Wonderful Words

Some great reading this week. At the weekend I finished Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish, A Life in Time. It’s a memoir, but being Penelope Lively she bypasses all the clichés. It’s a social history as well as her history; beautifully written which is a given with her as an author, and absorbing. It’s perceptive, observant, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. There is a little impatience with the ageing process but never self-pity. The only time Penelope Lively has disappointed me was Spiderweb, which I think was written not long after her husband Jack’s death, so might be forgiven as a potboiler.

I won’t go into all the structure of Ammonites and Leaping Fish. There are lots of reviews you could read. I rather like this one. But this is how the book begins:

This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age. And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.

I borrowed my copy from the library, but there is so much in it that I want to return to it will soon be on my shelves.

It’s time I wrote a thank-you letter to Penelope Lively. All unknowingly, she has accompanied me on my adult life for some thirty years. It would be churlish not to let her know how much her writing has enriched those years and has brought me pleasure. Another writer I need to thank is Clive James. He, writing in The Observer along with Katharine Whitehorn, got me hooked on print journalism. I need to thank Katharine Whitehorn too. Clive James has returned to writing in The Observer‘s stablemate, The Guardian and his weekly offerings in the Saturday magazine are not to be missed. Katharine Whitehorn is still writing too, but for Saga magazine to which I do not subscribe.

For £2.70 the Saturday Guardian can be relied upon for some thoughtful writing. As 6th March was Mothering Sunday (the Christian festival dating back centuries as distinct from Mother’s Day, a commercial idea popularised around a hundred years ago) The Guardian had the idea of asking various writers to comment on photos of their mothers from before they were born. The inspiration came from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Before You Were Mine, and you can read all of them (and the poem)  here. My favourite was Jackie Kay’s contribution. I even tore it out and put it in the back of a notebook. For those of you who don’t know her work, Kay is a poet. She’s mixed race and was adopted. Her book of poems The Adoption Papers is one of the most powerful things I have read. Here’s her contribution to the piece in Saturday’s paper about her adoptive mother:

Here’s my Mum, 22, 23, in her climbing boots in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. She’s arrived off a boat for a tenner, seven weeks at sea. My magnificent mum – before she was mine. A glimpse into her past is a glimpse into my future. Her possible selves. My heart sings looking at her here – she’s an explorer, an adventurer, crossing the whirligigs of time, who in seven or eight years will bring me in from the cold. I think of her crossing the exhilarating snowy peaks, finding herself, on the other side of the world. I think of her crossing the Indian Ocean for the first time. What if she hadn’t come back? All chance and timing, her face here looking her future in the eye, open, beautiful, confident. Now, aged 85 she calls me her second skin, her heart of hearts, her other self. If we hadn’t met I would have come to find you, she says. You are as close as if I had given birth to you myself, she says. I imagine her crossing the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps before coming home to Scotland, a young woman years ahead of her time.

Also in the Review section Sebastian Faulks reviewed Poems That Make Grown Women Cry. Again, you can read the review for yourself here.

It sounds a good anthology, and I should like to read it, but the part of the review that made me sit up was this:

Linguists and neurologists have suggested that poetry speaks to a primitive part of the brain (some have even tried to plant a flag there, somewhere in the right hemisphere). Rhythm and rhyme helped oral bards remember verses before writing was invented; they were mnemonics. But there is something more complicated and interesting in the deep structure of grammar and the brain. Without venturing into the language of neuroscience, it is roughly this: poetry speaks to a vestigial part of the mind that was more active at the time Homo sapiens was becoming what she/he is. When we respond to poetry we engage a part of our being that is more primitive and in some way purer than the consciousness available minute by minute to our busy left-side brain.

If you have read this blog for any length of time you’ll know I used to read poetry to my mother when she had dementia. The people employed to care for her were often sceptical, until they witnessed it, about my claim that listening to poetry soothed her agitation. Even when they did see how it calmed her and brought a serene smile to her face, a contented comment and relaxed concentration, few would read her more than the Owl and the Pussycat. But that is probably more to do with their lack of education and the fear some people seem to have of poetry.

Obviously it would be wonderful if a cure for dementia could be found. Maybe it’ll happen, but in the meantime finding ways that allieve the fears attendant on this condition and tap into the person struggling with the chaos and confusion it creates gives hope to those of us who can unfortunately expect to be claimed by dementia to at least some degree as we age.

Words can be wonderful things.

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18 thoughts on “Wonderful Words

  1. Both very touching and very hard to read. “Her possible selves.” always confronts me when I look at photos of my mum as a young woman.

  2. I’ve seen Penelope Lively many, many years ago at Dartington, she was great. Jackie Kay is on of my favourites, I met her three years ago, again at a litfest and we had a really good chat, a lovely lady.

    • Now I am jealous. She is someone I admire enormously. I know someone who knows her, but I think I would be tongue tied and awestruck, or a babbling fool should I meet her. Jackie Kay did a reading at our local library a year or so ago but unfortunately I couldn’t go. Everyone said she was wonderful.

    • I’m glad you enjoy her writing too. I think she is one of the finest writers of our time. I have just reread Bad Blood, Lorna Sage’s memoir. I first read it when it came out and loved it. Initially, on this reread (for the book group) I wasn’t so engaged, then suddenly I was gripped by it.

  3. what a lovely post. I had never thought of poetry as something the primitive brain responds to, because I always tend to think of music – my grandmother used to remember and love – and song along to – music after she had forgotten all our names – but that’s such a lovely idea, to read poetry to someone with Alzheimers (my mum is the obvious person). There’s a theory that music is th precursor of language – so the first language might very well have been poetry, combining rhythm, rhyme and the music of words quite possibly with chanting and music.

    • Yeah I got that! But has your mother got Alzheimer’s or the first signs of dementia? There is quite a difference, if only that the trajectory of Alzheimer’s is clearer. I felt with my mother that the rhythms, the cadences were want mattered. There had been stuff about how familiar poetry worked for people living with dementia, but I found she responded to all sorts of poetry, whether she knew it or not. It was a strangely magical time, and when she died I missed reading poetry to her and having that shared experience.

  4. Thanks for the reading tip. I just finished Graham Greene’s ‘Travels with My Aunt’ and am ready to start something new. This looks like something I will really enjoy as I am finding aging to be very fascinating.

      • I will be eager to hear what your book group says about it – and your take. I think I need to read it again from the study perspective of good and evil.

      • I did! The Sebastian Faulks piece especially I found fascinating (and very funny); I related to a lot of what he said. Just the other night, my boyfriend remarked that I cry at odd things but don’t cry at what most other people would. And I don’t think it’s confined to poetry; it’s great writing, or a great moment in a piece of music or film.

        • After my father suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage in his mid-sixties he became remarkedly more lachrymose. Or perhaps that should be lachrymose. The only other times I had seen him cry was when our various dogs died. But suddenly a piece of music, or even talking about a piece pf music would make him well up like the grandfather of one of the kids in Betsy Byars’ seminal work The Eighteenth Emergency.
          Maybe you should be subscribing to the Guardian online, or like me, just getting the headlines and major articles emailed each day. I rarely buy a paper copy other than Saturday. My other favourite newspaper, The (Independent) Indie is about to cease on paper. It’ll continue online but with a reduced staff. Its sister paper, the Sindie (Independent on Sunday) had its last outing a week ago.

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