Thursday, 25 December 2008

Hark, the herald....

Merry Christmas, one and all! Hope you're having a lovely day.

And to all of you who don't celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a lovely day too.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

I Need A Hero... But Not That One

Firstly, I'M BACK!*

Secondly, OH GOD TWILIGHT WHY. As you've already seen I don't deal well with General Misapprehensions (they make me very very angry and I tend to explode in an alarming way whenever the subject is mentioned), and this is sort of a mega one. It makes me want to shake all the Twilight fans until they see sense.

GUYS, IT'S REALLY BAD. Like, REALLY, spectacularly, phenomenally BAD.

The writing style is distinctly average, plotting is minimal, and the choice of first person narrator is just irritating (although that's a personal distate). The main character, Bella, is boring, annoying, and essentially one-dimensional; any description of her interests appears tacked on, and are swiftly forgotten, while any remnants of her character are subsumed in the overwhelming tide of twoo wuv which she has for Vampire Boy, Edward Cullen, probably due to his eerily similar emptiness as a character. Said love interest is mostly just DULL, and it terrifies and infuriates me in equal measures that millions of teenage girls are falling in love with him. For my part, I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone finds him at all attractive. He is arrogant, self-obsessed, apparently has no interests apart from running around with his speshul powers and possibly oiling his marble muscles; his attitude to Bella is inexplicable for much of the book, patronising, claustrophobic, stalkery and abusive, and really a bit strange. Ok, he's "gorgeous" - it's hard to miss this fact when it's emphasised with a sledgehammer - but even that was boring, not to mention clunky and unconvincing. Telling me that someone is gorgeous is not good enough. I have to be shown it, too, because my favourite characters are attractive in their entirety - their looks, yes, but also the way they move, the way they speak and interract with others, everything.

And his relationship with Bella is just blah. There's no spark between them, no inevitability, no feeling of an odd sort of gravity pulling them together. It's like someone's summarising the book - "and then they fall in love and then they get together". Not exactly erotic. The best relationships are the ones which are like a jigsaw - things click into place, and couldn't be any other way. I just felt that she rushed into the Edward/Bella stuff. I would have liked more tension, more uncertainty, more teasing - and preferably something they had in common, some evidence of shared minds and conversation.

And from the sounds of it, the next few books get worse.

The main thing that infuriates me about this series, though, except for the horrendous anti-feminist message, is that there is so much infinitely better YA stuff out there that people aren't reading - and which Twilight is giving a bad name. Books and series with actual characters, actual plots - man, I could show you some characters you can't help but fall in love with!**

IN SUMMARY: the only thing that's magical about this book is how it got published.

Also, two links that disect the Twilight thing much better than I can: Lucy Mangan's review for the Graun, and an in-depth explanation and defence of the various criticisms of the series here (you need to register for the site, but it's well worth doing so for the scholarly and reasoned quality of the discussion).

*I've actually been back for a while but there was recovering to do, and then lots of long, leg-achy shifts at work, and seeing The Boy, and so posting was Not Pre-eminently Important.
** and which I will do tomorrow!

Friday, 5 December 2008

Once more into the breach, dear friends...

Off SKIING! Tomorrow. Hurrah. Further posts will follow.*

TTFN, lovers!

*If you can bear to read them. I always feel skiing is a little ... braying? Hmm. But good exercise, I'm told.

PS Holiday books:

Villete (Charlotte Bronte)
The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
Memento Mori (Muriel Spark)

and comfort reading: Black Sheep (Georgette Heyer).

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Thought for the Day

From D.Sharp:

On the edge of being schmaltzy, but a good message nonetheless.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

To arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time

I have the wanderlust again. That itch beneath my skin - bizarrely, right now, strongest in my cheeks - and the twitch in the muscles of my legs that says Get up, you lump, get up and GO."

I'm hoping that skiing and Madrid this winter (ooh, jet-setty miss!) will put the real burn on hold a little, at least for the six months it'll take to get my release papers from this place. But then? I have fifteen months or so before I'll be expected to rock up here or here. Fifteen months in which I need to earn money, but I also want to go somewhere. Anywhere.

Ideally, I want to earn money somewhere else. The thought of living in London for the foreseeable future is pretty claustrophobic right now. I want to live in a different city, a different town, a different country. Not for long - I don't have long. But just for a bit. Right now, I'm thinking Edinburgh, Dublin, York - but I'm open to suggestions.

So all of you, tell me - where have you lived and loved it? Where would you recommend for a fairly poor graduate to settle for a few months? Areas to head for/avoid? And any bright ideas for jobs while there - send 'em my way. And ask your friends.

I'll be here. I'm not going anywhere for a while yet.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Wash your mouth out with soap and water

Disclaimer: So turns out I'm rubbish at posting. Who knew? In my defence I have about twenty posts in the planning or development stages, I just - like Arsenal and the England rugby team - am rubbish at the execution.

Since this post is somewhat topical, I thought I'd better get it out there before it became TOO passe.


So, Charlie Brooker wrote* a fantastic column** about the whole bloody Brand-Ross palaver, in which he wrote:

Friday's paper included a rundown of other "obscenities" broadcast by the Beeb, which the paper fearlessly "uncovered" by recording some TV shows and writing down some of the jokes. To protect readers' sensibilities, all the rude words were sprinkled with asterisks, although since the Mail's definition of "rude" extends to biological terms such as "penis", it was a bit like gazing at an ASCII representation of a snowstorm on a ZX Spectrum circa 1983. Perhaps next week it will produce a free sheet of asterisk stickers for readers to plaster over their own genitals, lest they catch sight of them in a mirror and indignantly vomit themselves into a coma.

And this brought out a visceral reaction in me. Because if there's one thing I HATE*** is the way newspapers star out swearwords. They should just print the damn thing, or not print the word at all. If a kid reads it, they're still going to ask what it means - or even more likely to, as my friend E pointed out. And what's so bad about a child learning what a "penis" is? It reminds me of the horrific story of the woman in America (of course) who complained to a theatre because they had THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES on the marquee, and she'd had to explain to her neice what it meant. (Although that's connected to the sex ed palaver and that's a rant for another day).

The way I see it, if people are matter of fact about things, the mystery goes out of it - and as E pointed out, if people aren't shocked then children won't use it as much. So if a kid says "fuck", you tell them that it is a historical term for sex and that it makes people uncomfortable to hear it and good manners means not making people uncomfortable so they shouldn't say it. You're teaching kids to be rational, that way, and to think of the consequences of their actions, and instilling in them an understanding of exactly what manners are. I'm a firm believer that you should always tell people WHY they shouldn't do something, which then takes away the urge to do it - they may still do it, but they might also think about it first.

Back in the day, when I used to post my writing on the tinty (don't ask), one of my stories received a comment about how the commenter didn't like the way two of the characters "cursed" so much. This grated with me, because I didn't see the swearing as gratuitous at all, and in fact it had been a deliberate piece of characterisation - the characters in question were two teenage boys who were trying to be macho and grown-up, and so the swearing was all part of their braggadoccio. it didn't make sense for them not to swear. Although am I right in thinking that swearing is a lot more acceptable than in America?

Or as in The History Boys, there's the stupendous exchange between Dakin and Irwin (one of the best scenes of theatre ever, in my opinion). Dakin has just asked Irwin - his history teacher - for a drink, and while he starts out joking, there is an electric moment when he finally drops the mask, and shouts "I don't understand this! Reckless; impulsive; immmoral ... how come there's such a difference between the way you teach and the way you live?"

Irwin, flustered, replies, "Actually, it's amoral", and Dakin whirls on him and says, forcefully, "Oh, is it FUCK". The swearing-phobic would say that was unnecessary; I'd say it definitely is necessary. The four words perfectly convey Dakin's frustration with Irwin's prevarication, and also probably Dakin's fear of rejection and annoyance at his own vulnerability, better than any other phrase that omits the swearword, as well as being in character (macho teenage boy again).

