At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

At the JerusalemIn a recent episode of ‘Tea or Books?’, Rachel and I pitted Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont against Paul Bailey’s At the Jerusalem. While we both preferred Taylor’s novel, I also thought Bailey’s slightly earlier novel (1967) was fantastic – really unusual, and possibly even an inspiration for Mrs Palfrey (c.f. Bailey’s introduction to the Virago reprint).

Bailey’s novel (which I have in a very sweet pocket-sized edition, apparently part of a Bloomsbury series in the 1990s) is about an old people’s home – called the Jerusalem – where Faith Gadny has been dispatched by her stepson Henry and his brightly indifferent wife Thelma. Here, she is torn from a comfortable world that has started to close in on her with its new discomforts – and placed, instead, in a world of interfering and disturbed women on a communal ward that she cannot escape.

Faith does not try to ingratiate herself. She is unresponsive to overtures of friendship, says few words to anybody, and is pretty closed off. This has the effect of making her closed off to the reader too – unlike Mrs Palfrey, this is not a book to turn to for a warm or empathetic character. But it is, perhaps, for a sympathetic character – for who would wish themselves in her position, at a place as steriley unpleasant as the Jerusalem? Other residents have either lost their faculties or are far too keen to make friendships that Faith does not want – and there is always, always the recurring motif of the woman who once hanged herself in the toilets.

Stylistically, At the Jerusalem will either impress or irk. Rachel was irked; I was impressed. A lot of the novel is in sparse dialogue – often crossing over each other as several conversations whirl around. The talent of Bailey is that it’s always obvious what’s going on, though at first glance it doesn’t seem like it (and you might need some context!) – and I found it darkly funny, even with hardly any words on the page. For example…

Another page. “More relations. That one there with the eyes is Cousin Charlie. He ended up in Africa. Nothing more was heard.”

“Who’s a good girl? Who’s finished her junket?”

“He could have been eaten, for all anybody knew. Stewed in a pot.”

When did Miss Burns sleep?

“He had enough meat on him.”

At every hour of the day she sat upright, staring.

“My wedding.”

Wouldn’t a meal have made her sleepy?

“My wedding, Faith?”

“Oh?”

“My wedding. Don’t I look fetching?”

“You do.”

“I was thirty.”

“Thirty.”

“He was a fair bit older. Harry Capes. Handsome Harry.” She laughed, winked. “Oh, he was too. And I loved him. At the time.” She paused. “It was on a Sunday, it was the June of 1921; he’d been in the war, he’d come out of it in one piece.”

Tom had a scar to show.

The novel starts in the home, flashes back to Henry and Thelma’s house for the second section, and returns to the Jerusalem in the third. In each, the coherence of the writing echoes the stage of Faith’s mind – getting more traditional in the flashback section. It’s never unreadable or even particularly experimental, but Bailey cleverly puts enough fragility into his prose that you can see the patterns.

Overall, what impressed me with Bailey was the sparseness of his writing, and how much he conveys with so little. Quite a few of the minor characters aren’t well delineated, and I had a tendency to get them a bit confused, but there are four or five at the forefront of the novel (including Faith) who are incredibly nuanced, given how little we hear from or about them. And there are a couple pivotal moments which are handled very well – without being unduly sensationalist. It’s certainly not a harrowing book, but it is often poignant in a slightly dark way – while also being amusing. I liked this moment in which Bailey mocks the redundancy of much speech – but it is a melancholy humour:

“Her Majesty sends telegrams to all her centenarians. The Mayor and Mayoress sent a very thoughtful message today.”

“Did they, Matron?”

“Shall I read it out?”

“Yes, please.”

“What one is it? Ah, yes. ‘Mrs Hibbs, The Jerusalem Home. Greetings on reaching your great age. Mayor and Mayoress Ernest and Sylvia Marsh.'”

“It is thoughtful.”

“Thoughtful.”

“Thoughtful. As Matron says.”

