Sunday 31 October 2010

Song for a Sunday

Here with another Sunday Song - this is one of my favourite songs at the moment. It takes a listen or two to realise how beautiful it is, but I now can't stop listening to it... here's Breathe Me by Sia.

For all previous Sunday Songs, click here.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hello there, hope all's well with you and yours. This weekend we'll be having murder-afoot at our house, as it's my birthday murder party. My actual birthday isn't til the 7th November, but the Saturday nearest to that is always Bonfire Night at South Parks in Oxford. Lots of fun stuff in the weekend miscellany...

1.) Starting with the winner of The Love Child by Edith Olivier. Thanks for all your fantastic suggestions of 'E' titles and authors - I especially loved how often Enid Blyton, Emma, and E.M. Delafield came up - all ones I'd have chosen. But, without further ado, the copy of this brilliant novella is going to... (one random number generator later) SPOTS OF TIME. I don't remember seeing your name before (have I?), so welcome, welcome, and well done! Send me your address to simondavidthomas[at], and I'll get the book off to you...

2.) Speaking of books (aren't we always?) the wonderful Persephone Secret Santa is happening again this year. Head over to Paperback Reader/Claire's post for more details... it's good fun, very festive, and guilt-free book buying. She's said we can use her fab image, so thanks Claire!

3.) Here in Britain we have some wonderful publishers - Persephone being just one of the companies which make me pleased to live in this scepter'd isle. The one time I get jealous is when the New York Review of Books Classics are mentioned. I own a few, but they're difficult and pricey to get here - they are such beautiful books, in terms of design, touch, the way they open... and, of course, they have printed some brilliant titles, including Tove Jansson's novels, one by Barbara Comyns, Sylvia Townsend Warner, etc. etc.

Anyway, Mrs. B and Coffeespoons are organising a NYRB Reading Week - see here. Also see Thomas' post on this - he gave me permission to reproduce his stunning and jealousy-inducing photo of his NYRB Classics collection (below). I think it's my favourite photograph I've ever seen on a blog - I could stare at it for hours, hoping somehow to master self-teleportation. I thought I'd read all my NYRB books, but I've just remembered I have Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner waiting in the wings, so perhaps I will join in...

Friday 29 October 2010

Jobs and Books

I was reading Wolf Mankowitz's Make Me An Offer today - a book I've bought for a friend but, ahem, thought I'd 'test' out first. It's secondhand, as you can see, so I can't really impair its quality... but that's a topic for a whole other day. The book - which I'm really enjoying - is from the perspective of an antiques dealer. I can't find out whether or not Wolf Mankowitz (who shares my birthday, incidentally) was an antiques dealer himself, but it all seems pretty convincing to me.

Whilst reading it, I thought of my friend Sherry, who works in antiques over in America, and wondered whether she'd like to read Make Me An Offer - or perhaps already had. And then I paused. Do people want to read books about their jobs? So many people tell me about books they think my Dad will like "because they're about a vicar." I don't often pass these recommendations on - partly because, of course, Dad is still reading Lord of the Rings, as promised to Col - but it always strikes me as a little odd. Maybe vicars are more susceptible to these sorts of recommendations than most? I am a part-time librarian and a full-time student. I would be quite interested to read a book featuring librarians, but would never actively seek them out - and I actively avoid reading books about students, because they either panic or bore me, for the most part.

What about you? Do you like books featuring people of your profession, or avoid them, or have you never really thought about it? Do people recommend them to you for that reason, or has it never happened? This question is a little trickier for those of you whose job is being parents or spouses (I really hope at least one house-husband reads my blog, as I think it is a sadly underappreciated job!) because so many books, especially those in the line of the Provincial Lady, focus on characters with these roles, but not foregrounded in the way that a novel is when it's about a dentist or vicar or, indeed, an antiques dealer.

Let me know your thoughts!

Wednesday 27 October 2010

From Simon to Simon

My friend and colleague, also called Simon, was clearing out his parents' house the other day and - knowing that I have a passing fondness for books - said he would keep an eye out for anything I might like... and very kindly gave me a couple of very lovely books.

This picture isn't very illuminating, I realise - it's a very beautiful 1922 edition of Love and Freindship [sic!] by Jane Austen. I already have a copy, of course, but not one this lovely. It had uncut pages, and... ooo, I just want to stroke it.

And the other was The Stolen White Elephant by Mark Twain. Amongst the many and various lackings of my literary knowledge, Twain looms large. He is one of my aunt's favourite authors (the aunt who set me off on all sorts of literary adventures, and whose taste overlaps with mine precisely because she helped form mine) but I've yet to read anything by him. Does anyone know this one? A lovely touch - it was presented to A.W. Bentley (my friend's Dad) in 1927 for Proficiency in English. So, the book is over 80 years old, and has had one careful owner! Now two...

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Penelopiad

(sorry that the formatting has played up on this post - I don't seem able to change it!)

When my book group chose the category books-inspired-by-other-books, I thought it was a fantastic idea. As a group, we'd already read and loved (and watched and loved) The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and I was hoping we'd have something like Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, or Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, something along those lines.
When The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (from Canongate's The Myths series) was chosen, my heart did sink a little. And not just because my only previous experience with Ms. Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale, which so many people rave about - left me not only unenthusiastic, but downright irritated. My main problem was that my knowledge of The Odyssey is sketchy at best. I don't know where The Odyssey, The Iliad (which I presumed had a hand in Atwood's title) and The Aenied differ, and to be honest all I knew about Penelope was garnered from a Year 7 History video, where myths were retold by a man and his hyperactive dog puppet. And any scraps I could glean in James Joyce's Ulysses. So, basically, I knew about the weaving-and-unweaving thing. But I was happy to learn, and hoped that I could enjoy The Penelopiad with very little knowledge of the original...

