I picked this up at a bookswap. It was OK for dipping into between other things. My favourite story by far was Allan Weisbecker's The Calling, a shortI picked this up at a bookswap. It was OK for dipping into between other things. My favourite story by far was Allan Weisbecker's The Calling, a short, sharp piece about commercial fishermen. I wondered what else he might have written and found from his website that he now seems to be obsessed with loony conspiracy theories, and his writing consists of rambling blog posts. Oh well....more
The right kind of nature writing; Atkins doesn't just wax lyrical about nature, but explores the effects that humans have on "wild" environments, in tThe right kind of nature writing; Atkins doesn't just wax lyrical about nature, but explores the effects that humans have on "wild" environments, in this case English moors from south-west to north-east. He may go a bit overboard on description at times, but it's full of interest. I particularly like the way he finds an individual historical character, such as a farmer, and uses documentary evidence such as journals and account books to bring a period to life. One strong theme is grouse-shooting, not surprisingly. He does a good job of exploring the issue from both sides, spending time with shooters, gamekeepers, and their opponents -- without going so far as to defend the indefensible (the elimination of hen harriers for example)....more
The third (and possibly final?) volume of extracts from Nella's millions of words written over more than thirty years. I loved Nella from her first voThe third (and possibly final?) volume of extracts from Nella's millions of words written over more than thirty years. I loved Nella from her first volume. This one certainly has less going on than the wartime diaries but it's still quite fascinating and thought-provoking. Nella is intelligent, observant, and critical, and uses her diary to mull over all sorts of topics from the personal to the political. She tells you so much about social norms and day-to-day life in the 1950s, sometimes surprising you. I knew that rationing was still going on of course, but I was still quite surprised that scheduled power cuts were a weekly occurrence accepted with resignation and "making do", and there were desperate shortages of essentials like coal. Elsewhere, Nella talks about some black nurses at the hospital whom she has happily chatted with, complimenting them on their work; an unusually enlightened attitude for the time. But then she describes recoiling in horror on seeing the young children of a black doctor and his white wife: she's fine with black people, but "miscegenation" makes her shudder!
I did feel sorry for her having to deal for so long and so thanklessly with her husband's mental health problems. It's not clear what caused them, but he appears to be suffering from severe depression and also separation anxiety. She has the patience of a saint.
He has always had a curious way of hoarding up "slights" and "snubs", but since he has been ill it has grown worse. His mind acts like a stopped-up drain, slowly gathering odds and ends of tea leaves, and odd scraps of vegetables that putrefied slowly -- anything and everything that would tend to block a drain. Then when it's unstopped it's amazing what has gone to the accumulation! I know he hates me to talk to anyone unless he is there, but his rage took the form of "Fearing you will catch more cold -- you never think of the bother you give people" ... he raked up about me having been so lame and not able to go walking and he "Always had to trail about by himself if we went over Walney".
What a marvellous metaphor. This extract makes him sound almost psychologically abusive, but luckily Nella doesn't tamely buckle under and sometimes "gets on her top note" with him, making "fur and feathers fly". But she still generally goes to extreme lengths not to upset him.
As in previous volumes, one of her great solaces is their outings to the countryside nearby. She writes lyrically about nature. I loved the moment where she is tempted to pick a bunch of yellow coltsfoot but then pauses: "They were growing on a little heap of gravel-soil by the roadside, where passers-by couldn't fail to see them. It seemed greedy to take them for my own tea table in my little crystal vase when they could flaunt and shout their yellow joy to motorists passing."
She is endlessly open-hearted and generous, even with strangers and people she doesn't particularly like. It's a shame she never knew what pleasure her writing would give to others. I wonder what she could have done with her life if she'd had more freedom. Even as it was, she definitely improved the lives of her friends and family....more
This is obviously rather dated now, and some parts are a bit dry. But the first chapter in particular is a tour de force, and in general it is a richThis is obviously rather dated now, and some parts are a bit dry. But the first chapter in particular is a tour de force, and in general it is a rich source of information about Spanish history and the effects of the past on the present. Ghosts of Spain is a lighter, easier read, but this book (or rather its later edition) is usefully complementary....more
It's a bit strange reading a biography of a writer whose work you have never read. In fact if it wasn't for Jonathan Coe being one of my favourite wriIt's a bit strange reading a biography of a writer whose work you have never read. In fact if it wasn't for Jonathan Coe being one of my favourite writers, I'd never even have heard of BSJ.
