Monday, 28 September 2009

The threads of our lives

Firstly, I want to say thank you to everyone who commented on my last post, and for the poems you shared. Sometimes, life seems to unravel -- in huge ways, and in small ones -- and the holes seem to be far too gaping for anything to be patched together again. And then there are the moments when it makes a kind of sense; when threads weave themselves together, rather than getting knotted up like the tangle of thoughts inside my head, or the dread that knots my stomach. I say 'my', but I mean 'our' -- because these are the things that we all of us share: love and loss; anxiety and hope; a kind of communality, even when we feel most alone.
So, in this spirit, I'd like to send you in the direction of a friend and fellow writer, Juliet Barker, who I met while researching the chapter about Charlotte Bronte's ring in My Mother's Wedding Dress. The former curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, and a distinguished historian, whose books bring the past alive in the most remarkable of ways, Juliet was also a wise and patient guide to me as I lost and found myself in My Mother's Wedding Dress, and in my subsequent novel, Daphne. If writing, like life, is sometimes a shadowy labyrinth, then one needs to know that someone will help you find your way out again, and back into the light.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read in memoriam

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my sister’s death, and like many of us who mourn someone who has died too young, I remember her untouched by the ravages of age, her eyes still filled with courage and hope for the future. But in the aftermath of her death, when I was raging against the dying of her light, appalled at the savage randomness of life that saw her die at 33, I came across Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which was read at his own funeral.

I read the poem in the place of its setting, Chichester Cathedral, beside the Arundel Tomb itself, where the stone figures of a medieval earl and his wife lie together, his hand holding hers. The last line of the poem is the one most often quoted – ‘What will survive of us is love’ – and it struck me with as much force as if spoken by a voice beyond the grave; and has continued to resonate for me as a reminder that death does not consume love; that there are tender threads that bind the living and the dead, even amidst the silence.

But Larkin was too clear-sighted – always a realist, sometimes submerged by pessimism – to skim over the harshness of death. As in his wonderfully moving poem, ‘Cut Grass’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is precise in its acknowledgment of summer’s loveliness and its inevitable passing, of the joy of living and the finality of dusty death. ‘… Light/ Each summer thronged the glass. A bright/ Litter of birdcalls strewed the same/ Bone-riddled ground…’

And Larkin – a man who vacillated between women; who loved and betrayed and loved again – is also unfailingly honest about the shimmering shifts of human emotion; of its elusiveness, which can never be preserved in stone. The concluding stanza of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is more hesitant than its last line (‘Time has transformed them into/ Untruth. The stone fidelity/ They hardly meant has come to be/ Their final blazon, and to prove/ Our almost-instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.’) Yet the poem still stands, like the tomb itself, as a monument to those we love, and always will do; as sad and true as the anniversary of a death, in the turning of the year.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Parties, gardens, libraries, red toe nails, and other delights

It's a beautiful day in September, and summer doesn't seem quite gone (the picture above was taken in Scotland last month, where I was writing the Henry James-goes-to-Tillypronie blog). As it happens, my toe nails were red in that picture, and they're red again today; well, they've been red all week, in honour of the London Library. Yes, I know that sounds unlikely -- the London Library is the most literary of places, where nail varnish should never be discussed; but it turned up, along with me, at a party there a couple of days ago; because I've just contributed an essay about the joys of red toenails to Modern Delight, an anthology of essays published by Faber and Waterstones, in aid of the London Library and Dyslexia Action. The book was inspired by J.B Priestley's original collection of essays, 'Delight', published in 1949; the author, a self-confessed 'grumbler', wrote about the little things in life that made him happy: a gin-and-tonic, detective stories in bed, smoking in a hot bath, meeting a friend, charades, the sound of a football, buying books, having his fortune told, coming home... I'm sure you'll be able to come up with your own lists. (Please do, and tell me about them -- we all need to be reminded of small delights on a daily basis, don't you think?)
Anyway, Priestley's book has been reprinted in a 60th anniversary edition, and is delightful; and the new anthology has lots of good things in it, too: Beryl Bainbridge on growing older; India Knight on twitter; Sebastian Faulks on a certain girl band... and many, many more.
Anyway, this is my contribution, along with some pictures of the London Library (including a room full of good cheer); it's a place that brings me great delight, as does the garden in Tillypronie.
Oh, and by the way, the red nail varnish I refer to in the following piece is by Essie (and no, I didn't know the name until after I chose the colour).

