roses cut from a curtain and sewn onto an old dress to revamp and evoke jealousy or a judicious re-dye and re-collar. 

In that spirit, I'll try adding lace to the neck of a sweater that's starting to fray, and perhaps I can transform those moth holes into something more agreeable. I've discovered this cunning new moth-patching product and it looks fun as well as being practical. For those worn out elbows (I just can't shake the elbow on the table lean -I'm doing it now!) I like this lovely take on the patched elbow: a pretty solution and the chance to learn to crochet while I'm at it.  And, of course, there is Karen's superb tutorial on making lovely patches that adorn rather than simply disguise. Thriftiness can be fun!    

Friday
Oct142011

ah, grasshopper

detail of a journal entry

We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It's just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfills the dream in ways we couldn't have expected. Ben Okri 


A couple of weeks ago during heavy rains, the little stream that runs down through our garden to join the wider stream at the bottom started to forge an alternative tributary to accommodate the greater volume of water. I have a little perch next to the point where the streams meet and, sitting there one afternoon in the stillness of the after rain, I noticed how beautifully the stream had dealt with its problem. Instead of overspilling wastefully over the garden it had quietly forged a neat path past various obstacles, to join the river at a very sensible point close to its twin. I saw there might be a lesson in that for me.

My life so far hasn't been entirely predictable. I've stopped and started and moved and changed. I went to Nepal seven years ago to teach and to explore, with a deep need to change my life. I anticipated the change would come slowly, through travel and encounters and the gradual unfolding of a new path. John joined me after a time and we planned to change our lives slowly in tandem. Instead, in Nepal, I found myself pregnant. So life did change - and it's been a wonderful change - just not at all as either of us had anticipated.

The route of my life has taken hasn't been straight and undoubtedly I'll continue to encounter detours and change. The lesson I take from the stream is that if I move purposefully and consistently back in the direction of my childhood dream - moving steadily and calmly past the obstacles - I'll get there. The journey and the destination may not be exactly how I planned, but perhaps that unknowing is part of the joy?

Monday
May302011

travellers' tales

 

On Friday night, I slipped out of the cottage to listen to Colin Thubron in conversation with Paul Theroux, as part of the Charleston Festival. Discussing their respective new travel books, the similarities and differences between their motivations and methods were revealing.

The impetus to travel comes from a similar feeling that the world 'out there' is inherently more interesting than home and offers a bracing corollary to the writer's desk. Both men prefer to travel alone. For Thubron, however, the impulse to travel and choice of destination arise from a more complex and internally generated desire. Theroux takes a more pragmatic approach that stems from a need to see and to find out about the world. Neither carries more than a notebook.

As I listened, I considered what travelling without a camera would mean to me. And I realised that I 'look' differently with a camera in my hand. Seen through a lens, the world tends to distill to the elusive and the incidental: a moment, a colour, a pose, a shape, a texture. To catch what my eye sees reminds me what I value and adds depth to my memories rather than simply acting as a substitute for memory.

So the shadows on a tent roof, bunting fluttering in the darkening sky and the impressionistic blur of a flower bed at dusk evoke memories of a cool glass of sparkling wine, sipped in shivery haste amidst the blooms as house-martins swooped overhead. And a starlit welcome back to the cottage and the comfort of fresh mint tea and a very hot, very unseasonal but very necessary, hot-water bottle.