Bank Holiday reading

It was such a relief to feel normal again when the migraine finally lifted. Friday I felt as tired as though I was convalescing after a long illness, but I was fully recovered on Saturday.  And so commenced the weekend’s reading.

The Complete Tales of Earthsea – Ursula LeGuin

I bought myself the 1000+ page hardback, with illustrations by Charles Vess and a ribbon marker. I read the whole thing through over Saturday and Sunday and while some was pleasingly familiar, the fifth and sixth volumes were completely new to me. I don’t remember how old I was when I first encountered the trilogy but I’ve always found them dark. The shadow that Ged unleashes when he tries to summon a spirit of the dead, the darkness of the Labyrinth, the misery of Ged and Lebannen’s journey to the Wall and struggle back to life. And yet, I read and re-read them in my teens and again in my 20s when Tehanu was published.

I absolutely didn’t know that LeGuin was doing something new with fantasy when she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea, and I definitely didn’t appreciate Tehanu. Like thousands of other readers, perhaps, I wanted more stories of the heroic mage. This encounter had all the joy of familiarity, but I appreciated the continuation of Tenar’s story and I realised she is the heroine of The Tombs of Atuan. I had thought Ged saved her, but first and then last, she has to save him.

LeGuin wrote what eventually turned into six volumes over the course of 33 years, from 1968 to 2001. It’s a master work of world building, dismantling and rebuilding that also deliberately redefines some of the tropes of fantasy as it goes. I loved reading it and that was 20 or so hours very well spent.

1984 – George Orwell

Why did I do this to myself? Why? But, unsurprisingly, 1984 has come up in conversation a couple of times recently and seemed due a re-read. Ugh. Contemporary parallels oozed unpleasantly off the pages: fabrication of news, doublethink, Newspeak, the existence of a (probably fake) state-sponsored enemy. The Two Minute Hate is just the obverse of a 1 Minute Clap for the NHS or whoever is in favour this week. Don’t forget to dob your neighbours in if they don’t clap!

I was also reminded of one of the narratives in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which I now can’t find on the shelves but in which I’m pretty sure there’s a fake rebel group, created by the government as a focus for any malcontents.

What’s more worrying is that I don’t believe Trump is intelligent enough to pick up any novel and use it like a playbook. But Johnson could, and apparently is, and if you aren’t genuinely scared then you aren’t paying attention.

Red, White and Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

I needed a mental sorbet after 1984, so I bounced over to this again. And it did the trick nicely. It’s a great romance, the twist being that the eventually happy couple are the first son of the (female) US President and a handsome UK prince. So, not modelled on any of our actual princes.

Invitation to the Waltz – Rosamond Lehmann

Trawling through Backlisted Podcast’s backlist, I found an episode on The Weather in the Streets, also by Rosamond Lehmann. So I listened, and it discussed both books and I was reminded of how after I first encountered Lehmann I gradually tracked down all her novels. Invitation to the Waltz was her second novel and it tells a very simple story of one young girl’s preparation to attend a dance. I’ve never read anything else as good on the awkwardness and misery of attending a social event and it just not working for you.(Which is still my experience of all parties or group events where there are a lot of new people and is why I desperately avoid them.)

Olivia Curtis is 17 on the day with which the book opens, an unfinished, naive girl who is somewhat in the shadow of her more savvy older sister, Kate. Kate has wafted effortlessly through her preparations for the dance, from making herself a beautiful dress to manicuring her nails, and once arrived she is fortuitously introduced to the man she most wants to meet.

Olivia has simply not figured it out. The local dressmaker has botched her dress so it’s badly cut and ill-fitting, and various unfortunate partners are found for her so that she at least gets a few dances. She suffers a series of difficult conversations, because she has no idea what to say and isn’t pretty enough to be charmingly gauche. Her only positive interaction is when she escapes onto the terrace and meets Rollo Spencer, glamorous, older son of the house.

It’s not a coming of age story, because Olivia is just starting on that journey. But it’s a beautifully drawn family story, it’s insightful about class distinctions and the relationship between the sisters as well. Lehmann was hugely successful and critically acclaimed in her day: my copy is a US first edition and includes  a review that compares her with Tarkington (clearly still well enough known at the time not to need his full name). This novel is an accomplishment of literary legerdemain.

