Saturday, 31 July 2010

A Very Soggy Moggy

WELL, a little rain finally fell yesterday, and again today. Not a lot – but enough to make The Cat very wet indeed. And, as cats do, instead of letting me dry him with an old towel, he showed his love and affection by winding himself round my legs.

So here is a poem I wrote when his predecessor was young, and the ways of cats were still a novelty to me.

I’m a very soggy moggy
And my fur is soaking wet,
I’m a very soggy moggy
But I’m still your loving pet.

I’ll wrap myself around your legs
While I dry my dripping fur,
I’ll wrap myself around your legs
As I look at you and purr.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Room of My Own

I HAVE a room of my own! Well, actually it is a corner of the attic, just beneath the window, but it is my space, where I can sit surrounded by the books which line the walls.

The Man of the House cleared out some of the electrical paraphernalia that cluttered the floor – you know the kind of thing, old televisions, computer screens, a keyboard, lots of wires, speakers, pocket CD players, mobile phones…

Initially he insisted ‘there’s nowt wrong’ with them (he gets very northern in moments of high emotion) but he eventually conceded they did not work and were therefore of no use to anyone. So out they went.

Then it was my turn to clear some space. With a heavy heart I culled some of the books (mainly to make space for more, but I am hoping he hasn’t realised that). I always hate getting rid of books, but there were volumes I knew I would never read again. Why, for example, did I keep my A-Level geography books? Did I really want to read about weather systems, glaciated mountain scenery or vulcanicity? And was that slender but learned tome on the Thirty Years War really necessary?

So out they went: some to the charity shop and others, alas, to the tip because they were shedding pages and were no longer readable.

Anyway, back to my room. The Man of the House has bought me a corner desk, a swivel chair on wheels (I had forgotten how much fun they can be) and a proper computer (but I still have my trusty laptop as well). In addition I have acquired Younger Daughter’s printer, a little lamp, a radio (I cannot work without Radio 4) and Elder Daughter has contributed a pink waste paper bin.

Then there is even a little sofa where I can sit and read – with a fluffy Bagpuss to keep me company.

Now I am turning it into a little pink eyrie. I discovered a box of pink bits and pieces (candles, ornaments, cushions) left over from The Daughters’ Barbie phase, when their most treasured possessions were pink, fluffy and sparkly.

And I am scouring charity shops and chain stores for bargains. So far I have snapped up a pink metal jug, some artificial flowers, tea light holders, a throw for the sofa, windchimes to hang from the beams, a pink feather boa, files and a box of document drawers.

Now pink is not normally a colour I would use to decorate a room, but it is so cheerful I have decided to release my inner ‘girlie’.

I can sit up there to do my secretarial work for the Credit Union, and some writing, and my OU work.

Through the window, which faces west, I can see rooftops, chimneys, trees (it’s far greener than it looks at ground level), clouds and sunsets.

The Daughters think I have finally flipped (shades of the Jenny Joseph poem spring to mind) but the Man of the House has his shed, where he escapes for a quiet smoke and some peace and quiet. He has turned it into a miniature sitting room, with a comfy chair, portable TV, books and curtains!

So now I have my little space as well. Virginia Woolf would have approved, I feel. In her extended essay A Room of One’s Own she maintains that a woman must have money and ‘a room of her own’ if she is to write fiction.

I lack the money, but I have the ‘room’ so I can sit and be creative and write that great novel – or, at the very least, a short story.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Line of Beauty

IT must be hard to write a book which does not have a single character you feel you like, but Alan Hollinghurst has managed to do just that with The Line of Beauty.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this novel is a beautifully written, acutely observed account of Thatcher’s Britain. But not the Britain of social deprivation many of us remember.

There’s no unemployment or run-down council estates, for this is an elitist world populated by the wealthy, who are ruthless in their pursuit status and power.

But beneath the smooth, shining surface of their lives all is not as it seems, as Nick Guest discovers when he moves into the Notting Hill home of a Tory MP and his aristocratic wife.

Nick, a brilliant Oxford graduate from an ordinary background, is attracted as much by the Feddens’ lifestyle and possessions as he is by the beauty of their son Toby, a university friend.

Nick is a bit of a chameleon, anxious to keep his place in this new world by pleasing others, by saying and doing the right thing.

But in private his quest for beauty leads him into another world, as he explores his sexuality with a black council worker and an exotic millionaire.

He’s not the only one with secrets, for other characters also have their private and public faces. Alongside homosexuality, Aids and drugs, there’s adultery, political intrigue and fraud, and Hollinghurst examines the issues through the eyes of his characters skilfully and sensitively.

Ultimately, of course, the various worlds collide, and when the crash comes family and friends close ranks to protect their own and it is Nick, the outsider, who becomes the scapegoat.

It was sad and funny, and tender and passionate, but despite the brilliance of the writing, I failed to warm to any of the characters. They were greedy, selfish, self-obsessed, manipulative, unfeeling and uncaring – but (unlike Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons), they stayed in my mind when I stopped reading, and I wondered what would happen to them.

Verdict: Enjoy was not quite the right word for this book. I appreciated the way Hollinghurst writes, his witty observations, the way he conjures up a whole way of life in just a few words. However, I wouldn’t read it again, so it goes on the ‘unwanted’ shelf.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Bubbles or Books?

OVERHEARD in The Works (mother to child, yesterday): "What do you want a book for? Buy some bubbles instead.”

Now I know many people don’t regard The Works as a proper bookshop, but it does sell books, so why would you take a child there to spend their pocket money and not let them buy a book?

