There are two new gumshoes on the block. It would be a crime not to investigate them.
A good detective always looks for connections. Both these books are the first in a new crime series highlighting cities and the parts of cities you may not otherwise visit (especially now). Both are launching during this pandemic. Both authors have journalism backgrounds. The first reported from Sarajevo and the camera in his story is positioned much as a sniper would be. The second author once reported for Scotland Yard and there is a certain world weary delivery to his narration: I wasn’t feeling half as cool as I was making out, but I knew enough to keep a clear head and leave the worrying to later. Both new investigators are operating on foreign soil: Juan Camarón, who was brought up in Spain by a Cuban father, finds himself in Glasgow and Daniel Leicester is an Englishman in Bologna. Both authors make good use of the possibilities this sets up for misreading a situation but also understanding it more objectively, for mistrust and also misplaced confidence, and for light relief too. One of the murder victims Camarón investigates is called William McGonagall, but he doesn’t recognise the name. (Dismemberment, albeit fictional, seems an unduly harsh punishment for terrible poetry.) And Leicester, as he helps some tourists with a menu,reflects: There are few things more suspicious to an Englishman abroad than another Englishman abroad.
Let’s cut to the chase.
Kevin Sullivan’s The Figure in the Photograph has a fast moving, victim strewn mystery which Camarón, who narrates, is attempting to solve by making a photographic record of activity in the local area at regular intervals. It’s 1898, he’s excited by this new method and speculates that one day there may be moving pictures taken by cameras on the street. He’s aided and hindered by the local police, a professor of pathology, the neighbourhood chemist, a mortician and various strongly drawn sisters, wives, daughters and maids. He’s also deeply traumatised, having recently witnessed the murder of his own father. He tries to repress his grief in keeping with male expectations of the period, and this along with his foreign usage of English result in a terse, deadpan style of speech and a narration that stresses facts over emotions – making it all the more powerful when love and redemption do begin to seem a possibility. Camarón’s walks through Glasgow streets with their contrasts of road and river, poverty and wealth, proud Victorian buildings and tenement slums made me want to visit. My grandfather trained as a chemist in Glasgow only a few years later, and the dispensaries he worked in must have resembled the one in the book. So I have a personal interest, but this story and setting should fascinate anyone (the first few chapters take place in Cuba, which provides another contrast).
Buildings feature heavily in both books – the old cathedral of Santiago, the Glasgow shipyards, in Bologna decaying palazzi and practical (rain shelter) porticos. Outside the Bologna walls 1970s housing projects are the modern European equivalent of slum tenements. Both books feature a death in the streets attributable to poor health and safety – in one a man is run over on train tracks that cross the road, in the other a cyclist is knocked off her bike while not wearing a helmet. Both gumshoes have been recently bereaved.
A gumshoe should be vulnerable, a bit cynical, have a quirky view of the world, an interest in human nature, and hold strong principles that almost in spite of himself wish to see justice done, however flawed the human beings it concerns. In the present day Bologna of A Quiet Death In Italy, Tom Benjamin’s hero Daniel Leicester speaks fluent Italian but can still be tripped up by dialect or colloquialisms. He works for his father-in-law Giovanni “il Comandante”, an ex police chief running a private detective agency, and the case he’s on brings him into conflict with three powerful p’s – politicians, property and police. Mix in a dose of accidental anarchist death, as per the famous play by Dario Fo, and you have a mystery more tangled than a bowl of spaghetti bolognese (that’s tagliatelle al ragu to the locals. Like Montalbano in Sicily, Daniel Leicester and associates always have time for lunch).
So – two good reads, two promising new detectives, two sequels to look forward to.
I was going to say I don’t normally read much crime other than grandes dames such as Highsmith and Paretsky but I realise since I began blogging I’ve discussed all the books below and in the early days I spoofed a two part Agatha Christie tribute after visiting her house in Devon.
Two mysteries remain, the first a red herring. What was my motive for writing this post? If you answer correctly I’ll congratulate you privately but edit out any spoilers (two rules of crime writing – keep ’em guessing and give your reader resolution. The second is why I don’t write crime.) The other thing that’s fishy is why The Magic Carpet hasn’t soared to an Amazon number 1 while on promotion the way The Infinity Pooldid. Reader, you, your family, friends, colleagues and any random strangers you encounter hold the key to solving that one and you have eight days left before the price goes up again.
When a plot includes a pregnancy going to term or religious festivals that move around the lunar calendar it’s important to be precise with the timescale. I fine tuned my first two novels as I went along. Novel 3, currently under submission, is a response to a specific event, and ends at a point when the issues first raised begin to be resolved. All three books are “contemporary”, taking place not long before the projected year of publication.
Now, writing in New Normal times, the dates of the story are even more crucial. If the events I’m beginning to explore for Novel 4 take place before December 2019 the pandemic needn’t figure. Any story set later than that must now include the effects of Covid-19 on timing and location, wherever they belong on a scale from wispy background rumours to overwhelming. Otherwise it would be like setting a book in 1916 and not mentioning World War 1. So many political, physical and local variables govern the viral load infecting my story that I must factor them in from the start, or my timeline may be wrong, my characters unlikely and my events impossible for their setting and situations. I’ll sound as confused as our Prime Minister.
Although my chosen theme could work either side of the pandemic, so many of the story props around it will change that I can’t put off the decision. And, unlike for a book set during the Spanish flu epidemic, or during the worst of HIV infection, the number of victims is still unknown and the consequences and effects of lockdown haven’t been objectively measured. If I start my contemporary novel NOW, by the time it’s published my assumptions for how it progresses and ends could seem ridiculous.
Where have all the
Perhaps they’re on Zoom…
In my case I’ll probably cop out and either not write at all or set the story well before bells ring in the new year 2020. (The many writers of Brexit novels couldn’t see they had the same problem, although the agents and publishers who rejected them did. Nor did they realise readers might be bored or repulsed by the subject matter, or, if interested, would by the time of publication know more about it than the author.)
Are writers in other genres any better off?
There are some great possibilities for crime writers. Smuggling and doctored vaccines come to mind, although it would be hard to better The Third Man. But plots can’t include: empty domestic property (though lots of empty workplaces); meetings, rallies, parties, institutional education, entertainment, non domestic accommodation, public events or sports venues. There’ll be no unobtrusive shadowing people through crowded streets or detectives interviewing ancient relations in care homes. Characters can’t travel far from home, let alone internationally, or use public transport without sticking out like a sore thumb; and they’re unlikely to go to hospital unless they have Covid-19. The public, bored at their windows, will denounce anything out of the ordinary for the sheer fun of it before the plot can develop; hunches will be hard to follow up and helpful contacts go awol; the criminal fraternity will be preoccupied looking after number one.
Romance is online only. Strangers can’t find love in bars, theatres, parks or at dinner parties. Physical contact is ill-advised even if they do meet. Attractiveness, let alone kissing, is just not the same with everyone in face masks. The media and a vigilante public hamper running secret affairs. Office romances don’t work from home and young nurses are too haggard and stressed to catch the eye of hardworking doctors. Lady Chatterley is indoors social isolating with her vulnerable husband and even Mrs Bennett reluctantly recognises now is not the time for matchmaking. Blood vows and pacts, balls, weddings, or christenings? Certainly not! Whether cops or lovers, characters will have little change in routine or conversation to propel the narrative forward. No chance meetings, few coincidences, most of their time spent staring at screens. Today’s idea of a giddy whirl is solving a Sudoku while the lockdown beer loaf bakes, and optimism means hoping the Patience will work out.
It’s easier for some authors. In the Fantasy genre anything can happen. (That’s why I tend not to read fantasy; I prefer the tension of limited possibilities – though not as limited as currently.) History is already over, so barring differences of interpretation and fact selection, fictionalising events involves the same storytelling skills it always did. As for Horror, Science Fiction and Dystopia – well. That’s what we’re in now, isn’t it? I predict most 2020 novels will fall into these categories.
A week is a long time in pandemics so having had the idea for this post, I’m not waiting till my usual Friday to publish. It might be out of date by then. I also wanted to remind you that The Magic Carpet is on promotion at only 99p until the end of May, if you’d like to visit an unfashionable London suburb between early September – 14th October 2016. Bizarrely, it’s currently selling better in Germany than the UK, but those pre-virus, post Brexit referendum days, just after Eid 2016 and still pre-Trump, may now hold a strange kind of charm and they’re still just about contemporary.
Stay well everyone, and alert, although that’s not the word I’d have chosen.
Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.
Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”
As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)
Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair.
Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journalby Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.
One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)
A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.
My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.
I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.
Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?
The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.
The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.
Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.
*A much loved headmistress, I think.
Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.
Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.
Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.
What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.
In keeping with my new snappy style, I’m allowing myself 999 words max for this post. Most bloggers manage with much less; my problem is, I like wordy writers (Dickens, Balzac, Woolf) and my models have made me wordy myself. I’ve learnt that to write well in a spare elegant style, much as I admire it (Stoner, My name is Lucy Barton), you have to write better than I can. I bury infelicities in my forest of verbiage, but would be rumbled if every word stood out clear from the page. A writer with six hundred plus pages to fill can explore their own meaning aloud. It must be nailed first time in a novella.
What I produce currently is somewhere in between. My beginnings are strongish and longish but not defined enough; they show just enough promise to keep readers on board. My middles are saggy, pushed upright by occasional props (I’m still referring to my books, not my body). My endings just happen, like a learner parking. I’m aware of my writing shortcomings: hence taking a course named “Beginnings and Endings” at Jane Austen‘s house last week, run by Rebecca Smith.
Gentle reader, you may feel I could have chosen a less wordy writer than Austen, but she was a model of economy compared to her predecessors. She packed a universe of meaning into a paragraph or sentence where they had taken pages. She might start with back story (Persuasion) but she was through it in a few pages where other writers of the time needed many chapters. Or she’d start with apologies (for forefronting such poor heroine material, in Northanger Abbey). Other books leap straight into the drama of the situation: money’s tight, so a daughter must be offloaded onto richer relatives (Mansfield Park); five daughters need husbands, two imminently (Pride and Prejudice). Her beginnings are dynamic; reader is faced with situation, situation develops. Characters encounter drawbacks, relief, more drawbacks. The situation of the main characters is resolved and secondary characters illustrate other possibilities. It’s very neat, very satisfying, very tongue in cheek, and produced almost clandestinely. After the breakfast dishes were cleared, and if she didn’t have to entertain younger relations or attend to her mother, Austen would settle in a cramped corner at a tiny table to write her morning pages until the room was needed for lunch.
The writing room for us
Austen’s tiny writing corner in the dining room
We had rather more space and time for our writing, in the learning centre or wherever we liked in the flowering garden. We were greeted morning and afternoon with the most hospitable refreshments I’ve known a course provide (RIBA take note, with your measly coffee coupon on your otherwise excellent writing day). We spent the morning considering Austen’s and our beginnings, and our ticket included a entry to the house. If you can’t get there yourself, take a guided tour with my Smorgasbord colleague’s Jane Austen on a Motorbike, and my own slideshow below. Our purpose, though, was to write.
A hospitable welcome laid on by volunteers. Thank you!
When I ran teacher training, the session after lunch was known as “the graveyard”. I had to hit the whiteboard running, with my most invigorating material to avoid participants’ yawns and snores. Whether or not Rebecca had that in mind herself, her proposal for the afternoon was dynamite. Simple, but an eye opener for me. “Start with your ending,” she said. “If you know where you’re heading, it’s easier to get there.” And so we wrote our endings. Then we wrote our very final pages, the mood we wanted to leave the reader in. I hadn’t been listening, and wrote the final ending before the main ending (do keep up at the back). But even doing that the wrong way round proved her point: to plod along writing your narrative according to its chronological order may well be what makes it sag. Like dragging your feet on a long walk, when the pub you were hoping to reach for lunch is always beyond the next hill and when you do get there, they’ve finished serving food.
I’ve been having a blip about blogging. Writing a weekly post, however enjoyable and stimulating, threatens to scupper Novel 4 as it did Novel 3 . I mentioned this and Rebecca commented: “Yes, blogging uses a lot of psychic energy.” Psychic energy! That’s why I’m limiting the length of these posts henceforth. Psychic energy is just what Novel 4 needs. That was her first tip. Her second, about endings, unleashed mine.
I hadn’t known how Novel 4 would finish, until then. Ultimately I may make the end that revealed itself to me on the course a late climactic point and dream up an even more spectacular ending, but for now it gives me a destination. For an author daunted by planning, this was such a supportive gift. Thank you, Rebecca and volunteer hosts; thank you, other course participants, for your comments and thank you to those who read your work – images of waves at sea stay with me in particular. I wish you all good luck, and many gentle readers.
(Here originally endeth this post. But by pure coincidence I’ve see the daughter of an ex teaching colleague has just published a Graphic Revision guide to Pride and Prejudice. So now it endeth with a plug for that. Who knew you could graphically revise JA?)
Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.
The programme for tomorrow
Hay map shop
Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…
Sustainable cutlery at the food stalls
I want that coat!
A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.
After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.
The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?) was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.
But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…
Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…
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).
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?
The balcony room was their living room. Early 1950s.
The further balcony was the next, semi-detached house so the living room was warmest.
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 tofill 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.)
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.
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.
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.)
Reading 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.
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, ideas, 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 Lisbonwhich I wrote about before, this 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?
“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.
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.
The second Saramago book I read was The History of the Siege of Lisbon (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”.
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.
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.
I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:
This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.
Elevador da Bica
Elevador da Gloria
We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.
We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.
Elevador do Santa Justa
Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.
On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.
I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.
Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.
The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.
In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.
When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.
Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?
For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)
Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.
Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.
Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”
I’ll write about The Book of Disquietnext week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.
Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.
Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?