Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Under the Glass.. how to plan a novel.

I’ve said before how I have an attract/repel relationship to quotes, how enjoyable it can be to find someone you admire saying something you believe in but how easily they can be moulded and bent when not in their original contexts.

This is even more so when quoting a fictional character. I’ve so often heard “To thine own self be true” uttered as real advice, divorced from the fact that the character saying it is a bumbling old busybody full of too much banal and untrue advice. Even more wobbly is to quote a character who is themselves tricky, the following quote is spoken by the unreliable Tristram Shandy by the even more unreliable Laurence Sterne, it’s about writing process.

“Of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best – I'm sure it is the most religious – for I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” 

Laurence Sterne The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

I’m deeply doubtful that Laurence Sterne actually wrote like this though I’ve not read enough about his writing process to confirm those doubts. Tristram Shandy may have an unconventional shape but it does have a shape. If Sterne really did just start putting words on a page and trusting the process to supply him with more, then he must have rewrote, perhaps even as he was writing and he must have been able to hold a great many threads in his head. For all its digressions, Tristram Shandy is full of callbacks to former parts, anticipations to the future and a set of running themes, interests and allusions. However, as untrue as I suspect the sentiment to be when applied to Sterne, it may be true to the character of Tristram himself.

There are people who set to work without any planning. Samuel Johnson tended to hand in first drafts of everything - even the original dictionary was in essence a first draft, compiled in the printshop, though he did return to revise it. His essays are definitely first drafts, he reveals in one that he is writing it as the messenger boy is waiting for it, yet those essays are tightly constructed and written. I suppose Johnson had a well of topics in his head that he could dip into when needed. 

Goldsmith seems to have been a worrier of texts, his noted readability may have had something to do with drafting and redrafting, and he is reported talking about how he wandered the fields trying to think of ways to be funny. I’m less sure of Christopher Smart, certainly Jubilate Agno was written with a plan in mind that grew to be less important and relies on its form than anything else (and by the end, was never supposed to be published).

In modern internet-writing-forum speak, someone who doesn’t plan ahead is a ‘pantser’, someone who writes by the seat of their pants. My first novel certainly had an element of this, I had some characters I enjoyed and a general situation but it took a lot of time to find a story and I think the failure of it is that I never fully did. On the other hand, the few projects I had a full and detailed plan for, were never finished. I simply couldn’t be bothered to put on page stories I already knew without the fun and joy of discovery.

My own planning style when it comes to a novel is one that I expect is pretty common. I usually start with an image or two that grab me and suggest a story, the people in these images develop into characters which then suggest the images place in a larger shape. With this general shape in mind, I start writing, at first with only a few concrete stopping places. The analogy that fits best is probably one of walking in a dark wood with a torch. I know the direction to head in and I know the end point and although I may not know the whole journey, the torch illuminates what is immediately ahead of me and allows me to plot a detailed course for the tiny bit in-front of me. Sometimes the torch falters and that can be terrifying, sometimes I just have to push ahead and hope it works out. When I’ve done the journey once, I go back to the beginning and do it again, usually making some different choices of direction, sometimes some huge ones. I simply keep doing this till I can’t see a different way through the wood and then that novel is finished. If I plan too much I’m not interested in the journey, if I write one sentence and trust to the next, I am too frightened to move on. It’s not a glamorous method, certainly not as exciting and free as the one suggested by Tristram but it’s the only way I know how.

Excuse me, I have another wood to get lost in.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Keeping Books

 Sometimes I think about moving house and it gives me the cold sweats. It’s not just that I am very happy where I am now, nor is it the general stress of moving, it’s a specific problem - it’s my books. I have over two thousand of them, some of them in boxes at my parents but many more of them here in my little impoverished-writer’s-garret. The shear faff of having to pack so many books, having to carry them down the stairs and into my new place, of having to carry them up makes me feel a little sick.

Why do I do it? Why saddle myself with so many physical objects? Especially books, some of which I may never read, and some of which I have read but may possibly never read again?

There’s been a tweet doing the rounds that says this;

Essentially, that I carry all these books about with me as a boast of my bookishness.

There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that no-one else really sees my piles of books. I live in a studio-flat in which there are two rooms; a bathroom and a bed/kitchen/library. I am a fairly sociable person but meet up in pubs and restaurants, in the seven years I’ve lived here there have been 4 visitors, it’s simple not a space set up to socialise. What’s more, I was utterly embarrassed when those people saw the books clogging up my space, they seemed a testament to my lack of control rather than any learning.

The only time I really do ‘show-off’ my books is when I use them as a background in my videos, but they are videos about books so it seems pretty ‘on brand’ and I imagine viewers having fun being nosy at my bookcases behind me.

Actually the article by Julian Baggini (linked here) is a lot more in-depth than the hot twitter takes give it credit for. It suggests that physical books also hold links to our identity, both in who we used to be and who we wish to be. I for one can see a book I read and remember where I was and the situation I was in as I was reading it. Books we have read and re-read many times seem a part of who we are and books we intend to read make claims of where we wish to go.

The article suggests that we should view books as we do other positive experiences, keep our memories of the books and pass them out into the world to do good for others. He even suggests that holding onto our books may be a way of hiding from new experiences, a way of cocooning.

Whether that is true or not, I shan’t be getting rid of my books. I still regret books I got rid of 20 years ago and although I sometimes decide a book isn’t keeping, it would hurt to give many away and I’d start filling those holes again. The fact is simply that I like a room full of books and I get a certain pleasure from my room full of my books. It may be a cocoon, but what is a little garret for anyway?

