A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, “You must excuse me,” and left this poor man among the privet hedges.
So begins Barbara Comyns wonderful, strange, remarkable novel. This man plays no part in the plot, though he reappears for a second at the very end. The story is told by Alice Rowlands, aged about sixteen when the novel begins. She lives with her sad, sickly mother and her violent, bullying father in Clapham, south London. The time is the early twentieth century. Alice's home life is dreary, closed and oppressed. She feeds the sad, neglected animals, many of them destined for the vivisectionist. Her only friend is Lucy, who is deaf and dumb, and the two girls go for walks in Battersea Park, conversing on their hands. Her mother dies, and her father brings home Rosa, a barmaid, who he describes as his housekeeper. Alice acquires an admirer, her father's dull but kindly locum, who she calls Blinkers. Rosa tricks her into a frightening encounter with a man who says he is a head waiter but turns out to be a hotel porter. She goes to the country to be a companion to Blinkers' strange, suicidal mother. She falls in love with a handsome sailor. And she discovers that she possesses strange powers which confuse her and which finally bring about the novel's extraordinary ending.
As I tell you all this I am conscious that it will give you no idea of why this is such a great novel. Barbara Comyns writes like no one else I have ever read. Here as in her other novels it is the narrative voice that is so remarkable. Graham Greene wrote about her "strange offbeat talent", her "innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurrences", and that perfectly encapsulates what makes her writing so exceptional. Strange, sad, frightening things happen to Alice. She is often
afraid and lonely, but she is also capable of great joy, in a stream of sunlight, picnics with little iced cakes, a ride in a car, the lovely houses and shops on the other side of the river, where "Children walked sedately beside elderly nannies who were pushing enormous prams. The prams had white canopies with fringes, and arranged on a frilly pillow would be a baby's flowering face". But whatever Alice sees or experiences is described in the same open, innocent way.
This novel manages to be both funny and sad, painful and uplifting. If you have never read Barbara Comyns then you absolutely must. And this would be a good place to start.
What, in fact, is a meme? I've always understood it to be a series of questions, like the ones below, that pass from blog to blog. In fact I thought it might be a sort of corruption of "me! me!", because it gives you the chance to talk about yourself. How wrong can one be? It apparently 'relates to the Greek word μιμητισμός ([mɪmetɪsmos]) for "something imitated"'. This is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream") is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.
What is your favourite drink while reading? A cup of coffee, though nowadays it has to be decaff, sadly.
Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? No I don't, or hardly ever, anyway. It does horrify me when people write in pen, but a light pencil mark doesn't bother me and I might make one myself if I need to remember something or find it again.
How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? Dog-ears never. A bookmark if I can find one, or a strip of paper if I can't. Unlike Wordsworth, who was once seen marking his place with a piece of bread and jam.
Fiction, non-fiction or both? Almost always fiction, unless it's a biography.
Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? I read to the end of the chapter unless I'm unable to keep awake.
Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? I have thrown books in my day, yes.
If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? No -- I almost never look up words, just hope I guess them right.
What are you currently reading? I recently started Wolf Hall and then stopped because I had to read something for a book group. I shall get back to it again soon. Meanwhile I've just picked up Margery Allingham's Cargo of Eagles to read on the plane home from France tonight.
What is the last book you bought? Three novels by JG Farrell should be waiting for me when I get home -- a special offer from The Book People, £4.99 for three!
Do you have a favourite time/place to read? I do most of my reading in bed, and generally at night. I'm not above retiring to bed with a book in the afternoon if I'm really tired. And my idea of total indulgence is to stay in bed reading in the morning.
Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? I don't really have a preference but I do like a good series - I read a lot of detective novels and the ones I enjoy tend to come that way -- those of Andrew Taylor, Martin Edwards, Kathy Reichs, to name but a few.
Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? I am constantly urging people to read Sebastian Barry -- The Secret Scripture is wonderful, but his best is A Long Long Way.
How do you organise your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)? By colour, which irritates some people a lot for some reason. And before you ask -- yes, I can almost always find what I'm looking for -- I must have a good visual memory?
Barbara's additional question: background noise or silence? Silence every time.
Here's yet another artist I'd never heard of -- you may not realise this but I look for pictures to put on here as much for my own benefit as for yours. Alexandre Cabanel was French, and he lived from 1823 to 1889. He's described as an academic painter of historical and classical subjects, which suggest something rather serious and possibly boring, but which, in the Victorian period, was often a cover for something a good deal racier. Many of his paintings are of nude women reclining in voluptuous and titillating poses -- if you'd like to see some of them, you can click here. This one, called
Albayade, is relatively restrained. His most famous is The Birth of Venus which may be a classical subject but probably gave a lot of pleasure to a good many Victorian gentlemen.
Nice title! Though what it has to do with the plot I couldn't say*. But that doesn't matter because this is a great book. I've read quite a few of Andrew Taylor's crime novels -- some I've loved and some have left me rather underwhelmed. Head and shoulders above them all is The Roth Trilogy, three truly remarkable books in which layers of truth about a crime are gradually stripped away as each novel moves further back in time. They are, obviously, set in different time periods, and this is something of a speciality for Andrew Taylor. He does it again here -- this one I've just read is part of another collection known as the Lydmouth Series (because that's where they are set), and they take place in post-war Britain. I tried one of these a few years ago, the first in the series I think, and didn't take to it, I don't really know why. But now it's grabbed me I shall have to read them all.
Lydmouth, of course, does not really exist. It's a fictional town somewhere on the border between England and Wales. In the period just after World War two this is a conservative society still trying to cling to old ways but finding things are changing fast. The main protagonists here, as in all the novels in the series, are DCI Richard Thornhill and journalist Jill Francis. Neither of them is native to Lydmouth -- Jill is a Londoner and Richard is from Norfolk. He is married, but in this novel they are in the grip of a passionate but secret adulterous affair. Sex and sexuality, and their consequences, feature a good deal in the plot. The young woman whose body is discovered in a river at the beginning proves to have been sexually promiscuous and in the early stages of an unmarried pregnancy, another girl has just given birth to an illegitimate baby and is resisting her parents who want her to have it adopted, and an older man, a pillar of the community, is hiding the secret of his homosexuality. In this closed and inward looking society all these things are deeply shocking, and double standards abound. All this reminds us that the novel is firmly based in the post-war period, as does the fact that one of the central characters has been crippled by the polio he contracted as a teenager. Then of course there's the smoking, the drinking, the de-mob suits, the cheaply built new estates of council housing...
But this is a crime novel -- so what about that aspect of the plot? Excellent, I'd say. The narrative shifts between different points of view -- Jill's, Richard's and others -- and I often thought I might have guessed the identity of the murderer but in fact it took me by surprise when it was finally revealed. The whole thing is so well done -- the love story, which must be a strong factor in bringing readers back to the series, the detective work, the setting -- wonderful stuff. I can't wait to get my hands on another one.
* Actually of course the title is a quotation from AE Houseman's poem A Shropshire Lad, as are all the titles in this series.
Yes I read it. Yesterday, on the train to and from Stratford on Avon, a pretty town but terribly touristy and full of the sort of shops no one but a tourist would want to go to. But that's by the bye.
I suppose there cannot be anyone anywhere who doesn't know what this book is about -- its the story of how sixteen year old Mary becomes pregnant by someone who tells her he is an angel but looks remarkably like one of the boys in the town square, and gives birth to twins, Jesus and Christ. That's Jesus, happy, healthy, outgoing, good-hearted, and Christ, sickly, introverted, given to metaphysical speculation. Of course if you know anything of Philip Pullman you will not be surprised by the message of this book -- God probably doesn't exist, Jesus did a lot of good, the Christian church is a powerful and malign institution which has perverted his teachings.
You may or may not agree with any or all of this. There's no doubt, either way, that this is a very readable book -- it would be surprising if it was anything else. I got a bit irritated, though, by PP's methodology. Of course it is a clever retelling of stories most of us probably already know. But I found the constant debunking of supposed miracles a bit wearing after a while. The water doesn't turn into wine -- the steward has been keeping some back for his own use and Jesus persuades him to get it out of the cupboard. The loaves and fishes don't magically multiply -- each of the 5000 finds a bit of food in her or his pocket and is persuaded to share it around. The sick don't get healed -- they just start feeling a bit better and probably weren't that ill in the first place. And Jesus does not rise from the dead -- it's a substitution trick, with Christ conning Mary Magdalen and the disciples. Of course this last is probably the crux of Christian belief and so it's got to be undermined for the book to do what it sets out to do. But unlike the just about credible debunking of the other miracles, this one relies on the introduction of an invented character, which you might think is a slightly dodgy way out.
I know some people have got upset by this book. I'm not really sure why. I would have thought if your belief was strong, it would not be shaken by all this. Anyway, It must be good to make people think.
Have you ever heard ot the Watermill Theatre near Newbury in Berkshire? I never had until recently, though I gather it is quite famous, It really is a watermill and it really is a theatre. And a more gorgeous place you could hardly imagine. Glorious gardens with the river running through them, lovely old redbrick buildings, a rather posh restaurant and of course the little theatre itself, beautifully converted from the inside of the old mill.
And how do I know all this? Because yesterday my friend Eleanor drove me out there, we had lunch, and went to see Tracy Chevalier talking about her latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, which I wrote about a few days ago.
Tracy is a great speaker. I was glad I had read the book, but anyone who hadn't would have rushed to buy it immediately, and indeed clearly they did as the bookstall was doing a roaring trade afterwards. But it was fascinating to hear about how the idea for the novel came to her, quite unexpectedly, on a rainy day with her small son at the museum in Lyme Regis. Interesting, too, to learn that her ideas always come like that, completely out of the blue -- if she looks for an idea she never finds one. She spoke so interestingly, too, about her research methods -- a writer who always bases her novels on historical fact, she spends a long time on research before she even starts writing, though as the research progresses, ideas pop up, so that the fiction is taking shape, as she described it, somewhere in the back of her head and is ready to be written once the facts are in place.You can probably tell from what I'm saying here that I'm fascinated by the creative process (and deeply envious of people in whom it manifests).
If you want to know more about Tracy and her novels you can go to her website, which is delightfully informal and informative. As you can tell, I am a complete fan now and will be reading more of her books as soon as I can get my hands on them.
A portrait of the artist's wife, apparently. If you've read the poem by Browning I talked about last week, you will know that she was supposed to be domineering and unfaithful. But beautiful, obviously.
If I tell you that this book is about a couple of women looking for fossils on a beach, will you rush out and buy it? And if I say it is a real page turner, will you believe me? But you should, and it is.
Set in the early 1800s, this is the story of two women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. If they sound familiar that's because they really existed, and both became famous, especially Mary. The novel takes place in Lyme Regis, a most lovely little seaside town in Dorset, in south west England. Mary Anning was born there, in 1799, into a poor working-class family, and Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster ten years or so older, moved there with her unmarried sisters. Ordinarily these two women, separated by social class and by religious belief (Elizabeth was Church of England, Mary a Dissenter) would never have come in contact let alone make friends. But they were united by their passion for fossils.
The novel, which is narrated alternately by Mary and Elizabeth, tells the story of their friendship, sometimes rather uncertain and once actually broken off. But it also tells the extraordinary story of Mary's hugely important discoveries. When she is just twelve, she and her brother discover a skeleton buried in the cliffs which turns out to be a prehistoric creature later named an Ichthyosaur, the first of its kind ever found.
Mary has an extraordinary eye for finding fossilised remains, and over the years she discovers more and more of them, including many creatures never previously known to exist. She educates herself, learning to read and becoming an expert on the many creatures she uncovers. Collectors buy her fossils and scientific men lecture and write about them, but she rarely gets any credit for her ground-breaking work and profound knowledge. It is only owing to Elizabeth, herself a collector of fossil fish, that Mary is able to rise from poverty and to get some recognition for her extraordinarily important work. The impact of her discoveries goes far beyond the scientific world and actually overturns previously held religious beliefs about creation and the age of the world.
This is a novel about scientific discovery, and surprisingly enthralling at that, but it is far more than that. It's about women and their lives. It's about their ability to gain important knowledge entirely through self-education, and the (appalling) attitude to them of the male intellectual elite. It's about religion. It's about friendship. It's about social class and the way it can destroy a girl's chances of marrying happily. Most of all, it is about Mary, who, I'm happy to discover, has now been recognised as one of the most important scientific luminaries this country has ever produced.
This painting is by the great Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto (1486-1531). Known as "the faultless painter", he was the sublect of a famous poem -- a dramatic monologue -- by Robert Browning. In the poem he laments the fact that though his technique is more perfect than that of his contemporaries, he lacks the inspiration that they have --it contains the famous lines: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what's a heaven for?". It's a long and sad poem and you can read it here.