Which I did. There are probably lots of nuances I missed, but I thought Atwood's re-telling was done well most of the time. Certainly the style was les
s annoying than in The Handmaid's Tale (perhaps because she wasn't trying so hard?) Penelope tells her life story from Hades, wandering through fields of asphodel, as you do. It is a very modern take on the whole story - Penelope's relationship with her sister Mary was not unlike something from an American sitcom; Penelope all plain and clever, Mary all beautiful and wily.

No man will ever kill himself for love of me. And no man ever did. Not that I would have wanted to inspire those kinds of suicides. I was not a man-eater, I was not a Siren, I was not like cousin Helen who loved to make conquests just to show she could. As soon as the man was grovelling, and it never took long, she'd stroll away without a backwards glance, giving that careless laugh of hers, as if she'd just been watching the palace midget standing ridiculously on his head.

I was a kind girl - kinder than Helen, or so I thought. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so - in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging - but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he'll take kindness any day of the week, if there's nothing more alluring to be had.

We're on familiar Jane-Eyre territory here, aren't we? But - and thanks must go to Bob, who alone at my book group table was familiar with the original, even teaching classics - in turns out that in Homer's original Penelope isn't plain. She's not
in Helen territory, but the sisterly resentment which drives much of the narrative isn't actually in the original.

In fact, at first I thought Atwood had picked rather an easy target. Yes, Th
e Odyssey-given-a-feminist-twist. It seemed a little obvious, even heavy-handed (which is not to say that I'm anti-feminist - in fact, I'd call myself a feminist, although of course people have different definitions of the word.) But (thanks again, Bob, who is in fact a woman) the Penelope of The Odyssey was apparently more feminist than Penelope of The Penelopiad. More together, more powerful, more respected, etc. etc. But since I haven't read it, I'll have to take Bob's word for it - just adds another interesting perspective on Atwood's retelling.
The 'hook' of Atwood's narrative, though - a more original feminist viewpoint - is the death of Penelope's twelve maids. Odysseus apparently had them hanged upon his return from his voyage. I suspect this is a footnote in Homer's original, but Atwood plays it to its full potential, and it really is an ingenious angle: why were they killed, when they had aided Penelope? They figure as a 'chorus' throughout the novella, sometimes mature and sometimes very vulgar (which feels, in Atwood's hands, a bit like hearing an elderly aunt make a rude joke) and still huddle together in their afterlife. Yet they are never given individual names, and remain simply 'the maids.'

Although I haven't read the original, I did enjoy some places where Atwood was clearly adapting aspects from Homer. Who knows how many I missed through ignorance, but a fair few were sign-posted for those not in-the-know, such as the following:

You've probably heard that my father ran after our departing chariot, begging me to stay with him, and that Odysseus asked me if I was going to Ithaca with him of my own free will or did I prefer to remain with my father? It's said that in answer I pulled down my veil, being too modest to proclaim in words my desire for my husband, and that a statue was later erected of me in tribute to the virtue of Modesty. There's some truth to this story. But I pulled down my veil to hide the fact that I was laughing. You have to admit there was something humorous about a father who'd once tossed his own child into the sea capering down the road after that very child and calling "Stay with me!"

The Penelopiad
was one of those books I liked quite a lot when I read it, and liked less after a book group discussion on it. But I still admire many aspects of the narrative, especially subtle like bits like that quoted above - and would be keen to seek out more from the series The Myths. I didn't even realise t
hat I already had one on my shelves - Sally Vickers' Where Three Roads Meet. The (ongoing?) series' titles can be viewed here - have you read any of them?

Monday 25 October 2010

Win! Win! Win!

I put up lots of other people's thoughts about The Love Child by Edith Olivier the other day, and here are mine - now you have a chance to read it yourself! I've got a spare copy kicking about, and it seems right to send it off to someone - and, since it's small and light, I'll have this open to anyone in the world. The novel is just too good to keep myself.

To enter, for a bit of fun and in honour of 'Edith', comment with your favourite author beginning with 'E' and/or your favourite book beginning with 'E'. Or just pop your name in if that proves too tricky! I'll keep the entries open for a week, then announce the winner in the next Weekend Miscellany.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Song for a Sunday

I found out about Amelia Curran from the rather brilliant website, and have gone on to get - and love - three of her albums. Hoping to track down the first two, but they're near impossible to locate.

Today's track is from her most recent album Hunter, Hunter. It's called 'The Mistress' and I get more from it everytime I listen - really thoughtful lyrics. This is a live version, which I usually don't like that much, but this one works - and, plus, I can't find any recorded version of 'The Mistress' online.

For all previous Sunday Songs, click here.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm writing from deepest, darkest Somerset - having spent the evening playing with adorable Sherpa - and have that old weekend miscellany to give. A bit different from usual, as today all the things I'm pointing out are blogs or blog posts....

1.) I've been meaning to read more E.H. Young ever since reading Miss Mole, more here, and although several months have passed and I still haven't done, my determination has been renewed by this enthusiastic review of Young's William from Harriet Devine.

2.) For those of you with a fondness for Our Vicar's Wife (and she did make me a lovely dinner tonight, so I am even more fond of her than usual) - do go along and have a gander at her recently-overhauled blog. She's now joined the Wordpress masses...

3.) I thought I'd mention that family friend and poet Mary Robinson has started up a blog called Wild About Poetry... job done!

