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Book Club Spy Abroad Part Two

vivEdinburgh Book Festival: Viv Albertine interviewed by Ian Rankin

To promote her autobiography Clothes Music Boys [which contains the sentence: “Everyone who writes an autobiography is a twat or broke; I’m a bit of both”] Viv Albertine opened her talk at the Book Festival with an anecdote of her band The Slits performing “I’ll do the split And shit on it”.  Viv herself counted in the start of the song “1234!” as fast and as loud as she could. Mick Jones of The Clash, her boyfriend at the time, had to inform her later on that this was intended to set the speed and volume of the song, it wasn’t just something you bellowed out in as rock n roll a way as you could. The Slits played their first gig in Edinburgh (this was also the first time any of them had stayed in a hotel). Everyone played at their own speeds in the hope that they would all end up coincidentally meeting in the middle and finish playing at the same speed. They didn’t.

Albertine vividly (ha) described the extent to which they were spat on by the audience. She couldn’t keep her grip on her guitar due to the volume of spit, and Ari Up, the lead vocalist was spat upon into her open mouth as she performed. Viv’s response to this was to hit the perpetrator over the head with her guitar, followed by the sentence: “This was every gig.” She is, in this way, wonderfully wry, and refused to write about anything she “wasn’t in the room for”.

They were equally threatening to feminists and punks: “we got letters from Swedish feminists who hated us as well….we never got done” (meaning they never got arrested) but had more than their fair share of violence: “we got stabbed and attacked on the streets of London…Ari got stabbed twice”. Ari was 15 years old at this point.

On getting started and actually learning how to play a musical instrument, Albertine proclaimed that: “back then you either played the recorder or the flute or you were a twat”. When she bought her first guitar she asked “can I have a red one, and why isn’t there a mirror in the shop?” She couldn’t get Mick Jones to teach her: “Once you’ve shagged a guy they never want to teach you anything”. I found this depressing, if wittily delivered. She recalled walking down Portobello Road holding Jones’s hand when they encountered Johnny Rotten – at which point she dropped his hand as it wasn’t very punk to show affection in public – and announced she was putting a band together before she had a guitar, any idea how to play or anyone else to play with . Fortunately, Rotten had a friend with him called Sid Vicious who offered to be in her band (despite this being their first meeting). Slightly less fortunately, they played together for a summer and it never actually led anywhere.

She was obsessed with music but there were not many women playing it in the 70s; girlfriends and wives tended to be thanked on album sleeves. She saw a female drummer in Kocomo perform and it sparked her to make the mental leap to get guitar lessons from Keith Levene.

Patty Smith’s album ‘Horses’ was another turning point, as the sight of the cover lead to her to plead that the content live up to such an image: a girl and a boy in one, the visual rendering of what Albertine was looking for. She claims the 70s were more like the 50s morally, and ‘Horses’ was the first time she realized girls made appreciative noises during sex.

On actually joining the band, she initially resisted the invitation from a 14 year old wearing a belted bin bag, but changed her mind when she saw Ari perform, screaming her head off. Their iconic album cover of them wearing only loincloths and mud has scared generations of men, mostly due to the expression in the women’s’ eyes.

She blames Thatcher’s Britain for the band falling apart, saying it all became about “manicures, pedicures, working hard, all very un-British”. She dealt with this disappointment by becoming one of Britain’s first aerobics instructors, having been taught by none other than Jane Fonda. This transition hardly appears to have been intuitive, however Albertine claims this was not that a big leap given she was wed to the message rather than the medium, that it was about female pioneering as women did not do any sport at the time, they sat on the side-lines. Fonda advocated joining in and Albertine felt part of the “revolution of physicality”. She was endearingly excitable on this point, which was just as well as she became noticeably more deflated when recounting her later career as a director for the BBC, her struggle to conceive with her husband, the collapse of her marriage and struggle with cancer.

However, with what appears to be characteristic persistence she had a daughter after 7 rounds of IVF and 2 miscarriages. She also recounted her triumph at managing to sleep with someone before her ex-husband after the divorce, “even if he did look like a cab driver”.