At The Jerusalem isn’t the achievement that Mrs Palfrey is, but it’s astonishing for a debut novel by a 30 year old. And, I learned after I finished it, Bailey is still alive and possibly still writing. I can see that I’ve got some catching up to do!

Our Women: Chapters on the Sex Discord by Arnold Bennett

1920s women

You know who needs to comment on the role of women? It’s Arnold Bennett! In 1920! Look, obviously nobody is looking for a man’s opinion from nearly a century ago to help with contemporary debate – but I can’t resist this sort of glimpse back into the past. A bit like the Ursula Bloom book I talked about the other day, albeit a different sphere. And so, yes, my relaxing holiday reading started with Arnold B’s chapters on the sex discord. What, you didn’t see it at the airport in their 3-for-2?

Bennett proudly labels himself a feminist, which was rather a surprise to me (and a welcome surprise). His definition of ‘feminist’ definitely doesn’t match up to any 21st-century definition, but I daresay none of our definitions will find favour with 22nd-century feminists. We’ll leave some of his more controversial opinions for later…

A positive? He is a big fan of women having jobs. Yes, he does more or less think these should work around their domestic duties, but it’s… something? But he does rail against the current state of things, with women expected never to change their role at all, never earning money and yet having vital places to fill in civilised society. True, his vision of the far future is female pilots (IMAGINE), but he is at least thinking that things could be different from how the world is organised in 1920.

The first chapter is ‘The Perils of Writing about Women’, where he acknowledges potential minefields (and, incidentally, his own complete lack of knowledge of Havelock Ellis). ‘Change in Love’ and ‘The Abolition of Slavery’ follow on next, setting the scene for ways the world may change – and that women should be more appreciated for their contribution to that world. I doubt a 2017 author would throw around ‘slavery’ in the flippant way he does, but he’s doing his best.

Where things get super troubling – and thus, at the same time, super interesting from a reading-for-historical-interest angle – is the chapter ‘Are Men Superior to Women?’. Spoilers: Bennett thinks they are.

Some platitudes must now be uttered. The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet. Indeed, the women poets who have reached even second rank are exceedingly few – perhaps not more than half a dozen. With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men. (One may be enthusiastic for Jane Austen without putting Pride and Prejudice in the same category with Anna Karenina or The Woodlanders.)

Firstly – who on earth would pick The Woodlanders as their ammunition in favour of Thomas Hardy?? Secondly – this is obviously something I don’t agree with, but when he goes on to ‘can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher’ and so forth, the obvious argument is ‘well, women didn’t get a chance until quite recently’. He tries to rebut this, but pretty unconvincingly… it’s all rather a peculiar position to take, and not very coherently argued, and rather undermines other parts of the book. Still, this all works together to make it an interesting history piece.

At other times, he wrote things that would have been SO useful in my doctoral thesis. It’s a few years too late for me, but I had to highlight this for anybody who might want to write about spinster lit of the 1920s at any point…

I will not attempt to determine at what age an unmarried virgin begins to incur the terrible imputation of spinsterhood; it varies, being dependent on a lot of things, such a colour of hair, litheness of frame, complexion, ankles, chin (the under part), style of talk and of glance. I have spinsters of twenty-five, and young girls of at least forty. 

My favourite section of the book is definitely the end. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is where he stops writing about theories and starts writing fiction – he dramatises the same situation in two chapters, one from the wife’s viewpoint and one from the husband’s. The scenario is pretty simple: an argument about a flower show on the day that their son is coming home from boarding school. I don’t think the scenes are as instructive as Bennett thinks they are, but it shows that he is on much firmer ground – and certainly more fluid and more entertaining – as a writer of fiction than of, well, anything else.

While Bennett’s views are, of course, not today’s – it’s quite impressive that a man in his 50s in 1920, and a man who was very much considered one of the old guard, should even have thought of writing it. And for anybody who wants to know more about the 1920s and issues around gender at the time, this is an interesting (surprising, frustrating, etc.) book. Add it to the list for when you’re feeling particularly able to cope with reading things you don’t agree with, maybe?

