Category Archives: Books

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.

Leave a comment

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


Tags: , , , ,

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.

Leave a comment

Posted by on August 31, 2016 in Books, Wales


Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

1 Comment

Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Books


Tags: ,

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…


Tags: , ,

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.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Books


Tags: ,

Hampshire – My Dear Cassandra (Jane Austen’s letters)

I’m heading down to Winchester for a couple of days for a poetry festival. I was going to bring something by Jane Austen (she died in Winchester, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral) but then I came across a second-hand copy of My Dear Cassandra – a selection of extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, that’s slim enough to slip into my handbag.

I do like Winchester. A historic city, with a beautiful cathedral, lots of lovely old buildings. Some of the shops on the high street still have old metal signs hanging outside – a big boot for a shoe shop, parchment and quill for a stationers. Then there’s the statue of Alfred the Great, a medieval version of the Round Table, a butter cross – and Montezuma’s, a shop that sells delicious chocolate.

There are lots of poetical events going on this weekend – including a lady cycling around the town, stopping to recite poetry at slightly bewildered shoppers. I go to a very interesting workshop on self-publishing, and an evening event with poet Christopher Reid. Given that he’s probably best known for A Scattering, (a book of poems about his wife’s death), it’s a lot more light-hearted than I was expecting, He’s discussing things which inspire him, and he’s brought along a beautiful quilt which his wife made for him from second-hand silk ties. He also shows a classic Goon Show sketch – What time is it, Eccles?

There’s also a guided tour of Winchester, discussing its literary links – but that’s fully booked. Apart from the Austen connection, Watership Down was set nearby, and Keats composed his ode To Autumn (“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”) while walking here. Next day I get a leaflet with details of the route – but it runs beside a river, and the weather is not looking promising, so maybe not this time. Instead, my sister and I head off to nearby Alton, and Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen spent the most creative years of her life.

It’s the right choice – by the time we reach Alton, it’s pouring down. Luckily, just across the road from Chawton is a little coffee shop, appropriately named Cassandra’s Cup. We head inside for coffee and cake, and chat until the weather clears. I’m also tempted by some raspberry and lavender jam.

Lavender seems to be a recurring theme today. Once we get inside Jane Austen’s house there are little bunches of it on the furniture, and you can make your own lavender bag in one of the outbuildings.

The house has been restored to how it would have looked when Jane lived there. The sitting room door still creaks – Jane liked it that way, as it warned her when people were entering, giving her time to put her writing away. (Cassandra would most of the household chores, allowing Jane more time to write). Her writing table is so small – when I think of the hours of enjoyment I’ve had from the work she produced on it…

There are some of her letters on display – such tiny writing! – she then turned the letter upside down, writing again between the lines. Common practice back then, as postage costs depended on the size of the letter, and it was the recipient who paid – but I don’t think I could write that small, legibly, with a quill pen.

The bedroom the two sisters shared is so small – if the room my sister and I shared for so many years had been this small, I doubt that we’d still be friends now. The library has more books about Jane Austen than I ever knew existed, and copies of her works in all manner of languages.

It’s a good thing we came early. This little house is now full of visitors – five of the women (and one brave man) are in period costume. Nice to see men here – I’m always trying to persuade more men to read Austen. Her work isn’t simply romantic fluff – she has such a wonderful way of observing people. Mr Collins has to be one of the most memorable characters in literature – deliciously grovelly.

And the museum isn’t just for the ladies – two of Jane’s brothers were in the navy, so there is naval memorabilia as well (brother Frank was disappointed to miss the battle of Trafalgar).

It’s quite sunny now, so we go out into the garden. It’s smaller than it would have been in Jane’s time, but thanks to a high hedge (and the fact that a bypass takes most of the traffic away from the village) it’s still very quiet. Jane’s little donkey cart is on display – it must have been fun, going for a ride around the grounds. The garden also has some activities for children, such as word magnets, and signs with information about the birds which live here. I could sit here and write all day.

Then there’s the gift shop. More Mr Darcy merchandise than anyone could ever need. Most of it looks like Colin Firth (from the wonderful 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) – he must just cringe at some of it. (Personally, I always preferred Mr Rochester – he has more of a sense of humour).

And what about the book? Published in 1990, selections chosen by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.
There are extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, mainly to her beloved sister Cassandra, but also to other relatives, friends – and even an unco-operative publisher. There are relevant passages from her novels, and illustrations from the period, so you get a better idea of what the clothes, the carriages, looked like.

There is talk of balls and bonnets, buying fabric for dresses. There are descriptions of visits to Bath and Lyme Regis (later to feature in Persuasion), and of going to art exhibitions, trying to find portraits that look like her characters. She gives advice to her niece Fanny, who also wanted to be a novelist.

(I love where she describes Pride and Prejudice as “My own darling child” – I felt the same way when I first had a poem published.)

I always wondered what Jane Austen would have been like to meet in person – these letters show her to be just as mischievous as Elizabeth Bennet. And a moving letter written by Cassandra after Jane’s death shows that she was a beloved sister.