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Review: 'Ducks, Newburyport' by Lucy Ellmann

 I picked up Ducks, Newburyport as a book to challenge me and it certainly did that. Most of its thousand pages is a long, unparagraphed stream of consciousnessseperated only by commas and the phrase ‘the fact that’. Occasionally, this is broken up by the story of a lioness having, losing and looking for her cubs told in a standard omniscient perspective with properly formed sentences. What was I to make of this book? Why was it told in such an obtuse and peculiar way?

There was one particular pointer. At the end of the book lie two appendices. The first was a list of acronyms which wasn’t as helpful as I thought it may be, the meanings of the acronyms turned out not to be very important to the text. The second was a selection of quotes. The first quote in that section was part of the ‘cat Jeoffrey’ portion of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. I’m a huge fan of this poem and Christopher Smart in general and the inclusion of this in the quotes, and in the book also, pointed me in a certain direction. The poem was written while Smart was incarcerated for an unspecified ‘madness’. It started at as a religious poem, a hymn to all creation which gathered all plants, animals and minerals together with all people, knowledge and experience to praise God. As the poem went on, Smart used it as self-therapy, as a diary, as a way to discuss moral and scientific questions, as a way of remembering his friends and also as a way of counting down his days. It became an encyclopaedic, rambling and dense gathering of everything in Smart’s head and that explains the sheer length of Ducks, Newburyport. The narrator similarly chronicles everything she sees, her worries about the climate, memories of her family, films, books, advertising slogans - the book dramatises exactly how much ‘stuff’ is in her head and while this point could have been made in far fewer words, it couldn’t have been made as resoundingly. Her mind is so full. (There’s also the mirroring of the novel’s ‘the fact that’ phrase matching Smart’s ‘let’, ‘for’ phrases.)

This fullness also explains why this stream of consciousness novel does not read like an actual stream of consciousness. I’ve often seen this in that kind of novel, I had a fever when I read part of Ulysses and even then my mind wasn’t as jumbled and discursive as the book was - and Ducks, Newburyport is even more jumbled than that. For a while I thought maybe I was reading a stream of unconsciousness, the things bubbling under the narrators recognised mind but I noticed she kept correcting her thoughts. For example on page 94 she talks about going to a crematoria to collect the ashes, then birds migrating, then ashes and has to consciously say ‘people, I mean, not birds’. This is often done many times for comic effect but it shows the text is supposed to be her consciousness. Then why does she go on free-associative trails, rhyming and echoing words, often without meaning? Is this supposed to be normal or something strange about her? I think it was yet another way of ramming the idea of her mind crammed with stuff, and much of it useless to her.

To compare the narrator and the lioness, the animal has a simple life with simple motivations whilst the narrator is so crammed with the complications of being a self-conscious animal in a complex world that it interferes with her life and relationships. Which brings us back to the manic stream of consciousness, self-consciousness is the enemy.

This makes the book a tough and at times irritating read but that irritating quality is dictated by the point it is making and which match the manner of it’s telling. Or it would, if it wasn’t for the plot. By the end of the book, Ducks, Newburyport has become a conventional narrative (if not exactly told in a conventional way), there are even heroes and villains, examples of foreshadowing, set-ups and pay-offs. When I got to the end of the book I felt a little cheated, that I’d read a rather average story dressed up in outlandish clothes but I changed my mind when I thought about it a little more.

A book I love that never gives up on its weirdness, or gives in to standard plotting is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Though there are events, it refuses to take the idea of plot seriously at the beginning and still does at the end, laughing at any readers who expected it to wrap in a neat bow (as it could be argued Ducks, Newburyport does). There’s a point where it maps out its ‘plot’ in a series of squiggles. Duck’s Newburyport also has a map, of the lioness looking for her cubs and she goes in a spiral. The book is crammed with spirals as pages circle around events and phrases circle around each other. The plotting of the book also functions as a spiral, being wide and loose at the beginning but getting tighter and tighter. At first there are mentions of real life plot-worthy events happening around the country, then made up plot-worthy events happening in the area of the book, then to other characters in the book and finally to the narrator. The plot of the book spirals closer and closer until the narrator finds herself in a generically plotted book. 

So, in terms of structure and style, this is a very clever book but I couldn’t say I found it wholly enjoyable. Although the increments in plot fit the structure, it did leave me feeling dissatisfied by the end - I almost feel the telling of the story should have become more standard as the plot did as I was left with a standard plot told in a weird way. Despite finding some of the narrator’s parts funny and there were some great descriptions (the old people in the mall on page 589 for example), I did not find her great company. She was so dour, so tired of life, so querulous and so reactive, so self-loathing that she made me feel rather exhausted and anxious. I also found ‘the fact that’ was never a phrase that didn’t call attention to itself or sometimes confuse the things she was saying. I found it a book for more fun to think about than to read.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My first meeting with Pride and Prejudice was probably not the most auspicious one. The book may have hundreds of die hard fans and an adaptation every ten years but it seemed stuffy and a little full of itself. True, grabbing it because it was the only book that fit in my pocket, reading it on a bus and taking it into a drum-n-bass nightclub, where I was frisked for it - may not be the idea time and place.

Now, prepared to give it more than a first impression, I find a sparkling, sarcastic novel with a far subtler romance than I was expecting. My problem the first time was that the book takes a little bit of time to establish exactly whose story is being told. Even by the time it establishes it’s principal hate-turned-love couple, it remains something of an ensemble, offering a number of potential brides and four inevitable husbands. 

