Author Archives: rumoldbird

Ireland – Dublin and Newgrange

Normally I prefer to get the ferry to Ireland, but as it’s winter I decide to get the plane. It’s a hassle, and sadly Aer Lingus is no longer much classier than Ryanair – but as we come in to land, the sun is setting and shafts of rose gold light stream down between the clouds and the mountains – oh, Ireland, how could I have left you for so long?

It’s a mad holiday. The books I brought to read don’t even get opened. My feet barely touch the ground, as I bounce around from one relative to another – but I manage to make some time for myself.

One of the reasons I wanted to get home in 2016 was because of the centenary of the Easter Rising. Only in Ireland could the seizure of a post office by a handful of poets eventually lead to the liberation of a nation…

When I was here for summer holidays as a child, we would walk past the General Post Office nearly everyday. It’s where we’d buy stamps to send holiday postcards. And my mother would point out the bullet holes in the facade, and tell us about the Easter Rising in 1916.

This year they’ve opened an exhibition centre, so I go down and check it out. It’s quite dark, almost oppressive – but then, it’s not about a happy period of history. There are displays detailing life for the Irish under British rule, and previous attempts to gain a greater say in governing their country, and a timeline of events of the rising itself. There’s also a film presentation, which is very good. Parts of it are shot from an overhead perspective, moving around a map of Dublin, so you can see how events are happening in relation to each other – possibly not for the queasy! It’s very interesting, but I’m left feeling a weird combination of patriotic and sad which I still can’t quite describe. And to watch the film knowing these events were unfolding immediately above you is very odd.

It’s strange to look out onto O’Connell Street, when you’ve just seen pictures of it immediately after the Rising, when the British practically razed Sackville Street (as it was then called) to the ground, over the course of six days, until the rebels surrendered. It was British overreaction that achieved what the rebels were aiming for. Initially the average Irish citizen was not interested in rebelling. But once the British had executed the leaders, then arrested over 3,000 people they thought were involved, support for the rebels spread.
As I head out of the foyer of the General Post Office, the feeling of drama is somewhat undercut by the cuddly Christmas displays – a nativity scene and cute animals, in front of the statue of the dying hero Cu Chulainn.

Serious stuff. To lighten the mood, time for a quick visit to the Irish Whiskey Museum, near Trinity College.


I’ve not been in before, and I’m impressed with what they’ve done with the space. The tour goes up through several floors – one room is designed like a monastery, one like a traditional cottage, one like a nineteenth century bar. Each has films of characters from that time, telling the story of Irish whiskey, from its beginnings, to being displaced by Scotch whisky and the closure of most Irish distilleries, to the current revival – educational and fun. The top floor is for tasting, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see the grimace on the face of the girl next to me who’s just had her first taste of whiskey. Possibly she should have stuck to the cafe, which does a very tasty Irish coffee.

(Those who are already connoisseurs of Irish whiskey may prefer the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street.)

That’s all the booze for this trip. I just have a quiet New Year’s Eve celebration with family, go back to my hotel at 2am, then daren’t go to sleep for fear of not waking up in time to get out at 6am. I like to spend New Year’s Day somewhere old (just to put things into perspective) so this year I’ve booked onto a trip to see Newgrange. I’ve tried in the past to get on to this tour, and it’s always been full, but I thought that most people wouldn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn on New Year’s Day – and I’m right.

I manage to stay awake, and make it to the coach on time. Dublin is very quiet as we drive around the city, collecting bleary-eyed tourists.

Our guide, Mary Gibbons, is really knowledgeable. The coach has people from around the world, and she manages to mention facts tying Ireland to their country for nearly all of them. As we travel through the Boyne Valley, Mary tells us about the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the English king James II (a Catholic) was defeated by his son-in-law, the Dutch prince William of Orange (a Protestant). Bad news for Irish Catholics! The battle had such lasting consequences, I can’t help thinking that the river Boyne itself looks quite small…

First stop is Newgrange – the most impressive of the many prehistoric sites in Brú na Bóinne. Newgrange is a Neolithic passage tomb. It’s older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids of Giza. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and in order to conserve it only a certain number of people can go in each day. The visitor centre is some distance away from the site. From there it’s a 300-metre walk to where minibuses drive you up to the tomb itself.


It’s quite a site to see. The outside was reconstructed according to what historians believe it originally looked like – a high wall of white quartz blocks, studding with big grey river pebbles, at the front of a grass mound, with monoliths and carved stones around the outside. Photography is not allowed inside the mound, so I content myself with monoliths.


There’s only room for about a dozen people inside the tomb itself – and it’s a tight squeeze. Luckily I had a feeling it might be, so I left my coat and bag on the coach. But this is not a place for the claustrophobic, the tall or the stocky. The entrance is low, the passageway narrow – and then narrower – and then even narrower. Just as I’m having to slide sideways between rocks, wondering if this is a really bad idea, the passageway opens up into a space with three alcoves.

It is amazing. Built like a dry-stone wall, with no mortar or cement to hold the stones together, this has lasted for 5000 years. No-one’s entirely sure what it was for. The only thing they are sure about is that the tomb was designed so that on the winter solstice, for just a few minutes, the rising sun shines directly into the central chamber. Very few people get to see this (places are allocated by lottery), but our guide turns off the light, so we are standing in this ancient space in total darkness, until the light comes on to simulate sunrise.

The strangest thing is just how much the various carvings on the stones look like stuff I’ve been doodling all my life. Looking up at the corbelled vault, it feels very familiar. I could stay here all day, even in the dark.

But there are other things to do today, so it’s back to the coach, and on to the Hill of Tara.

Near the entrance to Tara is an old bookshop, called (appropriately enough) the Old Book Shop. The shop is run by local author Michael Slavin, who gives us a slide show about the history of Tara. It’s my favourite kind of book shop, the sort with books piled high on top of each other, where you might find anything. I pick up a book that claims Shakespeare was Irish – yes! Now we have all the best English writers!

It’s surprisingly warm for New Year’s Day, so I leave my coat on the coach and just wear a shawl. From the amount of families who’ve been tempted out here by the sunshine today, this place must be teeming with people in summer.

