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.

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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.

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


Glastonbury – The Mists Of Avalon (1983)

I’m off to Glastonbury – not the music festival, the town itself. As it doesn’t have a railway station, I’m taking the coach – and as it’s a seven hour trip, I can bring something chunky – The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
It’s the story of King Arthur, but told by the women – mainly his half-sister Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), his wife Gwenhwyfar, and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. And at over a thousand pages, it should keep me engrossed on the coach.

I’ve been really lucky with the hotel – this is a short break, and my coach home will be leaving very early in the morning, so I booked as close as I could get to the coach stop – the George and Pilgrim Hotel. I didn’t realise that it was built in 1475 to accommodate wealthy pilgrims, so it’s all exposed timber, arched doorways and spiral staircases – good thing I’m travelling light, as there’s no lift. I’m staying in the ‘new’ part of the building – only 250 years old!

Next morning I wake up to the sound of a bell tolling. Thinking it’s from the church next door, I start counting to see what time it is – 10, 11, 12 – surely I haven’t slept away the whole morning? But the bell keeps tolling. I keep counting, and when it gets to 100 the church bells start to ring. Whatever I’ve been hearing doesn’t stop, but gradually fades away.

It’s only 8 am. On my way down to breakfast I meet a member of staff, and ask her which part of the hotel is haunted. She laughs, then says it all is. People are more likely to see things in the older part, but odd things happen everywhere – and they often hear a bell tolling in the kitchen…

Glastonbury has an unusual atmosphere, and it’s something that seems vaguely familiar. It takes a while for me to pin it down, but eventually I realise it feels a lot like St John’s, Newfoundland. But the energy there is more raw, so you don’t know whether to get creative or get drunk – here, it’s been harnessed, focussed for spirituality, for a long, long time.

There’s definitely something here that people react to. Talking to various locals I hear of people who’ve come here, stopped taking their medication, and got better – or worse. One tells me that people come to his shop looking for spare parts for time machines. He’s also had one man ask for a crystal with a chemical formula he saw in a dream – turns out there was such a crystal! The man never came back, so maybe his time machine worked…

The weather is surprisingly good, so I want to go up Glastonbury Tor – but first I need a new memory card for my camera. If you ever go to Glastonbury, make sure you bring all your supplies with you. I try two pharmacies, a post office, a newsagent, an art supply shop and tourist information (who suggest getting a bus to another town!) before finding a computer store which sells memory cards. I’m not the only one with this problem – I hear another woman lament “Dozens of places where I can buy crystals – nowhere I can buy knickers?!”

On to the Tor. It’s the highest point for miles around, and I’m walking up the steepest route, but the view is worth it. Recent floods have left nearby fields looking like lakes, and it’s a lot easier to picture Glastonbury as the island it once was, as it’s described in The Mists of Avalon. There are quite a few people here already, including some children who are trying to play hide and seek (though the only place to hide here is the one room of the tower on top of the Tor) and a lot of photographers – taking pictures of the tower, the Tor, the valley, the clouds. I take a photo of my own shadow, stretching away down the hillside.

I make my way down the less steep slope, and on to Chalice Well. I didn’t really know what to expect from this – but I loved it. It’s a garden, but it’s landscaped so it’s almost like a series of rooms, with several water features – pools, streams, an iron-rich spring flowing from a lion’s mouth – and seats where people can rest, contemplate. There are ammonites set into the stone walkways, little carvings of angels set in niches, and a view of the Tor, with a bright moon visible high above in the afternoon sky.

Then I get to the Well itself – and if there is anything special about Glastonbury, this is where it comes from. There are other people there; we look at each other, smile – but no-one says a word. The feeling – I still can’t put it into words. I feel relaxed, but invigorated. I want to hug the whole world, and apologise to anyone I’ve ever hurt. And I never want to leave – but I am also feeling a little overwhelmed. I mention this to a lady in the gift shop – she smiles, says “We get that a lot”, and suggests I try some apple juice, which helps.

Back at the hotel, I take photos of this wonderful old building. The walls are decorated with murals, copies of Arthurian themed paintings, by local artist Yuri Leitch. There are images of the Tor carved into plaster, images of the Round Table, the Green Man. Later I find that a couple of the rooms (the Nun’s Cell, the Confessional) seem to have lots of little white orbs hovering around them in the photos – something I’ve heard of, but never seen before.

Time for tea. I choose a table (beneath a mural about Morgan le Fay) and order a steak and otter pie. It’s not actually made with otter (that’s the name of a local ale) – but when it arrives it’s so big that I ask the waitress if there’s a whole otter in there. She laughs, then says “No – but it does weigh more than my dog!”. It’s a bowl filled with a full dinner – steak, potatoes, vegetables and gravy – with a big puff pastry pillow on top. I abandon all thoughts of dessert, or even a pint of cider, and tuck in. It’s lovely. My floaty feeling is soon gone, replaced by a feeling of wanting to curl up and snooze. I was going to read a little more – but post-pie drowsiness prevails.

Next morning is grey, with a light drizzle – perfect weather for visiting the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. There’s a good little exhibition centre before you enter the abbey itself – I love it when these places have things you can touch, like bits of sculpture. They even have some vestments (not to be touched) – the embroidery looks very good for something so old. Paper and pencils are available if you want to sketch, and there’s a lot of material for children. For some reason there’s also the jawbone of a whale.

The damp weather means I have the ruins to myself. It also gives a suitably mournful atmosphere. Doves perch in a broken archway, until a crow swoops down – and suddenly I can feel a poem coming on. Apparently Henry VIII stayed at my hotel to watch as the abbey was destroyed. In a way, I almost prefer ruined churches, but I wish I could have seen this one while it was intact – it was one of the wealthiest in the country and, judging by what remains, it must have been stunning. Some traces of the original paint remain, so there’s a picture of how the Lady Chapel was probably decorated. There are little wooden flaps which you can lift up to touch the medieval tiles beneath. There are signs showing where the high altar once stood, and where monks found what they believed were the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere.

There are two ponds and a small nature area behind the abbey, so I spot fifteen species of bird in as many minutes, as well as squirrels, and one stealthy cat. Apparently there are badgers here – persuaded (somehow) to move from their former home, which was undermining the ruins.

The drizzle finally stops, so I go back into the town. Most of the shops here are goddess-oriented, but one, the Wild Hunt is decidedly masculine – not so many girly accessories, and more pictures of the Horned God. I wander around the crystal shops – and there are a lot of them. I have already told myself I can only buy one crystal, so I don’t know how many shops I browse in before choosing a charming little labradorite bear.

In my room I scribble down some notes for a poem. Then I head down to the bar. Just a light meal this evening – tempting though the pies are, it’s an early start in the morning so I mustn’t oversleep – and I want to get back into The Mists of Avalon.

Avalon has helped (schemed?) to make Arthur king, on the understanding that he will defend the old religion – but Christianity is starting to take hold of the British Isles, and Avalon is starting to drift away from Glastonbury, possibly to be lost from our world forever. Will Arthur keep his promise, or will Morgaine, his sister and a priestess of Avalon, have to put someone else on the throne?

This is a classic. I really enjoyed it, even though it’s a sad story. It has a huge cast, covers several generations and is beautifully written. Clearly, a lot of research has gone into this; the world feels authentic, and the dialogue rings true. All the women feel like people you actually know, with their own insecurities and inconsistencies, torn by conflicting loyalties of family and faith. And all the characters are acting with the best intentions, in many cases out of love – but we already know the Arthurian story is a tragedy. However, in spite of this, the book manages to end on a hopeful note.

My only criticism of this book is that the male characters aren’t as fully developed as the female ones. Also, it is very critical of Christianity, which might be an issue for some readers. It is really a book for women rather than men, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as chick-lit. One day, when my niece is old enough, I will give her a copy of this book.

It’s still dark when I creep out of the hotel next morning, and it’s cold waiting for the coach. But as I leave Glastonbury the sun rises, and I drift off to sleep listening to harp music.


Halifax, Nova Scotia – Dracula (1897)

Possibly something spooky was not the best choice of reading material…

I’m reading Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Re-reading it, in fact – it’s a favourite of mine. I first read it when I was thirteen, and on a family holiday in Wales. We were staying in a little fishing village, close enough to the sea that I could hear boats creaking – which really added to the atmosphere. I stayed up all night to finish reading it, and had to leave the light on, which seemed to attract seagulls – well, something was tapping at my window all night – I hope it was gulls…

Another weird experience this time. I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and once more I’m at the Waverley Inn. Usually I love the atmosphere in this place – though I’ve never stayed in this room before. It’s very pretty, a picture hanging over the fireplace – but I’ve not been in the room long before I start feeling uncomfortable – very uncomfortable. I feel like I’m being watched, like there’s someone behind me – that horrible hairs on the back of your neck feeling. I realise that the lights are starting to flicker – then they start flickering wildly. As I look up at the lights, there’s a frighteningly loud BANG! I jump, and turn to find that the picture above the fireplace is now on the floor. It’s landed hard enough to break a chunk of plaster out of the frame – and it’s knocked over a vase of flowers, so there’s a puddle of water on the floor.

I head down to the lobby, and tell the guy on the front desk. He says they’ll send someone to tidy up, and asks for my room number. When I give it, his face freezes.
“We’ll give you a different room.”
A different room? Because a picture came off the wall?

Then I remember the atmosphere, and the lights – and a tour of Halifax I once went on, the tour guide saying this place was haunted – although as he said it was the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who’d had his head cut off in Paris for being homosexual(?!), I didn’t take that too seriously.

I’ve never felt any bad vibes here – quite the opposite, in fact – but I have to ask.
“This sort of thing – lights going crazy, paintings jumping off walls – does it happen often?”
“Erm – sometimes.” He coughs, tries to look busy with the register.

So – a haunted hotel room. That’s a first for me, unless there really was something in Charlottetown. (I later asked the hotel if they were happy for me to mention this in my blog – they laughed, and said it wasn’t a secret, and that they’d already had one of those ghost chasing shows filming there). I don’t change rooms. My room is tidied – and the painting removed. From then on, the atmosphere’s normal and the lights behave themselves, so I can go back to reading my book.

Everyone knows Dracula, right? The vampire from Transylvania who comes to nibble necks in Victorian London. But hardly anyone I ask seems to have read it – they’ve seen a movie. And most film adaptations really don’t do it justice. A lot of them try to make Dracula almost romantic (rather than a rapist), which means the women don’t seem to do much except wander around in period costume. That’s a shame, because Mina Harker in the book is a real heroine. She has no fears about going to Budapest alone, at a time when a lot of women were wary of catching a train to London on their own. She memorises train timetables, learns shorthand and typing – it’s her idea to type copies of the journals of the characters in the story, and put the entries in chronological order so that they can figure out what’s happening. It’s also her idea to have Van Helsing hypnotise her to get a better idea of Dracula’s movements. She does not want to become a vampire, and fights every step of the way.

The movies also don’t usually reflect just how much travelling there is in the book: Harker going to Transylvania, Mina and Lucy going to Whitby, Van Helsing flitting between London and Amsterdam, the journey of the Demeter, Quincey’s travel stories, Mina going to Budapest to collect Jonathan, and then everyone catching the Orient Express and racing to Dracula’s castle at the end. The amount of detail makes it hard to believe Stoker never even set foot in Transylvania – he would have made a good travel writer. He did visit North America, including Toronto, but I don’t know if he ever visited Halifax.

Interesting how the characters in the book are using all the latest hi-tech gadgets of their day – travel typewriters, phonograph recordings – while in contrast, I’m travelling low-tech – no laptop, I-Pod, CD player, dictaphone. The only electronic gadget I’ve brought is my camera, which (although slightly more sophisticated) is still something those characters might recognise – Jonathan Harker has a Kodak camera.

It’s hard to imagine now what it would have been like to read this when it was first published. We’re used to vampires in horror movies and cartoons (and even Sesame Street!). We already know, even without reading the book, that Dracula is the vampire, so it does seem to take our heroes ages to figure it out. And when Dracula breaks Jonathan’s mirror (because it doesn’t show his reflection), it’s hard to believe that Jonathan’s main concern at that point is wondering how he’s going to shave himself.

But it’s still a brilliant book. Yes, Van Helsing’s mangled English is frustrating to read, but that’s my only complaint. It wasn’t the first novel to be presented as extracts from letters and journals, but the style is used really effectively here. And it wasn’t the first vampire novel, but Stoker clearly got something right, creating a template for hundreds of imitators. I still live in hope of someday seeing a totally faithful film adaptation – I’d love to hear the line “Why, this beats even shorthand!” in a horror movie.

I leave the paperback in the hotel’s bookcase, for a future visitor to discover – hopefully without any spooky distractions!

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Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Canada, Nova Scotia


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Halifax, Nova Scotia – The Tale of Genji

Another trip to Canada, so more reading time. I quite fancy reading The Tale of Genji again.

It was written by a woman – Murasaki Shikibu – in tenth century Japan, and it’s thought to be the oldest novel in the world. There are older books, certainly, but they are religious, myths, or factual. This is purely fiction, designed to entertain. It’s the story of a son of the emperor, Prince Genji, ‘the shining one’, and his many romantic entanglements.

Court ladies lived life behind screens, so the men can’t even see the women they’re wooing (like online dating, but so much more beautiful). Prospective lovers are judged not by their appearance, but by how well they can compose poetry, how good their calligraphy is, whether the paper they have chosen is appropriate. There are about 800 short poems in all, mostly about love in its various forms.

It’s romantic, and sad, and beautiful – but I’m travelling light, and ‘The Genji’ as Japanese scholars call it, is one big honking book.

I first read the Seidensticker translation – but that was an Everyman hardback, and I ended up reading it with The World of the Shining Prince, by Ivan Morris (lots of useful background information about Heian Japan) so together they take up a lot of space. There is a more recent version by Royall Tyler with loads of footnotes, but I struggled with that translation – and even in paperback, it took up half my hand luggage.

If only someone could make a book of just the love poems from Genji…

Someone has.

It’s called A String of Flowers, Untied. Jane Reichhold and Hatsue Kawamura have chosen about 400 of the poems, in Japanese with English translations, and written a short summary of each chapter to give them some context, as well as notes explaining references, and puns (a string untied was apparently a euphemism for making love). It’s great for dipping into if I only have a few minutes, and just as beautiful as the Genji – and far more portable. The book itself is a lovely item, and simply would not look this good on a Kindle.

As is often the case, I find life echoing what I read. Summer has finally come to Halifax, so there is cherry blossom (suitably Japanese) – and would you believe I got to meet a prince?

Yes, HRH the Prince of Wales is on a flying visit to Canada, and I get to shake his hand on a walkabout at the Grand Parade in Halifax. There’s something I never thought I’d blog.

In another Japanese connection, one morning when I stroll down to the boardwalk, there are about fifty girls dressed in very cute costumes – a Japanese fashion walk is about to begin. There’s a lot of pink and frilly, and cute, but there are also some gothic costumes, and as the walk progresses they’re joined by people who prefer to dress in more heavily armoured costume – leading to some strange sights, like a Klingon holding a big cuddly toy, Thor holding a cup of coffee, and a Star Wars stormtrooper being impaled by a girl dressed as a unicorn…

That’s one of the reasons I love Halifax. There’s always something to see or do, even for free. More than once I find myself in Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia, drooling over Arcane Angel‘s jewellery (gorgeous silver steampunk creations, made using antique moulds and vintage watch parts).

I also drool (literally) at Rousseau Chocolatier – a new chocolate shop where there’s a viewing room so you can watch the chocolatier at work. They make chocolate with a filling of orange and balsamic vinegar (sounds weird, tastes amazing) – and a really rich hot chocolate, which I take back to my room to savour with some more poetry.

And at least this time my hotel wasn’t haunted – but that’s another post…

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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Books, Canada, Nova Scotia


Reading – Wolf Brother (2004)

Today I’m taking Nephew, who shares my love of things furry and ferocious, to a writing workshop with Michelle Paver (one of his favourite authors) at a wolf sanctuary.

In Reading.

Yes, the UK Wolf Conservation Trust is based at a 50 acre farm on the outskirts of Reading. Wolves aren’t always popular in England, so the trust seems to be keeping a low profile – we’re almost on top of the place before we see any signs for it. Michelle Paver came here to do research for Wolf Brother, and is now one of the trust’s patrons. She’s written several books for children, including the Chronicles of Ancient¬† Darkness.

There’s some rubbish written for children (I’m looking at you, School For Good And Evil!) but I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Brother. I want to find out what happens next, so I’ll have to borrow the rest of the series (five volumes)¬† from my nephew.

(In fact, I enjoyed it more than a similar book for adults I read recently – Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson. That’s also about the adventures of a young hunter, but any believable prehistoric atmosphere keeps being shattered by the use of modern language. It’s very hard to suspend your disbelief when people from the Stone Age keep exclaiming “Mama mia”! I’m not making this up – see page 108).

But back to Wolf Brother. All his life, Torak has lived in the forest with his father, the Wolf Clan mage. But when his father is killed by a supernatural bear, Torak, just twelve years old, has to fend for himself. He finds an orphan wolf cub and discovers that they can communicate. Together with Renn, a girl from Raven Clan, they go on a quest to the Mountain of the World Spirit, to find a way to defeat the demon bear.

It’s a good story, simply told but all the better for it. It rattles along at quite a pace – I kept saying to myself “Just one more chapter, then I’ll stop” – but I read it in one sitting. The world is described vividly, but concisely, without the dense blocks of text which can be too much for younger readers. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the world seen through Wolf’s eyes. And although Torak and Wolf communicate, it’s as you would with a dog – no cute talking animals!

About twenty children and adults have come for the workshop today. Michelle is very good with the children. She talks to them about writing, and how important it is to involve all your senses. She’s brought things for them to handle – wolf hair, an antler, a pair of mittens made from caribou hide sewn with sinew, and a stone axe head.

The weather’s been dreadful, but as soon as there’s a break in the rain we go outside for a walk with Mai, a Canadian wolf. She’s a big girl, and there are two handlers holding her leash – if she did choose to make a run for it, one man alone simply wouldn’t be able to stop her. The wolf dictates the direction of the walk, and we all follow, at a respectful distance. Nephew is thrilled to be this close to a real live wolf, and is beaming – I’m pretty excited myself.

Mai leads us across a very squelchy field, pausing to roll in interesting smells and mark her territory, and regularly howls to the other wolves, who howl back – a wonderful sound. At one point it looks like she’s going to go for a swim in a stream, but she changes her mind – I suspect the handlers are relieved, as they’re muddy enough already. Wolves aren’t the only animals welcome here – there’s also a small pool for frogs, and the trees have nesting boxes for birds and bats. Overhead I can see a red kite – one of England’s rarest and most beautiful birds of prey.