4.) Simon S. often has interesting blog-posts-about-blogging, and the most recent is a discussion about whether we prefer blogs with lots of reviews or lots of non-review bookish posts (lists, questions, books we've bought, etc.) I suspect the answer - both from the perspective of blogging and that of blog-reading - will be 'a mixture', but it's interesting to discuss why. Have a gander, and throw your tuppennyworth in, here.

Oh, and happy birthday to regular SiaB reader, and real-life friend, Lucy! She opened the present I gave her yesterday - she asked for books I thought she'd like but probably wouldn't come across otherwise, and I picked Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels and Saki's Beasts and Super-Beasts.

Friday 22 October 2010

Something Lovely in the Post

I've mentioned before that I'm part of a postal book group, which goes on for ages and then you get a notebook back full of comments about your chosen book. The last circle took about 18 months, I think, or maybe even more than that - but it has now come to an end, and The Love Child by Edith Olivier has returned with its accompanying notebook. You might know how much I love the novel (reviewed here) and I thought I'd share parts of what others had to say about it...

Never in a month of Sundays would I have selected this to read if I'd found it while browsing - it may be a Virago, but the title & the description did nothing to lure me in, nor did your "50 book" description on your blog, Simon. And yet, and yet... I am very glad you sent it along. Having set aside my prejudices I thoroughly enjoyed it - her writing moves along at a cracking pace & the deeply unsettling subject matter becomes part of the enjoyment.
-- Nichola

Not only a delightful read, but a cleverly constructed one! One assumes from the title that the heroine will either be a "love child", or will have had one, and when you read the description on the first page of Agatha Bodenham both possibilities seem impossible. Suspension of belief no.1. A few pages later, and Clarissa has been summoned. The reader sees this as totally fanciful, but suddenly can "see" Clarissa with Agatha's eyes. Suspension of belief no.2. Clarissa is now "real" in Agatha's eyes and therefore in ours too. [...] A magical book which leaves its hooks in one.
-- Curzon

Having read a chunk of Angela Carter recently including the translated Charles Perrault fairy tales I found myself approaching this in a state of mind very receptive to the fairy tale element. For me this was a grand amalgamation of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Thumabline & more, with Agatha sitting somewhere between the fairy godmother and the queen who wishes for a daughter.
-- Hayley

A beautiful and delightful story. I absolutely loved it just for itself.
-- Teresa

I read this in one sitting - hanging out on the balcony with my cat, the strong spring sun warming us both - ideal circumstances to indulge in a summer fantasy. The book reminded me of A Midsummer Night's Dream - beings being summoned and disappearing, things that aren't what they seem, the borders between the real and the imagined blurring.
-- Susan

There is an unsettling creepiness about it - whenever the reader pauses. It strikes me that this dichotomy - the light, whimsical, airy fairy tale versus the darker creepiness reflects the state of Edith's mind following the loss of her father and sister. Unlimited freedom after an early life that was a model of repression.
-- Sherry

What an interesting book. I collect Viragos (sight unseen even), but this is one I had never come across at least on this side of the Atlantic. It's such a whimsical story, yet sad as well. It reminded me a little of Rachel Ferguson's The Brontes Went To Woolworths - the same rich sort of fantasy lfie, but for Agatha it went a step further. I wasn't quite sure where the author was going with her story - I wasn't expecting a full-fleshed young woman though she was still limited in her thoughts, actions, responses by Agatha's mind (?) emotions (?) What was sad is the need to revert to this imaginary friend and then the obsession when others "wanted" Clarissa as well. [...] It's the sort of story where the more I think about it after-the-fact the more I appreciate it.
-- Danielle

I loved re-reading this novel. I particularly like the last several pages - the interchange between David and Agatha. The cluelessness of both of them, in some ways, is monumental. They're communicating on wildly different frequencies!
-- Karen

I didn't think I'd like it. I dislike fey, I dislike whimsy, I particularly dislike being inside the mind of crazy people, and oh yes, I loathe magical realism! But guess what - I loved the book! First of all the crystalline clarity of the wrting world win me over right there. Then, to convey such complex, psychologically sophisticated themes with such simplicity is astounding. It's got none of them aberrations of the genres I disdained above - it's very much an odd flower from its own particular period.
-- Diana

I also dislike 'fey' and the cover of this edition aroused misgivings. I thought I would read the first few pages to see what lay in store... An hour or so later I had read to the end in one sitting. Like everyone else I was entranced by the quality of the writing and the psychological insight of this unusual story.
To me it recalled myths rather than fairy stories - Narcissus, Eros & Psyche, even Persephone!
-- Deborah

I first read this book three years ago - also on Simon's recommendation. I loved it both times, but I can't really say why. 'Magic realism' would not usually be my 'thing' but this delightful and short story just hangs together so beautifully. This time I read the foreword by Hermione Lee and now can see where Edith Olivier's ideas came from - her own life and family. She was inspired to write the book after her sister died.
-- Barbara

Thursday 21 October 2010


Sorry, too much theory-reading this evening to write a blog post - though there is still a pile of books looking anxiously at me, awaiting reviews - so instead I'll throw a question over to you. Nice and easy one. What are you reading at the moment? And I'll throw in a great painting by Vanessa Bell that I saw on Claire's blog, The Captive Reader.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Loitering With Intent - Muriel Spark

32. Loitering With Intent - Muriel Spark

I do love the blogosphere... all the bloggers and blog-readers, and all the talk of books going on all around the place. I am probably a little hypocritical, in that relatively few of the books I read come from blogger recommendations. So much of my reading time is taken up with book group choices and the occasional review copy (not to mention, of course, all the books I have to read for my studies) that when I can be self-indulgent and simply pick something off the shelf, nine times out of ten it'll be something I've been saving for years, or know that I'll like. If I read a great review, quite often I'll buy the book or pop it on a bit of paper somewhere, but it's not all that often that I'll have the reading space for it to swoop to the top of the pile. Bloggers - you're setting me up for my retirement. I just need the career bit in between.