The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Which picks up Olivia’s story some 10 years later, by which time she has drifted apart from an unsatisfactory husband. On the train home from London to see her father, who is suffering from pneumonia, she meets Rollo Spencer again. He is married, seemingly unhappily, and they quickly embark on an affair. The books charts the course of that affair, the dark restaurants and borrowed rooms, not-quite-successful weekends away and one bitter occasion when Olivia goes to Rollo’s home.

Of course Rollo maintains that he’s not sleeping with his wife. And, of course, he is, so the affair is fractured when he leaves Olivia in Austria on the pretext that he’s been called home on business. In fact, his wife is pregnant but Olivia doesn’t find that out until what seems to be the definitive break point.

The discussion on Backlisted concluded that Rollo and Olivia are kind to each other, and that Rollo isn’t a cad. They are for the most part, kind to each other. But while the narrative switches from first person to third person for Olivia, it’s always third person for Rollo. Olivia hides nothing from the reader, but Rollo is hiding some of the facts from both Olivia and the reader.  When the revelations come, they cast a different light on stages of the affair and on Rollo’s past and present behaviour, and motivations.

The quote on the cover of my Virago Modern Classic edition is Carmen Callill saying ‘The Weather in the Streets was our Bridget Jones’s Diary‘. I was a big fan of Bridget and maybe the quote serves to make the book seem friendlier, but… no. That is to overstate Bridget Jones and underplay Lehmann.


In which I go to the opera

In fact, that’s my plan for this evening. I’m going to watch Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, about which I know no more than the accompanying blurb on the website. But, I decided this is cultural exploration week and the opera is free, so what have I got to lose?

The rules are, I treat the performances I’m watching as though I’m physically there (within reason). This means, no phone and I have to stay for the whole thing, but I’m allowed to pause to refill my wine glass.

This week I watched:

Oklahoma!, starring Hugh Jackman and Maureen Lipman in a National Theatre production from the 80s. While I love a musical, I haven’t been a big fan of this one. I saw it when I was young and absolutely didn’t understand the ballet sequence, and had a general impression that the whole thing was long and a bit dull. So it definitely seemed worth re-exploring. This was a great production and I’m glad to have been reintroduced to some classic show tunes.

BalletBoyz show Ripple, via Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage on Facebook. I struggle with some contemporary dance because I don’t know how to read it. While I admired the technique and skill in this performance, I mostly didn’t actually like it. Then again, that’s not always the point of art, is it? Sadler’s Wells are making more performances available as well so I’ll keep checking in.

Bruce Springsteen on Broaday, via Netflix. Which I loved so, so much, and which delivered the definitive performance of Born in the USA. Even the most obtuse listener could have no excuse for continuing to think it’s anthemic. I mostly don’t care about live shows, the benefit of experiencing the performance live is countered by the horror of being in a big crowd of people. But I really, really wish I had seen this live, and now I’ll be digging out the Bruce backlist and working my way through again. So Friday night with Brooooce and a couple of glasses of wine? There’s nothing to complain about in that.

I’ve done a couple of online yoga classes as well, via Facebook Liv and I’ve booked ahead for upcoming streaming theatre from the National. Jane Eyre is on next Thursday, and then later in April it’s Twelfth Night with Tamsin Greig. So all in all I continue not to struggle with being required to stay mostly at home. My challenge is that there’s so much to do, how do I choose?!

Meanwhile, to keep me busy today, I bought Cain’s Jawbone, which is a literary puzzle. It’s a 100 page novel but the pages are in the wrong order, so as the reader you have to figure out the correct order and identify the murderers. It was written in the 1930s by Torquemada, the Observer’s cryptic crossword creator, and it’s only known to have been solved twice. I don’t rate my chances at all but hey, I’ve got some spare time.



In which I get to stay in the house

All the time! Without even having to make excuses for it!

Here we go, the second weekend of lockdown, although it’s more like my fourth because I had a week off and was pretty much self-isolating out of choice before Coronavirus really kicked in.  I mean, I’d got the new Hilary Mantel (wonderful conclusion to the trilogy, but I miss Thomas Cromwell now), and I was enjoying sleeping in a bit and having leisurely coffees, and watching trashy movies. I nipped into town a couple of times, and I did get out for a day of walking, Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay, when I saw what was coming.