The Bennetts are a family leaving to the limit of their means, largely through a certain laxness on the part of the Bennett parents. These consist of Mr Bennett, a man I originally liked for his easy-going nature and sarcastic sense of humour but eventually begin to dislike for those same reasons. Mrs Bennett was instantly a little grating, a shrieking, nosy, embarrassing woman who also displays some sneaky, game-playing tendencies throughout the novel. Indeed, a novel of the courtship between Mr and Mrs Bennet would be an interesting one, if not necessarily a romance, or if a romance, maybe not one with the happiest of endings. The eldest daughters are Jane, who is niceness personified, and Elizabeth who is smart and with a wit that is sharper and closer to her father than anyone else’s. The three younger daughters are Mary, who is bookish but not smart, Kitty and Lydia. Kitty and Lydia are both young, foolish teens who like flirting with local army officers. Austen walks a fine line with the characters of the family particularly, we’re supposed to like them and be invested in their romances and their futures but at the same time, one the running jokes in the book is how embarrassing families can be. 

Our choice of men consists of: Mr Bingley, fairly rich but a little non-committal; Mr Darcy, extremely rich but arrogant and vain; Mr Wickham, seemingly nice but possibly untrustworthy and Mr Collins, who’s a pretentious fool. The fact is, that I wasn’t hugely enamoured with any of the male selection. Bingley seemed the best, he’d be a nice and easy going person to spend time with but he is so very easily led. It seems he can’t make decisions for himself and even when he has strong feelings is happy to acquiesce to his friend’s feelings on the matter. He’s still better than Wickham though, who you couldn’t trust as long as you could throw him, nor would you want to spend much time with Collins.

As for Mr Darcy, the much praised and beloved Mr Darcy, I seemed to miss the part when he moved from stiff, arrogant and rude to a perfect husband. From the little Jane Austen I’ve read, I far preferred Mr Tilney, he was a tad socially awkward but he had a sense of humour, I am sure Darcy has none. He’s not even fascinatingly tortured, he’s just a rather rigid, uncharismatic, dull man. That Elizabeth starts to like him after she sees his house is no terrible reflection on her but I think the idea is that her conversation with the housekeeper is what tips her towards re-evaluating her feelings to Darcy and not the size of his.. estate. 

I liked these people and I liked the style - I can see the smile in Jane Austen now, but I have to admit to not being particularly invested in who went with who. Perhaps it was the limited selection of hunky men, perhaps it was the fact this story is so ingrained in the collective conscious that I already knew the final pairings but I found Pride and Prejudice a book I could see the quality of, enjoy but not get particularly invested in.

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Mini-Review An Entertainment for Angels by Patricia Fara

 An Entertainment for Angels is a bit of a cheat. It looks like a full account of electricity in the enlightenment age but if you look carefully, the text is a little larger and spaced out than usual and the pages are on thicker paper, almost as if the book is a shorter one trying to look like a larger one.

So, it’s not as deep an experience as could be hoped for but it is an enjoyable romp through several decades of electrical history, with a particular emphasis on the showmanship of early electrical research, the piecemeal nature of scientific advance and the odd way in which advances in equipment came first and theory had to catch up.

One of the most enjoyable elements of the book was how knowledge of electricity and discovery of its effects grew up from a sense of play. The first battery (so named because like a battery of guns, the effect was increased by grouping them together) was discovered by accident. It was then used to attract objects to suspended orphans, or electrocute 400 monks. I particularly liked the story when the trick didn’t work and the current kept dying at one particular monk. They started to suspect the monk might be a woman in secret (though why that should break the current, I’ve no idea) but it turned out to be because they were standing on a wet patch of ground.

I loved all the talk of pranks and tricks, the cutlery that shocked the dinner guests, the hidden electric ‘mines’ in one person’s house. I loved how silliness built up phenomena to see and evidence which then led to electrical theories. I followed the description of the electrical theories pretty well but now I think I understand the false ways that eighteenth century scientists thought electricity works more than I understand how electricity actually works.

I very much enjoyed this book as a run through of electrical science in the 18th century, it told its story well, was very entertaining and gave me a few new ideas to play with. It wasn't enough to write the full article I was hoping for though.

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Review: Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre by Jacqueline Riding


I read Jacqueline Riding’s book Jacobites with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle and was excited to receive a copy of Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre in a ‘name-that-Hogarth-from-the-detail’ competition and, seeing as the 203rd anniversary anniversary occurs on the 16th of August, I’d read it.

In Jacobites, Jacqueline Riding shows how skilled she is at taking a complicated series of events with many players and shaping them into a text that is both engaging and coherent and she does the same with the story of the Peterloo massacre. I knew a little about it from ‘Victorians’ text books from school and I’ve seen the Sharpe episode with the Peterloo equivalent but beyond the headlines, I didn’t know the details. Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre told me a little more than I needed to know, gave me  a feel for the times, the tone of the language, the arguments in the pub and kept clarity and narrative momentum.

We begin with the rise of Hampden Clubs, meetings of working men sharing ideas of political reform - particularly about changing electoral constituencies to get rid of rotten boroughs and a desire for a vote per man (there wasn’t yet discussion of women’s suffrage, but it was considered a vote per man was one per household). These clubs were boosted by solid Sunday-school education and inspired by thinkers like Tom Paine as well as reading and sharing cheap newspapers. With waves of soldiers returning from Waterloo, a distant volcanic eruption that killed harvest and the Corn Laws which brought food prices up but did nothing to bring wages up with it  - the government were scared. It wasn’t helped that the official government position seems to have been ‘it’s not our fault’.

After multiple petitions were ignored, the reform groups decided to increase their pressure, one tactic was the ‘blanket protest’. Reading that it was a crime to present a petition in groups more than ten, it was decided to send a mass petition but to take it in multiple copies in small groups - all of them walking from Manchester to London and carrying a blanket to sleep outdoors. With Habeus Corpus suspended, the ‘blanketeers’ were arrested as they left the city, with the urban myth that only one man made it.