And what kind of mother discourages their child from reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I like bubbles – but they’re no substitute for a good book.
Which would you rather have?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

A Man of Many Parts

I DIDN’T want Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to end, and when I finished the final page I felt a sense of loss, as if I was leaving old friends behind – a sense heightened by the hindsight of history, for I know what is to happen to these people.

The book follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry VIII’s chief minister and was one of the architects of the English Reformation.

This turbulent period of history, with its cast of intriguing characters, has continued to fascinate us for almost 500 years, and has been well documented, but Mantel tells the tale from a different perspective.

And she tells it with intelligence, warmth, humour and compassion.

Despite the wealth of information available about Tudor England, little is known about Cromwell. Mantel has fleshed out the facts and created a man who is more cultured and humane than we imagined from the grim face in that Holbein portrait.

She gives us an unloved blacksmith’s son, who educates himself and is a man of many parts – soldier, accountant, merchant, lawyer, cardinal’s secretary and advisor to the King.

Having dragged himself out of the gutter, he is a shrewd operator with an eye for the main chance, but he remains something of a puzzle.

He is a man who loves the fine things in his life – expensive clothes, good food and drink, witty companions, the latest books and pictures, a comfortable house – yet doesn’t seem motivated by the acquisition of possessions.

He loves his family, his friends and his pet dogs and remained loyal to Wolsey after the Cardinal’s downfall, yet managed not only to survive that, but to become Henry’s trusted confidante and advisor.

His background and personality make him better placed than many to cope with the plotting and intrigue of the court, where a man’s life could turn on the whim of the king – yet his position as an outsider weakened him, alienating him from the nobles.

He is honest, after his own fashion, genuinely believes the church needs reforming, and seems to be a man of integrity, yet he uses his considerable talents for what many regarded as dubious ends.

Was he moved by power? Religious fervour? Or did he simply deal with each situation as it arose, never expecting to find himself in such exalted company?

Figures from history spring to life as he moves up the social ladder: shrewish Anne Boleyn, sanctimonious Sir Thomas More, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Cranmer, Hans Holbein and many others.

Alongside them are lesser known people: Cromwell’s wife and daughters, who all died of ‘sweating sickness’, his son and his nephew.

Then there are others: merchants, cooks, kitchen boys, clerks and servants.

All are clearly drawn, believable individuals who help bring the book alive as you expience the sights, sounds and smells of the 16th century.

Mantel’s award winning novel (it gained the Man Book Prize in 2009) was loved and hated in equal measure, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. Highly acclaimed by critics, it was less favourably received by some members of the public, who disliked the way it is written in the present tense, and were confuse by references to Cromwell as ‘he’.

Personally I think the use of present tense makes for a tremendous sense of immediacy and involvement in the characters’ feelings and actions, and perfectly reflects the fast-changing events at Henry’s court, as he woos and marries Ann Boleyn, cutting his ties with Rome church in order to do so.

The use of the third person singular did, on a few occasions, seem confusing, and it was not always clear who the ‘he’ referred to – but rereading a paragraph quickly resolves this, and did not detract from the story.

VERDICT: Loved it! It was well written, well researched, with a different view on a well-known period of history, that me think about our perceptions of people. It goes on the shelf for re-reading and will become one of my all-time favourites.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Graduation Day

OUTSIDE it is hot and sticky. A jazz band plays and all around us champagne corks pop, adding high percussive notes to the music.

It’s like a garden party. The women keep cool in floral frocks and spiky heels, while their perspiring menfolk shed suit jackets, loosen their ties and tug at the collars of their crisp shirts.

Brothers, sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends, all decked out in their summer finery, wander around clutching bottles of pop and digital cameras.

Then there are the students themselves looking smart, glamorous and oddly grown-up in the gowns and caps which cover their new outfits, smiling as if they would neer stop.

We sit at one of the tables laid out on the grass in front of the university while Younger Daughter disappears to meet friends, collect her own cap and gown, and pose for an official portrait.

When she reappears I fight to hold back the tears as I remember her on her first day at nursery, when she was so shy she wouldn’t speak to anyone and she refused to let go of my hand – so I spent the morning at nursery with her!

Even The Man of the House looks a little watery eyed as he gazes at her. Unusually he is wearing a suit, in honour of academic prowess, which is more than he did for his own graduation, when he turned up wearing jeans and a baggy jumper.

For some reason he is particularly intrigued by the hood on Younger Daughter’s gown: green, edged with apricot and white fur, it is a thing of beauty, but she is too excited to stand still for a photograph.

Inside it is hot and sticky. A saxophone quartet plays as we all file into the Octagon, where the graduation ceremony takes place.

The students sit in neat rows at the front, staring straight ahead, leaving parents craning their necks as they try to recognise their offspring.

Then, a trumpet voluntary sounds and VIPs process onto the sage. The assembled University Staff, Honorary Graduands, Public Orator, Senior Officers of the University, Civic Dignitaries, Mace Bearer and Presiding Officer, all resplendent in their colourful robes, take their seats.

Finally, the ceremony gets under way and we clap until our arms and hands ache as the students march, one by one, up the steps and across the stage, to accept their certificate from Professor RAL Jones, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

Regrettably, my efforts to capture Younger Daughter’s big moment for posterity prove unsuccessful as I mistakenly endeavour to operate the camera while clapping…

It seems very formal, a little archaic – and a million miles away from Sheffield’s council estates and the city centre.