And where would the opening scene of Four Weddings and Funeral be without swearwords? NOWHERE, is the answer. RUINED.

Having said all that, though, there are times when swearing can be gratuitous and overused - but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, eh?

*two weeks ago
**When has he not? Also, I still can't spell "column"
*** OBVIOUSLY a lie, there are MANY things I hate

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


Sometimes things don't go, after all,
From bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
Faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
Elect an honest man; decide they care
Enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they are born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
Amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of snow
That seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

-Sheenagh Pugh

Well done America. You've done us proud.*

*Mostly. Because you're still bloody homophobic (Looking at you, California, especially). Bastards.

Pictures from here, here, and here.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Telepathy - an underrated skill

Continuing the theme of authors who magically articulate a thought which you thought was peculiar to yourself:

I was re-reading some quotes I scribbled out from Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother, a truly brilliant book from a truly brilliant writer, a man able to describe a mental state better than any author I've read, when I came across this.

What was Jamie going to say? It seemed so obvious what he felt. But when he tried to put it into words it sounded clumsy and unconvincing and sentimental. If only you could lift a lid on the top of your head and say "Look".

A very simple paragraph, which describes exactly the problem I have with my writing.

Now I wish I'd brought A Spot of Bother up to Cambridge with me.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

So we know that words are powerful, and evocative, and resonant. Emily Dickinson knew exactly what she was doing when talked about "Cavalries - of love".

So why did Tony Blair think it a good idea to say the Black Watch would be home by Christmas in 2004?

And why certain Republicans still bandy around the term "Un-American"?

Do they not know the associations they are evoking? Or maybe, in the case of the Republicans, they don't care.

Monday, 13 October 2008

i like the thrill of under me you quite so new

There's a scene in Alan Bennett's The History Boys when they talk about poetry. When this is announced, one of the boys (the now famous James Corden - who incidentally shares my birthday, how strange) groans, explaining that he doesn't always understand poetry. Hector, the teacher, replies, "Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now, and you'll understand it whenever."

Timms continues to protest, saying, "I don't see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet."

And Hector replies, "But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you're dying. ... Poetry is the trailer. Forthcoming attractions!"

Later, when talking to another pupil about Hardy's poem Drummer Hodge, Hector says, "The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought particular and special to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, someone you've never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."

I've been thinking about these scenes quite a bit in the last few days, because I experienced both this weekend. Picking up my moleskine - which I use sort of as a commonplace book, writing in poems of prose fragments or quotes or adverts or anything I don't want to forget - I came across a fragment of i like my body when it is with your by e e cummings:

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite a new thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again

Incomplete, of course - I found it on a sheet of paper at school and only recently realised the poem continues (and is much more explicitly erotic). But I quote this section because this is how I've always read the poem (and that's a discussion in its own right - in my ignorance I interpreted the "final" line very differently from how I do now I know it continues, so which interpretation is correct?).

So this weekend, I re-read this poem. And suddenly, it made sense. It was true, and applicable to me, now, in a way it has never been before. Because unlike Timms, and unlike the me who read this first time round, it's happened to me. I'm insecure about my body - find me someone who isn't! - but then I met someone, and when I'm with him, I'm not insecure at all. I don't care about the stomach or the dimply thighs or the eczema scars - in fact, I feel sexy and beautiful. New.

So ee cummings? Snap. Take my hand.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

And we, while to the wanton lute do strut...

So I've been doing some research on my dissertation. And I came across this useful direct quote:

And so we bid you welcome to our court,
Fair cousin Albany, and you, our sweetest Essex.
Take this my hand, and you fair Essex this,
And with this bond we'll cry anon,
And shout Jack Cock O'London to the foe.

Approach your ears, and kindly bend your conscience to my peace.

Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter.
Fair Albany to Somerset must eke his route.
And Scroop, do you to Westmorland, where shall bold York
Enrouted now for Lancaster, with forces of our Uncle Rutland,
Enjoin his standard with sweet Norfolk's host.
Fair Sussex, get thee to Warwicksbourne,
And there, with frowning purpose, tell our plan
To Bedford's tilted ear, that he shall press
With most insensate speed
And join his warlike effort to bold Dorset's side.
I most royally shall now to bed,
To sleep off all the nonsense I've just said.

Or maybe I've just been listening to Beyond the Fringe's Shakespeare parody. Who knows?

The funny thing is, this is not all that different from the accounts of the various fourteenth century civil wars...

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Welcome to the world, Baby Girl!

Firstly, a hundred million congratulations to the wonderful Patroclus and James for the birth of their daughter, for now named, appositely, the Blue Kitten. Patroclus was the first ever grown-up blog I read, and I fell a little bit in love with her, reading her entire blog from start to finish (it took me about four days), and laughing a lot with embarassing snorting noises because I was trying not to (I was in the library a lot in those days), but also nodding sagely because she is so very wise. And she made me want to start my own grown-up blog, which I did*, and periodically made my own efforts feel paltry and vapid, but in A GOOD WAY.

And James? James was responsible (among others) for Green Wing, and this is just the greatest ever thing anyone can achieve in my opinion, except he then goes on and writes a brilliant, funny, geeky blog which always makes me smile and often makes me think.

So combine the two, and I think the Blue Kitten is going to be truly fearsome force in the blogosphere, and, probably, life. So lets all point and say things at her while she still can't talk and overshadow us with her brilliance.

Anyway. Welcome to the world, baby girl, and if Mum and Dad ever want a holiday, I'm happy to house- and baby-sit, although don't ask me to blog for them, because that'd just be stupid.


Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Carrier pigeon?

Dear all, apologies for the continued absence, but our internet at home is kaput. Arg. So unless I lug my laptop to some kind wifi zone, I shall be awol for a little while. HOPEFULLY I'll be back by the weekend. Fingers crossed, eh? Until then, have fun, all!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Hello and Goodbye, Stay-at-Homes!

Dear All.

1. I have returned from Cornwall.

2. I depart in 20 minutes for Wales.

3. I will be back late on Friday.

4. I am now old. Well, 21. Except I feel exactly the same, only I now own approximately six million more books than I did yesterday, including a gorgeous Everyman complete set of Jane Austen, and the Mitford Sisters letters, which I'm taking to Wales.

5. Ta-ta for now.

PS For those that were wondering, I took six fiction books with me to Cornwall, five history books, one biography (Edna St Vincent Millay), and a Latin grammar and dictionary. Pretty good, huh? And then I watched a lot of Olympics and Top Gear and read only half of them. Less good.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside...

Hello all!

Apologies for general silence these past few days: I've had posts planned, I just haven't got round to writing them up.

And now, I'm off to Cornwall! Hurrah hurrah hurrah! No internet though, hurroo. But I'm planning to blog anyway, just not, you know, on the web. Log? Hmm.

ANYWAY I will be keeping a journal, and I will post such gobbets as seem worthy of your time and attention when I'm back in two weeks.

Two weeks! Bliss!

Ta-ta for now.

PS guess how many books I'm taking with me. Go on, guess.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Reader's Block

Interesting article in the G2 on Friday about Reader's Block.

...we are anxious about not having read the great works of literature. So we buy them to silence that anxiety. We present our purchases to the sales assistant with a superior look, and then cry a little inside on the bus home as we realise that we are now going to have to read the monstrous things in the bag on the seat next to us, some of which seem to be in foreign languages that we never took the trouble to learn.

But we only rarely overcome this anxiety. Hence reader's block. We start (War and Peace, Proust, Goethe, Anne Enright's Booker-winning The Gathering), but we don't finish: we leave them on page 42 in the loo, a constant reminder of our lack of resolve. That, incidentally, is why there is a global shortage of bookmarks.