Another Neolithic site, Tara is a collection of earthworks and forts, which remained in use until the 12th century. Tradition has it as the place where the high kings of Ireland were crowned. Tradition also has it that you can see half the counties of Ireland from here, and on fine clear day like this, I’m inclined to believe it. You really can see for miles in every direction.


This is the closest I’ll get to mountains on this trip, so I make the most of clambering up the grassy slopes, trying to avoid the slightly squelchy ditches. Although most of the history here is buried under grass, and there’s very little to see, there is still an interesting atmosphere. By the time I’ve walked the outline of the two linked enclosures that form a figure eight, I’m almost in a meditative state. A breeze lifts up my shawl, so my shadow looks as though I have wings – oh, Ireland, I’ve missed you.

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Posted by on February 1, 2017 in Ireland, United Kingdom & Ireland


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West Wycombe Park – Sense and Sensibility (1811)

I’m off to visit West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire – stately home of the Dashwood family.

Why West Wycombe Park? Because it’s where they filmed the opening sequence of the classic 1986 fantasy movie Labyrinth. Fellow Labyrinth fans will know that’s the scene where Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) runs across a little flint bridge beside a lake, and starts reading lines from her book, The Labyrinth – watched by an owl/Goblin King (David Bowie).

I first spotted the lake in the background of a scene in another movie (The Importance of Being Earnest) which had the location listed in the end credits. The house appears in a lot of period drama, from Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’ve been meaning to visit for ages, but the house is only open June to August – and then only Thursday to Sunday – but only between 2 – 6 in the afternoon.

And as I rely on public transport – let’s see, bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus-bus – it’s going to take a few hours. It’s not quite “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered” – but it’s worth bringing a book, I think.

The surname Dashwood rings a bell – of course, the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility! Jane Austen accompanies me to the station.

Sense and Sensibility was her first published book. Like Pride and Prejudice, it starts with worries about what will happen when an estate is entailed away. As observation, it’s fun – I love the bit at the beginning where Mr Dashwood lets his wife Fanny persuade him to reduce his generosity to his stepmother – from three thousand pounds, to helping her move out. The widowed Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters – Elinor (the one with the sense), Marianne (the one with overly emotional sensibility) and Margaret (the one who is too young to get a suitor – or even much dialogue of her own!) – move into a cottage near a distant relative, where various romantic threads begin tangling.

Elinor has a thing for Fanny’s brother Edward – but he’s already engaged to Lucy. Marianne falls for the artistic and obviously dodgy Willoughby – because the laws of romantic novels state that you have to fall for anyone who helps you when you sprain your ankle – ignoring her devoted admirer Colonel Brandon because she thinks that at 35 he’s far too old for love. Personally I’d be more concerned by the fact that he falls in love virtually as soon as he sees her, because she reminds him of someone else – his first love (a fallen woman) – would you want to be loved like that?

The time flies by. For once I make all my connections, and arrive at the park before the gates are even open. I ask the National Trust lady at the entrance if she knows where the little flint bridge is. She doesn’t even know that Labyrinth was filmed here – and there’s a lot of park to search. The house is set in 42 acres of grounds, with several bridges, and lots of ornamental temples (installed by the second Baronet after a grand tour of Europe). Luckily it’s perfect weather for wandering.

I turn left down Broad Walk, past Britannia Pillar, then turn right when I reach the lake and carry on until I come to a stream. I see an owl’s feather on the grass – a sign I’m heading the right way?

There it is!


Thirty years later, some things have changed. Ivy and bindweed are taking over one end of the bridge, and as it’s high summer there’s a lot of pondweed growing in the stream – but it’s unmistakably the same place. I resist the urge to run across it, spouting lines from the film – but I do take a lot of photos.

There’s no obelisk for an owl to perch on, no bench for Sarah’s dog (they were just set dressing). The clock tower isn’t there either – that must have been shot in America, as was the sequence immediately after the scene by the bridge. But there is a family of swans on the lake. I wonder if they’re descendants of the swans you can spot in Labyrinth, and I start to imagine an elderly swan grandfather boasting to bored baby cygnets about the time he once starred in a film with Jennifer Connelly.

The lake itself is said by some to have been designed like a swan – lake as body, river as neck, two streams for legs. Was it deliberately included in the film as a reference to the ballet Swan Lake, which also features a villain (Rothbart) who’s an owl – with ballet dancer’s tights? Probably just coincidence. When you’ve watched a film as often as I’ve watched Labyrinth, it does get inside your head.

And that’s why I’m here. To mark the film’s thirtieth anniversary, I’ve written a sequence of poems telling the story of Labyrinth in fifty-five sonnets. I sit down on the grass under a tree and, like Sarah, begin to read aloud from my little leather book…

It takes me an hour. This has been a poignant year for Labyrinth fans, but reading these poems, in this location – I feel quite ridiculously happy.

By now the park is starting to get busy. I start up the grass slope toward the ochre north front of the house. Built in the early 18th century, it’s about a hundred years older than Sense and Sensibility.

The impoverished Dashwood sisters would have been envious of a house like this (although, their home described in the book as ‘But a cottage’ has two sitting rooms, four bedrooms, two attic rooms, offices, and a garden – I think I’m envious of them).

Although the property is now owned by the National Trust, the real Dashwood family still lives here. It’s quite odd to visit a stately home where the portraits are recent, and there are family photos. The ground floor is open to the public, so I take the tour.

The hallway is unusual, in that it’s painted to look like a Roman villa – painted ceiling and  walls that look like marble, with frescoes up the staircase, and statues of Roman emperors.

Around the house we go – big tapestries, painted ceilings, lots of marble paintings, elaborate chimney pieces, silk-lined walls. But it’s the antique chairs that stick in my memory – to stop people sitting on them, each seat has a spiky dried teasel – with a piece of ribbon tied around it to make it look more like a decorative feature, and less like a threat.

After looking at the house, I go back to the bridge. One of the swans is standing on the grass, gleaming in the sunlight. Swans look so beautiful when they’re out on the water, but a lot more imposing close up. More people are there now, and another girl is posing for a photo on the bridge. I’m glad I arrived early enough to read my poems aloud without a baffled audience.

