Rohase Piercy's Blog

October 26, 2020

Review - 'Pleasured' by Philip Hensher

Pleasured Pleasured by Philip Hensher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

New Year's Eve. The year is 1988, soon to be 1989. A car breaks down on the transit road between Berlin and the West German border. The driver is an Englishman named Peter Picker. The two passengers he's taking back to West Berlin from Christmas visits to their respective families are: Friedrich Kaiser, layabout, part-time bookstore employee and frequenter of dubious nightclubs; and Daphne, nee Charlotte, student and political agitator, whose boyfriend Mario, a defector from the DDR, is expecting her back in West Berlin by nine-o'clock (spoiler – this doesn't happen).

These four characters, thrown together by chance, are destined to change one another's lives during what will prove to be a life-changing year all round for Germany, East and West.

Philip Hensher is so good at getting beneath the skin of his characters and detailing all the small but significant minutiae of their lives, histories and consequent attitudes within a leisurely but arresting (and occasionally hilarious) narrative. As the months pass and relationships between Picker and Friedrich, Daphne and Mario, and Friedrich and Daphne blossom, pall and then pick up again, we find out so much about life on both sides of the Berlin Wall, both as lived in reality and as imagined by those on the 'other side'. By the time political events have come to a head on 9th November 1989 – ironically, the anniversary of the infamous Kristallnacht - we've been party to farce, betrayal, deception and disillusionment on both a personal and political level.

The phrase 'the grass is always greener' comes to mind as the Wall falls and Berliners begin to realise that what was on the other side was always more of an idea than a reality. 'A solution has gone now. The idea of the East, it was always a solution, wasn't it?' says Friedrich as he and Picker stand in a deserted Sanssouci, former palace of Friedrich the Great in Potsdam. 'But it will be back, because we need a solution so much, we need the opposite of what we want, so that we can live our lives. So that we can say, well, our lives may not be what we want, but at least we don't have to live – over there.'

The book ends with a tragedy, and a kindness, and seems oddly applicable to these present uncertain times. Thoroughly recommended.

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Published on October 26, 2020 08:10

October 20, 2020

An extract from 'The Coward'...

This week the wonderful Weird Sisters, Ink are featuring an extract from The Coward Does it with a Kiss on their blog, to celebrate Oscar Wilde's Birthday month.

Reading through the extract, I'm reminded both of how much fun it was to write about Oscar and his milieu, and also how eye-opening it was to stand in his wife's shoes and narrate the story of his rise and fall, and in particular of his relationship with Bosie Douglas, from her point of view. As the blog says, poor Constance Wilde is still so often overlooked, dismissed, or even forgotten about altogether.

Since its first publication back in 1990 more information has been discovered about Constance Wilde from the publication of some of her letters; also, there's been some research into the nature of the illness that ended her short life, long believed to have been either a spinal injury or syphilis, now almost certainly known to have been MS. I have incorporated some of this information into the new edition, published back in 2019, from which this extract is taken. Hope you enjoy it!
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Published on October 20, 2020 05:35

October 5, 2020

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As soon as I'd finished this book I went straight back to the beginning and read it again, to check where all the little clues and references that seemed so tantalising and mysterious the first time around fitted in to the complete story. It's a wonderful, haunting read, whether you approach it in spiritual, psychological or fairytale mode, and has several themes and character types familiar to fans of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' - for example: a portal between worlds; the search for lost or hidden knowledge; and a heartless, manipulative villain who seeks to use and control a 'nameless slave.'

A gentle, sensitive young man in his thirties inhabits a vast labyrinth of connected halls and vestibules populated by thousands of statues. He does not know how he came to 'The House', as he calls it, or why he appears to be its sole living inhabitant apart from the mysterious 'Other' who visits him for an hour each Tuesday and Friday to ask questions and make notes on his 'shining device'. He keeps a meticulous journal in which he catalogues the geography of The House (which he sometimes refers to as 'The World'). There are an infinite number of rooms on three levels: the Upper Halls are filled with clouds and sky and the Lower Halls by the sea, which sometimes rises up on swelling tides to partially flood the Middle Halls – 'the Domain of birds and of men.' Birds fly freely throughout the labyrinth and nest among its statues; fish swim in the sea, and are also to be found in the freshwater lakes of the flooded 'Drowned Halls'; but of humans there have only ever been fifteen to the young man's knowledge. These are himself, 'The Other', and thirteen skeletons, 'The Dead', to whom he brings offerings and pays respects.