The proceedings are broken up by the presentation to two lecturers of Senate Awards for Learning and Teaching, and the conferment of an honorary degree on Professor John C Wingfeld for his research on the environmental and endocrine control of reproduction, territorial behavior and migration in vertebrates.

The simple explanation, for people like me who don’t understand science, is that he is investigating the way creatures deal with climate change.

Apparently he discovered (among other things) that fish get seasick in holding tanks on a research ship…

Eventually the last student crosses the stage, and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor addresses us all, makes his speech, highlights the importance of education and urges the students to applaud their families for providing support.

Then, led by the Mace Bearers, the platform party files out of the hall., followed by the students and, last of all, the parents.

Outside is a melee as several hundred students are reunited with their nearest and dearest.

There are more photographs as young people hug and kiss, and say farewell to the friends they have shared their lives with for the last three years. But gradually they drift away, still smiling, to return their hired caps and gowns and begin their new lives.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

A Mish Mash

A MISH-MASH is probably the best way of describing today’s blog.

As you can see, there are still issues following my installation of a third column, but it does look a little better than it did yesterday. However, the header is not right, there is a peculiar little white bit which is wider than the left hand column, and it all looks too busy.

Oh well, I shall think about it tomorrow…

Today I am thinking about packing. We are off to Sheffield tomorrow prior to Younger Daughter’s graduation on Monday.

I have stitched buttons on her dress (I was customising High Street purchases long before Gok got in on the act) and she has been out hunting for shoes and a belt.

Meanwhile I am desperately trying to remember where I put the wrist bands that (allegedly) prevent travel sickness. I would have to admit that even in conjunction with tablets they have produced no noticeable improvement, but I remain optimistic that these remedies, coupled with my pre-journey rituals (nothing to eat or drink) will work this time.

Also, I must remember to buy food for Elder Daughter and The Cat, who will be looking after each other in our absence. Elder Daughter can feed herself but TC, alas cannot, which could prove a problem.

And, of course, there is a shirt to be ironed for The Man of the House, who is currently try to squeeze himself into his one and only suit in a bid to meet YD’s demand that he look presentable for her big day.

While he does that, I will take a break and catch up on last week’s edition of The Lady (July 6), which I bought (for the first time in many years) to read an article about Lynne Hatwell, the Devonshire community nurse who writes Dovegreyreader – which is just about the best book blog on the net.

Anyway, I was amazed at the transformation in the magazine, which has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. It no longer looks like a left-over from the Victorian era. It is bright, attractive, well laid out, and easy to read.

The traditional leisure and lifestyle features are still there, but editor Rachel Johnson has ensured there is a balance with more serious issues, including an interview with John Suchet explaining his decision to send his beloved wife Bonnie (who suffers from dementia) to a care home.

Best of all the ‘situations and appointments’ pages are still there, seemingly unchanged since The Lady (A Journal for Gentlewomen) was founded more than a century ago.

The adverts for companions, cooks, housekeepers, nannies and gardeners are an echo of a bygone age and a way of life unknown to most of us.

Finally, I have now finished Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  More on this another day.

Friday, 16 July 2010

A Glitch in the Blog

AS you can see, I have been trying, somewhat unsuccesfully, to set up this blog with three columns rather than two, but my technical skills (!) have failed me... I do have three columns, but it all  looks more than a little peculiar.

I suspect I should have reverted to the original format, then done the columns, then customised it again.

Oh well, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

HAVING recently got lost on the M42, I still feel this was not my fault – it’s all down to inadequate signposts which are impossible to understand.

At one point during Saturday’s trip I saw a notice which said ‘North’ and ‘London’ which, given that I was north of Birmingham, I found extremely confusing. North is north, and London is south, so how can they both be in the same direction?

And talking of directions, why can’t they have more signs which mention a town, a city or a point of reference that I am familiar with?

I’m fine with things like Birmingham, Coventry or the NEC. Even places further afield are easy enough to find if they are named.

But why this mania for merely giving a geographic area – the South West, for example, is not helpful if you are looking for Worcester. Is the city on the way to the South West, or am I travelling in the wrong direction?

Worse still is when a point of the compass is appended to a motorway name. Faced with a junction and a choice between M5 E or M5 W how am I supposed to know where I am going?

Off the motorway things get even more tricky. Take those ridiculous markings at major junctions, which seem designed to make ensure you lose your way.

For a start, directions are written on the road surface. This means in heavy traffic (which seems to be all the time), you cannot actually see them. As you inch along, peering around for some clue to indicate the correct way, all you get are glimpses of the odd letter or number.

In addition, wear and tear from weather and wheels means signs fade, or go patchy. Therefore, even if there is no traffic, they are almost impossible to decipher.

And, since the signs are spread across several lanes, if you are in the wrong one, there is no easy way to locate the right one, still less to take corrective action.

And it doesn’t get any better. A barrage of conventional roadside signs offers equally bewildering choices.

'City Centre’, for example. Which city? If I follow that, where will I end up? And what about ‘Ring Road’? Does that actually lead somewhere, or does it just circle round and round? (Speaking from personal experience, I am convinced that escape from the ring roads in Coventry or Sheffield is well-nigh impossible).

Finally, there’s ‘Any Other Route’ which, generally speaking, seems to mean any route other than the one I want.

Before anyone suggests a good map, I have one. But perhaps the time has come to invest in a SatNav.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The de Lacy Inheritance

THE first two pages of Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The de Lacy Inheritance provide one of the most chilling openings I have read.

The Mass of Separation which excluded lepers from family, home, society and church has a curious incantatory quality, and reads like an ancient curse.

