A poem a day for Lent (day one)

I hope you’ve had your fill of pancakes – Lent has begun! For many of us, it’s a time of contemplation leading up to the joy of Easter – but it’s also, of course, a time for giving up or taking up things. My brother has gone vegetarian for Lent (taking up vegetarianism or giving up meat, depending on how you look at it) – this excites me greatly, mostly because he has teased me for being vegetarian ever since I started, in 2001.

I’ve been watching a couple of arty programmes lately – The Big Painting Challenge and Portrait Artist of the Year – and it got me wanting to take up something creative in Lent. One artist said he had a New Year’s Resolution to paint a self portrait every day. Any sort of artwork every day seemed impossibly time-consuming, but I decided I could manage a poem a day. There’s always the option of a single rhyming couplet on hectic days. (And the project would require – yay – stationery!)

Lent poetry book

Perhaps I should emphasise this isn’t because I think I’m a great poet – rather it’s that I want to practise it more, and I like the idea of a record of Lent to look back on. I’ll be trying lots of styles, tones, and forms (though my go-to form is always something which takes a rigid structure and shakes it up a bit), and I will probably share some of them here, if people are interested. In fact, here’s day one – I thought ‘beginning’ was a suitable theme, and it was my jumping-off point for writing this one, as well as the title.


She is there in a house on a cliff,
Facing out to sea and out to land,
The place both meet; the place where both begin,
A refuge for escapers, holidaymakers,
From all that’s past that’s not permitted in.

In a room in a house on a cliff,
Cold with age and waiting to awake,
The day begins; the dying back of night,
A light-switch makes a lighthouse of a cave;
A wary hand declares ‘let there be light’.

In a room on the edge of a cliff,
She finds that she has walked to every wall,
To use each sense; to know that they are there,
The witnesses to something wholly new,
But witnesses which must stay unaware.

In a bed in a house on a cliff,
Blankets form a powerless defence.
The warmth may come; perhaps she has to wait,
For now no walls can stop the creeping cold;
The world outside will always infiltrate.

In a house on the edge of a cliff,
Caught between the country and the coast,
The last escape; the first place to defend,
Sometimes an end is the beginning;
Sometimes a beginning is the end.


The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the StrandIt’s Historical Fiction week over at Vulpes Libris, and I’m throwing some fat on the fire with a post about why I don’t like historical fiction… and (because I MULTI-TASK, y’all) it’s also a review of The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne du Maurier.

Which sounds like I hated the novel – whereas in fact I had quite a confusing relationship with it, given that half of it is in present day (yay!) and half in the 14th century (boo!). Read all about it over at Vulpes Libris

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True HeartThis beautiful, beautiful edition of The True Heart (1929) by Sylvia Townsend Warner was given to me as part of a wonderful Secret Santa present from Christina (the secret was eventually revealed!) in a Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing exchange. That was back in 2014, and it recently got to the top of my list by being nominated by Ali when I asked people to tell me what to read from my tbr. Thank you both, because I loved it!

It is slightly shaming that, despite writing about Warner at length in my DPhil thesis, I had only read a few of her novels. Because my thesis was thematic, I concentrated on the novels which fit the criteria (they had to be fantastic, for one thing – if you want to know about fantasy vs fantastic, then that can be another post one day!). That meant that I spent a long time reading the diaries, letters, essays etc of Warner and others, but didn’t look too hard at the novels which came after the ones I was interested in.

I was also rather nervous – because, while I love and adore Lolly Willowes, I liked Mr Fortune’s Maggot rather less, and was bored rigid by Summer Will Show and The Corner That Held Them. That may well be because of my struggles with historical fiction, and I know those novels are well-loved by many. But it meant I was curious how I’d feel about The True Heart.

The novel has two things in its favour: it’s set in the Victorian period, which is apparently within my remit for acceptable historical fiction (and within living memory when Warner wrote it), and it was written in the 1920s. Yes, that is often enough for me to fall in love with a book, but in this case it’s notable because I think Warner was at her best with her first few novels – and this one was her third.

I’ve rambled long enough without actually telling you anything about the plot. Apparently it is a retelling of Eros/Cupid and Psyche, though I had forgotten that when I was reading it (and don’t know the myth, thinking about it, so who knows.) Our heroine is Sukey Bond – a bright and imaginative orphan, who leaves her orphanage to be farmed out to… well, aptly, a farm. She is 16, and the place out in the Essex marshes has been found for her by Mrs Seaborn – a woman whom Sukey admires and idolises beyond all others. In the months that passes, it is a sort of idol of Mrs Seaborn that she keeps in her mind, while she tries to get her head around her new scenario. Here’s a fairly length excerpt, which gives you a hint of Warner’s greatest strength – her style. I love how her writing mixes the pastoral, the emotional, and the wryly amusing.


She hoped that Zeph would offer to take her to the sea, for though she knew that she had but to follow the windings of the creek eastward to find her way there by herself, she lacked courage to go alone. Herds of cattle and horses grazed over the marsh; but she did not dread these, for she soon discovered that the worst they did was to follow her, snorting and inquisitive, but not intending her any harm. It was the sea itself that she dreaded. The Bible had taught her that the sea was to be feared. storms arose there, the cruel floods clapped their hands. Perhaps a wave would take hold of her and bear her away, or perhaps she would see a ship wrecked.

She hoped in vain. Zeph had a poor opinion of the sea; he would have thought it no compliment to a respectable young girl to offer her a sight of that inscrutable nuisance. When they set out he turned his face firmly inland, conducting her to inspect Mr Hardwick’s new silo. Sukey gazed with due respect at this rarity. It reminded her of the Tower of Babel, and she thought how dreadful it would be if Zeph suddenly began to speak French.

The family are chiefly of the ‘poor but honest’ variety, though the girlfriend of one of the sons (Prudence) is more of a minx who is determined to subjugate Sukey. She has recently been in Sukey’s maid role, and thinks that the best way to elevate herself to equality with the family is to distance herself from her former life. Sukey continues to be something of a naive innocent.

It is with this frame of mind that she meets Eric. She first mistakes him for the third son of the family, but is quickly disabused on this front. He is, in fact, Mrs Seaborn’s son – a kind, nature-loving young man, usually silent. His first overtures to Sukey are offering to show her where he has found a secret orchard. And, drawn to kindness and gentleness, Sukey falls in love with him. They get engaged, in private, near a church – which Eric thinks they can just climb into to be wed.

It is only later that he has a seizure, and Sukey is told by the malicious Prudence that Eric is considered an ‘idiot’. He is taken away from the farm.

We follow Sukey as she quits her job, leaves her things, and goes to find Eric – hoping to be welcomed by the Mrs Seaborn she has built in her head. That’s not quite how things go. And the rest of the novel sees Sukey try to win the freedom and independence that she and Eric need for their simple, harmless love. Along the way she meets curious characters (including Queen Victoria!) and there are amusing incidents – my favourite being where she offers to be a maid at a house which, the reader quickly realises, offers other services…

This is a beautiful book, unsentimental in every scene, but never cynical or too detached. Rather, it shows the strength of a character and the gentle power of determination. Above all, it shows Warner at her best descriptive power and storytelling ability.

I don’t think it’s up there with Lolly Willowes, which is truly a tour de force, but The True Heart is still a great novel and I’m grateful to Christina and Ali for working together – albeit unknowingly! – to get me to read it.

Others who got Stuck into it:

Heavenali: “The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart.”

Rough Draft: “The beautiful and deeply textured descriptions and the odd encounters give the novel a fantastic, dream-like quality.”

Song for a Sunday

A few years ago Lana Del Rey appeared on the music scene with the almost impossibly good ‘Video Games’. Critics have loved her following albums and called them improvements, but I’ve not liked them quite as much. But I do have her latest song, ‘Love’, on replay at the moment… and there’s no denying that voice. (Well, maybe there is. But not from me.)

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I’m still cat-sitting, and enjoying having a house and a cat to myself. It’s a good way to get some reading done (finished a very good Sylvia Townsend Warner novel, which I’ll review next week) and indulge in catching up with some TV. It also means being introduced to the life of a commuter – which has given me joy (more reading time!) and angst (where IS THE BUS). Let’s go all joy and no angst for the link, the blog post, and… the TV show (gasp).

1.) The blog post – isn’t really a blog post, but I’m counting it. Trevor, the lovely fellow behind The Mookse and the Gripes, runs a ‘Mookse Madness’ series of polls in the blog’s Goodreads group. I believe ‘March Madness’ is something to do with baseball or basketball or American football or somesuch, but this series of rounds is all about BOOKS. Which are much better than all sports, I think we can agree.

You can see the polls here, I believe. Some are open and some will open later. There is currently no pairing at all where I’ve read (/finished) both books, but that hasn’t stopped me voting for such favourites as GileadTo The Lighthouse, and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Head on over and join in the fun!

2.) The link – everyone now and then I remember the Agatha Christie quiz on Sporcle. Can you name all 66 of her novels in 12 minutes? Spoilers: you can’t. But see how well you do. I’ve played dozens of times and my personal best is 61, I think.

3.) The TV show – yes, there is no book in this week’s miscellany, shockingly. I wanted to recommend the Netflix series Abstract instead. I don’t know which countries it’s available in, but it’s certainly viewable in the UK – it’s a documentary series Netflix have made, each one about a different sort of designer. I’ve watched one on an illustrator and artist who designs covers for the New Yorker and one for a stage and set designer – both fascinating, especially the latter. There’s also designers of shoes, architecture, interior decor, and more. Don’t let anybody tell you that we don’t live in a spectacular era of television!