Tea or Books? #39: spoilers or no spoilers, and Anne of Green Gables vs Daddy Long-Legs

Special guest Jenny joins us for episode 39 – discussing children’s classics and spoilers!
 

Tea or Books logoI was SO excited that Jenny agreed to join me and Rachel on ‘Tea or Books?’ while she was visiting England – her podcast, Reading the End, was one of the two book podcasts that inspired me to start my own, so it seems like a perfect circle that she joins us as we’re nearing our second anniversary.

In this episode, inspired by her blog and podcast name, Jenny asked if we discuss whether or not we like hearing spoilers – and, in the second half, we debate Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster. Guys, this podcast was SO FUN to record.

We were crowded around one mic – the first time Rachel and I have ever recorded a podcast in person – so forgive any issues with the sound quality or variability.

Here’s our iTunes page, and here are the books and authors we mention in this episode:

The Pelicans by E.M. Delafield
Country Notes by Vita Sackville-West
Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
Miss Mole by E.H. Young
Chatterton Square by E.H. Young
Once a Week by A.A. Milne
The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang
Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood
Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Emma by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Sunlight on the Lawn by Beverley Nichols
Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn
Sylvia Townsend Warner
A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Muriel Spark
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Enid Blyton
Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery
Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

The ABC of Authorship by Ursula Bloom

ABC of AuthorshipOne of the Project 24 books I mentioned the other day was The ABC of Authorship (1938) by Ursula Bloom – and, just as I couldn’t resist buying it, equally I couldn’t resist immediately reading it. For sound advice in 2017, it’s pretty useless – as a glimpse into the world of writing in the 1930s, it’s great fun.

I say ‘writing’, but I should clarify that she is chiefly concerned with only one small corner of authorship. While she does devote a chapter to novels at the end, and airily passes by poetry in a handful of sentences, this book is chiefly concerned with stories in small magazines. That alone dates it. There was a proliferation of small magazines in the early twentieth century, both regional and national, and they were happy hunting ground for the budding author. Bloom devotes a lot of The ABC of Authorship in advising how best to approach these – down to individual magazines, and whether they would prefer (say) a story about a dashing hero or a domestic scene. I imagine it was fairly useful advice in 1938 – though the editors of those magazines may have been inundated with a certain sort of story.

Let’s be clear who Bloom was and the sort of market she’s talking about. She is apparently in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific author ever – and wrote (gulp) over 500. I’ve read three of them, all novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Essex – she had various pseudonyms, and wrote under her own name too – and they were witty and enjoyable, and pretty good examples of light middlebrow fare. Under other names, and when writing for magazines, I think she favoured writing a little to the south of middlebrow – though certainly not racy. But she is certainly well placed to talk about getting stuff out there – she seems, as far as this book shows, to have written stories and serials every day, as well as those hundreds of novels.

She kicks off with a chapter called ‘Let’s Have a Look at Yourself’ – essentially saying “are you aware that you actually have to do something?” From here, we get chapters on how to find a plot (including, amusingly, plagiarising straight from plays you see), the business side of Fleet Street, writing features (she apparently once dictated 1000 words about a European queen over the phone), writing articles, writing serials, and the vagaries of the Editorial Mind. This last is mostly about editors being real people too – but also advising that you buy all the small magazines out there, make notes as to their contents, and know when styles changed. Thus you may impress editors.

She scatters examples throughout – some that she has had published, some suggestions, and one that appears to be ripped off from Mary Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage – and they occasionally make for entertaining reading. While a lot of her advice is practicable and doubtless useful to those who bought this book in 1938, it’s hard not to smile at some of the things that she thinks make for good inspiration. Her original thoughts include writing an article on ‘Look to your future’, or a piece called ‘Don’t be Lonely’. She advises that any serial, if lagging, can be livened up with a bull that’s got loose.