'The Other' calls him Piranesi 'even though 'as far as I can remember, it is not my name'. (The original Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th century draughtsman famous for his etchings of fictional, complicated labyrinths which he called 'Imaginary Prisons'.) Piranesi is quite content with his solitary life, despite the physical hardships it often entails; a gentle, intelligent, kindly innocent, he sees himself as 'the Beloved Child of the House'. 'The Beauty of the House', he says, 'is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.'

By now, you may have developed a theory of where all this is going. You're probably wrong. I was. This story is much stranger and more complex than you think it's going to be. If you're drawn to any of the following: Jung's theory of the Collective Unconscious, the possibility of parallel, multiple universes, the psychological phenomenon of multiple personalities or the symbology of dreams, you'll absolutely love this book. This is, quite simply, magical writing that speaks directly to the unconscious. Five stars, and then some!

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Published on October 05, 2020 07:03

September 22, 2020

Review: A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh I did love this! Translated from the Swedish, it's the story of a grumpy old curmudgeon, recently widowed, who likes to live within his particular (clearly spectrum-based) comfort zone and has no time for nosey bastards or those who refuse to obey the rules and haven't a clue how to repair a bicycle.
Ove's wife is the only one who ever really understood him, and following the double blows or widowhood and redundancy he feels that a life spent knocking around the house without her just isn't worth living. However his attempts to end it all are constantly being interrupted by importunate neighbours in need of some sort of help (borrowing ladders, cadging lifts to the hospital, expecting him to fix their radiators, bicycles, love lives etc) - and the more he tries to keep the world at arm's length, the more human kindness insists on encroaching.
I defy you not to be in tears by the end. It's another five stars from me, I'm afraid.

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Published on September 22, 2020 08:58

September 9, 2020

Review - The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

The Friendly Ones The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tale of two families, next door neighbours in an affluent area of Sheffield, one of which is English (the Spinsters) and the other Bangladeshi (the Sharifullahs). Their first encounter takes place at the Sharifullahs' moving-in party in the 1980s, and from there the narrative takes us back and forth in time and place, exploring each family's back story and their respective meandering paths towards another party, celebrated jointly in 2016, which constituted the finale.

The story is not narrated in chronological order, and reading it is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together - filling in bits round the edges and finding the odd piece that you know is going to be important and think might belong in the centre, but have to put aside until you're getting the fuller picture. We start in 1980s Sheffield, then we're in 1970s Bangla Desh with the Sharifullahs witnessing a family tragedy in the wake of the war with Pakistan, then back in 1970s Britain watching the Spinster children grow up, then springing forward through 1990s towards 2005 and the 7/7 London bombings ... sometimes I find this sort of thing disorientating, but because of the quality of the writing and the vividly drawn characters, I found it fascinating putting the pieces together.

Yes, it's a story about immigration and racism but it doesn't have an agenda and it doesn't preach. The 'Friendly Ones' of the title refer both to various neighbours the Sharifullahs encounter as they assimilate themselves to life in Britain ('she's one of the friendly ones'...) and also to the name of a league of feared informants during the struggle for independence in Bangla Desh. At one stage the point is made that 'it's class, not race, [that] divides people.' The successful, professional Sharifullah daughter is horrified by an encounter with illegal immigrants trafficked over to Britain and exploited by their own people; the neat little Taiwanese wife of a Spinster son is horrified by her husband's former Oxford friend whose life has spiralled into drug dependency.