There are probably more complete books of Jane Austen’s letters, for the academically inclined – but for the average reader, this is a treat.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 22, 2014 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland



The Annotated Alice (2000)

I’m treating myself to a hat making course. Now, what’s in my pile of books that would go with that? Don’t know about you, but I can only think of one hatter in literature – the Hatter from Alice in Wonderland – so into my suitcase goes The Annotated Alice.

I’m staying in a little village outside Evesham, in Worcestershire. There’s not a lot here apart from a church, a school, a shop, and the pub I’m staying in. It’s an old inn, and the stables have been converted into bedrooms, with an equine theme – prints, plates, brass – and the bathroom has what looks like a stable door. As is so often the case with the places I visit, mobile phone reception is pretty patchy, but it’s a good excuse for a wander along the edges of fields, with occasional pauses while I wave my phone around hopefully.

The millinery school is like a little haberdashery version of Aladdin’s cave – threads, ribbons, feathers, buckles, scraps of silk. And there are shelves full of hat moulds – some modern polystyrene, some antique wood – one which looks a lot like the Hatter’s hat. There’s also a cat, which (appropriately enough) keeps disappearing.

Over the next three days I learn how to measure and cut silk, iron on stiffener, then block it (stretch it over the mould, then push in blocking pins to hold it in place) and put it in a heated cabinet to dry.

The straw hat is made from a cone of parasisal, which has to be soaked before being blocked (slippery, and a lot harder to get the pins through), cut to size, and then brushed with an incredibly stinky stiffener before that too goes into the drying cabinet.

Of course once they’re dry, you have to try to get the pins out. And I thought getting the things in was difficult…

I learn how to sew stab stitch, wire stitch, and back stitch (the neatest the tutor has ever seen). I wrestle with artificial flowers, and try to slide a buckle on without distorting my neat box pleat.

The straw hat is finally dry, so the tutor shows me how to bend a straw off-cut into a bow, add a little black lace motif, and position a little cockade of feathers at a suitably jaunty angle.

The last afternoon is spent cutting and sewing linings to the hats, then adding pretty lace ribbon to hide the join. I am now the proud owner of four beautiful little pillbox hats.

By day I make hats – by night, I’m exploring The Annotated Alice, by Martin Gardner.

It’s the definitive edition, in hardback – and the paper is creamy and smooth. It has the full text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872) and the combined notes from Gardner’s previous two editions of The Annotated Alice. There are lengthy notes at the side of page – the text is smaller than the story text, but still big enough to read easily – which is just as well, as there are a lot of them Very few pages are without some comments shedding more light on the stories, and the life of Lewis Carroll.

Alice is a classic children’s story, which I imagine would be pretty impenetrable to most modern children of Alice’s age – even more so if they haven’t been brought up in England.

Strangely, I never read Alice as a child, although we had a book of the poems from the stories, with the Tenniel illustrations (anyone know the name of it? Hardback, blue square, 70s?) so Jabberwocky was the first poem I knew by heart.

I suspect most people are familiar with Alice from seeing one of the film/television versions, which is not ideal. I know, I know – people always whinge that the book was better – but most movies of Alice are a mixture of episodes from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she falls down a rabbit hole and meets a variety of strange characters, including playing cards.

Through the Looking Glass is more structured – she goes through a mirror and becomes a pawn in a game of chess (there’s even an illustration and a list of the moves in the introduction).

You can’t just take chunks of two different stories, with different plots and characters, squash them together and expect it to work – no wonder the recent Tim Burton adaptation was a confused mess. Just one example – the Red Queen should have been called the Queen of Hearts. There is a Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, but she helps Alice, and doesn’t want to have anyone’s head cut off.

(And it’s not really clear if the two stories are happening in the same place. Apart from Alice, the only characters to appear in both books are the Hatter and the Hare – but they don’t recognise Alice, or she them. In Through the Looking Glass they are called Hatta and Haigha, and it’s only the illustration that shows they are the same characters.)

One of my pet hates is when I see something really imaginative, and someone makes a comment about the creator being on drugs. It annoys me to see creativity dismissed – although there are some things where you do wonder, and I can understand why they might say that about Alice. But this edition shows you that a lot of the seemingly whacky rhymes are in fact parodies of popular songs of the time, which Victorian readers would have recognised, though we do not.

The wonderful Jabberwocky was completely original and here there are examples of it in French and German (I don’t envy the translators that job).

There are explanations of lots of in-jokes, some best appreciated by lovers of mathematics, some which would have been known to local people, and some just for Alice and her family. I can’t begin to list all the interesting little nuggets of information.

One of my favourites is the theory that Cheshire cheese used to be moulded in shape of a smiling cat – you would start cutting it at the tail, so eventually only the smile would be left, which could be the origin of the Cheshire Cat.

I also like “Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today” – said by the White Queen, it’s used as a mnemonic by Latin teachers. In Latin, now is ‘iam’ (jam) in the past and future tense (yesterday and tomorrow), but in the present tense (today) it’s ‘nunc’.

Reading The Annotated Alice is like reading a whole new book. It adds another dimension to a classic, making it clear that it’s skilful piece of satire, not simply nonsense for children.

It’s an impressive piece of research and it’s hard to think of many other stories originally intended for children which have inspired this much adult interest.

If you’ve been confused by Alice – read this book. If you already love Alice – buy this book.

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland