Posted in 20thC, Novels

Mae West and The Constant Sinner

Mae_West_LAT
Mae West: Vaudeville artist, film star, sex symbol, novelist and playwright. I imagine Babe Gordon looking very like her.

Babe Gordon leaned against the crumbling red brick wall of the Marathon Athletic Club in Harlem, at 135th Street off Fifth Avenue, and pulled at a cigarette. The Saturday night fight crowd picked its way under the glaring arc lamp in front of the main entrance like a slow-moving blackbeetle. Babe scanned the humans with an eye to business. Babe was eighteen and a prizefighter’s tart, picking up her living on their hard-earned winnings. Her acquaintances numbered trollops, murderers, bootleggers and gambling-den keepers. Two well-modelled bare legs were crossed at the ankles; her waist pressed to the wall rose to voluptuous breasts that almost protruded from the negligible neck of her black dress. Babe waited for Cokey Jenny.

The opening paragraph of Mae West’s The Constant Sinner sets the tone for the whole book, and the blurb on the back  (where, by the way, Virago spell her name wrong, calling her Babes) fills out the picture a little more, describing it as a ‘spirited lowlife novel’ and telling us, in the author’s own words,  that Babe is a broad who ‘would not have known what a moral was if it could be made to dance naked in front of her’.

You may deduce from this that Babe is not a good girl – good time girl is nearer the mark.. This is the 1920s I think, Prohibition is at its height, and the novel is peopled with dope pedlars, racketeers and prostitutes. When they have money (generally ill-gotten) they blow it all on having a good time; when the cash is gone they move on to something or someone new. Occasionally they even try their hand at a proper job – Babe briefly works as a model and a shop assistant. But there other ways of making money, all of them quicker, easier, and far more rewarding! Instant gratification is the order of the day, and the characters, especially Babe, live for the moment, moving from one experience to another, without any thought for the future or regret for the past.

constant sinner
One of the nice things about green-spined Viragos is that they include less literary titles alongside acknowledged classics

Babe hooks up with the Bearcat, a prize-winning boxer who has the makings of a champion. She also attracts the obsessive attention of Wayne Baldwin, son of a chain store owner. And let’s not forget Money Johnson, a mobster with a flamboyant lifestyle. As long as they have money and are willing to spend it on Babe she can’t keep away from any of them: she shuffles her men like a pack of playing cards. But they’re not enthusiastic about sharing her favours, and tragedy is inevitable…

Set on the mean streets of Harlem, featuring murder, drugs, drink, and prostitution, it could be a grim read, but this is Mae West and it’s a racy story told in a racy way, packed with the wise-cracking, witty quips you would expect from this legendary star. She portrays the glamour and excitement of rackety lives played out on the wrong side of the law and makes it seem almost like fun – but it’s not something you’d ever want to experience for yourself, and were you to meet any of these characters you wouldn’t trust them as far as you could throw them.

Racism and poverty are barely touched on and black and white live, work and party together, but there are moments when West gives a clear picture of the social mores of her day, and the hypocrisy of the wealthy middle and upper classes, such as when Wayne’s horrified family are told his young mistress is a common street-walker whose former lover was a black man who is now in jail. In fact, Wayne’s desire for Babe is fuelled by her association with Money Johnson – while the black mobster flaunts the white woman as a symbol of his power and wealth.

mae-west 3 (2)
In one scene in the book Wayne visits a nightclub and sees Babe ‘enveloped’ ermine. I know the furs her creator  is wearing in this picture are not ermine, but I think the effect must be pretty nuch the same.

In some ways the book, first published in America as Babe Gordon in 1930 (it changed its name the following year), is very much of its time – these days you wouldn’t be able to use the word nigger, or reproduce the speech of Harlem’s black residents the way Mae West does. But The Constant Sinner isn’t patronising, and her people are just people, irrespective of colour. Indeed, when the novel was published it must have been controversia, for not only does Babe  break the rigid moral code of the day, but one of her lovers is black – at a time when stringent segregation laws were enforced in many states, and inter-racial relationships were not acceptable, even in New York.

I bought the book partly out out of curiosity, and partly because it’s a Virago edition, and didn’t expect it to be all that good, which just shows how wrong you can be.  It romps along at the most tremendous pace and is great fun. I guess you’d have to call it pulp fiction, but it’s really not that bad: I’ve read far worse. West has a good ear for dialogue and creates great characters, even if they are one-dimensional, and our lusty heroine seizes life (and love) with zest and enthusiasm. As Babe hurtles from one situation to another it reminded me of those picaresque novels of the 18th century, built up from a series of loosely connected incidents, or a fast-paced Hollywood B movie.

The pace, and the light-hearted touch, are maintained until the very end, when the feel of the novel suddenly alters, like a piece of music changing from major to minor, and you realise that mo matter what happening now, there can be no happy-ever-after because Babe will never be happy with one man, in one place for very long.

PS: For those who’ve not heard of Mae West (1893-1980), she was a famous American vaudeville artist, comedienne and film star who sang, danced and acted. A busty, blonde sex symbol, she had a reputation as a bit of a bad girl – she was known for her bawdy double entendres and her many lovers, and was immortalised by WW2 fighter crews who named their life jackets after her! But there was more to her than that, because she also wrote plays, novels and film scripts, and in doing so fell foul of the censors – at one stage she was jailed for a short term for obscenity.

She insisted on creative control in all her films, and refused to sign contracts unless they contained a clause stating that the completed movie must, in every way, be to her satisfaction. Just think what an achievement that was when male actors had little or no control over the films they appeared in, and women had still less say, and even today stars would have trouble getting that kind of agreement.

Famous lines attributed to her include ‘Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’ and ‘It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men’. 

Advertisements
Posted in 20thC, Novels

Tea, Books And The Forsytes!

tea-or-books-logo

Yay! The latest Tea Or Books podcast, hosted by Simon T at Stuck In A Book and Rachel from Book Snob, is out and it’s a real goodie, considering the virtues of novels which take place during the course of just one day against the attractions of sagas where the stories unfold over many years. And in the second half of the episode the duo discuss a couple of chunksters – The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, both of which I’ve read.

This last charts the history of three generations of the Cazalet family, from 1937 through to the post-war period but the timescale seems longer, as there are multiple viewpoints, and past events are disclosed. I bought the books (All Change, Casting Off, The Light Years, Confusion and Marking Time) because I enjoyed the Radio 4 dramatisations, but I was disappointed. I’ve never really been a huge fan of Howard’s writing and, unlike Simon and Rachel, I couldn’t get along with the Cazalets at all. I couldn’t engage with the characters in any way but I kept reading in the forlorn hope that thing would get better (they didn’t). I even had trouble differentiating between the various people and had to keep flicking back to check who was who and how they connected with each other and, quite frankly, I couldn’t have cared less what happened to them, and when I turned the final page of the last volume I was so relieved to see the back of the family that I immediately carted them off to Oxfam!

But The Forsyte Saga is another matter altogether. I LOVE this but, again, my view is the reverse of Rachel and Simon – perhaps it’s an age thing! Anyway, it feels like serendipity is at work here, because I’ve been re-reading Galsworthy’s epic, on and off, for some months. I picked up my mother’s copy during one of my visits, then downloaded a version to the Kindle so I could read it on the train, and dug out some of my old Penguin editions of the individual novels. I haven’t finished the last three books in the saga (where the focus shifts from the Forsytes), but it seems an opportune moment to try and record some thoughts.

I’ve always been aware that Galsworthy is very critical of the upper middle classes, but having read Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, with its emphasis on the clash between bourgeois respectability and bohemian creativity, I’m struck by the fact that he uses similar themes (though he’s more good humoured). He mocks them with wry self-amusement, acknowledging that he too is a member of the great Galsworthy clan, while exposing their absurdity. But the saga (comprising nine novels and four short stories) is also about relationships, highlighting sexual attraction and love and it touches on subjects like marital rape which are just as controversial more than 100 years later, as well as highlighting the importance of equality within relationships.

Nyree Dawn Prter
Nyree Dawn Porter as Irene in BBC television’s 1967 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga. She looked the part and really captured the spirit of Irene. I still think it was a brilliant production.

The Man of Property, the first book in the saga opens in 1886 as three generations of the wealthy family gather to celebrate the engagement between June (granddaughter of Old Jolyon) and penniless architect Philip Bosinney. Central to the novel (and, indeed, to the first two sections of the saga) is the doomed relationship between Soames Forsyte (June’s uncle) and his beautiful wife Irene, who cannot return his feelings – but she falls passionately in love with Bosinney, and he with her. They plan to elope, Soames rapes her (this is implicit rather than explicit) and Bosinney is killed falling in front of a tram.

I love the tongue in cheek way Galsworthy pokes fun at middle class values and people. And there are some wonderful characters here, especially among the older generation, particularly Old Jolyon, who is a hard-headed businessman, but is also kind, warm-hearted, generous, and tolerant.  His son Young Jolyon (June’s father) is estranged from the family after ‘making a mess of things’ by running away with the governess and fathering two more children. He’s interesting because he has a foot in both camps as it were – he is an artist, a bit of a rebel, an outsider who condemns the Forsytes for their love of possessions whilst retaining some of their characteristics.

And, of course, there is Irene, with her golden hair, dark eyes and perfect figure. She’s a skilled musician (she plays the piano) and is obviously well educated and cultured – an artistic woman, who enjoys beautiful things because they are beautiful and give pleasure, not because they have monetary worth. And she hates Soames with every fibre of her being. Yet she marries him, knowing she doesn’t love him. She even persuades him to agree that if the marriage doesn’t work he will let her go – a promise he later denies. You might wonder why she marries him, but you have to look at it in the context of the times. She is very young, she has no money, her father is dead, and her stepmother is about to marry again, and doesn’t want Irene in her life. So, after refusing him on previous occasions, she yields to Soames and escapes her home life. What else can she do, and where else would she go?

Once married she obviously feels trapped, like a wounded bird in a cage. She’s very passive, and remains an enigma – you never really feel you know her. But in his preface Galsworthy tries to explain:

‘The figure of Irene, never, as the reader may possibly have observed, present, except through the senses of other characters, is a concretion of disturbing Beauty impinging on a possessive world.’

Eric Porter Soames
Eric Porter as Soames in the 1967 BBC television production. 