This is an intriguing biography, as unconventional as its subject. It took Coe years to write, and he became quite enmeshed in Johnson's strange life. He was an odd man. Staggeringly rude to publishers who failed to recognise his self-evident genius, he often started on projects only to have them rejected. As a working-class boy made not so good, he had a massive chip on his shoulder. Yet he was also fiercely loyal to his friends and they, likewise, were genuinely fond of him, despite his temper and unpredictability. He was a good father to his children. So he clearly had his good points, and Coe convincingly argues that his arrogance was a front for deep insecurity and self-doubt. While recognising the deep flaws in Johnson's argument that novelists can only write "the truth" -- i.e. things they have personally experienced -- he also acknowledges the strengths of Johnson's poetry and prose. There's also a marvellous piece of detective work at the end, where Coe digs up a possible narrative of Johnson's last 48 hours, before he committed suicide in his bath.
I'm not sure I'm going to read any BSJ -- although Christie Malry's Own Double Entry sounds intriguing. It is interesting to see some parallels with Jonathan Coe's novels though, notably the way he introduces himself into his narratives....more
Not much more to say about this. Helen Macdonald is a marvellous writer, especially in her descriptions of her countryside adventures with Mabel. ButNot much more to say about this. Helen Macdonald is a marvellous writer, especially in her descriptions of her countryside adventures with Mabel. But I started to get a bit bogged down and even bored. After a while you get it, the way that taking on the character of Mabel, her wildness, is Helen's way of coping with grief over the unexpected death of her father, and how eventually she returns to the world of humans again. But there doesn't seem to be enough material here for a book; it gets repetitive. For example she has one long section where she lets Mabel loose and cannot recapture her, until Mabel "poaches" a pheasant on a private estate, causing Helen to panic. It's dramatically conveyed, but then she does exactly the same thing again later. We only need to hear about it once. Then the sections about TH White, while certainly interesting, seem to be there mostly to bulk the story out to book length. So, I did enjoy it in parts and it was a worthwhile read, but just three stars from me....more
I bought this little book on a visit to the memorial museum at the Camp Joffre in Rivesaltes. It's the lightly edited diaries of Friedel Bohny-Reiter,I bought this little book on a visit to the memorial museum at the Camp Joffre in Rivesaltes. It's the lightly edited diaries of Friedel Bohny-Reiter, a Swiss nurse working for the Red Cross who did her best to improve the living conditions of people interned in what was basically a concentration camp: Spanish refugees, Jews, gipsies, and other "undesirables" put there by the Vichy government. The diaries cover about a year, from November 1941 to late 1942, when the Vichy government used the camp to collect thousands of Jews -- men, women and children -- in order to meet a quota to be sent to Poland.
Bohny-Reiter writes with simple humanity, conveying what a difficult and morally complex position the charity workers in the camp were in. They had to obey rules set by the Vichy government, which meant they could not help everyone, and resources were limited; starvation and disease were rife. Sometimes they managed to extricate people from the camp: pregnant women could go to the maternity hospital in Elne, children were sent to children's homes, some adults became assistants there. But it's not surprising that when Bohny-Reiter accompanies groups of prisoners to the station where they will be loaded into cattle trucks, comforting them and providing food for the journey, she feels she is complicit in the ghastly bureaucracy of genocide. If she saves someone, another person is chosen to take their place -- they would have liked to live too.
Yet amidst the horror and despair, Bohny-Reiter loves her work, and finds small joys in games with children, sing-songs in the shabby, cold huts, moments of companionship with her colleagues. A child refugee herself, she left Vienna as a child and spent 24 years with a family in Switzerland -- she wants to help others in the same situation. Somehow she retains her humanity and optimism, although the last few entries make very grim reading.
Note: she painted watercolours and also had a camera; one of the exhibits in the museum is of her photo album -- very moving. ...more
Djalla-Maria Longa is a very interesting character. She was born in 1980 in the Ariège, to a "hippy" mother who was totally opposed to almost all theDjalla-Maria Longa is a very interesting character. She was born in 1980 in the Ariège, to a "hippy" mother who was totally opposed to almost all the attributes of the consumer society. They lived in a remote house with no running water, no electricity, no phone, no plastics, no modern appliances, no artificial fabrics ... they grew all their own food, spun their own yarn, made their own clothes, kept cows, made cheese, and their rare excursions were in a cart pulled by a donkey. Her mother gave birth to eight children here. Can you imagine doing the laundry for a family of ten by fetching water from a spring, boiling it in a copper and scrubbing everything by hand? Courage and determination there was aplenty.
Her father Patrice was less extreme and quite subtle at managing the stubborn Barbara. Undoubtedly the couple loved their children and believed they were protecting them from the shallow, consumerist life "down below" (everywhere else is always referred to as "en bas"). But for me they went too far; Barbara was determined that none of her children would go to school because she herself had hated it. So they were home-schooled in a haphazard way. A major factor though must have been that Barbara needed the children at home to provide the labour necessary to maintain their life style. As soon as they were capable, the kids were helping in the garden, fetching water, herding cows, and doing other useful tasks. Fine, but Barbara had been free to choose this lifestyle, which she found completely fulfilling. By not letting her children go to school, she was depriving them of the chance to choose. No qualifications, and a low standard of education -- by the time Djalla was eighteen she was considered (by an outsider) to have barely reached the level expected of fourteen-year-olds, and of course she had no certificates to show.
Barbara expected all of her children to stay in the valley, living as she lived. Some of them at least appeared to comply -- shacking up with a local boy and getting pregnant at fifteen, for example (Barbara's last child is the aunt of a grandchild only six months younger!). Djalla though had inherited her mother's fiery, stubborn character and was determined to explore the world "below". Eventually after much conflict she left home. She must be an exceptionally strong character because after a difficult few months, she convinced a training centre to accept her for a diploma as an animateur of children's outdoor activity centres -- despite not meeting the academic criteria. She made a success of it too, despite the opposition of her parents.
An interesting read -- she is a good writer, and the evocation of her unusual lifestyle is vivid. In the end, (view spoiler)[all the children leave home, but some of them do stay in the valley. Others do as Djalla did and manage to build lives down below. It is interesting though that for all her desire to escape, ultimately Djalla has ended up back in the Ariège where she now runs a business renting out bicycles. (hide spoiler)] She's also a generous spirit; she shows little resentment of her upbringing despite some very difficult experiences....more
This is going to be a stream-of-consciousness review I think, like the book. Jean's joys and pains in her early 20s are so earnest. She has hopeless fThis is going to be a stream-of-consciousness review I think, like the book. Jean's joys and pains in her early 20s are so earnest. She has hopeless fantasies about entirely unsuitable men, suffers the attentions of equally unsuitable ones, wishes she was rich and beautiful. She still shows wit though. In 1932 she visits her brother and his new wife and baby in Jamaica, and is bored to death. On the ship home:
I am hating all these lousy old men, old men who want to make love to you. I would like to wring their necks and slap their faces, but I don't. I encourage them by holding their hands, and then offend them by not trotting off to some dark corner after dinner to be slobbered over.
Writing to her brother when she gets home:
The voyage was on the whole enormous fun. I was the only young unmarried female on board, and what a time I had...they were all damn decent to me and danced divinely.
Doesn't that remind you of real life versus Facebook status updates?