It is hard to imagine any listener remaining unmoved by those words, which ban any form of normal human contact – even touching the rim or rope of a well was forbidden unless the sufferer was wearing gloves.

But from this heartrending beginning the author weaves a warm tale of love and redemption that is sure to be enjoyed by afficionados of historical fiction.

Richard FitzEustace has contracted leprosy on crusade in the Holy Land, and believes the illness is a punishment for his sins.

Seeking forgiveness, he pledges himself to God. But instead of gaining admittance to the nearest leper house he heads north to Cliderhou Castle (Clitheroe) on an errand for his grandmother, who wants to ensure that lands belonging to her cousin, Sir Robert de Lacy, are not lost to the family.

Taking up residence in a cave below the castle, Richard is miraculously ‘cleansed’ by water from a holy well, and becomes a friend and advisor to Sir Robert.

But he discovers his family’s legacy is under threat from a charismatic clergyman, and his cure remains secret to all but a few.

Meanwhile, back at his home his youngest sister Johanna is being kept under lock and key after running away rather than marry a man she does not love.

She is given sanctuary at Cliderhou – and falls in love with the son of the family’s enemy. Then Richard’s brutal brother returns from the wars…

Elizabeth Ashworth based the novel on real events and real people, discovered while she was researching her non-fiction book Tales of Old Lancashire (published by Countryside Books).

Her imagination was captured by the hidden history of Richard FitzEustace, who lived as a hermit beneath Clitheroe Castle and was unable to claim his inheritance because he had leprosy.

As you might expect from this, the book is driven by its characters, who spring to life with all their faults and foibles.

There is, of course, satisfyingly happy ending, but what stayed in my mind was what a lonely, desolate life many lepers must have led, shunned and feared by everyone in an age when leprosy was the most feared disease and, presumably, harsh measures were taken to prevent contagion.

In the book Richard finds unexpected friendship and support, even before his healing, but I suspect that in reality man suffered intolerable loneliness and hardship, as well as the ravages of the disease.

You can read more about the de Lacy family, and see pictures of places connected with them at the author’s website and blog at  and

Verdict: This was a really enjoyable read. I cared about the characters, wanted to know what happened to them, would like to see the places mentioned in the book. It will go on the shelves alongside books I read again and again.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Flower Sandwiches

HAVE been embroidering hydrangeas from the garden, using a technique I once read about in the Embroiderers Guild magazine Stitch.

Basically you sandwich the flowers between a layer of cotton or calico and a layer of chiffon, then embellish them with stitches or beads.

You need:
  • Two large sheets of baking parchment (this is essential if you do not want to wreck your iron and ironing board, and it is useful if you have an old unwantd iron).
  • A piece of cotton or calico.
  • A piece of chiffon.
  • Flower petals.
  • Two pieces of Bondaweb cut to size.
  • Felt or wadding and backing fabric.
  • Needle and thread.
The method is dead simple:Place the calico or cotton on one sheet of baking parchment and place the Bondaweb on top, then a sheet of baking parchment.
  • Following the instructions on the pack, iron the Bondaweb, then peel off the backing.
  • Arrange flowers, petals or leaves face up on the top, then cover them with the second piece of Bondaweb and the baking parchment.
  • Iron, according to instructions.
  • Peel backing off Bondaweb, cover with the chiffon, then the baking parchment, then iron again.
At this point I usually tack the layers to a piece of wadding and backing fabric or some felt (which I much prefer) because it gives a nice quilted effect when you stitch, but you don't have to do this.

The stitching really is the fun part.  You just delve into your stash of threads of do your own thing. 

In the original article vertical rows of running stitch  were used as a background, but I like the effect of backstitching around the edges of the petals, then following the outline with several rows of running stitch.

You can add French knots, straight stitch, any other stitch you like, or even small beads.

And you can be just as creative with threads. I like space dyed threads for this, in purples, reds, pinks or blues, but green is effective as well - it gives an impression of foliage.  But you can use any colour and thickness that pleases you, or use up a variety of oddments.

The same applies to your fabric.  You can use any colour of cotton and chiffon, and can even paint or print on them.

I experimented with satin and net, but didn't like the effect.

You don't have to use hydrangeas, but the flowers do have to be fairly flat and not too fleshy.  Last year I used rose petals to make a wedding card, and small interestingly shaped leaves look fantastic, especially ferny looking ones.

Flowers do have a tendancy to change colour in the process - my beautiful sky blue hydrangeas turn purple  - and they fade a little over time, but they are such fun to do.

I must admit I am not sure my methods are correct, and my stitching is very uneven, as I am self-taught, and learn from books and from working on my 'fiddle faddles'.

However, proper details are available on the Embroiders Guild website at (

Sunday, 11 July 2010

A Little Rule or Beginners

Saint Benedict. Detail from a fresco by Fra Angelico.

YESTERDAY I decided to be brave and drive to my mother’s, rather than catching a train like I usually do. In a bid to avoid the traffic I set off at 6am, to avoid the traffic, and managed to get lost on the motorway!

I ended up on the M6 (I was actually headed for the M5), which was more than a little alarming. However, I managed to find my way back on to the M42 – at which point a picture of an oil can appeared on the dashboard, various other lights started flashing, and the car kept bleeping at me, so I drove home, very, very slowly.

Next time I shall stick to the train!

Anyway, now for something completely different. Today is the feast day of St Benedict, without whom Ellis Peters would have been unable to create her sleuthing monk Cadfael.

Benedict of Nursia (so called to prevent confusion with any other saint of the same name) established the Rule which still forms the basis of monastic life, and is regarded as the father of Western monasticism.

Now I’m not religious (I’m not even a Catholic), but I love all those tales about the saints – they are such a fascinating mix of fact and fiction, history and hearsay, hi-jacking incidents from other stories to suit their purpose.

Some are just plain bonkers and information on others is scanty in the extreme, but the life of St Benedict seems relatively well documented.

His ‘little rule for beginners’ as he called his work was not aimed at ordained clerics, but at laymen who wanted to live their life according to precepts described in the Gospels. It contains spiritual advice, as well as guidelines on the efficient administration of a monastery, and how monks should work and live together.

Written in the turbulent sixth century it showed that establishing an ordered way of life gives stability and security.

Obviously, it is suffused with faith and the need to glorify God in everything, from menial tasks and manual labour to prayer.  There is an emphasis on obedience and humility and everything the monks do must revolve around the Divine Offices of Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.

But, surprisingly perhaps, Benedict is very compassionate, warm and human. Some years ago, out of curiosity, I bought a copy of The Rule of St Benedict during a trip to Glastonbury and found it quite intriguing.

You may think he is a bit of a control freak, but Benedict wants monasteries to be well run and monks to be happy and joyful – and he acknowledges the freedom of the individuals to make their own choices (though there are penalties for misdeeds.

Every aspect of life is covered, including clothing (the monks must not complain about it, but the abbot must make sure it fits) and food – monks on kitchen ate and drank an hour early so they could serve their brothers ‘without grumbling and hardship’.

Born around 480, the son of noble Romans, as a young man Benedict abandoned his studies and chose to live his life according to precepts laid down in the Gospels.

Living alone in a cave he gained a reputation for holiness, and was invited to be abbot of a neighbouring monastery, where the monks tried to poison him. But when he blessed his food and drink a raven took the bread away and the cup shattered (since when, apparently, his name is invoked against poisoners).

Servants who have broken their masters’ possessions may also appeal for his aid, as can the dying (because he foresaw his own death in 547), schoolchildren and coppersmiths. In addition, he is the patron saint of Europe (I didn’t even know Europe had one).

He is said to have founded 12 religious communities, each with 12 inhabitants and a supervisor, while he lived in a 13th establishment with his chosen followers, but the Benedictine Order was founded long after his death.

According to Benedict, 'idleness is the enemy of the soul', so you could mark his feast day by tidying the house or doing some gardening.

Personally I intend to pay my own small tribute by reading Cadfael and doing some embroidery.


Saturday, 10 July 2010

Summer Reads

WELL, I promised I would reveal my current reading pile, so here it is:

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

The Lessons is one of six books recommended by the Writers' Centre Norwich ( as part of a Summer Reads project, and the other volumes are the ‘if you loved this you’ll love…’ links.

Each of the other five choices has its own ancillary list, and the whole scheme is supported by Norfolk Libraries and the county’s bookshops, with reading guides, book clubs, and a Facebook encouraging people to read, reflect and discuss.
Anything that promotes reading is a good idea, so I am taking part from afar – and I thought it would be good to explore some new genres and abandon my usual ‘pic’n’mix’ approach for something a little more focused.
My original idea was to read one of the main recommendations alongside an ‘old favourite’ (where there was one), from that group.

However, I got off to a slow start because I was unable to buy or borrow the books locally. All I can say is thank goodness for Amazon!

And, as usual, I got carried away. Having read The Lessons, and located my ancient copy of Brideshead Revisited, I decided I just HAD to read The Secret History, so I ordered that. Then it seemed silly not to read the others on the ‘love this’ list, so I sent for them too.

And what, you may well ask, are my thoughts so far?

I’ll start with Donna Tartt. How come I haven’t encountered her work before? Where have I been that I missed her? I LOVED the way she writes - I couldn’t put this book down. Two nights running I sat in bed reading into the early hours.

The Secret History was erudite, scholarly, steeped in knowledge of the classics and ancient Greek. By the end I had a list of facts to be checked out and books to be discovered or revisited. Homer and Marlow have been unearthed and added to the reading pile (at this rate it will soon be as tall as me) while the wish list bears the cryptic notes ‘Jacobean and Greek tragedy’, ‘more Tartts’ and ‘decent atlas’.

This is why I read in such a random fashion: I start one book, and it sends me off in all sorts of other directions (just like The Queen in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader).

Usually I have several books on the go at once, so the ‘must haves’, ‘re-reads’ and ‘find-out-mores’ frequently threaten to overwhelm the house, and I find myself shifting stacks of books from place to place, in a mad variation of musical chairs.

Anyway, enough of that – let’s get back to The Secret History. It drew me in, step by step, unfolding a story of horror, but showing how easy murder can be. Once set on their destructive path Tartt’s elite group of students cannot withdraw, but it is the small irritations presented by their victim that prove the final straw.

They are curiously amoral about committing not one, but two murders (the second is a consequence of the first), but the effects of their actions are far reaching, and all are visited by a kind of Nemesis which prevents them reaching their potential.

The climax of the novel is shockingly unexpected, but is the only possible outcome. After that the tale flattens out as the last few pages relate the broken dreams and wasted lives of those who are left.

On the face of it the narrator, Richard, is the outsider, unable to accept his own dull upbringing, desperate to be accepted by his wealthy, glamorous, clever colleagues.

