A Fresh Start


I’m not sure what exactly it is about the ‘New Year’ that inspires such resolution and well-meaning, virtuous sentiment – perhaps it is simply cracking open the new diary, putting up the new calendar; and, it’s a New Year, so the chance for a New You – here is the opportunity to remake oneself. Whatever the reasons, I have always jumped head first into the resolving, improving lot : why the heck not? What better time than NOW – this new decade – to lay aside the gross excesses of the last year and begin afresh.

Last week, in my ‘come-back blog’ Go Out With A Bang, I promised to trawl through a back-log of reading. I won’t bore you with an endless run-through, but shall select a few of the top to reflect back on, starting with:

PERSUASION by Jane Austen.

How could it be possible for Austen novels to seem remote? For one thing, the noise! What a commotion comes out of their pages! Jane Austen loved high spirits … Through all the mufflings of time we can feel the charge of the characters’ vitality, their happiness in doing, dancing, laughing, in being alive. There is always a lot of jumping; that seems to vibrate through time … For nearly this long already the gaiety of the novels has pervaded, the irony has kept its bite, the reasoning is still sweet, the sparkle undiminished. Their high spirits, their wit, their celerity and harmony of motion, their symmetry of design appear still unrivaled in the English novel.

still from a tv adaptation

Eudora Welty, in A Truth Universally Acknowledged** (ed by Susannah Carson), sums up the immediate allure, the joyfulness in Austen’s novels. That is not to say there isn’t much doom or gloom, pain or jealousy – the whole gamut of bad feelings – there is, but as Welty points out, a great deal of motion and energy exists to counterbalance it. PERSUASION is the fourth Austen novel I’ve read, and, I think, one of the best. Straight away I warmed to Anne Elliott, the heroine: her sensible, emminently practical yet romantic, sensitive nature appealed. And, so too, in her male counterpart, the dashing Captain Wentworth. While not the most surprising plot, Austen keeps attention through her characters’ witty repartee, their constant activity, the play between personalities whether in the country or in Bath. Austen’s success lies in her humane sensibility, in her skill at capturing a place, a set, at divining true human emotion – separating froth and inanity from genuine sensitivity marked with cleverness and a real depth of understanding.

I shall speak next of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE, which I read just before PERSUASION, and, while Austen doesn’t have a jot on Bronte’s descriptive powers, sheer depth of feeling and fleshing out of characters and emotions, she triumphs in her sweeping satire of 18th century high English society and of grasping the sense of what and of who really matters.

Happy 2011 – and happy reading!

**If you do like Austen, check out the Carson book, it is a brilliant collection of 33 essays from writers across the centuries, ranging from Martin Amis to A S Byatt to Virginia Woolf to Alain De Boton to E M Forster, on why they love Jane Austen.


Go out with a bang


When last I wrote, at half past six in the evening: the sun was shining, the windows were open wide to let in the cool breeze and, when at home, I was spending most of my time out in the garden.

Looking outside this evening, at half past six: the sun set long ago, the moon is obscured by low, heavy clouds, the pavements glisten with puddles from last night’s downpour and wet remnants of snow, and the windows remain firmly shut.

It has been awhile. I have been reading as assiduously as ever, but in every other aspect over the last five months, life took over. I got married, quit my job in publishing, started a new job in a completely new industry and, in the last week, have been slain, stricken, assailed by swine flu.

The upside to being bedridden for nearly five straight days is: taking new vows of temperance (cut down the socialising, cut the lights before the Victoria line trains stop rumbling beneath the house, cut down the boozing: essentially, cut down what’s killed my immune system this month) AND having uninterrupted time to read (when I’ve not been flat out, curled up in the fetal position hugging the hot water bottle).

Despite the persistent dull ache behind my eyes, I have ploughed through books over the last few days. With an even greater avidity, perhaps, having recently left publishing. The upside to leaving what I love is that I am more determined than ever to feed my love of literature, of books – to fill the cultural void. So, along with temperance, my New Year’s resolution is to stick to books and stick to this.

The rave reviews are back!

