ABOUT BOOKS No.1.... 22nd February 2018
On a freezing winter afternoon, looking over the fields only gives the view of swirls of fog pushing into the garden, over the gate and into the apple tree.
Last year, I bought Vol.1. of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings 1913-1926 and have been reading his essay on a glimpse into the world of Children’s Books, which is extraordinarily interesting. In the middle of this essay there is an absolutely lovely nursery rhyme from an old German picture book, ‘Steckempferd und Puppe’ (Stick-Horse and Doll) by J.P. Wich.
This rhyme tells of all the things a little child sees in a town and, in particular, how the child sees a cat. The rhyme ends with the enchanted child thinking what a lovely little place the town is and, ‘I’ll make a note of that.’ There are many such lovely little places and, whenever I find myself in such a town, like the child in the story, I, too, ‘make a note of that.’
I do wonder who else but Walter Benjamin would introduce an essay on children’s books with this quotation “A soft green glow in the evening red.” by C.E.Heinle, but this is the thing about books and writers. They bring such joy and delight with them.
ABOUT BOOKS 2....March 2nd 2018
On a bitterly cold and snow laden day and looking for something cheerful, I searched my bookshelves for my ancient copy of The Penguin Book of English Verse, which cost 4/6d so many years ago. This book is so old, it's in pieces. Small children have, at some time or other, drawn rings and very tall stick figures on what is left of the back page. In the middle of the book, I found a drawing of a fire engine and a house. There is only a tattered front cover, the back cover has vanished, so the lovely book above is not the one I have!
But I was looking for two poems. One was Auden's 'Lay your sleeping head, my love,' and the other was Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress.' These poems have been such good companions for so many years that even when they present themselves on really old and brown edged paper that will tear in an instant without careful handling, they never fail to cheer. It's the exquisite telling that makes a celebration of life.
Here's the first verse of Auden's poem:
Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm; /Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children, and the grave / Proves the child ephemeral: / But in my arms till break of day / Let the living creature lie, / Mortal, guilty, but to me / The entirely beautiful.
And here's the first few lines of Marvell's poem:
Had we but world enough, and Time, / This coyness Lady were no crime. / We would sit down, and think which way / To walk and pass our long Loves Day. / Thou by the Indian Ganges side / Should'st Rubies find: I by the Tide / Of Humber would complain.....
Wystan Hugh Auden born 1906 died 1973and the Editor, John Hayward, has this poem written on lst September 1939.
Andrew Marvell born 1621 died 1667.
ABOUT BOOKS 3...MARCH 8th 2018
ROBERT BURNS POETRY
THE NORTHERN MUSE (An anthology of Scots vernacular Poetry)
I've had a very small red tartan covered book of Robert Burns poems for years and years, from the days when I was a very impressionable girl in love with poetry. Again, it is a bit battered because it's been handled and read so much. It is one of my most loved books but now I come to find it today, it's nowhere to be seen. It had one of my favourite poems in it, 'My love is like a red red rose,' but having said that, when I look it up in The Northern Muse, (which is edited by John Buchan who wrote The Thirty Nine Steps) I find the real poem begins, 'O, My luve is like a red, red rose,' which makes it somehow more heart-breakingly lovely.
Burns was born in 1759 and died in 1796. His father was an unsuccessful tenant farmer in Ayrshire and life was very hard for all the Burns family. I can understand Robert turning to poetry to offset some of the hardness of that life.
Here's the poem:
O, my luve is like a red, red rose, / That's newly sprung in June: / O, my luve is like the melodie / That's sweetly played in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, / so deep in luve am I: / And I will luve thee still, my dear, / Till a' the seas gang dry.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear, / And the rocks melt wi' the sun: / And I will luve thee still, my dear, / While the sands o' life shall run.
And fare thee weel, / my only luve, / And fare thee weel a while! / And I will come again, my love, / Tho' it were ten thousand mile!
My computer doesn't like the dialect in this poem and is underlining words with wiggly red lines as fast as it can. 'Weel,' is as you have guessed, 'well.'
I remember reading the line 'And the rocks melt wi' the sun:' in such absolute astonishment at this deep and beautiful image, that I felt somehow I had moved from one world to another. It affected me very much. It was like seeing Burns' soul written on the page.
It still has the same effect now.
