Reading for Remainers

We’ve heard so much recent talk about hard or soft Brexits. Call me a whinger, accuse me of not accepting a democratic result: I’ll still whinge, I’ll still refuse to accept. travel-books-2I don’t, as far as I know, have any “foreign” blood – unless being a quarter Scottish counts or my grandmother’s maiden name deriving (arguably) from that of a favourite of William the Conqueror’s. But since the referendum, part of my soul’s been torn out. I was brought up European before we’d even joined the Common Market. My parents lived through World War Two, just too young to be called up. My mother had to leave her school at 14 when so many pupils were evacuated it wasn’t viable for it to stay open. Trying to restart her education, she went as a paying guest to the French Massif Central in 1946, where she witnessed more that war had done. Later she managed a degree in French and Italian while bringing us up.

Before our first European holiday when I was seven, we had an introduction through books my parents provided. There were huge hardback Babar books (some with illustrations which would now be thought offensive so I’ve chosen one of the later books to show here: note the Citroën and what is surely a Provencal landscape):

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Babar’s Castle, Laurent de Brunhoff, Methuen 1962

Then came the delightful Madeline (“In an old house in Paris covered with vines/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines“). Cuddly, philosophical Moomintroll was a comforting bedtime read from a minority ethnic Finn who wrote in Swedish.

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This is Rome, by M Sasek, first published 1960

From This is Rome –  more cities covered now – I remember a multi-armed policeman directing mad traffic with six gloved hands.  In The Story of Ferdinand, a bull lived happily under the “cork trees”of Andalucia until captured for the bullring, but he was too peaceable animal to fight so they allowed him back. I’ve now discovered this classic was actually American, and has an interesting political history.Germany offered the terrifying Strewelpeter and Emil and the Detectives, which I tried several times but found boring. My father was equally bored by a gentle Dutch children’s classic called The Wheel on the School but I liked this environmental tale of protection for nesting storks. Then there was a sweet book of cartoons called The Lovers by Raymond Peynet. This was for adults, but such a Gallic blend of innocence and naughtiness was delightful for a child. What you give a child, an adult remembers, and Peynet was a precious find when we cleared the house after they died.

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By that time we were setting off annually in the Vauxhall Victor to Dover for our holidays “on the continent”. My mother did the talking, French, Italian, (no Spanish because they refused to go there until Franco died), German because although we were still playing English vs Germans in the school playground and our neighbours in Finchley had come over on the Kindertransport, my own parents had decided they wanted to put that past behind them. As soon as Spain grew out of such ideas too, they went there. When they retired they went to Hungary, what’s now the Czech Republic, Rumania, Greece, Portugal – my mother’s well thumbed phrase books evidence of her will to try meeting the locals on their own terms.

My memory is of a France still war scarred and dilapidated as late as 1970. We stayed in fly blown hotels and endured nasty toilets in the yards of dark cafes.But we discovered potage, beignets, and vinaigrette. We children drank Orangina, learned how pizza and ice cream should really taste and played boules on beaches that stayed warm till after dark. 61672I was lucky to see Marcel Marceau, the famous mime artist and as a teenager the films of Chabrol, Truffaut, Fassbinder. I learned from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Polanski’s Macbeth that Europeans could collaborate across borders and centuries to create extraordinary art (much older, I discovered the potent mix of Shakespeare and Italian opera). I began very slowly to read in French: “Bonjour Tristesse” was my first conquest and from it I learned the phrase “J’ai envie de…”

J’ai envie de rester européenne.

My French Literature BA in the then school of European Studies at Sussex included German, Spanish, Italian, Danish and English literature too (plus Russian and Scandinavian), to be read in the original if possible. Why did I choose that degree? I think the books started it off, even more than the holidays, because books were so wonderful, no matter how often you read them, whereas the holidays were sometimes uncomfortable and the drives, in pre cassette/CD/DVD days, very long. Europe wasn’t perfect, after all, but then neither are we.

I tried to bring my children up the same. Babar and Madeline of course, but also a child’s version of Don Quijote, my son patiently allowing me to translate a few pages each night for a bedtime story, and a picture book called The Beast of Monsieur Racine that my daughter recently admitted she found “creepy”. Sebastian is always late  showed us what a rural Swiss school would look like (once he got there). On holiday in Brittany we saw lobsters in tanks outside restaurants and read the wonderful Monsieur Thermidor  (author from Warwickshire, actually). Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs helped them understand when their grandmother died. Cuentos para contar en 1 minuto y 1/2 (stories to tell in a minute and a half), picked up in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, boosted my daughter’s Spanish GCSE. Together we watched films by Almodovar and Guillermo del Toro, and I knew I’d done something right when she qualified as a translator of Spanish and Italian.