Dearest Andrew (letters by Vita Sackville-West)

Guys, set your faces to impressed, because I’ve already read the first book I’ve bought in Project 24. I bought my second one today (more on that another day – or right now if you scroll through my Twitter feed) but if I keep this up – and I definitely, definitely won’t – then I’ll have finished all 24 books this year.

Dearest AndrewIt helped, of course, that the book was relatively slim. Dearest Andrew: Letters from V. Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962 (published in 1980) has a very long title for a book that is only 127 pages long. There is only one half of the collection, which the editor Nancy MacKnight explains as a case of Andrew wanting Vita Sackville-West to be centre stage – though the less charitable among us might suspect that she didn’t keep his letters.

They didn’t know each other when the correspondence started. It kicked off because Andrew – who lived in Maine – had a friend nearby who wanted to visit Sissinghurst, Vita’s beautiful home and garden. Said friend never actually got to Sissinghurst, but Vita’s reply was so encouraging that Andrew braved writing again – and so, after some fits and starts, their friendship begins and would last until Vita’s death.

The title of the collection is how Vita addressed him – after rather an interesting realisation about greetings in British English and American English – is this still the case?

My dear Andrew. No, I am given to understand that the American and the English habit is reversed. To us, My dear is a far warmer form than just Dear, yet if I put just Dear Andrew it looks so cold and formal to my English eyes. And if my American publisher begins his letter to me My dear it looks very personal and intimate! so what is one to do? I shall take refuge in Dearest Andrew which is what we reserve for our real friends.

The one review I found of this book is quite critical, suggesting that it’s a bit boring because it’s mostly about gardening, day-to-day events, and minutiae. Well, that’s exactly why I liked it so much. I enjoy letters because they show us the real person – and while I love reading an author’s thoughts on writing, I’m also rather enamoured by their easy, unthinking chatting about normal life. My only criticism is that there is perhaps too much framing from the editor, and quite a few of the letters are clearly not included.

So, perhaps not the best place to start for readers new to Vita Sackville-West – but if you know a little about her, or have read her writing, then I think this is a fun addition to her oeuvre.

Tea or Books? #34: novels based on real life: yes or no?, and A Pin To See The Peepshow vs Messalina of the Suburbs

E M Delafield, F Tennyson Jesse, and novels about real people – that’s what’s on the menu for episode 34.

Tea or Books logoIt’s very nice to have Rachel back (hi Rachel!) and we’ve both been doing homework for this episode – reading these novels specially to discuss them. Which hopefully means we have some more details to hand than usual – but it can get confusing, so here is a handy guide to help you get through the slightly confusing interlinking of these two novels and real life. It’s the woman, the lover, and the husband in each case. (All will become clear when you listen.)

The people in real life: Edith / Frederick / Percy
A Pin To See The Peepshow: Julia / Leo / Herbert
Messalina of the Suburbs: Elsie / Leslie / Horace

Hope that helps! As always, let us know if you have any choices to make – and if you have any suggestions for future episodes. As long as it can be in an ‘X vs Y’ format, we’ll consider it! Our iTunes page is here, and you can rate/review through iTunes itself, should you so wish :)

Incidentally, I did some counting while editing this podcast episode, and it turns out this is the 23rd book I’ve read by E.M. Delafield!

The books and authors we mention in this episode…

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Daphne in Fitzroy Street by E Nesbit
The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Josephine Tey Mysteries by Nicola Upson
The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries by Gyles Brandreth
The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer
Virginia Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light
Travesties by Ed Stoppard
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Summer in February by Jonathan Smith
A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
Messalina of the Suburbs by E M Delafield
The Suburban Young Man by E M Delafield
The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse
The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor
The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

R.C. Sherriff over at Vulpes Libris

A quick note to say that I’m over at Vulpes Libris today, talking about how much I like The Fortnight in September and Greengates by R.C. Sherriff. If you listened to our Tea or Books? episode on them, then there’s not much that will come as a surprise to you – but I thought there’d be plenty of people who don’t listen to podcasts who might need a nudge towards reading those fab novels!

Speaking of Tea or Books? – apologies for a bit of a longer break than anticipated, but Rachel and I will be recording this weekend. If you have any thoughts about Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield or A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse, then do feel free to send in a comment or a voicemail. You can send voice recordings to simonthomasoxford[at]gmail.com – it would be great fun to include those!


A little bit of theatre

It’s been quite the week for theatre and cinema – if going three times counts as ‘quite the week’, which I rather think it does. And that’s not even including watching Crush on DVD because it has Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor in it (word to the wise: they’re glorious, but not enough to make up for a rather shaky plot and Andie MacDowell handing in a rather underwhelming performance – but kudos to whoever put the Behind The Scenes section on the DVD that is literally just behind the scenes footage without any voiceover, including watching a man move cones around).

The film I saw at the cinema was La La Land (watching for the second time, and liking even more this time around), but you already know that that’s great. So I thought I’d mention the plays I’ve been to see.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

On Monday I went to see a production of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and managed to walk into a door on the way in (or, rather, the glass surrounds to a door that I couldn’t see). Ouch. I only realised the day before I went that it would be rather a tough watch – and, indeed, it was. At times I had my fingers in my ears and my eyes closed – there were some very realistic depictions of torture. But, ultimately, I was impressed with the production – it should be unsettling, after all – and the staging was very effective. TV screens were all over the stage, along with lots of floor-level strip lighting; the TV screens showed what was on stage, alongside pre-recorded footage of the same actors, and it was disorientating in the right way.

Sometimes I thought that more had been put into the staging that the rest of the production – two things especially: Julia seemed oddly unpleasant, and Winston and Julia fell in love at the first instant of their first encounter. (Does that happen in the book? I’ve read it twice, but clearly misremembered some of it – there was a central aspect to the plot that I thought they’d changed, but the Wikipedia summary corrects me.) There was an exceptionally good performance from the woman who interrogates Winston, though, and I was pretty impressed.

In the current political climate, an added dimension was there. Comparisons between Trump’s presidency and Nineteen Eighty-Four have brought about a huge rise in sales of the book (which is a brilliant novel, incidentally). Seeing the production in front of me, it was slightly reassuring to see the things that Trump doesn’t do (yet), but watching realistic waterboarding in the week that Trump announced he wanted to reintroduce it… well, it hit home how immoral torture is, and that it hasn’t disappeared. Similarly, the doublethink (whereby you will believe contradictory things, or that 2 + 2 = 5, if Big Brother instructs you to) felt so relevant to today and Trump’s constant, pathological lying. A very apt choice of play for 2017. See more about Creation Theatre’s production.


I was in London for a couple of days this week, at a very good Introduction to International Development course, and I thought I should use the opportunity to go to a play. Having not planned ahead, I was scrolling through what was on that night, seeing what still had tickets available, and landed on Travesties by Tom Stoppard.

I thought I’d read it when I was an undergraduate, but apparently not – or, if I did, I forgot every single thing about it. I certainly wrote about reality in Stoppard at some point, but maybe not this play – though it would have been a great one to choose. Travesties is the faulty reminiscences of ex-consular officer Henry Carr, talking about his dealings with Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara, putting on a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Only Stoppard would think of that, right? (Although it is based in the very loosest way on fact: all four men were indeed in Zurich at the same time.)

He’s certainly a whizz at crafting an entertaining play out of something that should really only be an intellectual exercise. The production (currently at the Apollo Theatre, with Tom Hollander in the lead role) was frenetic and fun, and there was plenty of laughter in the packed audience. But we often laughed in different sections – as different people clearly ‘got’ different allusions. I know The Importance of Being Earnest inside out, so loved all the many references to lines and scenes from it. Many of Wilde’s scenarios and quips are altered (subtly or otherwise) to fit the various other occupants of the play – it was great fun spotting where they all were. And so I assume that the same was true for Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara. I know a bit about Joyce, an outline of Lenin, and had never heard of Tzara – and it left me wondering: who on earth would understand everything in this play?

It does seem rather ambitious, to expect anybody in the audience to have a thorough working knowledge of all four elements of the play. I’m going to wager that that was also the case in 1974, when the play was first put on. But I suppose that is Stoppard’s talent – to make such a curio intensely entertaining, even while I knew that I must be missing much. (It’s at the Apollo until April, if you want to go and see it.)

And I’m going to the theatre again next week, to see Silver Lining. What better way to ride out 2017 than with books and plays? (And, yes, probably wine and chocolate.)

Project 24: Book 1

It’s taken five weeks, but I’ve bought my first book of 2017! In case you’ve missed this project, I’m only buying 24 books throughout the year. It wouldn’t be a challenge for everybody, but I’m sure quite a few of you appreciate what a big deal this is for a bibliophile who loves browsing and buying almost as much as reading.

And the first book which persuaded me to use up one of my allocated spaces? I found it in an Oxfam shop in Thame, having not heard about it before: Dearest Andrew: Letters From Vita Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962.

Dearest Andrew

It’s not particularly rare or anything – copies are available online for less than a pound – but it felt exciting to find a book about an author I love that I never knew existed. I love collections of letters, particularly a correspondence between two people (though, in this instance, only the letters from VSW survive) – and, to be frank, it was getting to the point where I really needed to buy something. I’m still ahead of myself – 1.5 books in hand!

The only review I’ve found of this collection is quite negative, I have subsequently discovered, but… well, I’ll make up my own mind one day before too long! I do know that the more I read by Vita Sackville-West, the more interesting a writer I find her.