ABOUT BOOKS 4 March 15th 2018
THE FIVE HUNDRED BEST ENGLISH LETTERS edited by LORD BIRKENHEAD
This is ANNE BOLEYN's (1507 - 36) last letter, and it is to the man who had ordered her death, KING HENRY VIII. Henry had given up the wife he had lived with for twenty years, Catherine of Aragon, his brother, Arthur's widow, so that he could marry Anne. He not only broke with Rome for her, he also faced the anger of the great powers of Europe. Yet here is Anne, two years after her marriage to him, writing a passionate and heart-broken letter whilst waiting for her death.
This is only an excerpt from the letter but it makes for very sad reading.
'Sir, Your Grace's displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant......
But let not your Grace ever imagine that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault which not so much as a thought thereof proceeded. And to speak a truth, never prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, that you have ever found in Anne Boleyn.....
You have chosen me from a low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire. If then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of mine enemies withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart towards your good Grace, ever cast so foul a blot on your most dutiful wife, and the infant princess, your daughter.....
My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace's displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen who, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I have found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request; and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further....
From my doleful prison in the Tower, this 6th of May. Your most loyal and faithful wife, ANNE BOLEYN.’
Anne was beheaded by a French swordsman on the 19th May.
ABOUT BOOKS 5 March 22nd 2018
This dazzling book of Hundertwasser’s paintings make the greyest world sing. The picture on the book cover is a detail from a painting I love “ Wintergeist Tableau d’hiver Winterbild Polyp” which I’m reliably informed translates into ‘Winter Painting’, Giudecca, April 1966’
Here is what Hundertwasser says about straight lines:
‘If a lion is stalking you, or a shark is out to kill you, you are of course in mortal danger. We have lived with these dangers for millions of years. The straight line is a man-made danger. There are so many lines, millions of lines, but only one of them is deadly and that is the straight line drawn with a ruler. The danger of the straight line cannot be compared with the danger of organic lines described by snakes, for instance. The straight line is completely alien to mankind, to life, to all creation.’
I bought this book years ago from a brilliant bookshop in Lincoln, sadly now closed. It’s one of those finds that are a comfort and inspiration for life.
ABOUT BOOKS 6 ....March 29th 2018
THE JOURNAL OF A DISAPPOINTED MAN AND A LAST DIARY
This is a really quiet and lovely book about W.N.P. Barbellion, born in 1889 in North Devon, died in 1919 of Multiple Sclerosis, so any fireworks in it are the fireworks of a young man physically sick but also sick with the longing to live. His lifelong passion was for natural history and he started work in the Entomology Department of the Natural History Museum in Kensington in 1912 but his health forced him to resign his post in 1917. This book was published a few months before his death.
The Journal starts when he was thirteen. Barbellion offers so much of his life in his writings with his joys, his sadnesses, his doubts and his very natural fears and grumpiness as his health constantly lets him down, he becomes a much loved friend. I first read him years and years ago and go back to him at least once a year. He is lovable, courageous and fascinating; simply a friend you haven’t met in person.
The Harmsworth Self-Educators he mentions were big green books that my own father owned and read and which, many years later, I read, too, because I would read anything that had print on it. I often wonder what happened to them and think they probably ended up in a jumble sale at the local chapel, which is pretty much where a lot of books came from.
’March 14th 1907
Have been reading through the Chemistry Course in the Harmsworth Self-Educator and learning all the facts and ideas about radium. I would rather have a clear comprehension of the atom as a solar system than a private income of £100 a year. If only I had eyes to go on reading without a stop!’
WRITERS AND CHRISTMAS
One of my all-time favourite books is THE DUD AVOCADO’ by Elaine Dundy and a passage that resonated with me was when heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, remembered a Christmas vacation spent largely in a Library where people kept mistaking her for a Librarian. To be a Librarian was her ultimate horror but that was where she finally found herself.
Over the years of working with children, I have been so impressed by Librarians and the way they rise to every occasion. They dress up, ferry people about, meet trains, provide quiet places for workshops and a hundred and one other things, and I have often wondered if they knew what they were getting into when they started their careers. When I was a girl, I used to want to be a Librarian more than anything and flick through Library cards and stamp books, so I made cards for my own books and stamped them with my Lilliput Printing Set when I took them off the shelf to read!
December of 1961 was when brilliant poet, Anne Sexton, wrote a prose piece called ‘The Last Believer’, memories of past Christmas mornings when Anne, her sister and mother made belief they saw Saint Nick. It always feels a privilege to read this difficult and complex woman’s work.