But his new found friends are equally anxious to be part of a surrogate family. All have been scarred by their childhoods: Bunny, whose banking family leave him perpetually short of cash; Francis, wealthy, gay and promiscuous, at war with his socialite mother and her toy-boy second husband; twins Charles and Camilla, oddly close, brought up by relatives after the death of their parents, and Henry, suave, calm and impossibly intelligent.

Central to the action, he remains something of an enigma: I found it difficult to tell if he is saint or sinner, manipulator or victim. Is he what he seems or, like the others, has he created a persona that helps him face the world?

Waugh’s classic, Brideshead Revisited, still holds me entranced some 40 years after I first read it. It offers a haunting view of life at an elite Oxford College and follows the characters over two decades, from their student days in the Roaring Twenties through to adulthood in the Second World War.

Charles Ryder, lonely, unloved by his distant, sarcastic father, is captivated by charming, feckless, golden-haired Sebastian Flyte, with his teddy bear Aloysius, his dissolute friends, the keepers who watch over him, his aristocratic Catholic family and Brideshead, the beautiful stately home where his family live.

But while the friendship gives Charles a sense of belonging, Sebastian is desperate to escape the confines and expectations imposed by duty and religion.

There’s a tragic inevitability about his disintegration, just as there is to the break between Charles and the Flytes.

He mourns his lost youth, feeling he was only truly alive during his time with Sebastian. Then, years later he meets Sebastian’s sister Julia again and the two fall in love – only to part because she cannot reconcile her faith in God with marriage to an unbeliever.

Indeed, faith -and lack of it - are an integral part of the book, as characters wrestle with moral issues and try to come to terms with the sense of guilt that seems to affect so many Catholics.

Even Charles, who may be in love with Sebastian, Julia, or the whole family, cannot remain unaffected.

When he finally returns to Brideshead in charge of troops who are billeted there, in the chapel he finds hope of a sort – a flame of faith which burnt for the Crusaders centuries ago burning still for soldiers far from home.

I was intrigued by reading an interview with Naomi Alderman, but The Lessons, which has been compared to Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History, failed to please.

Sadly, it didn't do anything for me at all.  I didn’t like sex scenes. The students never came to life and, having read it, I cared so little about them I couldn’t even remember their names or what they did – and that’s really all I want to say about it.

However, there are some obvious parallels between the three novels, since each is set (initially at any rate) in an elite college, and each boasts an outsider as narrator, seeking entry to a gifted but flawed group.

There are questions about the values of society, the choices made by individuals – and the way those decisions affect future lives.

Relationships are at the heart of all three novels, and comparison shows how attitudes towards homosexuals have changed since the publication of Waugh’s masterpiece in 1945.

At one point he describes Sebastian as gay, but he uses the word in its original meaning of bright, lively and happy. Waugh is never explicit about the relationship between Sebastian and Charles, so you are never sure if they are simply innocent friends, or whether there is a sexual element.

But Tartt and Alderman were both able to write more openly.

Anyway, I have now started Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, and will try to report back on moew Summer Reads at a later date.

Friday, 9 July 2010

I'm going get an English Degree!

I WAS going to reveal my current 'reads' today but I got side tracked because I am going to do an English Degree with the Open University!  How wonderful is that? 

All week I waited to hear from the OU then today, when the letter of confirmation arrived I was out.

I am so excited I want to dance and sing, but I will calm down soon, I promise.

Anyway, I can't wait to begin my studies and am really looking forward to being a student.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Washing Up Fairy

WASHING UP seems to breed in our house. Before going to bed I clear the day’s accumulated cutlery and crockery, gathering dishes, plates and mugs from their hiding places around the house and scrape away at the remnants of food welded to the surfaces.

By the following morning the washing up bowl is always full again – seemingly without the help of human hands, since the Man of the House and The Daughters always maintain they have had nothing to eat or drink, and claim the pile of dirty crocks has nothing to do with them.

It’s like the Elves and the Shoemaker in reverse.

Today’s tally included:

• four teaspoons

• three dessert spoons

• three knives

• two forks

• one small plate

• one bowl with cereal glued to it

• one plastic dish coated with a green, greasy substance

• four mugs

• one drinking glass

• one empty plastic bottle destined for the recycling bin

• one disgusting frying pan (I admit this one was my fault since I cooked sausages, mushrooms tomatoes and gravy in it and left on the cooker – but I am vegetarian and I think my family should have been so grateful for me for cooking food I don’t eat that they washed it up)

What do they think I am? The Washing Up Fairy? If Terry Pratchett hasn’t already included her in one of his Discworld novels he should.
I picture her, short, stout and grumpy, with limp hair and a plain face, standing at the sink, her hands protected with bright yellow rubber gloves. She wears a delicate frilly, lacey apron over a short pink tutu, the smooth satin top and layers of net trimmed with diamante.

There’s more diamante on her tiara, which has a tendency to slip to one side, and on her earrings, which could double up as chandeliers. To finish off the ensemble her chunky legs are clad in sparkly silver tights, while her feet are thrust into balding, furry, pink slippers.

She went into the business because she likes bubbles: she loves their iridescence as they shine in the sun, each a perfect little sphere, whole floating worlds full of nothing.

No-one told her about the grease, the burnt pans, the left-over food, the mugs that look like chemical experiments and, worst of all, the blocked sinks…

As you can see, she is obviously a relative of Hannah Swain's Food Fairy and, perhaps, of the Fat Lady who appears (briefly) in Margaret Atwood's 'Lady Oracle' which is one of my most favourite books.

And that leads nicely into the fact that more of the books I ordered have just arrived from Amazon. Although I live in the Midlands I am supporting the Summer Reads project run by Writers' Centre Norwich ( by reading my way through their recommended books.

I was going to start a new one today, but I really should tidy the house first, so you will have to wait for my next post to see the other side of this picture and find out what what I am reading.

Meanwhile I have managed to put a visitor counter on the blog – but if no-one reads my scribbling I will have to take the counter off!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Getting on with My Life

TODAY was the last day of my college course, which has left me feeling a little sad. For just over nine months my studies have given my days a shape and structure, to say nothing of getting my brain back into gear.

When I enrolled for an Office Skills course at my local college I was so nervous I almost abandoned it before I started.

At that point my self-esteem was at rock-bottom. No-one, it seemed, wanted a redundant, ageing, technophobic journalist.

Not only was I singularly ill-equipped for a change of career, but it was 30 years or more since I had been involved in any kind of formal learning process and I wasn't sure how I would cope with being back in the classroom.

I needn't have worried, however. The support from staff and other students was fantastic. I loved every minute of the course.  I enjoyed the challenge of learning something new, of seeking and recording information, and am immensely proud of myself for gaining qualifications in ITQ and Business Administration.

Much to my surprise, I discovered computers are not scary or difficult - they are fun and I really enjoy using them.

Once today's text processing exam was over I felt a sense of anti-climax but my spirits revived thanks to a lovely lunch with Romantic Novelist Phillipa Ashley (see her excellent blog and website at

And, as an added bonus, The Daughters presented me with flowers and a 'congratulations' card, which was really touching and thoughtful.

Now I feel as if I have finally drawn a line under redundancy and can get on with the rest of my life.

I'm hoping to use my new-found skills by doing some 'temping', I am considering taking another course, I can enjoy the company of my family, I have embroidery to do, books to read, family friends to meet, and the garden to finish.

And I can do all these things at my own pace, in my own time because I want to do them - not because I have to.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Tuesday's Wednesday Whinge

OK, I know, it isn’t Wednesday, it’s Tuesday.  But it's almost Wednesday (I expect it will be Wednesday when you read this) and it is a Whinge.

All I wanted to do was to print my updated CV (in case you are wondering, no, I haven’t got a job yet, but I did register with an agency).

But would the computer let me? No, it would not. First it informed there was no black ink, so I took the cartridge out, shook it about, then put it back. This trick works sometimes, but not, alas, today.

So I thought I would fool it by colouring the text – a nice bright red was what I had in mind. But another message flashed up on the screen, saying I needed black and colour cartridges and would I like to order them online…

Convinced the electronic equipment was lying, and that there must be some secret combination of keys which, when pressed correctly, would make the printer leap into action, I continued to issue commands.

But my efforts were useless, so eventually I headed off to buy cartridges.

I arrived at a major electrical retailer, and had barely crossed the threshold – indeed, I was still on the welcome mat – when I was accosted by an aggressive assistant demanding to know if she could help me.

Now I am the first to complain if shop workers ignore me when I want buy something, but it would be nice if they let you walk on to the sales floor before jumping out at you.

And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, when I replied ‘just browsing’ she barked back: “What for?” The answer ‘nothing’ failed to satisfy her and, glaring at me with steely eyes, she insisted I MUST be looking for SOMETHING.

By this stage I was so terrified I couldn’t remember my own name, let alone what I needed - I’ll bet the Spanish Inquisition were gentler on their victims – so I turned and fled.

Gathering my scattered wits together, I managed to purchase the cartridges from a friendly, helpful assistant in another retail outlet, and returned home.

But my troubles were only just beginning, because opening the packaging proved well nigh impossible. The whole thing was encased in a rigid plastic container which defied all my efforts to prise it apart. Scissors wouldn’t dent it and the carving knife wouldn’t pierce it. I shook it, hammered it, banged it on the table, threw it at the wall, and even shrieked: “Open Sesame!”.

Finally, however,I did manage to wrench the plastic off, then wrestled my way through layers of cardboard and foil to reach the contents.

Now, all I need to do is to remember which way round the cartridges go, press print and - it works!

Monday, 5 July 2010

The first Eleven

SEEKING a link between soccer and literature may not be the easiest thing in the world, but that’s just what Mark and Tim at The Big Green Bookshop ( have managed to do.

They have produced a team of literary hard kickers, drawing their inspiration from PD James, President of the Society of Authors, who stated in a recent speech that England produced the greatest poet – Shakespeare.

Selecting The Bard as their captain, the duo went on to name EM Forster as goalie, and Charles Dickens as left wing or striker. Their other big players were Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, TS Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Jonathan Coe, Sarah Waters, Ted Hughes, and finally DH Lawrence.

Such ingenuity made me smile, but it also made me think.  The lure of picking my own national squad was irresistible, but inclusion was dependent on each writer’s influence, rather than my own likes and dislikes (though in most cases personal preference coincided with importance).

With this thought in mind I dropped EM Forster, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes. Jonathan Coe and Sarah Waters had to go because I have not read their work. Sadly, TS Eliot was also excluded because he was American.
Instead I brought on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, Virginia Woolf, Edith Nesbit, Roger McGough and Dennis Potter.

Chaucer was a master storyteller who not only knew about plot, but created wonderfully believable characters – and the two don’t always go together.

He was a keen observer of human nature, satirising the social order of his day, and his work is as relevant today as it was more than 600 years ago.

More importantly, he was one of the first authors to write in everyday English, rather than Latin or French, following normal patterns of speech, and he established new forms of metre and rhyme, laying the foundations of the English literary tradition.