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From Don Quijote de la Mancha, retold by Antonio Albarran, Grafalco 1998

My family and I are European citizens. We can work, have medical treatment, travel… We have assured rights to holiday and sick pay, to maternity and paternity leave. We share the whole heritage. It doesn’t mean we aren’t equally fond of and proud of the English language (I write in it, after all). But between us we’ve lived in France, Spain and Italy. We have friends from all over Europe, some here, some there. These assets and relationships will now be weakened or even lost. I’m motivated by literature, but there are parallel arguments for scientists, economists, musicians, artists, medics. My children and I never had to go through a blitz on our city or hear guns booming as we stood on a doorstep on the south coast. Let’s not forget the original reason for establishing a European community: to create stronger trading and cultural links and thereby prevent another war.

In bookshops in Europe (many more than we now have here) I browse so much translated work, because nobody there minds reading the work of “foreign” writers. It shames me that we have so little available here. But, whether you read in translation or in the original, it does seem to me that if we keep reading, relating to and discussing European writers, we’ll never truly leave Europe. So why not Books against Brexit? Given the rise in hate crime since the referendum, we need a counter movement. (En passant, before I get yelled at, I do recognise the wide spectrum of opinion among Brexiteers and I know most of them have no racist or fascist intentions.) Rock against Racism and Love Football, hate Fascism were successful campaigns, so would Books against Brexit work? Could it even be parented by my other idea (as far as I know equally hypothetical) Words for the World?

In subsequent posts I’ll be making some recommendations.

Parce que j’ai envie de rester européenne. 

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I browse eyebrows: adventures with voice recognition software

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Once upon a time a poor author decided she was tired of typing so she thought she’d try out the word recognition software on her iPad. She wanted to write a blog post about fairy tales BUT the elves and the shoemaker became the show emailer. Fairies were various, Rapunzel became rap ur seal. The Arabian Nights turned into Radiance Nights (rather lovely, actually), and she has a rather Sheherezade. So the poor author went to bed in a huff.

One stormy evening the poor author tried again.

Maybe it was just her voice wasn’t clear enough. Maybe her ideas needed editing, but somehow or other it didn’t seem to make much sense when she read it back. Then someone suggested making a virtue of necessity: she would write a blog post through voice mail with no corrections and see if anyone could tell what it was about.

So she wrote about reading books instead, and this time she realised you have to say the punctuation. Full stop. Please read on:

Eyebrows. No, I love to 1st books on the wet autumn afternoon, lying on the sofa in my pyjamas without a care in the world. That sounds a bit dubious velocity

Of course what I really meant was biologically. But the timer runs out very quickly with the voice recognition is it software. Someone that means you have to have your ideas more quickly they need to be more six synced and no I meant succinct. Well done softwar

Let’s return to the paragraph for last what I said was I love to browse books on the wet autumn afternoon a wet awesome afternoon no a wet autumn afternoon. But first it came out as I love to pass books on an autumn afternoon no and autumn aftern. Interesting to see what happens when the timer runs out Medford meet word no meat word no mate word no mate M I D word. I don’t know what this voice recognition softt gets the word mate.

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Anyway, if we were talking about passing books on a wet autumn afternoon, that was what I thought would be a bit do you BS know do you BS, no NO, do you PS, do you PSPS, do you B. Well what I was trying to say and will go off voice recognition software and I’ll type it was: “Dubious”. Biologically. Do you BS (dubious) to pass books biologically even if you are a bookworm!

Strangely, the software sometimes correct its own mistakes. But then sometimes it makes them worse. That’s how do you BS became do you pierce azin as in earrings or piercings and that’s how past books which was meant to be browns books, no, arouse books, NO, “browse” books became first books. (I don’t know what the word recognition software thought I was trying to say but I reckon some whole new positions for things to do with books have been invented inadvertently. Arouse books, anyone?)

The author gave up! she thought, it may be that even though I suffer from incipient RSI I should go back to typing my next novel. Oddly enough apart from the capital letter at the beginning, that sentence came out perfectly.

See you more clearly next week back here on the block!