Th striking thing about Jean in her late 20s and early 30s, and evidently something she had in common with many other women, is her desperation to find a husband. Or failing that, at least a lover. Its hard to comprehend nowadays the widespread belief that if a woman was not a wife and mother, her life had no purpose. Jean was an intelligent woman, but she is extraordinarily gullible and self-deceiving where men are concerned, just because of her desperation. It seems that many men, married or otherwise, were perfectly aware of the situation of these "spare women" and took advantage of it in the obvious way. It makes it worse that most of the men she meets are work colleagues (she has few opportunities to meet men elsewhere), so she has to keep facing them after the relationship has gone wrong. What a bunch of cads and bounders she hooks up with!
Late update: I finished the book a week ago but haven't had time to update the review. Jean kept her diary more sparingly in the later part of her life. Her world seems to shrink, she loses touch with friends, has no more "romantic" (not) adventures, suffers from depression, has constant financial worries as most of the time she doesn't work and her capital shrinks rapidly. But she does, just, manage to make a go of running a little bookshop in her Buckinghamshire village, and eventually even buys her beloved Wee Cottage. Overall, this is just a fascinating peek into all the mundane little details that make up a life. ...more
This is a bit of trivia, really (no, it's not a "singular historic moment"): a group of well-off Americans, all interested in food, gather in ProvenceThis is a bit of trivia, really (no, it's not a "singular historic moment"): a group of well-off Americans, all interested in food, gather in Provence in autumn 1970, cook, dine, and have endless conversations about food and wine. They just happen to include Julia Child and her husband Paul, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and Richard Olney. But I enjoyed it in a cosy sort of way, eavesdropping on their gossip and occasional snobbery. Luke Barr, MFK's great-nephew, used letters and especially his great-aunt's notebooks and diaries, to reconstruct whole evenings of conversation in a convincing way. I have to say that I wasn't surprised to find that Olney was a somewhat unpleasant character -- his Simple French Food is written in such a way that I never felt I'd be comfortable in the kitchen with him, just as I wouldn't be with Elizabeth David. Whereas Jane Grigson, MFK, or Julia Child would surely be good company. It was a bit disappointing to find that Sybille Bedford (partner of an old friend of MFK's) could be rather obnoxious as well though.
The argument of the book is that those conversations in kitchens in Provence caused a sea-change in American cooking, as chefs and writers turned en masse from the altar of classical French cuisine to worship simpler food and local, seasonal ingredients. Seems a bit implausible to me. Yes, of course Child especially was hugely influential in the US (I hadn't realised how influential till I read this book) as was Beard, but there surely were multiple other factors at work in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The story is mostly told from MFK's point of view. It's during this visit that she begins to lose her rosy, nostalgic view of life in France. It really sank in for me what a privileged life these Americans led. Early in the book (in 1970) she and her sister Norah, two sixty-something widows, travel to France on the liner France, rather than flying, because they can afford to. MFK is paged to collect a parcel delivered before the ship left. It contains jeroboams of vintage champagne sent by a friend as a parting gift. Her visits to France in the 1920s and 1930s were a riot of champagne, caviar, cocktails, and foie gras. Barr writes:
The glamour of the prewar Europe of their youth ... was a lifelong influence ... It was a beautiful world, preserved in the amber of fiction and memory. A world of faded aristocrats and remembered vintages, of boat trains and small family-run hotels that never changed, of excursions to Switzerland and meals in French restaurants where the sole meunière was always impeccably fresh and perfectly cooked.
Oh, and poverty, depression, and rising fascism, but that didn't form part of their picture in the rarefied world they moved in. Barr goes on:"The ethos and aesthetic of the period had survived all the way through the 1960s, a worldview held together with wit and irony, tone and inflection, unimpeachable taste, and finally, at bottom, enforced by the logic of money and privilege."
Barr argues that by the end of her time in Provence in 1970, MFK had a more jaded/realistic view of French provincial life. But did she really? The book is still suffused with that particular American romanticism that comes into play whenever Provence is mentioned, taking little account of how it has changed and what life is actually like outside the privileged visitor's bubble.
Anyway, I should clarify that I'm not being negative about this book; it was a quick, enjoyable read.
Edit: a good discussion of it making similar points is in the WSJ....more