If I miss the bus there won’t be another one for two hours, and although West Wycombe village is pretty, I don’t want to be stuck there on a Sunday afternoon – between the pubs and the traditional sweet shop, I would eat far too much (I recommend the crème brûlée fudge). But I don’t want to leave…

And then a bird swoops across the lake. It’s not an owl (that would be too perfect) but a red kite – one of Britain’s most beautiful birds of prey. It makes a couple of lazy turns over the lake, then soars off over the trees.

Today’s not going to get any better than this. Time to head home.

On the way out the National Trust lady asks me if I found the bridge. She said two other  people today asked her about it as well – probably the girl I saw posing on the bridge – and definitely the guy who was taking pictures of his special edition Labyrinth DVD!

Back I go – bus-bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus. And back into the book.

Marianne is brutally dumped by Willoughby, and becomes physically ill. Brandon reveals that Willoughby had also seduced his ward (possibly he should have mentioned that sooner). But Willoughby, concerned for Marianne, visits Elinor and tells her that although he has had to marry for money, he did really love Marianne.

Marianne gradually recovers, and starts to appreciate the devoted Colonel Brandon, eventually marrying him.
Edward’s mother finds out about Lucy, and demands that he break up with her. He refuses, so she disinherits him in favour of his brother Robert. Lucy then shamelessly marries Robert instead – leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.

It’s not Pride and Prejudice. It’s well observed, and funny in places, but it’s not really romantic (although, Jane Austen’s books are not as romantic as the films which are made of them). Jane Austen had clearly improved as a writer by her next book – just look at how well the characters of the five Bennet sisters are developed, compared to Margaret Dashwood, who might as well not be in this book.

I kept thinking Elinor was going to end up with Colonel Brandon, as they seem to spend more time talking to each other than anyone else. Marianne eventually wants to be more like Elinor, but Elinor seems too good to be true – making up excuses for Edward, putting up with Lucy – wanting to forgive Willoughby?!

And Marianne just seems to settle for Colonel Brandon at the end. I think that the way their relationship develops – stated in text, rather than revealed through dialogue – means it loses something. I kept mentally contrasting it with how well the way Charlotte’s marriage of convenience with Mr Collins is drawn in just a few sentences in Pride and Prejudice

On the way over here, I thought Marianne was a bit of an idiot, but you know what? Spending six hours travelling to recite commemorative poetry in the setting for a work of fiction – Marianne would totally get that.

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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland


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Cardiff – The Mabinogion, and The Owl Service (1967)

Back to Cardiff again – and a long train journey means lots of time to read another classic. Hmm – Wales, classic – it’s got to be the Mabinogion, a collection of about a dozen stories from the Welsh oral tradition, first written down in about the fourteenth century.

After about ten minutes of flipping from the text back to the section in the introduction about pronunciation, I decide to copy out the notes onto the piece of paper I’m using as a bookmark. Although the Welsh and Irish languages are closely related, you’d never guess it from the way they’re written. Maybe I should have got this as an audio book. Let’s see – ‘dd’ sounds like ‘th’, ‘w’ is ‘oo’, ‘f’ is ‘v’, but ‘ff’ is  ‘f’…

That helps. Now that I know how to pronounce the names of characters, it’s easier to get into the story. It’s not very long, and it feels as though it was once a lot longer. It doesn’t really have one overall plot – rather overlapping stories of Welsh princes, with appearances by characters from Irish myth and legend, and also people from further afield – the Emperor of Rome, the Empress of Constantinople – not to mention King Arthur.

If you’re interested in Arthurian legends, you really ought to read this, as it has some of the oldest surviving Arthur stories, from before they had been adapted by French storytellers, then imported back into Britain. Unfortunately this means there are times when it reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which makes it hard to take seriously – particularly when someone has to fight a knight called the Black Oppressor!

Like most oral histories, there are bits which feel slightly repetitive. Ysbaddaden Chief Giant sets a load of impossible tasks for the man who wishes to marry his daughter, to each of which he answers “It is easy for me to get that, though thou think it is not easy” – at least thirty times! And at one point there are six pages listing about three hundred people at King Arthur’s court, many of which sound like something out of Tolkien – Nodawl Cut-beard, Osla Big-knife, Gwyn the Irascible…

Time flies in a blur of doubled consonants, and soon I’m in Cardiff. I’m staying at the Angel Hotel – once upon a time anyone who was anyone stayed here – Hollywood stars, prime ministers, the Beatles. Now it’s my turn. The hotel’s right opposite Cardiff Castle, so the apartments at the front must have great views of the clock tower. However, I’m not a celebrity. My room is tucked away at the back – but it’s comfy.

As it’s an overcast day, I decide to give the castle a miss for now, and stay under cover. Luckily Cardiff has several Victorian and Edwardian arcades. The forerunners of the modern shopping malls, these little covered streets of shops meant Victorian ladies could go shopping whatever the weather. Many of the shops still have their original shop fronts – I like the ones with ornamental stone (larvikite) bases, and curved glass windows. Lots of little boutiques, selling clothes, fancy dress, buttons – and lots of cafes.

After a pleasant browse, I go in to Seasons, a cafe and bar on the corner of Castle Arcade, because it serves traditional Welsh food (and, less traditionally, cocktails). I don’t have time for a meal right now, so I just have mini Welsh cakes. They’re a bit like a fruit scone, but slightly sweeter and spicier, and not as thick – served on a piece of slate with strawberries and cream. They are yummy. I think I’ll be back again to try out another national dish.

Walking back past Cardiff Castle I can see the wall – which has at least a dozen statues of life-sized animals crawling over it: pelican, anteater, panther, monkey, seal, to name just a few. Originally they were painted, to make them even more lifelike – and some of them have glass eyes, which glitter as cars go by. A brown-eyed bear is winking at me…

Now that I’m hearing Welsh accents (or possibly because I’m eating Welsh food?) the Mabinogion seems to be flowing more smoothly. Back I go, into a world where everyone wears brocaded silk, and all the women are beautiful – and there are several references to people with auburn/red hair being handsome, which proves that these stories were for a Celtic audience, rather than an English one. But it’s not all fair damsels in frocks. Some women do have a rough time of it (variously abducted, raped, falsely accused of child murder, forced to carry people on their back, turned into an owl).

