Country music Monday

I like me some cheesy country music, but it’s a fair point that women’s roles in a lot of country songs have been reduced to being objects wearing tiny denim cut-offs as they sip a beer in the back of a truck. So when I stumbled across this, I figured it was about right. The guy on the right of the truck, though? Sure is purty.


Ten things I like about being a grown up

Subtitle: The injustices of teenagerdom

1. No one can tell me not to put my feet on the furniture, even in ‘those muddy shoes’ (that aren’t really muddy at all but may once have seen a spot of mud in passing).

2. No one can tell me to ‘get that cup off the arm of the chair, I don’t want you spilling tea everywhere!’ ‘Everywhere’ was the key word when I was growing up. One book on the floor right by where you were sitting engendered the complaint ‘Who’s been leaving books everywhere?’

3. I can spend hours on the phone without being reminded who pays the phone bill. My mum did spend literally hours on the phone, and then always complained that the entire bill was our fault.

4. No matter what time I get home, no one says ‘What time do you call this?’. Although these days, if they did, I’d most likely say ‘9.30’.

5. Chocolate biscuits could be an every day occurrence. In our house, my step-dad had them and we weren’t allowed.

6. If a plate or glass gets broken, I clear it up. It does not require a three-act tragedy and week long recriminations.

7. No one tells me ‘Girls don’t whistle/chew gum/put their hands in their pockets’ or ‘Young ladies don’t swear’. And if they did they’d get a pithy lecture on the importance of not reinforcing outdated gender norms that are biased in favor of supporting the fucking patriarchy.

8. No one says ‘You’re not going out looking like that, are you?’ . Yes. Yes, I am.

9. It is not considered a crime to get crumbs in the marmalade.

10. I can crank up the heating as much as I like, because I do know who pays the bill and it’s me.

Music Monday

So, today entailed a little day trip to Manchester. My top tip is don’t attempt to get there by train from Bicester while there’s a replacement bus service between Banbury and Leamington Spa. It’s been a long day of trains and buses and trains and buses.

I loved Manchester when I studied there, just as much as I desperately hated the town I was from. As soon as I was out of halls of residence and no longer compulsorily evicted at the end of each term, I began to stay in the city as much as I could. I did a token few days at home over holidays, and then fled back to its comforting anonymity. When my degree course finished, the one thing I knew was that I wasn’t moving home. I’d spent enough time in my parents’ house feeling trapped and confined, as though my arms and legs would burst through doors and windows like Alice in Wonderland. So I stayed in Manchester about another year, until I got a job in London.

Despite the fact that I haven’t been there for at least 10 years, Manchester still seemed familiar. I started walking and the geography unrolled in front of me: Piccadilly, the Arndale, Spring Gardens, St Anne’s Square, all in their turn, and I realized for the first time that Manchester is one of my dreamscapes. I didn’t have time to get far from Piccadilly, and I don’t think I could face the old haunts of Fallowfield and Withington anyway. Some memories are best left undisturbed, especially when they involve Newcastle Brown Ale. But I’d like to go back again, for a weekend, and explore and rediscover. It’s way beyond time to be trying to recapture the past. Even a few years ago, I might have made that attempt, but these days I don’t need nostalgia. It’s a different kind of pleasure to revisit a formative location in a new way, and to interact with it as I am now rather than searching for glimpses of who I was then.

Still, in honour of the glorious (and inglorious) days of 1990-1993:


A literary tour with Peter Wimsey

I sent Mr W Kai Lung’s Golden Hours for his birthday, and he asked me how I discovered Ernest Bramah. It’s another one of those examples of books leading to books. In this case, the starting point was Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers. This is the book in which Peter first meets Harriet, not in the best circumstances given that she’s on trial for her life, accused of having murdered her lover. Peter attends the trial and decides she’s innocent, that he’ll help with her defence and that he’ll marry her when the trial is all over. Of course, true love doesn’t run anywhere near that smoothly. Harriet, badly emotionally battered by her previous relationship, ashamed and truculent, has no value for herself; Peter has much ground to make up for his early, ill-timed proposal, when, by saving Harriet’s life, he’s put her under an obligation to him that she feels can never be repaid. Their spiky, difficult relationship that is yet a meeting of minds, plays out through several of the novels until Gaudy Night.

But back to Strong Poison. In Peter’s first interview with Harriet, she quotes ‘but however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from a subject of almost equal importance?’, to which Peter responds, ‘And if you can quote Kai Lung we should certainly get on together.’