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood taught Viv Albertine to ‘play with life’ at a very young age and she took that message quite clearly to the core. The Slits’ cover of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” (arguably their best known song) was a happy accident from playing around in the studio, they never set out to be punk, no one knew what they were until post-punk came out years later. She fell into a group of utterly fearless girls who were screaming to get started, challenging all comers and did things completely differently by acting on instinct. Clothes and boys ultimately didn’t seem to have that much to do with it.

The Editors

Book Club Spy Abroad: Edinburgh Book Festival


Edinburgh Book Festival 2015: Waking the Wuduwasa

The first literary event I attended at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a three-way talk given by actor Mark Rylance, writer Paul Kingsnorth, and ‘mythologist’ Martin Shaw, who gave a rolling rambling performance on England in the 11th century. Kingsnorth was promoting his book The Wake, which Rylance has apparently bought the film rights for. It is set in East Anglia in the 1060s and written in an approximation of Anglo Saxon.

Their shared session opened with Rylance ploughing straight into a reading from the novel, which is written in clearly understandable English prose (easier than Riddley Walker, reviewed here recently) but delivered with a mystifying Jamaican tilt by Rylance. A similar premise to Walker, the plot was described as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.

Kingsnorth provided some historical context, perhaps to refresh the memories of those people (like myself) who felt slightly rusty on this passage in our nation’s history, but also to animate the stage for the kind of myths he is looking to revive. He opened with England’s foundation myth of the 5th century: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, warring tribes and king Vortiger were under Pictish threat from the North. Vortiger hired German mercenaries – the Angles and the Saxons – who did not know the Romans had once been in residence (this seems hard to believe) and told stories that giants had built the aqueducts.

Once the Germans had overcome the Picts, a giant leap forward to the eleventh century saw England as a rising medieval power on the island of Albion with a centralized monarchy and language. When it came to discussing 1066, Kingsnorth was keen on not rushing straight ahead to the Plantagenets, as History has been taught on the curriculum for a long time, but stopped at this point and asked why it took several hundred years after 1066 before English became the first language of the King, and why the first law of the land, created in 1067, was that all land is first in the possession of the crown. In other words, all land was automatically owned by the King, which is technically still the position in law today. There was also something called a ‘murdrum’ fine, which provided the root of murder as we know it, which you had to pay if you took a Norman’s life.

The effect these two factors had on the English people yielded more interesting results than posing the usual Battle of Hastings questions suggests: the decade after 1066 saw resistance to the new rule across the country. There were pockets of it, of little prominence, as resistance often manifests itself. The Battle of York saw all local rebel factions flee upon William’s approach. He then scorched hundreds of square miles of the surrounding land and killed all the livestock in what became known as the Harrying of the North, which resulted in widespread famine. This was dutifully recorded in the Domesday Book and is still referred to today. It was of course a decision William took in order to ensure rebellion would not be repeated, as well as to flush any remaining rebels out of hiding. He was quoted as saying on his deathbed to (the hardly impartial) Audric: “I fell on the English as a ravening lion…in this way I took revenge…and so became a barbarous murderer…and so dare not leave the crown to anyone but God.”

The main question that actually preoccupied Kingsnorth was clearly what life in England during this period was like, from the point of view of the Lincolnshire Fens farmer of his novel, who is in constant dialogue with the pre-Christian Teutonic gods. In this way the intersection between myth and history remains as knotted and integral as it always was. Picking at this knot with the old stories as a tool is something Kingsnorth is attempting for a part of the country we don’t hear enough about.