I must hit the sack now (the Underground’s rumblings draw nigh), but expect updates on such wonderful all-time Classics as: JANE EYRE, PERSUASION and ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, not to mention Modern Classics like Graham Greene’s THE POWER AND THE GLORY and Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5.

Until tomorrow, buenos noches – it’s good to be back!

A comic masterpiece


Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

So begins Jim Dixon’s day, and one of the most brilliant descriptions of a hangover ever written.

jacket image for Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

I finished Kingsley Amis’s LUCKY JIM last week. It was pure pleasure from start to finish – an incisive, unforgiving, hilarious take on English campus life post-WWII. The daily lives of the eccentric academics, their students and their families entertained, intrigued, saddened and moved me in equal measure.

Apart from humouring us with his expertly crafted dialogue and perfectly timed comic scenes, Amis challenges us to look deep inside ourselves. He presents very real human characters – I could visualise the people as if they were in front of me – puts them in compromising situations and then allows them to act unhindered. In other words, they think and act like me or like so many people I know – humanly.

Moving on just slightly from the 1950s, I also recently finished Barry Hines’ A KESTREL FOR A KNAVE.

jacket image for A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

Set in the 1960s in a Yorkshire mining town, young Billy Casper struggles to make good of his life amidst abject poverty and the harsh reality in which he lives. His brother, a rough, crude, heavy drinking, gambler who works in the mines; his mum, distracted, hurting, a woman with loose morals and many lovers. His dad. Not there.  And his school life isn’t much better. He acts out and gets knocked about.

The story spins on Kes, a beautiful kestral hawk that Billy finds in a derelict barn and brings home to tame. The drama that unfolds is a captivating and deeply moving portrait of a troubled boy who finds hope in this bird. I look forward to watching the 1969 film KES, directed by Ken Loach.

Time to catch the last ‘Friday Night with Jonathan Ross’. Have a lovely weekend!

World Cup Mania


Amidst the hot sultry days and warm buggy nights of the past month, world cup mania – with a brief interlude for Wimbledon – has reigned. It’s felt like proper summer, each weekend and evening (whenever possible) spent in the garden: weeding, planting, watering, reading, eating, drinking, barbeque-ing. What a priviledge and delight to be able to walk about in light frocks, sandals and not feel chilly, to be able to sit out in the evenings supping G&Ts and cold beers – Dandelion brew is my new favourite discovery this summer (found at your local Sainsburys, no less!).

Perhaps most enjoyable has been the warm weekend mornings, lieing in bed reading with the window flung open and then again at night, cool breezes whooshing through the room, getting stuck into favourite writers. There are few greater and simpler pleasures, I reckon, than embarking on a new novel by a much-loved author. My top in the past month is, without a doubt, E M Forster’s SELECTED STORIES.

Forster shows remarkable prescience in The Machine Stops, where he envisions a future world where people are ruled by a Machine – they live in little underground pods and have everything done for them, all stimulation passive. The terrifying vision has been drawn on in many other books and films, perhaps most blatantly in the heart-warming animation Wall-E, where humans have become blobs, their lives run by machines. It is a departure from much of the rest of Forster’s stories in its science fiction-esque  take on a dystopic, futuristic world.

I was surprised and intrigued to encounter in Forster’s The Celestial Omnibus a style much like what J K Rowling adopted for the Harry Potter series. Her books, of course, draw on numerous classic writers and timeless themes, but what really struck me about the Potter stories and The Celestial Omnibus is the warm, overpowering nostalgia. I felt transported back to childhood reading memories – familiar, simple stories of classic good vs evil, in a similar vein to Roald Dahl’s Matilda or The Witches or the Grimm’s Brothers Fairytales.

Why do I like Forster so much? Apart from immediately identifying with his voice and feeling at home with his tone and subject matters, the way he interprets the world resonates deeply. He is a writer who expresses a sentiment or idea I’ve thought, but have been unable to articulate or sometimes even consciously consider until he presents it. It’s an ‘aha’ moment, occurring again and again when I read him.

Eudora Welty is a bit like that, but she is much harsher, darker and takes on subjects with a brasher, American Southern sensibility, in contrast to Forster’s quintessentially English tone and approach. Welty’s collection of stories THE GOLDEN APPLES (cf previous post), compared to her other stories, are arguably more complex, sophisticated, accomplished. All set in the fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi, they revolve around the same characters, the same families and one follows them from child to adulthood.

I’ve been on a spate of short story reading (a work related thing) and was elated to discover that Truman Capote is equally brilliant at shorter pieces. But more of that later.

Time to hit the sack after an exhausting World Cup Final watching as The Netherlands  creamed Spain – how on earth did the Dutch karate kick on Xabi Alonso not garner a red card?! Anyway, after the Netherlands’ aggressive first half, I was quite glad to see Andres Iniesta’s golden goal. What a match! Estupendo – fantastico! Buenas noches a todos.

the bliss of a Bank Holiday weekend


What a month, the month of May. The long bank holiday weekend was a most welcome end to it.

The delicious feeling of unbridled freedom at simply having nothing on, nothing I must go to, nothing I must arrange, no one I must speak to, apart from Tom, of course. To arrange this felicitous and uncommon circumstance, it literally took me being silenced and struck down by a horrid chest cold.

But what bliss.

Apart from reading and reading and reading in the garden (apologies for the rather seedy image),

I finished the fourth collection of Eudora Welty’s stories THE GOLDEN APPLES. Exquisite. Powerful. Lyrical. And, of all her writing, it is probably, as her biographer Paul Binding says, most evocative of Virgina Woolf, a writer Welty much admired. I look forward to reading the finale of this mammoth collection: THE BRIDE OF INNISFALLEN.

But apart from reading, I indulged in some cooking and baking, which of late, I have missed.

I have an excess of currants leftover from a fruity pudding I made a few weeks ago, so I dipped into Florence White’s incomparable GOOD THINGS IN ENGLAND to find Eccles Cakes.

Well, as you can see from this picture, they turned out more like rock cakes. These have, apparently, been made for the Eccles ‘wakes’ from time immemorial:

Lancashire 'rock cakes'

When racing and fighting were all at an end,

To an ale-house each went with a sweetheart or friend;

Some went to Shaw’s, others Phillip’s chose,

But me and my Moll to the Hare and Hounds goes.


With music and cakes

For to keep up the wakes

Among wenches and fine country beaux.

It is said that Mrs Raffald gave her own recipe as a wedding present to a servant who had served her well and was going to live at Eccles, and that girl made and sold the cakes so successfully that she made a fortune.

Well, I certainly would not make any money from these. I think I fell down with the short crust. For a start, there wasn’t enough to make proper cakes and cover the currant filling. Two, I didn’t have a proper cutter and three, I left them about 20 min too long (cooking time: 20 min …).

Tom was very kind and choked down one without a grimace. I just about managed a few bites before I chucked the lot.

I had far more success with Patient Gray and Primrose Boyd’s Tarte L’Oignon. Mmm. That was delicious. I’d never before boiled onions before baking. Good stuff.

Tarte L'Oignon

I’ll leave you with some flowery pics from our garden and lastly, the lovely Vauxhall Park lavender, taken en route to work Tuesday morning.

Lavender field, Vauxhall Park

An ‘Indian’ thriller


The stack of books beside my bed is always high – I would not want it any other way – but lately it seems to be tottering to precarious levels. In between the trenchant, powerful stories of Eudora Welty (which I am gradually working my way through – it’s a 1000+ page collection), I was cheered to be given H R F Keating‘s INSPECTOR GHOTE TRUSTS THE HEART.

book cover of   Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart    (Inspector Ghote, book 8)  by  H R F Keating

It is a warming, fast-paced read that delved deep into my psyche, dredging up the heady days of long, hot summers past when I would survive on a deliciously junky diet of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie.

My appetite for companionable, comforting, heart-thumping mysteries was insatiable as a young girl and Keating taps straight into this nostalgia.

Set in India in the 1970s, the crime series chronicles the adventures of the extremely likeable Inspector Ghote as he endeavours to solve cases for the Bombay CID. Far from perfect (he frequently rows with his wife, gets in a bit of a childish temper, and acts foolishly), Ghote is, nevertheless, compassionate, clever and companionable. Most importantly, though, he is a man with scruples, with compunction, with a heart – as the title of this novel suggests.

Right from the opening scene, when Ghote is caught by the Commander giving coins to a beggar (not a gesture, apparently, to which an upstanding young inspector should stoop), one is endeared to this slightly bumbling, embarrassed, subservient man. I immediately felt: here was a guy I wanted to know, that, crucially, I wanted to follow in his attempts to solve whatever problem he may be given, because I knew he wouldn’t approach it by the standard, to-the-book route.

My initial delight never waned. To the last line I was entertained, absorbed, shocked and touched in equal measure. Inspector Ghote’s quest to save a 5 year-old poor tailor’s son who has been mistakenly kidnapped in place of the son of the wealthy tycoon of ‘Trust X’ tablets is pure escapist pleasure. Keating describes the sultry, teeming city of Bombay in vivid detail, despite never having been to India when he wrote this! I was surprised to learn this and had expected the book to strike a false note, but, happily, it does not. He manages to capture the writhing, bustling atmosphere of the city, the accents and mannerisms of an entrenched caste system and create plausible case scenarios. It therefore did not surprise me to learn that Keating’s stories are well-loved in India.

The stories are a perfect antidote to a rain-soaked Bank Holiday weekend. I must track down another!

Before the ash cloud, there was the Black Cloud …


Before the dust settles, I thought it appropriate to read astronomer Fred Hoyle’s THE BLACK CLOUD, first published in 1959.


A distinguished Cambridge astronomer (his fans include Stephen Hawking, Sir Martin Rees, Paul Davies), Hoyle was also a well-known writer and broadcaster, author of the novel and popular tv series A FOR ANDROMEDA.

THE BLACK CLOUD combines ‘hard science’ with a riveting, fast-paced story. In the compelling style of John Wyndham and John Christopher, Hoyle tracks the terrifying chain of events that occur when a dark cloud appears from outer space, stops in front of the sun and blocks out all light.

Mass pandemonium ensues and an eccentric group of scientists, including the stately Astronomer Royal, the tobacco smoking Dr Marlowe and the maverick, slightly unhinged scientist Dr Kingsley team together in a mad race to understand the cloud’s actions, battling against trigger happy politicians.

Hoyle is remarkably ahead of his time, writing about quite advanced technological innovations and raising the still present debate around SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). It brings to mind Paul Davies’ (one of Hoyle’s former students) recent book EERIE SILENCE and Stephen Hawking’s comment that extra-terrestrial life definitely exists and we would be fools to contact it! See this article in the Guardian.

Continuing with the cloud theme – why not? – I just read M P Shiel’s THE PURPLE CLOUD.

Written in 1901, it is considered to be the first great sci-fi novel of the science fiction century. Although I would term it, like THE BLACK CLOUD, literary sci-fi, or as H P Lovecraft called it: exemplary ‘weird fiction’. It is also one of the best ‘last man’ novels ever written, calling to mind Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD (cf earlier post). I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an inspiration for McCarthy.

Bleak, crude, eloquent, fantastical, Shiel pulls you into the feverish, harried life of Dr Adam Jeffson as he sails on the ship Boreal to the North Pole. He is attempting to arrive first and thus claim a £175m prize. Driven by forces of good and evil – vaguely termed white and black – Jeffson manages to kill off his companions and be the first to the Pole, unwittingly surviving a deadly purple vapour that has erupted from a volcano in the Southern hemisphere and annihilates all but him …

Shocked, alone and unstable, Jeffson embarks on an increasingly desperate journey round the world as he searches for life and, in frequent bouts of madness, torches all he sees, questioning his existence and that of mankind. ‘Delivered’ as Lovecraft says, ‘with a skill and artistry falling little short of actual majesty’, it is brilliant, bizarre, certainly unforgettable.  