The next idea were ‘monster’ meetings, huge rallies with popular speakers designed to show how strong support for reform was. The plan was a series of huge meetings, culminating in a large Manchester one for the north, and a large Kennington one for the south. The magistrates of Manchester started getting nervous, organising a volunteer cavalry called the Yeoman and drafting volunteer constables. It wasn’t helped that the government were sending agent provocateurs to stir up trouble, nor that some speakers were appealing to audiences with more violent rhetoric. What’s more, bodies of men were training on the moors, learning to march in formation. Was this a way of ensuring calm and orderly movement en masse, or was this the training of working class fighting bands?

It wasn’t only men involved in the movement to reform, for the first time women formed organised groups. The first was in Blackburn, followed shortly by the Manchester Female Reform Society, led by Mary Fildes - one of those people in history that ought to be better known. I loved the moment dramatised in the book where the women are asked to vote for something for the first time and the atmosphere of nervous laughter grows to one of pride.

This moment comes from the autobiography of Samuel Bamford, as do many other sparkling and vivid descriptions. A poet as well as a radical, Samuel has a sharp (and sometimes withering) eye for describing other people. Riding hits a motherlode with his descriptions, whether it’s Sidmouth with his 'cavernous orbs' of eyes or Nadin with his 'full-size head'. There’s also a wonderful moment where he describes his beloved wife 'as fresh as Hebe'.

Other interesting people in this book include Dr Healy, whose accent is so thick he can’t be understood by his interrogators and who hands his proscriptions out with pro-forma cards that he fills numbers in because he’s illiterate. He tempers this with an excessive dignity which has him trying to act the gentleman even as he’s being arrested. He also created the most peculiar banner to take to the meeting - stark black and white, threatening looking even as the text read ‘love’. I was also drawn to Joseph Nadin, the Deputy-Constable. He struck me as a prot-Gene Hunt, fond of catching ‘his guy’ and certainly not afraid of violence. Despite originally being a thief-taker and having corrupt habits carry on after his more formal appointment, he redeemed himself a little in my eyes as using himself as a human shield against the voluntary constables when they tried to beat up the man he was arresting.

I may seem to be avoiding the actual massacre, it is the climax of the book after all. Throughout, Jacqueline Riding ratchets up the tension, discussing preparations on both sides and the growing paranoia of the authorities. Like the greatest tragedies, the massacre at St Peter’s field could have been easily avoided. As the size of the crowd grew, the authorities got nervous and sent for the Yeoman, the volunteer cavalry, who were drunk, clumsy and unskilled. The killed a 2 year old on the way to the field and then proceeded to wade into the crowd, trying to clear them with the blades of their swords. As one eyewitness said, “At Waterloo there was man to man but at Manchester it was downright murder.”

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Review: Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in other Lands by Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole is buried down the road from me and a famous figure in the area so when I found she’d written a book I was interested in picking it up. I was also pleased how Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in other Lands has echos of Gulliver’s Travels.

Apparently there was some debate over whether this book was ghost written or not, if it was the ghost writer would have stuck very close to her narrative because this book has such a strong, individual voice to it, and very much the kind of voice that someone would have if they did the things Mary Seacole did. It’s tough and folksy, with a strong optimistic streak tempered by a will of iron. Mary believes that “We were born to be happy” but is fully aware of the obstacles to that and wants to do what she can to alleviate them. 

Born in Jamaica to a Jamaican mother and Scottish father, Mary Seacole would have considered it rather presumptuous to be grouped into black history as she saw herself as ‘that yellow woman’. There was a Jamaican tradition of hotel/club/shop/hospital run by women with traditional healing methods and Mary grew up in it, her dolly being her first and most suffering patient. She took this tradition, first to towns in Panama thrown up during the Gold Rush, then outside Sebastopol during the Crimean War. 

Although famous for her work in the Crimea, the sections of this book dealing with her running a ‘hotel’ in Panama are possibly more entertaining. She talks about the difficulty of her journey, that her dress got all ‘clayey’, that when she arrived at her brother’s place and he had nowhere private for her, she was grumpy and made her own bed under a table. She talks about how the porters ‘had not neglected the glorious opportunity to rob a woman’ and how porters and lawyers were thieves everywhere. She describes how she got a cheap rent on a run down shack with no roof, which she describes as ‘a charming residence - very openly situated and well ventilated’. Her voice is funny, colloquial and a tad sarcastic and she makes brilliant company.

When it comes to the usual mainstay of books about ‘other lands’, geographical description, she calls it, ‘information uninteresting enough, I have little doubt, to all but few of my readers.’ Instead she talks about scaring away a thief by pretending to prime a non-working gun with coffee powder, or about how she stole the body of a dead orphan to dissect and learn more about the medical arts than she already did. Another source of amusement is her characterisation of Americans as dirty, rude, spitting, pretentious thieves. She admits she’s prejudiced against Americans but only because most of the ones she’s met were vile and because they still held people who looked some-what like her as slaves.

Then we get to the Crimea. Mary Seacole tried to get through legitimate means, but Florence Nightingale’s agents turned her down so she gathered investors and set off by herself. It was probably a good thing, for both her and the soldiers on the front. Mary Seacole had a years of experience and a personality disinclined to take instruction, she and Nightingale would not have made happy colleagues although they did get on when they met. It also meant that Seacole could set up her British Hotel closer to the front lines, providing more direct medical aid and a source of comfort and dignity. A lot of the work of the hotel was providing home comforts, and she was very proud of her sponge cakes and rice pudding particularly.

Thieves were again a problem, the Zouaves, professional French soldiers, were known as being fierce in battle and light-fingered when not fighting. They were large, red pantaloons which served as very useful shoplifting aids, with one Zouave managing to take a whole cooked chicken. One time, Mary Seacole got hold of a pig and everyone was looking forward to some pork and pre-ordering the cuts they were after. Then someone stole the pig and she sent ‘her boys’ out with the words;

  “Go my sons and save my bacon!” 