The Fens then were very different for one thing, being undrained, wild salt marshes, with a reputation for errant messengers travelling between villages, taking any news with them. One such story was that of a local ruler sending men into the Fens to find the source of its eeriness. There they found a being with long red hair, known as the Wuduwasa; the Wood Worm; the Witch of the Bleak Shore; a Cyclops or “the being that never dries out”. The men took the creature back to their king and built it an iron cage to investigate what gave it such presence. Their torture yielded no results. The king’s dreams started to be affected by the creature, and he gave his wife the key to the cage and told her to keep it in the croft of her hips, before he departed for the hunt. Their son is of course trapped by the creature in his cage, and bargains with him for his release. The prince is given a way to summon the creature before the latter returns to the swamp. The King returns and banishes his son in the same direction, at which point he summons the monster and leaps upon his back. They disappear under the earth and into the darkness of the Fens. Beneath the swamp was a kingdom where the boy spent seven years. Before he leaves, the creature washes his hair in a pool that turns his curls into gold that the prince is warned not to show anyone, unless he cannot avoid it. The story ends with a grand reveal, a reversal of fortune and a lesson, as most stories do.

In 1070 there was the last stand of the warrior band, lead by Hereward The Wake, to resist the Normans from invading Ely on the Fens. The Normans built a giant floating causeway and siege towers but were attacked from behind their own lines by the resistance. In the end Ely was betrayed rather than conquered by a local monk. Hereward escaped, never to be seen again. Perhaps he resides beneath the Fens still, complete with golden curls.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Do No Harm

Do No HarmDo No Harm – Henry Marsh

After a considerable hiatus, we reconvened to discuss this autobiographical account of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s career. The book is essentially a series of episodes spanning several decades of practise, and the most immediately disconcerting thing about a fairly unsettling book all round is Marsh’s tone. He veers between brutal honesty, peevish rebellion and didactic pomposity, and everywhere in between. The idea of an egotistical surgeon is as entrenched as our acknowledgement of the job as fairly technical and demanding: on Radio 4 on 30th June, he described himself as “jolly clever”, whilst at the same time being keen to debunk the idea of the surgeon as a solo “Michelangelo genius”.

He partially dispels the latter notion with his description of his entrance into the medical profession, which would be impossible now. He is quick to describe himself as middle class, but the story of him meeting one old boy and discussing fly fishing in order to gain a place at medical school (despite only two science GCSEs) suggests he is rather grander than that.

However, there are moments when he confirms every assumption surrounding the medical profession I have ever had, especially regarding his personal relationships, about which to be fair he is very discreet. I felt deeply sorry for his first wife – about whom he respectfully mentions very little besides the fact that his work contributed to the breakdown of the marriage – but his few explosions of temper/ego in the book are all compared to his younger episodes and found paltry by comparison, so he must have been a terror in the 90s. He refers to the nervous breakdown he had as a young man – necessitating a year out from Oxford – as silly. He glossed over it on the radio as he does on family matters in his book – as long as he is calling the shots on which episodes of his life to expose he is far more detailed, just very selective, as is his right.

Marsh claims the idea of surgeons needing to have steady hands is a myth, but the idea of an inexperienced wobbler operating on you or a loved one is not going to inspire many with confidence. Everyone is keen on training new doctors but no one wants to be the one experimented on, as it were, especially his story of a man being paralysed when a normally able, confident trainee snipped a vital nerve in his spine. The description of that white thread flopping where it is not meant to be is utterly desolate. It is one of the reasons Marsh hates training junior doctors.

He is not sentimental about his patients: he is gleeful when an outpatient has recovered sufficiently to say to him: “I hope I never see you again.” There is no Grey’s Anatomy schmaltz here. He claimed on the radio never to have had his mind changed by a patient – occasionally he has advised against operating in order to prevent spinning someone’s painful life out and has clearly expressed his views on avoiding a painful end for patients and families. He would, however, encourage patients to get second opinions on riskier surgeries – this is the culture elsewhere and he claims that in this country there is too much of a tendency to defer to a medical opinion rather than question it.

He has experienced surgery in Iran and Ukraine on several occasions and so is qualified to make some comparison. One reader questioned his motives for going to Ukraine to perform surgeries: was it because these extreme, neglected cases were interesting to him, and a coup if he pulled them off (he is much less accountable there if he doesn’t) rather than doing something genuinely altruistic? Another quibble was his account of bringing second hand medical equipment from England to perform these surgeries, as if everything provided for Ukrainians was second best. The ‘better than nothing argument’ is never sexy. He bought said kit with his own money. The patients he saw would certainly have suffered more without him, so on balance it seems to have been a good thing. The same sceptic questioned whether he should go back to Ukraine having retired to operate. Again, less than ideal to know an elderly gent is operating, but I would choose one of the most accomplished brain surgeons in the UK over none at all, personally.