Here is the original cover (title illustration by J J Cameron):


It’s been a while since I wrote, so in that interim, I’ve also read, for my book group, ONE DAY by David Nicholls – author of STARTER FOR TEN.

It’s a book to be devoured, in one long sitting. Set-up with such a clever premise: two people, Dez and Em, get together on their last day of Edinburgh University on the 15th July 1988. And the next twenty chapters follows their lives on the 15th July each year.

Realistic, compelling, it was the story rather than the prose that drew me along. He is a very cinematic writer and, like Starter for Ten, I could see this being made into a film. And I’ll probably enjoy the film more than the book. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, it’s just another instance (cf earlier post) where the plot outshines the prose, like BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. It would make a fantastic movie and if the clips on the amazon page (definitely worth a view) are a sign of what’s to come – it won’t be long before we can enjoy it on the big screen.

I’ve also been enjoying getting on with more of Eudora Welty’s short stories (cf earlier post). THE WIDE NET & OTHER STORIES is incisive, beautifully written, more experimental, philosophical perhaps, than A OF CURTAIN OF GREEN & OTHER STORIES. Brilliant two collections to begin with. Now I’m embarking on her series of stories THE GOLDEN APPLES. I shall report back soon; sooner, I hope, than my last post.

It’s been a long, catching up post today, so I’ll leave you on a light note, with another classic Ogden Nash poem, sent to me by a friend from my home state of Connecticut. Have a happy rest of the weekend!

There was a brave girl of Connecticut
Who flagged the express with her pecticut
Which her elders defined
As presence of mind
But deplorable absence of ecticut

Quiet splendour


I just finished J L Carr’s masterpiece A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY.

Lyrical, lilting, enchanting. Carr draws you into his pastoral idyll slowly, quietly, so that before you quite realise what’s happened, you’re caught up in a magical world. Set in a fictional Yorkshire village, the young Tom Birkin arrives fresh from the battlefields of the First World War to uncover a medieval painting on the ceiling of the village church. A reserved and inwardly focussed man, not much is spelled out. One is left to glean, from snatches of conversation, from Birkin’s inner monologues, the deep issues he’s dealing with: loss, war trauma, hope, life’s purpose/meaning, love, sense of duty, accomplishment. Through his work in the village for that month, one accompanies Birkin as he tries to make sense of the world and his place in it.

A moment in time that even he acknowledges might not have been real:

Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain … Day after day it was like that and each morning I leaned on the yard gate dragging at my first fag and (I’d like to think) marvelling at this splendid backcloth. But it can’t have been so; I’m not the marvelling kind. Or was I then?

But such was the transformative nature of that summer, I reckon he was that kind. For that month.

Finally. Rushdie.


For years I’ve been meaning to tackle Salman Rushdie’s SATANIC VERSES or MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN.

But instead, I began with THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE, chosen by someone in my book group.

It’s difficult to know how to begin. As a friend said to me at work, Rushdie’s like Marmite – you either love him or you hate him. Well, I’d have to go with the latter. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood to be reading him, but I think it’s more to do with his style. It’s flamboyent, multi-layered, fantastical, fairy-tale-esque, akin to the magic realism of Marquez and the rich sagas of Isabel Allende.  I don’t mind a good fantasy, a complex story with a long cast of characters: I love Allende, Madeleine L’Engle, Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, the Grimm’s Brothers fairy-tales; but multi-streamed, outrageous, non-linear fantasies don’t grip me. It’s not that I find them impenetrable. They just don’t resonate. I find them too shambolic, too hectic and, as a result, I don’t care much about the characters and simply lose interest in the story. For me. On this one, it’s entirely down to taste.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Rushdie has a brilliant mind, is a great weaver of tales, uses clever literary devices, but on this novel, I wouldn’t call him a particularly fine or concise writer. There are nuggets of gold on the human condition, just not a whole, gleaming pot.

