Wednesday 30 January 2008

Lutes 'n' Angels

While very belatedly sorting out the Christmas cards - checking for changes of address, births, marriages and deaths, etc before sending them off for recycling – it struck me (not terrifically forcefully, since it’s a very banal observation really) that angels and lutes seem to go together like, well, Father Christmas and reindeer, robins and snow . . .

By coincidence, I was listening at the time to some lute sonatas by Leopold Silvius Weiss, played (divinely) by Robert Barto, which may have had something to do with it. Some members of the Angelic Host seem to favour sackbuts, recorders and viols, of course, but from my brief survey of 2007 Christmas cards, I’d say lutes seem to be very much the instrument of choice for angels and cherubs alike (oh and a few mortals as well - I had noticed that some of those featured below are lacking in the wing department).

In fact, it appears that the lute is one of the best-represented instruments in Renaissance art and beyond, as witnessed by the Lute of the Month pages on luthier David Van Edwards's amazingly comprehensive website, which contains a wealth of background information on all the paintings he's selected, as well as just about everything one might ever need to know about lutes.

Bye, Spot!

Amused to see what Adam at Crockatt and Powell Booksellers has been getting up to with some favourite children's books. They really suit my jaundiced mood and made me laugh. (Laugh, that is, with the crazed cackle of the Seasonally Affected Editor whose deadlines are all clashing and whose favourite (ancient) FatFace trousers just fell apart in the wash.)

Here are a couple of examples - there are lots more here and (by special request) here (though please don't click if you're below a certain age or likely to be offended!)

Have any other weary, jaded parents ever got to the stage where they can read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and other favourites aloud while actually thinking about something completely different (and I mean completely different!) and then come to with a start when it's finished and think 'oh, where am I?' - without the hapless young listener having noticed that anything is amiss?

After 14 years I have it down to a fine art.

I do like Eric Carle's books a lot, but I've always seriously had it in for Spot. Hate the pics, hate the bland, unimaginative 'stories', hate (with a deep, brooding, black malevolence) the videos, hate the fact that I have spent several hours of my life laboriously sellotaping and pritt-sticking all the little lift-up flaps back on, time after time.

I finally sent the whole lot of them to the Mersea Island Charity Shop last year - hooray! So this one is very apt.

Thanks Adam. Please come up with more sooooooon!

Oh, and I do commend C&P's lively blog to book lovers everywhere, especially any who have ever worked on the other side of the counter. I particularly enjoyed this recent post on the future of 'real' books.

Saturday 26 January 2008

A long muddy walk in the wind . . .

High tide. No rain.

Could not get this song out of my head:

Salt & Honey

When I’d finished Salt & Honey (and I read it over a day and a night – it was too enthralling to put down) I felt as though I’d read a huge saga of epic proportions. And yet it is little more than 200 pages long. Somehow, in the short space between page 1 and page 218, Candi Miller contrived to transport me into a vast world of enormous beauty, terrible horrors and, for me at least, discovery on many levels.

In southern Africa, in the 1960s, when Apartheid divided and ruled, a young girl from the Khosian tribe of the Kalahari witnesses the brutal murder of her parents, and is taken away from the desert, an orphan. Salt & Honey tells Koba’s journey, from her childhood before her fatal encounter with white hunters, to her survival in exile and her relationship with the white family who protect her – Marta (whose anti-Apartheid sympathies set her apart from her neighbours), her alcoholic husband Deon, and her son Mannie, who slowly becomes Koba’s friend.

Miller’s extensive research brings depth and an authentic sensory eloquence to the narrative. The Afrikaner voices and the sounds of Koba’s San language are pitch-perfect – we can hear them as clearly as if this were an audio-book. Sound, and smells, too – smells I’ve never experienced, but now I have a vivid sense of them. Language, mysticism, tribal history, South African politics – it’s all here, yet it’s offered with such a lightness of touch that one is swept up by it emotionally, rather than feeling lectured at. And at the heart of it all lies the wonderful character of Koba – an unforgettable heroine, unlike any I’d encountered before. This is the tale of her endurance and survival – spiritually as well as physically – but it’s also a coming-of-age story and a love story. So much, in so short a novel - I'm still amazed by its Tardis-like deceptiveness!