My favourite gosh-haven’t-times-changed moment came when she advised that you could always make money with ‘informative verse’, adding ‘I have taken household tips from magazines and have set them into two-line verses, for which there has never been any difficulty in the way of a sale’. Imagine finding any editor in the world who’d give you good money for the examples she offers:

The perfect gent knows it’s a sin
To tuck his napkin ‘neath his chin.

A heinous friend I had, called Nelly;
She used a spoon when eating jelly!

What should you not do? I mentioned that she wasn’t racy – I perhaps didn’t go far enough. Amongst other things, she advises not writing about adultery, the Royal Family, or having lost a child.

It’s hard not to warm to Bloom in this book – I hope it’s clear that I’m smiling rather than sneering. She is so positive, so encouraging, and clearly extremely successful. I sincerely hope that lots of young writers found her advice got them on their way to writing careers. She couldn’t have known the window into the past that she’d be providing 80 years later, or how much this man in 2017 would enjoy the book.

The Chinese Garden by Rosemary Manning

Chinese GardenRemember when I went to Edinburgh last year and every review for months seemed to start with ‘this is another book I read in Edinburgh’? Well, the same thing might happen here – since I read six books during the week that I was in Ludlow. Let’s kick off with Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden (1962). It’s a book I’ve had waiting on my shelves for about 15 years, I think, so it was about time.

Fans of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont may recall a moment in it where she refers to there being two novelists called Manning (and one character always gets them confused at the library). Olivia Manning is perhaps the more famous of those – but I’m assuming Rosemary Manning was the other. I don’t think I’ve heard of her anywhere else – but The Chinese Garden is an interesting idea for a novel, even if it never quite comes together.

It’s about a girl’s schooldays – she is sixteen, intelligent, bookish, and torn between a growing loathing of the strict rules of the school she will soon be leaving – and the love and respect she holds for certain teachers, not to mention uncertainty about what will happen after she graduates. Here’s how it begins:

I was at boarding school for my sixteenth birthday, for it falls at the beginning of November. I climbed out of bed very early that morning, wrapped my dressing-gown round me and went to the window. The other members of the dormitory were still sleeping under bright red blankets. The window, as always in our spartan establishment, was wide open top and bottom, but I could hardly have been conscious of the cold air streaming in, for the room was never filled with anything else and my lungs had been breathing deeply of it all night. After four years, the code of Bampfield had fixed its iron bands around my spirit, and my innate puritanism so welcomed it that I found a deliberate pleasure in a mortifying regime of cold water, draughts, outdoor drill and bad food. Although I now look back on that regime with repugnance, I can summon up my gratitude for the trained indifference to discomfort and cold which enabled me to sit almost naked at an open, November window, and watch the sun rise.

I never quite worked out who all the different teachers were, but there are some that Rachel feels a deep, sometimes slightly confusing affection for – and some that she sees as symbolic of the restraints she is hoping to be freed from. Most significant, and the most memorable, is the headteacher – a woman who insists on being referred to as ‘Chief’, calling her all-female student body ‘boys’, and wanting her school to be run as closely as possible on the lines of Eton or the like. And then there’s the little friendship trio Rachel is in – Margaret, the mysterious and secretive friend who doesn’t seem to value Rachel’s friendship in return, and Bisto, the clingy, slightly sad friend whom Rachel will tolerate when Margaret isn’t around.

Rather confusingly, the novel starts in the first person – the first few chapters are all from the viewpoint of Rachel, looking back to her schooldays – and then shifts to the third person, still about Rachel. After that, there are occasional moves back to the first person for a few paragraphs, then back to third… maybe it’s meant to be borrowing modern techniques, or playing with free indirect discourse, or something – but it’s a bit clumsy, and doesn’t really work.