Then E.M. Delafield’s ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ where the Christmas day of 1929 is ‘festive, but exhausting’ and the family ate ‘turkey and plum-pudding cold in the evening to give the servants a rest.’ My plan exactly minus the plum-pudding and the servants.
In ‘The Dud Avocado’ Elaine Dundy prefaces one chapter with words from Tennessee Williams’ ‘Camino Real’ - ‘Make voyages. Attempt them. That’s all there is.’ That’s what I’m doing just now, doing a final edit and rewrite of a book that’s been waiting for ages and is, I suppose, what most writers are doing most of the time.
An exceptionally lovely short article by Ernest Hemingway was written about Christmas in Paris 1923. It opens with, ‘Paris with the snow falling. Paris with the big charcoal braziers outside the cafes, glowing red,’ and closes with, ‘It was their first Christmas away from their own land.’ Published by The Toronto Star Weekly.
Happy journeying, everyone.
It’s 5 o’clock on a freezing Monday afternoon and pitch dark. Looking over the fields only gives the view of swirls of fog pushing into the garden, over the gate and into the apple tree. I’ve spent the afternoon writing a review for on-line children’s books magazine, ARMADILLO.
Last year, I bought Vol.1. of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings 1913-1926 and have been reading his essay on ‘A glimpse into the world of Children’s Books’ which is extraordinarily interesting. In the middle of this essay there is an absolutely lovely nursery rhyme from an old German picture book, ‘Steckempferd und Puppe’ (Stick-Horse and Doll) by J.P. Wich.
This rhyme tells of all the things a little child sees in a town and, in particular, how the child sees a cat. The rhyme ends with the enchanted child thinking what a lovely little place the town is and, ‘I’ll make a note of that.’ In the town of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, there are also lovely little places and like the child in the story, I, too, ‘make a note of that.’
I do wonder who else but Walter Benjamin would introduce an essay on children’s books with this quotation –‘A soft green glow in the evening red.’ by C.E.Heinle, but this is the thing about books and writers. They bring such joy and delight with them.
As well as the physical book, I publish e-books myself and am very glad to do so. My family always seem to have their noses in e-books but I love holding a paper book, no matter how tattered. My heart just lies with them but I am very glad that stories are being read in whatever form they take. Having said all that, sometimes physical books are so heavy, they can’t be read without a book rest.
George Pelicanos is on my bedside table at the moment, along with a very interesting book I picked up over the weekend on Virginia Woolf written by James King. This was published in 1994 and according to the notes, this editor is looking at the influence of Woolf’s illness on her work. Also, I have Gordon Ferris’s, ‘Gallow Glass.’ Ferris is a brilliant Scottish crime writer. His hero, Douglas Brodie, simply walks out of the story, he is so rounded and complete.
I’m doing a last draft of a children’s story, ‘JACK IN THE BOX’, which I hope to have finished before Christmas. It’s set in the time when the Pits had just closed down but the slag heaps were still as they had been. Ugly and very dangerous. I’m enjoying writing this.
Let’s hope the weather picks up and gets a bit more gentle.
Down with influenza for what seems like weeks, I have been comfort reading and have re-read some old favourites. Iain Banks’ ‘Raw Spirits’ and Pete McCarthy’s ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ amongst them. The first is Bank’s journey to the distilleries in Scotland, which always makes me want to follow in his footsteps, and the second is Pete McCarthy’s journeying in Ireland, funny and perceptive.
Then ‘Onward and Upward in the Garden’ by Katherine S. White which is a book about gardening completely different from any I have ever read. This last is a most beautiful Folio book with lovely black and white illustrations and a book cover of flowers that is simply glorious, embossed in gold, white and red on a dark green background. I think they are sweet peas and I could look at them for ever.
I have also been reading and re-reading crime novels but I especially love Donna Leon and Colin Cotterill, one dealing with crime in Venice and the other with crime in Vietnam. Brilliant stories. I have a very soft spot for Peter Temple’s Australian crime series, as well, but they’re much more difficult to get hold of. Andrea Camillerie’s ‘Montalbano’ series are also books I can read and reread and I have been so grateful for the T.V. repeats of these books.
Then American M.K.F. Fisher’s books on her journeys in Europe and the food, people and restaurants she has experienced; Claudia Roden’s absorbing ‘Book of Jewish Food’, which is also a highly interesting history lesson and a really old and battered Elizabeth David book. I can’t remember actually cooking anything out of this book but it is so well written, it demands reading in its own right. And I got a Nora Ephron book from a friend that I couldn’t bear to put down until it was finished.