More than anything, this is a story about family relationships, both between siblings and between parents and children. There are feckless, selfish parents as well as wise and generous ones; hurtful, ungrateful children as well as loving and dutiful ones; loyal, kind siblings as well as snobbish and cruel ones. Family betrayals, humiliations and not-so-subtle cruelties are meted out, as well as kindness and selflessness – one description of parental sacrifice, mundane on the outside but huge on the inside, is mentioned almost in passing towards the end of the book and makes for one of the most moving, understated passages I've ever come across in a novel.

A rare five stars from me.

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Published on September 09, 2020 08:23

August 31, 2020

More from Weird Sisters, Ink ...

Happy Bank Holiday, UK guys! And I hope it IS proving to be a happy one, Covid notwithstanding ...

I actually managed to get up to London on Saturday for the first time in nearly two years - took a lovely river trip from Westminster to Greenwich with Mr B, had lunch and a wander round, then back to Brighton for 7.30 pm - we're not used to getting out and about, so have basically spent the rest of the weekend recovering from all the excitement.

Anyway, I thought you might like to know that the weekly blog from Weird Sisters, Ink is going from strength to strength - if you click on the link and scroll down, you'll see poetry and prose from Sylvia Daly, Magenta Wise, Maggie Redding, Charlie Raven, Yours Truly of course and this week, a new work-in-progress from Jane Traies. We also hope to include some poetry from Jill Gardiner in the near future.

It's all rather fun, with quite a variety of styles and subject matter - all that we have in common is that we're older, LBQ and under-represented! Enjoy:
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Published on August 31, 2020 06:19

August 21, 2020

Review: 'Middle England' by Jonathan Coe

Middle England (Rotters' Club, #3) Middle England by Jonathan Coe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this novel Jonathan Coe looks at Brexit – the circumstances, the run-up and the aftermath – through the eyes of a group of family and friends based in London and Birmingham. It's by turns humorous, poignant, tragic and philosophical – the characters are vivid, flawed and (mostly) loveable, and the differing points of view, both political and personal, are well presented. It's recognised that Brexit was and is a complex issue, that people's personal experiences informed their vote, and that there is such a thing as political correctness gone mad (one liberal, well-meaning University lecturer is suspended from her job following an innocent exchange with a trans student).

But, but, but ... I don't why I'm complaining, because it is called 'Middle England' and it does what it says on the tin, but I found it so annoying ... the whole thing is viewed form an exclusively middle-class perspective, and it give the impression that the whole debate was about economics and nostalgia, with the working class having no say in it at all. Which is manifestly unfair because it was the vote of the poor - whose experience of the EU is very different to that of those enjoying the freedom to work anywhere in Europe, own second homes abroad and employ Polish cleaners - that swung the referendum.

I mean, surely a couple of peripheral characters could have been introduced, and given a chance to express an opinion? The only cleaner featured in the cast is, predictably, Eastern European (Lithuanian in fact) - but how about adding a British cleaner whose hopes of improved working conditions (holiday pay, sick pay etc) had been dashed by Blair's opening of the borders in 2004? (A friend of mine was actually told by her employer 'if you don't like the pay and conditions, off you go – there's plenty of migrants now to take your place!') Similarly, the only Black character is a former public schoolboy – would it have been too much trouble to give him an opinion? Say he was of Caribbean origin, and worried, as I know many were, about the effect the big white man's club that is the EU was having on Caribbean trade?

But as I say, it does what it says on the tin, and gives a good all-round presentation of white middle-class angst, soul-searching and privilege. And of course, with a couple of exceptions they all end up moving to France or Ireland to escape the 'fiasco' that is British politics, having long boozy suppers that start at 9pm, and raising a rousing toast to 'F*ck Brexit!'

