Seals!

I went camping for the weekend. We thought that S needed her spare room back for guests, and I desperately wanted to see the sea. I felt guilty spending the money but I bought a tent and a cheap camping stove and reasoned it was the most cost effective way of achieving a quick holiday. I decided on Norfolk because after blasting through all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series earlier in the year, I’ve been wanting to see salt marshes. I booked a camping pitch for £15 a night, checked the weather and was hugely relieved to see it looked several degrees cooler at the coast.

As it was a back to basics weekend, I navigated via road atlas, which actually worked pretty well. I just needed to remember the names of the key destinations and road numbers along the way: Evesham (A46) – Stratford – Warwick – Coventry (M6) – Thrapston (A605) – Peterborough (A14) – Wisbech – King’s Lynn (A169) – Cromer. In this age of Satnav, does anyone still plan their route any more? When I can, I like to make the journey part of the trip rather than just a means to an end. This was not the prettiest route but there’s a kind of magic to a list of unfamiliar place names. Now I have the geography of another part of the country roughly laid out in my head for when I need it again. It also meant that I could listen to Everyone Brave is Forgiven without Siri interrupting me.

The heat has been so oppressive around here that when I stepped out of the car into a breeze, I barely recognised it. Suddenly, the sunshine was beneficent again. Plus, I love being on my own in places where no one knows me. It’s like being invisible and you just know you aren’t going to have to talk to anyone at a level beyond the transactional for days. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing, but I find it really relaxing. After 5 hours of travelling, I was reinvigorated.

Even so, there’s not a lot to be done with Cromer, but I found the second hand bookshop and the first two Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Reginald Hill has been on my TBR list since I heard Mick Herron recommend him at the Oxford Literary Festival.

I’ve been camping plenty of times, but never on my own before. And tents are a lot easier these days but still come with exactly the sort of instructions that make no sense to me whatsoever. I had one tricky moment, then I figured it out and suddenly, I had a sturdy blue bolthole for the weekend! After which, I was overcome with laziness and decided to settle in with the default camping foods: Dairylea slices, bread rolls, red wine. I hung my torch up in the tent and read A Clubbable Woman. 

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My tent was definitely the smallest on site. Even the guy on the motorbike had a pop up tent that was bigger.

Now, admittedly an air mattress might have made sleep a more comfortable proposition, but it was ok for a couple of nights. Besides which, there was coffee. That little camping stove was amazing. I mean yes, it took a while to boil a litre of water, but it got there. And it was a gorgeous morning, so I was happy to wait.

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That was Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that S brought me back from the US.

Since it wasn’t a thousand degrees, I’d decided I’d try walking from Holkham Beach to Wells-next-the-Sea. The website said it would be a couple of hours each way, but I thought I could pick up the Peddar’s Way for the route back and get some shade in the pine trees.

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Holkham

Holkham Beach was a sight to lift the heart. I paddled all the way to Wells and there were barely any people. Turned out, they were all at Wells. By the time I got there and remembered why it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea not Wells-on-Sea, that last mile inland nearly broiled me. I bailed on the walk back and got the bus instead. Peddar’s Way will have to wait for next time.

Empty beaches were a theme. But I was warned by the locals that out of term time, everywhere gets mobbed and is horrible, so I guess I was lucky with my timing. This was Sheringham beach, I got in and out on Sunday morning ahead of their world record attempt for the largest number of Morris Dancers in one place at the same time. Shudder. I had idly wondered why I kept seeing lone Morris Dancers around.

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I don’t even remember where this one was (Cley?) but only a few miles away up the coast from Holkham, the sand shifted to shingle.

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Sunday was all about the seals, though. I was expecting a pleasant boat trip and maybe a few seal heads bobbing around in the sea at a distance. I’d booked my boat trip with Ptarmigan, based on nothing more than picking up their leaflet at the shop on the campsite.

They were great, one of the smaller boat trip companies so we had to wait for several boat loads of Bean’s Boat Trips to get out of the way first. But the boats all take the same route out to Blakeney Point – thankfully not open sea because I get seasick really easily. Not that I can tell port from starboard but I like boats and the seasickness banishes all Patrick O’Brien induced fantasies of sailing holidays, or even any kind of long trip. I barely made it to Block Island.