It is Soames, the ‘man of property’ himself who dominates. A tragically flawed character who can only see the world in terms of financial value, he views his wife as one of his possessions. When I was younger I had no sympathy with Soames and thought him a villain, but it’s not as simple as that, and the older I get the more I pity him, although I certainly don’t condone his behaviour. He is an unlovable man, and if you read on through the saga you will find he has no better luck with his second wife than he does with Irene.

However, he cannot understand why she hates him so much.

The profound, subdued aversion which he felt in his wife was a mystery to him, and a source of the most terrible irritation. That she had made a mistake, and did not love him, and had tried to love him and could not love him, was obviously no reason.’

As he keeps saying, he does nothing wrong. He’s not bad looking, he’s decent, honest, upright, and has plenty of money. He puts her feelings down to nerves and emotion puts her hatred down to nerves and emotion. But in an odd sort of way I think he really does love her – he’s possessed by her beauty, by the idea of her (and the need to have a son), but she’s only thing in his life that he can’t fully possess or control.

The house he employs Bosinney to build for him becomes a symbol of the different outlooks. To Bossiney it’s about artistic freedom, creating something that’s the best of its kind, irrespective of cost: to Soames its worth is purely financial.

Reading through this it’s a bit bitty and lacks cohesion – it’s one of those posts that seems to have changed direction along the way, but it’s impossible to write about the entire saga, and equally difficult to stick to one book, because your view is affected by the whole.

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

The Constant Nymph

constant nymph

I’m not quite sure what to make of The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy, and I’m not even sure I like it – but despite my reservations I sat up until 3 am to finish it, so it can’t be all that bad! It is, I think, a difficult book for modern readers. For a start there’s the vexing question of the relationship between a 14-year-old girl and an older man, not sexual, but disturbing nonetheless. Equally unsettling is the casual anti-Semiticism, which was surprisingly widespread when this novel was published in 1924. And the racism extends to a more general xenophobia, where foreigners are viewed with great suspicion by all true Englishmen – and Englishmen who consort with these strangers are the subject of even greater distrust. Additionally, there’s a pervasive ‘classism’ which I find very distasteful; for example, working class characters and peasants are regarded as stupid and hardly human, and are treated accordingly. To be honest, I feel a little mean highlighting class and race issues because they are not themes within the book – this is just the way people are, part of everyday life, and no-one questions it.

The story itself gets a little convoluted. Albert Sanger is a brilliant, tempestuous, avant garde musician living out the final years of his life in the Austrian Alps, with his mistress, a collection of children by various mothers, and a motley crew of  hangers-on. The children are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ because of their:

“…wandering existence, their vulgarity, their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did. Their father had given them a good, sound musical training and nothing else. They had received no sort of regular education, but, in the course of their travels, had picked up a good deal of mental furniture and could abuse each other most profanely in the argot of four languages.”

The description seems more than a little unfair on Caryl and Kate, the children of Sanger’s first wife (who died) as they are by far the

Margaret_Moore_Kennedy_(1896-1967)
Author Margaret Kennedy.

most sensible members of the household, doing their best to keep things running smoothly and care for everyone else. Antonia, Teresa, Paulina and Sebastian are the offspring of Evelyn, his second wife (also dead), while Susan is the daughter of his current mistress, the stunningly beautiful but enormously fat Linda, who spends all her time in bed or in a hammock.

When Sanger dies unexpectedly, the children are left penniless, but the family of Evelyn, Sanger’s second wife, step in to help, and Cousin Florence is dispatched to bring the four orphans to England so they can be sent to school. Florence is beautiful, wealthy, well educated, and well dressed. Gentle, polite and sensible, she’s a devoted daughter – she’s looked after her father since her mother died. However, there are hints that Florence is not quite the paragon of virtue she appears to be, and her father’s reflections on her behaviour do not bode well for the future:

“From infancy she had always done exactly what she pleased with a persistance which belied the sweet placability of her manner. In the face of criticism or protest she exhibited none of Evelyn’s flaming defiance, only a pleasant disregard which had always vanquished him. Sometimes, viewing her unswerving pursuit of a chosen course, he was compelled to liken her to something slow, crushing, irresistible – a steam-roller.”

Florence, at almost 28,  is on the verge of becoming an old maid but she falls in love with composer Lewis Dodds, a friend of the Sangers. The couple marry, and back home in England Florence packs the children off to boarding schools (with the exception of Antonia, who marries another family friend, Jacob Birnbaum, a wealthy Jew, who has seduced her, on the grounds that if he doesn’t someone else will). Florence determines to to establish a kind of musical salon, using her connections to further Lewis’s career. But Lewis doesn’t want his career furthered. And, having opted out of polite society, he has no intention of rejoining it. A battle of wills develops, and to make matters worse the children run away from their schools, and the schools refuse to take them back…

the delphic oracle michaelangelo
At one point in the novel Tessa is described as looking like Michelangelo’s  Delphic Sibyl.

In fact, the marriage is doomed to failure, as everyone except Florence realises, for not only are their values and outlook on life very different, but Lewis is in love with Teresa, and Teresa (or Tessa as she is generally known), is in love with him, although she is only 14. As I said earlier, there’s no sexual element – their relationship is a a kind of pure meeting of minds. They are soul mates, destined to be together (think Cathy and Heathcliff rather than a conventional love story).

When the two are together even Charles, Florence’s father (and one of the nicest characters in the book) can see that Tessa and Lewis are a perfectly well-matched couple with the kind of rapport that Florence and Lewis can never achieve. Considering the situation he tells us:

“Teresa was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and, if he annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood. How could they have failed to see it? Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Teresa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”

 

It’s a clash of worlds as much as a clash of personalities: natural versus artifice; conformity versus rebellion; order versus disorder; outsiders versus those who belong… Lewis, Tessa, Tony, Lina and Sebastian are wild, anarchic, passionate creatures who know no rules and trail chaos in their wake. Set against them is the conventional, well ordered society created by Florence and her friends, where appearance is everything, and talking about feelings is more important than the feelings themselves. The difference is shown in their approach to music: for Lewis and the Sangers music is part of the air they they breathe or the food they eat, and is every bit as necessary, but for Florence it is something to be taken up and enjoyed on special occasions, like a best dress. And there’s a poignant moment when Lewis recalls a magical moment in his childhood, when he heard a bird’s wings, and the response of the two women is very different, for while Tessa can feel the beat of the wings, Florence can only ask about the location.

It’s difficult to like the characters. On the whole they are not kind people – they are insensitive, thoughtless, and cruel to each other and to other people, and they are contemptuous about anyone they regard as less clever, or of a lower social order. But they drag you into their story whether you will or not, and although I didn’t enjoy this as much Troy Chimneys, there’s a lot to enjoy and admire, and Kennedy can be wonderfully satiric about people and situations.

I read this a while ago, but posted it today so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day, which takes place today, and is being hosted by Jane, at Beyond Eden Rock. 

Margaret Kennedy Day

Posted in 20thC, Novels

Is This Heroine Unlikable?

It pays to be good

It takes courage to write a novel with an unlikable heroine – but that’s exactly what Noel Streatfeild set out to do in It Pays To Be Good. “A tendency in my other efforts to make everybody lovable, has caused me, for the good of my soul, to produce Virginia,” she wrote to her friend Selene Moxon in 1935. “Obviously you are not meant to take her seriously; she is presented only to dislike and to entertain. She is also the answer to kind requests for a happy ending, I hope she amuses you.” Intriguing, I thought. However will she manage that?

Virginia, born Flora Elk, is known as Floss or Flossie to her parents, neighbours and school-mates (not friends – she’s not the sort of girl who has friends, especially not female ones). Flossie has two claims to fame. Firstly, it’s a miracle that she was born at all, and secondly, she is extraordinarily beautiful, with moonlight-silver curls and guileless blue eyes, which fill with tears when she doesn’t get her own way.

Her beauty is all the more startling because her parents, George and Fanny are so very plain. George a hard-working greengrocer, spends his spare time on the allotment, and has few aspirations in life, for himself or his family.  He wants his daughter to be a nice, sensible girl who will make a good wife for some man. And, as a stalwart member of the mission church, he fears beauty is a lure of Satan. But his wife, a remarkably silly woman, takes a different view.

Mrs Elk read serials in the papers, and knew the astounding power wielded by the beautiful. The possession of beauty might not make for goodness and sensibleness, in the sense that Mr Elk and the minister meant, but it did make for a life which was very much more exciting than that led by Fanny Elk in the Fordham Road.

“If you ’ave the looks, you use ’em, my girl,” she tells Flossie. And that’s just what Flossie does, encouraged by her doting mother, who doesn’t have much joy or beauty in her life, and is a martyr to her ‘inside’ which has been ‘all of a drop’ since Flossie was born. As a small child Flossie soon realises she can use her beauty to get what she wants – toys, sweets, choice titbits of food, nice clothes. But she gives nothing in return, she doesn’t cook, clean, sew or help out in the shop for ‘it seemed to Flossie insulting that she, so lovely and so wonderful, should be asked to do menial things’.

fossil-247x300
This is a picture of Posy Fossil, drawn by Noel Streatfeild’s sister Ruth Gervis for Ballet Shoes, but I think Flossie must have looked a little like this in her little red coat and cap.

When George marches off to war in 1914, Fanny enrols her daughter at the Madam Elise School of Dancing.  George, of course, knows nothing of all this, and when he returns he is horrified: no daughter of his is going to dance on the stage. But he is no match for Flossie’s wiles.

ballet shoes (2)
Another of Gervis’ illustrations for Ballet Shoes, showing the young dancers in their practice rompers and ankle-strap shoes (for character work). Streatfeild mentions Flossie wearing an outfit like this, and says she was proud of her romper.

Fast forward to the moment when Flossie is offered a leading role in a musical, purely on the strength of her looks. She can sing enough, and dance enough, but her accent is dreadful, and she can’t dress. Enter ‘Mouse’ (real name Margaret Shane), a beautiful, stylish, one-time actress, who is the ‘friend’ of an English aristocrat and knows everyone in the theatrical world and in society. She is persuaded to take Flossie under her wing and teach her how to speak, how to behave and how to dress. A band of professionals gather to help groom the future star, all with their own exotic back stories – and they create a new identity for her. Flossie becomes Virginia, a beautiful girl left in a convent who is, so the whisper goes, the daughter of mysterious foreign royalty…

She is, of course, a huge success with the general public, and attracts droves of adoring male followers who lavish money and expensive gifts on her. True to form, she gives nothing in return, and her heart – and virtue – remain intact. And she cuts her ties with the past and drops her parents without a qualm, just as poor George always knew she would. However, Mouse appreciates goodness and honesty and forms an unexpected friendship with the couple. There’s a kind of sub-plot going on with Mouse, her lover Jim (Lord Menton) and his wife Jasmine who, surprisingly, is friendly with Mouse. And there’s a host of other colourful characters, including Jim’s penniless nephew Derwent, who is in love with Virginia (as we must now call her); Mrs Hodge, a ‘sack of a woman held tightly in the middle by her apron strings’ who ‘does’ for Mouse, and newspaper magnate Ossie Bone, who has clawed his way out of the Liverpool slums.

Things get a little complicated, and I don’t want to give all the plot away (if I did that you’d never read the book), but Jim dies when a publicity stunt dreamed up by Virginia goes wrong, and Derwent (who’s pretty dozy really) inherits all the money, so you can probably guess the outcome.

Noel_streatfeild
Author Noel Streatfeild was an actress during the 1920s.

The book is never going to be classed as a literary classic: there’s not a lot of depth to it, while settings and characters are a little stagey perhaps, but nevertheless the people are very engaging and it’s a hugely enjoyable read. It’s very light-hearted and humorous, although there are sad moments amid the laughter, and serious issues about relationships, identity and the nature of celebrity, though these are never overtly spelled out.  Until fairly recently I hadn’t realised Streatfeild wrote novels for adults (I still have Ballet Shoes, White Boots and The Painted Garden on my bookshelves). Some of the themes, settings and characters are very similar to those in the children’s books with their rags to riches fairy tale approach, but Streatfeild, who was an actress for 10 years or so, obviously knew about the theatrical world and its larger-than-life inhabitants.

So, I hear you ask, did I like Flossie/Virginia? Well, she certainly amused and entertained me, and I couldn’t take her too seriously, because she’s really a little ludicrous, and that made me laugh, and you can’t dislike someone who makes you laugh.  She’s a heartless, selfish, self-centred, manipulative monster, who treats people abominably (especially her parents). But I found it hard not to like her a little, and at times I almost pitied her – she’s like a greedy, grasping, over-indulged child who’s never quite grown up (Supernanny would have stuck her in the naughty corner and sorted out her problems in five minutes flat). And you have to admire her self-belief, her confidence, her focus, and her shrewdness. She’s certainly more likable (and much more capable) than Angel, in Elizabeth Taylor’s novel of the same name, who is the only comparable literary heroine I can think of – the defining characteristic of both Angel and Flossy/Virginia is an overwhelming belief in themselves. They are both totally self-obsessed.

Mouse recognises this and tells Jasmine that Flossie’s purpose is to see that she is treated as befits her perfection: “If you or I were half as sure of anything as she is, that her beauty and brilliance give her divine right to the best of everything, we’d be much happier. And believe me, she doesn’t pretend, that’s how she really feels, and she’s quite incapable of believing that other people don’t feel the same way about her.”

I think it’s that character flaw, the inability to understand how others feel about her, and her belief that she deserves the best of everything, that somehow makes her seem more human, and makes it hard to dislike her – basically, the girl can’t help herself.

My copy of It Pays To Be Good came from Greyladies Books, who publish ‘Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’, which sounds delightful. There are four categories: vintage crime; adult books by children’s authors; girls’ school stories written for adults, and Scottish country gentlewomen (the company is based in Scotland).

They deserve a mention because the book arrived very promptly (but I left it sitting on the TBR pile for ages and ages) and is beautifully produced, with easy-to-read print, good quality smooth paper, and a lovely cover. And I think we should support small, independent  publishers, especially when they are reprinting forgotten books.

Posted in Miscellaneous

Bookish Cures for Election Fever

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scan

This week saw the ‘snap’ General Election take place here in the UK, with feelings on both sides of the political divide running high before, during and after the event. Personally I love elections – once upon a time I  could cover a count, spend the rest of the night watching the results roll in on TV,  get the Darling Daughters off to school nextmorning, and be at my desk by 9am to write a front page lead for the mid-week edition, and a detailed report for the main paper. Alas, those days are long gone, and keeping track of what’s happening leaves me emotionally and physically drained, this time around more so than ever, but it was incredibly exciting, with twists and turns worthy of a thriller plot, and a very unexpected ending.

The who;e thing was so intense that even I felt the need for something quiet and soothing, so I was delighted to find some antidotes to election fever recommended by the Book Foxes over at Vulpes Libris (a ‘collective of bibliophiles talking about books’ which is one of my favourite book blogs).

Yesterday’s calming, peaceful choice was a quirky look at postcards from Book Fox Hilary, who prefers old-fashioned picture postcards (sent and received) to mobile phone photos, and is convinced they will make us all feel more peaceful. She recommends a wonderful Twitter site, PostcardFromThe Past, with images of old postcards and snippets from their messages. Unlike her, I don’t think the page would lure me away from elections, but it is very, very addictive, especially if you find a place you recgnise! And, apparently, its daily postcards have been compiled into a book, Postcarda from the Past, Collected by Tom Jackson, which sounds fascinating, as does Boring Postcards, collected and arranged by Martin Parr RA, which she also mentions.

Anyway, Hilary’s post sent me scurrying off to look through my box of old post cards, acquired from various sources. I particularly like this one of Windsor Castle and the River Thames, bought for a few pence in a junk shop because we used to have picnics along there when I was a child! It’s postmarked July 14, 1969, and the stamp was fourpence in old penny.

Windsor (2)
The message on the back reveals that the weather was ‘terrific’ and the writer enjoyed a trip on the river – something we never did because Mum and I always got travel sick!

It’s probably a nostalgia thing, but I like old postcards and their faded, forgotten messages – I can spend hours rootling around in boxes of postcards in second-hand shops, dreaming up tales about the writers and their recipients, and looking at pictures of a world which seems quieter and less busy. And there are all those lovely old stamps, which is an added bonus.So I’m inclined to agree with Hilary when she says: “To soothe the soul in times when the world seems to be going crazy, I recommend postcards – tiny vignettes of beauty, or humour, or memory (one’s own or someone else’s). These collections of postcards work a little magic.”

Here’s another of my postcards, found in an old book, showing the Statue of the Memorial Well at Chawnpore, in India, but sent from Lucknow, by an unknown author who only signs his/her initials – I.P. I think, or I.D. but they are a little difficult to decipher. I assume the sender was a soldier or civil servant, serving or working in India. He likes being out there ‘all right’ but finds it very hot. And who was Miss A Walker (who had sent him a ‘nice’ photo)? Was she his sweetheart, sending a picture of herself? A maiden aunt or some other relative? The schoolmistress?

Lucknow 1 (2) - Copy
A glimpse of India in the past.

And here’s the back, showing the message from IP and the ‘India Postage’ stamp priced at one anna.

Lucknow 2 (2)
I’ve been trying to date the postcard from the stamp, which I’m hoping shows Edward VII, though it’s not very clear with the postmark over it. At any rate, this definitely dates from the days of the empire.

Oh dear, I got side-tracked there, so back to Libris Vulpes, and Wednesday’s post, which provided something quite different, when Colin wrote about Eve Garnett’s The Family From One End Street, one of my own childhood favourites – but not necessarily a book I would have chosen for its calming qualities. However, it does provide a kind of oasis of peace in a world gone mad, giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life, with simple pleasures and old fashioned values, untouched by the troubles of the outside world, so I can see why someone might select this.

Pooh Bear 2
Pooh and Piglet keeping you calm in AA Milne’s original stories and Benjamin Hoft’s explanation of Taoism, The Tao of Pooh.

But it would be hard to argue with Monday’s offering, The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, chosen by Jackie. I’ve always thought this explanation of Taoism is every bit as delightful as Milne’s original Pooh stories, and I defy anyone to read it without smiling. Whenever I read it I can always feel the stress draining away, word by word.

Actually, my favourite anti-stress read is a poem – The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by WB Yeats, which never fails to induce calm and tranquility, and conjures memories of deserted Irish beaches and the heather-covered hills where my grandparents lived  However, when it comes to fiction Pooh is definitely one of my favourite ‘Keep Calm’ reads, closely followed by Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and almost any of Jane Austen’s novels – I’ll plump for Pride and Prejudice I think. And what about writing inspired by the author’s childhood, like Lark Rise to Candleford (Flora Thompson), Laurie Lee’s classic Cider With Rosie, or Dylan Thomas’ enchanting A Child’s Christmas in Wales?

novel cure
The Novel Cure: You’ll find lots of ideas for calming reads here.

At this point I trawled through the index of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, which doesn’t mention election fever, but does prescribe the ‘elegant prose’ of Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady as a ‘balm’ for anxiety. I have to admit it’s a long time since I’ve read any Henry James, and I’m not sure his work would make you feel calm or peaceful, but I might give this a go.

The authors’ idea for combating stress sounds more like what we’re looking for. I haven’t read The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, but they make it sound so delightful I may buy it. It is, apparently, a slender novel about a French shepherd who decides the world needs more trees, and it is ‘ impossible not to feel peaceful in his company’.

It’s hard to say what makes a successful ‘calming read’, but looking at the Book Foxes’ suggestions, and thinking of my own choices, I think it’s interesting that there seems to be a preference for children’s books. Nostalgia and familiarity also appear to play a part, and we obviously need something happy, with simple story lines, where the real world has no real impact, and where we now all will end well – comfort reading I guess. Does anyone else have any thoughts on the matter?

*You can read the full text of the Book Foxes’ calming reads on their website, Vulpes Libris.

Posted in Miscellaneous, Novels

Tea or Books

tea-or-books-logo

If you’ve not yet discovered the Tea or Books podcast hosted by the lovely Simon (from Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (from Book Snob), then pop over and listen to their latest offering, which is all about novels based on real events and real people. They’ve been looking specifically at A Pin To See The Peepshow, by F Tennyson Jesse, and EM Delafield’s The Messalina of the Suburbs, which are both based on a notorious murder case. Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters  were hanged in 1923, for the murder of her husband Percy the previous year, although it seems Edith took no part in the killing.

I gather the two authors treat the story and its characters very differently, and I’m intrigued to find out more, especially as the case itself is so well documented, which could inhibit any efforts to turn it into fiction. Anyway, I’ve downloaded the Delafield book to the Kindle, and have pulled Peepshow from the Virago bookcase and started reading, but I haven’t finished yet (the problem with reading several books at once is that it takes a long time to complete anything, so I’ll report back on this one later). Margaret Atwood tried something similar in Alias Grace, a fictional account of a double murder in 1843: I didn’t think this was as good as most of her other work, but it might be interesting to re-read it alongside these two.

It set me considering other novels based on real life – although not necessarily on crimes. To start with, I thought it must be quite difficult to write about real situations and people, because you while you can interpret things in your own way, you can’t alter known facts, and your portrayal of someone might vary from the generally accepted view. But many novelists mine their own lives or their family histories – think of Jeanette Winterson  with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, or Antonia White with Frost in May and its ‘sequels’. Or does the fact that these books grew out of personal memories rather than public knowledge set them apart from books turning real life into fiction?

And what about historic fiction? If that’s not based (however loosely in some cases) on people who actually existed, and events that really did take place, I don’t know what is. For example, there’s Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where we know exactly what happens, yet she keeps us on the edge of our seats, watching the machinations of the Tudor court, unable to warn the participants of the fate that awaits them. And Beryl Bainbridge also used real people as inspiration – you wouldn’t think there is much left unsaid about Dr Samuel Johnson, but in According to Queeney she revealed a lonely, vulnerable man, while still acknowledging his irascible temper  and  uncouth ways. .

All in all, I’m inclined to think that an awful lot of fiction is a retelling of real events, altered, presented from a different perspective perhaps, and related by narrators who are not always reliable.

Simon and Rachel covered a lot of ground in their discussion about books based on real life (though I don’t think they mentioned any of the ones I thought of). Books they highlighted included Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, and Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, as well as Gyles Brandreth’s The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries and Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s controversial play about Mozart. Does anyone else have any ideas about fictionalised books based on real life and real people?

PS: I spent an enjoyable few hours catching up on some of the older podcasts I missed during my absence from blogging, and ended up adding things to the Wish List, though I ought to concentrate on the existing TBR pile.

PPS:If you’re signed up to iTunes, you can find Tea or Books on their iTunes page.

Posted in Miscellaneous, Non-fiction

The White Road

dscn7383-3
This is China Clay, pictured in a display at Plymouth Museum. The chunk on the left shows the clay in its natural state (it’s basically granite that rots down, and some crystals from the rock are still there. The piece on the right is what it looks like when its been cleaned and purified.

“Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”

Here is a piece about The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, by Edmund de Waal, which was panned by most professional reviewers, and I can’t understand why, because I absolutely loved it. I heard it first when Radio 4 abridged it for a Book of the Week (I am, as you may have noticed, a huge fan of BBC Radio 4). It took me a long time to acquire the book, even longer to get round to reading it, and longer still to write about it – but here, finally, are my thoughts (after a second reading).

De Waal, an acclaimed ceramicist, intended to spend a year tracing the history of porcelain, and visiting the three ‘white hills’ which became central to porcelain manufacture in China, Germany and England. His quest took him longer and further (in distance and time) than ever he dreamed and is unquestionably a pilgrimage, for not only does he seek the ‘sacred’ places of the porcelain industry, but he also searches for enlightenment. As he travels he reflects on his own life and work, and his journey becomes a kind of meditation, a paean to porcelain, clay and life itself. It’s a lovely meandering sort of book that wanders from topic to topic and place to place, embracing history, science, politics, art, culture, kings, paupers and alchemists. Especially alchemists.

327a2047_l
Cermacist Edmund de Waal. (Pic from his website)

I had no idea that porcelain is not the same as other china, or that making it is a kind of alchemy, where one type of material is mixed with another and they are magically transformed into something completely different. Porcelain, it transpires, is not just white clay. It’s a special sort of white clay (kaolin), mixed with a special sort of stone (petunse), in exactly the right proportions, and fired at exactly the right temperature (an incredible 1,300 degrees Celsius), so it fuses together to become beautifully transparent and luminous, like a kind of glass.

dscn7396-2
China clay can be moulded, painted, decorated and glazed. These pieces, on display at Plymouth museum, are from the Plymouth Porcelain Factory – the first place in England to make ‘hard paste’ porcelain.

Nor did I know that Europeans spent much of the 17th and 18th centuries obsessively seeking a formula so they too could make this mysterious china, which was imported – at great expense – from the East, and was available only to the fabulously wealthy. The process of making it (like the production of paper, gunpowder and silk), was invented by the Chinese, who kept their manufacturing method a closely guarded secret. And from the earliest days the history of porcelain, the most delicate and beautiful of china, has been marked by the blood, sweat, tears – and even deaths – of the men who laboured to make it.