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Published on August 21, 2020 07:27

August 3, 2020

Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful novel from the author of 'The Thirteenth Tale', set on the upper reaches of the Thames. The year is 1887; the day is 21st December, the Winter Solstice. The regulars at The Swan Inn, Radcot, are settling down for an evening of storytelling, for which the inn is famous. Suddenly the door bursts open and out of the blackness staggers a badly injured man carrying what the observers first think to be a puppet or a doll. He sways and falls, and his burden is caught by the youngest son of the innkeeper – and proves to be the dead body of a little girl. Except that she's not dead – a few hours later, despite having been examined by the nurse and found to have no pulse, dilated pupils and ice-cold skin, she comes back to life.

And so the search for her identity begins, with several claimants coming forward, each having lost a young child, and each convinced that this little girl must be she. But why doesn't she speak? And why does she keep looking up and down the river for something, or someone? And how is it possible for a child to be certified dead, and then come back to life?

A fascinating mystery with more than a hint of the supernatural, as befits a story set on our 'Sacred River' . All of the characters - or 'tributaries', as they're described at one point – have their own back stories, by turns tragic, heroic or questionable; all are vivid, credible and (mostly) loveable in their vulnerability and hopefulness. The narrative takes us through the course of a year, through solstices and equinoxes, harvest and flood, birth and death, round to its conclusion at the next Winter Solstice; and through it all flows the River in all its turbulent moods. A beautiful story, beautifully told.

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Published on August 03, 2020 06:31

July 23, 2020

Review: H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this memoir, historian, writer and naturalist Helen Macdonald recounts how whilst grieving the sudden death of her father (press photographer Alasdair Macdonald), she successfully homed and trained a Goshawk – one of the most notoriously difficult hawks to engage with.

The loss of her father is so traumatic, and the grief so overwhelming, that at times her sanity and sense of self are threatened and the chasm of full-blown mental illness yawns. Exhausted, isolated and obsessed, she revisits the old books on falconry she loved as a child, and becomes particularly fascinated by the memoirs of writer and fellow austringer T H White (famous for 'The Once And Future King' series). Like Macdonald herself, White found that his efforts to train a Goshawk threw up psychological parallels and challenges; unlike herself, he was forced to abandon his efforts and was unable to fully draw himself back from the brink of despair.

This is a fascinating memoir, beautifully written, and Macdonald's love of the natural world comes shining through and permeates the narrative with lucid and evocative descriptions of the Cambridgeshire countryside. Her descriptions of the Goshawk, Mabel, in all her ferocious beauty, wilfulness and joie de vivre are a delight to read, and I learned such a lot about falconry, hawks and history! An emotionally draining but wonderful book.

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Published on July 23, 2020 06:44

July 14, 2020

Batting For Both Teams

Back in January, I attended the launch of a fascinating project from New Writing South - the 'Hear Us Out' Festival, featuring pieces written and performed by older LGBTQ people. It was a great evening, and as they were asking for writers and performers to help expand the project, I put my name down for a workshop.

My first piece was a 'satellite piece' written from the point of view of a character in someone else's autobiographical recording. That was fun to write, and the original plan was for all of our pieces to be performed on stage by proper actors - however when lock down intervened, we were asked if we could record them ourselves for interim audio presentation on the Festival's website. This presented me with a bit of a challenge, as my mobile phone is practically antique, with no camera and no recording facility. However we made do with a digital camera, held by Mr B with a piece of paper obscuring the aperture. This seemed to go down well, and I was asked to record another contributor's satellite piece too, as they hadn't wanted to do it themselves.

By now I was getting into the swing of things, and having been kindly told I was a 'pleasure to work with', I said I'd be interested in writing or recording a piece around someone's experience of being bisexual. I mentioned that back in the 1980s there'd been a whole debate around whether bisexuals should be allowed to join the newly opened London Lesbian and Gay Centre, and that I'd been afraid to come out as bi, and had instead signed the declaration saying I identified as a lesbian just so I could get into the place with my (lesbian) partner.

The upshot of this was that I was asked to do an autobiographical piece of my own - no longer than five minutes, so no waffling on (always a challenge for me!) and recorded for the website in the same way as the others.

And here it is, up on YouTube!

You can access some of the other contributors' pieces here - they're putting up a new one each week:

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Published on July 14, 2020 07:44