His parting, reedy comment regarding his expertise on Radio 4 was that he finds neurosurgery crude. It is particularly interesting that he compares it to butchery when the practise is comared to the complexity of the brain, which no one completely understands. The book opens with his painfully vivid description of an exposed brain, with its jelly-like surface encased in silvery strands like a spider’s web. Brain surgery is only every chopping bits out of the brain – he is especially good at describing tumours: soft, uckable-out ones and hard ones that have to be collapsed in on themselves. Herein may lie the tension inherent in the profession at which he is so clearly proficient: he likes making things and admiring in them in their entirety, yet for thirty years he has had to remove and break things, never adding to the whole of the brain. Perhaps as a result, his retirement plans are to make things: furniture and houses while taking care of his own health. At the age of 65 he claims: “I am taking nothing for granted”. Except perhaps the publishing world, as he is planning a second book.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

The Book Club spy has been woefully inactive of late, however their swansong was an evening dedicated to Wolf Hall. It is highly unlikely that Don’t Read Too Fast readers will not have encountered this Booker Prize winning novel by Mantel, if they have not yet had the chance (or if they hated it, apparently some history graduates do) then it portrays the fall of Cardinal Wolsely and Thomas More during the rise of Anne Boleyn, from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.

The novel opens on Cromwell as a boy in Putney being beaten by his drunken father in a rage. Despite being easily big enough to defend himself, he runs away to France.  The first indication of his steely control comes through his explanation for his egress: “I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason”. He does not waste words, and is spurred on by logic and calculation, rather than fear.

We next meet him 27 years later, working as Cardinal Wolsely’s right hand.  He is a lawyer, an accountant, and an enforcer with an opaque background as a mercenary and trader. Wolsely teaches him diplomacy (“You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook”) as he already knew money.  Read more

Book Club 3: If on a winter’s night a traveller

I am usually bored by the limply self-evident way in which people, having re-read a much loved book, say, “I take something different from it each time”, or, worse, “The book has changed with me as I’ve grown older”.  Of course we read a book with different eyes each time we read it.  Once we have experienced new emotions, a book will have new meaning; it will strike new chords.  But the book will stay the same — the setting and the characters stay the same, and so does the plot, and the ending too.  That is the case, except for a handful of very unusual books, of which one, perhaps the best, is Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller.

I was struck by one sentence in particular in last week’s book club post: “The novel recognises that we are not actually the protagonist (the Reader) but it nevertheless invites us to become his proxy in a more direct manner than most books would deign to”.  There is something in that second-person style that gives this book a changefulness not found elsewhere, that makes those tired statements we hear other people say about books changing ring true.  If on a winter’s night a traveller sits in the Reader’s hand like a ball of clay, moulded by the Reader’s mind and thoughts into a different shape each time he reads it.  Calvino has deliberately played with the very essence of the book, and the results are startling.  


As startling, say, as when the Visitor to the art gallery sees Velzaquez’s Las Meninas for the first time.  The painting shows a room in the royal palace.  Behind the pretty little princesses and an ugly court dwarf, the Visitor sees Velazquez himself looking out from the canvas, brush and palette in hand, painting a picture that the Visitor cannot see.  The Visitor feels uncomfortable under Velazquez’s gaze.  He wants to peer around to see what Velazquez is painting on his other canvas.  Then the Visitor spots a looking-glass at the back of the palace room.  It shows two people, dim and blurred.  A man and a woman.  The king and queen, perhaps, having their portrait painted by Velazquez.  But the Visitor stands where the king should be standing.  The reflection should be the Visitor’s.  Perhaps it is.  The Visitor leans closer, over the rail, and the gallery guard coughs deliberately.  Yes, now the Visitor starts to make out his own face in that old, far-off mirror.  And he realises that Velazquez must be painting him.  