But I have also been slowly putting together a new e-book of poems. I wrote these poems for the Southwell Minister magazine over a period of about 3 years. These tell of Miss McPherson and her class of children’s struggles with thorny theological problems. They were such good fun to write and I hope good fun to read, too.
I am also slowly getting back to my story writing and hope that I stay fit enough to complete some of them this year. One of the big problems in writing a novel is deciding if it wants to be told in First or Third person. I remember one prominent writer saying that First person novels weren’t proper novels. Hmmm! Obviously, I don’t agree.
So here is 2015 marching in and already marching on. Happy New Year everyone.
BORN TO GIGGLE, is an anthology of poetry compiled by Iain Billings to raise funds for the charity SAVE THE CHILDREN. It is now on sale and along with many other poets, I have poetry in this collection. Please buy the book so that SAVE THE CHILDREN might have more money for their important work. It is available from all SAVE THE CHILDREN shops and also from Amazon.
I’m re-reading an Inspector Montalbano novel by ANDREA CAMILLERI. Of course, I’m in love with Inspector Montalbano and didn't want the recent T.V. series to end. Looking at my William Soutar book and the picture of William on the cover, I wish television had been around when he was confined to bed. He would so have loved it and it might have been some consolation for the world he missed.
The other book at my elbow at the moment is my cherished 1996 edition of Van Gogh’s Letters. I can’t remember where I bought it from but the recent news that a NEW letter has been found, started by Van Gogh and finished by Gauguin - can you believe it! - is so exciting. Like me, there must be people all over the world who want, no, need to read this letter. Not own it, just read it. I wonder if it will be made accessible. I hope so.
It’s a crisp afternoon, the air cold and invigorating.
Watching a very small child looking at the pretty pictures of an e-picture book on her Mum’s ‘phone, I was reminded of how many papers and comics and magazines we read when I was a girl. I loved all of them. Loved them for the paper, for the smell, for the colours, for the pictures but above all for the stories.
Trying to remember all the ones we took in each week, I came up with: The Daily Herald, that was a long sheet newspaper; The Sheffield Star, another newspaper; Green-Un, absolutely no reason for me to even pick this up but I did. It was a sports paper with football results etc; The Daily Mirror, when it covered the news in depth. Then we were on to Sunday newspapers – News of the World and The People. Next were my Mum’s magazines but mine, too, because I read them – Red Letter, Family Star, Woman, Woman’s Own. Then the comics – Wizard, Hotspur, Rover, all boys’ comics but I read everything in them from cover to cover; Film Fun, about films and film stars; Dandy, Beano – pure comics and a total delight. Once in a while Sunny Stories but I only ever glanced at that.
We read books alongside all these because we were always hungry for stories. I remember most of all Coral Island, Treasure Island and At the back of the North Wind, (my favourite), Alice in Wonderland and my Dad’s Harmsworth Self-Educators, I think they were called. Big green books full of information. And, of course, the Bible. We had a lot of books for Sunday School prizes, as well. The ones I hated were where the child was really really good and self-sacrificing. These didn’t last long because they got thrown across the room, out of the window, down in the quarry, anywhere - but there were others that were worth reading.
All the same, it’s good that children have access to all kinds of books with e-books because there was so much we couldn’t get hold of. The Library were insistent that you held out your hands for inspection and if they deemed them UNCLEAN, then like a leper, you weren’t allowed in. When I was about fourteen or so, I joined a private Library and for sixpence each, I borrowed Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’ and Betty MacDonald’s ‘The Egg and I’. I could only afford sixpence a week so I borrowed one book every week but I remember these two because the Normal Mailer was so alien to the life I knew and so real and harrowing and brilliantly written and the Betty MacDonald was so funny and again, so well written.
Even later, I read Betty MacDonald’s THE PLAGUE AND I, and was bowled over by it because it reflected some of the things I’d experienced in an Open Air School/Hospital as they were called then. I was 10 when I went in, 300 miles away from home, and stayed there a year. I wrote about it in the second book of my Trilogy, KNOCK AND WAIT. The first one was PRIVATE-KEEP OUT and the third, ONE WAY ONLY. None of
these books are what you would call auto-biographical but they all, I hope, capture the spirit of the place and time I was writing about.
