The Coronavirus Diaries, 30th January 2022: Birthdays and Poetry

Today is B’s birthday. She got lots of jolly cards and she and J were off to a pub for lunch when I saw her earlier. They had also been to her native Bedfordshire yesterday for a catch up with school chums which was postponed from December.

Coincidentally, Celia and I have been planning a birthday treat. Celia’s birthday is 26th April, mine 1st May. We met and became friends through the poetry group which was a monthly affair at our local library. It was, as I have written before, cemented in 2013 by the awareness of other mothers’ increasing fragility, and then by their deaths. Before the summer had ended we were both orphans. In the autumn we went on a Dead Mothers Walk, a few miles of time out and blackberrying picking. We got lost, of course we did, but it was refreshing and we picked a lot of blackberries. It remains a stand out moment in my memory of that year: sitting on the ground, eating as many blackberries as we put into the containers we brought with us, often silent, being. I don’t actually remember much about that year at all. Death is like that. It is so consuming that when you look back things are a blur. So I am pleased my memory has hung onto that day.

Back to our birthdays. When I was in NI for Uncle Bill’s 100th at the end of October I was also able to attend the John Hewitt Birthday readings in Belfast. All three poets were great, and one knocked my socks off. Gail McConnell reading from her book length poem, The Sun is Open. Several of my friends received it as a Christmas present. I’m on the Heaney Homeplace mailing list, having been, in my small way a regular, if distant and sporadic supporter since it opened a few years ago. I saw that Gail McConnell was going to be there 30th April, talking to Jeannette Winterson.

Several years ago, again with Celia, I went to hear Winterson talking about her then new novel The Gap of Time. For those of you who don’t know Winterson, she’s not one of those shy violet types. The event started with incredibly loud music. I don’t recall what it was, but it signalled this was to be as much rock show as literary evening. We were hyped up before she walked down the aisle, a diminutive figure in jeans and a white shirt, a huge smile on her face and owned the podium.

Oh my, I wanted to be at the Homeplace 30th April. Snag. It’s close to where I stay with Cousin, but she will be just returning from Australia after visiting two of her children and their children – including a new granddaughter – for the first time since the start of the pandemic. So not possible to claim her hospitality this time.

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An Urge to Post

I had no intention of blogging tonight. I should be on my way to bed, it’s an early start tomorrow. But I read Outward Hounds latest and it reminded me of why I have stuck this blogging mularky for so long. There are bloggers out there whose writing is sublime. Their pages may not garner as many hits, likes or comments as others, but bloody hell, it’s amazing to be able freely to read their output.

I love the way that the internet has put me in touch with people from the other side of the world, people who I shall probably never meet, never have a conversation with other than via the keyboard, yet with whom there is a connection. Thank-you Tim Berners-Lee. Continue reading

A Good Literary Haul for September

I am halfway through the book group novel for next week. Or it may be the week after. Anyway. It's The Queen of The Tambourine by Jane Gardam. I love Jane Gardam's writing and I have read loads by her, including, I thought, this novel which I thought I had on my bookshelves. I didn't, so I bought a second hand copy which fortunately arrived minutes before I left the. Smoke for das Boot yesterday.

I started it today, and from page one realised I had not read it before. I began by being amused by the Hyacinth Bouquetish character of Eliza. Then that palled, but before I could think I might give up the novel stepped up a gear. Unobtrusively. Jane Gardam is the most understated of writers. Don't expect big scenes; crash bang wallop chapters; shock horror revelations. It's the detail that matters in her books; the tiny shifts in behaviour, attitudes and thinking. Nothing and everything happens. She is not for the skim reader.

I'm loving it. And it was a tough gif after The Tidal Zone which introduced me to Sarah Moss. I think she has written about five novels so far. So I have been a bit slow on the uptake. I blame the library service. If you know me and my hobby horses, this will not come as a surprise.

Time was I'd go to our local library, small but with an admirable stock of books. I'd prowl the shelves and come home with a haul of novels by people of whom I had never heard. My horizons were widened. Then someone in some library service somewhere decreed that libraries should stock best selling novels by best selling authors and any book not borrowed n a six month period should be cast into outer darkness. So suddenly we found ourselves with libraries that stocked the same books as our supermarkets. Writers who I had discovered before the six month rule disappeared from the shelves. I am grateful that my reading was widened by earlier more enlightened library administrators, but it's a bugger these days. Continue reading

In Praise of Literacy

Jeanette Winterson. Amazing. Have you read her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? If not, I am almost jealous of you, because you still have it to savour for the first time. An extraordinary book about an extraordinary life.


I’m glad she chose happy.

She certainly looked happy on Thursday night.

Celia and I trekked from the wilds of Se17 where we have only recently stopped painting ourselves blue, to the self-consciously sophisticated quarter of Notting Hill to hear JW talk about her new book, The Gap of Time, a reimagined version of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.

It was more than a talk, more than a reading, it was a performance. At first the sound system was overwhelmingly loud, but fortunately they got it sorted.

Naturally I want to read the book now, having passed up the possibility to buy it along with my ticket. The trouble is, my bookshelves are groaning. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I cull them, how much I try to restrict my book habit to library copies, there are always disorderly piles of them on every surface. Continue reading

Six Books of 2012

I thought I might write a post of my top ten reads of 2012, but two stood out so far above the rest that I thought I might make it five, and one of those will be a reread.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel was, in my eyes, the deserved winner of this year’s Booker Prize. Her prose is so deft, her lyricism, her down-to-earthness all built a believable world with Thomas Cromwell as the unlikely hero at its centre. I was concerned it wouldn’t be as good as the first book in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, but it emphatically is. The only thing that stops me champing at the bit for the third volume is that Mantel has managed to make me rather fond of Cromwell, and of course the third volume is where it all goes horribly wrong. Perhaps that is something of an understatement for his fall from grace, trial and execution.
My second top book was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeannette Winterson’s powerful memoir. Like Bring Up the Bodies I started reading a library copy, but a few pages in knew it was a book I had to own. It is Winterson’s very own self-help book, how she survived an extraordinary childhood, succeeded against the odds in being herself, made it to Oxford, wrote a fictionalised account of her life in her début novel, had her own fall from grace, depression, attempted suicide, rebirth. Which makes it all sound rather dull. But it isn’t, no it isn’t at all. Her comments, her reflections, her humour, her absolute drive for survival make this a compelling and wonderful book. Her remarks about the importance of well stocked public libraries, or the power of language, the connection between the language of the King James version of the bible and understanding Shakespeare should be engraved on the eyelids of Michael Gove and anyone who thinks education is simply what we put in the National Curriculum. Oh, and she likes cats and dogs too.
In another year, Michèle Roberts Ignorance, a novel about collaboration, occupation and resistance in France under the Nazis, would have been higher up my list. It is a subject the French have not yet really faced, and is thought provoking and often painful stuff. Continue reading

Christmas Book Wishes

One Christmas, several decades ago, we opened all our presents. Surrounded by wrapping paper, chocolates, perfume and other goodies, I looked at my parents in horror and said, “You didn’t get me a book!”
They never made that mistake again. One surprising volume of poetry chosen by Mother for me was The Book of Unrespectable Verse. Maybe I should read some of the poems in it to her when I next visit.
If she were to buy me presents this Christmas, I would be droppping heavy hints for two books. In a bookshop last week, I picked up a copy of Jeannette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Had I not had a train to catch I might have stood there and read it to the end. It was a comment about her mother that got me. She described her as a big woman, and then wrote how she had realised much later, too late, how small this woman felt on the inside. Only Winterson writes it much better than that. Both copies have been borrowed from the library and I’ve started Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth instead. But you can bet your last penny that if I get hold of Why Be Happy before I have finished Sweet Tooth, it will be put aside ina moment. I may not even clean my teeth between volumes. Continue reading