A funny thing happened on the way to the story

People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.

We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?

storytelling 2

In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.

Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?

 

Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

storytelling 1

Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”  The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.

Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…

…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”

So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

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Testing times

Sadly, the fronted adverbial raised its ugly head again this week, and prompts me to blog again about teaching children to use language. Cathartically, I imagine the fronted adverbial as a long necked carnivorous dinosaur, head waving from the primordial swamps in search of food. Entertainingly, it bobbed up on Michael Rosen’s Facebook page. Angrily, I read the rotten saga. Happily, I remembered I’m no longer a teacher. Crossly, I empathized with those who are. Achingly, I sympathized with the children.

Do you now know what a fronted adverbial is? Certainly, now I’ve modelled it ad nauseam, and you didn’t need to know the term for it anyway, because you’re not linguistics professors. Neither do children in junior school.

worksheet from Rosen
Worksheet quoted by Michael Rosen on his Facebook page

To be fair, I believe there’s some confusion over whether children themselves are supposed to know the term or just their teachers. I’m not churning through pages of Dfe* bumf to find out, but I can tell you enough people seem to think children need to know it for the 87,700 results of my Google search today to start like this:

fronted advbs(I’m not knocking my colleagues who produce these although I do think the one Rosen showcases needs to chill. You teach what you’re told to teach as best you can, and teachers are wonderful at sharing resources and ideas – the less prepossessing the subject, the more they rise to the challenge.)

A lesser relation of the fronted adverbial, the irregular past participle is another busy little pest that scuttles about causing mayhem to even younger children. Once it infested my classroom. The previous week, I’d teached regular past participles (a benign member of the same genus). We called them Ed. We walkEd about and talkEd about them, lookEd for them, hookEd some from the pages of our books, took – oh dear! and shook – gadzooks! – some into our writing and I releasEd the children into the playground where they shoutEd and playEd and exercisEd their dear little limbs in the satisfaction of knowledge learnEd (t?!) and a past tense story inventEd. Hooray!

DSC_0538
The awful reality of writing in Year 1, before teaching …ed. Teaching chronology looks overdue, too.

For the more literal minded of you, I didn’t teach the …ed suffix with a capital letter. I’m just banging home the point here. I did teach “…suffix ed” (yes, 6 year olds have to know the term suffix) with ellipses (I’m not sure they have to know ellipses but see comment on government documents above) and I telled them “Poor …ed. It isn’t a full name, it can’t go out on its own, it’s just the last part of another word, so it never has a capital letter.” “My name’s Ed and it does!” saided a boy. “Couldn’t your mummy have taken you on an unauthorised holiday today?” I spat through grat teeth.

I’m not against teaching grammar. I remember starting French, discovering verbs, nouns and adjectives and thinking this is jolly useful. A rule to apply. An apparatus to climb. A tool for cobbling together sentences. I wonder if you can do it in English too? Ah, yes… Why didn’t they tell me at junior school? The 1970s approach needed and the current approach needs to consider what’s age appropriate, from either end of the spectrum.

The advantage of grammar is government can test it, (like testing scales or memorising the periodic table. But would anyone teach those before playing tunes or lighting a bunsen burner?) The advantage of test results is government can judge the test takers and test teachers easily, categorise a school as in “special measures” (ie more tests), and solve the problem with an academy that makes money for shareholders. I first heard that from an Ofsted inspector and suspected her of conspiracy theories. But fast forward six years and these tweets make the same point:

Twitter page

Oops. That’s what happens when I don’t plan a post strictly enough – someone else takes over the rant. Where was I?

Teaching grammar can be fun. I invented the “Full stop police” and the children begged to play again. One child reads aloud and the “police” clap where the full stops should be. “Pass the full stop” requires a satsuma, representing a full stop. It’s passed around and the child holding it when the narrative comes to a full stop gets a segment. Or throw a black foam rubber ball… etc. There’s pleasure in finding patterns and rules in every subject. Nothing wrong with that, but do it at the right age. Infant children should be playing snap, not bridge. They should absorb the harder rules by exposure to good and varied writing, and have more time to read and listen to stories.

Teaching grammar can also be profitable. Here’s an article about what grammar schools earn from publishing mock tests for their entrance exams. They’re expensive to a parent on a low income, at between £28 and £60, as are the tutors to mediate them. Do I detect another conspiracy theory?

Let’s return to my 6 and 7 years olds, in their second week of past participles:

Me: Hallo children. Today we’re going to write another story. (Some smile, some groan. Children can be irregular too.) Another story set in the past.

Child (sounds pleased): With Ed!

Me: Do not call out, Jason. No, …ed will not be in this story.

Children (chorus): We likEd Ed.

Me: This week, children, we’re going to meet the irregular past participle. Soliloquy: Irregular PP is to PP as the hornet to the honeybee. He stings big time, repeatedly. A single attack can be enough to kill a child’s interest in writing for life, without expert treatment. You are only 7 – many of you are only 6. There is no known vaccine. So tread carefully, my dears. Better staff than I have lookEd at their year 2s and quailEd. Time for the dreary trudge of exposition.

Me: Any suggestions from you? Hands up! Readed? No, sorry. Eated? No. Buyed? Wented? No. Ringed? Like “the bell ringed?” No. Singed …now, you heard what I said about “ringed” so don’t push it…

Child: (piping voice, shellshocked tone) We’d be safer if we just didn’t use verbs at all.  

Little Amaara: (weeping) We won’t be able to write anything without getting it wrong! And I was looking forward to finishing my story from last week with Ed. (Puts head in hands.)

I remember when there were few government teaching guidelines. Poor or nonexistent guidelines, poor planning (including mine), inadequate resources, firebells, abusive behaviour – all these cause difficulties and part of a teaching career (not the part they show in the recruitment ads) is learning to overcome them.

I “helped” children sew when I was sew untrained myself I sewed trouser legs together (that’s another story). I was tasked with explaining STDs to embarrassed teenage boys who spoke no English. I attempted painting when the only paint in the stock room was brown, and gluing with Pritt Sticks that dried up before the pupils were born. I triumphed over an interactive (huh!) white board that wouldn’t be reorientated no matter WHAT so the pen never connected with the surface. I taught forces with magnets that didn’t work due to badly designed storage. I’ve written poems about snow with children who weren’t allowed (health and safety) to play in it.

But when the irregular past participle came buzzing along for the 6 and 7 year olds and nouns became noun phrases and verbs became present progressives and exclamations had to start with What (How ridiculous!) I wented home and choosed a fortifying drink and after 32 years I writed an email with my resignation.

exclamation
From 2017 KS2 grammar test paper

Mischievously, here’s a possible slice of revenge. On many Government web pages, there’s a bit at the bottom that says:

Government website 2

Have fun! But remember not to include financial information, duh.

Sorry about the rant. Will be back to posting about books, next week, via Smorgasbord,

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Grandmother’s footsteps

My grandmother’s front door had panels of stained glass in a multicoloured grid design, so a child could gaze through and turn the inner lobby shades of pink, green, blue or yellow – dark for her mahogany hall table, light for the walls, overlaying already patterned floor tiles with new moods and stories.

In Gran’s cold bathroom, the terrifying wall mounted “Ascot” heater gasped as though about to explode. For all that, the water never trickled in warmly enough to dissolve the bath salts she kept in pretty pastel coloured layers in a glass jar on the tub (no shower). We slept under blankets, and paisley patterned eiderdowns (no duvet). There was a mangle to dry her hand washed clothes and bellows for the coal fire (no heating). Seagulls squawked close to the rattling single glazed sash windows with sills deep enough for a child to play on behind the curtains. She needed thick curtains, for the high ceilinged rooms were huge and freezing at the edges: we were always either too near the fire (come away, you’ll get scorched) or too far from it (come closer, you’ll catch a chill).

Grans house Pevensey Road
My grandparents’ house in the late 1960s (?). Seaside weather took a toll on the roof and brickwork.

The house loomed vast against the sky, and drained my grandparents’ resources. My grandfather had started life as a factory foreman and must have had some kind of buy to let mortgage, moving away from London to the cleaner air and cheaper property in St Leonards-on-Sea. The basement flat was let to a family, with a separate front and garden door. That didn’t stop us going down the internal stairs at whim on unannounced visits (I wonder now how the family felt about that). After my grandfather died in 1967, the upper floor was also let as bedsits, to ancient ladies who struggled up to their rooms by walking past my grandmothers’ bedroom and lounge doors (Oh, how I would like a hall way just for me.) A spry retired headmistress (?), her name easily remembered as she was Miss Toft in the Loft, rented the whole attic floor. To get there she too went through the hall and up carpeted stairs (more paisley, and ferns in brass pots). Our summer holiday job was to fill in the threadbare patches from little pots of red and black poster paint because your eyes are sharper than mine, dear. No paint on the stair rods, please. Stair rods! When did I last see those?

Waiting in the wings is a novel in which I hope to use such details. Meanwhile I’m drawn to searching for similar plunderings by better authors. Children’s literature is full of grandparents’ houses. Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered hers even though she moved away at five years old and never saw it again. “The floor was made from wide, thick slabs that Grandpa had hewed from the logs with his axe….smoothed all over, and scrubbed clean and white and the big bed under the window was soft with feathers.” L M Boston’s wonderful Children of Green Knowe series is set in Grandmother Oldknow’s house, where the architecture of the house itself enables her grandchildren to have adventures with their ghostly ancestors. And the beautiful domestic detail of Shirley Hughes’ illustrations for Alfie and Grandma would embrace anyone in need of a cosy home, whatever their generation.

But there were surprisingly few grandparents’ houses in the fiction for adults on my shelves. Of course, outside the Western world many grandparents don’t have separate homes. From Europe I found Proust‘s blend of domestic detail with memory and emotion. This begins at his great aunt’s home, imagining himself “lying, face to the wall, in a big bed with a canopy…back before my eyes the glimmering flame of the night-light in its bowl of Bohemian glass, shaped like an urn and hung by chains from the ceiling.” Elsewhere you have to hunt for ghosts through clues in the narrative: surely Galsworthy, writing in 1906, was calling on memory for his description of old Jolyon the patriarch’s house: “The door of the dining room was open, the gas turned low; a spirit-urn hissed on a tea tray, and close to it a cynical looking cat had fallen asleep on the dining table.” For a direct if malicious approach I was pleased to find Great Granny Webster still in print, though Caroline Blackwood appreciated her ancient relation’s entrance in Hove less than I did my grandmother’s thirty miles east: “… a huge forbidding black front door, which had a hideous stained glass covered porch full of potted plants that had to be watered day and night”. Anyone struggling with writing settings could take lessons from this short novel from 1977.

More recently, Anne Enright’s The Green Road casts spells in economical Irish prose garnished with select detail: “Hanna loved the little house at Boolavaun: four rooms, a porch full of geraniums, a mountain out the back, and, out the front, a sky full of weather… and not much Hanna was allowed to touch. A cabinet in the good room held a selection of china. Other surfaces were set with geraniums in various stages of bloom and decline; there was a whole shelf of amputees on a back sill, their truncated stems bulbous to the tips.” Enright leaves us to fill the little-used “good room” with our imaginations, while the geraniums take centre stage. Diana Athill, herself now over one hundred, has a chapter on her grandparents’ garden in Alive Alive Oh! “After breakfast Gramps would tuck The Times under his arm and proceed in a stately way to the privy… and if you noticed him going past a window you must pretend you hadn’t.” As so often reading Rachel Cusk I stopped half way through Aftermath with a shock of recognition: “In the gas-smelling kitchen, rain at the windows, my grandmother buttered the cut face of the cottage loaf before she sliced it.”

These sights, so out of date already, still exist in easy living memory (Cusk is at the beginning of her 50s and I’m nearing the end). Memories from childhood have a dream like quality which, if bottled, would make a fortune for some writing consultancy. (Proust’s got closest so far.) Memoir is currently a trendy genre – hardly a week goes by when I’m not invited on some memoir writing course. I wonder if the demand is so high now because planning laws have relaxed and we are so busy obliterating our past?  In these days of gutting old houses, stripping every internal feature to turn them into open plan white cubes, we must nurture our memories. Despite more ways than ever of recording our thoughts, the record itself is more fragile (think email as opposed to letters, thousands of photos forgotten on a hard drive rather than a few curated in an album). If you still have the chance, talk to your grandparents now, photograph their homes, record their thoughts and their daily routines. The pickings are rich, and moving. I’ve found it a homage and a privilege to write about my mother, my father, and now at least one aspect of one set of grandparents. I hope this encourages others to do the same. (Oh, and if you know someone who lives in the house above, do get in touch.)

Gran and papa
My grandparents on holiday in 1939. My grandmother wrote in the album: “We were recalled from Cornwall because war seemed imminent. War came and life has never been the same.”

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

More from literary Lisbon

Back to Lisbon this week, to continue wandering round the city’s literature. The interruption for illness (including hallucinatory dreams) was apposite, as the books I’ve read meander around in time, in location, in the heads of their authors and their characters. In homage, this post may take detours too.

Lisbon fondacion jose Saramago
Jose Saramago Foundation

The entrance and ground floor of the Saramago Foundation, confusingly, did not feature Jose Saramago, Portuguese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite the name and Saramago characters silhouetted in the windows. Instead the enthusiastic young attendant talked about the surface of the building and the archaeology beneath it. Only when we went back out did we realise this surface was not flat, hence its name: “Casa dos Bicos”. In the strong sunlight, we’d assumed the shapes on the walls were shadows or flat tiles. But it was another example of how, in Lisbon, things are not what they seem. As the wonky Google translation of the Saramago Foundation page puts it: Where some would want to see diamonds, (people) saw no more than stone beaks, and, as the use makes law, of so much calling it House of the Beaks, of the Beaks stayed and with that name entered History. 

Lisbon fonacion Jose Saramago detail
Detail, Casa dos Bicos

The archaeology fan referred me to his colleague when I asked where to start with Saramago. He gave us a quizzical look and recommended Small Memories. The archaeologist, who probably thought us really thick, nodded. “Yes, that’s the easiest.” (It was less patronising than it sounds.)

Anyway, Small Memories was straightforward: a memoir comparing his childhood and adolescence in the countryside and within Lisbon. He’s difficult to quote because his sentences are so long, and he enjoys playing with the reader and pokes sardonic fun at his own work: “Sometimes I wonder if certain memories are really mine or if they’re just someone else’s memories of episodes in which I was merely an unwitting actor and which I found out about later when they were told to me by others who had been there, unless, of course, they, too, had only heard the story from someone else.” It’s an affectionate, comical memoir: “photos of the family were gathered together on the table like a galaxy of faces…placed there like saints on an altar, like the disparate parts of a collective reliquary, fixed and immutable.” (To see a macabre local inspiration for this metaphor, visit the Sao Roque collection of relics.)

Lisbon Sao Roque 2
Sao Roque chapel

51-holzr82lReading about Saramago’s childhood in lyrical, nostalgic but unsentimental prose was reminiscent of earlier memoirs of country childhoods: Laurie Lee, of Flora Thompson or Pagnol. In the city they were still poor but differently, and closer to the time of Alan Johnson in London. Like them, learning to read transformed his life: “Being able to identify a word I knew was like finding a signpost on the road telling me I was on the right path, heading in the right direction.” Like them, he describes the relish of special food or simple treats and details wildlife with  perception I hope children are not losing now they spend so much time in virtual reality. The boy Saramago fought real street battles. “As shields we had saucepan lids that we found among the rubbish.” The man searches the city records for the true date of his infant brother’s death, and finds the child was almost airbrushed from history by bureaucratic mistakes; in contrast, his grandfather looms solid in his memory: “His small, sharp eyes shine sometimes as if something he had long been pondering had finally been understood. He is a man like many others on this earth, perhaps an Einstein crushed beneath a mountain of impossibilities,a philosopher, a great illiterate writer.”

It was good to read this book on a visit to Lisbon. It brought the streets alive.

Lisbon elevador da Bica 2

Then I had a go at another Lisbon writer, who to my shame I’d never heard of before. He too has a museum in his name, the Casa Fernando Pessoa, which my photographs don’t show because we didn’t visit it. They show some other building that pays him homage, along with many statues, tile murals, and posters. Pessoa wrote in the voice of numerous heteronyms, narrators he used to express his thoughts at a distance from himself, “characters” as the introduction to my edition says, “Pessoa invented to spare himself the trouble of living real life.” The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego, 1930s)  is a collection of thoughts, 45974ideas, recollections, epigrams, memories and opinions voiced by the characters he invented. Editors and later translators put it into order for publication but nobody knows if that order is correct. The sections are not long, and you can dip in and out as you like. Said Pessoa himself: “It’s all fragments, fragments, fragments!” Pessoa worked on it all his life, getting further from finishing it with every page he wrote. At the beginning (if it is the beginning) it’s firmly located in the Rua dos Douradores, where we queued unsuccessfully at an over popular restaurant. Soares the heteronym works in an office there; he breaks for lunch, he walks home; he looks out of the window… So far so concrete, and much of the streetscape hasn’t changed since the 1930s when Pessoa described it. The beginning in particular (if it is the beginning) is full of lovely descriptions of Lisbon’s everyday life and scenery.

You get a flavour of the rest of the book from Text 12: “In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. these are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.”

That doesn’t sound promising, and yet Pessoa struck some chords for me. He can certainly express the futility and depression of being alive in a world without God or clear meaning, with a self protecting layer of sardonic humour: “And when I leaned out of my high window looking at the street I couldn’t see, I felt like one of those damp rags used for housecleaning that are taken to the window to dry but are forgotten, balled up, on the sill where they slowly leave a stain.

Like Night Train to Lisbon which I wrote about beforethis is book about identity – does the author/heteronym have one? If so, what does it mean and what happens when, inevitably, it changes in one of many potential ways?Lisbon Pessoa in tile museum

“At the heart of my thought I wasn’t I. I’m dazed by a sarcastic terror of life…” “By thinking so much, I became echo and abyss, by delving within, I made myself into many.”

Pessoa (or his heteronym/s/narrator/s) was a modernist who made me think of Joyce and Proust. He tried in vain – and often consciously without too much effort – to make sense by writing of his dreams and fears and small joys, clung to his familiar apartment and mundane work, didn’t dare explore the rest of the world and yet felt trapped and often said he longed for death, seeing people as “like eels in a wooden tub, they slither under and over each other, without ever leaving the tub.

“I’m the ruins of buildings that were never more than ruins, whose builder, halfway through, got tired of thinking about what he was building.” It’s not all miserable. He claims an absence of feelings: “What mysteries have taken place? None. There’s just the sound of the first tram, like a match to light up the soul’s darkness, and the loud steps of my first pedestrian.” That “my first pedestrian” shows Pessoa playing with Lisbon like a child with a train set, moving figures about, getting bored and abandoning it for dreams and cloudy ennui.

Lisbon Pessoa shop
In our usual confusion, we thought this was a Pessoa museum but it may have been a bookshop, in the Bairro Alta

Pessoa asks: What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What s/he thinks themselves, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different dates of health and solitary or befriended?

I got about halfway through. I may go back to it sometime. If I don’t, at least I know the author wouldn’t care, or says he wouldn’t care, one way or another. Maybe I’ve already read the end – who knows? But if you want a route map, you almost certainly CAN go on a Pessoa walk run by the Pessoa museum, and online there are umpteen collections of epigrammatic quotes from Pessoa. (What would this rambling, connected, discursive, bewildered man have made of the internet?) Also, the superb Night Train to Lisbon refers to The Book of Disquiet in many circular ways, and had I read them in reverse order I would have gleaned even more resonances from this book.

It was though, a relief to get back to Saramago.

Lisbon Jeronimo tiles shabby chicced
Things in Lisbon are never what they seem-  antique tiles in the refectory at Jeronimo, “distressed” when they were made in an early foretaste of shabby chic.

The second Saramago book I read was The History of the Siege of Lisbon29567 (1989). Saramago is a conscious wordsmith and his hero here is a proofreader, called Raimundo (ah! Mundus in Night Train to Lisbon is also a meticulous reader). A conscientious man, he has only ever made one mistake when correcting proofs, and it’s deliberate but, being in a history book, it changes the whole course of reported history. Saramago, like Pessoa, is fascinated by accounts of history, by how different they would be if they’d been made by another person, in a different year, a different place or a different mood, with more or less, true or false information and propaganda. As he says: “Words cannot be transported lightly here and there, back and forth, so watch out, otherwise someone will come along and say: I don’t understand.”

The Siege of Lisbon soon segues into stories in layers that interact – the proofreader learning to write his own prose rather than correct that of others, the proofreader falling in love, the history of the siege itself and a parallel love affair between a soldier and a concubine; the history of warfare (getting very technical at times), the views of royalty, politicians, Muslim and Christian clerics, peasants and soldiers. It’s about words, writing (referencing Pessoa) and publishing, love, and mistakes, and loneliness and forgiveness and the development of humanity. It’s much more positive than Pessoa, partly because “Raimundo Silva has mastered the art of floating vague ideas, like clouds that stay apart, and he even knows how to blow away any idea that gets too close”.

 

Lisbon castle
Lisbon castle, with the street where Raimundo lives somewhere below.

And, of course, it’s about Lisbon, street by street, steps by stairs, castle by harbour. I wish I had read it in hard copy rather than Kindle as I needed to keep turning back in time – as does Saramago, as does the proofreader – and checking my facts and my impressions. Again, there are echoes of this book in Night Train to Lisbon; again, I’d read them in the wrong order. Friends just returned from Lisbon expressed surprise at how lost we’d got: my approach must have been wrong in so many ways and yet I’m pleased, because I inadvertently mirrored the style of several great writers and some intriguing, sympathetic, lonely literary characters.

Lisbon Se layers of Lisbon 2
Layers of Lisbon, at the excavations in the cloister of the Se cathedral

Some long books, and a city with a long and convoluted history have lead to a long and winding post. Thank you for staying with me.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

Books for older readers

A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”

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Singing for the Over 50s
with Penny Jenkins
… fun course is for all singers, any ability, no upper age limit! Rediscover the joy singing brings …make music for many years to come. Benefits to health, happiness, general well-being. 

(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble –  coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)

I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of  comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now  79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).older people 4

However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.

(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)

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Book “department” – local Waitrose

Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.

Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I  researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)

As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..

After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first  and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.

 

Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)

But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!

Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.

Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.

402252I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.

Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

A patchwork of King Penguins

Please ask your parents and grandparents if they remember King Penguins. I put a whole set in order last week in my pre move book sort out. My father collected them because they were beautiful and he thought they might one day be worth something. He didn’t use the Internet so sourcing them was a labour of love. It meant paper correspondence with antiquarian book dealers and occasionally going against his natural instincts to root around second hand bookshops (as a man who’d made his living selling new books, he was ambivalent about the second hand trade).

Ian paid between £2 and £8 for most of them, although I found a couple with £35 written inside and Egyptian Paintings (1954 first edition, with dust jacket) was £40. But the set as a whole turns out not to be worth much, which is great because there’s now all the more reason to keep it.

In keeping with the original ethos of Penguin books, King Penguins were designed to be educational, affordable, and portable. They’re like a written form of evening class, that endangered species that used to give so many people so much pleasure. There were 76 of them, published between 1939 and 1959, with hard covers and sometimes dust jackets, and they cost from 1/- (now 5p) to 5/- (you can work that out). The format was simple at first: text at the front, for about three quarters of the book, and then well reproduced colour plates to illustrate it. Later on illustrations appeared among the text as well.

The authors were at the top of their game: taking them down at random Tulipmania is by Wilfred Blunt, then Head of Art at Eton; others are by university professors of Zoology or Art History, or by Keepers at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Somehow Dickens sneaks in with A Christmas Carol although the rest of the list is non fiction.

King p 21-24
Volumes 21-24

There’s fun to be had from the juxtapositions: Garden Birds (no 19) next to English Ballet (20), Spiders next to Balloons at 35 and 36; and I think I can see why Magic Books from Mexico might segue into Semi Precious Stones (64 and 65).  Why does Romney Marsh get a book to itself when the Isle of Wight and A Prospect of Wales are the only other regions covered? Misericords and Russian Icons, Highland Dress and Early British Railways may have been Christmas presents for difficult uncles (ending up in charity shops, but I like to think they were carefully studied first). The text is serious stuff, thoroughly researched, didactic in a “come on this journey of discovery” way, sometimes opinionated and designed to be used on the most earnest of field trips. Were the subjects commissioned, or offered? Did they reflect the editors’ interests, or the persuasive powers of a professor lunching an old school chum at his club?

There’s just one for children: A Book of Toys (1946) with perhaps less colour in the overall design than many of the others. Perhaps it wasn’t a success as there were no more, but it’s a very clear account of the history of toys through many lands and epochs. As an ex infant teacher, I did sigh at the use of upper case to make it clear to children though. It’s so hard to unteach them that!

King p toys 2
From “A Book of Toys” by Gwen White, 1946

But what I love them for most is the design. I’d have it on wallpaper, fabric, tea cups any day. You want vintage? THIS is vintage. Here are my favourites – do you agree? Or to see the ones I haven’t shown, look up this list, select and comment below and I’ll add them. Enjoy the show!

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

More to unite us than divide us

Last week I wrote about a book which resonated. I thought I might feel more detached about Mark Dowd’s just published memoir Queer and Catholic  – I’m neither gay nor Roman Catholic. Nonetheless our common humanity made it both pleasurable and instructive. We do have our age in common – he’s a year younger than I am. It was at university that I was first aware of so many fanciable young men coming out. The same year Dowd was nipping between stints on the adjacent Gay Soc and Catholic Society stalls at the Exeter Freshers’ Fair, I was consoling female friends in the Sussex Union bar when our fellow student Simon Fanshawe didn’t respond to their flirting. Also I did, briefly, go to a Catholic school, where as Dowd found there was relatively little bullying and much gentleness, though he was taught by Brothers rather than by Daisy (Sister Des Anges), Ratty (Sister Mary Raphael) and Revvie (Reverend Mother).

Dowd 17

Dowd grew up the son of northern working class parents, a decade or so after Alan Bennett and David Hockney, contemporaneously with Jeanette Winterson. He began training as a priest but switched to academia and then journalism, a practising but critical Roman Catholic through steady and not so steady relationships,  the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the homophobia of Cardinal Ratzinger, and the revelations of paedophilia in the church (he only came across one instance of this and is otherwise complimentary about the priests who taught him). His tone starts rueful and witty: he knew he was gay, or at least “different” from early childhood: “A Catholic blessed (or cursed) with same sex attraction is rather akin to the orthodox Jew who cannot get the smell of sizzling bacon rashers out of his head, or a fervent Muslim with an irresistible devotion to single malt whisky.” (p.8). See what I mean about common humanity? This is a kind book: to paraphrase Jo Cox, there is more in it to unite us than divide us. So we read his story of adolescent encounters, of fearing discovery, of naivety and disappointment and lust and adoration with, I hope, equal empathy whatever our faith and orientation.

Dowd 6
Handout for visitors to the Tate Britain Hockney exhibition, 2017

A theme throughout is the illogicality of the Catholic church not accepting same sex attraction, when so many of its practitioners are gay and so many of its practices are so attractive to gay men. At his interview for training to be a priest, Dowd is asked if there is anything the college should know about him. In trepidation, he stammers he is gay. “‘Put it this way,’ said Father Weston. ‘I don’t think you’ll be the only one.'”(p. 71)

It’s very funny in parts: the much older partner who pretends for the sake of appearances to be his father and the consequent difficulties of explaining two dads;  the intellectual Oxford Dominican friars who make peach wine in the bathtub; the Vatican priest who greets him with friendship in St Peter’s Square before realising he knows Dowd’s face from a BBC documentary about queer Catholics. It’s very touching: his parents never specifically accept his gayness but they give him brightly coloured nylon double sheets as a housewarming present when he moves in with his partner. Sometimes it’s touching and funny: at the funeral of an AIDS victim friend, the Mother Superior eulogises that his key attributes were “infectious” and none of the mostly gay congregation know where to look.

Dowd alludes with a light touch to the loneliness of longing for both sex and love, against the Church’s requirement of celibacy (for a compassionate and balanced fictional treatment of this, see John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness). His writing is increasingly emotional as the book goes on: where Winterson describes in Why be happy when you could be normal?  the (entirely justifiable) anger she has to resolve, Dowd learns to cry and then what his crying teaches him about himself and others. Anyone who’s read the recent Robert Webb memoir How Not To Be a Boy, or heard Grayson Perry talking about identity will appreciate this openness: Dowd bares his feelings and thoughts to the world with a candidness that is even now unusual. He’s narrated the audiobook himself and my guess is it would be an emotional listen. Think David Sedaris, but with a lot more shared insight. And for the memories of parents and home, think Alan Bennett, or Hockney’s wonderful pictures of his mother. They are all related, and related to us all.

 

The book is political with a small “p”: he discusses others’ research into homosexuality in the Church and poses the question himself: “How can you use the antiquated language of ‘disorder’ about a perfectly naturally occurring minority phenomenon…when you rely on such people to represent Jesus in the daily acts of administering the sacrament?” (p.143). In his BBC career he fronts documentaries about Rwanda and Sarajevo; he discusses male mental health and goes to El Salvador to help set up a radio station in a remote and poverty stricken area. But there is always a light touch, a joke, an anecdote, to help us through the darkest moments.

11395597It’s one to be read in conjunction with others: try Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit which jollies along in the caricature which was all the young Winterson could bear to reveal of her childhood, and the much darker Why Be Happy when You Could Be Normal? which tells us what really happened. The  title is a quote from her fearsome adoptive mother. Read it in conjunction with what Alan Bennett does NOT say; read it in conjunction with the fiction of John Boyne and Elena Ferrante. Read these books whether you are gay or straight or trans or whatever; whether you have faith or none; whether you are old or young or left or right wing or “apolitical”.

“…to this day the brass crucifix that my parents had given me, a holy communion present when I was seven…remains unstable and slightly skew-whiff on account of a botched repair job with the superglue.” (This after using it as a missile during a row). “So when I see the good Lord staring at me at an odd angle, I think of torrid times with Pablo and the brokenness of fallen humanity.” (p175)

Dowd 15

I think that means there’s hope for us all.

©Jessica Norrie 2017