When Mai decides to head back, the handlers show us the rest of the wolves. The enclosures here are good, with plenty of room to run, trees, running water. The wolves look healthy, and seem pleased to see their handlers. The trust views them as ambassadors for their species, thinking that people are more likely to care about animals they’ve seen in the flesh, rather than ones they’ve only seen on television. My favourites are Pukak, Sikko and Massak – Arctic wolves, who are totally white (or would be, apart from the mud). Nephew’s favourite is Torak, who is named after the character in the book.

Then the heavens open. We dash back into the classroom. Michelle talks a little more about writing, then we eat our packed lunches, and try to write something ourselves. Nephew starts writing a story about wolves that worship a mysterious box. I can’t think of a story, so I scribble down a poem about eating my way through the animal kingdom, and listen to the rain drumming on the roof.

The rain stops – would we like to watch the wolves being fed? Of course we would. But as the wolves hold down chunks of deer carcass with their paws, peel back the hide with their teeth and start crunching on ribs, I hear a small girl beside me say “Mummy, I don’t think I want to be a wolf keeper after all…” A couple of people who are feeding the wolves are new, so the wolves are unsure whether to accept food from them. This is what the red kites have been waiting for – four of them swoop down, looking for scraps.

The heavens open once more – so it’s back into the classroom we go. While we were watching the wolves eat, Michelle was busy reading our literary efforts. She has something constructive to say about all of them. She asks Nephew what exactly it is the wolves are worshipping in his story, and is amused to find out that it’s a toaster. She reads out part of my poem, and everyone in the room laughs. Then it’s time for a quick Q&A, book signing, and a visit to the gift shop to choose a toy wolf for smaller nephew (who can’t come on a wolf walk yet because he’s too small – bite-size!)

We’re the last to leave. As we head out, Torak, who is usually shy around people, stands at the edge of the enclosure, looking right at us.

Nephew isn’t usually talkative – but he’ll be talking about this for days.

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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Books, England


American Psycho (1991)

This was going to be a review of the book by Bret Easton Ellis – but now it’s a review of the musical.

When I was a child, I would finish every book I started reading. Experience has taught me that there are some books that aren’t worth wasting the time on, and some that (for one reason or another) I simply cannot get into.

American Psycho falls into the latter category. It’s about Patrick Bateman, a New York banker who’s also a serial killer. I first tried to read it years ago, but gave up after the second chapter. I had thought that I’d be put off by the gore, but in fact it was the constant recitation of brand names that did it. Even if it’s supposed to be satire, people talking about what brands they’ve bought bores me rigid. I am not a label-slut!

Then I heard it was being turned into a musical, directed by Rupert Goold – and starring Matt Smith. Now that, I thought, had potential. Yes, a musical about a serial killer may initially sound like a strange idea – but it worked for Sweeney Todd, Little Shop Of Horrors, and (my personal favourite) Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens.

So I decided to give the book another go. This time I made it about 80 pages in before I gave up again. The designer labels, the pretentious food, the boring characters, their meaningless lives… Patrick is the only interesting character, as at least he recognises how empty his life is – unfortunately he resorts to murder to fill it. Possibly I would have found him less sympathetic if I’d managed to read as far as the murders, but sticking with the book in the hope that someone would die soon increasingly began to feel like a warped reason to continue reading, especially when there are so many other books waiting for me.

But I still want to see the show – to say that demand for tickets is high is an understatement. After spending over two hours alternately ringing the box office (engaged) or trying the website (server overloaded) I decide to turn up early and hope for returns. As soon as I set out, the heavens open – good! Less competition – not as many people are prepared to go out on the off-chance if it’s raining.

The train crawls into London. The nearest Underground station to the Almeida Theatre is the Angel Islington, which makes me smile, for I am Queen of Trivia (the Angel Islington is a character in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, played in the television series by Peter Capaldi, who’ll be replacing Matt Smith in Doctor Who).