There seems to have almost been a Muppet Show vibe to Seacole’s British Hotel, a fun and ramshackle club with lots of laughter and chaos. It wasn’t all fun and games though, Mary Seacole also went out into the front line with bags of sandwiches and bandages to help as she could. When Sevastopol finally fell, she found herself the first woman in the captured city, again with her bag of sandwiches and bandages, occasionally needing to duck from shots from the last of the Russian defenders. One of the first things she saw, was a group of English soldiers who had looted a house of women’s clothes and were wandering around in drag - of course. The Hotel kept going as the camp broke up until she had a building full of stock but no one to buy it. In the end she had to sell what she had at a massive loss and returned to England bankrupt, where she wrote the book. There is an element in the book of Seacole justifying her actions, especially the fact that she charged for her services at the British Hotel. She was loved though and by the time she died she was a revered and comfortable figure.

I don’t think Mary Seacole is unfairly forgotten, she may have been of more practical benefit in the Crimea but she took her fame and used it to set up a massage business and live a comfortable life amongst friends - which is a very good thing to do but does mean her significance was to those alive at the time and faded as those people died. If anything, her being mixed race has not made her unfairly forgotten by history but has encouraged her remembrance where she may not have been after all. Which is not to denigrate Mary Seacole in any way, she was an amazing woman with an amazing story and she tells it in an entertaining and forthright voice.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Review 'On Happiness' at the Wellcome Museum

A wise philosopher once said, ‘happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess’ but what is happiness? Where does it come from? Are there ways of living a happier life? I went with all these questions and more to the Wellcome’s exhibition ‘On Happiness’, hugely happy to be going to an exhibition after so long.

The exhibition was split into two parts, ‘tranquillity’ and ‘joy’, I also picked up an audio guide to hear extra details. It started with the interesting reminder that the concept of emotion is a relatively new one and springs from increased scientific ways of conceptualising people that developed in the nineteenth century. Before then, what we know as emotions were known as passions or sensibilities and had a certain moral weight. I’d have liked more about the transition in the relationship between people and their own feelings but it wasn’t really developed.

The first main room in an installation. At first glance it is tranquil, there are people doing yoga projected around, a fake fire burning in a log and a large glowing crystal. Listening to the commentary, however, and the peacefulness is built on exploitation. The yoga takes an Indian tradition but has no time for brown skin, the log represents South American forests being destroyed for incense and the big gem represents the unfair conditions they are mined in. The whole piece is called ‘My Body is a Temple of Gloom’ (great title) and it doesn’t really say anything about tranquility, more about the abuses of the wellness industry.

The next room contained a range of ways people feel tranquil, from meditation, to gardening, to noticing small pleasures, to.. fixing socks? There were also audio clips on the guide about how vitamin d aids happiness. There was also a beautiful almanac, a family medical textbook.. and a picture of a redwood tree. There were definitely interesting things in this section, but they were disparate and didn’t really come together to say much about tranquility. Indeed, the descriptions spent far longer talking about anxiety, and how things like gardening or sunlight can restrain anxiety that it said very little about tranquility at all unless it was to say that anxiety is our natural state and we have to do unusual things (or exploitative things, in terms of the first room) to avoid it and gain tranquility. Personally, I think tranquility is probably a goal in itself and is more important than merely avoiding anxiety. In a position of tranquility we can make better decisions, act kinder and fairer and wiser, which is worthwhile in itself.

The last room was my favourite and was inspired by the Japanese idea of ‘tree-bathing’. There’s research to say that simply being in nature is good for a person’s mental health - which is where I find the whole mental health language so anaemic, hanging around woods is not simply good for mental health, but for the spirit, the soul even. The room had huge photos of forests with nature sounds and (apparently) smells seeping into the room also. It was a very peaceful experience but mainly made me want to get out into some real woods.

The next part of ‘On Happiness’ was about joy. It started with a picture of someone laughing at someone else and the quote ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.’ The first installation showed people in black and white ‘dancing’ but there was no happiness on their faces, the movements looked like they were being told to move and the music was scary more than it was joyful. Far from dancing for joy, it looked like they were being forced into it. 

There was another piece by the same artist who tries to smile through the Nat King Cole version of the song ‘Smile’. For one thing, the song is not a song of joy, it’s about smiling though your heart is breaking. For another, the artist can’t maintain his smile through the song and it becomes a frightening grimace. It would seem the artist doesn’t understand the concept of joy.

The next room had a range of things including the fun doodles of David Shrigley. I like his pictures but they have a self-conscious, awkward quality that while making me smile do not summon up the notion of joy. There were pictures of a tarantella, a dance supposed to heal spider bites, not an expression of joy. Indeed, the joy part of the exhibition not only lacked joy but seemed to suck it out. The only joy in the room came from two children running about and playing. Where were the kids games or football celebrations or wedding dances or the birth of a child? 

I think the ultimate message of the exhibition was that we are not solitary figures, that happiness requires us to function in society and with nature though I think it rather fudged it.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Review: A Visit from Voltaire by Dinah Lee Küng


A Visit from Voltaire is a book that makes absolutely no sense. The cover proclaims it a novel but it seems to be anything but. If the blurb is to believed, it’s about an American woman who moves to Switzerland with her family and finds it difficult to acclimatise to the new culture, she’s helped along the way by a man who turns up, claiming to be Voltaire. The blurb is not to be believed.