One particular insight that struck and stuck with me was when the Emperor is speaking to Mogor dell’Amore, the long blonde haired stranger:

‘Only when we accept the truths of death,’ the emperor declared, ‘can we begin to learn the truths of being alive.’

‘Paradox, sire,’ Mogor dell’Amore answered cheekily, ‘is a knot that allows a man to seem intelligent even as it is trussing his brain like a hen bound for the pot. “In death lies the meaning of life!” “A man’s wealth engenders his soul’s poverty!” And so violence may become gentleness, and ugliness beauty, and any blessed thing its opposite. This is indeed a hall of mirrors, full of illusions and inversions. A man may wallow in the bogs of paradox until his last day without ever thinking a clear thought worthy of the name.’

I’ll not think of Paradox in the same way again. As a concept, it has lost much of its lustre. If used, it will, I fear, strike me as pretentious twaddle.

If I could bring myself to one day reread the book (when I’m in a better frame of mind to attack it – on a long train journey or holiday, one needs a good chunk of time to just blaze through it), perhaps I might discover more of those nuggets, might pull out the larger thread, might care about divining Rushdie’s grander message. But now, no way.

I’d be interested to know what others think, particularly Rushdie fans. Convince me I’m missing something. I dare you.

That’s it for now. Chao.

Candy. Is dandy


But liquor

Is quicker.

So says Ogden Nash. A poet I discovered in the lovely Persephone Bookshop this weekend. At the same time, I found out that he is my cousin. So – along with the delight of seeing an English lecturer pick it up and recite ‘The Adventures of Isabel‘ – that pretty much sealed the deal and I bought his collected book of poems, selected by his daughters.

I can’t believe I’ve not encountered him before, although the Isabel poem did sound awfully familiar.

Nash is fantastically witty, irreverent and just completely hilarious – laugh loud funny. He has a terrific mix of short poems and longer ones (but not so long one starts to lose hope). This poem just about sums up Ogden’s genius at blending a sort of moral/social lesson (in manners, quite often) with humour:


Here’s a good rule of thumb:

Too clever is dumb.

Enough said.

I finished Michael Lewis’

THE BIG SHORT last night (cf earlier post). It was a rollicking, character-driven escapade through Wall Street. As I said before, financial knowledge is sort of assumed. If I’d not read Lanchester’s WHOOPS! just a few weeks before, I’d have been utterly lost on the financial details. But the details are almost incidental to the broader plot. The book’s enjoyable because of the eccentric people involved: The one-eyed Moody money manager wizard with Asperger’s Syndrome; the ballsy, rude, outspoken and emotionally conflicted businessman; the unlikely team of recent university grads who started a company so they could bet against the subprime loans.

It fascinated and outraged me in equal measure. I was particularly struck by one of Lewis’ final points:

The problem wasn’t that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail. The problem was that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to succeed.

And the most depressing reality is that investment banks like Goldman Sachs were completely bailed out by the US government, enabling them to overlook their misdemeanors and chug merrily ahead as if nothing had happened, racking up massive bonuses.

As Lewis says,

The events on Wall Street in 2008 were soon reframed, not just by Wall Street leaders by also by both the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve, as a “crisis in confidence” . By August 2009 the president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, even claimed, publicly, that Goldman Sachs had never actually needed government help, as Goldman had been strong enough to withstand any temporary panic.

It’s sad, depressing. I’m not so naive that I thought banks weren’t corrupt, weren’t out to make money (as they rightly should be), but I had hoped they retained some scruples, some morality. I think Stephen Green’s GOOD VALUE is next in order. The chairman of HSBC, as well as an ordained Anglican priest, Green should be able to offer a most welcome moral (if it’s possible) perspective.

To end on a brighter note, I made a lovely lemon sponge cake yesterday, along with some home-made pizza (possibly not the best picture). And a photo of daffodils, an image taken last spring in our back garden. We’re still waiting for them to blossom this year.

First, the pizza, piled high with veg & crayfish, on a wholemeal base:

And for dessert, a lemon sponge, light on the first day, a bit denser today as the picture reveals:

Finally, the daffs: