Friday, 2 November 2012

New Home!

I have now moved house.

You can now find my blog at

All posts, comments and ratings have moved over. The benefit? There's more exciting functionality on WordPress. Yes. 

You might also want to read my most recent entry:


I recently applied for a job, and part of the application was that I had to write 500 words on a book that I have recently read. I chose Waterland by Graham Swift, and here's what I wrote. It definitely isn't the best 500 words I've ever written, and in retrospect I probably shouldn't have chosen it: it's a very dense novel and I don't think I did a great job of unpicking it. I was planning to write about Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, which I also finished recently, and had a lot to say about, but I gave my copy to a friend and prefer to write these things having taken at least a cursory look through first.

Nonetheless, here is what I wrote.

First published in 1983, Waterland holds the enviable position of being both remarkably ‘of its time’ and yet sufficiently fluent, evocative and wonderful that those of this current generation still read it. It is a beautiful book: equally tragic and humorous, knowing and repressed, its multiple cadences are perfectly pitched.

Waterland is set in the East Anglian Fens, and its watery prose matches the surroundings. It is a quintessentially English novel too, with repressed characters failing to deal with the grief left by the war. Family is a major theme of the novel: not too dissimilar in style to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Waterland is a family saga, history and tragedy in one, told with a gripping grace and urgency.

The novel begins with, and revolves around, young Tom Crick (a beautiful fairytale name). His mother has died, his father has come home, emotionally damaged by the war, and his older brother, Dick, ‘cannot read or white. He is not even good at putting together a sentence’. Tom, with his intelligence and charm, is the only member of the family able to communicate with those outside it. The family is submerged in a history it cannot escape, drowning not waving. Swift spends a good portion of the first half of the novel describing the family’s ancestors, who have always lived in this part of the world: location is an incredibly important element to the novel. The family trade of old was brewing: appropriate, then, for the Fens location, for the intoxicating richness of the prose, and bleakly satirised when a beer bottle is identified as a murder weapon. 

But, as we all must and do, Tom Crick ages. The timeframe of the novel shifts throughout between the young Tom, and, thirty years later, Tom as history teacher in a South London school, with a fragile wife. They cannot have children, which leads her to a drastic course of action: stealing an unattended baby from a supermarket. This action not only precipitates some of Tom’s anxieties on a personal level - forced retirement, marriage crises - but mirrors the larger themes of the novel. Reproduction: a wonderful chapter, both serious and eccentric, on the biology of eel reproduction provides a scintillating volta for the novel, and complements another of the novel’s major concerns, human sexuality.

The novel is unavoidably fatalistic: Swift’s question throughout is, essentially, how can we overcome our history? That’s a huge question, and while Swift may never actually answer it, he does skillfully distill it: the great crisis of ‘history’ is transformed, via the minutiae and tediums and dramas of Crick’s life, into a series of smaller, yet no less important, considerations. And this is why the book is so wonderful, and why Swift is so talented: it is impossible to read this book and come away less empathetic, less experienced or less curious about the world around us, and how that world came to be. 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Marilyn and James

Isn't this a beautiful image? I think it deserves a few more internet pixels, despite the millions of internet pixels already dedicated to it. I'm uploading it today, of all days, as I'm right now spending a happy afternoon in the British Library, working on a piece about this image, and Marilyn Monroe and James Joyce, and what sort of interesting things might be going on in this image, and why it's such an enduring image, and why people go on about it so much. Evidently, from the syntax of that sentence, I'm very much in the thinking and reading section of my project. But let it be known that this is something that I'm working on.

The photograph was taken by Eve Arnold. At the time, Marilyn was filming The Misfits. And here are a few words from Arnold about the image:

We worked on a beach on Long Island…I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it–but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her.

And here's what Jeanette Winterson thinks, and I'm inclined to agree:

This is so sexy, precisely because it’s Marilyn reading James Joyce’sUlysses. She doesn’t have to pose, we don’t even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration. There she is, the goddess, not needing to please her audience or her man, just living inside the book. The vulnerability is there, but also something we don’t often see in the blonde bombshell; a sense of belonging to herself. It’s not some playboy combination of brains and boobs that is so perfect about this picture; it is that reading is always a private act, is intimate, is lover’s talk, is a place of whispers and sighs, unregulated and usually unobserved. We are the voyeurs, it’s true, but what we’re spying on is not a moment of body, but a moment of mind. For once, we’re not being asked to look at Marilyn, we’re being given a chance to look inside her.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Sylvia Plath

I first became interested in Sylvia Plath while I was studying Ted Hughes during sixth form. A small group of us got together over the upper sixth autumn term, and took extra classes. The classes (and occasionally the fellow students) were pretty horrific, symptomatic as they were of a pushy, aggressive syllabus and school that didn’t really give two hoots for installing a love of poetry in us but instead just cared that we should be able to impress the dons and the deans at our upcoming university interviews. Our after school classes often felt like scenes from The History Boys - the endless stuffing us with tidbits of knowledge to impress the scholars on the most anodyne of levels. A bit like this:

Anyway, I digress. We were sat reading Ted Hughes one November evening. We looked at Birthday Letters. Birthday Letters is a collection that Hughes wrote about his relationship with Plath, from the first time he ever saw her photograph, to his feelings about her death. In his poem, ‘The Earthenware Head’, Ted accuses Sylvia:

‘You ransacked Thesaurus in your poem about it’

(The ‘your poem’ is Plath’s own poem, ‘The lady and the earthenware head’, to which this poem is Hughes’ response.)

This line jumped out at me immediately. First, the awkwardness of it. Secondly, and more importantly, it was one of the first lines of Great Poetry TM that ever really made sense to me. You know this idea that great literature is that which jumps off the page and into your mind, expressing already something so clear, so perfect, that no intellectual filtration is required? Well reading this line was one of the first times I ever felt that way. Sadly I still don’t have a huge amount of time for poetry - when done well, it is outstanding - yet it is so often done badly, to my mind. But I have plenty of time for Plath, because of her crystal clear expression, combined with - despite? - the sophisticated complexity of her thought. 

I also love the accusatory tone of the line. You, grafting your little poem, he seems to be saying. You’re not the effortless poet you’ve gone down in history as: you’re a human and you need help and reference books too, and you have to slog like the rest of us. But at the same time, it’s an admission of her wonderful writing and her ability to pick exactly the right words, clauses, phrases to make her meaning. ‘Make’ it - poetry doesn’t always spring from nowhere and arrive on the page in a perfect series of metaphors and rhymes - it is hard, hard work.

Sylvia, had she not killed herself aged 30, would have turned 80 this month (October 2012) - something I only learnt when reading Stylist’s feature on her. I have tried to find other mainstream UK publications that ran anything on Plath this month, but with no luck. Which is a sad thing, but cheers to Stylist for being a lone voice nonetheless. (I have commented before on these very pages about how much I like Stylists’s book pages...and here’s my evidence!)

I liked that, unlike many articles about Plath - indeed, unlike this one - the author waited until the second paragraph at least to talk about Hughes. Sure, you can still read Hughes without needing to read Plath, but I don’t think you can read Plath without knowing something, at least, of her relationship with Hughes. I’m sure most people are familiar with their story, but for those who aren’t: Brilliant Young Things meet at Cambridge - fall madly in love - write poetry to each other endlessly - get married - a few years go by - he starts an affair - she leaves and moves away - she moves back - she kills herself - he marries the woman he had an affair with - she later kills herself, too - he becomes public hate figure, a reputation that, to me, he has never really been able to shake off. (Here is a good piece on the death of his second wife.)

The article trots through Plath steroetypes rather in the style of my previous sentence, but one paragraph did especially catch my eye though:

In 2001, Professor James C Kaufman did indeed find a link – naming it the ‘Sylvia Plath effect’. He conducted a study of 1,629 writers, which revealed that poets and in particular, female poets, are more likely to exhibit symptoms of mental illness. In a second study of 520 high-profile American women, he again found that poets were more likely to have mental disorders than women of other professions such as journalists, politicians and actresses. “I think the same things that make people sensitive to problems in their life can also give people the kind of life insight that leads to being more creative,” says Professor Kaufman. “So the same factors that were ultimately personally harmful to Plath may have enriched her poetry.” For much of her life, Plath was able to balance depression and creativity, though there was clearly a connection between her periods of great productivity and her darkest hours.
It is very rare to find this sort of evidence-based research in women’s magazines, or literary papers. Although the research is very old, I’m glad to see it feature at all. And I think it adds a certain weight to what otherwise risks being a piece of quite flimsy journalism. Stereotypes around female poets - that they are mad, bad, angry wimmin - abound, and while I definitely disagree with that crude characterisation, it’s good at least to see that some people out there are willing to acknowledge in a non-sensationalist way the relationship between mental illness and creativity. It is the glamourisation of this link between mental illness and creativity that is crass. The cracks may be necessary to let the light in, but let's not pretend the cracks are craic.

The elevation of Plath as Crazy Woman Supreme really annoys me: I find it belittling. Her work is stronger than her subsequent sterotyping. And although I’m glad to Kaufman for having done the work he has, even just giving his findings the name ‘the Plath effect’ perpetuates the myth that Plath is The Be All And End All of mad female poets.  Which leads us to a situation like this one:

Person 1: Name a mad female poet.
person 2: Plath.
Person 1: Name a mad female poet
person 3: Oh, er, I’ve heard of Plath? I’ll say Plath. Yes, Plath.
person 1: Name a mad female poet

So the story perpetuates itself at the cost of learning more about the topic (Kaufman studied 520 ‘high-profile’ American women, and yet we can only and at the same time, belittles Plath’s story to generic narrative. 

(Yes, this is just a close-up of a section of the above image....but isn't it great?)

In 2001 the film Sylvia was released. Sylvia was played by Gwneth Paltrow, one of my favourite actressses, and Ted by Daniel Craig. Could a hotter couple grace our screens or our pages? I think not. I adore this film, but sadly my response is a minority one: the generally-quite-reliable Rotten tomatoes gives it just 37%, and it was slated by critics. I really do not know why. To me, the film is beautifully shot, and perfectly-paced. The opening scenes are among the films best, for their verve, brightness and charm, and they remind me of the very first poem in Birthday Letters, ‘Fulbright Scholars’. 

Fulbright Scholars
Where was it, in the Strand? A display
Of news items, in photographs.
For some reason I noticed it.
A picture of that year’s intake
Of Fulbright Scholars. Just arrivi
ng -
Or arrived.  Or some of them.
Were you among them?  I studied it.
Not too minutely, wondering
Which of them I might meet.
I remember that thought.  Not
Your face.  No doubt I scanned particularly
The girls.  Maybe I noticed you.
Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely.
Noted your long hair, loose waves -
Your Veronica Lake bang.  Not what it hid.
It would appear blond. And your grin.
Your exaggerated American
Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.
Then I forgot.  Yet I remember
The picture : the Fulbright Scholars.
With their luggage?  It seems unlikely.
Could they have come as a team? That’s as I remember.
From a stall near Charing Cross Station.
It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.
I could hardly believe how delicious.
At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh
By my ignorance of the simplest things.

There are so many things about this poem I love. I love his description of her smile - the most wonderful smile in literature, of that I have no doubt: the smile that launched a thousand agonies, too, sadly. This scene is a clever inversion of the traditional ‘boy meets girl’ formula - instead, it becomes ‘boy can anticipate only one thing for his future - the girl’: the line is the moment, but the sensation is the future, only the future. The moment, for all its profundity, slips away in recognition of the amazing future that is soon to begin. 

The peach image is beautiful: so refreshing and lively, that I can feel my lips sink into the fleshy fruit as I type this. And I love the final lines: ‘at 25 I was dumbfounded afresh by my ignorance of the simplest things’. I think of that line frequently - being a young, easily dumbfoundable sort of girl - but I think it’s a line that can resonate with anyone, at any age - as the best poetry does.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Booker Prize 2012

For those who aren't aware, today the winner of the 2012 Booker Prize will be announced.

The shortlist is as follows:

Hilary Mantel

Andrea Levy

Alison Moore

Will Self

Tan Twang Eng

Jeet Thayil

Happy Booker Day!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

On Handwriting

I spent Sunday morning curled up on a sofa in Brixton. It was a delightful morning, not least because my companion and I watched Sunday Kitchen on the telly. We watched as baffled hosts Tim and Simon were guided through this year's Turner Prize entries, which include these gems:

Infinite building blocks and Henry Moore-esque sculptures of giant faeces create a conversation between order and the absurd and the recurrence of abandoned, fenced spaces gives a sense of confinement and dissolution. The delicacy implied by the graphite pencil on paper and the magnitude of the works, however, is pleasing and provides friendly respite from the puzzling ambiguity of the project.
Text from here.

What made the morning more delightful still was Philip Hensher's wonderful piece on handwriting, in the Observer.  In this article, PH assesses the cultural and emotional significance of handwriting. He also includes some examples of famous people's writing. Can you guess who the writing below belongs to? [Answer at bottom of this entry.] 

The article is a wonderful, beautiful piece of writing, but sadly confirmed my suspicion that PH has a book coming out soon. Of course, it'll probably be a lovely book, if the article is anything to go by, but it's sad that so often content in national newspapers is just rehashed press releases/edited extracts from books. Sad. But a rant for another time.

I've long been interested in what handwriting can, supposedly, suggest about you: this became a particular interest of mine after studying Victorian fiction, and detective fiction especially, where handwriting is really important to the development of the plot, and the likelihood of finding the criminal. 

For many years I had large, swirly, childish handwriting. Then, at university, sitting in lectures for hours a week, it became smaller - I'm sure the speed at which you write affects size of the characters. Then I got an office job, and pretty much gave up handwriting. My handwriting is affected by how frequently I write (if I don't write for a few days, I do notice the initial messiness) and what materials I use. I write for more beautifully in a fountain pen. That might sound arrogant, but I have been complimented on it, and I think it's nice to read. I keep a diary and love to see how my writing changes depending on what pen I'm using, or whether I'm happy or sad, or rushed or relaxed. Seeing how handwriting changes over the years is also fascinating.

I don't really have anything to add to Hensher's piece: I thought it was just lovely. In particular, these final few paragraphs are brilliant.

ANSWER: Hitler. Apparently his writing style indicates his megalomaniacal psychopathy.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

National Poetry Day

Yippee, it is National Poetry Day again.

I'll use any excuse to post a poem by Auden, so here you go. Auden is my favourite poet, and this is easily one of my favourite poems of all time.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Brueghel, The Fall of Icarus