Velazquez and Calvino are playing the same, very compelling trick.  As last week’s blogpost put its: “Calvino proceeds headlong into a story about what it means to be a reader“, in the same way that Velazquez asks what it means to look at a painting.  The Reader must grapple with the discomfort of being addressed by a writer to whom the Reader has no right of reply.  When we read a book in the third-person, or we look at a still-life painting, we can close the book or walk into another room in the gallery without the feeling that we are turning our back on someone trying to communicate with us.  If on a winter’s night a traveller sticks with you long after you shut the book, because there is a funny feeling that you really were doing all those things Calvino said you were, that there really is a shelf in your favourite bookshop of Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them.  Perhaps, as last week’s blogpost concluded, “this is Calvino laughing at himself“.  But he is also laughing at us, and he has the last laugh.

George Richards

Book Club 2: If on a winter’s night a traveller


If on a winter’s night a traveller – Italo Calvino

“Il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter.”

[“We must choose: to live or to tell.”]

The protagonist of Sartre’s existentialist classic Nausea tells us we have to choose between living and telling, that is, between doing things and talking about them.  The problem is that the things we choose to do only seem to acquire meaning and relevance when we talk about them, and this hopelessly complicates the relationship between our active self and our contemplative self.  In many ways, this is the paradox at the heart of Calvino’s novel, or anti-novel, which uses the second-person format to drag the reader kicking and screaming from the safety of his armchair/sofa/bed to the madness of a multi-layered hyper-narrative.  Of course, the reader cannot be in both places at the same time, as the first piece in this series pointed out, and passages in the book often becomes false the moment they are read (see, again, the opening line: “You are about to start reading Italo Calvino’s new novel”).

The novel recognises that we are not actually the protagonist (the Reader) but it nevertheless invites us to become his proxy in a more direct manner than most books would deign to.  Admittedly, this is more difficult for female readers once it becomes clear that the Reader is a man, but this detail is postponed for several chapters, and then the narrative blip is ‘rectified’ when we are introduced to the Other Reader.  In any case, the novel blurs any and all distinction between the reader as man/woman of action and as observer of action: in asking us to make ourselves comfortable at the beginning of the novel, Calvino is in fact demanding that we do the opposite.  After all, for a book to address its reader in real-time is no less unnerving than the idea of any other inanimate object attempting to put itself on speaking terms with a person in its vicinity.

And yet, having recognised the inherent absurdity in making the reader and the protagonist one and the same person, Calvino proceeds headlong into a story about what it means to be a reader, a story that swings from the disconcertingly plausible to the most far-fetched fantasy.  At bottom, it is a novel that asks: what is the reader’s story?  And in attempting to answer its own question, it dramatises the reader’s struggle to engage with narrative.  As it turns out, this struggle is a fruitless, albeit fascinating one, in which the Reader’s frustration is indeed the reader’s frustration:

“Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find.”

Perhaps this is because literature and reading can be all things to all people: narrative perspective is something that can be changed at the author’s whim, and in this case that is exactly what happens, as we pass from detective novel, to neo-realist drama, to exotic romance, and so on.  There is no straight-faced novel that can hope to capture the diversity of human existence simply because the scope is too broad to convey in conventional narrative.  Even Balzac could only do one city properly.  If on a winter’s night a traveller is a novel that takes a step back and laughs at the futility of realism, and in the context of the author’s career as a writer, this is Calvino laughing at himself.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: The Adversary / Le Grand Meaulnes

On reviewing my notes from last week’s Book Club, various conclusions can be made about the evening shared discussing French literature: that a lot of bread must have been consumed to amass quite so many crumbs, my ability to shovel soup into my slavering maw should be addressed, and I appear to have made no notes at all. Well. This may be related to the moment in the evening when the assembled members agreed that two books were chosen out of blind enthusiasm rather than an exacting decision to analyse two comparable texts. The only thing connecting these books in any way, is the fact that they are both French. As a result, they shall be reviewed briefly, and, more importantly, separately.