Ptarmigan’s was a traditional clinker built boat, and the guide pointed out various other, locally built boats as we headed out to the seals. Blakeney used to be a major shipping harbour in the Middle Ages and was still going through to the 19th century. Now it’s heavily silted up and there’s just one commercial shipping boat, which goes after crab and lobster.

And then, seals! There are a couple of colonies of common seals and grey seals, so maybe 2,000-3,000 seals. They weren’t afraid of the boats, they were curious, but they kept their distance.

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Grey seals in the water could disappear as soon as they went under, even though it wasn’t that deep. They merged with the shadows.

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The grey seals are darker and have the longer faces, ‘like Labradors’ our guide said.

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After all that, I got home sunburnt, salty, tired and incredibly relaxed. Bring on more camping, more Norfolk and more seals.

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Nightfall Berlin, by Jack Grimwood

 

Not that Grimwood needs my good words after this weekend’s note in The Times from Marcel Berlins. I’d link to it but, paywall. And I regret to say that I’ll be a bit vague, because I listened to the audio version and so can’t refer back to the actual text. The audio version was so good, it made me want to drive to the Leicester office for more listening time en route. Of course, once I got to Leicester I immediately wanted to come home again, but you can’t have everything.

Nightfall Berlin is the second novel to feature Major Tom Fox, following his first outing in Moskva a couple of years back. I loved Moskva to the extent that I bought copies as gifts for a couple of people. It’s a proper, old school, Cold War thriller, introducing Fox as a flawed lead with plenty of his own ghosts to be dealing with while he’s trying to find the missing 15 year old daughter of the British Ambassador. I wasn’t even all that interested the Cold War period, and now I’m finding it fascinating.

At least in Moskva, Fox was on official business. In Nightfall Berlin, he’s on the wrong side of the Berlin wall without any papers or allies, on the run because suspected of murder. He was sent to bring back a horrible old man who defected some years back and now wants to come home and die in peace. Or something like that – the letter the old git sends to The Times contains a deliberately mistaken classical reference linking to an old case, and the game is afoot when the man is found murdered in his flat.

The Stasi, the KGB and his own people are all after Fox at one time or another. They all want the memoirs the old man was writing and they’re willing to beat the truth out of Fox when he denies having them. Repeatedly.  There are twists, turns, failed attempts to escape back to West Berlin, shootings, meetings in the zoo, conspiracies, and cover ups. While that could sound like box ticking, that’s not at all how it reads. Comparisons with Le Carre are inevitable, and there’s a nice nod when Fox’s former handler hands him a copy of the latest Le Carre novel, intended for the KGB. The copy is returned with a book report.

Grimwood is great at representing the paranoia and bleakness of East Berlin, and the ever shifting relationships between the different sides as they carry out the behind-the-scenes dirty work that lets official policy continue. Fox isn’t being paranoid when he says ‘Trust no one’, nor even when it’s ‘There’s no one to trust’. Allegiances seem to shift on a dime, even Fox worries that the KGB uniform he ends up in at one point suits him surprisingly well.

My favourite threat (no spoilers as to circumstances): ‘… I’ll have you killed. I won’t even bother to do it myself, I’ll just look at the photographs.’ Boom.

Responses to Ovid

It was the last day of my Ovid’s Metamorphoses course on Monday, and I shall miss it. The good news is that there are plenty of online courses, so when I move I’ll still be able to study something, although not anything in the classics line.

There were a couple of lines about Helen in Bk XV that stayed with me, because they reference Helen when she’s old and you never think of Helen as old. In fact, I don’t know what does happen to Helen after she’s taken home from Troy. I can’t imagine it was back to married life with Menelaus. I think there’s a play to be written about Helen’s life when she’s older, and I’d like to see Helen Mirren play her.

In the meantime, a few stories were stuck in my head, so I exorcised them by scribbling some bits down. Sorry, Ovid.

Helen

‘and, when her glass shows every time-worn wrinkle, Helen weeps

And wonders why she twice was stolen for love.’ (Ovid, Met. XV)

Helen dreamed her birth again. Curled, nestled, perfect in the perfect oval of her egg, she felt the sunlight illuminating her and stretched out to reach its warmth. The eggshell fell away. Helen, unfolded, saw for the first time her own graceful, white arm extended towards the sun. She recognised beauty as though it had been waiting all along for her to claim it.