Despite my appearance as a fervent bibliophile, I know this phenomenon very well indeed - suffered from it, in fact, for much of my teenage years. From being a precocious, voracious reader as a child, by the age of thirteen I found it difficult to commit to any book beyond the least challenging (although with characteristic and embarrassing intellectual snobbishness I wouldn't touch anything remotely pulpy - no Babysitter's Club, no Goosebumps, no Point Romance, no Judy Blume, even). This went in cycles, with six months of struggle followed by a period where I read everything I could lay my hands on, with the hunger of a person who hasn't eaten for days, and about as much discrimination. Even now, my reading is sporadic at best, because the last thing I want to do when I've spent all day in the library is to settle down with another book, and even in the holidays, I tend to waste my days reading blogs and watching tv on the internet (never daytime tv - see previous parenthesis on intellectual snobbery). Not because I intend to, but because once I've started it's hard to stop. Like chocolate.

In fact, I've come to the opinion that reading is very much like exercising. As in, you have to train for it. No-one would expect someone to run a marathon without training for months and drinking those scary energy shakes and mainlining carbohydrates. So why are we expected to be able to dive straight into Crime and Punishment and read it comfortably, beginning to end, no problem, thank you very much? Penguin published a bookmark for War and Peace on which was printed a glossary of the names and potted biography of all the important characters who appear in the book; that this was even contemplated shows how difficult the thing is to follow - no one printed such a bookmark for Winnie the Pooh, did they?

The fact is, to get to Tolstoy level, or Dickens level, even to get to Austen level (which, in the case of Emma, I still have yet to achieve), takes work. It takes adjustment, familiarity with a more complex syntax, unfamiliar vocabulary. It takes time and energy. We recognise the difficulty of reading a novel written in dialect - Trainspotting, say, or Londonstani - why not Dickens?* So rather than tackling the marathon head on, one must first run round the block; warm up with "easier" books and progress slowly to the harder, maybe with so-called "modern classics". After my GCSEs, I read Brideshead Revisited and Catch-22, making the most of my academic fitness, and having worked up to it by reading Vile Bodies (a similarly excellent Waugh book, in my eyes, and always sidelined).

The article includes six tips to beating reader's block from National Literacy Trust director Jonathan Douglas, all of which I'd recommend, all of which have worked for me. It's always worth giving up a book you're strugging with - it doesn't mean you're a failure, it just means the book isn't right for that moment. I had to start Wuthering Heights three times, before my interest was caught. And then I couldn't put it down.

Moreover, I resent any implication that unless you're reading Dostoevsky you're somehow Not A Proper Reader. My mother and I had a recurring argument for about seven years about how I didn't read "properly". Never mind that I wasn't out getting drunk or impregnated, she couldn't bear it that I wasn't devouring the classics. The classics bore me, quoth I, with the sweeping generality characteristic of teenage opinion. She practically disowned me on the spot, and I'm sure that my Professor of English grandfather was turning in his grave. I've moved on since then, and I romped through North and South last term (yea, verily, during termtime!) but that opinion remains only marginally unchanged. It currently stands at "Many classics bore me". But I feel fairly certain this will change as I grow up, although perhaps only if I keep myself in training. The signs are good: after all, the classics I've actually managed to get through are almost all now on my Favourites list - Middlemarch, Persuasion, Jane Eyre, Grapes of Wrath and so on. That they are scattered among Melissa Nathan's The Nanny, Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, and everything written by Terry Pratchett, or that His Dark Materials is counter-balanced by the Georgia Nicholson books by Louise Rennison, is neither here nor there. Leaving aside the fact that those books are excellent (and I will expound on why at exhaustive length given the slightest encouragement, so don't let me start), reading them keeps me in training for tackling the harder stuff, gives variety, and quite simply, is a lot of fun. Better to read a Georgette Heyer than nothing at all. But it's also worthwhile to give a "classic" a bash now and then, if only to see if you can do it. After all, you may surprise yourself, as I have, and discover a favourite for life. Or not, but at least you tried - and will be in good company.

*At least everyone admits Ulysses is virtually unreadable.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

It's me, it's Cathy, I've come home now...

So Gordon Brown has been compared to Heathcliff, and the press has done its usual Rabid Dog Grabbing the Wrong End of the Stick And Not Letting Go thing, which it does so very well. And this has made me very cross, the particular type of crossness when the Wider Public have got a fact wrong (superiority complex? Moi?). Like ... well, like an example which I can't think of right now. But in this instance, like the Heathcliff thing. I feel like writing a letter to everyone in the world, debunking all these myths which people just won't let go of.





For as long as I can remember, my mum has been urging me to read Wuthering Heights. "It's brilliant," she said, "It's magical, it's the most romantic story ever written." At Easter, I read it. And I was horrified. There I was, for YEARS, thinking Heathcliff was a sort of Mr Darcy figure, Misunderstood basically, when NO. He's NOT. I'm not saying the book isn't a masterpiece, and that he isn't a brilliantly depicted character. What I'm saying is that he's a brilliantly depicted villain. That we are holding up this man as a paragon of romantic love is at best ridiculous, at worst scary. His love for Cathy is complex and fascinating, but it is destructive, selfish, overly possessive, and in no way humanises him - or her, for that matter, by whom I was almost as horrified. Their love story is towering and magnificent but in the way that the sea is, or a thunderstorm - something out of control, dangerous. Romantic? Less so.

Or maybe it is? Maybe my definition of romantic is too narrow. Thoughts?

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Don't judge a book by its cover, judge the publisher...

This REALLY annoys me.

What is the plot of this book? It follows ten years in the life of a girl called Judith, from her first emotional arrival at boarding school in England from Singapore, through her friendship with the glamorous Carey-Lewis family, to her time in London and in the Far East during the Second World War. She spends a lot of this time down in Cornwall, at the Carey-Lewis estate of Nancherrow.

What does the cover show? A boy, playing in a rock-pool. I don't know who this boy is supposed to be. Judith has a sibling, but it's a sister. Edward Carey-Lewis is nearly eighteen when they first meet. There are no little boys in the book. There are rock-pools, however, so they can get points for that, but no little boys.


This is just laziness, as far as I can see. Bung any stock picture on it, it'll be fine! A book has to go through many stages to get published; I think Pilcher may be dead (or at least quite old), but someone along the way must have read it, mustn't they? Someone? Anyone? At the very least, can't they have read the blurb, or a precis? Or perhaps it's all a patriarchal belief that people won't read a book with a girl on the cover.

I've quite frequently experienced Book-Cover Rage recently. These bubblegum Austens were the most recent focus of my ire, because of their cynical attempt to tap into the chicklit market - part of a general misinterpretation of Austen as fluffy and girly (which they certainly aren't, as anyone who's actually read them knows). It took me months to find a second-hand Penguin Sense and Sensibility that I could bear to put on my bookshelf.

Books for me are furniture - or ornaments, I suppose. And so I'm very picky about the covers of books. If the cover is ugly, I won't buy it, I'll look for another edition. If there isn't another edition, I'll wait until an old one turns up at Oxfam. I won't choose to read a book because of the cover (it's usually a combination of title and blurb and first page skim), but the cover will determine whether I buy the book. And it's because of Penguin's brilliant Classics and Modern Classics series that I love them so much - I nearly went for work experience there, while I still wanted to be a publisher.

My dears, this has turned into a rant. Again. (But I'm waiting for my results, and so I'm trying desperately not to think about them...)

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Filler - Space-Filler

Hello all, apologies for the absence, and apologies that this is not going to be a real post either, just a meme, since I'm all out of blogging inspiration right now.

Hardback, trade paperback or mass market paperback?
Ooh, what? Two types of paperback? Quelle bizarrity. Leaving aside my ignorance, I’m going to turn this question into Hardback v paperback, which is of course won by paperback. Hardbacks maybe look better in 18th century libraries, but for actual reading paperbacks are better. My wrists hurt otherwise, especially if I’m in the bath.

Barnes & Noble or Borders?
(Hmm, does this mean this quiz originated in the States? Perheps.) Out of those two I’d say Borders, because they’re actually vg and I got my Swallows and Amazons mug from there. And they have armchairs dotted around the bookshop which is the way to my heart, and they didn’t kick me out when I sat there for five hours in Adelaide reading City of Flowers (it was raining outside and the museum was very small). But if we’re talking high-street bookshops, I used to like Waterstone’s the best but now they’ve put down that horrid cream carpet and it doesn’t feel as nice. Now my fave is the Heffer’s on Trinity Street in Cambridge. That’s just lovely.

Bookmark or dog-ear?
Bookmark or nothing. But when I say “bookmark” it’s usually the nearest thing to hand – film stub, train ticket, bus ticket (although only in Cambridge because of Oyster), boarding pass, etc etc

Amazon or brick and mortar?
Brick and mortar, usually, although Amazon is best for presents and for elusive stuff. It’s also excellent for cheapo second-hand stuff. But I much prefer actual real-life bookshops, because you can touch the books and have a flick through. You can’t browse in the same way on Amazon.

Alphabetize by author or alphabetize by title or random?
Alphabetise by author, obviously. But all my books are divided into fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, English Literature (i.e. my annotated texts from school), travel, photography, history, biography, and reference. What? I used to be a librarian, sue me.

Keep, throw away, or sell?
Keep, unless it was really rubbish, then it’s off to Oxfam. Never ever ever throw away, ever – it’d feel like throwing away a living thing. Ugh.

Keep dust jacket or toss it?
I never mean to lose dust jackets but I do. I take them off and then put them down and then they get absorbed by the piles of rubbish in my house. But keep, if we’re talking about intentions here.

Read with dust jacket or remove it?
Remove. They’re annoying and they keep sliding up the book.

Short story or novel?
Novel, but only because I’ve never really read any short stories. *gasp*

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket?
Harry Potter times a million.

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks?
I always try and get to a chapter break, but sometimes I simply can’t keep my eyes open.

"It was a dark and stormy night" or "Once upon a time"?
Neither. Both are rubbish. Although “it was a dark and stormy night” makes me think of the running Peanuts gag about Snoopy and his novel, and so is preferable for that.

Buy or borrow?
Buy. If I’m not certain about a book, I may borrow it from the library or a friend and then buy myself a copy if I like it. But book-buying is my therapy, so it’s usually buy.

New or used?
Both, but I do love second-hand books, simply for the bookshops which house them. And occasionally you get notes in them, or inscriptions.

Buying choice: book reviews, recommendations, or browse?
Rarely reviews, because I don’t read the papers enough. But recommendations will point me to a book which I will then browse through.

Tidy ending or cliffhanger?
Either as long as it works. A good cliffhanger is a tidy ending, as far as I’m concerned – but it should fit in with the themes and style of the book. Modern books can get away with it more. Happily ever after doesn’t satisfy as much as it did. Having said that, though, with the best books even a tidy ending works like a cliffhanger for me - I just don't want to leave that world.

Morning reading, afternoon reading, or night-time reading?
Always. Any time. The only thing that varies is the subject matter. Heavier stuff in the morning when I’m a bit more awake, lighter stuff for the tube or for relaxing.

Stand-alone or series?
I won’t go looking for series over stand-alone, but a series is obvs longer and so a good series trumps a good book. There’s more of it!

Favorite series?
(See, I knew this was American!) Arg, too many to choose, but if you put a gun to my head I’d say Swallows and Amazons. And then I’d mutter Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett and Master and Commander and that’d be the end of me.

Favorite children's book?
How long have you got? Swallows and Amazons, probably, but also the Narnia books and Winnie the Pooh. If we’re talking younger than that: Asterix, Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman, Brambley Hedge, Tim and Charlotte, Captain Pugwash…

Favorite YA book?
Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books.

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard?
Very few people have heard of Rosamund Pilcher, and those who have are probably eighty and called Doris. She has written three fantastic books and many many mediocre stories and always ends up with the Barbara Taylor Bradfords and Catherine Cooksons in the romance sections of charity shops, but she doesn’t deserve that. Coming Home is one of my all-time faves.

Favorite books read last year?
Oh bloody hell. Erm… I actually cannot remember one book that I read last year. I have a horrible feeling I only re-read things. Ooh, no, I read A Spot of Bother, the new Mark “Curious Incident” Haddon, and that was utterly brill. (phew) Before you sneer at me, I read at least a few pages of approximately 300 books, thanks to my history degree. But they don’t count. I did love On Royal and Papal Power by John of Paris, but that’s a bit wanky, isn’t it? Oh, and Deathly Hallows, I spose, which I did love a lot. And Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett, which is just lovely.

Favorite books of all time?
Fuck off. Random selection, excluding those I’ve already mentioned above:

The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
His Dark Materials (Phillip Pullman)
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (Eva Rice)
Georgia Nicholson Series (Louise Rennison)
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
Ex Libris (Anne Fadiman)
Writing Home, and Untold Stories (Alan Bennett)
anything by Terry Pratchett
The Female Eunuch (Germaine Greer)
Friday's Child (Georgette Heyer)
The Nanny (Melissa Nathan)
Persuasion (Jane Austen)
How To Talk To A Widower (Jonathan Tropper)
Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)

Least favorite book you finished last year?
Ooh, easy peasy. I read Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Taylor Bradford, and it was AWFUL. Fantastically awful, in fact. It was unoriginal, boring, full of flat, unattractive, stereotyped characters, and had absolutely no tension whatsoever. Which, you know, in a mystery thriller is kind of problematic. I kept waiting for the big dramatic twist which would have made it worthwhile, but it never came.

What are you reading right now?
Savage Beauty, the biography of Edna St Vincent Millay
Sense and Sensibility

What are you reading next?
Depends on my mood, although I think I will read The Color Purple, the new Kate Morton, or a Bronte next.

Favorite book to recommend to an eleven-year-old?
Well, obviously it depends on the eleven-year old. I, for example, was unique in having a negative reading curve, racing through Jane Eyre and Rebecca by the time I turned twelve and then spending five years reading nothing of substance (but lots of fun). Swallows and Amazons if I think they aren’t too cool; A Traveller in Time and Cue for Treason are good for history buffs; Louise Rennison’s Georgia books are fantastic teenage reading because they are funny and surprisingly well-written. Tamora Pierce is brill – terribly written but wonderful characters.

Favorite book to reread?
Anything by Georgette Heyer or Terry Pratchett, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, by Eva Rice, is perfect too.

Do you ever smell books?
Yup. But it’s the touch I like best.

Do you ever read Primary source documents?
All. The. Sodding. Time. (actually they’re quite fun. You feel like an investigative journalist or a detective, and you get added superiority if you’re reading it in Latin).

Anyway, hopefully normal service will soon be resumed.

Friday, 6 June 2008

It was a dark and stormy night

It occurred to me this evening, while in the gym, that I never posted the answers to my First Line Quiz, which was remiss of me. Apologies, and this is now to be corrected!

Basically, if you can't remember, I selected fifteen first lines from famous books and asked you all to guess which book they were from. Here I reveal whether you were wrong or right...

1. There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

2. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

3. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

4. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

5. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

6. All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

7. Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.
Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome

8. Call me Ishmael.
Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville

9. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκεν

Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles the son of Peleus,
the destructive rage that sent countless pains on the Achaeans...

The Iliad, by Homer

10. It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

11. "Yes," said Tom bluntly, on opening the front door. "What do you want?"
Goodnight, Mister Tom, by Michelle Magorian

12. To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

13. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

14. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (a mean one, this 'un)

15. It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears's house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon

Some of them were hard, some were pretty easy, all of them brilliant for one reason or another. So how many of you are kicking yourself now? I have to admit that I had to look up Gatsby and Heart of Darkness, but I would have got all the others.

I'm sure there's been a lot written on first lines - in fact, if any of you know of a good scholarly essay about the topic, please linky - but when has that stopped me writing my own spin on it?

First lines should do one thing: make you want to read on. And it should also (TWO! OUR TWO GREATEST WEAPONS!) do at least one of three things:

1. Introduce a character
2. Introduce the setting
3. Set the tone/narrative voice

The best lines do all three. And they make you ask questions. Like, Moby Dick. "Call me Ishmael". Why? What's this person's real name? Why don't they want to be called that anymore? Why Ishmael? Who are we supposed to be in this instance? Or Peter Pan, who is this child who doesn't grow up? And why? --> HOOKED. Or if they don't make you ask questions, like The Grapes of Wrath or Heart of Darkness, they draw you in with their prose, the beautiful choice of word and rhythm and sentence length, and you find yourself reading on almost without noticing, because the words are carrying you along.

What are all your favourite first lines? Mine is the first line of Swallows and Amazons simply because it's one of my favourite books, but I think the best one in that list is 1984, because in a line it sums up the book - normality skewed and perverted. Always more chilling than pure horror, don't you think?

Saturday, 31 May 2008

I before E, except after C...

Further to last week's post about spelling, I've been procrastinating with this charming game. Brilliant, of course, and much more interesting than the Population-Resources Model.

Except then I got to the end of the first game and it says "JOIN NOW!" and so I clicky on the linky, and it says INFORMATION PLEASE and one part of the information needed is PARENT'S EMAIL and SCHOOL CODE and I realise that I was celebrating the trouncing of someone who is probably ten years younger than I am (that they were asking APPROXIMATE on the hardest setting, rather than something like ZYGOTE let alone SESQUIPIDALIAN, should perhaps have tipped me off), and probably not a Cambridge undergraduate, and certainly not able to touch-type. So essentially, it was the equivalent of my beating a five year old in a wrestling match. I feel much less triumphant, as you can imagine.

Especially when the next game I played was against a child in China. I felt like a bully AND inadequate at the same time.

Friday, 30 May 2008


I have exams. They are horrid. I don't like them because they ruin my enjoyment of my subject. Bah. I am also starting to appreciate why people say A-Levels are easier than they should be.

So although there are some fabby things I want to post about, they may have to wait.

Watch this space!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

How do you do, Beauchamp? The name's Featherstone


Truly. Normally this man can do no wrong. His column* is just the right blend of information and righteous anger and dry wit and irreverence, and sort of everything that's right about the Guardian and none of what's wrong.

And then this ("Let's write our language as we speak it. Then at least our children will be able to spell properly"). Cue Five Stages of Grief:

1. Denial. "Surely not. But he's a sensible person! Perhaps I've just read too many statistics today and I misread it! Perhaps it's ironic?"

2. Anger. "Well, this is just bloody stupid, isn't it? Stupid idiots. Who doesn't know how to spell?"**

3. Bargaining. Weeell - not so much. MOVING ON.

4. Depression. "Oh God, I'm officially snobbish, elitist, and PREMATURELY ELDERLY."

5. Acceptance. "Marcel, you and I will just have to agree to disagree."

Because, for some reason, the thought of simplifying spelling fills me with horror. And that thought ALSO fills me with horror, because - well, because that's what pedantic old farts do, they quibble about irrelevancies and write Strongly Worded Letters to The Times.

I feel I can totally justify my obsession with correct punctuation. That is for clarity. But spelling is different - bad spelling doesn't obscure meaning the way bad punctuation does. I mean, today I was reading Henry IV's claim to the throne:

In the name of Fadir, Son and Holy Gost, I Henry of Lancastre chalenge yis Rewme of Yngland, and the Corone with all ye membres and ye appurtenances, als I am disendit be right lyne of the Blode, comyng fro the gude lorde Kyng Henry Therde...

And it was easy, it was fine, I stumbled maybe once. So, like Marcel says, we'd get used to it soon enough, if all those problematic silent consonants were stripped away.

But still, it makes me feel somehow icky. WHY? What madness is this? Yes, I love the way English is spelt because I'm geeky about etymology - the P in psychotherapy is there because it comes from the Greek. (What mongrel bastard word is "sycho"?) But surely that's not enough of a reason? It's a personal reason, but not one that is objectively, empirically, fundamentally justified. Especially given the ease with which I learnt to spell; it's fine for me, I can do it (with a few minor exceptions, like "column", apparently), but so many people do struggle, and I shouldn't make life harder for them just because I'm a bit nostalgic.

I don't have an answer to this conundrum. But I have come to realise why I felt so betrayed by dear Marcel. Because whatever clear, coherent, egalitarian reasons one may come up with for simplifying spelling, I can't help but feel that to do so would be ever so slightly Orwellian, and very New Labour, like all those godawful euphemisms that are imported from the States, or the endless management speak. That to do so would be to lose something magical and beguiling and subtle and romantic. And of all people, I thought Marcel Berlins would see that too.

But no. It seems that I must wend my solitary, nostalgic, elitist, pretentious but dogged way, all alone.

*I just had to type that FOUR TIMES. coloumn. colomn. column. column??? Ironic, one must say, give the subject matter of this particular post...
**Obviously me. Don't judge, anger isn't rational.

ETA: Honesty compels me to admit that I have had to go back twice to correct two spelling mistakes. In my defence (m'lud), they were typos. But still. *looks sheepish*

Monday, 19 May 2008

Books of My Childhood: 1

Books made me.

Well, technically my parents made me. They created me, and they brought me up. But books helped. A lot. Second to my parents, the books I read as a child have had the strongest formative influence on me, on my life and my character. Probably the case for many people; for others it's films, or music, or sport. But for me, unsurprisingly, it was books.

And so I decided to have a retrospective of these books. To single out the ten books which had the strongest influence on me as a kid. First up?

Picture Books

And at once, I have to cheat. Because, to be honest, there isn't one I can really single out.

My favourites were (and are):

- Each Peach Pear Plum, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (I still know it more or less off by heart), and when I was slightly older, The Jolly Postman
- Brambly Hedge, by Jill Barklem
- Tim and Charlotte, by Edward Ardizzone (and the lovely Diana and her Rhinoceros)
- Hairy McLary
- And, of course, Asterix and Tintin.

Interestingly, these only came back after a little thought (except for Asterix, which is still a favourite). What has really stuck in my mind are the books that disturbed me, or evoked some other strong emotional response:

- The work of John Burningham, especially John Patrick Norman McHenessy: The Boy Who Was Always Late: it was something about the pictures that made my skin crawl.
- The Polar Express. This book is beautiful, but very very eerie, and I was never quite comfortable with it as a child.
- A superlatively creepy book about a painter whose paintings come to life, and who eventually goes into one his paintings and never returns.
- And Badger's Parting Gifts, which was given to my brother and I when our grandmother died. This wasn't creepy - in fact, it was very sweet, but its associations have imprinted it on my memory. Especially vivid is the page when the (dying) Badger is going along a tunnel, and finds that he can walk without his stick, and then runs, full of joy.

What about you lot? Which are your favourite (or least favourite) picture books?

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Like the genie in Aladdin...

Swiv, your wish is my command.

Alistair Cook

Michael Vaughan - I wanted a picture of his TEXT-BOOK cover drive but it was NOWHERE

My No. 1 inexplicable crush, Paul Collingwood

And betraying my country somewhat, but...

Brett Lee. He's a scrappy bugger and I love him

Anyone I've missed out?

Better than a rain dance

Have just worked out why, after nearly two weeks of blissful balmy sunshine, it has gone cold and rainy.

The Test started today.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

This post is brought to you by the words YOU TWERP


Thank you.

You know those times when you really should get on to something, but you don't because you've got better things to do (like watch Spooks), and then you've suddenly got twenty billion things to do all at once NOT TO MENTION EXAMS and this thing hasn't got done and it's all too late and you look like a tit in front of your entire college and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it unless someone has a magic wand or perhaps a time machine? Yeah, me neither.

Until today.

THIS WILL BE THE MISTAKE FROM WHICH I WILL LEARN. And until then, I've just got to grit my teeth and not care. Somehow.

And also re-read seven hundred pages of political thought.


Monday, 5 May 2008

Summer in the city, cleavage cleavage cleavage...

In Cambridge, this Bank Holiday:

1. On Sunday morning, upstairs in Caffe Nero, two small boys, aged about ten, were sitting at a table - waiting for their parents to come upstairs, we guessed. But rather than talk about whatever it is small boys talk it these days, one started to hold forth on The Evils of the Modern World As Illustrated By The Coffee Society. It were EXCELLENT.

Small Boy 1: And then it's ridiculous, right, because people's social lives revolve around coffee - and they don't even like it!
Small Boy 2: ...
SB 1: You say, let's go for coffee, and you do, and where's your money going? It's stupid.
SB 2: ...
SB 1: It's just society TELLING YOU that that's what you want to do.
SB 2: ...
SB 1: Anyway, let's go, yeah?
SB 2: Cool.

And then - and this is the best bit - at the top of the stairs, Small Boy 1 stopped, went to the side where they keep the sugar/napkins/water/stirry stick things, grabs a handful of sugar, says "Right, now we can go", and they leave.

My New Hero.

2. I saw a busker playing a guitar in a bin. Like, sitting in one of those bins with a top and two holes on either side, his elbow sticking out of one hole, the neck of the guitar out of the other. I can't explain it any better than that, but believe me, it was exactly as odd as it sounds. He was quite good, though.

3. I learnt about Monasticism, and Literacy, and Population, and the Peasant's Revolt, and It Was Good.

4. I had a preliminary dissertation meeting, and they agreed my topic! Hurrah hurrah three cheers and you lot should all run for the hills right about now, because from the summer this blog is just going to be full of "amusing" anecdotes about Edward III.

But seriously though, DISSERTATION DISSERTATION DISSERTAAAAAAAAAAAATION! Provisional title: '"A successful king was a successful soldier": assess this view of late medieval English kingship'. OOH YEAH. It's a brilliant title because it's so flexible - it can be as broad or as focused as I want it to be, and it can be applied to any discussion. For example, I was also thinking about deposition theory, and how the polity could cope with a rubbish king (ended up being too broad and has been done to death anyway). This way, I can talk about the deposition of Richard II and how Henry IV had to spin it that it was a trial by combat because Richard had sinned against God by abusing his power...


5. I also got very cranky at the huge numbers of people who descended on Cambridge and Got In My Way. Christ, people walk SLOWLY in the sunshine.

How are you all?

Friday, 2 May 2008

No Title Today, Thank You

Apologies for the absence - I have returned to Cambridge and therefore fallen headfirst into the insanity that is Exam Term. And then I got ill, and for two days could barely move, let alone do the ten billion things I needed to do. Rubbish.

I'm in a grraaaaaargh mood today, so no proper update - I'm retiring to bed for a recuperative nap, and then off to Starbucks for more work. And then dinner, and then more work. And then sleep, and more work. And so on FOREVER.

Or more accurately, June 13th.

On the plus side, I just bought a book for 1p. £2.76, actually, if you include postage (it's from Amazon), but there's something rather lovely about buying a book for practically nothing.

Thank god I don't feel like moving, or I know I'd go and do therapeutic book buying, and that will only end in destitution and penury because most books in this town are definitely NOT 1p each. Those £3.99s from Oxfam add up alarmingly quickly. Grrr.

Monday, 14 April 2008

There once were four children...

Time to kill today, so to the Natural History Museum to see the stunning Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition. To be recommended, to say the least, but get your skates on, because it finishes on the 28th April. That thurr is the winner, by Mr Ben Osborne. Lovely, I think you'd say.

But what I REALLY wanted to talk about, REALLY REALLY, because I seem to be mildly obsessed with it, is the upcoming Prince Caspian film. And I'm going to bloody well talk about it, although I'm well aware that this may be the death of any credibility I may have (a) as a serious blogger and (b) as a serious literary type.

Because OMFG and cor blimey, this looks like FUN. Oooh yes. Swords? Battles? Pretty, pretty boys? A slightly controversial author leading to much frothing in the newspapers? BRING. IT. ON.

There are those who love C.S. Lewis, and there are those who hate him. I'm firmly and unapologetically in the first camp. As a child, I had The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader on tape, Caspian the BBC dramatised version (with all sorts of famous people I didn't recognise then like Richard Griffiths) and the other two read beautifully by Michael Hordern. And I listened to them almost every single night (when I wasn't listening to Just William or Alice in Wonderland or The House at Pooh Corner). I loved them then, I love them now. I just need to hear the opening bars of the music, let alone the first lines (one of which appeared in my First Lines Quiz) to send shivers down my spine. I thought the books magnificent, and still do - magical, awe-inspiring, beautifully written, and resonant as only a book you know from childhood can be.

People don't like it because it's misogynistic, or because it's Christian, or because the plots aren't exactly ground-breaking. But because I came to it so young, I missed the misogyny and the religion, and even now I know, I wouldn't change it. I am not one to censor a work of art, when the bigotry is symptomatic of the era in which the work was created - and anyway, it isn't unbearable. And ditto the religious symbolism which has so many people hot under the collar. It seemed an appropriate analogy, nothing more. And it still doesn't bother me. I see nothing wrong with Christian allegories, or allegories of any sort. What does it matter that an essentially admirable sentiment (that of sacrifice and selflessness) is reinforced? Zoe Williams says it all a lot better than I do (quelle surprise), so read her article here. Anyway, I was always a lot more bothered by the fact that they spend twenty years or so in Narnia, growing up, going through puberty, and then they stumble back through the door and are children again. Imagine having to go through puberty twice! And would they die twenty years younger, because of those twenty extra years they lived? That to me is a hundred times harder to reconcile than the Jesus-lion.

But all of that is totally irrelevant, really. After all, my reaction to the first film was mixed. Faithful to the book, but somehow lacking any emotional punch - possibly because the best bit of the book, the narration, was necessarily absent - and a sort of rubbish, poor man's Lord of the Rings, made bearable by the strong performances of the children. It improved on the second viewing, but not by much - more a fun, rainy afternoon film than an Oscar winner.

Fact is, I'm stupidly excited by this film for no other reason than because it looks really cool. There you go. It doesn't matter much what the book is, it just looks like the film will be fun. It appears that a miracle has happened, and I've achieved the literary type's nirvana - separating an adaptation from its original and enjoying it regardless. S'pose it's doesn't hurt that I never liked Prince Caspian as much as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, so although it's a good 'un, there's less to be disappointed by. And because this kind of film is always fun, with lots of dashing about and battles and sword-fights, and a stonking plot about a disinherited prince and an evil uncle (did I hear anyone say Hamlet?). And it DEFINITELY doesn't hurt that Prince Caspian is gorgeous. See? Credibility GONE.

He is though.

Don't you agree? Not to mention the delish Peter Pevensie, who, along with Odysseus, was my first literary crush (the first of many - but that's a story for another day...) and who proved most delightful looking in the films, leading to much teasing from my friends and even more (very defensive) cries of "but it's FINE, he's EIGHTEEN" from yours truly.

Anyway, now if you don't mind, I'm off to watch the trailer again, and definitely NOT think about how in Dawn-Treader Caspian dives into the sea...

And maybe sometime soon you'll have a post that isn't just a thinly vieled excuse to post pictures of pretty men.

Friday, 11 April 2008

"I can no longer listen in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach."

Gorgeous weather in London today, bar the odd rainstorm. Wednesday was even better, so it was across the Heath to Kenwood, where I sat in the cafe with Aristotle revision (nice ideas, boring presentation). Then the conversation of the women behind me got simply too elderly to bear (a combination of casual racism and health complaints) and so I lay on the grass in front of the house, reading Persuasion*. Very apt.

Which of course reminded me of how Captain Wentworth is My Favourite Austen Hero, much better than that Favourite Cliche of Lazy Journalists Everywhere, Mr Darcy. And this is why, in a handy 10-point list (with added quotations!)

1. Captain Wentworth can have a conversation. Darcy can't. Fact. Broodiness may work for some people, but not for me. Good conversation is Number One Requirement for the future Mr Semaphore.

2. Not only can he have a conversation with Anne, he can have a conversation with almost everyone. He even talks to Mrs Musgrove about her son, who we all know to have been a complete tit and who Anne suspects he did his best to be rid of when the boy was a midshipman: "doing it with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent's feelings."

3. Although Anne frequently notices a look of contempt in response to those around him, it is only for those who display unkindness or snobbery or other wanky behaviour. Moreover, he never actually says anything about it, and it probably is only Anne who sees it at all, usually because she's thinking the same thing. Contrast that to Mr Darcy, snob extraordinaire.

4. A connected point. Anne's family is twenty times worse than Elizabeth Bennett's, but Wentworth never mentions this to her. The closest he comes is in his (understandable) resentment against Lady Russell. And then we have Mr Darcy, who insults Elizabeth's family while proposing to her. That can't just be put down to social awkwardness. That's just rubbish.

5. Wentworth is kind. He frequently shows his care and consideration for Anne - insisting that she join the Crofts in their gig after the walk to Winthrop, helping her when Walter is being a pain, checking that she hasn't suffered from shock as a result of Louisa's fall (the only one who does, I think). But also for others - for Harville, taking on the responsibility for resetting Benwick's portrait, or for Benwick himself, when he went to tell him about Phoebe's death "and never left that poor fellow for a week". And then he helps Mrs Smith get her property back "with the activity and exertion of a fearless man and a determined friend." Yummy.

6. Compared to Grumpy McGrumpypants Darcy, Wentworth's manners are never criticised. In fact, Mr Elliot's manners are compared to his: "His manners were so exactly what they ought to be, so polished, so easy, so particularly agreeable, that she could compare them in excellence to only one person's manners. They were not the same, but they were, perhaps, equally good." Of course, this is as much proof of how Anne can't stop thinking about him...

7. He can take a joke, and he can give one. GSOH, definitely.

8. He is a successful captain, and a good sailor. This is Requirement Number 2 for the Future Mr Semaphore. Take note, please.

9. He likes Anne. This sounds stupid, I know. But Anne is a lovely, lovely character, and so for him to love her shows his own worth(Went)** She is clever, sensible, kind, but unappreciated by far too many people. He doesn't make that mistake, and tries to make other people notice her too.

10. Best. Proposal. Ever. By letter? Because he can't keep quiet any longer? Oh yes PLEASE.

Plus marrying Wentworth means you get Admiral Croft as your brother-in-law, and he is FANTASTIC.

Of course, he's not perfect. Nor does he have ten thousand a year and Pemberley. But kind, warm, friendly, sensible, unpretentious vs broody and Misunderstood? Anytime.

*Third time. In case you were wondering.

**Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Friday, 4 April 2008


Miss me?

So I'm all back and in one piece, hurrah hurrah, although without my towel, which appears to have taken a death plunge from our window sill, where it was airing, into the canal below during yesterday's Daily Really Exciting Storm (tm). Can't be too cross, though, because since when has dropping something from your bedroom window resulted in losing it in a canal? Never, is when, except for if you're in Venice, when such bizarrities are seemingly daily occurrences.

They also have ambulances which are boats. This shouldn't have surprised us but it did. Because it is REALLY COOL. Not only that, there are fireboats, as in boats which put out fires, but this led, after the requisite shock and awe, to the as yet unsolved mystery of where they put the ladder. At least you're guaranteed water, and don't have to worry about finding one of them hydrant malarkeys.

Anyway, enough inane ramblings, I'm off for a bath.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Travels in E.M. Forster's footsteps

Just popping in briefly to say all is well, Florence was nice* but Siena was a marvel and exactly what I want out of a town - small, windy streets flanked by old, shuttered houses, mysterious alleyways, and glimpses of lush countryside. And the cathedral completely pole-axed us - I have NEVER seen anything as beautiful, although St Peter's in Rome is perhaps more striking. F and I wandered in a daze for about an hour. Typically, postcards did not do it justice.

Anyway, have despatched one (1) brother homewards, and I hear he arrived safe and sound, and immediately dashed out to the theatre. Quelle intellectual. Now F and I are off to Venice in a few hours - hurrah!** Promise not to be eaten by a lagoon shark.

*Oddly lacking in Merchant Ivory types. Poor Effort. Lucy Honeychurch I can take or leave but I always rather fancied her brother. Except he was in England, wasn't he? Oh well, never mind, as you were.
** It occurs to me that I should have brought Death in Venice. Bugger.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

I'm Leaving - on a Vaporetto

'Ello. I am off to Italy tomorrow morgen, for just over a week - Florence, Siena (briefly) and Venice. *dances*

And I originally packed EIGHT BOOKS (not including the Lonely Planet). I have now reasserted my sanity, and have cut it down to five- Wuthering Heights (although technically a half, since I'm half-way through), The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing, and technically work, hurrah, because it ties into my The West and the Third World paper), Northanger Abbey (Austen, and I haven't read it yet, shamefully), Wide Sargasso Sea ("prequel" to Jane Eyre, re. the first Mrs Rochester), and for comfort reading, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (Yay for Lord Peter Wimsey!). I think this isn't too excessive - they're all small-ish, 150 pages each, and I have to have too many in case I take a violent dislike to one or other of them. This happened in Cornwall last summer, and I was stuck in Mousehole with only one book which I hated - absolute nightmare. The shop was shut, too, so I couldn't even buy a newspaper. (Thank god for the Sennen Cove shop, which provided me with the surprisingly good The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton). Plus, F is also bringing books, and The Brother too, so all-in-all, I should survive. If that fails, I will have to learn Italian whippety-quick...

So yes. I will attempt to connect to the tinty at some point - our Florence hostel promises free internet, although it is sure to be slow and oversubscribed - but if that fails, feel free to entertain yourself over at the ongoing First Line Quiz, or why not use this post to introduce yourself? Tell me five things about you, perhaps, or your favourite quote/book/film - and why.



PS In case you were wondering, jettisoned were The Prince, by Macchiaveli, because although it is also technically work (Early and Medieval Political Thought) and terribly relevant, it's also my grandma's copy and I don't want to lose it, and Plato (The Republic) and Aristotle (Politics)- both actually work, but heavy, and I know I just won't read them. I've taken a pile of notes from Paper 15 (European History 1250-1500) to read through instead.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Komm, suesses kreuz

So, Jesus died today.

Or not today today, yano, not March the whatever it is, but like, this equivalent day in that year.

If he existed at all.

But nonetheless, worldwide, people are being sad because today is the day when we remember that Jesus died on some day some time possibly even if it was just our imagination, and it Meant Something.

I always liked Good Friday, actually. It was suitably spooky. Whenever I think about it, in fact, it's coloured in black in my head, and I see my junior school gym where we used to have assembly, and I think of the hymn we sang there, Lord of the Dance. I went to a Catholic junior school, you see. And I remember singing this hymn, and being really affected by it, by the darkness of the verse about Easter,

I danced on a Friday
When the sky turned black -
It's hard to dance
With the devil on your back

and then by the joy of the last verse

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That'll never, never die;
I'll live in you
If you'll live in me -
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

Both reflected in the music, of course. It seems awfully twee now, but to an awkward, passionate child it was terribly moving. Now, my religious music fix comes from elsewhere - Allegri's Misere, Thomas Tallis, The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's at Christmas, and of course, Bach. Easter time means St Matthew Passion time. On repeat.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

And then they all went home for tea

Air hair lair!

Double post today, because the first one needs time to percolate, as it were. Because, yes, to celebrate the festival of new starts and rebirths, I present you with the FIRST LINE QUIZ! (cheers, cheers, applause)

Premise is simple. I give you a list of first lines from famous books. You comment with which book it's from. Full points if you get author AND title, half if you get one or the other. Bonus points if you can continue the quotation (preferably without google!) Some are easy, some are middling, some are quite hard. And don't worry, there's no Pride and Prej. What do you take me for, a hack? Then in a few days, whenever I can escape from family and chocolate and crazy men on bits of wood, I'll post the answers, and tell you about my fave first lines and why they're so good.

So here goes.

1. There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.

2. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

3. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

4. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

5. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

6. All children, except one, grow up.

7. Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.

8. Call me Ishmael.

9. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκεν



Oh, go on then:

Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles the son of Peleus,
the destructive rage that sent countless pains on the Achaeans...

10. It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.

11. "Yes," said Tom bluntly, on opening the front door. "What do you want?"

12. To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

13. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

14. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

15. It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears's house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.

Well, I think that's enough to be getting on with, eh?

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Cliches can be quite fun. That's how they got to be cliches

Back home again today, this time for good - or til April, at least. There is absolutely nothing as dreary as driving through suburban London on a rainy day. Except perhaps Siberia. Or Hull. But nice to be back, and we now have wireless, huzzah (although slow, chiz chiz).

And so to peotry*. I thought I'd give my tuppen'orth (that was a case of stick the apostrophe somewhere and hope it's right - can anyone enlighten me on where it should actually go?) on the matter of the Graun's Seven Great Poets of the 20th Century series. This is, after all, a literary blog, and this is a genuine literary news story, so there ya go, I'm writing about it.

Speaking generally, I was soothed by the absence of any particular ranking - a pointless exercise, in my opinion, since good art is very subjective and poetry especially - which has made the series an exploration rather than a competition. But nonetheless there was a value judgement made to get to this seven, and I can't help but feel that the selection could have been more ... adventurous, perhaps? Rather than choosing these seven - all as famous as famous can be - perhaps they could have collated seven underrated 20th century poets? It all seems a little Classic FM-y - no one denies the quality of the work, but the choice is obvious and sometimes you'd like to hear something other than Pachelbel's Canon or the theme to Spartacus**. But then I suppose that this lot are all famous for a reason, so maybe I'm being unfair.

To the selection itself, I wouldn't really change it much, if I'm honest. And to be even honester, those I would change are those I just don't know very well, which only reinforces my belief in the inherent silliness of listing art by "quality" rather than by "favourite". I don't doubt that Seamus Heaney is a vg poet. But personally (pronounced "poyysonlly" of course), I wouldn't have him on my list because it'd be dishonest. I think I've only read one of his poems, and that was for GCSE English. It was a bit self-consciously earthy, I thought, but also quite haunting and nostalgic, and nostalgia is, as we all know, my hobby, so I'd probably like him if I read him but I haven't. Similarly, Plath is loved for a reason, but I've only read Mirror. However, I have a feeling that even if I had read lots of her work, I still wouldn't put her in. Peversity, perhaps? A faux-originality? The only poet I genuinely think doesn't deserve to be in there is Sassoon. He's good, but even if they'd said "Right, and we have to have a war poet, let's have Sassoon", surely they should have chosen Owen? Or maybe he's too obvious even for the selectors (sounds like cricket, doesn't it?), and that shows me up to be an awful hypocrite. I've had good things about Isaac Rosenberg (my grandpa's fave), but again, he fails the Yorick Test ("Ah, I knew him well" - har har har).

But then we get to Larkin - tick! - Auden - tick! - and Eliot - ticktickticktickTICK! I'm still only just discovering Larkin, but what I've read is just right up my strasse, especially the beautiful Mother, Summer, I with its iambs and feeling of blank verse (although, granted, it rhymes) and eminent speakableness, just rolling off the tongue. Auden ditto - he hasn't appeared in the Oxfam Bookshop yet and we don't have a copy at home - but again, what I do know I adore. Lullaby, for instance. And Eliot too - I know more of his work than the others, but I'm still far from knowledgeable, let alone an expert. At times I barely understand what I'm reading. But there's a rhythm to the poems, an odd sort of correctness in his word choice. Some poetry, equally impenetrable, feels permanently so, and I get a headache and give up. With Eliot, I feel like it's just a question of reading it again - a series of barriers that fall easily. It is majestic, haunting, elegeic, grounded - far-sighted and yet fiercely focused at the same time. It's not just Prufrock that is full of repressed passion - it runs throughout.

But why in God's name did they not include The Hollow Men?

So who would make my list, since I've only approved three of seven? Dylan Thomas, probably, simply on the back of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, one of my all-time favourite poems. Roger McGough, almost certainly, for his wit and his empathy and his clear-sightedness, and his brilliant use of rhythm and metre, and because he is rooted firmly in an oral tradition - I saw him perform at last year's Latitude Festival and he was brilliant. I can't resist mentioning Cole Porter - few would call him a poet but his wit and grasp of language is masterful. And my seventh? Edna St Vincent Millay, without a shadow of a doubt.

She is my favourite poet by a mile, and I consider her to be criminally underrated. She has a knack for identifying an emotion and describing it clearly and with pin-point accuracy; her tone is conversational, her language simple, her sentiments universal. She prefers to tell stories in her poems, rather than the abstract descriptive poems which are so popular nowadays but which I loathe. Her sonnets are passionate but witty and sharp, unconventional as her life was; her descriptions of grief in Interim and Time Does Not Bring Relief are unparalled. And the last words of one sonnet are "biologically speaking". What's not to love?

But now this post is hideously long, so I will finish. Expect soon the ever-promised, ever-postponed Captain Wentworth post, and a better introduction to Edna.

* Sissy stuff that rhymes.

** Which is a name I'll never be able to say now without thinking of Hank Azaria in The Birdcage...

Saturday, 15 March 2008

My therapist says...

Hmph. Bad day. Exodus weekend at Cambridge, everyone packing up to leave, very melancholy.

Strongly resisting the temptation to go on a therapeutic book-buying trip. Although it would probably help.



Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Where the Streets are Paved with Gold

Blimey, having the fabby Patroclus mention this place means I've got to actually post interesting stuff, right? Right. So no more inane ramblings about my inability to judge tea quantities (incidentally, while I'm on the subject, it's probably inherited from my mother, who despite being a culinary whizz in other departments, has a complete mental block when it comes to judging how much pasta to make. Strange but true.)

On that note, back to Lahndahn Tahn yesterday evening for the annual Flamenco Festival at Sadler's Wells with Mamaphore, Aunt C and Cousin F - specifically, the show Mujeres, or "Women". Three different female dancers, all accompanied by live flamenco musicians. In a word, FAB. In two: VISCERALLY EXCITING. Three? ENTRANCING, HYPNOTISING, ASTOUNDING. (As will I'm sure become clear, my other passion beside books is dance. But I'm not very good at writing about it.) Very clever showmanship, too, with excellent use of staging and lighting, but not clever-clever so as to become distracting, and the costumes were fantastic, not just beautiful but part of the dance. And lots of audience involvement, lots of Ole's and "Guapa!" and "brava!" Good old cosmopolitan London. As per usual, just wanted to leap up and join in. Needless to say, didn't.

I still owe you a Captain Wentworth post, don't I? Hmm. And yesterday, while procrastinating on work for the fifth day running, I wrote a few other ideas down. Very excited indeed!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

"Tea is a cup of life"

A whole teapot of tea when the teapot is the size of this one is too much tea for me. Why this didn't occur to me in the making of it given that yesterday I filled it half-full and it gave two full cups for me and A is a very good question.

I stood up just now and my stomach did that bloop-bloop thing it does when you've drunk too much liquid very quickly. Or is that just me? Huh.


What's that you say? Do some work? Oh, if you insist.

(Incidentally, when I was looking for a suitable picture to illustrate this post, I came across this. All together now - awwwwwwwwwwwwww!)