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere is the result of the author’s obsession with the true story of a mild-mannered mediocrity creating his ideal life through deception, before the inevitable hubristic backlash results in tragedy. Romand gets the girl, children and idyllic home, only when he gets in the car every morning he is not going to the WHO job he describes. He kips and reads in the car all day, funding his life by claiming to invest the funds of his gullible relatives while actually ploughing through them to bankroll his bourgeois existence, and later take his shrewish mistress to restaurants. Once the cash starts to bottom out and the resulting questions can no longer be avoided, he decides to kill everyone in order to cover his tracks. Genius, except he botches killing the mistress, then himself, and is no Hannibal Lecter (sadly) when it comes to the evidence trail and interrogation. He flourishes, Aitken-style, in prison and corresponded with Carrere while he was writing. It remains apparent that he is not quite all there, a strangely passive and pallid figure who burns his house to the ground rather than apply some hardy lateral thinking to his finances. Although this story is extraordinary in terms of bare factual material, the treatment could have benefitted from a few less rhetorical questions. The weedy murderer was not quite colourless enough to create a chilling In Cold Blood vacuum of reason whirring around the meticulously rendered detail, instead the reader is left feeling flat rather than flattened, and irritated that the wife never opened a bank statement for a shared account, never asked her husband enough searing questions to expose him. These words left unsaid coagulate to form a heaviness that was perhaps the ballast holding Romand down.

Julian Barnes may have no reason to doubt the classic status of Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, but then he did not have to contend with pithy nicknames such as Le Grand Snooze provided by his peers.  Augustin Meaulnes leaves his best friend and our narrator to go on an adventure where he stumbles into a wedding in a lovely ruined house and  meets his dream girl before Frantz the groom is jilted, the party comes to a halt and Meaulnes returns to the schoolroom. Finding the girl and reuniting Frantz with his own lost love becomes his mission, as his voyage fundamentally changes the course of his life, and of course the narrator’s, living as he does through his vivacious friend’s story rather than his own quiet existence of unrequited love. The occasion on which Augustin first meets Yvonne he is described to have “stared at that exquisite profile with every atom of his eyes until they were ready to fill with tears”. Operatic language of this height can be attributed to being part of the last gust of Romanticism, combined with the foibles of interpretative translation, but there are few moments like this that actually work, and more like a desperate scrabble not to read like an extended hammy sigh: “My fiancée has disappeared, letting me know that she could not be my wife, that she was a dressmaker and not a princess. I do not know what will become of me. I am going away. I do not wish to live any longer.” This parting note from Frantz before he departs to live as a gypsy neatly sums up the novel’s limitations. Our heroes are either ‘speechless with emotion’ or too restless to sleep, dying of love or searching desperately for a departed figure who may have been nothing more than a dream. As a dream sequence, or a nineteenth- century version of The Virgin Suicides (blurred lenses, lots of floating about absently, very little actual dialogue) it is quite beautiful, and ideal for the true Francophile, but perhaps not for the crabbier reader, or someone who has just made it through a blood-soaked account of a murder set in the present day.

The Editors

Book Club: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Anticipation was intense for this offering (despite the hideous cover given to the reprint), as Pym was revered by both Larkin and Jilly Cooper – the bookends of many a reader’s very existence. The majority of our membership are absolute suckers for an archaic, eccentric English novel and you would have thought that Crome Yellow would have kept us going for at least a few months, but no.  We had to have more of characters who ask themselves questions such as “Could one love an Arthur?”

Jane and Prudence met while the latter was an undergraduate at Oxford. Their friendship survived Jane’s marriage to a vicar, and the novel opens when her move to a country vicarage isolates her more completely from Prudence’s more self-contained life in London. Prudence prides herself on her appearance and her unrequited passion for her employer. She works in a ‘vague cultural organization’ with two harpies who she runs the risk of becoming and uses alcohol in the evening as a prop for her existence. She has a chaste affair with a vain widower in Jane’s village: Fabian Driver initially shows such promise, wearing a ‘carefully casual tweed suit’ and leaving a photo of himself on his wife’s grave before describing the “oppressive presence of three not particularly attractive women at his table”. However, the appeal fades, for us and for Jane.