Waking, she felt the weight of dried tears on her cheeks. Old griefs.

Eurydice

‘And now they neared the edge of the bright world,

And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,

He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.’ (Ovid, Met. Bk X)

‘Do you know, just before he slipped out of sight, I swear I saw him shrug. Like, oh well, that’s it then, worth a shot. Why did he have to look back like that, just as I was nearly out in the light of day? I only stopped to check for snakes, once bitten, twice shy is what I say. If he really loved me, he’d have been straight back down here, begging Hades for another chance and never mind that dratted dog had woken up again. What’s the point of being a great musician if you can’t lull a dog to sleep, I ask you? Not that I ever liked the lyre all that much myself. But oh no, off he goes, drowning his sorrows by partying with those Maenads, and they’re no better than they should be… And now he hasn’t even got a head, and if he thinks I’m spending the afterlife with a man without a head, well, he can just think again is what I say…’

Medea

‘Medea fled, swathed in a magic mist

Her spells had made…’ (Ovid, Met. Bk VII).

The potion had taken weeks to create, and Medea had used up the last of her energy in searching for the right herbs, picked at just the right time. Much of the mystery attaching to her rituals was for show, but this particular magic needed moonlight in its making. Now she was exhausted and all she wanted to do was to sleep. She would complete the spell in the morning. She sent the dragons away, and told her maidservant to wake her at dawn.

The girl had been with Medea for a year now. She was quiet, unobtrusive. Medea mistook her silent watchfulness for stupidity and was grown careless. When the moon was full in the sky, the girl took the wicked black knife set out for the morning’s work, and slit Medea’s throat.

Reading roundup January – March

Technically, also a listening round up as I’ve been getting through audio books so fast I keep buying extra credits on Audible. The hard part is finding anything – as with Amazon, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, browsing on Audible is a horrible experience.

Wins of the year so far:

London Rules – Mick Herron. Inevitably, because I am such a fan of the Jackson Lamb series. In this one, hopeless Roddy Ho has been giving out secrets to his girlfriend, which explains how he even got a girlfriend, and someone is trying to kill him. The only reason Lamb objects is because if someone is going to kill one of his Slow Horses, he’d prefer it to be him. Meanwhile, a terrorist cell is making use of the plans Roddy inadvertently passed along, the minister who engineered Brexit is gunning for higher office (and hoping his cross-dressing won’t come out), while the PM is hoping he can retire and write memoirs from his shed. Shed. Got that? Definitely not shepherd’s hut. Can Jackson’s motley crew save the day? Can Jackson get any more objectionable? You betcha.

Brilliance, A Better World and Written in Fire – Marcus Sakey. Seriously, I don’t understand how these haven’t been optioned into a Netflix series already. Picture a world in which 10% of people have abnormal abilities. Could be maths, science, pattern recognition, you name it. In the US, the government has responded by putting the most brilliant in concentration camps schools, where they are routinely de-humanised and driven to be dysfunctional. Nick Cooper is an agent with the Department of Analysis and Response (DAR), which hunts down criminal abnorms, and he’s one of the best. Nick finds out that DAR isn’t what it seems, the factions within the government, society and abnorm society start to follow up on their independent objectives, and the world is heading for a showdown.

The Smiling Man – Joseph Knox. I loved Knox’s debut, Sirens, which i also listened to, and which introduced us to extremely flawed DC Aidan Waits. In this follow up, Aidan is clean but back on the night shift with his partner Peter ‘Sooty’ Sutcliffe, who could give Jackson Lamb a run for his money in the being deeply unpleasant stakes. Aidan is investigating a dead body found in a disused hotel, while also battling his own demons in the return of the brutal father figure who traumatised and criminalised his childhood. There is a nightmarish, hyperreal quality to Aidan’s life, helped by the narrative being from his point of view and the fact that he barely seems to sleep. I’ve seen Knox’s novels described as ‘Manc noir’ and it’s certainly the dark underbelly of the city that we get to see.

The Ruth Galloway series – Elly Griffiths. I’m not going to name all the individual titles, but having read the first four novels in this series, I suddenly got addicted to them in audio form and listened to the next six. All the individual mysteries are strong and compelling, but almost more than that I like the overarching story of the difficult relationship between Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. That’s what keeps me coming back, as with Susan Hill’s Serrailler series. Just as you think something might come of it, another blocker ends up in their way. Which may not be a bad thing, because try as I might I can’t see Ruth and Nelson actually living together with any degree of success.