It’s really quite overwhelming. I’d recommend this to anyone, of any age, outlook or persuasion. Hats off to the legendary Legend Press for publishing it and I wish it every success in the World Book Day Books to Talk About competition. (Voting is closed now.) It would be a worthy winner. If it doesn’t make the shortlist (to be announced on 4 Feb), there is no justice in this world.

My Lover's Lover

I found My Lover's Lover fascinating. Until halfway through, one isn’t really sure whether it’s a ghost story, a love story, a psychological thriller, or what. In fact, it’s all three and yet, in the end, none of the above. Yet it’s a compelling read and, ultimately everything makes sense, even though there were, for me, some slight structural problems along the way.

What makes it zing along, however, despite its faults (and the quality of the writing is such that many of these only really become apparent on reflection, afterwards) is O’Farrell’s absolutely breathtaking writing.

The lives of single twentysomethings, adrift in London, sharing flats and beds and falling into intense relationships with people they hardly know . . . well, it’s not exactly groundbreaking territory. But here it’s transformed by this writer’s exquisite ability to skewer minuscule nuances of feeling so precisely that they made me gasp – both with recognition and with admiration and delight at her skill.

Love, desire, loss, grief and obsession are all evoked so acutely that one feels quite raw and bruised just reading it – which, when added to the quick-change multiple narratives, the way the plot seems to slide from one genre to another, and the dislocating, shifting sense of things half-known or only partially understood . . . well, it certainly had me ensnared and hiding myself away to finish it when I should probably have been dusting or hoovering.

And, by all accounts, it’s not a patch on O’Farrell’s debut novel, After You’d Gone. So that’s another one added to my next Amazon order.

Friday 25 January 2008

What I didn't have for supper tonight . . .

Sincerely wish I had, but left it too late and none to be found in Colchester this afternoon.

So ate pasta and salad instead. And you can't say 'Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the puddin-race' to a plate of that. Because it hasn't got one and it isn't.

Och well.

Worrying . . .

This is something I worry about on a daily basis. Like most children, mine use the Internet - especially the eldest, who is online most of her waking life, it sometimes seems.

There are sooooooo many issues to deal with - a whole new world of worrying that is new to our generation of parents, and it's such a fast-moving world, with so many implications, that one has to worry overtime to keep up.

The frequency and ease with which I find myself faced with a Google page full of ultra-hard-porn sites having innocently entered a key word/phrase in search of, eg, missing bibliographical details in an academic book on international law . . . well, it's frightening. Frightening in that I would not wish my children to encounter such sites accidentally and enter them out of natural curiosity.

Yet, it is virtually impossible to researching Year 9 homework topics if high-level child security is switched on. Constant adjustment is required. Even my 10-year-old son's PC had to be re-adjusted because child-safe settings wouldn't allow him to access the thing he's most interested in at the moment - sites selling model aircraft kits, and sites with information about the historic aircraft he's mad about. Why? Because they have the word 'war' in them (as in Second World War Spitfire). Again, a daily reappraisal is necessary and I know we haven't got it right.

And daughter #1 is clever - very - and far more Internet savvy than me, despite my being welded to my own PC. She chats on forums devoted to seemingly innocuous subjects like Strictly Come Dancing or Casualty . . . but who is she chatting to, exactly?

We're all advised to 'keep a careful eye on our children's Internet use'. But how?? By standing over their shoulder the whole time? Impossible. I'm delighted that she researches her homework topics so fully, and I'm delighted that she has a wide circle of nice real-life friends to chat to on Bebo etc. I don't want to intrude upon her privacy, nor can I afford to give up my working evenings in order to stand in the corner of her room watching her every keystroke.

So we talk about it, and she's like, yeah, whatevva, it's OK. I'm cool, I know what I'm doing, don't worry.

And I worry. And worry. And worry. And read articles like this and sites like this this and this . And worry some more.

And I've signed this NSPCC petition, because of course it would be a start if PCs were sold with security options ready installed. And I applaud the NSPCC's campaigning, which often has a big influence on public policy-makers.

But . . . it's not the whole answer. Not by a long, long way.
How do other parents deal with these worries?