What does work is the Chinese garden itself – though it takes a long time to turn up. In proper secret garden style, it’s a garden in the grounds, boarded up and seemingly inaccessible. Though Margaret and Rachel have independently found their way into it – and the description of the garden is rather lovely. She walks about its Chinese bridges and pools with enthralled wonder, and Manning is at her best when describing these scenes. Here’s a bit:

Rachel crossed a creaking, dilapidated bridge, and went into the tiny pagoda. Bells were still hanging under the painted eaves, their copper green with age, shrill and fragile when she touched them with her hand. It was inhabited only by spiders. The floorboards were rotten, and covered with bird droppings, and the once bright paint was blistered and faded. The quiet pools, greened over with weed, never-disturbed, the dense overgrown shrubbery which hedged it from the world without, the incongruous oriental appearance of the pagoda and its bridges, created an indescribable air of secrecy and strangeness. She entered an exotic world where she breathed pure poetry. It had the symmetry of Blake’s tiger. It was the green thought in a green shade.

If you have heard of The Chinese Garden, it’s probably in the context of its being considered a lesbian classic. There is an overt moment of lesbianism late in the book, and some more implicit moments in Rachel’s thoughts about her friends and teachers – but I rather suspect that the locked Chinese garden is a metaphor for much more than initially seems.

I suppose my problem with the novel – which I certainly did enjoy, and thought was well written, so please don’t think I disliked it – was that it never quite felt developed enough. I appreciate the delicacy of metaphor, and I don’t think Manning should have been any more heavy-handed, but perhaps the novel just needed to be longer – and the garden to come a bit earlier, and be explored a bit more. A rare case where I want a novel to be longer!

 

A (shamefaced) Project 24 update

It was all going so well. I’d only bought 7 books so far all year. I was – let’s be honest – a little smug about how easy I’d found it.

Reader, I have something to confess. I’m now up 12 books… yep, halfway through my 24 book allowance. And that puts me a solid six weeks ahead of where I should be.

Let me explain – I spent a week in Shropshire (which was lovely, and very sunny, and all was great until I got a sick bug…) and on Saturday I was up in London for a little blogger/podcast meet-up. More on that very soon, but let’s just say that it involved a very good little bookshop – Walden Books in Chalk Farm. Between these things, much temptation was thrown in my path… so which books did I buy?

Project 24 may 2017

Catchwords and Claptrap by Rose Macaulay

That’s the Hogarth Essays pictured above – a little treasure I saw in the bookshop next to where we were staying in Ludlow. I do enjoy that – despite the implicit and explicit antagonisms between Macaulay and the Woolfs in the Battle of the Brows – they also published her. This essay is about slang, and a lovely little book.

The ABC of Authorship by Ursula Bloom

We visited The Aardvark Bookery, which was on the way (if memory serves) to a Victorian working farm. I couldn’t come away empty-handed – and I’d have had very full hands any other time. On this occasion, I picked up a fun 1938 guide to writing – very much a period piece, rather than useful reading advice now. Bloom was extremely prolific, and I’ve read a handful of the books she published as Mary Essex.

All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim

We popped into the small, lovely town of Presteigne – which included a tiny bookshop. Nobody was there but the door was open, so Dad and I had a mosey. After a bit, somebody put his head around the door – and asked us to turn off the lights and close up when we were ready, and put money on the desk if we bought anything. “It’s an honesty bookshop – isn’t it great? This is Presteigne!” I thought I hadn’t found anything, but happened to scan the shelf of books about dogs. And here this was!

The Pelicans by E.M. Delafield

Walden Books was a real treasure trove of (fairly cheap) interwar novels – there were even quite a few Persephones there – but I hadn’t expected this. Finding The Pelicans was one of those rare moments – where I grab the book and clutch it to myself, lest anybody sneak in and get it before me. (With two book bloggers on the premises, this wasn’t impossible.) It’s not exactly unfindable online, but I’ve almost never seen E.M. Delafield novels (beyond the obvious half dozen) in the wild, as it were, and it was rather a thrill.