Force of Nature, Jane Harper

I listened to The Dry on audio last year, and loved it for the characters, the sense of place and the finely drawn claustrophobia of going back to a small town where everyone knows you. Aaron Falk was a great character, so I grabbed a copy of The Force of Nature as soon as I saw it in the bookshop. I read it in an evening and I almost wish I’d gotten it on audio as well so I’d enjoyed it in a more leisurely way. On the other hand, give it a while and I can get the audio anyway. Not that I’ll forget the story but audio is a different experience so it doesn’t always matter.

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A Force of Nature kicks off with a woman going missing. Alice Russell disappeared on a hike with others from her company when they were all on some ghastly team building weekend. What gets Aaron Falk involved is that Alice was a whistleblower for her company, BaileyTennants, who seem to be heavily involved in all sorts of financial irregularities. Without Alice’s information, the trail goes cold, so Aaron and his partner, Carmen, have a vested interest in finding out what happened. Plus, Aaron has a frustratingly incomplete message on his phone from Alice, that must have been made not long before she died.

The story switches between two narratives, day by day of the investigation into Alice’s disappearance, as well as day by day of what actually happened on the hike. There’s also a sub-narrative, because the area the team is hiking in is notorious for some murders that happened 20 years back. The last body was never found, so the fact of another woman going missing is enough to raise old fears.

None of the women on the hike is particularly likeable, and for all that the point of the exercise is team building, no one is really trying. They’ve been dumped together for a variety of different reason: Bree is considered to have potential so she’s building her career, whereas her twin sister Beth is at the ground floor at the same company. Alice herself has been accused of bullying, Lauren has been underperforming. Jill is one of the owners of the business, along because it’s the right thing to do. It’s exactly the sort of ‘resilience building’ bullshit you can see a corporate pulling on its staff.

The schisms reveal themselves pretty quickly. Bree, who has been stuck with the navigating, gets them lost early in day 2, and the fragile relationships start to break down almost immediately. The woman are out of food and water, both of which they’d have picked up at their campsite for the night if they’d made it. They lose the stove they’d need to cook with when it falls in a river. Alice impatiently takes over navigating, insisting that they’re heading west, west, west, until Beth points out that the sun is setting in completely different direction. The squabbles aren’t serious, but for a bunch of women who don’t like each other anyway, it doesn’t take much for it to escalate to physical violence. And it is a serious situation, as they’re off the trail in a vast territory where they stand a real risk of not being found.

Did Alice head off on her own and get lost? Or did one of them kill her? Any of them could have done so and it would have been pretty understandable. Meanwhile, Aaron and Carmen are interviewing the four women who did finally make it back from the hike, and figuring out where the stories fall apart…

There was such a lot going on in this novel, that the mystery isn’t anything like the whole of it. All the relationships are complicated, with a level of toxicity to them. Bree and Beth, despite being twins, have some real negative history that affects their behaviour. Lauren and Alice also know each other from schooldays, while Alice’s daughter has been dating Jill’s son. What ultimately happens in the bush is the result of a whole lot of bitterness, anger, resentment, fear and love. This is the same trick that Harper pulled off in The Dry and it’s what makes the novel so gripping, and ultimately, tragic.

New Year reading

There are two main things that are driving my reading at the moment. The first, the positive, is that I’ve started a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and glory be, it gives me access to a bit of an academic library. The course is at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, and the library has only a small classics section. Still, I will happily take the academic crumbs that come my way, so I scooped up some basics and have The Cambridge Companion to Ovid to play with.

It’s only a 10-week course and we aren’t reading all of Metamorphoses, so the tutor has given out a reading plan that allots us a section or two each week. It’s about 20pp maximum, so I’ve put together my own supplementary reading list to complement the selections from Met. 

  • Euripides’ Medea
  • Mr Heracles – Simon Armitage
  • The Odyssey – transl. Emily Wilson
  • The Aeneid – transl. Robert Fagles
  • Euripides’ Ajax
  • Lavinia – Ursula LeGuin

I’m really liking the look of that mix of original text and reception. I’ve got Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid  and Simon Armitage’s The Odyssey as well, so I may throw them into the mix too, if I have time.

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The painting is Apollo and Daphne, by Antonio del Pollaiolo. In one of many rape or attempted rape scenes in Met., Apollo chases the nymph, Daphne. She prays for help to escape him and is turned into a laurel tree. Apollo promptly declares that the laurel will be his symbol, because even though the woman is turning herself into a tree to avoid him, he still can’t bloody well take no for an answer. Plus ca change, and all that.

The second driver is that I’m in that state of mind where it’s an effort to get myself to work every single day. I’m very actively job hunting and let’s hope something comes up soon. Anyway, audiobooks to the rescue: instead of getting in the car to drive to work, I get in to listen to the next instalment of my audiobook. It’s a small mental trick, but it works. I don’t have the same anxiety when I’m working from home – don’t know why it’s all so much more focused around the physical location when it’s the job itself that is the problem, but hey. More crumbs of comfort.

I’ve been chain listening to Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist at the University of North Norfolk, and DCI Harry Nelson is the local copper. Ruth helps him out on cases sometimes, and they also had a very brief affair that resulted in Ruth having a daughter, Kate. While Nelson will never leave his wife, Michelle, he loves Kate and has very mixed feelings for Ruth. How all three of the adults navigate this scenario makes an interesting backstory to the murders or mysteries of the individual volumes.

I’d read a few of them but it’s one of those series where the next book is never on the shelf in a bookstore when I go in. (Unlike Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, when the next book is nearly always there. Spooky.) The individual books just about last me a week on audio, but I’ve now spent so many hours listening that I’m addicted. Plus, I find myself getting a bit confused as to whether Ruth and Nelson are real, and thinking back on things they’ve said and done before remembering that in fact, I don’t know them.

I’m also starting to really want to visit Norfolk again. Ruth’s cottage is set on the edge of the salt marshes, which sounds like a wonderful, liminal landscape. I can’t shake the longing for a blustery, sea-salty walk amid lots of sea and sky. What I’m really craving is mental space, of course, but I always think that a geographical open space will clear my head as well. Sometimes it does.

10 years of musings

I only realised as I was re-ordering the ‘Books read’ pages that I’ve had the blog for 10 years.

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Blimey. Although, it must be said that for the past few, I’ve done the absolute bare minimum. Well done those four or five people who still rock up on occasion. I’m not joking – the stats are genuinely pathetic so you are all part of a very small, and incredibly discerning group. Maybe I should get you all badges?

10 years feels like a good innings, and I’ve been wondering if it’s time to let the blog slip quietly into that dark night. But, it seems a shame not to see this tenth year out, so instead, I shall try harder and see how it goes this year. I’m not making any resolutions but, I suspect in common with most people, it won’t do me any harm to put my phone down and focus more on what I’m reading instead.

And on that note, I kicked off the year by reading A Very Short Introduction to Classical Mythology by Helena Morales. This is because I’ve had the full week off work over Christmas and now I’m panicking about going back and my brain atrophying again. So to stave that off, I signed up for a short course at the local university’s continuing education department. Of course, this being Oxford, I’m doing a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Of course, being me, I immediately high tailed it to Blackwell’s to buy the reading list, deaf to all warnings that if the course gets cancelled you still have to pay your debts at the bookshop…  So far I’m on to Book III of Metamorphoses, and I’ve also read one of the essays in  the Blackwell Companion to Ovid.

So, the VSI was a quick romp through to the tune of ‘what have myths done for us and what are they anyway?’ Answer, ooh, loads, and they’re fluid so open to interpretation, re-use and misuse. Because current mood = feisty, I particularly liked the bit where Morales discussed what might have happened if Freud had chosen the Antigone story rather than the Oedipus story on which to found his whacko theories. What if psychoanalysis had had more space for strong female characters and a foundation myth that explored the nature of right and wrong?

It’s been a long, long time since I read Ovid. I know I studied some of Metamorphoses for my degree, but that was about a billion years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve got Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid hiding on a shelf somewhere, so that will be a good companion piece as well. The course starts on Jan 22 and I’m going to be prepared. You might say over-prepared. I couldn’t possibly comment (yes, I read most of the House of Cards trilogy over Christmas, did Michael Dobbs originate that formulation for FU, or does it pre-date him?)