Easter reading

‘Cos fer I have a long weekend and the only event planned is Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic on Saturday. I saw Daniel Radcliffe in Equus on Broadway not long after he finished being Harry Potter. Richard Griffiths out-acted him simply by being there, and Daniel was rather shouty. But still, there was something. So I’m interested to see his performance on Saturday.

Until then, I have reading planned. Today I finished In the Woods, by Tana French, which I’ve read at least a couple of times before but not for a while. It was a great debut and I realised that she’s very, very good at describing those halcyon moments, the marvellous times that you want to capture and put in a bag that you can always carry with you because you know they won’t/can’t last. She does it with the evenings between Rob, Cassie and Sam in In the Woods and it’s also part of the set up for The Likeness.

Next up is Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington. This is a Persephone book that I’ve been waiting to read because Persephones are always such treats that I didn’t want to waste it on an ordinary day. I’ve been saving Mick Herron’s Spook Street for the same reason. I really want to read it but then there’ll be no more Jackson Lamb books until he writes the next one. I feel I have to keep it until I need Jackson Lamb to save the day.

Next choice is a tie between Summertime, All the Cats are Bored, by Philippe Georget and Good Clean Fight by Derek Robinson. No one does better WWI RAF than Robinson as far as I know, which of course means it’s heartbreaking. But then, French noir is also pretty tempting. The eventual choice may depend on the weather, I might keep the Georget until it’s sunny again and feels like summer.

My latest delivery from Blackwell’s was Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. It’s been on my TBR list from so far back I have no idea why, but it looks like that interesting blend of travelogue and memoir that I enjoy. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Diski, so this will be a first.

I think those will keep me busy but I have re-reads as back ups. Since I listened to vol 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, I dug out Vol 2 in print. And I thought The Gone-Away World might stand up to a second try.

The only thing I’m not sure about is if there are enough hot cross buns to sustain me.

 

Middle aged fantasies

Picture the scene. Early evening, mid way through a hectic week. A cute Sainsbury’s delivery driver arrives, all twinkly eyes and carefully tousled hair. Your eyes meet as he hands you the cucumber. ‘Is there… anything else?’ he asks. Your heart speeds up a bit. You bite your lip. You shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t. What will the neighbours think if the van stays parked outside? You know better than this, but the temptation is just too much…

Ten minutes later, you’re snuggled on the sofa, clutching a hot cup of tea and catching up on Monday’s Broadchurch while cute Sainsbury’s guy does the vacuuming.

For the sad reality is that by Wednesday evening, Tom Hiddleston could rock up at my front door in a dinner jacket, carrying a bottle of Taittinger and a gift bag from Tiffany; but unless he’s going to put a load of laundry on, empty the dishwasher and clean out the fridge, he can rock off again.

Back in the day, I longed to be told I was beautiful, desirable, irresistible. And I’m not saying it wouldn’t still be nice to hear. But it doesn’t stack up against ‘I’ll do the washing up’ or ‘You have a lie-in and let me know when you want tea and toast’. What would really make me melt these days is someone saying ‘I’ve mopped the floors’.

The reality, of course, is that the Sainsbury’s delivery turns up while I’m in my old sweatpants and carrying a duster in one hand and a bag of rubbish in the other. Eyes do not meet, and anyway I’m so fed up of clearing soggy cucumber out of the fridge that I’ve put a ban on buying it.

Oh, sod the vacuuming. Where’s the remote?

In which I discourse on fashion

Although this could be a short discourse, because from what I can tell at the moment, the current styles are almost universally horrendous.

Let us begin. This season is going big on what I call either Asylum Chic or Jane Eyre’s Lowood Wardrobe. If I wanted desperately to dress like an escapee from a lunatic asylum, then I’d be sorted. This doesn’t mean that the shops are bestrewn with fetching faux Victorian white lace numbers a la Wilkie Collins either.  It means more of a nod towards 80s American schlock horror movies.

The woman in the blue dress is running, running, still carrying the bloody knife, even though she’s not sure what she did with it, but someone sure got stabbed and she can’t stop crying. Jane Eyre has been told to wear the pink one to the 10th annual Lowood TB Survivor’s Reunion.

Still, once you’ve escaped from the madhouse, or extreme Christian austerity, then it’s time to start partying. Is anyone going to a fancy dress party? And if so, are you thinking of costuming yourself as a migraine? Then [trigger warning] look no further…

These are probably designer, because all the most horrible items of clothing turn out to be designer. The high street’s cheap and cheerful knock offs never quite achieve the same peaks of hideosity. Can you imagine being drunk and seeing those dresses? Or hungover? Dear lord, someone pass the Ibuprofen.

Still, even an ex-Lowood girl can’t party for ever, so the shops have you covered for those quiet nights in as well. You know. The ones when you like to stand in the corner, dressed as a lampshade.

The pink one’s gotta be cheesecloth, right? I don’t think other fabrics can achieve that salmonella pink vibrancy.  For me, though, the blue one is the winner here, effortlessly achieving that ‘lampshade in an asylum’ look and so nailing two key trending influences in one garment. I’m sold.

The Bird Tribunal, Agnes Ravatn

Sigh. So I haven’t even finished this and although it’s basically a pamphlet, it’s touch and go whether or not I will. It’s supposed to be tense and chilling, but my fundamental problem is that the heroine is such a pathetic dweeb I want to smack her one.

And this is, in fact, is my problem with an entire set of books that are ultimately predicated on the fact that the heroine is spineless. There seem to be all too many of them around at the moment. She says, now unable to think of a single title. But you know  the type of thing I mean. The wounded heroine who gets into difficult circumstances that were avoidable or could have been resolved if she’d only actually said something. Like a normal person would have done.

So, to The Bird Tribunal, in which Allis, who fucked up her life with some accidentally public extra-marital shagging, has run away to the middle of nowhere and taken a job as a gardener-cum-housekeeper for some mysterious, grumpy bloke called Bragge. His wife is away. Or is she? At first Bragge says she’ll be back in the autumn; then he disappears for four days and comes back saying she died and was buried. In between, he hangs around being mysterious, dictatorial and unpredictable, which apparently is all Allis wants in a man.

Based on nothing whatsoever, she goes to pieces while he’s away, over-reacting to noises and her own imagination and completely terrified. So terrified, in fact, that she goes out of the house and into the dark garden and to the dark shed, where she picks up a hammer so that she can protect herself when the imaginary enemies come to get her. Because god forbid she should switch a light on, put the radio on and make a cup of tea or anything.

I think there was supposed to be some sense of brooding menace. But there was just a sense of Allis being a bit of a tit.

The only mysteries so far are why she’s still there being emotionally abused by a virtual stranger, and why for the love of all the gods she can’t call him out on his bullshit. He’ll probably turn out to be a nutter who murdered his wife, or Allis will get the wrong end of the stick and accidentally murder him, or whatever. At this point, I’m hoping for a nice suicide pact and the introduction of better characters.

In which I’m reading nostalgically

Back when I was a romantic slip of a thing, so roughly the dawn of time, I discovered that Jilly Cooper had written a whole series of books with girls’ names as titles. They’re all short romances and I galloped through the lot of them. They are literary Fondant Fancies – pretty, sweet but too many at once and you feel sick. Still, they seem to have been republished since last time I looked, and so I gave in and bought Harriet.

The eponymous Harriet is almost too naive to be true, but for the fact that I wasn’t far short of being precisely that sort of idiot when I was her age and first at university. In short order, Harriet gets seduced and then knocked up by a generic university golden boy bastard. He then promptly kicks her out and dumps her when his real, glamorous girlfriend comes back, and Harriet goes to pieces. Of course, she’s pregnant.

Golden boy bastard writes a cheque and pops her off to the doctor where he sends all his pregnant women. You get the impression that one more stamp on his loyalty card and the next woman will get a freebie. Harriet decides to cash the cheque and keep the baby.

Cue the hero, a grumpy writer whose vile-but-beautiful actress wife has just left him and their children. He needs a nanny, Harriet needs a job and a home. Of course, in the end the grumpy writer realises that Harriet is really the woman for him and, presumably, they all live happily ever after.

Obviously this is total nonsense, but Jilly Cooper’s style is perfect for it and she does have some nice touches. She was also one of the first writers I read who really dealt with some of young women’s reality: washing your tights in the sink, washing your hair with washing up liquid when you’re broke, scrabbling through a wardrobe of misfit items desperately trying to put something together that will reveal you as the elegant sophisticate you want to be as long as no one notices that you cut your leg when shaving with a dodgy old razor. In this one, when grumpy writer is being extra grumpy one morning, Harriet turns the waste disposal on so she can’t hear him. I do like novels in which people behave like people.

So hurrah for Jilly Cooper.

I also re-read Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurtz. It’s the first of a fantasy trilogy set on the world of Midkemia, which featured previously in Feist’s Magician trilogy.

So, Mara is the young daughter of a noble house, about to enter a religious order.  At the last minute, messengers arrive to announce her father and brother have both died in battle, and she’s now head of the house.

Midkemian politics, the ‘Great Game’ is of the intricate, bloody sort that makes Tory party backstabbing look like spring lambs gambolling in a field. Mara is immediately vulnerable, as a near miss assassination attempt makes clear, so she has no option but to become a skilled player very quickly. And that’s basically what she does in this book, surviving a brutal marriage, and a couple more attacks on her life to end up triumphant.

What strikes me this time round is how fast things move and how sketched in it all is. No wonder Game of Thrones was such a sensation, with its cast of thousands, protracted timescales and plot lines that are impossible to predict. I really hope GRRRR Thompson finishes the set because I haven’t watched the TV series and have no clue how he’s going to bring it all together.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Daughter of the Empire. I read it almost overnight, and I remembered more than I’d expected to. It was like watching a rerun of an old movie that you know isn’t that great but have residual fondness for anyway.

In which I don’t know what I look like

And I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I don’t know a woman who doesn’t suffer from body dysmorphia, and that tends to make things a bit confusing. Of course, there are plenty of mirrors around, but most shops are well up on the art of the most pleasing angle, so there’s no consistency there.  When the reflection in the Regent Street branch of Banana Republic was particularly unflattering, it meant I really couldn’t tell if it was them or me. Either way, I gave the clothes back and slipped away.

A glimpse in a store mirror on Saturday suggested I was verging on anorexia. I am really not. My mirror at home says shorter and squatter than that. I genuinely can’t tell if my bum looks big in this, because (a) what is normal for me? And (b) therefore, what is big? And (c) is that just big in my head or big from an objective perspective?

This morning, absolutely unable to tell whether I looked fine or positively bovine, I just thought ‘Fuck it’ and left for work anyway. Because I also thought, ‘What does it matter?’ I was dressed well enough to sneak within the office dress code, and that’s all that counts. No one at work is actually going to be judging me, and if they are, I won’t know about it. Which takes us back to ‘Fuck it’.

The objective fact is I’m a size 0 to a size 10, depending on which country or store I’m shopping in. That range is clearly pretty normal. I’d definitely be happier a few pounds lighter, because months of inactivity is having an effect, but all my clothes still fit so it’s not that big a deal. I’ve no ambition to look like a model, given that even models don’t look like models until they’ve been Photoshopped to the max.

So mostly, it’s just irritating. I like certainty. So it follows that I’d prefer to be able to look in a mirror and think ‘Oh yes, that is the size and shape of me that I recognise’ and therefore also ‘Those jeans work and those jeans REALLY don’t’. How can it be that instead, I can’t tell?

But then again, why do I need to be able to identify my own size and shape?  Regardless of whether I think I look fat or thin, the only difference is going to be in what I wear. I might misjudge one way or the other, but that makes no bloody difference to anything. So I think that, on further reflection, all roads lead to ‘Fuck it’.

Resistance, Owen Sheers

I thought it was about time I tried writing about books again, to see if it will make me a better reader.

So, I heard about Resistance years ago, on Front Row, because it had just been made into a film. For all I know, the film sank without trace, but the premise sounded interesting and I made a mental note to find the book. I then didn’t and had mostly forgotten about it, until  I found a copy on the bookshelf in the cabin we’d rented for a long weekend in the Brecons. So I picked up my own copy.

Now, counter-factual history is usually not my thing, but the small scale setting of this appealed. It’s set in a 1944 where Germany is very close to winning the war, the D-Day Landings were an epic failure and German troops are now encircling London. The broader context has the Axis powers wrapping up elsewhere in the world, America returning to a more isolationist policy and an inevitability that Britain will fall.

That’s the situation at the beginning of the novel, when all the men from a small village buried in the Welsh mountains leave their farms overnight and disappear. They have probably gone to join some resistance movement, but that’s never made really clear because they are more important in their absence. Their wives wake up in the morning with no idea where their husbands have gone, and gradually figure it out together. They are disbelieving and fearful, because the German reprisals against the families of resistance members are well known and brutal. But, in the absence of other options, they settle to the hard business of keeping their farms running.

For Sarah, her husband Tom’s absence is a sort of bereavement. She misses him, she’s angry with him, she tries to remember the details of how they first met. So that she can tell him her story when he returns, she starts to keep a diary. At first, she struggles because the act of writing is unfamiliar; later, she struggles because she’s writing her own counter-factual story.

Because, a five man patrol of Germans arrives in the valley, tasked with finding the Mappa Mundi which has been moved from Hereford for safety. They are all battle weary, and finding that no orders follow them and they seem to have fallen into a bureaucratic hole between two local commanders, they agree to stay forgotten. They should report the missing men, but they don’t. All Captain Albrecht Wolfram really wants to do is to sit out the rest of the war in this beautiful, tranquil spot.

So life goes on. The men live at the hall and mostly keep themselves to themselves, while also keeping an eye on the women. The women, with Maggie as their unofficial leader and spokeswoman, tell the Germans that they won’t help them or give them food. It’s a mutually agreed truce, while beyond the valley, out of sight and finally out of radio contact as the BBC gets taken over, the war transitions into occupation.

Not until winter lands suddenly do the German soldiers (and really, I never distinguished between them and their individual identities don’t seem that important) start to help with the farm chores. This is where you expect that the story will turn into a romance, with likely a tragic ending. It’s more unexpected that it doesn’t. So while one of the soldiers does start to develop a fondness for the young daughter of one of the women, that never amounts to anything beyond a daydream on both their sides. Wolfram does create a better sense of connection with Sarah, but that’s driven more by his need than hers. She still believes Tom’s coming home.

The relationships above all are practical. After all, digging out sheep from a snow drift, or killing a pig are tough, physical jobs. But, of course, this is still war, and tacitly everyone knows that even that is too much. Wolfram accidentally intercepts a stand in postman one day, and scribbles over all the letters coming in that the recipients are deceased. He reckons that if the women are already thought dead, no one from either side will come looking, and he doesn’t want the women dead or his men found.

Sarah’s diary meanwhile, continues in it’s record keeping vein but without any mention of the Germans at all. So with each day’s writing she fabricates the day’s activity. It’s too complex a situation otherwise to explain that the enemy isn’t really the enemy, particularly to the possible return of a husband who’s been involved in the last line of defence.

The hard winter means that the valley is held as if between moments, but time catches up. Maggie has a promising yearling, the last raised with her husband William before he left, to take to the country show. She takes one of the soldiers with her, but he’s overheard whispering to the horse in German, and then recognised.

And that’s that. The inhabitants of the valley are back on the radar, tarnished respectively with collaboration and disobedience. The yearling is shot, which shatters Maggie. Wolfram  tells Sarah they must get away, now. His radio operator goes off to radio in, and as Sarah leaves, more Germans are coming.

We don’t know that the women’s husbands are dead, but it’s likely. We don’t know that the women themselves will be punished, but that was always the most probable outcome. We don’t know if Sarah does or does not meet Wolfram at the appointed place, or if she gets away. But in the family Bible, left behind, Sarah has added her own date of death.

Resistance Movie Poster 2011