Country Notes by Vita Sackville-West

And I couldn’t resist this one either – same bookshop – even though I knew it was taking me to the end of June. It’s a collection of short essays by Vita Sackville-West about the countryside, in a hefty hardback, with the sort of fairly terrible photography which must have looked impressive back in the day. But a nice book to add to my VSW collection.

So, in summary, as people used to say back in 2012 – ‘sorry not sorry’. I’d do it again. But somebody make sure I’m locked in the house until the end of June, m’kay?

The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

The Three SistersI want to have a stern word with Virago Modern Classics – or, at least, whoever was in charge of cover design back in the 1980s. Normally pretty great, the choice of cover image for their reprint of May Sinclair’s 1914 novel The Three Sisters is pretty unforgivable. I’m going to give you a top tip, right from the start: this is not a novel about the Brontes.

It seems, to me, completely bizarre to put this famous painting on the front of a novel which is only very, very loosely inspired by the Bronte sisters – an ‘imaginative starting point’, as the blurb acknowledges. But we’ll forgive that and put it to one side. The similarities are that there are three sisters in a remote Yorkshire vicarage – that’s about it. They don’t have a brother or two deceased sisters; they aren’t writers; their personalities aren’t even that similar. And the vicar has lost three wives – variously to death and abandonment – and has settled into an angry, unwilling celibacy.

The sisters are Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret. Gwenda is passionate and artistic, striding over the moors and wanting much more than the small community can offer her. Alice is considered weak by all, but has an iron core of determination – and not a little spitefulness. Mary is rather less easy to grasp on the page – starting off staid and dependable, and gradually getting rather less pleasant.

Into this world comes the one eligible man in the district – Dr Steven Rowcliffe. In turn – or, indeed, somewhat all at once – the sisters fall in love with him. He finds these attentions annoying and beguiling, depending which sister is under consideration: it is clearly Gwenda that has caught his eye, but he must cope with all three of them eyeing him as a prospective husband material.

Their father is firmly against any of them marrying anybody, though. He is fired by selfishness, cloaked in supposed holiness. Like most vicars in fiction, he sadly doesn’t come across very well. (Septimus Harding might be the only sympathetic clergyman I can remember, and also by far the closest to the real vicars I have known. Do better, novelists.) His faith and morality seems mostly to emerge in unkindness – such as making the maid Essy leave when she is discovered to be pregnant. It does, at least, lead to an amusingly handled scene where Essy tells her mother – who pretends astonishment, whereas she really ‘only wondered that she had not come four months ago’.

Despite a slightly stereotypical set up, The Three Sisters is really engaging. Sinclair was ahead of the curve, in terms of the psychology of romantic relationships, but – more importantly – she knows how to make the reader find the relationships between all the characters interesting, whether sister/sister, father/daughter, or maid/employer. The dialogues between Gwenda and her father remind me of Austen’s battle-of-wits exchanges, and the prose treads the line between beautifully descriptive and pulling-the-plot-forward extremely well. Sinclair was a very good writer.

But…

Oh, but…

WHY the dialect and transcribed accent? This accounts for probably no more than one in eight pages, but it’s pretty unbearable when it comes. Only the working-class characters speak this way, in what I suppose is meant to be Yorkshire voices, but could equally be anything from Cornwall upwards. I can’t face typing out any of it, but here’s a photo of some of the dialogue…

The Three Sisters accent

Unsurprisingly, I skimmed most of this. Why not just write ‘she spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent’, and leave it at that? But the rural/dialectical novel was running unchecked around 1900-1920, so Sinclair was only falling into the trap of her time. Suffice to say, if this had accounted for much more of the novel, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it.

But, if you can face with skimming over these pages, there is a lot to like in The Three Sisters – particularly in the second half, where the wheels start to fall off a bit. It’s a sensitive, often fairly wryly amusing, and very well crafted novel. Just don’t expect it to be about the Brontes.