Which makes me realise that I should find some more hours in the day, to fit in all your fab suggestions. If it weren't for the blogosphere, I probably wouldn't have bothered with Muriel Spark again. I'd read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, and not been bowled over by either of them. It was a couple of bloggers who made me pick up The Driver's Seat, and I loved it. I reviewed that novella here, and it led to a discussion of 'Third Time Lucky' - when the third book you read by an author is the one to grab you.

Well, if third time was lucky, fourth has unearthed a gold mine, if that mixing of metaphors works. When I wrote about The Driver's Seat I asked which Spark I should read next, and 'N' (gosh, isn't that mysterious?) recommended Loitering With Intent. I have a feeling someone else did, maybe even in Real Life - and so I took myself off to the library and borrowed it. The return date was hastening, and I thought I'd take it with me to Devon.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to saying that Loitering With Intent (1981) is possibly my favourite novel read this year, and certainly proves to me that Spark is very much my cup of tea. (By the by, I don't think I like any of the covers I've seen, so I've just gone with the one I read. Spark deserves a nice cover designer! I hope someone's listening...) Maybe it's too well known to get onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, but I won't take the risk of not broadcasting how good it is...

Loitering With Intent somehow manages to be an incredibly clever novel, without being in the least self-congratulatory or off-putting. Even more dangerous, Spark's novel is narrated by a novelist, and largely concerns the writing of a novel - so many pitfalls to avoid, and so much potential pretension - all of which Spark skirts around without even a hint of self-importance. Fleur Talbot is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, and it is occupying all the time that she isn't at work, and quite a lot of her thoughts when she is at work. Her job is as a secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver and his Autobiographical Association - he has gathered luminaries and 'characters' to write their memoirs, which he will seal in a vault for seventy years.

Fleur is not dissimilar from her near-namesake Flora in Cold Comfort Farm, inasmuch as she sits back and records the eccentrics and strange creatures around her. But where Gibbons' Flora documented - she got involved with their lives no end, of course, but never really seemed unduly affected by their idiosyncrasies - Fleur isn't so invulnerable to the bizarre behaviour by which she is surrounded. It rather seems to rub off on her. She grows varyingly attached to various members of the Autobiographical Association, such as snob and scented Lady 'Bucks' Bernice Gilbert, and young(ish) Maisie Young, who has one permanently disabled leg and is fixated upon the Cosmos and 'how Being is Becoming'. Above all, Flora develops a fondness for Quentin's mother Edwina - a mad, lively, incontinent, and be-pearled old lady bursting with character, but somehow more 'real' than many old-women-with-gusto who crop up in fiction. In amongst these weave a whole cast of wonderful creations - focally, Dottie: the wife of Flora's lover. Flora is an odd sort of Catholic...

As I have said, Flora is not invulnerable to the group's eccentricity - and we're never quite sure how far we can trust her narrative voice, or to what extent we are supposed to identify with it. Which, since Fleur is an authoress, is interesting. Throughout the novel the reader gets glimpses of a treatise or two on novel-writing - how much of it is Spark's own view? Does Loitering With Intent have, hidden within it, the rudiments for a how-to of creative writing? Impossible to judge... but here are three snippets which I enjoyed pondering:

But since then I've come to learn for myself how little one needs, in the art of writing, to convey the lot, and how a lot of words, on the other hand, can convey so little.

** (I changed "beautifully" to "very well" before sending the book to the publisher. I had probably been reading too much Henry James at that time, and "beautifully" was much too much.)
I knew I wasn't helping the readers to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think.

But Fleur's writing doesn't end with her work-in-progress. As part of her secretarial duties, she has to edit the submissions of the Autobiographical Association. Spark is very funny about Fleur's low estimation of the group's writing abilities, and the manner in which Fleur augments the perceived dullness of their memoirs:
The main character was Nanny. I had livened it up by putting Nanny and the butler on the nursery rocking-horse together during the parents' absence, while little Eric was locked in the pantry to clean the silver.
As a hint of what is to come, it turns out that Fleur's flight of fancy does, in part, turn out to be truth. Which Stuck-in-a-Book reader could fail to notice similarities to Miss Hargreaves?

This becomes the crux of the novel - where does Fleur's imagination end, and where does plagiarism begin? Similarities between the Autobiographical Association's activities and the manuscript of Warrender Chase grow ever greater - how much is coincidence, how much does Fleur absorb, and how much does she write before it happens? The parallel stories - both (of course) fiction, but one accepted as 'true' in the novel; fiction and meta-fiction, if you're feeling in that mood - intertwine and overlap, and Spark does it all so very, very cleverly. I won't say any more.

As with all my favourite novelists - and Spark could swiftly join that group - style contributes heavily to my appreciation. Spark is sharp, witty, and sees straight through any form of dissemblance. I need to revisit The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means sometime, as I must have missed something. I'm late to the party on this one, but the latest converts are the most enthusiastic - I foresee more Sparks being read before 2010 is over. Thank you, blogosphere!

Monday 18 October 2010

Back from the South West

Well, I'm back from the depths of Devon, and a very fun time was had by all ('all' being me and two of my housemates). I only read two books, and one of those wasn't even amongst the options I proffered. Thanks for all your suggestions and advice, though - I am now determined to read The Haunted Bookshop asap, and have read Parnassus on Wheels already, fear not. I'll let you know what I read soon, and I will tease you with this - the one which wasn't pictured might well be my favourite fiction read of the year so far. Certainly up there. I think it might get onto my 50 Books list...

But for tonight, I'll just share some photos from my trip (be warned - I also popped in to see Mum and Dad in Somerset, and the new kitten - cuteness overload!):

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Holiday Books

I'm off to Torquay for a few days, so won't be blogging again til next week - but I haven't decided which books to take with me yet... I'll have to take some to study from, but there should be time for fun reading too, and would like your help winnowing down the selection from those pictured. Any thoughts?

Monday 11 October 2010

Miss Brill

Tonight I saw the very good film Made in Dagenham - more on that at some point, I daresay - and played an incredibly slow game of Scrabble. These together mean I haven't cobbled together anything for my blog tonight. So, instead, I'll post a story that I love (as is my wont occasionally). It's by the very wonderful Katherine Mansfield. Enjoy!

Miss Brill (1922)

Although it was so brilliantly fine - the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques - Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting - from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes. "What has been happening to me?" said the sad little eyes. Oh, how sweet it was to see them snap at her again from the red eiderdown! ... But the nose, which was of some black composition, wasn't at all firm. It must have had a knock, somehow. Never mind - a little dab of black sealing-wax when the time came - when it was absolutely necessary ... Little rogue! Yes, she really felt like that about it. Little rogue biting its tail just by her left ear. She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it. She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad - no, not sad, exactly - something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.

There were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday. And the band sounded louder and gayer. That was because the Season had begun. For although the band played all the year round on Sundays, out of season it was never the same. It was like some one playing with only the family to listen; it didn't care how it played if there weren't any strangers present. Wasn't the conductor wearing a new coat, too? She was sure it was new. He scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow, and the bandsmen sitting in the green rotunda blew out their cheeks and glared at the music. Now there came a little "flutey" bit - very pretty! - a little chain of bright drops. She was sure it would be repeated. It was; she lifted her head and smiled.

Only two people shared her "special" seat: a fine old man in a velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking-stick, and a big old woman, sitting upright, with a roll of knitting on her embroidered apron. They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn't listen, at sitting in other people's lives just for a minute while they talked round her.

She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon. Last Sunday, too, hadn't been as interesting as usual. An Englishman and his wife, he wearing a dreadful Panama hat and she button boots. And she'd gone on the whole time about how she ought to wear spectacles; she knew she needed them; but that it was no good getting any; they'd be sure to break and they'd never keep on. And he'd been so patient. He'd suggested everything - gold rims, the kind that curved round your ears, little pads inside the bridge. No, nothing would please her. "They'll always be sliding down my nose!" Miss Brill had wanted to shake her.

The old people sat on the bench, still as statues. Never mind, there was always the crowd to watch. To and fro, in front of the flower-beds and the band rotunda, the couples and groups paraded, stopped to talk, to greet, to buy a handful of flowers from the old beggar who had his tray fixed to the railings. Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with big white silk bows under their chins, little girls, little French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down "flop," until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue. Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and - Miss Brill had often noticed - there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even - even cupboards!

Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.

Tum-tum-tum tiddle-um! tiddle-um! tum tiddley-um tum ta! blew the band.

Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm-in-arm. Two peasant women with funny straw hats passed, gravely, leading beautiful smoke-coloured donkeys. A cold, pale nun hurried by. A beautiful woman came along and dropped her bunch of violets, and a little boy ran after to hand them to her, and she took them and threw them away as if they'd been poisoned. Dear me! Miss Brill didn't know whether to admire that or not! And now an ermine toque and a gentleman in grey met just in front of her. He was tall, stiff, dignified, and she was wearing the ermine toque she'd bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw. Oh, she was so pleased to see him - delighted! She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon. She described where she'd been - everywhere, here, there, along by the sea. The day was so charming - didn't he agree? And wouldn't he, perhaps? ... But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, "The Brute! The Brute!" over and over. What would she do? What was going to happen now? But as Miss Brill wondered, the ermine toque turned, raised her hand as though she'd seen some one else, much nicer, just over there, and pattered away. And the band changed again and played more quickly, more gayly than ever, and the old couple on Miss Brill's seat got up and marched away, and such a funny old man with long whiskers hobbled along in time to the music and was nearly knocked over by four girls walking abreast.

Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn't painted? But it wasn't till a little brown dog trotted on solemn and then slowly trotted off, like a little "theatre" dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting. They were all on the stage. They weren't only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn't been there; she was part of the performance after all. How strange she'd never thought of it like that before! And yet it explained why she made such a point of starting from home at just the same time each week - so as not to be late for the performance - and it also explained why she had quite a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons. No wonder! Miss Brill nearly laughed out loud. She was on the stage. She thought of the old invalid gentleman to whom she read the newspaper four afternoons a week while he slept in the garden. She had got quite used to the frail head on the cotton pillow, the hollowed eyes, the open mouth and the high pinched nose. If he'd been dead she mightn't have noticed for weeks; she wouldn't have minded. But suddenly he knew he was having the paper read to him by an actress! "An actress!" The old head lifted; two points of light quivered in the old eyes. "An actress - are ye?" And Miss Brill smoothed the newspaper as though it were the manuscript of her part and said gently; "Yes, I have been an actress for a long time."