Curtain up is at 7:30. I’ve waited for returns before, so I get to the theatre at 5:00. The box office staff are clearly having one hell of a day, but the lady tells me there may be a ticket if I can wait. I’m first in the queue, but only just – the next hopeful arrives about ten minutes later. By 7:15 they’re playing Talking Heads in the foyer to get us in the mood, and I’m getting twitchy – then box office lady calls me over.

Yes! I’m in – and in the fifth row. The set looks quite white and bare initially – but then a sun bed emerges from below the stage and out steps Matt Smith, wearing briefs and an eye mask – and goodness, he’s looking surprisingly buff. Maybe I’m shallow, but Patrick’s description of his beauty regime and wardrobe as he dresses is suddenly a lot less boring…

The first number, Clean, is good, but the next one, Cards, is both hilarious and impressively choreographed, as bankers dance around tables, competing to impress each other with their business cards. And then the ladies get their chance to shine, with You Are What You Wear (“No, there’s nothing ironic/About our love of Manolo Blahnik”).

Hardbody, set in a gym, sends up the pursuit of physical perfection. If We Get Married is also fun, where Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn (Susannah Fielding) describes her dream wedding, oblivious to his murderous comments – and the fact that he’s having an affair with her friend.

Oh, I could list them all. Most of the songs are original (by Dunce Sheikh) but with an almost Pet Shop Boys feel to them. Where snippets of real 80s songs are used, they are sung by the cast. I particularly liked the vocal arrangements for True Faith, In The Air Tonight and something that was very nearly Hungry Like The Wolf. Soundtrack, please?

The staging is very slick. Two revolves and a central lift are used to transform the stage into offices, apartments, clubs, taxis, street scenes, the beach. The various tableaux of the elves/waiters at the Christmas party are ingenious, and must require some nifty footwork offstage. Good use of lighting and projections too, both to change the setting and to suggest the gore (rather less of this, I suspect, than in the book).

And Matt Smith? Anyone who’s watched him in Doctor Who (his physicality, the almost balletic way he moves around the console) would guess he can dance – but can he sing? Thankfully, yes. Maybe he’s not quite ready for Sondheim yet, but I’m sure his voice will grow more confident as the run progresses. He also manages to maintain a convincing American accent throughout the show. And any thought of him as the Doctor vanishes as soon as he has a threesome with a woman and a big pink cuddly toy.

It’s a complex role to play; Patrick is charming and attractive to both men and women, but also blank and chilling (when someone says the font on his business card has been discontinued, you know they will regret it). He feels that he simply doesn’t exist, and he’s not even sure whether the murders are all in his head. He keeps making remarks about killing, but everyone assumes that’s just his sense of humour. His colleagues are all obsessed with appearances, his mother is medicated – the closest thing he has to a genuine friendship is with his devoted secretary Jean (Cassandra Compton), who has no idea what he’s really like, and how close to death she may be.

Matt Smith manages to make all this believable, convincingly portraying Patrick’s emptiness, desperate boredom, and increasing instability. He clearly has a lot of energy, and it would have been easy to use that to go over the top in a role like this, but he keeps it carefully controlled, behind the facade that is Patrick, until it’s needed. Seeing him stabbing people on the dance floor, dancing with a knife and cleaver, and bringing a nailgun to a date will stay with me for a while. But by the end it’s hard not to feel sorry for his character – a sad, lost boy almost incapable of normal human interaction, struggling to fit into a world that’s lost any real values.

The cast are all good (a couple more Who alumni in there too) and make the most of all the comic opportunities. Since I haven’t managed to finish the novel, I’m not sure how much of the humour came from there, or has been added by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. It’s undeniably funny – the Christmas party, the cyclist at the beach, the dry-cleaner, Les Mis, the scene where Patrick tries to strangle a friend, who thinks this means he fancies him – I haven’t laughed so much at murder since Hobo With A Shotgun.

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Posted by on December 15, 2013 in Books


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