The tales of those men, and of those who collected porcelain, are gripping, and de Waal’s journey is fascinating. His search for the origins of his craft took him all over the world, to palaces and prisons, cities and slums, museums and mines. He admits he is obsessive, but his love of porcelain, and the raw materials needed to create it, are infectious, and his accounts of the process of making, and his own responses, are intriguing. And he has the ability to clothe the bare bones of history, bringing the past to life in a way that makes you feel yes, this is the way it must have been.

He has amassed a staggering amount of information – in places it is so dense I felt a little judicious pruning might have helped. And despite his efforts to organise his data and thoughts into themed sections he’s a bit of a butterfly, darting here, there and everywhere, flitting from one thing to another, but I don’t mind that, and I adore his taste for the quirky and offbeat. He writes beautiful, lyrical prose, and his book is a very personal response to a very individual quest.

His account of visiting China and the Kao-ling mountain, in Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi Province, is spellbinding. This the place where it all began 1,000 years ago. Here, by an accident of nature, kaolin clay and petunse are found more or less side by side, and the ground is littered with discards from the past – centuries-old broken shards and misshapen pots.

“… on and up is a hillside of shards, a tumbling landscape of brokenness, a landscape of all the ways that pots van go wrong. It is not a spoil heap, careless but discrete. It is a whole landscape of porcelain.”

It all seems very exotic, like something from a fairy tale, and I find myself wondering who first combined kaolin and petunse, and why they wanted to… what led them to try that particular technique? Did people realise just how important it was? De Waal sees how these two different materials are extracted, cleaned and refined, and I’m surprised at how dirty and noisy the processes are.

I’m also surprised that Mao Tse Tung was presented with an Imperial Tea Set made in Jingdezhen. The finest, purest clay was transformed into teacups, saucers, teapots, coffeepots, sugar bowls, wine ewers, wine cups, cake plates and cake stands, all in white, painted with candy pink sprays of peach blossom. It sounds an unlikely gift for the Communist revolutionary who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Even more astonishingly, the clay seam was sealed, just as it had been for the generations of emperors who preceded him, to prevent common people using any leftovers!

In France de Waal considers a porcelain pavilion constructed by Louis XIV so he and  Madam de Montespan could enjoy intimate trysts. This apparently, was not created from Chinese style hard porcelain, but from ‘soft paste’, which makes me think of cake icing and modelling dough, and somehow sounds most unsafe.

And in Germany I get lost. All the people, places and science made my head spin – there was just too much information. To cut a long story short, there’s mathematician Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who uses light, mirrors and lens to boil water, set fire to wood, and melt stone and metal, leading to an interest in porcelain. And there’s Johann Friedrich Bottger, an apothecary’s apprentice, who claims he can create gold from lead (this is 1701, and we are on the cusp between old and new, alchemy and science, superstition and knowledge). The duo end up working together and Bottger eventually produces porcelain.

c-william-cookworthy-by-john-opie-c-1780
William Cookworthy, possibly painted in 1780, the year he died, by John Opie.

Back in England there’s a tribute to William Cookworthy, who produced the country’s first ‘hard paste’ porcelain, similar to that made by the Chinese. Suddenly I know where we are: Plymouth, where my Elder Daughter lives. And I realise I have encountered Cookworthy and his work in the city’s museum, without registering the significance, so I squeeze in a return visit, just a couple of days before the museum is shut for a massive makeover.

 

I love Cookworthy. He’s one of those wonderful 18th century Englishmen who were filled with curiosity about the world around them, and were knowledgeable enough to keep detailed records of their findings, and he deserves to be much better known. A Quaker chemist, he lived and worked in Notte Street (where the Arribas Mexican restaurant stands – I cross the road there when I go to the Hoe or the Barbican). In the mid-1750s he discovered china clay and china stone (the English versions of kaolin and petunse) at Tregonning Hill, in Cornwall. Apparently, after speaking to bellfounders he noticed that the heat from their furnace fused some of the stones lining the mould, so he gathered specimens and spent years experimenting.

DSCN7386.JPG
Early pieces produced at the Plymouth Porcelain Factory are on show in the city’s main museum. But it’s hard to get a good photo, because there’s a lot of reflection from the glass. They were painted with English cobalt, which is darker than than the Chinese variety.

He was granted a patent and established The Plymouth Porcelain Factory at Coxside, bySutton Pool (the harbour). The first piece to come out of the kiln looks like a mug, but is actually a cider tankard. It was March 14, 1768 – the date is stamped on the bottom, along with the letters ‘CF’, for Cookworthy Fecit (Cooksworthy made me).

Towards the end of the book de Waal returns to Germany, to track down the haunting tale of the Allach factory where, during ww2, prisoners from Dachau were ordered to make high quality porcelain for the Nazis. Pieces made there include a Bambi, ‘liquid-eyed, spindly legs, head tilted’. Like de Waal, I am shocked that such beautiful porcelain, a symbol of innocence, should have been made in such harsh conditions, for those who upheld such a brutal, killing regime.

At the very end, trying to explain himself and answer the questions people ask, he says:

“I answer that white is a way of starting again. It is not about good taste, that making white pots was never about good taste, that making porcelain is a way of starting again, finding your way, a route and a detour to yourself. That I don’t get bored. That I make them myself.

And that no, I’m not writing. I have written. And I am making again.”

the-white-road
I have a Kindle, so I downloaded this from Amazon, because I always feel a book should have a cover.