But at least two rapists are subjected to an inventive punishment; they are transformed for a year into deer, then the following year into wild boar, then the next year into wolves. And each year they alternate genders, so that when they are finally allowed to return to human form, each has the shame of having borne the other man’s offspring!

Next day – a clear sunny morning means I’m off to Cardiff Castle. Parts of it go back to Roman times. The castle keep is Norman (12th century), the main part of the castle is 15th century, with additions in the 18th century. But what makes this castle really interesting is the fact that the whole place was overhauled in the 19th century when the incredibly rich 3rd Marquess of Bute teamed up with architect William Burges to redecorate most of the castle in the Victorian Gothic Revival style.

The fact that it was an authentic medieval castle wasn’t enough for them – it had to look like a child’s dream of Camelot. So everywhere is painted, decorated, tiled, gilded. It might be a bit much for some tastes, but it is stunning –  like finding yourself inside a Pre-Raphaelite painting. It’s incredible, the amount of effort and expense, considering that the family had several other properties, and stayed here for just six weeks of the year.

The nursery has tiled walls, decorated with characters from fairy tales. The library looks like something out of Hogwarts. One of the bathrooms is tiled with samples of different types of marble, each with its name inscribed in gold. The fireplaces, the ceilings – anything that can be decorated, is. There’s even a Mediterranean villa on the roof, which is struggling to cope with the damp Welsh climate. But there is one room which is decorated in a more restrained style – apparently the wife of the marquess put her foot down and insisted on one fashionable room for entertaining her guests.

Given all its architectural diversity, it’s hardly surprising that Cardiff Castle has often made appearances on film and television, and I “Squeeee!” like a fan-girl when I go into the banqueting hall, as I suddenly recognise it from an episode of Doctor Who (Heaven Sent – that character behind bars is on the fireplace).

Next I explore the tunnels beneath the castle, which have displays showing how they were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War – including lots of wartime posters (which seem to make English tourists nostalgic, and Chinese tourists baffled). Then it’s off to the keep.

The stone keep is the best preserved example of its kind in Wales, and it looks just like the ones I drew pictures of for history homework as a child. There are very steep steps to get up the mound on which the keep is built, and then more steep narrow steps to get up to the top of the tower. I decide not to go up the very last flight as, while I know I could get up there, I think my big clompy walking boots might give me trouble trying to get down again going backwards. Turns out to be the right decision, as once more it’s trying to rain. At least I’m able to take some interesting photos of the keep, reflected in puddles.

I’ve walked miles, so I think I’ve earned my lunch. Back to Seasons. I’m tempted by cawl (a lamb broth) but finally choose crempog – a sort of omlette/pancake, but denser – interesting texture, almost like a crumpet. This one’s filled with leek, mushroom and a local cheese, with pan-fried potatoes. Again, yummy.

After reading the Mabinogion, I now want to re-read The Dark Is Rising sequence, by Susan Cooper, which is inspired by Arthurian myth and features characters mentioned in the Mabinogion. But there’s something else I need to read first.

One section of the Mabinogion deals with Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who has a curse: he can never have a wife of any race now on earth. No problem – a wife is made for him out of flowers, called Blodeuwedd. But she falls in love with Gronw, and tells him how he can kill Lleu. This being a myth, Lleu doesn’t stay dead for long. He kills Gronw, and Blodeuwedd, as punishment, is turned into an owl.

This brings back vague memories of The Owl Service, by Alan Garner – a book I read when I was about eight, but haven’t read since. Childhood memory can only come up with “weird, but good”, so I buy a copy, hoping it won’t disappoint.

It doesn’t.

The version I originally read was published by Armada Lions, which usually published children’s stories such as Paddington Bear. Any child picking this up expecting cuddly bears would be very confused, as it deals with class struggle, adolescent awkwardness, sexual jealousy, national identity, the power and persistence of myth – this is not really a book for young kids! Eight year old me wouldn’t have understood half of what was going on in here.

A newly formed English family are on holiday in Wales. Alison has inherited a house there through a cousin (Bertram, who died mysteriously). Her mother Margaret (an off-stage character) has recently married Clive, who already has a son, Roger, from his first marriage.

The house has a handyman, the eccentric Huw Halfbacon, and a cook, Nancy. Nancy was in service in the house in her youth, but left to go to Aberystwyth (the nearest large town). She is persuaded to return for the summer, and brings her son Gwyn. He has never been in the valley, but feels as though he knows the place, as his mother has told him stories about the place and its people – all except Huw.

Alison finds an old service (set of dinner plates) up in the attic. They have a floral design around the rim, which Alison traces onto paper, then assembles to form little owls. But after she traces each design, it disappears from the plates. And then the paper owls disappear as well…

The story of Lleu, Gronw and Blodeuwedd keeps trying to replay itself through generations in the valley. It’s incredibly atmospheric – from the tensions within the families, to spooky nocturnal walks, and scratching sounds from the attic – yet somehow manages this without loads of descriptive writing. Like many modern YA books, a lot of the story is told through dialogue – the whole thing is just 150 pages.

“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls”

Brilliant stuff.

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Posted by on August 31, 2016 in Books, Wales


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War and Peace (1869)

I’ve finished reading War and Peace!


Ahem. Sorry about that.

I like big books (and I cannot lie…). I can read Lord of the Rings in a long weekend quite comfortably, so I didn’t think War and Peace could take that much longer. Usually I read classics when I travel, but the sheer bulk of War and Peace (about 1,400 pages) means it has never quite made it into my hand luggage, so I decided to read it during my lunch instead.

Three months.
Three whole months it took me.
Sometimes I’m just too tenacious for my own good.

Tolstoy himself says in the epilogue (the second epilogue – that’s how big this book is) that this is not a novel. Well, I wish someone had put that in big letters on the front cover – I might have approached it with slightly different expectations.