Thursday 24 January 2008

Farewell to Stromness . . . and the January blues

A melancholic January cloud has descended upon me - despite today's intermittently glorious weather - and I've been listening to music which echoes that mood, since I know from experience that anything jolly will simply jar and annoy me rather than cheering me up.

One of my downbeat iTunes du jour has been Peter Maxwell Davies’s Farewell to Stromness - a wistful piano interlude from The Yellow Cake Revue, a sequence written in protest against uranium mining in the Orkney Islands. The Revue was first performed at the St Magnus Festival, Orkney, by Eleanor Bron, with the composer at the piano, in June 1980.

I was captivated by the original piano version when I first heard it back in the 80s and then I rediscovered it three or four years ago when it was used as the soundtrack to a wonderful R4 play by Colin Macdonald, Hill of Rains, starring Bill Paterson and Lorelei King (surely two of the very best voices in radio drama and what a joy to hear them together in this transatlantic love story).

Farewell to Stromness was absolutely perfect as a leitmotif in this story of two lonely, troubled people from opposite ends of the world who meet in the south-west Highlands. He’s a librarian, she’s over from New York, researching some family history. On their first encounter they dislike each other quite fiercely, but gradually, through their shared love of music and words, and a day spent walking in the hills and getting thoroughly drenched in a very Scottish downpour . . . well, yes, of course (it being a love story and everything), they fall in love. It had a tremendously romantic ending and I ‘listened again’ to it every day for a week!

(I also promptly ordered the sheet music and learned to play [the easy bits of] it [very badly] on the piano. Bit of a lost cause, me and the piano, these days.)

Apparently, hearing Maxwell Davies giving the premier performance of Farewell to Stromness inspired a member of the audience, Timothy Walker, to transcribe it for solo guitar, which he performed himself, two days later, in Kirkwall Cathedral, as part of the same Festival. I hadn't known that when I came across the guitar version by chance, on Graham Anthony Devine's album of British Guitar Music. (Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a thing about classical guitarists . . .!)

This is what Classical Guitar Magazine said about Mr Devine in 2006:

‘Fluency, beautiful tone, power, clarity, timing, phrasing, technical brilliance, a keen musical intelligence- none of these is a stranger to the guitar recital hall, but this young player confounds criticism by possessing them all, and in spades. We can expect even greater things, my guess is that Graham Devine is well on his way to becoming a musician of stellar magnitude.’

Here he is, playing Farewell to Stromness, accompanied by some lovely images of Orkney.

Monday 21 January 2008

Popping up all over

Rediscovering my lovely Gladys Peto's Bedtime Stories book the other day reminded me of another of my mother’s books from the early 1930s which I adored as a child. A bit of rummaging this evening and I found it and here it is – Bookano Stories No.2 by S. Louis Giraud – ‘With Pictures That Spring Up in Model Form’.

I really couldn’t say how many hours I spent devouring the delights inside this book between the ages of 5 and 10 - every single page seems deeply familiar now that I have turned them over once more. Now I've located it, I really must share it with my younger daughter tomorrow - I don't think she's ever seen inside it!

The stories are strange and intriguing - some written in terrible rhyming doggerel, and others dreadfully politically incorrect by today’s standards. There are brilliantly coloured, detailed endpapers in which it is possible to immerse oneself for ages – well, it's possible when one is only 5, anyway!

But it's the pop-ups which are, of course, the truly captivating thing about Bookano Stories. And even in the 1960s, this book, from three decades earlier, made other pop-up books look decidedly bland and uninteresting. They certainly couldn't transport me into other worlds like this one always did.

You can read more about the pioneering work of Giraud here , and there’s a fascinating page about the Bookano series on the University of Virginia website from an exhibition of the history of pop-up books shown there in 2000 – there’s a wealth of other wonderful stuff about pop-ups if you browse the selection on the left of the page.

Perhaps the most feted contemporary exponent of the mass-produced pop-up book (as opposed to the one-off or limited edition hand-made kind, of which more on another post someday soon), is Robert Sabuda (explore his website here ). Here’s a film in which Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart talk about their collaborative work on some of their best-known books (it's quite long and the intro is in French, but don’t worry, the interview is in English and it's fascinating stuff!)

And for a very different take on the pop-up book theme, I’ll leave you with this! (I’m indebted to Susan at Green Chair Press for the link.) Enjoy!

Sunday slump

While my Saturday slump might arguably be construed as a quest for the slightly challenging, Sunday slump, on the other hand, is an unabashed slump of brain as well as body.

Thus from the depths of my becushioned sofa, I gazed at Lark Rise to Candleford - cosy, undemanding, feelgood tosh with good actors in it.

And then Kingdom - cosy, undemanding, feelgood tosh with good actors in it.
And that was that.

Sunday 20 January 2008

Saturday slump

I don't watch a huge amount of telly. But when I do, I don't approach it in constructive, multi-tasking fashion. I don't knit, or iron, or mend things, or do anything useful at all. I simply slump. On a sofa. Surrounded by cushions, with my feet up on a stool, and a glass of wine to hand.

Sorry. It's not an edifying image. And it explains why, unlike some of my more industrious fellow bloggers, I have no sumptuous photographs of glorious scarves and socks and shawls to post here for your delectation. All I have to show for my telly-time is the odd cork or two and maybe, if I'm lacking in willpower, the wrappings from the fair-trade, dark chocolate cherry brandy liqueurs which the Mersea Co-op was selling off after Christmas at £1 a box. One pound!! A box!

Well, what's a girl to do, I ask you? That's about 5p a choc! And nowhere near their sell-by date yet. And delicious. And plain chocolate is immensely beneficial, medically speaking. Lowers blood-pressure and everything. I don't think it contains any calories, either. Well, not any I care to be informed about. So, anyway, I stockpiled.

And so the scene is set. I sort through the vast array of zappers, wondering which one will actually turn the telly on and select the channel I want to watch. I press a few buttons and, lo! It is ER!

Now I can't stand Casualty and I seriously hate Holby City and I avoid TV Soaps like the very plague. So why do I love ER with such devoted and undying passion?

It is, I assure you, nothing to do with the fact that it once starred George Clooney because - alone amongst women - I do not and never have found Mr Clooney attractive. In fact I find the general adulation of his acting abilities rather mystifying, too.

Goran Višnjić as Dr Kovac is an entirely different matter, however - I freely confess. Sigh. Yet he's not in the current series, and I'm as enthralled as ever. Maybe it's the lightening speed of the action, the quick-fire dialogue, the high-calibre acting, the intense, dense, claustrophobia of so much of it. Maybe it's the refreshing unslushiness (for a US production) of its handling of death, disaster and love. Perhaps its the non-formulaic approach to the construction of each episode. The show rarely looks tired or shows its age.

After ER it was time to enjoy that thrilling crackle as a brand new DVD was relieved of its cellophane. Inspired by the recent heartfelt outpourings from Kitchen-lovers over on Elaine's blog (Kitchen as in Michael Kitchen, that is) I acquired a copy of Stephen Poliakoff's early TV film Caught on a Train, starring the fascinating Mr K and the divine Peggy Ashcroft.

I've long been a fan of Poliakoff's work - especially Shooting the Past , Perfect Strangers , The Lost Prince and Gideon's Daughter - though I did find a couple of his most recent offerings a trifle hollow in comparison.

Caught on a Train, which dates back to 1980, when Poliakoff was only 28, did not disappoint. Everything about it is wonderful! The 'train-movie' scenario, with its deliberate echoes of The Lady Vanishes and Murder on the Orient Express , is the perfect setting for what is essentially a dialogue (with some bizarre and occasionally nightmarish interruptions) between Kitchen's character - a young publishing executive en route to a book fair in Linz - and Ashcroft's imperious Frau Messner - a feisty, domineering relic from a bygone age, who is travelling home to Vienna.

Kitchen is excellent - though it's interesting to note that how much more at home he seems with himself now that he's older. There were odd moments in this film when he almost appeared unsure of quite what to do with that extraordinarily expressive mouth, and the powerful gaze of his unusual eyes.

But the film is made - completely dominated and overwhelmed - by Peggy Ashcroft. Perfectly cast as the spoilt, fastidious but now impoverished daughter of a Nazi-sympathising family, she is absolutely stunning and immensely beautiful.