Fabian is snapped up by Miss Doggett, the germination taking place in the following harvest festival scene which precedes the Carry On franchise by five years:

“What a fine marrow, Mr Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have had so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”

Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“It is magnificent,” said Mrs Mayhew reverently.

It is for incredible mortifying moments like these that we all ended up hoarding; the minutiae of post-war life that incorporates jumble for Distressed Gentlewomen, a baffling obsession with curtains, and of course food, illustrated wonderfully by this exchange between Jane and her husband:

“Couldn’t we open a tin or something?”

“A tin of what? That’s the point”

“Oh, meat of some kind. Spam or whatever you call it”

“But, darling, there isn’t Spam any more. It came from America during the war and we don’t get it now.”

The couple end up eating at the village’s place to be seen, the Spinning Wheel, blinking like owls. Jane is the star of the tale – married as she is to a Mr Bennett figure, the story arguably lacks a Knightley – as she vaguely navigates whist drives, motherhood, tea parties and theology.  She is full of good advice, providing comfort for Prudence in her donnish way:  “It sounds rather restful in a way, said Jane, doing the best she could, “ to have a negative relationship with somebody,” as well as commenting on how easy it is to fall in love, “Some hollow in the temple, or a square inch of flesh on the wrist, that’s all it need be, really…..” The most glorious Jane moment comes after the male characters have finished sighing with ennui and bemoaning how exhausting they find life to be, “A gloom seems to have fallen on the party,” said Jane. “Perhaps it would be better if we all sat in silence. If the men find life so exhausting, our chatter might disturb them.” She has a huge amount of appeal, a bright if vague presence in a rationed, dingy gloom.

To sum up: Prudence is awful, a look to avoid for anyone employed – however remotely  – in the arts, and Jane’s hamlet existence at moments summed up a vision of a rural Britain that I hope still exists somewhere, free of Spam.

The Editors 

You can download Jane And Prudence here.

Book Club: Moby Dick

A few members of the group requested that this article be given a pithy subtitle with a neat humpback whale pun, but sadly this cannot be done for several reasons. Firstly, the play on words was not good enough, but mainly this is because the members did not rally to Melville closely enough to warrant such favours, despite having been granted in excess of two months to read the book.

Several of their points deserve an airing: it is too long, with an infamous 150 pages of technical whaling jargon. Fortunately there are several rejoinders to this, one provided by the narrator, who cries: “Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint”. Predictably, this is the whale’s fault: “Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

The other was provided by the Book Club’s More Constructive Participants, who pointed out the usefulness of knowing what flensing is, at last. Removing blubber from the carcass of a whale (not the whale, of course) was an arduous process, but no longer shrouded in mystery, along with spermaceti (a misunderstood, much maligned and at one point in history, extremely useful substance).

Stubb (one of the caricatured crew members everyone took to) being “somewhat intemperately fond’ of a steak from the ‘small’ of the whale, and the proud owner of ‘epicurean lips’ was another highlight. He gobbles along with “thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan”, “Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications”.  Melville then rapidly creates such a strong image of playful, canine sharks that veer from being deeply sinister:

“The few sleepers below in their bunks were often startled by the sharp slapping of their tails against the hull, within a few inches of the sleepers’ hearts. Peering over the side you could just see them (as before you heard them) wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head.”

Before they are made to seem almost skittish: “Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and …systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere.”

Herein lies Melville’s genius. Such were his technical accomplishments as an author that he could switch between styles: able to whip up the excitement of the first whale chase, to the tense boredom of waiting for a sail, a fin or even a gust at sea as they malinger on the “watery part of the world”. As Ahab sinks deeper into obsession (and to truly love this book, you must be able to appreciate a certain level of obsession), the novelty of heading to sea wears off in Ishmael and his enthusiasm turns to whining amateurism as a sailor, and everyone sinks into madness as time seems to slow down between key points in the narrative*. With the Pequod’s standoffish and competitive attitude with other ships, the crew understandably tire of each other. Of course the White Whale with all of his cunning proves elusive, and is the undoing of them all, bar Ishmael, who clings to his ‘husband’ Queequeg’s coffin until he is rescued and able to tell his story.