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© Jessica Norrie 2016 (although who would want to pinch this?)

Narratives from the riverbank.

592657Of all landscape features, it seems to me a river is the one that lends itself best to carrying a narrative, either the whole story (Three Men in a Boat or Deliverance), or departures and episodes that hook the reader like a helpless fish. Think how Dickens starts Our Mutual Friend with Lizzie Hexham and her father rowing along looking for dead bodies in the Thames, and how in Oliver Twist the events leading to Bill Sykes murdering Nancy begin at London Bridge. (The Victorian Web has a fascinating discussion of the setting.) Alice in Wonderland begins on the banks of the river Isis, which is where the real Alice and Lewis Carroll sat as he told the original tales, fortunately over a century before Inspector Morse started fishing bodies out of it. Mole starts the The Wind in the Willows  by falling in, Ratty saves him, and then they just go with the flow.

More grimly The Bridge over the River Kwai was a bestseller, about POWs in the Far East, and competing for grimness is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo. Surely it’s no accident that these settings have inspired such successful films.

More books set on or by rivers are discussed here, and picture books here. For older children I’d add two favourites. Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken is the second in a long series of wonderful adventures.The rightful heir to the throne is rescued from a sinking barge on the Thames by art students in a hot air balloon! Only Joan Aiken could fit so much drama into one chapter – and that isn’t really a spoiler, as there is so much else in the story both before and after that episode.

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“Battersea Castle”  from “Black Hearts in Battersea”, 1992 Red Fox edition

The second is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Her family have to cross a river on a hastily made raft of wooden logs, in their covered wagon drawn by ponies. (Memory says it was the Mississippi, but the book’s gone on a journey of its own so I can’t check.) During the crossing the river rises in a flash flood and the ponies must swim for it. On another occasion the horses pull the wagon across an apparently ice bound lake. Half way across the ice begins to give way…These stories were based on true events of her pioneer childhood.

Unless there’s a drought, a river flows along episodically, with a start and an end (an open end, as it flows into the sea), changing as it moves along, a place of work and pleasure, danger and refreshment. The river at Hiroshima represented salvation to victims of the A Bomb: For my burning body the cold water of the river was as precious as the treasure. Now it’s a calm, serene and beautiful place, with cranes (birds not machines!) and riverside walks.

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The Map that came to Life sends two children on a walk with a large scale Ordnance Survey map. On the way they cross, encounter, climb and wade through various landscape features and pass significant and domestic buildings. Similarly, in Kyoto, Japan the Kamogawa River came to life as we walked along it and I tell the story in the photos below. It flows between wide sloping green banks. We descended steps to the path beside it, and immediately the roaring traffic was quieter, the air cleaner, and the sky wider. It’s too shallow for boats, but stepping stones led across and we saw them in use. We met a man walking his dog who was delighted I wanted a photo (I think they both were).

There is only one wooden bridge left among the stone ones, but there were rows of old wooden teahouses, bars and homes, and because Kyoto has  a “no high rise” policy the modern flats were not (too) intrusive. After bowing our thanks to the man with the dog we came to another man doing T’ai Chi, echoing the serenity with his controlled, beautiful movement. By the next bridge a flautist trilled on one bank, playing call and response with a violinist opposite. Herons, very close, swooped to pull gleaming fish from the water and there were butterflies with huge orange wings. A volunteer (I presume) group of elderly Japanese were out weeding and picking up the rare litter, too busy to greet us. On the far bank we saw an artist painting the riverside buildings, his back turned to a second artist… who had set up his easel in the water itself, the bottom edge of the canvas barely above the surface.

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And then we came up the steps, past the tramp with a huge pile of bags in a trolley at the top, and back into the heat and traffic above. We’d been offered an oasis full of characters. Long may their stories continue, and may the river add new ones every day.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

Inspired by Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

This writing blog got diverted and may seem more like a travel blog, so let me, Japanese fashion, impose some order. (Travelling followers picked up recently, please do stay on board: I think our interests coincide.) Hiroshima was so striking I wanted to deal with it first, but now back to what I read to complement my trip.

Why did I go to Japan? My fascination arose from childhood, and a book called Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A small girl receives a present of two Japanese dolls, and her cousin models a house for them to live in.

Of course it’s dated now. Girls may design and work with wood as much as boys; children, sadly, no longer go to the high street by themselves to find information at the bookshop (so few local bookshops remain, for one thing). But nevertheless it was a delight to reread, thirty or more years later, the night before leaving for Japan.

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Geiko dancers on stage in Kyoto

Rumer Godden deals, with a light touch, on culture shock and homesickness and efforts by both sides to integrate. The children Nona and Tom understand the dolls need a home different from British homes, where the walls slide and discrete areas may be screened or opened up according to temporary considerations. Everything must be polite and ordered, and there is beauty in small, humble moments – one flower in a tiny vase, a scrap of silk for a pillow. The dolls have very human characteristics; Miss Happiness is optimistic and can accept hardship;  Miss Flower is nervous, can’t believe a foreigner can understand her and is so grateful and gracious when the foreigner attempts to do so. In a bonus for those with a talent for carpentry, the book includes instructions on how to make a Japanese doll’s house.

Dolls and puppets are important in Japanese culture, and feature in the next novel I read. Junichiro Tanizaki is a classic Japanese author, and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1928. I returned to Tanizaki after another absence of thirty years, having as a teenager adored his epic The Makioka Sisters, about a family of sisters living in Osaka (It’s comparable, perhaps, with Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and any number of green spined Virago Modern Classics. Or even Jane Austen). 51jqirzmz2l

I wasn’t disappointed. Here again was the clear prose; the economical, poetic images conveying in one line as much as a page of Western description; psychology rendered through gestures, clothing, or choices of food and drink. Tanizaki’s characters think carefully about the design of every object they use, in order to enhance the experience in anticipation, during use, and and in memory. It’s a centuries old Japanese trait that continues today- think of Japanese technology, or think of a Zen garden.

In Some Prefer Nettles, a couple are preparing for divorce. There is no animosity between Kaname and Misako, they are simply tired of each other, but they have a child and an elderly father to consider. And so they proceed with care, with resignation, almost hoping to be denied the pleasure they seek, if it will help diminish the shock to the order of things. Meanwhile there are doll festivals and puppet theatre outings in which their situation is reflected through age old Japanese culture. (The puppets are life size and operated by up to three puppet masters at a time: I saw the one below at the theatre in Kyoto.)

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The husband, Kaname, was brought up in old Tokyo “before the earthquake” (of 1923) and harks increasingly towards tradition; the wife seeks modernity but remains adept at selecting his kimonos and arranging  flowers for the shrine. “He looked down on her, a sort of mute regret rising in him, without fear of meeting her eyes…..The early cherries were just coming into bloom.” It’s a beautiful, elegiac portrait of a society and a marriage, with a surprising number of echos for the contemporary Western reader.

41uvfhb2pslI considered reading Murakami, having found the same simple, limpid prose quality in Norwegian Wood, but felt I should explore a wider range of Japanese novelists and discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Where Tanizaki told a story of modern marriage in a traditional society, this book, set in contemporary Tokyo, tells of timeless romance under modern conditions. A youngish woman meets her old teacher by chance, and he’s now retired and a widower. As with Tanizaki, you can open any page at random and be sure of finding elegiac, gentle prose, a yearning quality: the teacher’s name is Sensei and the narrator murmurs and repeats it just for the joy in the sound of the name. There’s the design commitment again: practical details investing everyday items with a touch of poetry. “The hot spiciness of the crackers really did go quite well with saké…I heard a faint chirping and then the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.” I suspect this simple beauty is a quality of the Japanese language, or it may be something that happens in the interface when Japanese is translated into English. But both novels – in which not a huge amount happens – are immensely clear, readable, universal and moving despite the significant cultural differences between us.

I read these two novels on my return. While I was in Japan, I read Motions and Moments, the third essay collection by Michael Pronko, an American professor who has made his home in Tokyo. At first I found these illuminating: as we moved around Tokyo I recognised quirks that he (affectionately) identifies. I was helped to understand certain customs through his intermediary insights; I enjoyed his descriptions of Japanese gardening (they use tiny secateurs like nail scissors to clip their shrubs with minute precision) and understood what he meant by getting lost in Tokyo “vertically as well as horizontally”. The first two parts of the book (Surfaces and Miniatures) were well written, witty and informative. Part 3, Constructs, could have used some editorial help with, er, construction (and I’m aware he acknowledges the help of Newsweek editors at the end). Perhaps by then I was too immersed in the spare beauty of Japanese expression to enjoy American verbosity and repetition. But it’s worth a read if you are going to Tokyo.

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Tokyo street scene

© Jessica Norrie 2016