It's a great film, and compared with some of Poliakoff's later work, it's neither too grandiose in its ambition nor over-long in its execution. It must have been quite amazing to have encountered it when it was first aired (which unfortunately I did not).

I recommend it wholeheartedly.


Set in the early nineteenth century on a plantation in the American Deep South, this short, vivid novel is a painful read – a compelling study of how those who deny the humanity of others are themselves diminished, if not destroyed.

The narrator of Property, Manon Gaudet, is the discontented wife of a brutal plantation owner, trapped in a role that she loathes. Against the wider background of deep, fermenting unrest – with periodic escape and revolt of slaves and the violent suppression of such uprisings – Manon’s domestic life is certainly no refuge. She pines for her native New Orleans. She abhors her husband – as well she might, for many reasons, not least the fact that he enjoys the nocturnal company of her slave girl, Sarah. How should Manon deal with the fact and constant presence of Sarah’s red-haired son,Walter, upon whom her husband, the boy’s father, alternately dotes and abuses? What should the boy’s status be in this tense, dysfunctional household? The ambivalence of the relationships, familial and sexual, causes seething resentments, which, like everything else, are suppressed, and simmer away beneath the surface, unspoken of, just something else to be borne by the unhappy heroine.

What is striking about the novel is that there is no twenty-first-century viewpoint – the author skilfully takes herself and us right back to the mindset of the age and the effect is frequently startling. The lean, pared-down writing makes no particular attempt at historical pastiche in terms of its language, which makes the lack of modern sensibility in the narration all the more shocking. We’re reading a 21st-century novel, yet the effect is akin to reading a journal from the time.

The Gaudets’ life revolves entirely around managing their property, exercising their ownership, buying and selling things: land, crops, slaves, houses. Yet it is, of course, the relationship between slave and slave-owner which is central to the book. We see the humanity of the slaves. Manon, the narrator, does not - cannot. Not for a single moment.

Even in a couple of fleeting scenes which could almost pass for moments of tenderness – we are jolted into realising that these are not, for Manon, interactions between human beings. Her slaves – the women who dress her, bathe her, cook and clean for her– are not people, in her eyes. They’re not merely individuals lower down the social scale from Manon, like servants, or the freed slaves who run shops and small businesses in town. Slaves are simply property. They mean no more to her than furniture. They appear on the household inventory along with the cutlery and the bedding.

Manon could hardly be a less sympathetic heroine. So far removed from her reader's perspective and from any possibility of deeper self-awareness, she is little short of loathsome. Yet, with a little effort on the our part, we can understand her reaction to her predicament, see how very little room she has for manoeuvre, entrenched as she is in the attitudes of her milieu.

I was completely bowled over by this book, and plan to re-read it quite soon. After I’d finished it, I went to Amazon to get the picture and link and read there plenty of reviews saying, effectively, ‘I didn’t like the central character, she’s horrible, and therefore the book is no good – one star’. Ugh! How I hate that kind of ‘review’! How completely they miss the point of books like Property. Far, far better to read the summing-up by Ahdaf Soueif, Chair of the Judges for the Orange Prize, 2003:

‘It looks at the relationships of power and ownership among people living in a system which is manifestly evil. Yet they are ordinary, often good people. They are being damaged by their system, you can see it damaging them, and yet they never question it. The story is told through an unsympathetic narrator, yet the book is utterly clear about what its moral hear it. This is a terribly difficult thing for a writer to do. The gaps in the book, what is left unsaid, are very important . . .’

Exactly so.

The book’s Amazon critics also condemn its abrupt ending – as if this represents some failure on the part of the writer to know how to finish it off ‘properly’, to point, perhaps, towards a better future. Well, to hope for an optimistic resolution is to forget or ignore the novel's opening words: 'It never ends.' Despite all that happens, by the end of her narrative, Manon shows that neither she, nor her world view, nor the plight of her slaves, has changed, and nor will they do so in her lifetime. So . . . what more is there to say? We close the final page on Manon knowing that there’s nothing more she - or we, by willing it - can do.

Saturday 19 January 2008

A long muddy walk in the rain . . .

. . . with a boy, a dog and a flask of cocoa.