It is the story of several aristocratic Russian families (mainly the Bezukhovs, Bolkonskys and Rostovs), set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, 1805 – 1812. I enjoy Jane Austen, I enjoy a bit of Sharpe, so I thought a book that looked at the Napoleonic wars from both perspectives could be fun.

But this isn’t the book for me. There’ll be a chapter describing a ball in Moscow in extremely repetitive detail (no, I don’t want to hear yet again that someone is wearing a swallow-tailed coat) and then a whole chapter about war being a bad thing – or an essay on the nature of history – or a rant about how Napoleon wasn’t brilliant, just lucky.

While some of these rants are interesting, and the war scenes seem quite accurate, it does help if you know some Russian history. And by the time you get back to the story, you’ve lost track of where you are. Characters disappear for what feel like years, and by the time they come back, you’ve forgotten how they fit into the plot. If only more of them had speech impediments, like Denisov, it might have made it easier to tell them all apart.

When Moscow is being invaded by Napoleon’s army, Tolstoy compares it to a beehive. Then he spends nearly two pages explaining exactly how it is like a beehive. Then, several pages later, he compares it to a beehive again! Clearly ‘show, don’t tell’ hadn’t caught on back then.

Oh, I really struggled with this book. (Anyone remember that episode of Cheers, where Sam forces himself to read War and Peace in a week so he can have something to talk about with Diane – only for her to dismiss it as overrated? I now have a whole new respect for Sam.)

But about four hundred pages in, just when I was ready to throw the book away, there was a bit I liked. So I waded through another hundred pages or so, and there’d be something else. Just the odd bit of philosophy here and there, usually thought by Pierre – the only character I sort of liked, even though he’s a very weak individual.

There are hundreds of characters, but I don’t really like any of them (it’s like Wuthering Heights all over again). They’re mostly idiots, or evil, or doormats – and as for Natasha! I haven’t wanted to slap a character this badly since Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd (well, and Anastasia Steele, of course – but she’d probably enjoy it).

Natasha’s so fickle! She thinks she’s in love with pretty much every man she meets. To summarise: has a crush on Boris, then on her singing teacher – flirts with Denisov, has a soft spot for Pierre, then gets engaged to Andrei – decides to elope with Anatole Kuryagin (reasoning that he wouldn’t be trying to seduce her unless she loves him – d’oh!) – breaks off her engagement with Andrei, tries to kill herself, then realises she loves him again when he’s dying (Andrei seems to spend most of the book dying) – then marries Pierre, and lets herself go completely. Hardly surprising, really – that’s a lot for a girl to fit into seven years.

(And it seems to be a family trait – her brother Rostov has a huge man crush on the Tsar – far more convincing than anything he feels for his wife Maria.)

Pretty much all of the aristocracy are depicted as useless – gamblers, adulterers, selfish, shallow, stupid, superficial, weak. The only really decent human being is a peasant, Karataev. I could see the point of this if Tolstoy wanted to be critical of pre-revolutionary Russia – but serfs still want Nikolai to buy them, as he’s seen as a good master!

It is a bit like Austen, in that it’s well-observed – but without any touch of humour that might make me care for the characters. Maybe something has been lost in translation (I read the Maude version). Maybe it’s more fun in Russian. Maybe it speaks to something in the Russian soul.

For a Russian novel, this has a lot of French in it. Apparently, by this point in history, it had become the fashionable language for the Russian aristocracy. It does make it seem a bit strange, people worrying in French about what will happen when the French get there… If you’re going to try to read it yourself, and you don’t speak French, make sure you get an edition with end notes or footnotes that have translations.

Actually, the book is quite interesting from a body image perspective. Several times, larger ladies are mentioned as being attractive – including an opera singer with plump arms, and one woman with a double chin so large she can’t tilt her head down. I don’t know whether that was Tolstoy’s personal preference, or a Russian thing, or a historical thing…

And according to the book, Natasha “was not pretty” (I’m not making this up – book 1, chapter 8). Not pretty – a description which seems to have been ignored by casting directors ever since – Audrey Hepburn, Lily James, not pretty?

Anyway, Tolstoy certainly deserves credit for managing to keep track of all those characters, and the continuity – there are a few discrepancies, but that’s hardly surprising in something this massive. It took him five years to write, seven drafts – which his wife wrote out for him, by hand. Now that’s love.

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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Books


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Cullercoats – Limerick Nation: The UK in Verse

One of my poems has been included in an anthology by Iron Press. I’m quite chuffed by this, as their Haiku Hundred was the very first book of haiku I bought. I’ve been asked to read at the book launch at the Eclectic Iron Festival, which is in Cullercoats, Northumberland – basically, head north until you reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, then head east until you reach the North Sea. It’s quite a distance, so instead of going for the day, I decide to go by coach, stay in Newcastle and have a weekend of it – slower than the train, but cheaper and less hassle. Well, that’s the plan…

My lift to the coach station falls through at the last minute, so I have to race out for a bus at 8am. Foolishly, I skip coffee…

My first coach is late. However the driver seems confident we’ll make up the time, and catch the connecting coach in London. But there are roadworks. Lots and lots of roadworks. Despite having an hour in hand, we miss the coach by ten minutes. At Victoria, I join a long queue of cranky people who’ve also missed connections due to roadworks, and get booked onto the next coach to Newcastle – which isn’t for another three hours. I consider having a coffee, but it’s the hottest day of the year so far, and it’s absolutely sweltering in the coach station. I ring the hotel to confirm my reservation (as now I should be arriving at 11pm). The place is too packed with people for me to sit and read comfortably, but somehow I find myself working on a poem, and three hours pass surprisingly quickly.

The second coach also struggles with roadworks. I’m struggling too – with caffeine withdrawal – but we’re running so late that by the time we stop for a break, the coffee shop at the station has closed. I get out to stretch my legs, and find myself swaying slightly, trying to adjust from the motion of the coach.