For a start, the main character and her family may be fictionalised but they are not fictional. The husband in the book is the author’s husband, with the same name and job; the children are her children and the main character is the author herself. If anything, it seems more like diary extracts of her move and the feeling of alienation she has with Wikipedia articles of Voltaire dropped in. I couldn’t find a description of how this book came about but I imagined that she’d moved to Switzerland, felt cut off from her old role as a foreign reporter in Hong Kong and trapped by the Swiss expectations of motherhood which led her to reading a life of Voltaire, creating imaginary conversations with him as she performed her daily chores. What’s more, a detail at the beginning, where her mother’s books on history were sent to her rather than her own was, I think, the secret catalyst that sparked her interest in Voltaire. 

Not only does my little supposition seem to fit, it’s the only reason I can think of that the character that follows her around is Voltaire rather than anyone else, there is no answer to the question, ‘why Voltaire?’ It’s doesn’t even adopt the playful notion that the person coming around her house is a person from the village who thinks he’s Voltaire but is straight up Voltaire’s ghost who simply pops up, much as an imaginary Voltaire might to a bored woman wandering about her cut-off Swiss house.

There’s not a plot to the book exactly, the book goes through Voltaire’s life chronologically, with the ghost ageing as it continues. In each chapter, Voltaire’s life throws up some theme in which the daily Swiss life or in her memories of being a reporter in Hong Kong are awkwardly made to reflect. Early in his life, Voltaire was put in prison, so her son accidentally commits a crime and is hard in front of the town council. At another time Voltaire uncovered a scandal, so she remembers uncovering a scandal during her reporter days. Voltaire spent some time in England, so the main character suddenly has some English friends she has to visit. The book never makes a convincing case that Voltaire’s memories of the eighteenth century, the memories of 90s China and the modern experience in Switzerland ever match up convincingly. The whole book creaks with contrivance. 

I can’t say I liked the narrating character very much. Compared with Voltaire, her spirit seemed so petty and she never seemed to learn much. There was a definite whiff of racism; from her broad grouping national stereotypes (even in places she’d lived), to her distaste of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and other non-Christian winter festivals and her seeming hatred of the Swiss as conservative and small-minded. She didn’t seem a great mother, seeming rather uninterested in her children and finding them a hinderance to her own interests, resenting her daughter for fitting in more successfully than her and the odd thing that she made them only watch old videos - leading to her children playing ‘I, Claudius’ for fun. (Really - why be so strict about what they watch that they only have access to pre-approved things and then giving them something as adult at that?)

The part which solidified my dislike for the narrator was a chapter themed around Voltaire’s time in the French court under the patronage of Madame de Pompadour. The narrator declares her own marriage as a bit tired and Voltaire agrees it is a little ‘sombre’, suggesting that she liven things up with a party the way Madame de Pompadour used to. The two proceed to plan a party, he in his royal eighteenth century opulence, she toning him down. Already the party is not being held for honest social reasons but to liven up her sex-life, the guests she invites are not really her friends (and if they are, why does she have such rude friends?) and the gathering has no real connection. Because the people in the party all seem like they’d rather not be with each other, it feels like an episode of ‘Come Dine With Me’ where everything relies on the food and entertainment rather than the enjoyment of company. It summed the narrator up for me, obsessing over the details and missing the main point.

I found most of her friendships hard to believe in, either coming about because they were useful to her work or because they had access to someone who might be useful. In a chapter that was supposed to be sad, a friend of hers comes over to Switzerland to recuperate after a car accident that has caused her to lose an arm and an eye. Maybe it’s the Brit in me, but it seemed completely strange that neither of them made pirate jokes - it didn’t feel like real friendship at all. 

Yet - as much as the book seemed like a strange bashing together of elements that didn’t work, I peculiarly liked it. The real Voltaire was an interesting person, with an interesting life and even this slightly weak-sauce ghost version of him made interesting company. Also, while her relationships with her family and her supposed friends didn’t ring very true (or if true, not very warm), the relationship with the Voltaire ghost was peculiarly charming. My own fantasised origin story for this book, that the author imagined her own Voltaire when she was wandering about at home, comes from my own experiences of internally talking to an imaginary Samuel Johnson when I’m doing my own boring chores. Through this, I saw a vulnerability in the narrator that got me to like her and feel for her, lost in the Swiss winter.

At the end of the book, she and Voltaire take a visit to his last home where a ‘well fed college girl’ gives a tour of his house. She knows all the facts of his life but none of the flavour. I finished reading this book in a Dr Johnson’s House, a museum where I (myself rather well fed) talk to people about Samuel Johnson. It got me thinking about how much my own discussion of him is related to my imaginings of what he’d be like if he saw the world now. Ultimately, I concluded that both my imaginary Samuel Johnson and the Samuel Johnson of facts are not the historical one and it’s impossible to get to know him - this book concluded that the narrator knew Voltaire better than anyone else ever could. I’m done with this book.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 ( Entry Ten: 2021, so far.)

 Entry Ten: 2021, so far.

While it could be hoped that this ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ would only have to cover one year, as we entered 2021, it was clear that covid would not go away. After much umming, awwing, threatening and u-turning, the government decided on another national lockdown and to this time include schools.

Our school responded to this by going online but drawing on past experience, it managed to create a far more comprehensive coverage, with a full day of teacher-led stuff through video chats and other trickery. I was given the children who find it hard to access stuff in class, it was no surprise that they couldn’t access anything at home. For the first few days, whatever I did they simply stared at me with blank faces - except for the one who bounced on his couch. I’m no quitter though and the level of satisfaction I received when just one of the kids managed to turn in a piece of work was immense.

Then the lockdown ended, the children came back and things carried on much as they had been. I caught a cold in May but we were over panicking about things like that. One Wednesday in mid-June, I was feeling a bit off and began to resign myself to another cold. I carried on going to work as the cold centred in my chest, being a ball of phlegm, which I would occasionally cough up. On Saturday I had my second covid jab at the Science Museum and walked through Hyde Park. 

Sunday I felt rather rough and booked a lateral flow test first thing the next morning. I did this for two reasons; I could find myself missing a morning of work and with covid ruled out, I could go to my GP for some antibiotics to quell the rapidly worsening chest infection. To my surprise it turned positive for covid, what’s more, I was one of 7 people at school who had caught it.

I thought the next thing was to hibernate and home and wait it out but first I needed to have a PCR test, which they did in a different bit of London, which I had to walk to. All-in-all, on my first day of a positive covid diagnosis, I walked eight miles round London taking various tests. With that all done, I finally hibernated.

I wasn’t allowed to hibernate quietly though, friends from work, outside work, family were pouring in offers of assistance and of comfort. I probably could have filled a supermarket with all the people who offered to pick me up a few bits and pieces. I was reminded that people are quite nice really and I’ve been very lucky to meet some good ones. Of special note is my landlord, who was the one who actually did pick up some of my shopping and his wife who made me a lovely salmon meal and a number of tofu and miso soups. 

Less welcome were the track and trace people who texted me every two days and told me to stay at home. They also rang a number of times, reading from a script and never really listening to my answers. Who knew catching covid involved so many customer service feedback forms?

As for the sickness itself, the phlegm-ball that had been the main feature as the illness ramped up (and had confused me it was not covid) disappeared and was replaced with the classic dry-continuous cough. I burned for five days, every single joint hurt, even the little ones at the tops of my fingers, everything hurt. By some miracle, I still managed to sleep at night so I had some energy to deal with the pain and do the little I had to do in the morning before being kiboshed by fever and aches again. 

The next three days were the worst, not pain but a word semi-nauseous fog, punctuated by moments of confusion.. After that, it was done, the main thing I had left was exhaustion but that didn’t matter all that much to work who swept me right in, expecting me to do double because other staff were off with covid.

As much as I would have preferred a gentler return, I think the full-throttle back at work has probably done me better than sitting about. Three weeks afterwards, my cough has gone and my energy is mostly regained. The only long-term effects I’ve had from covid are the occasional blank mind when searching for a word, and a soul-deep hatred of our corrupt and murderous government.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

The Belle's Stratagem with the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle (Part 3)


The Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle runs alongside the school/university year and so our performance of the last chunk of Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem was our last meeting of yet another strange year. Big thanks are owed to Jane Darcey, not only for carrying the meetings on but for making them more frequent, complete with special guests and involved discussions. Having a Reading Circle to look forward to each month was a real highlight for the members and it’s been a real pleasure to attend. Next year’s programme has already been finalised and it promises to be as good as the others. 

We meet back with our characters processing the consequences of the grand masquerade. First catching up with Courtall, who feels he has easily got the Lady Francis in his grasp, although we know she’s a decoy. He congratulates himself on being irresistible and looks forward to writing an illustrious name on his list. When Saville, Flutter and a group of revellers burst in to see which particular fish he’s caught, the decoy Lady Francis is revealed to be Kitty and he is roundly laughed at, being so embarrassed he flees to Paris. Later, Sir George thanks Saville for protecting his wife by giving him his sister’s hand. We never discover the sister’s opinion of this idea but Sir George is convinced they’ll hit it off.

Schemes escalate at the Hardy’s, where the family plan to twist the  knife into Doricourt a little more by tricking him into marrying Letitia before she reveals herself as the mysterious ball-guest and he still thinks her an idiot. As part of this plot, Letitia’s father must pretend to be sick, something he is proud he has never been. He also fears that feigning sickness might invite it but despite his fears, he agrees. Doricourt is also going forth with ill-conceived schemes, deciding to go ahead with his plan to feign madness to get out of marrying Letitia. He tells his friend Villiers to spread the word. Naturally, when Flutter gets hold of this story it loses much of its reality and becomes a tale of his being poisoned by an Italian countess with drugged sweets.

The two plans come into collision when Doricourt is summoned to see the ‘sick’ Hardy. He tries his best and playing the madman, demanding that Flutter returns his soul, much to the confusion of the poor gossip who promises he’s never even seen it. There is one flaw in Doricourt’s plan, he is a ham and everyone sees straight through it. Mrs Rackett also shows him how he should have done it. He is, however, distraught that he’s been tricked into marriage with the (he believes) gormless Letitia. He feels even worse when the mysterious, masked figure from the previous night turns up and is not the kept woman Flutter thought she was. Then the woman reveals herself to be Letitia to his (and no-one else’s) surprise. She declares that she has the potential to be any kind of wife Doricourt wants, but he says he only wants her to be herself, it’s very sweet.

The characters then try to outdo each other for who deserves the most congratulations and we are left with the epilogue. It reminds us that we all wear masks and that behind the genial face may lay a domestic tyrant… it then makes the dubious claim that only actors show the truth which, whether true or not, is something actors like to tell themselves.

As well as the likeable characters, the smart dialogue and the fun plotting, Hannah Cowley makes great use of contemporary details. Whether it’s slipping in references to popular plays; John Monro, the keeper of Bedlam, known coffee houses or Langfords, the auctioneers  - she has an ability in presenting her contemporary world as a lived in and real place, rather than the clear stage-world that’s often evoked.

I also nominate Mrs Rackett as the player of the match (I’m writing this the day of the Euro finals, maybe it’s affected me). Whether she was teleporting around the city, playing the madman with great skill or defending the honour of the term ‘gentlewoman’, she was always entertaining. I particularly like how she made romance with her sound like a threat;

   “He holds women in contempt, I should like to have the opportunity of breaking his heart for that.” She also notes that when she does re-marry, young men throughout London will hang themselves. I’d like her confidence.