The intelligence of the White Whale himself is subsumed by the matter of his whiteness. This, Ishmael claims in Chapter 42 is “an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific”. It is an absence of colour, a void into which one can fall or project upon unceasingly, and the chapter that Will Self read effectively in The Big Read of Moby Duck in the spring of 2011 exhibition at Peninsula Arts, the dedicated contemporary art space at Plymouth University. This is available online, and features chapters read by A L Kennedy and China Mieville, though full disclosure; David Cameron reads ‘The Pipe’. Perhaps a pun should feature here. This is a good place to start if this book is still in the maybe/never heap, as the myriad voices keep your mind on that pale gleam on the horizon.

Further reading:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrik recounts the real voyage on which Moby Dick was based, which ended in a different kind of disaster.

Leviathan, or Whale by Philip Hoare. Essential for all whale lovers.

* We all agreed on Ishmael’s apex moment: “The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.” Everyone appreciates that kind of dedication to sperm whales.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

Instead of a Letter

instead-of-a-letterInstead of a Letter – Diana Athill

It is with shame and regret that I admit to my failure to attend the book club’s discussion of this memoir. I could have done with their help with this, as I have not experienced such revulsion and grudging admiration in tandem before, at least when reading.

First published in 1963, when Athill was in her early forties, this covers her life to that date unevenly, with lingering descriptions of the various houses she was brought up in and the Norfolk Broads, with whole decades of her adult working life truncated to a few pages.  As the author is still living in London, no mean feat having been born in 1917, I have no desire to put the boot in by hauling this memoir over the coals of modern contextual reading, partly because I am hardly a paragon of political correctness either. Her curiosity for foreign lands, self-deprecation in relation to her intellect and her gimlet turn of phrase are all admirable. The image of the author sinking into apathy having had her heart broken is delivered with a cool lucidity that is both enviable and universal. She loves her family, friends, nature, and of course books. Her love of beauty is rewarding to her, instilled at a young age by the kind of aunt that everyone should have, and sustains her through spates of inertia, as she describes them.

The scene introducing her decision to abort her lover’s child in her late twenties is also completely fascinating – from the sly description of the hideous woman in the consultation room to her decision not to keep the child, despite her desire to be a mother, for practical reasons and in order not to harm her parents. Life in England fifty years ago for an Oxford-educated upper middle-class woman portrays a defiant non-glamour – the BBC, bedsits and vacant promiscuity – that nonetheless entertains, as her life was so completely of her own making.

She goes from living with a mother who is quoted as having said: “the really bloody thing about being poor is that if you leave something on the floor when you go out, you know it will still be there when you get back,” to a boarding school where she survives by developing a deeply OCD method of naming small inanimate objects and by maintaining ‘a private stable of symbols’ in order to stay in touch with the outside world.  The former makes you realize she could be a lot worse, the latter makes me wish I had done that.

Throughout is her balancing of sex against love. She describes a bull she used to stare at as a child: “He was sex as well as violence, and we were in awe of him”, and takes this to a terrifying reverie as a teenager: “If a stevedore” – why a stevedore? I am sure I have never met one – “if a stevedore would come and rape me at this minute, I would let him.” As long as you’re sure. Her first lover kindly explains ‘all sexual relationships were basically the pursuit of an essential thrill which, in its purest essence, could only be found in rape.’ He drops the theory after a year, and her virginity is his. There is a sense of detachment in her subsequent liaisons, despite her honesty and liberation in instigating them, that chills the reader.

She adored being an Oxford student, drifted into the BBC, founded several publishing companies with Andre Deutsch and there found her metier – her competence is clear despite her professed ignorance. She settles into a life full of words, travel and friends rather than solitude, ending on a positive note. It is hard to shake the feeling of her cold blue gaze falling on something ugly, however, and gutting it in the same fashion as she does an enthusiastic companion in Bath Crescent:

A man who was walking me home one night said, ‘It’s like going into a church,’ and I was speechless for several minutes in outrage at hearing my own feelings put into such clumsy words.

So the moral of the story: get it exactly right, or remain alone and suffer no disappointment. Write that down.

The Editors