It’s been a wild and woolly start to the year all over the country. Today we’ve had a bit of sunshine, which is very welcome. It didn’t last long because we’re once again plunged into greyness and rain. America seems to be having it even worse. One son who lives up near the Canadian border says their temperature is plummeting and lots of snow is forecast.
A few years ago, we were in Scotland for the New Year and everything was so iced-up, it took ages for us to get into the car as the locks were solid. It was a very beautiful drive home but slow as the roads were icy, as well. Still, when we got on the hills, it was so lovely up there, it was worth it.
Looking at my books, I see that DENTON WELCH was out for the first time in a month on the 4th January 1945. He had such bad health as a result of his accident when he was younger, that he was never quite well. You cannot help but feel an intense pity for him. I know he’d hate to be pitied but you do wish he could have had his life free of accident and illness. He was heading into Tonbridge Wells on that day, wearing two scarves, one blue and one yellow and travelling by bus.
DYLAN THOMAS has an anniversary this year and I read that the owner of Brown’s Hotel was expecting maybe a few more visitors, as he already gets visitors all year round. I’ve jumped on a bit from the 1945 New Year to February, because I was so interested by the list of work Thomas sent to James Laughlin for a volume of selected writing. The titles of the list itself make the mouth water. Just look at this title, for instance: ‘It Is The Sinner’s Dust-Tongued Bell Claps Me To Churches.’ Who could possibly resist reading a poem like that? Or the glorious, ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.’
And TENNESSEE WILLIAMS in January 1945 was facing the closure of his play THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Williams always strikes me as a kind man. William Inge said this about that play: ‘..it was the most thrilling performance of the most beautiful American play I felt I had ever seen….’ I saw THE GLASS MENAGERIE some years ago but I can’t remember where. I have a feeling it could have been the Crucible but I’m not sure. The ‘HAMLET’ I saw at the Crucible was one of the most thrilling Hamlet’s I’ve ever seen. But what I found equally thrilling was that in the middle of December 1944 Tennessee Williams met Frieda Lawrence in Taos. The age of giants.
One hundred and forty years earlier, Jane Austen was writing on the 21st January 1805 to her brother, Francis, to tell him their father had died. There was a bonus for me when I opened this book because out fell a postcard from a friend with William Butler Yeats poem on it – ‘Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths.’ Books! Beautiful, beautiful books.
It’s a while since I wrote in here and that’s because I’ve been working on a new book – and trying to get my poetry organised, which is taking for ever. For my birthday, I was given a copy of Penguins ‘POEMS FOR LIFE’ and found I already had a copy on my shelves but this doesn’t matter. If anything happened to one of them, there would be another.
The first poem I looked for was Auden’s ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,’ as I’d forgotten if it was included in this book. It wasn’t, so I had to go to my really old PENGUIN BOOK OF ENGLISH VERSE which cost 4/6d so long ago, I can’t remember when, to read it again. Odd how poems suddenly slip into your mind and send you looking for them. I often find Edith Sitwell’s ‘Still falls the rain’ sliding into my mind, as well. The genesis of this poem was the bombing raids of 1940.
That, of course, sent me to Sitwell’s biography, TAKEN CARE OF, to look again at the perfectly beautiful pictures of Sitwell and Lawrence in there. Who can forget, either, that she encouraged both Denton Welch and Dylan Thomas?
I was so excited to get Walter Benjamin’s SELECTED WRITINGS Vol.l. 1013-1926. And now plan to get all the other volumes as and when I can afford them. There’s so much in this book to read and think about that I can’t comment on it yet. The volume I most want is the one that includes ‘Unpacking my Library,’ but I’m not sure which one this appears in.
Looking at my bookshelves, I see so many old and new friends. Each time a new friend appears, I feel like putting out the bunting. I know Walter Benjamin is going to be a friend just as lovely Ruth Stone has taken her place in my heart and in my life.
Back to my book now and my poetry organising and also back to the long process of typing up PRIVATE-KEEP OUT for an e-book. It isn’t a biography, any more than the sequels KNOCK AND WAIT and ONE WAY ONLY are but I wanted to capture the spirit of the times. I once went into a school to work with the children on their writing and found that their history project was ME!
I’ve been reading the poetry of Ruth Stone, poems which pull you back time and again, poems which also deliver sharp and necessary truths to would-be poets.
In her collection, ‘Second-Hand Coats,’ there is a poem called: ‘Some things you’ll need to know before you join the Union.’ It’s about a poetry factory and in verse 4, there is the most witty and salutary warning – ‘They’re stuffing at the poetry factory today,….jamming in images saturated with as and like.’
Puts you on your guard but also makes you blush as you think of your own many ‘as’s and like’s’. Ruth Stone’s poems are fearless and clear eyed. No place to hide in these sublime and courageous poems.
Also been reading William Soutar’s ‘Diaries of a Dying Man.’ The cover image shows a young man of beauty and health but his health was bad and he died at 45. But his love of poetry and his love of the Scots language shines through all his writings. In one entry, Soutar mentions the anthology, ‘THE NORTHERN MUSE’ arranged by John Buchan. By a stroke of luck, I have this book, bought in a charity shop years ago, and for a non-Scot, it’s a challenging but rewarding read. Since I read that William Soutar thought a lot of it, in some imperceptible way it’s increased my own appreciation of it.
Another book I found this happened with is the wonderful ‘TWENTY CHINESE POEMS’ paraphrased by Clifford Bax. When I read in D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Letters’ that he had read this book when it came out, it somehow made it much more precious. Each time I read it now, I almost feel as if I am reading it along with Lawrence. These are beautiful, lyrical poems. Again, this is a book I feel fortunate to have and again, it’s another charity shop find from years ago. It’s a small book but very much loved.
The snow here is slowly going away and the sun this afternoon has real warmth. I have many memories of snow. One that has stayed in my mind absolutely intact was the evening my three brothers and I got home from the cinema to find that our baby sister had died. We’d been sent to the Savoy cinema that was showing a THREE STOOGES film and I remember it had been very funny.
When we got to the corner of our street, after having waded through piles of snow, in the soft golden light of the gas lamp that stood just to one side, I noticed the blank end-wall of the house that fronted onto another street was plastered with snow.
I can see my brothers and myself as clear as day, first staring at it, then making snowballs and throwing them at the wall. When we got in, our sister had died. That was in 1947 and the winter was fierce. No NHS then, either.
In my book, KNOCK AND WAIT, which was first published by Heinemann and then in paperback by Collins and now on e-books, there is a scene where my friend Golda and I ran away from the convalescent home we had been sent to.
This was more of a Sanatorium, really. It was in Kent and the night we chose to run away the snow was thick in the woods and still snowing heavily. I was asked to change the snow to rain for the book and I did, but I have always regretted it. The ward I slept in had three huge windows in a bay and they were always open. When it snowed, as my bed was in the bay, the snow covered it and it was freezing cold.
In Betty MacDonald’s THE PLAGUE AND I, she gets sent to a Sanatorium and some of my experiences are very much like hers, especially the cold she complains of.
In KISS KISS, a story first published in an Anthology, I write about the snow on the high street looking so beautiful. This story can be downloaded from SMASHWORDS. There are two or three references to snow in KISS KISS. Here’s one of them:
‘This is one of the best winters I remember because when I look out of the shop window, I can see the whole street glittering and snow plastered to the sides of the lamp-posts so that they look like maypoles, only needing a handful of ribbons to finish them off.’
The last snow poem I wrote was ‘A DERBYSHIRE WINTER’ which came from a trip to Matlock over those Derbyshire peaks just when the snow had fallen and was still falling, and those peaks were very unfriendly.
We went for a walk in the snow up in the big National Trust park near us and the mist was settling in. A frozen lake, white tinselled trees and incredibly beautiful
A stroke of luck a couple of weeks ago when I was watching a programme on Sicily, for the art critic and the chef who were presenting it, went into a museum in Sicily to look at a sculpture of Demeter. She was absolutely beautiful with a wide serene face and lovely eyes. She’d been retrieved from the Paul Getty museum in America, handed over because the Sicilian museum was able to prove she was made of a certain kind of stone found only in that area of Siciliy.
It was luck because one of my favourite poems is BAVARIAN GENTIANS by D.H.Lawrence and, of course, Demeter is in that poem. I have never pictured her before so seeing her statue was wonderful. Now when I read the poem, I see Demeter’s calm and lovely presence lying in it.
Looking out of the window this morning with Jak, aged 6, we saw the goats and horse in the paddock at the end of our garden. Fine, until the goats smash through the fence to get at our flowers. They hate going back and the big goat will scarily stomp his hooves up and down to show his displeasure. We back off then.