 

Others who got Stuck into it:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: “this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality”.

Fleur Fisher (Beyond Eden Rock): “May Sinclair spins a compelling story, full of rich descriptions of people and places, and with a wonderful understanding of her characters and their relationships.”

Ursula Orange and H.G. Wells

Thanks for the comments on the previous post – it felt a bit scary to ‘put myself out there’ with poetry, as opposed to tried and true book reviews, so I really appreciate the comments there.

Back to book reviews – no, Ursula Orange and H.G. Wells have nothing in common, so far as I know – except that I’ve reviewed them both recently elsewhere.

Head over to Shiny New Books to read about the excellent reprint novel Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange – and to Vulpes Libris for a rather less good novel, The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells.

And now I’m off to Shropshire on holiday! I’ve scheduled a couple of posts – and hopefully I’ll have lots of books read to tell you about afterwards.

10 poems I wrote during Lent

In the comments to my post about writing poems during Lent, a few people were kind enough to say that they’d like to read some more of the poems I wrote. I will cautiously oblige! Some of the ones I was most pleased with were a bit too personal to share, but I have picked ten. Each one comes with a short line about the inspiration etc. I hope you enjoy reading them – I certainly enjoyed the Lenten discipline!

My Personal Blitz
I read so many books from the Second World War period that I thought I’d write a poem set then.

You went before the bombs began
A week before the sky was torn
With screams and neon shrieks, bereft
By seeming foes we could not see
Before that night began: you left

Upon my kitchen table sat
A vase of dying irises
While underneath hid I (not we)
The wood was a dividing line
Between your farewell flowers – and me.

The farewell flowers you cruelly gave
An antebellum jab; a knife
Thrust finally into my hand
The opposite of comforting;
The border to my no-man’s-land.

The words you said; the bombs you dropped;
The holding hand you took away;
The crater into which I fell;
The lives you lead; the lives you leave
And, in the midst of blitz, my hell.

Still Life
Poetry Prompts suggested writing a poem inspired by van Gogh’s ‘Still Life with Lemons on a Plate‘ – so I did.

She left five brittle lemons on a plate
Like a painting by van Gogh
Halfway between use and decoration
Left to grow old, and bleak
Corroded by unuse; an aptly bitter fate.

Who needs five lemons? Who wants more than one?
To zest, to juice, to rearrange
To think about painting, but never paint
But look at, in passings,
Until you see they need to go – or that they’re gone.

She found it oddly funny – I could tell
The needless superfluity
That supermarkets pushed unsmilingly –
Five pears and five oranges
And so, to be consistent, five lemons as well.

When life gives you lemons, make a still life
Hasty, on a plate, all five
Huddled to one side – unneeded, silly
Waxily beautiful
And left there – fading – an aftermath or an afterlife.

Frowning
I remember the shock when I found out that my brother and I had been using an everyday word completely differently from each other all our lives…

You said frowning happened with the lips
I said frowning happened with the brow
Both of us were adamant – and right
But neither could absorb the other use.
“The brow?” you said – while I replied “the lips?”
To share our nature and a nurture – yet
To reach this impasse – well, then, what are words?
And what is conversation? Are there ways
To speak and understand – if two like us
Thought frowning was with lips (or was with brow)
If words are planks (and let’s pretend they are)
There’s something rotten, threatening our bridge
If words are bricks (why not?) – well, then our wall
Now has at least one aperture to show
How easily what we believe we share
Can be replaced, quite suddenly, with air.

She Wears Pearls to the Supermarket
I saw a women wearing a pearl necklace and pearl earrings in the supermarket – and was intrigued!

She wears pearls to the supermarket
Strung in two neat rows
With another for each ear
“No need not to look one’s best”
She’d say, if she were asked (who’d ask?)
And she chooses peas or sugar snaps
Like a Duchess in a poor disguise
Letting her surroundings raise their game –
She only has one standard: it is high.

