Building without dust

Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.

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To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)

Narrator makes so many observations, some Cusk 2are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2)  Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because  a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.

My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house, so that never again can noise be inflicted on me through a party wall. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)

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Shall we move to “the country”?

After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…

She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.

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When the new neighbours get the builders in…

Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbours here died and next door was bought by developers. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. (On the other hand, the new buyers are not living there themselves to experience the hell, and have made no apology or tried to mitigate the disruption to my life.) But still – to find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from  the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned.)

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Builders, builders everywhere.

As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).

I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.

21400742“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.

13380846I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?”  asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.

I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

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Newborn

Sometimes a story arrives from nowhere with the emotional load intact but the end unclear. We were in the basket only checkout queue. The world came to a stop for us and for the cashier when our attention was magnetised by swimming eyes not yet old enough to focus. The baby’s mouth formed and lost small shapes, his head flopped on his mother’s chest, and all without a sound.

newborn Rob

His mother held one hand under his padded bottom, one on the handle of her enormous buggy. Her wire basket was perched against the handle. She leaned back, the baby pinned to her chest by an awkward gravity. Out darted her hand to transfer each item one by one from basket to belt, back it went to steady the baby between each grab. She gauged the risk each time with frightened eyes, but seemed unable to let go of the buggy.

She headshook away offers of help, but her gaze latched onto me, then onto my partner, then turned to the cashier.

“This one’s very new, I think?” I said. You don’t often see such tiny babies out and about.

“One week,” she announced. Her accent was French I think. Her eyes darted from one of us to the other, the pupils wild.

“Your first?”

“Yes. He’s all right in the pram. But not when I take him out. He cries when I take him out.” But the baby wasn’t crying.

“He won’t feed.” She stared us down: “Fourteen hours without taking milk.”

“He looks fine,” I said, because he did. Alert and content, relaxed, quiet. Perhaps nuzzling a little.

“I had to come out for some formula,” she said.

“Oh!” I said before I could stop myself. I’m a full time busybody, and over two decades ago had the luck to find breastfeeding came naturally.

Her face was very white and her stomach still big. I don’t think she heard me.

“He’s lovely,” intervened the cashier. My partner smiled.

At the next aisle, a good natured voice: “Excuse me…” The new mother was absently pushing her empty buggy back and forth, and the twisting wheels had caught in a lady’s trolley. I don’t remember, from my buggy buying days, what those fully rotating wheels were called, but at that time you paid extra for them. My wheels never got caught in anything that I recall. But my buggies were much simpler affairs.

Newborn mum tried to bend, baby and all, to free the wheels. The other customer bent as well. She got there first and they jiggled with the baby scrunched between them until the two contraptions were released.

Ros newborn 2

“You’re brave, bringing him out so young,” I encouraged her. “Well done! I took weeks when I had my first to go out alone with her.”

“He’s fine when he’s in the pram,” she repeated, still clutching him with one hand, still trying to push items along the belt. So why not put him back in the pram? Such an easy thought, at a distance of twenty plus years.

“And I had a C section,” she said. “One week, that’s all.” She repeated this, too. “C section. One week ago.” She needed to retell the story often enough for it to make sense. How vulnerable they both were.

“You’re doing very well.” Busybody me again, with little evidence either way. “But you must take care, take care of yourself, he’s fine.”

“Yes, take care,” said the cashier, and we exchanged looks. Surely this young woman should not be out alone yet with her baby.

“My boyfriend is …ing”. Our faces showed we didn’t catch what she said he was doing. Then they showed we thought he should be there.

We picked up our bags. Time had stopped long enough. Goodbye, good luck. A silent wish she would soon feel more comfortable. Outside, I was reminded of my gratification, once I’d relaxed from newborn nerves, when strangers clustered round my new baby. Once a stallholder shouted “Ow, look at the loverly biby!” (This is not a pastiche. It’s how they really sounded in Walthamstow  market where ‘enery ‘iggins could still have found work if anyone would stand for it.) But her husband added: “Ain’t you ashamed o’ yerselves, bringin’ a little angel like that into this terrible world?” And he gave an enormous chuckle to show it was not ill meant.

Of course, the world is even more terrible now. (And better, in other smaller ways.)

I keep thinking of the young French woman. She disturbed me, out and about, in shock. But at least outside, she can find an easy audience through the beacon of her baby. She can begin to talk out her trauma, with different or less detail each day until the structure of the story falls into place for her and the facts become familiar enough to make sense.

Whoever she is, wherever she went home to, whatever her boyfriend is or does, I hope four days on from this encounter her shock is subsiding. I wonder if the unspoken concern of strangers has been of any use to her and if she mixed the formula. It reminded me of writing the newborn scene in The Infinity Pool, and of how I tried to help my heroine get through.

When there is a birth, not only the baby is newborn.

Newborn Ros
Photos are of my own children, now adults, at about the same age.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

Bride and readiness: The plots and ploys of Jane Austen.

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The Jane Austen Centre, Bath

If I don’t get a move on I’ll be the only blogger/author/reader in the western world not to have had their say about Jane Austen this 200th anniversary year. Everyone has their own take on Jane Austen, even if it’s only to say (ruefully in partner’s case, defiantly in son’s): “I’ve never read any Jane Austen”. But she’s part of the national psyche along with Shakespeare and Dickens. We all remember our first read of her or our first film adaptation or if not we have her high on our bucket list of guilt.

I first came across Jane Austen in the hardback set belonging to my parents, published by Hamish Hamilton in their “Novel Library” series in 1947. The pretty same-but-different covers fascinated me. I’m not going to claim to have been one of those precocious “reading the classics at three” children, but I did pick them up and pretend to read aloud from them in language I made up as I went along, long before I knew what they were about or who had written them. My mother thought this extraordinary but as a teacher I now know that to play act reading having seen adults do it is common and very healthy behaviour. Sadly, the copy of Mansfield Park is now lost, probably to one of my games, but the others remain.

 

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My mother’s set of Jane Austen, minus Mansfield Park.

There were BBC adaptations of Pride and Prejudice we’d have watched as a family, long before Colin Firth took his shirt off and inexplicably became such a heartthrob. (I thought his performance wooden; he didn’t move me until The King’s Speech.) It is a truth universally acknowledged (now I’ve thought of it) that “Bride and Readiness” reflects the plot but runs off the tongue less elegantly than the title of the most famous novel. Even those who have never dipped into it could probably place the first line, but they’ll have missed the humour: when the execrable Mr Collins seeks a bride and finds the eldest Bennet daughter “likely to be very soon engaged”, he “…had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth––and it was soon done––done while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire.”

Bath JA 4I’d certainly read P&P by the time I came to study the bleaker Persuasion for A level. This remains my favourite, along with Mansfield Parkbecause they both have more direct references to the wider economic and social realities of the time. Poverty is genteelly hinted at offstage in Pride and Prejudice but in Mansfield Park it is shown, Austen not baulking at the despair of women unable to avoid multiple unwanted pregnancies. Mrs Price, having married unwisely, finds herself now with “an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor.” Her letter to Lady Bertram speaks “so much contrition and despondence, such a superfluity of children and such a want of almost every thing else…She was preparing for her ninth lying-in and…bewailing the circumstance.” One child, Fanny, is taken in by richer relations and experiences a more elegant lifestyle, but she knows she can’t depend on it continuing. When she visits her original home, the sunshine that would enhance a richer household only brings out “the tea board never throughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy…” as “her mother lamented over the ragged carpet.”

 

In Pride and Prejudice the soldiers prance about showing off their uniforms but in Persuasion, although the Napoleonic wars remain offstage, there is much more discussion of and respect for the Naval men’s experiences – and for their feelings too. Captain Harville: “If I could but make you comprehend what man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!'”.

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Shop window display, Bath

In all her novels, Austen watches from the corner of the room to snipe at snobbery even more effectively than Thackeray. As Mr Collins tells Elizabeth: “Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” When the first line of Persuasion tells you Sir Walter Elliot’s favourite amusement is looking himself up in The Baronetage, you know she’s going to have fun with him – but this isn’t out of date. Jacob Rees-Mogg, and any MP with a duck house to restore on his moat, could have moved in the same circles. Fanny Price’s overcrowded family home, and her tired mother unable to afford the consumer goods she’d like are entirely recognisable to anyone restricted to a 1% pay rise for the past two parliaments.

(For an effective and quick description of how Austen describes the social questions of her time and ours, there’s an incisive little article in last week’s Guardian by the comedian Sarah Pascoe. It may even convert the men in my family…)

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The view from inside a shop on Pulteney bridge, Bath

Northanger Abbey turned up when I was at university, on the Romanticism in European literature course. We studied mad Gothic novels, full of castles, ghosts and sinister old retainers; here was Austen’s lampoon of the same. The Saturday Guardian is fond of asking celebs who they’d invite to their dream dinner party: if I was celebrated enough to be asked, I’d have Austen and Stella Gibbons and relish the discussion between the satirists who created Northanger Abbey and Cold Comfort Farm. “And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch which is the true heroine’s portion; to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself if she get another good night’s rest in the course of the next three months.” 

Sense and Sensibility is highly readable, the satire on genre conventions more subtle than in Northanger Abbey, but still much alive: “…though [Elinor’s] complexion varied, she stood firm in incredulity, and felt in no danger of an hysterical fit or a swoon.” For me this novel has made the best film adaptations, perhaps due to the double act of the two sisters of equal importance to the story structure.

The only one I don’t really enjoy, despite dutiful re readings, is Emma. For me, she’s just too dislikable, and it isn’t compensated for by her growing wisdom during the story. True, she is Austen’s deepest study in snobbery, but the nutshells and vignettes, the de Burghs and Sir Walter Elliots do the job just as well while allowing space for a more interesting main story. In Emma I think Austen takes longer to say much less, and the whole premise has dated more than her other stories.

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Royal Crescent, Bath, under restoration I assume

Last month we had an overnight stay in Bath. This UNESCO world heritage city features in Northanger Abbeywith naive heroine Catherine Morland  impressed and excited by the cosmopolitan glamour, and in Persuasion when the older Anne Elliot finds it sordid and exhausting. Bath tourist office will point you to the places where Austen lived and wrote and to the sites used in the novels and there’s a dedicated museum which is well meaning but verges on the vulgar. (How Austen would lampoon it, or fastidiously ignore it perhaps.) There’s a nice personal account of touring relevant parts of Bath by an Austen enthusiast here. It’s always a pleasure to visit Bath: fascinating glimpses of the backs of buildings as well as their yellow stone facades, all elegance and symmetry, bring social history and class divides to immediate life here, the realities for servants and tradesmen as visible as the fanlights and carriage sweeps of the rich. As in Austen’s time, Bath is crowded, fashionable, expensive and can be indigestible: you must escape to the wonderful surrounding countryside to get your breath back. For a fascinating fictionalised account of how similar architecture in nearby Bristol was built, see Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. Much of it is, I’m equally true of the beautiful terraces of Bath.

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Backs of houses near Royal Crescent

Anyway, that’s my Jane Austen. I’d like to hear about yours.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Music, mushrooms and mulberries – Dartington 2017

The blog has been silent for three weeks, but my life has not. Between ongoing neighbour noise and travel, there was a week of beautiful sounds at Dartington International Summer School and Festival. I blogged about Dartington last year when Monteverdi and Marina Warner were the main dishes on my menu and we were surrounded by weird medieval and renaissance instruments: sackbutts, theorbos, dulcimers and cornets. This year we chose strings week. Participating as singers ourselves, we could only listen, watch and admire those who are able to play.

cello footrests

Never have I seen so many cellos. As a cello case blocked me from the scrambled eggs, Adrian Brendel murmured, “So sorry – perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it into breakfast.” Cellos tuned, cellos bowed, cellos plucked, occasionally cellos rapped percussively. Cellos walking around apparently of their own momentum, when the player isn’t tall; cellos grouped in amiable conversation; cellos as footrests; sad cellos abandoned.  Baroque cellos, modern cellos, imaginary cellos. There must have been violins too – the Heath Quartet were in residence and opened the week with a stunning concert – there were certainly  violas, and the eagle eared might discern the distant rumble of a rare double bass.

My partner and I sing with a respectable community choir (Hackney Singers). We can “read” music though with less speed and processing power than we read words, have reasonably good pitch and the vocal muscle to manhandle a whole Beethoven Mass between breakfast and coffee. Our friends attend our London concerts if we buy them enough drinks. But at Dartington we are privileged to mix with world class musicians: we listen, awed and moved, to up to three concerts a night played only a few feet away by household names. Then on Friday night they pay us the compliment of coming to hear us! What we’d give at Hackney to have international stars in the audience, the likes of Emma Kirkby, Joanna MacGregor the pianist and director, or the stars of tomorrow like Stephanie Wake-Edwards who sang the alto solos in our mass or Isata Kanneh-Mason on piano. Over the weeks there’s a wide mix of genres represented, so Martin Carthy comes for folk workshops, Andy Sheppard for jazz, and Adriano Adewale brings Brazilian rhythms.

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Most concerts take place in the Great Hall

We rehearsed our mass en masse with George Vass, who was also conducting the Piano Concerto Competition and also conducting the production of Sweeney Todd while imparting the wit and wisdom of a lifetime in music. We triumphed (eventually, thanks to Gavin Roberts’ patience) over the German of Brahms and Schubert in the smaller Chamber Choir. When not rehearsing, we could wander into a masterclass: I chose Adrian Brendel’s but Pascal Roget was there too, and a piano duet class, and a vocal class. So I now know something about cello technique (keep the shoulder loose and play with the whole arm, not unlike the tennis commentator’s advice during the New York Open last night). I’ve seen the cello played so many ways by the same and different people: sitting back upright, calm and spiritual for the meditative mathematics of Bach, or embracing it with legs and arms curving forward to pluck deep bass notes, lips almost touching the neck like a singer with a microphone. It’s quite erotic.

(But music ain’t all spiritual or sexy : ever noticed how much saliva gets emptied onto the floor by a French horn and how a conductor sweats?)

Particular highlights this year? Alfred Brendel talking about Schubert, and his own musical career, moving when discussing his own choices of what and how to play, wise about young musicians today (“don’t practise so much”), quick with a witty putdown if an audience/interviewer question didn’t suit him.

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Alfred Brendel after his discussion with Joanna MacGregor

Second highlight: Joanna MacGregor’s piano concerto masterclasses. The student soloist on one Steinway, she on the other, throwing herself about with huge energy to play all the orchestral parts on the other. There’s a surprisingly practical element to  her teaching: apparently concerto soloists rarely get the chance to practise with the orchestra before the performance (not so unlike the life of the amateur choir then) and she was full of hints. “If you peer under the piano lid at this point, you should be able to see the lower strings to help you keep in touch” / “this bit’s tricky for the conductor so just give him/her a hint, perhaps a quick G flat just to show what your intention is” / “try coming down onto the note from higher up, it will make more sound and be less tiring for you” / “just go with the flow for a rest, this is the woodwind lead, not yours”. Fascinating. I shall never hear Gershwin or Rachmaninov the same way again, having heard them on two Steinways as she conducted, advised, played, joked, demonstrated and most importantly, encouraged.

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Third highlight – Brazilian rhythms in the bar on the last night, top singers and musicians taking impro spots as we all clapped, sang and percussed along. Is to percuss a verb? It is now. If a mainly (but not all) classical music summer school sounds precious or exclusive, think again. This one rocked!

Last highlights? Delicious breakfast mushrooms and grazing on mulberries from the tree in the famous Dartington gardens. We’ll be back next year, for the St Matthew Passion – unless we go for Early Music Week … or The Creation… or the Verdi Requiem and Kiss Me Kate… choices, choices.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

The best independent bookshop in London!

Last year I posted to celebrate what would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday and this week it’s my late father’s turn. Ian Norrie was what used to be called a “bookman”. He wrote novels, book trade history, and guidebooks, edited, ran a small publishing imprint, wrote for the trade press such as The Bookseller, served on the committees of trade organisations like the National Book League or book prizes, lectured on bookselling and publishing, helped set up an archive of book trade oral history, and worked tirelessly through lunchtimes, evenings and weekends to maintain the bon viveur traditions of publisher wining and dining.

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My mother Mavis and my father Ian at a High Hill bookshop party for author E. Arnot Robertson in 1958

The jewel in the crown was the High Hill Bookshop. In 1956 after jobs including journalism and in Foyles, he went to work in a run down shop in Hampstead High Street. From a literally collapsing building they sold new and second hand books, artists’ materials, and greetings cards, adding records and an art gallery after the company went into receivership and my father and friends formed a partnership to buy and rename it. I think the business cost them £10,000 plus £1,300 annual rent. It became the best independent bookshop in North London. By 1988 when it closed, High Hill sold only books, from three shops knocked into one. Hardbacks, art, travel, history and the university departments were on the left, children’s, sport and religion in the middle, and paperbacks on the right.

 

Working in a bookshop was every student’s dream, but it was harder than it seemed. I did it in university holidays. You have little time to read, and books are heavy, dusty and not always inspiring. The ones that sold best in Hampstead tended to be high quality and well produced, but we also made a good profit from what Ian called “Irene’s crap table” – Irene Anderson ran the paperback dept and had an eye for books you could pile high and sell cheap. The customer is not always right, and in Hampstead could be arrogant too. Some were just vague. In pre computer days, identifying what someone wants when all they know is “it’s about history and it’s green” took knowledge and imagination (although “there’s a poem about daffodils” didn’t.) Ian despised calculators, so his staff had to add everything in their heads, not easy when a famous politician or psychiatrist is glaring at you as you do it. He didn’t like plastic bags either so we wrapped everything in orange and white striped paper. People would spend a small fortune on books and then proudly tell us they reused our paper as gift wrap.

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Ian’s book about the shop, featuring our wrapping paper and cartoon by Nicholas Bentley commissioned for the 1958 Christmas catalogue

There were many famous local customers, not then called celebs. Peter Cook was in most weeks, as were Michaels Foot and Palin, RD Laing, Margaret Drabble and Melvyn Bragg. Then there were the nobility, peeved if you asked for ID when they wanted to pay by cheque without a card (anyone else remember cheque cards?) “You see, there are so many of you about,” sighed Perry who worked in hardbacks, when a haughty grande dame objected: “But it’s a Coutts’ cheque! And I’m a Lady!” Meanwhile you could spot the less well known local authors a mile off; they came in on a daily basis and moved their books into more prominent positions.

My father enjoyed writing adverts and did his own inexpensive window displays, which gained a reputation. One was for a new coffee table book about roses, by Harry Wheatcroft (think Monty Don equivalent). For this he plundered my mother’s garden, so the beautiful tomes were surrounded as she pointed out by blooms complete with greenfly and leaf spot. One year he simply wrote in his terrible handwriting: “Give SKOOB this Christmas!” on a big poster and the staff were plagued by customers asking what on earth it meant. (Not all Hampstead residents are as clever as they think they are.) During the 1966 general election they did a big display for Whitaker’s almanack . That was the year Hampstead elected its first Labour MP, Ben Whitaker.

High Hill door notice
Ian’s view was that customers, as well as staff, needed training.

Of course not all customers were rich and/or famous. High Hill had the account for Camden libraries and a number of schools, and Ian always maintained it was well worth opening just after Christmas because of the trade done through small denomination book tokens. When his shop began trading as High Hill, there were hardly any other bookshops in North London, but they began to open in Kentish Town, Muswell Hill, Highgate and elsewhere. High Hill was the grandee, with Ian to his delight being called a “bookseller tycoon” in a TV documentary about Hampstead. One reason was the excellent staff who stayed because although they worked long hours, they received good pay, holidays and pensions, were given autonomy and respect, supported through illness and allowed to play to their strengths. Sheila Judd and Ros Wesson could find a book to answer any child, au pair or parent query, whether for a “hyperactive teenager who’s…er… going through a phase” or “the most intelligent two year old you ever saw” (a claim made for most Hampstead children). A significant child of the shop’s own was the High Hill Press, which published around thirty titles about Hampstead, London and literature.

 

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Eventually there was a threefold blow: the leasehold costs soared, the policy of ratecapping reduced Camden’s purchasing power so losing the biggest customer and Waterstone’s opened up the road to offer serious competition at last. The property was worth more than the business. High Hill was on its final chapter, but all the staff were head hunted for jobs in bookselling or publishing. Characteristically Ian saw it as an opportunity, and in “retirement” continued for another quarter century to write and travel, frequent the publishers’ table at the Garrick Club and play the part of Hampstead, London, European bookman.

High Hill Michael Foot 1988
High Hill signing party 1988: Bridget Clements, Michael Foot and Ian Norrie.

I’ve concentrated here on Ian’s bookselling achievements but, as I said at his memorial celebration at Burgh House in 2009, he was also a loving son, husband, father and brother, reader, writer, sandcastle builder, traveller, entertainer, host, quizmaster, ham actor, cricket umpire, tennis player with a sense of umbrage to out McEnroe McEnroe (when his son in law beat him 6-0, 6-0 he complained Andy hadn’t played properly), wine drinker and to many people a very good friend. How he would have enjoyed blogging and the chance to show his many photographs as well as his words, even if, trained on typewriters, his heavy fingers did break more keyboards than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Ian is still sadly missed, and Mavis too – we’re toasting you both in Chablis tonight as we browse the Booker prize list and make our own travel and writing plans.

Next time 2

©Jessica Norrie 2017 and estate of Ian Norrie

Desdemona: Moor Violence in Venice

Last month Jonas Kaufmann singing Verdi’s Otello was one of the hottest tickets in town and it may be only because I’m a blasé Londoner that I thought, ho humph, that was quite a good evening.

The soloists and chorus sang wonderfully of course. Resonant, mostly expressive, bang in the middle of the note except for Iago for whose anger a slightly strangled air works well. I can’t afford seats close enough to judge their facial expressions or more nuanced gestures. But most of the singers looked and behaved appropriately most of the time.

ROHThe orchestra played as robustly as ever. Every time I’ve seen Pappano conduct the singers must fight him to be heard, from the (relatively) cheap seats anyway. (I mistyped signers, which could have stood). But the musicians did pipe down respectfully for the likes of Kaufmann and they always quieten after the interval. As a choral singer I know if you keep bellowing too long you run out of muscle so perhaps that’s what happens to players under Pappano too.

Covent Garden went through a phase in the noughties of sets like multi storey car parks and this one while not in that league of awfulness was dull and so heavy on the symbolism it clunked. Literally, during one long scene change. Black and grey modernism didn’t preclude standard blousy costumes and for Emilia a bodice resembling a rib knit jumper. But she  (Kai Rüütel) had a beautiful voice, like her mistress, and acted rather more convincingly.

It’s a pleasure to sit in the red velvet splendour of Covent Garden and have a drink in the bar where even the current building works can’t dim the elegance.

ROH bar 2017

Given such a great package, provided the singing, playing, and the opera itself are good surely other aspects don’t matter? The worst of designs can’t ruin the sound of great opera well sung, even when Toscas death is visible only from her ankles to her knees (English National Opera 2004), when the apprehensive chorus have to juggle real balls throughout their long star number (Akhnaten, ENO 2016) or clamber up and down school assembly hall wall bars (Fidelio, ROH 2011) or when poor Desdemona (Maria Agresta) had to sing draped backwards across furniture with her head hanging down on the floor for a good ten minutes (don’t try this at home). Often it’s best just to shut your eyes and listen: there’s only so much mixed identity, fairy transformation, revenge and blood feud any reasonable suspension of disbelief can take. But the story matters more when it’s a great Shakespearean tragedy.

Aye, there’s the rub. I’ve seen Othello live on stage only once, when I took my teenage son to see Lenny Henry’s debut Shakespeare role in 2009. Lenny H was quite good, until he broke into a self conscious giggle in the scene where Othello froths at the mouth. I’ve seen old film versions, including Laurence Olivier: sorry, ô great icon of British theatre, this has dated too much for me. But Paul Robeson in groundbreaking performances from the 1930s and 40s is still very moving (a black man? Playing a black man? Good gracious me…) The most memorable Otello of many I’ve seen was a 2007 dress rehearsal at ROH when Renée Fleming’s mother was ill (audience sighs) so Amanda Roocroft stepped in at short notice (audience cheers). In the beautiful willow song scene before her death Roocroft was poignant, terrified, achingly tragic.

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This 2017 production was – yes, expensive professionals at their most competent. But there was something missing. Kaufmann’s singing though beautiful was slightly in traditional declamatory style. I think I do have a problem with white singers even as wonderful as Kaufmann singing Otello, since the black/white opposition is such an integral part of the plot and it barely featured here. Paramount for the opera role is the ability to sing it, and Kaufmann’s rare voice certainly fits that bill. Of course he didn’t black up: that’s no more acceptable in opera than it is now in theatre. But it’s 2017. We’re due a black singer cast as Otello in London. They do exist. Perhaps the role could be, for one of them, a path to Kaufmann level stardom?

There was no “slightly” about Maria Agresta’s “style” in this production. It WAS traditional and declamatory. This Desdemona planted her feet and gave it her all. Solidly undeterred, is how I would describe her anticipation of Otello’s murderous rage. If anyone can sing a comfortable death with their head hanging down as described above, she can, and never loses her tuning or composure. She wasn’t very interesting to watch so I listened and thought about the words, which highlighted an obvious point that to my feminist shame has never occurred to me about Desdemona and Othello before.

4290802Yes, it’s a play/opera about Othello/Otello the social/racial outsider being cruelly manipulated into mental illness. Yes, it’s about a victorious general outmanoeuvred in the domestic sphere, a successful military and political star shamed and diminished by his jealousy into committing murder. Since 1604 the audience has been worked upon to feel pity for him in his downfall, but the principle tragedy is not his.

The tragedy is Desdemona’s. Verdi realised it: he gives her one of the most intense scenes in the repertoire. The night she is killed, Desdemona waits vulnerable in her room for her husband to arrive, alternately prays and tries to comfort herself with a sad song she remembers from childhood, pleads with herself and her maid for reassurance, lays out her wedding nightgown to remind Otello of happier times, wonders again what she has done wrong, prays again to God and to Otello to spare her, in despair tries to sleep. When her husband does appear she tries hopelessly to reason with him and explain his mistake…

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Desdemona is trapped like domestic violence victims everywhere. Women attacked and murdered by men they love, or think they love, or once loved, or just knew and fell foul of. Sometimes they’ll have spent years yearning for, adoring, placating, comforting, adapting to, soothing, providing for their killers. They may or may not have irritated, hated, inflamed, bullied them along the way, they may well have character flaws of their own, they may or may not have fought back. But they are the victims, not their killers.

Right to the end, Desdemona blames herself and craves Othello’s approval, as abused partners are led to do. Here is Verdi’s version (or Boito’s, his librettist), in English translation:

DESDEMONA
A guiltless death I die…

EMILIA
Great God! Who did this deed?

DESDEMONA
Nobody… I myself…
Commend me to my lord…
A guiltless death I die…
Farewell…

And here is Shakespeare’s:

DESDEMONA A guiltless death I die.  

EMILIA O, who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA  Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord:                                                         O, farewell!

I found lots of editions on the Goodreads comparative page. They either show Othello, or Othello and Desdemona, “that” handkerchief or an abstract design. None highlight Desdemona. Contemporary theatre posters are more equal – I haven’t shown finished production ones for copyright reasons but I can feature the National Youth Theatre and Unicorn Theatre posters who I hope will welcome the advertising.

I’ve rambled around even now, I’m so used to thinking of this as Othello’s story. But my main point is: never mind tinkering with the sets, the performances, even the casting. I have a more fundamental reinterpretation. I think it’s time to rename this play: Desdemona: Moor violence in Venice.

 

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barcelona, Sombra y Sol

Shade and sun, noise and…not much silence here in London where we still have intermittent NOISE unless I scream at the builders through the walls. For me the sounds were more harmonious last week in Barcelona, so here’s a post about what I’ve heard and seen there, over the years.

Barcelona Jn sol y sombra azules
Sun, shade and building, from Park Guell

I first visited Barcelona in November 1979 with a student friend. Our filthy train rumbled down from Paris for ten hours. We dozed upright and stepped over recumbent bodies in the aisle to get to the unspeakable loo. The track gauge changed at the border so we had to take another even worse train, arriving sleepless with grit filled eyes. We found a room in a narrow alley off the Ramblas, not because it was billed as “quaint” (it wasn’t, then), but because it was cheap. It looked onto a high blank wall about six metres away and the streets were quiet. I wanted to practise my Spanish, which G didn’t speak, but we soon found it was better if he did the talking. The only other females around were nuns and prostitutes, and no-one seemed ready to engage in the friendly dialogues suggested by my phrasebook.Barcelona SF 2 I don’t remember hearing Catalan or English either: people simply didn’t speak in our presence. Probably, under Franco, they’d lost the habit of talking in front of strangers. Their mother tongue, after all, was banned. It rained. The Sagrada Familia was forbidding and silent – no-one was working or visiting under the four completed towers and much of the roof was open to the gloomy sky. There was little money available for the project. Franco had only been dead four years and Catalonia had suffered as much if not more than the rest of Spain. Barcelona was poor, dirty, dreary and dark. We escaped to Sitges, even then a cheerful, bouncy little town with a sunny beach that defied the season.

My next trip was sometime around 2004.  What a difference! Spain had (apparently) shrugged off Franco. The 1992 Olympics had regenerated Barcelona, cleaned up its beaches, replanted its parks. The shops were full and colourful, the people stylish. You could still wander around the “temple” without a guide, but parts were taped off with stonemasons chipping away behind them. The human statues in the Ramblas only jogged into movement when the adjacent ball dribbling exhibition hit them accidentally (or was it?) I watched Almodovar’s La Mala Educación which had just come out, in a showing starting at 10pm and then we went to eat and then the sparkling metro was still running to get me home. Watch out for your purse by the bullring, warned Señora Herrero, my hostess, but I felt quite safe.

Barceloan palau interior
The Palau de la Musica

I returned with my son and his father in 2005. I wanted to see the Palau de la Música, built to celebrate both Catalan and international musical traditions and an Art Nouveau sensation. I wanted to visit the Picasso Museum, where you can see his dashing, respectful variations on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. I wanted to congratulate myself again on how much written Catalan I could understand – by now all signs were bilingual and if you can read French, Spanish or Latin you can decipher Catalan. Robert and his dad went to worship at Camp Nou, and back we all went to the Sagrada Familia. Not much had changed in a year. Health and safety awareness had produced a few more hoardings so work was audible but harder to watch. (Why am I moaning about the builders next door? At least it’s not an unfinished cathedral started 90 years ago.)

We went again last week. I’ve written before about singing, and this trip was Run by Singers, giving us the opportunity to sing in the temple! And goodness how it’s come on (the temple, not my singing). The midpoint of construction was reached in 2010 and it’s hoped to finish in 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death (although the pious architect famously said “my client [God] isn’t in a hurry”). There are now eight towers completed of the projected eighteen. The roof is finished, and the stained glass creates glorious changing patterns in the nave, while the internal pillars rise in the shapes of palm trees to a forest canopy of intricate stone. I was relieved the choir stalls are not yet finished, as they’re going to be about 15 vertiginous metres up on three sides, with a screen so that all 1400 potential singers can see the conductor. Meanwhile we sang in a roped off space in the nave and some tourists were good enough to stop and listen. In the evening, we gave a charity concert at an enchanting little theatre in the nearby town of Vilassar. I wonder how many UK towns can boast such a charming performance space?

There was a little time for sightseeing. The Park Guëll was scorching, and to me had changed only in that it was much more crowded. The mosaics that aren’t mosaics (they’re “trincados” and you can try making one yourself next time you smash a plate) were still delightful. I suffered real vertigo on the roof of La Pedrera, but enjoyed the apartment inside and gazpacho at their cafe. The bullring has become a shopping centre since Barcelona banned bullfighting – bravo! But the cherry on the cake was to return to the Palau. This time, the guided tour was much less overtly political, less focussed on Catalan pride and the need to protect and nurture their culture. The glowing Palau spoke for itself, as now do the people, and the tour included 20 minutes of beautifully played Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. Next time, we must surely sing there!

I’d downloaded books set in the region, referring as ever to the TripFiction website for my choices. But we were too busy. I haven’t touched them. All I can recommend is those I’d read already. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences during the Spanish Civil war, can’t be bettered as an explanation of why 43 years later the Barcelona I saw was still so downtrodden and sinister. The novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón are mostly set there. I read them in Spanish, in order to practice, which means I’m vague about the content. There were lots of alleyways, dark passages, dusty booksellers and libraries, abandoned railways and gardens with wrought iron gates, mysterious young women, wrinkled grandparents with jewels and sadness, shadows and secrets but the plots eluded me.

Barcelona Montjuic steps
Montjuic

Depending on NOISE, posts over the summer will be intermittent. Maybe I’ll reblog something of someone else’s instead, now I’ve discovered how. Or maybe I’ll leave you all in blissful silence, to browse through some photographs – this time, it was harder than ever to know what to leave out.

Barcelona SF palm trees

Barcelona SF stained glass

Barceklona SF stained glass 2

 

Bracelona JN La P gazpachoHasta luego!

©Jessica Norrie 2017