I was always charmed by the way Peter and Harriet delighted in language and swapped literary references, and the name Kai Lung was odd enough to capture my attention. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read all of Sayers’ Wimsey books (I don’t like her Montague Egg stories), her books fall right into the comfort read category for me. Over the years, as references have gradually dropped into place, it feels as though I’ve decoded their private conversation. We did Donne at school, so there’s Peter’s major love covered, but one year mention of a Forsythe fell into place, then Religio Medici (in Gaudy Night, Harriet discovers a copy in Peter’s pocket when he’s fallen asleep while they are punting on the Cherwell, and takes it to read until he wakes up).

I haven’t searched anything out deliberately, so it was only last year that I came across an old Penguin copy of Kai Lung’s Golden Hours. I had no idea what to expect, but the eponymous Kai Lung is a storyteller who, imprisoned on some trumped up charge, manages first to prolong his life and finally to save it through his clever telling of stories. They are sly and charming, with much of the humour in the language itself, and having read them adds another layer to the characters of both Peter and Harriet. I haven’t re-read Strong Poison since Kai Lung, but I wonder what else is there to be discovered?

A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson

Bless Blackwell’s for sending me a proof copy!

Warning: here be spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

I think it was probably good to read this so soon after Life after Life, because the characters were still alive in my head. It’s a complementary piece, rather than a sequel, and I enjoyed it more than its companion. The novel moves back and forth in time, and between narratives, so that we get a mosaic of Teddy’s life and that of his relatives.

Teddy is a great but unremarkable character, by which I mean no disrespect to him. He’s an Everyman for those caught in WWII, and at the end of the novel I felt Atkinson made it explicit that this is what she set out to achieve. Teddy is defined by the war in ways which his family will never understand. He makes being dutiful – to his country, his wife, his daughter, his job, his grandchildren – into something calmly noble.

There’s a lot of time spent on his role as a skipper of bombers during the war, which seems, despite all the horror and hardship, the only time when Teddy was really living the life he wanted to live. The RAF has such short odds that he survives day to day, with no real belief in ‘afterwards’. Maybe the silver hare that was a recurrent feature of LaL keeps him safe, because he survives 30 ops, eventually getting shot down and seeing out the war in a POW camp in Germany. Then it’s back to pick up his pre-war life, determined only to be kind.

This is with Nancy, although from a couple of scenes it seems that either of them might be trying, politely, to edge out of the marriage. They don’t, though, and although comfortable, it’s not passionate and happy. Nancy seems to have spent the war at Bletchley. She can’t talk about her experiences, and she’s not really interested in the details of bombing campaigns, so the war remains unspoken between them. In fact, entirely opaque herself, she doesn’t seem much interested in Teddy as a person at all. It also seems telling that in one of her first teaching jobs she is known as Miss Shawcross, because the school doesn’t like married teachers. When their only child, Viola arrives, their mother-daughter relationship excludes him even more. Nancy dies when Viola is still quite young and there seems no way back for Teddy with Viola, so that her unloving resentment of him for not being Nancy runs right through the novel.

Teddy makes the best of it all, working for a local paper and taking great enjoyment in his garden and his dogs. I found it a very sad book in many ways, and I wondered if Atkinson couldn’t cut her characters some slack occasionally. Viola in particular is a horrible daughter and a horrible mother. She effectively abandons her children, Sunny and Bertie, with Teddy, although by that point he’s their only chance of love and stability. At least Teddy’s relationship with Bertie is straightforward. She’s almost the daughter that Viola has not been and shows far greater understanding and acceptance of him.

There is hope at the end, though. While Teddy dwindles in a nursing home, the focus is starting to shift ahead to the next but one generation. Viola is building bridges with Sunny, who himself has found self-acceptance in Buddhism. Bertie is happily married, with her own twins. Teddy has handed on the baton.

In which I have another vision

Just call me Hildegard.

So, I survived the training and, of course, it in no way fulfilled my fears. No one cried, darkest secrets remained buried and there were some very useful pointers to take away from it and put into immediate effect. Admittedly, there was one reading from Chicken Soup for the Soul, which made me twitch, not least because I’ve heard at least one other version of the same inspiring story and now suspect it’s entirely apocryphal and was created merely as a way of getting a message across with added cheese. I chose not to mention this at the time.

We have homework before the final day of the course on Feb 10, part of which is to appreciate 50 things a day. 50! I’ve set up a spreadsheet, but it’s very slow going. Mr W suggested appreciating 50 authors and 50 cheeses, and it may well come to that. There’s a whole host of things I appreciate regularly anyway, from the cats to central heating (spend a week in February when you’ve run out of domestic oil and you quickly appreciate heating), to coming home to an empty house on a Friday night with episode 2 of Wolf Hall to watch. But still, getting to 50 is a bit of a slog.

(We are all watching Wolf Hall, right? There will be a huge, Thomas Cromwell shaped gap in my life when vol 3 is complete in all its inevitable incarnations.)

Another bit of homework was to write up our visions and share them. These were points that would identify the best six months of our lives, as a sort of positive thinking/empowerment/take responsibility for your own life activity. I don’t mind that approach, because I find people who make poor decisions and then whine about the consequences and act as if life has it in for them entirely punch worthy. Anyway, this was my vision:

1. I’ve just moved into my lovely three bedroom cottage with garden. It is off road, for cat safety, and in a village which doesn’t have street lights. The previous owners were sensible people so there are built in bookshelves on every spare wall. All my furniture fits properly, there’s an open fire in the sitting room, an Aga in the kitchen and wooden or tiled flooring throughout. The village is simultaneously in the middle of nowhere and yet close enough to a reasonable city to provide shopping and theatre. Miraculously, said cottage is in entirely livable condition.

2. Which is just as well, because I’ve been accepted on a part time PhD course. It’s being fully funded by some generous organization and the Bodleian has just renewed my card.

3. When I’m not in the library, I’m doing enough exercise to be in good shape to run a 10k. (My promise to run the Town & Gown is haunting me.)

4. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t have time to read fiction any more, because I’ve finished reading volume 3 of Proust (yes, this did feel like the most unrealistic item on the list.)

5. Also, I’ve cracked making croissants from scratch and getting the texture right.

6. Just before I go on holiday. Probably to the US.

7.  Which I can do because all is going well at work, with my team shooting the lights out and me being pretty well regarded for whatever it is I do at the time.

Duly shared. But, if anyone is interested in turning this best six months thing into a meme,(cough, Emily, cough) do play along. It’s been ages since we had a good meme.

Update on reading plans

In all honesty, I’d have to call it mediocre progress. I’ve read:

The Financial Lives of Poets, by Jess Waters –  This picked up enough for me not to have to force myself through it, but then fell apart again towards the end. I can see what the author was doing, a sort of febrile rant against the belief in the rightness of over-consumerism that led to the financial collapse. What didn’t work for me was the narrative voice, which is a problem with a first person narrator, but also a lot to do with my lack of sympathy towards the male ego.

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel – Which I enjoyed for its storytelling ability, sense of threat, and frighteningly believable reason as to why world societies collapsed. After all, with Ebola and mutating flu viruses, what’s so hard to believe about a flu pandemic that kills within 24 hours? The interweaving of before the flu and after the flu stories was effective, and the unknown ties between characters, centering around attendees at a pre-flu performance of King Lear, allowed for disparity of experience while keeping the plot tight. I’m definitely looking for more by Mandel when I’m allowed to buy books again.

Mrs Hemingway, by Naomi Wood. In fact, all of the Mrs Hemingways, with a section for each of them from their own perspectives. I could care less about Hemingway as a person and his writing leaves me cold but his wives were interesting for themselves. And, of course, I now want to find out more about Martha Gelhorn, who seems to have given as good as she got.

The Old Wives’ Tale, by Arnold Bennett. I raced through this, the first thing I read once was my concentration was back, post Christmas illness. I like those novels that trace the lives of their characters, and in which there’s a strong sense of place. In this, the two sisters live ostensibly very different lives. Constance marries the assistant in her father’s shop and eventually takes over, never venturing far from Bursley; Sophia, the wilder sister who is desperate to escape the confines of the town, elopes to Paris with a traveling salesman, and when he eventually abandons her, starts a boarding house. Ultimately, both choose equally constrained lives for themselves, Constance because she’s happy in Bursley, Sophia because her need to control her environment and make money means all her attention goes to her hotel. She lives her life in Paris without experiencing Paris.

I still can’t bloody well find The Goshawk, despite a fairly thorough searching of the shelves. I need someone who isn’t familiar with the contents to pop round and check for me. And I couldn’t find Faerie Queen either, until it was staring me in the face. I’m really disinclined to pick up Nos4R2 again and I feel like a quick win next, so I think it’s time to head slowly up the Ganges with Eric Newby.