The band had been having a rest. Now they started again. And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill - a something, what was it? - not sadness - no, not sadness - a something that made you want to sing. The tune lifted, lifted, the light shone; and it seemed to Miss Brill that in another moment all of them, all the whole company, would begin singing. The young ones, the laughing ones who were moving together, they would begin, and the men's voices, very resolute and brave, would join them. And then she too, she too, and the others on the benches - they would come in with a kind of accompaniment - something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful - moving ... And Miss Brill's eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought - though what they understood she didn't know.

Just at that moment a boy and girl came and sat down where the old couple had been. They were beautifully dressed; they were in love. The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father's yacht. And still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile, Miss Brill prepared to listen.

"No, not now," said the girl. "Not here, I can't."

"But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?" asked the boy. "Why does she come here at all - who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?"

"It's her fu-ur which is so funny," giggled the girl. "It's exactly like a fried whiting."

"Ah, be off with you!" said the boy in an angry whisper. Then: "Tell me, ma petite chere--"

"No, not here," said the girl. "Not yet."

On her way home she usually bought a slice of honey-cake at the baker's. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present - a surprise - something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.

But to-day she passed the baker's by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room - her room like a cupboard - and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Song for a Sunday

I first heard Kathryn Williams' music when house-sitting in 2004, and playing the CDs which were lying by the CD player - her album Old Low Light fast became one of my favourites, and along with her other album Little Black Numbers has stayed there. 'Jasmine Hoop' is from the latter album and, although I perhaps like some of her other songs a bit more, this one is beautiful, and has a proper, fancy video:

For the other Songs for a Sunday, click here.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy Weekend, one and all - I am rising after almost twelve hours asleep, which will hopefully throw off the remainder of the cold I've had for a bit now. It does mean that I haven't been reading much of late - even though I'm in the middle of one or two really good books - but there should be enough going on in the back of my head to cobble together a book, a blog post, and a link!

1.) The blog post - is the new(ish) site called Austen Authors, and more particularly the post by/about SiaB-favourite Diana Birchall. The site collects together lots of people who have written about Austen, or in the style of Austen. It would be too catty for my taste to call Diana's sequel Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma a rose among thorns, but... let's just say her novel is inspired by Austen's prose, and not Colin Firth's wet shirt...

2.) The link - is to the South Asian Literature Festival, which is tak
ing place between 15th-31st October, in London to start off, and then the rest of the UK. I know less about South Asian literature than most of you, I suspect, but I might well try and make it along to a session or two, time permitting.

3.) The book - is the forthcoming (on October 14th) autobiography by the very-much-loved Judi Dench, And Furthermore. I'm sometimes a little exasperated by celebrities who think that being famous = having writing ability, and who knows whether or not Dame J can hold her own as a prose stylist, but I think I would love this book whatever she wrote. With some people, I am besotted to the point of blindness...

Friday 8 October 2010

Just Kidding

It's no secret that I love the Bloomsbury Group reprints - many of which are crowded eagerly on my tbrvvs (to be read very, very soon) shelf - but today I'm going to talk about the only one I hadn't previously read from the first batch of six. All my reviews of Bloomsbury Group reprints can be read here, and the latest to add to the fold is Wolf Mankowitz's A Kid For Two Farthings. (Fact fans: Mankowitz was born on the same day I was, albeit sixty-one years earlier.)

It's the shortest one so far, I think, coming in at 128pp. of fairly big type, and it's not set in the 1930s domestic world which perhaps defines the series in my mind. Instead, this is 1950s and the East End of London. We see this world through the eyes of Joe, age six. Rather than Lady B., china tea cups, and bring-and-buy sales, we see a boxer desperate to afford an engagement ring for his girl; a poor mother longing to join her husband in Africa; and this sort of scene, picked more or less at random to give a glimpse of Joe's surroundings:
Near Alf's stall there was a jellied-eel stand with a big enamel bowl of grey jellied eels, small bowls for portions, a large pile of lumps of bread, and three bottles of vinegar. There was also orange-and-black winkles in little tubs, and large pink whelks. People stood around shaking vinegar on to their eels and scooping them up with bread. A ltitle thin man in a white muffler served them and sometimes dropped a large piece of eel on the ground. Behind the stand a very fat man with a striped apron and an Anthony Eden hat waved a ladle in his hand and shouted, "Best eels, fresh jellied; buy 'em and try 'em." Over the stand a red, white and blue banner flapped. "The Eel King," it said. The King himself never served.

What is so wonderful about the setting Mankowitz creates is that it doesn't fall into one of two familiar traps. It's not salt-of-the-earth, honest-'umble-poor (thank you Mr. Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell) nor is it aiming to shock with its gritty realism and the gratuitously unpleasant (thank you Irving Welsh et al). I have never lived in the East End of London in the 1950s, but Mankowitz has - and was born in Spitalfields in 1924. (Incidentally, for a great and incredibly varied blog on Spitalfields, see Spitalfields Life). As such, his portrait in A Kid For Two Farthings is certainly fond, but not saccharine.

And 'saccharine' might be a word on the tip of your tongue when you read the first sentence: 'It was thanks to Mr. Kandinsky that Joe knew a unicorn when he saw one.' For Joe spots one at the market, and persuades Mr. Kandinsky to help him buy it. What nobody tells Joe, of course, is that his unicorn is simply a slightly deformed kid (i.e. young goat). He's a six year old, and they don't disillusion him - which makes him all the more certain that the unicorn's horn will magically grant his wishes, and those of the people around him. His wishes - naturally - tie in with the everyday romantic troubles, professional anxieties, and recreational competitions that his mother and his neighbours undergo. Gradually everything falls into place...