By the time we reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it’s after midnight. The taxi rank by the coach station is deserted, except for a large rat. It looks at me dismissively before scampering off behind a nightclub. But this sort of thing happens to me a lot, so when I rang the hotel earlier I asked for the number of a cab company. Soon, I’m on my way to the hotel.

Unfortunately when I try to check in it turns out there’s been a glitch with the hotel booking system, and it’s completely full – of hen nights, if the drunk lady in the bar clutching a giant inflatable penis is anything to go by…

The receptionist is clearly having a chaotic evening, but asks me to take a seat in the bar while they arrange something with a nearby hotel for me and the other people who are also room-less. When I’m offered a drink, even I’m surprised how quickly I say “Coffee! Sweet, sweet caffeine!”

By the time a taxi drops me off at hotel number 2, I’m really tired – I’ve been travelling for 17 hours, and I’m still in the same country! I black out as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Next morning I have a swift breakfast in hotel number 2 (nice hotel, incredibly bitter coffee), then go back to hotel number 1 to see what’s happening with my room. They tell me check-in is at 2pm. I point out that I really need a room, as I’m supposed to be at Cullercoats for 3pm, and it’s going to take me at least half an hour to get there – plus, I’d really like to get changed first. They agree to let me have the first room that becomes available.

So – back to hotel number 2! Check out, lug my stuff to hotel number 1, and wait in the bar, again. I’m not expecting there to be a lot of early risers, but it’s 11:30 before I can finally check in.

I change quickly, then head back down to the lobby, and ask where the nearest Metro station is. “Well, first you have to get to the city centre…” I am, of course, in Newcastle Gateshead – the wrong side of the river Tyne. Never trust Expedia SuperSaver’s definition of city centre…

I ask them to call me a cab, and I go back to wait in the bar – for what seems like quite a while. I go back to reception to check, and they say that the cab came, but someone else took it, so they’ve called another. Back to the bar I go. By now, the hen night crowd is leaving – to be replaced by an incoming crowd wearing stag night T-shirts! Are there a lot of weddings in Newcastle this weekend? Does this hotel offer some kind of special rate if you book an entire floor? Am I still asleep on the coach, dreaming the whole thing?

I check again on the status of my cab, to be told the second one was also poached by someone else, so they’ve ordered a third. By now I’ve had enough of the bar so I go outside, determined to grab the next vehicle that arrives. It turns out to be a 12-seater booked for a hen night – luckily I don’t have to hijack it, as my cab is immediately behind it.

Into the cab – and into more roadworks. Apparently there are five major projects taking place in Newcastle at the moment – great news for the infrastructure long-term, a pain in the derriere right now. After crawling for a while, the driver asks where I need to go to, then offers to drive me all the way to Cullercoats. It’ll be quicker than driving into the city centre, then getting the Metro out again. I agree, and we head off, leaving the city and its roadworks behind.

Finally – Cullercoats! It’s a fishing village, with picturesque ruins, sandy beach and rocky shore, cottages with old rowing boats filled with flowers in their gardens.
In Victorian times it became very popular with day-trippers and artists, including American artist Winslow Homer.

It’s a sunny day, but it’s breezy walking along the sea front above the beach. I usually wear something long and flowing for readings, and my skirt has decided it’s time for a Marilyn Monroe impression (I apologise to any Cullercoats residents who got an inadvertent eyeful!)

I make my way to the venue for the book launch – a  fisherman’s mission, easily the prettiest place I’ve ever read in. I’m surprised how many people there have a ukulele with them, but it turns out there’ll be a band playing before and after the readings.

The book, Limerick Nation, contains limericks from all around the country, and one of the rules was that the last word of the first line had to be a part of your postal address – so no cheating! Readers have been organised geographically, so it’s interesting hearing how accents change as we read from north to south and back up again. It’s fun – the venue is full and we get a lot of laughs from the audience.

Afterwards I go to the book fair – a community centre that’s been taken over for the day by independent publishers. I’ve never seen so many lovely little poetry books in one place before, and I want to take all of them home with me, but I restrain myself and just buy what I can fit in my handbag. Luckily, books of haiku tend to be tiny.

Elsewhere, live bands are playing in the garden of a house on the sea front. Cyclists are trying to compose haiku about a bike ride. A writer is sitting out on the rocks trying to compose a poem before the tide comes in. This festival even has its own specially brewed pale ale – but I manage to catch the last train back into Newcastle.

I’m back again the next day – this time wearing more practical shoes and jeans, so I can walk on the sand,  gathering sea glass, watching swallows. I attend another launch, for two poetry books – this time in a lifeboat station, again with musical accompaniment (guitar). I particularly like the readings from The She Chronicles (poems about women from history).

On the sea front, there’s an ice-cream parlour selling some unusual flavours, like Horlicks with Maltesers, and Turkish Delight. I can’t choose, so have both –  both delicious, but eating them together does taste a little peculiar.

In the evening there’s a talk by Ann Cleeves – author of the series of novels televised as ‘Shetland’ and ‘Vera’ – a very interesting lady. Someone else beats me to it asking her what she thought of the casting of Douglas Henshall (good, but blond) as Jimmy Perez (dark, and of Spanish descent). She said there are going to be eight Shetland books in total, so that’s a few more to look forward to. This time the accompaniment is a traditional Shetland fiddler, with a beautiful instrument.

Easily the best literary festival I’ve been to – I wish I’d seen more of it, including the play about fracking – but next time I’ll go by train, not coach! As I leave Newcastle, I catch sight of that massive sculpture, the Angel of the North. I hope it will watch over my journey home…


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The Silver Metal Lover (1982)

My bookcase is starting to resemble a mausoleum. Anne McCaffrey, Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett – and now Tanith Lee.

I don’t usually read science fiction when I travel so I don’t write about it here, but for many years it formed the bulk of my reading – and Tanith Lee’s work fills shelves. I have over fifty of her books, and that’s barely half of her output. Prolific is putting it mildly – yet most people I know have never heard of her.

She uses – used – language like no-one else, swiftly sketching vivid, atmospheric worlds you’re reluctant to leave – or afraid to be a part of. Sex and violence are rarely far away – but there’s always beauty (however dark) and a sly sense of humour as she leads you through tangled themes of identity, gender, sensuality, vampirism… finishing some of her tales feels like waking from a dream.

And although I file her books with science fiction, that’s just one of the many genres in which she wrote: children, young adults, crime, science fiction, fantasy, history, horror, lesbian erotica – not to mention hundreds of short stories. Ahh, those stories – not usually my favourite form, but hers are like eating chocolates from a foreign country; you have no idea what exotic flavours could be lurking in the next layer.

It made her impossible to pigeonhole – and, possibly, hard to promote. Any child who loved Piratica, but then went on to read Disturbed By Her Song would probably be very disturbed indeed. But this variety is part of her appeal – whatever mood I’m in, there’ll be something to suit.

She also wrote for radio and television, and it was here that I first came across her, when she wrote an episode of Blake’s 7 (classic British 80s sci-fi). Sarcophagus is spookily atmospheric, and captures the show’s characters perfectly. I loved that episode, and wanted to read more of her work, but before the Internet it was hard to come by, especially those titles which were out of print. Half were published in Europe, half in the United States, by different publishers, with different cover styles, sometimes with alternative titles – not to mention foreign editions (translated into about twenty languages).

A friend let me read her cherished copy of Kill the Dead – in one sitting, as she wouldn’t let anyone take it out of the house. This uses alternate versions of some of the Blake’s 7 characters in a ghost story setting, and is a perfect example of how fan fiction can become literature (take note, Fifty Shades!).

After this I spent years looking for a copy of my own; scouring the shelves of second-hand bookshops, always keeping an eye out for Daw’s distinctive yellow spines. Along the way I found Red As Blood, The Electric Forest, The Flat Earth series – I treasured them all. Usually I prefer the covers of my books to match, but with these that didn’t matter; simply finding a Tanith Lee book I hadn’t read was, and still is, an event.

Then one year, on my birthday, I found a shiny new copy of The Silver Metal Lover. And although if you forced me to choose I’d say Kill the Dead is still my favourite, The Silver Metal Lover is a very close second, and so that’s the one I always suggest to other people (because although Kill the Dead stands alone as a story, if you’re familiar with Blake’s 7 it gives it another dimension, and certainly makes it even more fun).

On a futuristic Earth, teenage virgin Jane lives in a house above the clouds. Her wealthy mother controls her whole life – what she weighs, what she thinks, how many friends she has. Quiet, passive, Jane goes along with everything, content in her cocoon, until she falls in love – with a robot.

He’s a singer, one of a new line of recreational robots, impossibly beautiful, distinguishable from humans only by their metallic skin, for which they are named – Gold, Copper, Silver.

Initially repulsed, Jane falls for Silver. Her friends Clovis (delightfully snarky) and Egyptia (hysterical drama queen) arrange to buy him on her behalf. Jane then runs away with Silver, and they begin setting up home in the slums on the surface. Jane learns how to be independent, and gains the courage to try things which would once have terrified her – like standing up to her mother.

But does Silver love her? Can a robot love?

And then, following riots from human workers afraid of being replaced by robots, the government shuts Silver’s manufacturer down. Their robots are to be recalled – and destroyed…

This would make such a great movie. In fact, most of her stories would – they’re incredibly visual. This book may be nearly thirty years old, but stories about teenage girls and impossible love will always find an audience

If you read only one book by Tanith Lee – read this one. Yes, it’s a girl falling for a robot, which I know may sound silly (particularly to people who wouldn’t normally touch science fiction) but it’s not full of kinky sex. It’s one of the best books about love I’ve ever read.

This book still makes me weep, after all these years I loved it then, I love it even more now, since I discovered how completely love can transform you. In a way it reminds me of The Velveteen Rabbit – the theme that love makes you real. Loving, being loved, losing love…

It’s available for Kindle, along with a lot of her earlier work. (Her most recent books are available from Immanion Press, and if you’d like to know more, Daughter of the Night has an incredibly detailed list of her work.)

Oh – Kill the Dead? It now has pride of place on my bookshelf. Yes, it took seven years of searching but I found a second-hand copy to call my own, and eventually had it signed by the author. I’m so glad I got to meet her.

Thank you, Tanith.

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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Books


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Exeter – Raw Spirit (2004)

I’m travelling to Exeter, in Devon – by coach, which means that first I have to get in to London. Traffic is barely crawling, which I later find out is due to a traffic light failure. I’m worried I’ll arrive too late to make my connection at Victoria coach station – but the connecting coach has been delayed by this as well, so instead of missing it I end up standing for over an hour at the station. Many others are in the same position, and eventually the place becomes too crowded to move.

Luckily, I have a book to read – Raw Spirit, by the late Iain Banks. I’m actually reading it for a friend, who’d tried to read his Use of Weapons, but was struggling with it. Having read Use of Weapons, I can understand – it all makes perfect sense once you get to the end, but if you gave up after three chapters, you’d never know that. But Iain Banks (or Iain M Banks, if he was writing science fiction) wrote some great stuff, so I’m trying to find something my friend might find more enjoyable.

Raw Spirit – In search of the perfect dram is an account of his travels around Scotland in search of the perfect whisky. (Friend is into home brewing, so is likely to appreciate such a quest.) But although that’s what it’s about, and there’s plenty of information about how whisky is made, descriptions of whisky, trips around distilleries – it’s so much more than that. It’s got Scottish travel, childhood memories, social commentary and even science-fiction conventions. It’s a lot of fun, I’m sure my friend will enjoy it – and it’s a very welcome distraction for me.

The coach finally arrives and we board – only to find out there’s been a road traffic accident outside the coach station. By the time the traffic clears, ninety coaches are trying to get out of the station all at once. We’re an hour and half late getting to our first stop – I had originally been scheduled to arrive at 10, but that’s not going to happen. I don’t know if the hotel will still be open, and my phone has decided to stop working.