She wears pearls to the supermarket
Modest and demure
Bought or – if one had to guess – a gift
Worn for style; worn for what they were;
Worn because she wears them (that is all)
As she chooses skimmed or semi-skimmed
A plastic basket ferried by one arm.
The world and all its shifting whims can change –
And she’ll keep going to the shops in pearls.

Railway Station Triolet
For those who aren’t familiar with triolets – as I wasn’t – they include a lot of repeating lines, and it seemed appropriate for the tannoy announcements at a railway station.

Your train is ready to depart
All passengers on platform one.
You made a move; I gave a start
(Your train is ready to depart)
You held your breath; you held my heart
You let both go – and you were gone
(Your train is ready to depart
All passengers on platform one).

In Translation
Oxford is such a tourtisty city that I wanted to guess at the tourist experience – and see it as something positive, rather than cynical.

With a guidebook and smile
And two-way dictionary
She walked blank mazes
Admiring foreign stone
The very cobbles
Of the very streets
Held expectation –
Every phone box or tower
Or man in an unusual hat
Was history or geography
Transported, transposed,
Late as it came,
At the end of a heavy wait –
She walked brick forests
Seeing diamonds in dust
And gold in graffiti.
The joy she sent out
Bounced back off the walls;
Reflected in a handful of faces
Faithfully she trod
Where the guidebooks directed
Taking photographs
Outside recommended restaurants
A few days alone
Showed all she had waited for
Memories, iron-branded
The enchantment continued
It would keep going
It would keep her going
And, quietly – it would keep her too.

In Translation in Translation
This wasn’t the intention when I wrote the above poem, but a week or so later I decided to put the ‘In Translation’ poem in and out of Chinese/English Google Translate a few times. It’s not really writing a new poem, but it was a fun exercise.

Have guidance and smile
And two-way dictionary
Her empty maze
Enjoy the stone abroad
Big pebbles
On the street
Have expectations –
Each telephone box or tower
Or a man in an unusual hat
Is history and geography
Transport, transport,
Late,
At the end of heavy waiting –
She walked the brick forest
See the dust of the diamond
And gold in graffiti
She is happy
Rebound from the walls;
Reflected in a few faces
Faithfully she set foot on it
Guidance guidance
Take pictures
Recommended restaurants outside
Only a few days
Show her waiting for everything
Memory, iron brand
Magic continues
It will go on
Will let her go on
And, quietly – will make her her.

Morning
Usually I’m relatively concrete with poems, but I thought I’d try to write about what it feels like to wake up on a weekend morning when I can stay in bed as long as I like.

Warm with the morning
Rich with sated lethargy
Blithely, obliquely
Becoming aware

Gradual emerging
From nothing as human as dreaming
More atavistic
More animalistic
Lumbering out of an eight-hour winter

Nothing required
Nothing alarming or instant
Wake without urgency
Eased into sentience
Rich with warm vitality
A long, long moment before
Humanity – and the day, and the day.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I wrote this on the train, on the way back from seeing a performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Intensity was
Refracted from the stage
Bent with echoes
Of exhaustion –
Of admiration
The storms of energy
The shouts and the lights
(The expensive programmes)
And the dual identity
Seeing Martha;
Seeing Imelda
One broken roar
– of recognition
And distance – and
Being drawn into that hurricane
(For a matinee, between meals)
For – not a mirror – a portal
A vivid, broad portal
A storm, an explosion
– Imelda; Martha –
And, afterwards, dead calm.

Innocence From Experience
I took the words of ‘Nurse’s Song‘ by William Blake, from Songs of Experience, and rearranged them…

Green are the whisperings of my youth
And green the pale voices in my mind
Heard in the dale – dews wasted on my down.
And when my days are of night, and winter is home
Then, children, your turns: arise! Your disguise – gone!
Fresh of face children – rise and play!
In the day and in the night
Your spring and sun are come!