So there are definitely fairy-tale elements to A Kid For Two Farthings, but it is Mankowitz's observational humour - always kind, mind, never mocking - and his refusal to deny his characters their flaws, that stop the novella being too sweet. The lives of the characters are too ordinary and empathetic for that. Instead, it is affectionate and affecting - something of a treasure, and one to re-read. It may not have the instant appeal that Joyce Dennys' Henrietta books had for me, but I can still recognise a gem that I am delighted Bloomsbury chose to reprint.

Books to get Stuck into:

The Harp in the South - Ruth Park
: my favourite Australian novel, and one I read before the days of blogging, we're in 1948 and in a slum on the other side of the world, but again amongst a flawed, realistic, and affecting family and their neighbours. Sometimes humourous, sometimes sad, always captivating.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Pulling No Punches

Ok, now that my internet is behaving most of the time,
I'll explain why I asked about Punch - and thanks for all your interesting responses. I recently re-read A.A. Milne’s book Once a Week (1914). It’s in a series of books by Milne that Methuen published, mostly collections of sketches and essays which had previously appeared in Punch. Although Punch ran from 1841-1992, and again from 1996-2002, in my mind it is completely associated with the 1910s, '20s, and '30s - when A.A. Milne was assistant editor, for instance. All my knowledge of Punch comes from Ann Thwaite's brilliant biography A.A. Milne: His Life and Milne's own autobiography It's Too Late Now.

Which is why I wanted to ask you all what came to mind when you thought of Punch - and was interested to hear the differing answers. Cartoons obviously came up - and yes, you were all right that the cartoon I posted gave rise to the expression 'curate's egg'. It was drawn by George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne, and is an expression/joke I've always found inexplicably popular. To me, it's just not that funny. BUT, having said that, I absolutely don't agree that certain humour is dated or of its time. Certain humour appeals to certain people, and that's that, really. Perhaps more of those people were around in the 1910s, or whichever decade you choose, but - well, put it this way: I'd hate for anyone to think in 2060 that everyone in 2010 found Frankie Boyle funny. Just as I find him farcically unamusing now, so I find the whimsical humour of 1910s' Punch delightful.

But Punch had quite an odd status. It was incredibly popular in its heyday, and in some ways represented the tone of the time, but even then was looked down on by many. Here's an excerpt from Civilisation (1929) by Clive Bell (husband of Vanessa Bell - i.e. Virginia Woolf's brother-in-law):
And obviously an Englishman who cares for beauty, truth, or knowledge, may find himself more in sympathy with a Frenchman, German, or Chinaman who shares his tastes than with a compatriot who shares those of Punch and John Bull.
Q.D. Leavis - the country's most famous snob after Margot Leadbetter - put it like this in Fiction and the Reading Public (1932):
For the crude power of the bestseller the literary novelists substitute a more civilised tone; the temperature of their writing is slightly below instead of a good deal above normal; they deal in the right kind of humour (the Punch kind), and are the best fellows in the world.
And yet it was Punch magazine which came up with this rather scathing definition of the middlebrow: 'It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.' (1925)

Which is all a rather convoluted way of saying that Punch doesn't - and didn't - really conform to any one type, or position in the national consciousness! I hope you don't mind a meander through various books like this - it's the bit of my research which I thought might be least dull to share.

And all this is an introduction to Once A Week by A.A. Milne! About which I am not going to say all that much about it, because the tone of Punch is more or less the same as the tone of this collection. If you love the sort of whimsy that skirts around Diary of a Nobody, or that is a very toned down Wodehouse, or... well, a grown-up Winnie-the-Pooh perhaps - then you'll love this. It's a collection of stories and sketches about people having fun together - arguing over cricket, or who has to order the coal. Lots of silliness, nothing too serious ever encroaching. Rereading it this time - and I read all Milne's Punch books back in 2001 - I can see how it might wear thin for some people. The lighthearted way which the characters treat even the infancy of their child is perhaps a step too saccharine - but, on the whole, this is the sort of humour I will happily dive into.

Is it escapism? Perhaps - but I don't really believe there is such a thing. I don't think gritty realism is actually any more real than people being daft in a holiday cottage. It reminds me of an A.A. Milne quotation I somewhat overuse:
People are always telling me I should write about Real Life - preferably in a public house or brothel, where Life is notoriously more Real than elsewhere.
If you fancy a taste of life that is real, but rather more fun and whimsical than most portrayals of it, then I think A.A. Milne's superbly-crafted stories and sketches can scarcely be beaten. You can even read it online here. Just one word of warning - Once A Week could be considered a curate's egg.

Tuesday 5 October 2010


Oh dear, my sleep patterns are all over the place. It's 2.20am, and I went to bed at 8.30pm, now unable to get back to sleep after waking up very thirsty. The reading I've been doing on Freudianism (most recently, the say-what-you're-thinking What is Psychoanalysis? by SomebodyOrOther Corriat) tells me that one of the most basic wish-fulfilment dreams is dreaming of water/drinking when you are thirsty. To the best of my recollection, I was dreaming of the cast of Emmerdale - analyse that, Sigmund.

So, I'm writing because I'm awake (and, incidentally, quite hungry - what is the social acceptability of eating a sandwich at 2.20am?) but I did want to ask you lot a question, in preparation for a forthcoming review. That sounds very organised, doesn't it? It isn't really; it's rather more a delaying tactic - but it would be lovely if you could answer it none the less.

What do you associate with Punch magazine? What are your thoughts when you hear of it? Which adjectives would you use to describe it?

For a bonus mark, and not related to the review I hope to write soon, what well-known phrase derived from the caption accompanying this image in Punch?

Writing the question reminds me that I once bought some fairly large old copies of Punch, but I haven't the smallest idea where they are - I have a feeling they didn't survive the house-move in 2005.

Great - so do let me know, and all will become clear. If you're lucky, I might even tell you a Punch related joke, shamelessly stolen from my brother. And now I'm going to eat a sandwich, because I imagine that somewhere in the world it is lunchtime...

Monday 4 October 2010

All My Sons

This is one of those posts I feel a little guilty about writing, because I'm gong to eulogise about a play which is no longer available to see... this probably won't bother those of you who are anyhow unavailable to get to London, but I'm sorry to tease those of you who could do... because my friends Becca and Cath and I went to see the last performance of All My Sons.

I'll start by saying that was the best thing I've ever seen in the theatre. I don't have the encyclopaedic experience of theatre which some can boast - prohibitive ticket prices mean that I'm most likely to be found at RSC performances, since they have cheap tickets for young-uns. Still, I do go when I can, and was determined to see All My Sons... when I discovered Jemima Rooper was in it. She has followed me throughout my life, appearing in many of my favourite programmes - The Famous Five when I was a child; As If when I was a teenager; Lost in Austen while I'm in my twenties. What will come next, one wonders... it is certainly fitting that she has appeared in my favourite theatre experience.

All My Sons is a 1947 play by American playwright Arthur Miller, and somehow my first encounter with him. Almost everyone else seems to have read or seen The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, but Oxford's non-American syllabus and happenstance have led to me not really knowing anything about Miller. Well, he isn't a bucketful of laughs - it's one of those criticism-of-the-American-Dream pieces which seemed to abound after WW2. But Miller covers a very sensitive area for the post-war world. It gradually emerges that the central man (Joe, played phenomenally by David Suchet) and his neighbour had been arrested for shipping broken aeroplane parts out to the air force - leading to the death of 21 men. Joe was acquitted; Steve was not, and is currently in jail.

Steve's daughter Ann (the lovely Jemima Rooper) has come to stay with Joe's family. Miller uses the technique seen in plays like The Second Mrs. Tanqueray by Arthur Pindero and The Great Broxopp by A.A. Milne, where a character is described and awaited by all and sundry before they actually appear on the scene, so Ann's entrance is built up no end. She had been the sweetheart of Larry, Joe and Kate's (Zoe Wanamaker) son who was lost in the war. She is now romantically involved with their other son, Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore), but they're afraid to reveal this - because in Kate's mind, Larry is still coming home.

This is the central emotional thread of the play, and must have been even more poignant in 1947 - coming (or refusing to come) to terms with the almost certain death of a son, when a body has never been found. The guilt of those who survived, or those who profitted by the war - and everyone trying to piece life back together. Then there is the question of what is and what is not honourable in wartime - and the relative importance of family and country. It's all in there.

Miller's structure could probably be quite easily dissected. He is a fan of the set piece, or the dramatic twist, and these push All My Sons through its various scenarios. But there is so much more than plot on offer - the emotional journeys of each character are beautifully drawn, and were brilliantly realised by an astonishingly good cast. The play was advertised as having David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker in its lead roles - and, indeed, if David Suchet doesn't win all manner of awards then it would be a travesty; having only seen him as Poirot, I was not aware of his range - but this is definitely an ensemble piece. The four central actors have fairly equal amounts of material, and worked so well together that I don't think I ever want to see the play again - it could never live up to this precedent.

Of course, I am biased in Jemima Rooper's direction, and it was thrilling to see on stage an actress I love so much. But everyone was strikingly good - both halves of the play were pacy and gripping, and that is said by someone with quite a short attention sp--- sorry, what were we talking about? (A-ha-ha.) It certainly wasn't cheap, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything - although the nature of plays, unlike books or films, is transitory, I will cling on to the memories I have of All My Sons - it has become the benchmark against which I will measure future visits to the theatre.

Oh, and it wasn't just me - Cath and Becca loved it, and the audience gave it a standing ovation. (See also Michael Billington's appreciative Guardian review.) I'm sorry that the chance has passed to see this performance, but perhaps one of the filmed versions is worth seeing...?

Sunday 3 October 2010

Song for a Sunday

This song (I Don't Know by Lisa Hannigan) makes me happy - I'm a sucker for songs with strings on them. And the video is sweet and fun.

If the voice sounds familiar, that might be because she used to sing the backing stuff on Damien Rice's albums.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

You'll be pleased to know that my internet is behaving itself this weekend - even if my body is not, as I seem to have caught the cold which is going around my house. So yesterday I did very little indeed, conserving my energy for going to London l
ater today to see Arthur Miller's All My Sons, which should be fun. Also fun (notice that seamless transition?) are links, books, and blog posts...

1.) The blog post - is from author Tom Lappin. Some of you might remember when I wrote about his novel Parties ages and ages ago - and a very good novel it was too. Anyway, Tom emailed this week to say that he's writing a blog which is kind of the novel which (in Parties) Beatrice writes about Richard. All very meta, and probably enjoyable too - click here for more.

2.) The link - Legend Press and The Reading Agency have joined forces to give away up to a thousand copies of five novels to reading groups - click here for more. Reading groups are up there with whiskers on kittens
(KITTENS!) and brown paper packages tied up with string - i.e., they're one of my favourite things, and anything done to support them by publishers is fantastic in my eyes. (Hmm... maybe a blog post is brewing there - watch this space.)

3.) The book - is Justine Picardie's biography of Coco Chanel, called Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. I haven't seen the recent films about her, and don't know much about the woman - nor do I often read biographies of anyone except authors, but I think I might well make an exception and immerse myself in this one later...