Then there’s a message from the coach driver – he’s almost over the legal limit of hours he’s allowed to drive. So we have to stop at a service station and wait for a new driver to come and replace him. Finally, we reach Exeter – which is when I discover that although the coach station is near the train station, and my hotel is near the train station – Exeter has more than one train station. It’s not far, but I don’t want to go stumbling around in the dark, so I get a cab. It’s 1am when I reach the hotel. I walk into my room – and straight into a shelf for a DVD player. I’m shattered, so for once I go straight to sleep.

Of course, I oversleep – there’s no clock or phone in my room, and my phone’s still not working. I walk smack into the DVD shelf again on the way to the bathroom – I have to turn sideways to get between it and the end of the bed. I dress hastily as, I need to catch a bus to Totnes, but there’s only one every two hours and, as I found out last night, I’m in the wrong part of town. I’m running late, so I catch another cab. The driver asks me where I’m heading, so I tell him Totnes. “Ah” says he. “Full of hippies.”

I get to the station just in time to see my bus pulling away. Another woman turns up seconds later – she wanted that bus as well, so we find a cafe and commiserate over scones. She asks where I’m going and, when I tell her Totnes, says “Ah – full of hippies”. Hmm…

Scones make two hours fly by. We head back to the station early, to make sure that we don’t miss the bus again. It’s a pretty drive out to Totnes. Is it full of hippies? Well – let’s just say if you want to hear a busker play Hotel California on a mandolin, you’ve come to the right place.

I had meant to have more of a wander around Totnes, but once I step inside the Devon Harp Centre, that’s it. I spend hours sitting on the floor, talking to the owner, trying out musical instruments. An adorable Wee Bonnie harp, like something a fairy would play. A Smartwood harp – assembled from a flat pack, but with a surprisingly bright tone. A mahogany Reverie harp which I would happily hold and strum forever…

I catch the last bus back to Exeter, and start getting ready to go out – which is when I realise just how incredibly annoying this hotel room really is.

I’m staying at the Abode, Exeter – originally called The Royal Clarence Hotel, it was built in 1769, and claims to be the first hotel in England. Normally I prefer to stay in old hotels – they have character, and for that I’m prepared to put up with things like uneven floors and temperamental antique lifts – but this one! I have stayed in worse hotels, and in smaller rooms – but that was reflected in the price. This place is claiming to be a four star hotel, but this is one of the pokiest rooms I’ve ever seen – basically, a single room, but with a double bed crammed into it. It’s a good thing I’m here on my own, as there’s no way two people could share this room for any length of time without wanting to kill each other.

First, and most irritating – why have a DVD player on a shelf that juts out from the wall, too close to the end of the bed – why not get a combined TV/DVD that can be wall mounted? I’d rather have no DVD player at all than keep bruising myself on it.

The sink in the bathroom is tiny – really tiny – about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. The glasses in the room are much bigger than a usual bathroom tumbler, and barely fit under the faucet. Taps?! Awkward to operate, to say the least. I can barely get my fingers between the tap and the wall to turn it – in fact, the easiest way to use it seems to be whilst sitting on the toilet. Of course, sitting on the toilet means banging your elbows on the sink and the shower…

The shelf above the sink is too small to hold much more than a toothbrush, but still manages to stick out far enough over the tiny sink to make cleaning your teeth difficult – if I lean over to spit into the tiny sink, I bang my head on the damn shelf!

Towels and facecloths – not soft. My towels at home are better, and I never thought I’d be able to say that about hotel towels. The hand towels, strangely, aren’t with the other towels on the rail behind the door, but on a rail tucked tightly underneath the sink, which leads to scraped knuckles – and stops me getting at the bin.

The light above the sink is alarmingly hot and casts huge dark shadows over my face, so I have to use the mirror in the bedroom – inconveniently located half over the desk. I try to stand in front of it, but the chair is in the way. I can’t slide the chair across (it’s too close to the bed in one direction, and the DVD shelf in the other) so I have to physically manoeuvre it up and over the desk to get it out of the way. Don’t even get me started on trying to use the ironing board…

And the bed! The mattress is too soft and saggy, and whenever I try to sit on the edge (because I can’t use the chair), I keep sliding off. Their website raves about the beds – presumably whoever writes it has never tried to sleep here. What sadist designs a hotel room with glass bedside shelves at knee height? Judging by the mended crack in the headboard, I’m not the first to catch myself on the damn things (more bruises). Surely they must realise that people in a hotel room may be moving around in a strange environment, in the dark?

That night I get no sleep whatsoever – and I’d already finished reading my book on the journey down here. I had been planning to get some work done, but cannot get onto the hotel wi-fi, despite repeated attempts. In the morning, I give up and go to find somewhere that can make my phone work again. That’s the one thing the hotel does have going for it – location. It’s directly opposite the cathedral – shame my room has a view of a back alley, covered in pigeon netting.

With my phone restored to working order, I start to explore. On the high street, there’s someone pretending to be a gargoyle (like those people who impersonate statues) but this one has a sign saying it’s coin-operated, so people pay to see it move, in a slow and creepy fashion – most ingenious.

I have a quick look around the cathedral, but cut it short to join a tour group, following what’s left of the old city walls. A lot of Exeter has been redeveloped (some sensitively, like the area down by the river Exe – other areas are less fortunate) but there are still plenty of interesting buildings dating back to medieval times – including The House That Moved, a Tudor building which was moved back in the Sixties to make way for a new road to be built. We also go through a park which has a plaque commemorating Mary, a racing pigeon who received the Animal VC for gallantry during World War Two!

Surprisingly, the tour group isn’t all tourists – some are local ladies, who’ve done the walk before, and afterwards invite me for more scones. When I tell them I’m staying at the Abode Exeter, they think this is hilarious, and suggest that if I want to stay in a good hotel I’d be better off staying at the Magdalen Chapter next time I come.

Some last minute souvenir shopping next, and I settle on a local speciality, saffron buns – like fruit buns but with a yellow tint, and that delicate saffron flavour.

I also buy a book to read on the coach. I can’t find a classic that I fancy, so I treat myself to White Corridor, by Christopher Fowler (an old favourite). In this adventure, detectives Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit stumble across a murder while they’re trapped on a motorway by a blizzard. I just hope my trip home is nothing like that…

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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in England