If you believe what you read in fairytales, then wearing red is perilous, presaging doom and disaster. Would Little Red Riding Hood have encountered the wolf if she wore a more modest blue? And could Briar Rose have avoided her long imprisonment as Sleeping Beauty, if she had not stained herself with her own blood after pricking her finger? Worst of all is the dreadful fate summoned up by Hans Christian Andersen for a little girl named Karen after she acquires a new pair of immodest red shoes, for she is cursed to dance until her feet are bleeding, and then her feet are chopped off. As it happens, Andersen’s father was a shoemaker who died when Hans was 11, which is perhaps a clue as to why soles are inextricably linked with souls in his stories (hence the sufferings of the Little Mermaid, who wishes for feet in her pursuit of love, but discovers that they bring her nothing but pain.)

Yet despite these dire warnings of childhood reading, in fairytales where no one lives happily ever after, I have grown up to discover the cheering effects of shoes the colour of rubies, and the delight to be had in painting my toe nails red. Indeed, when disaster strikes – as it does from time to time, when men turn into wolves, and love is gobbled up – then the small pleasures of cherry-red varnish loom large in my life.

One cannot wear red shoes on a daily basis – that would detract from their potency; from the magic they bring to an evening of bold celebration – but scarlet toenails are a secret that can be enjoyed throughout the year. On the coldest nights in winter, they peek out of the scented bubbles of a warm bath; and in the darkest nights of the soul, they point to a way forward, a glowing reminder that the future may not be quite as gloomy as feared.

As I write this on a rainy morning in an English spring, my crimson toenails are hidden in sheepskin slippers, but I know that when the sun emerges, so will my feet. By the way, the varnish comes out of a small bottle marked Well Red… an antidote to the grimmest of fairytales

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Later that night...

It's 9.9.09. Luckily, I am not entirely deranged, as I have not been seized by a sudden belief in numerology (thereby madness lies), but I do like the pleasing pattern in today's date... All of which may or may not have something to do with the fact that I have been writing about Chanel no. 5, and the significance (or otherwise) that Coco Chanel attached to numbers...
Now, I'm going to take a deep breath, and count to ten, and then return to Coco...

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Late night, grappling with computer

It's hot in my study, at the end of a long day at the screen. I'm beginning to feel unhinged, after writing and writing and writing and...
So, here in the spirit of openness, is me deranged as midnight comes nearer. (Incidentally, the clock on my blog is wrong, but I don't know how to change it. One of these days, it might strike 13). Now I'm going to drink a strong cup of camomile tea. Never let it be said that I don't know what's good for me...

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when in need of cheering up

This week's bibliotherapy: v. good for convalescence, as well as Sundays:

From time to time, on a Sunday evening, I feel a certain glumness descend, a gloomy foreboding about Monday morning, and all the responsibilities it entails. As tonight is a very Sunday-ish evening – the end of summer, the return to routine – a little light reading is in order. Most cheering of all in the circumstances is P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Psmith in the City’, first published in 1910, but still consoling for anyone who would rather be somewhere else tomorrow.

Wodehouse himself understood the predicament of his central character, Mike Jackson, who yearns to be playing cricket at Cambridge University, but has been sent to London to earn his living as a clerk for the New Asiatic Bank, due to a collapse in the family finances. The young Wodehouse was dispatched in similar circumstances to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City, where he endured an equally monotonous start to his career, before making his escape as a writer. In this early novel, Wodehouse introduced an instant antidote to boredom, in the form of Rupert Psmith, an expelled Old Etonian incarcerated in the City, but with the wit to find his way out. Psmith (the ‘P’ is silent, ‘as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan’) is an advocate of what he describes as ‘practical socialism’, making comrades of his colleagues, and undermining their odious boss, Mr Bickersdyke, thereby coming close to scuppering Bickersdyke’s political ambitions.

‘Psmith in the City’ is very funny, very subversive, and not at all what one might expect from a writer accused of being a Nazi sympathiser after his broadcasts from Berlin during the Second World War. In hindsight, the general consensus seems to be that Wodehouse was foolish, rather than fascist (George Orwell rejected the claim that Wodehouse had ‘consciously aided the Nazi propaganda machine’ as ‘untenable and even ridiculous’). Yet despite his political naivety, Wodehouse’s vision of the City as oppressive and incomprehensible – ‘the whole system of banking was a horrid mystery’ – now seems refreshingly honest. Unfortunately, we don’t all have Psmith as a comrade against the challenges of boredom or confusion, nor as an ally against the Bickersdyke-type. But Wodehouse remains reassuring; for as Mike discovers at the close of play, ‘He examined the future, and found it good’.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Full moon at midnight

The full moon is high in the sky above my back garden, and a fox has just trotted along the pavement. I wish I could find the words to describe the moonlight tonight -- it's so clear, bright enough for the trees to cast shadows across the grass. But there is a cloud inside my head (the after-effect of a general anaesthetic), and my tongue is getting tangled, like my fingers on the keyboard.
Still, I'm glad to be here, in the moonlight, rather than behind the double-glazed windows of a hospital room. Now, back to bed...