His language was simple and uncomplicated and is surprisingly easy to understand – amazingly,  is not so very different to the English we know today.

Milton’s work may not resonate with modern man, but it should. His ‘Paradise Lost’ is an epic tale on a grand scale, relating tales of war in Heaven, Satan’s fall from grace, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden. 

Written in blank verse it highlights the conflict between Man’s freewill and God’s foresight, taking in the nature of sin, shame, relationships, fate, death and politics.

Milton, an ardent Puritan, wanted to justify the ways of God to men, and he held his vision throughout, showing an astounding breadth of knowledge as he discussed theological and philosophical issues, as well as drawing on the pagan past to support his argument.

Above all, ‘Paradise Lost’ is suffused with hope for Man as he is given the chance to form a new relationship with God. 

Milton’s language may be complex, but the ideas contained therein have inspired a wealth of art, music and literature – and they have made people think about the nature (and attraction) of evil.

Virginia Woolf helped change to form of the novel, using innovative methods, including stream of consciousness techniques, to record the actions and thoughts of her characters.

In her novels and essays she gave voice to women, without resorting to the angry polemic of later feminist writers.

She took the craft of writing very seriously, keeping notebooks where she tracked her experiments as she sought new ways to capture character and express what she had to say, and these give an insight into the creative process.

I included Edith Nesbit because she broke the mould for children’s authors, paving the way for today’s writers, who make their characters tackle real, tough choices, even in imaginary worlds.

Nesbit was the first to do this, just as she was the first to move away from morality tales and fairy stories of earlier periods.

She wrote about real children, who may have magical adventures, but remain firmly rooted in the real world, and have to face the consequences of their actions. And she did so using language her young readers could understand, without being condescending or patronising. Most of all, she made reading fun.

Similarly, I selected Roger McGough because he makes us realise poetry can be fun: that it is not difficult, or scary, or only for ‘posh’ people.

Purists may dismiss him, claiming his early work was nothing more than quirky and funny, but over the years it has deepened and matured, with layer upon layer of meaning.

He may noy be classed as one of the literary ‘greats, but he has done much to publicise and promote poetry and his influence on readers is incalculable: he has helped change the language of poetry for ever, writing about things they know, in language they understand, making them feel that they too could write.

Personally, I am not a fan of Dennis Potter, but I wanted to include a modern dramatist.

I opted for Potter because he wrote specifically for the modern media of television, rather than for the stage, using popular culture, references and allusions – especially music and song.

Whether or not you like his work, you cannot deny he was a trail-blazer, using modern techniques to alter our perceptions of reality as he tackled some dark issues.

Like the original list, mine is headed by Shakespeare. He drew material from a wealth of sources to conjure his own inimitable work.

In his plays he tells a story like no-one before or since, with unforgettable characters experiencing a range of emotion. There is comedy, pathos, anger, grief, guilt, jealousy and love...

The plays – and sonnets – transport us to a brave new world where the power of language can conjure up people and places. Some 400 years later we are still held enthralled by the power of his words, and he speaks to us so strongly that each generation has interpreted Shakespeare to meet the demands and concernsof its own time.

Samuel Johnson was a lexicographer, essayist, man of letters, poet, journalist and novelist. There was seemingly no end to his talents, but he is best known as the creator of ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’, which set a standard still followed today, including (for the first time) examples of words as used in conversation.
His own matchless prose never faltered. Erudite and scholarly, the structure of his writing was perfect, always well balanced, always correct, and always with the right word in the right place.

I did wonder if he should be included with a list of novelists, dramatists and poets, but it is difficult to know how to categorise Johnson – and all writers all owe him a debt of gratitude.

I also wondered if Jane Austen was of sufficient stature for inclusion, or whether I was letting my heart rule my head. 
But I genuinely believe she deserves her place in the team. She steps away from the florid, sentimental gothic genre of the 18th Century, mocking its melodrama and lack of reality.

Her novels centre on women and their place in the world. Each is a comedy of manners, brought to life by Austen’s sharp writing, her ironic tone, her eye for the ridiculous and her clearly drawn characters.

Read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and you will see that people have not changed much on the last two centuries: Kitty and Lydia Bennett would be perfectly at home laughing and giggling with today’s boy-mad teenagers.

Austen’s work has been emulated by many, including 21st Century ‘chick lit’ writers and romantic novelists – to say nothing of films and TV series.

Women and their role in society are also central to Charlotte Bronte’s narratives.

Her heroines, unlike many of those who went before, are not pretty or wealthy. Instead they are strong independent women who work for a living and asserted their right to feel and think as they chose.

They make their own way in life, doing what they think is right, refusing to be influenced by the opin ions of others.

A whole industry seems to have grown around Dickens: he has inspired books, films, television serials, plays, musicals, parodies and the parks. He would, I feel, have approved of anything which helped his work reach a wider audience. His novels were written in installments, each ending on a cliff-hanger to keep the public reading (a kind of Victorian soap opera I guess).

His descriptive powers were second to none (look at his description of fog in the opening chapter of Bleak House), and he created characters who seem to have taken on a life of their own and passed into English folklore – Scrooge for example, or Mr Pickwick.

His convoluted plots relied heavily on coincidence but, nevertheless, they keep us reading to find out what happens.

Additionally, he used his novels to expose many of the social injustices and double standards of Victorian life, so his sphere of influence extended beyond the literary world to politicians and social reformers, who campaigned for improvements.