And so we came to the end of a very enjoyable play and a very enjoyable year at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, and look forward to another enjoyable year to come.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

The Belle's Stratagem at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle (Part Two)

Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle met a little later than usual, following an English win at the Euros, to perform the next section of Hannah Crowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem. Where the first part had enjoyed a rather simple plot, the levels of shenaniganry ramped up significantly.

We start in an auction house, where the auctioneer goes over plans with his puffers. One puffer’s job must talk up the items for sale, the other has to appear as a lady buyer and raise the biddings. None of the three seem to know very much about what they are selling. But it doesn’t really matter, as a lady of fashion enters and shows that she doesn’t really know what she’s buying either, confusing a picture of David spying Bathsheba bathing for Actaeon in a similar situation, seeing the naked Diana in Ovid’s myth. 

Then Lady Frances enters, on a girls’ day out with Mrs Rackett and Miss Ogle. They discuss a wax model of a city, the auctioneer having to admit he doesn’t know exactly which city it is. He nonetheless tries to make a selling point of it, showing how, with a little imagination, the model could represent all cities: ‘call it Rome, Peking, or London, ‘tis still a city. You’ll find in it the same jarring interests, the same passions, the same virtues, and the same vices’. I’d love to see the prop of this city which manages to be every-place and no-place. Lady Frances is a bit confused by everything and is disturbed by the figure of Courtall staring at her. After being introduced, they chat. She feels that she’s being merely polite to a friend of her friends, but he reads her politeness as encouragement. He imagines he’s making romantic advances and may have a chance with her later. When describing her day of fun later, Lady Frances observes: ‘Everybody about me seemed happy; but everybody seemed to be in a hurry to be happy somewhere else.’ Sure enough, the ladies don’t have time to actually attend the auction itself and rush off to the next engagement.

The next scene is at Hardy’s house where Letitia is talking to Mrs Racket, a woman who seems able to get everywhere. Letitia’s plan is to act a complete fool in front of Doricourt, her lacklustre intended. This, she hopes, will make him hate her, her risky long game being to then turn this hatred into powerful love. She comes in as he’s appreciating the beauty of her portrait and proceeds to run her mouth off, talking nonsense ‘as fast as anybody’ and pretending that she thinks Gulliver’s Travels is a true account. Has Doricourt, she wonders, met any talking horses on his own travels? Most annoyingly, she pretends to think she’s witty and clever, making riddles of people’s names (‘What a lamb says, three letters?’ Answer: Baker - Baa-ker). Doricourt takes the news that his intended is a simpleton well, deciding to either run straight to Bath or kill himself. But an invitation to a masquerade diverts him.

All the characters start making plans for the masquerade. Hardy (Letitia’s father) decides to go in disguise to convince Doricourt that Letitia isn’t an idiot, but Letitia has her own plans. Sir George decides he will accompany his wife after all (and orders the most boring costume). However, the character with the most plans for the masquerade is Courtall. He has been utterly won over by Lady Frances and, while admitting he would hate to have a wife of his own, has a fondness for other people’s. He bribes a servant to find out what Sir George is to wear, planning an identical disguise so he can carry off Lady Frances. He even bets on his success with Saville, also her admirer. Saville, however, decides to save Lady Frances by bringing along another young woman disguised, as you’ve guessed, in Lady Frances’s costume. If he can switch the real Lady Frances for a fake one, Courtall will find he’s made off with is in fact Kitty Willis, the name ‘Kitty’ apparently signalling that she is a woman of loose virtues. (I hope everyone’s getting this.. I said it gets more tricky).

Finally, we get to the masquerade. One of the features of this kind of entertainment that we have lost in modern fancy dress parties is that everyone who is dressed up as a particular kind of person must roleplay the part all evening. While I could see this getting irritating eventually, I’d much rather go to a party where all the James Bonds have to act like James Bond and all the Wonder Womans have to talk like her. 

Cowley has great fun introducing the characters in masquerade. There’s a Merry-Andrew, talking nonsense from a hobby-horse; a mountebank plying fake potions and a soothsayer whispering prophecies in people’s ears. Hardy has gone as a popular Jewish stage character, leading to a number of jokes any modern production would wish to excise. Sir George is dressed as a Domino. This is the spoil-sport’s choice, as it’s a plain costume with no particular character. When his wife is called away, he wants to follow but is stung by all the nasty things people are saying about his possessiveness, even referring to him as a Hurlo Thrumbo (the eponymous hero of the eighteenth-century play which had the second longest run because people went to laugh at him).

Meanwhile, Doricourt catches the eye of a beautiful woman. She dances gracefully, sings purely and flirts up a storm. They have a tremendous back and forth, he starting with a rather weak, ‘did you come from the stars?’ She responds that she plans to reascend soon and proceeds to tease him – she’ll reveal herself later when he’s least expecting it. He’s in raptures: here is a woman as alluring and witty as any foreign lady. But with the benefit of an English accent! He asks around for her identity, stupidly asking the gossip Flutter, who is always wrong. Should he also feign madness, he wonders, to avoid marrying Letitia? Who could the mystery woman be? 

Meanwhile, Courtall has approached Lady Frances alone, convinced her that he’s Sir George and ordered her back into the carriage. But loyal Saville has switched out Lady Frances for the fake one - so all’s well there. 

And that’s where we ended for the night. Will Doricourt discover his mystery lady? Will Lady Frances and Sir George decide to live their marriage as they want to without worrying about other people? Will Courtall be content with his faux-Lady Frances? Will Flutter ever get a single piece of gossip correct? That’s to be seen in the final instalment.