I didn’t expect to be going back to work in the office, so I’d tidied up my study, added a biscuit jar and hung a couple of pictures. And it’s been great. I love working from home. I love the extra half hour I get to sleep in, and the extra time I get to ease into my day. I’m at my desk by 8am and barring a couple of really busy days, I close the laptop down by 5pm at the latest. Work is busier and more stressful at the moment, and it really helps me that I’m at home, where it’s quiet and there’s a cat on the desk.

I know that some people are having a hard time, and I refuse to feel guilty that I’m not. Given that I’ve spent my entire working life adjusting to environments that aren’t great for me, I’m getting the most out of this short period when my work set up does suit me.  My boss already knows it’s going to be difficult to get me back in the office full time and I’ve already said if I have to do it, I’ll need a phased return to readjust to the fucking noise. That is a way more stressful prospect, so I’m not thinking about it.

It seems entirely possible that this can be a really positive time. I’m trying to build on some of the good habits I started during my week off, and add to them:

  1. Serious reduction in social media – I’m still checking Instagram but mostly staying away from Twitter and FB.
  2. Weaning myself off the news – I really don’t need a death by death coronavirus count and most articles have an inherently negative spin that seems designed to contribute to panic. If an article is titled ‘How to survive self-isolation’ it suggests that the whole thing is an ordeal. What is with that? Where are the pieces on ‘Hey, it’s really not that bad when you get used to it’ and ‘How to make the most of alone time’? I guess they just don’t foster enough hysteria.
  3. Both of these mean less time on my phone. A few times I’ve even forgotten where it is, so I definitely want that trend to continue.
  4. No commuting did mean more time to cook proper meals, until I started running out of proper meal ingredients. I’m getting a grocery delivery today that should cover me for the next two weeks, but I couldn’t get everything so I might have to venture to a store.
  5. I started yoga again, not particularly successfully but I did a few workouts.
  6. My GCSE has been cancelled but I’m still studying Greek. I wasn’t learning to pass the exam, I just like to collect grades so I get the occasional sense of achievement. I don’t think there’s going to be a good solution for private candidates, but if I end up sitting GCSE and A-level at the same time next year, it’s not the end of the world. So I made flash cards to help me really learn the vocabulary and I have all the verbs written out and up on the wall in my study, and my tutor just sent me past papers to do.
  7. It seems like more theatres, and opera houses and galleries and whatever are getting online every day. I haven’t explored any of that yet, but what if I did sit up in bed watching the Met Opera live one Saturday night?
  8. Being more thoughtful about what I cook, so that I’m making the most of the ingredients I have. Plus, they have to cover lunches as well. I don’t think is a bad thing at all.
  9. Calling people. For years, I’ve been texting, like everyone else, but just this last couple of weeks I’ve started getting and making calls again. I may even actually write some letters.
  10. More reading time, of course. Blackwell’s sent me a three for two before they closed, and I ordered some books from a local bookstore.

Does all this channeling my inner Pollyanna mean everything is fine and dandy? No. I’m worried about my parents, one in a locked down care home and one in self-isolation for 12 weeks because of his age. I’m worried about my sister, because she and her husband are self-employed business owners and they’ve had to close. As of now, they can’t seem even to get one of the business loans the government promised, and their insurance company is threatening not to pay out.

I’m worried and a bit scared about being ill when I’m on my own, but that’s just how it is.  Of course my main concern would be the cats, but I have plenty of cat food being delivered so as long as I can crawl downstairs to get them food and water, we’ll be ok. This is out of my control, so I’ll just deal with it if it happens.

But I’m making plans for after all this is over, too. I definitely want a bigger fridge-freezer, even if it has to go into the garage because I can’t reconfigure the kitchen. I’ll be keeping my cupboards just that bit better stocked and going all out on fancy storage jars and boxes because you can’t stack half-used bags sensibly.

If I think bigger, then if I don’t have to commute, I don’t necessarily need a car. And if I don’t need a car, that’s about £500 a month saved. And that, my friends, is part time PhD money right there. With some left to throw into a pension scheme.

So, I guess I’m one of the few people who doesn’t want life to go back to normal. Which is just as well, because I think there’ll be a new normal and it could look very different. You can’t cross the same river twice.