The post was interesting, as well. Folio Books’ sent their prospectus that has an absolutely captivating illustration on the front. Further investigation proved it to be by Anna and Elena Balbusso for Margaret Atwood’s book, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’
Since I’ve put two books on Kindle, ‘The Last Coal Barge’ and ‘Nefertiti and the Aliens,’ illustrations have acquired a new importance. I remember illustrations for other books I’ve written which have not only given me immense delight but have also added immeasurably to the story. Still, we now do the best we can.
Faith Jaques did the illustrations for two of the books in my trilogy ‘Private-Keep Out!’ ‘Knock and Wait,’ and ‘One Way Only,’ which are loosely based on my own childhood in the late 40’s, early 50’s. ‘Private-Keep Out!’ was first published in 1978 and is still in print. I intend to Kindle ‘Knock and Wait’ and ‘One Way Only’ when I can as, having been written some time ago, I don’t have them in digital format so have to type them all over again!
Faith’s illustrations were so evocative, I felt she must have lived just down the street. She didn’t, but she came from a similar area in Leicester. That whole world now seems as remote as Victorian England and writing this blog, my first ever, is quite different to when I started writing on an old sit-up-and-beg Underwood typewriter. I used this for years. Even addressing an envelope took ages.
‘The Last Coal Barge’ was based on an old barge sunk in the water when the Pit across the road closed down. Danny, the boy in the story, was an echo of one of my brothers, for we used to play in the woods around the old Pit when we were young WE were always seeing things that weren’t there.
‘Nefertiti and the Aliens’ came about because of a fascinating book on ancient Egypt I borrowed from the Library. There was one wall painting in the book I couldn’t get out of my mind. A huge desert of sand with a couple of really odd looking people under a tree in an oasis. I just had to write about them.
And I noticed that Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Pat Hobbit’ stories are being broadcast on Radio 4. One other magazine arrived also. Christian Meditation UK has an enthralling article inside on ‘Liberating Silence.’
An interesting day.
Last week, I gave out prizes in a local Poetry competition run by a creative writing group I’ve been associated with for more years than I care to remember. I was really interested in the post on Balaclava a little while back about some creative writing groups not being very friendly but, thankfully, this group is and when I was unable to judge a couple of recent competitions, I had no hesitation in suggesting other poets, knowing they would be made very welcome.
The members have always had great enthusiasm for their writing and take it seriously but that doesn’t mean they can’t absorb those who write for their own pleasure, because they can and do, so any visitor gets a really unique view of the writing life of a small community. I find this totally interesting.
The group itself was started over 40 years ago by a friend of mine, who, because of her isolation as a writer, was inspired to put a small advert in the local paper and book a room at the library. My heart almost stopped when I saw that advert, I was so excited. I went to the first meeting and got there early. There were only three of us in the group for months and months but it was just so brilliant to be able to discuss writers, writing and what you were working on. I would tremble when it came to reading aloud from my current work, so anxious was I to hear what they thought.
I think, in some way, the Balaclava group serve the same purpose as my two writer friends did all that time ago. It lessens the sense of isolation that can so easily be a part of a writer’s life and the advice given and received is invaluable. I often think how thrilled those three fledgling writers would have been to have had access to the Internet.
Because of it, lovely things happen to writers, as well as the less lovely. In 1995, I wrote a poem called THE GRACE OF LOVE, and it was published in a couple of magazines. A few weeks ago, I had an e-mail asking if I was the writer of this poem because it had my name on it. But, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, for the writer’s mother had the same name as mine and had kept and loved the poem for years. Her son knew she hadn’t written it, thus the enquiry. He told me his mother had died and had asked for this poem to be read at her funeral and I was really touched by this. The family lived in America so my poem had travelled from this country to that.
I’m just about to put another book onto Kindle – FOX FIRE – which I wrote years ago and which I’ve up-dated. (Does anyone else do this?) It’s about the different attitudes to foxes from a boy who keeps hens and a girl who sees them as beautiful wild animals and how the two children clash because of this. The fox we know best has a lame leg but I’m hoping that the first snow will see firm paw imprints and not the dot dash and carry ones we saw last year.
It was half-term last week so the local Pound shop was very popular with our three grand-children. One child is absolutely mad about stories, both reading them and writing them. She’s pushing the boundaries of what she can read at the moment and we often see her hunched over some book far too difficult for her but painstakingly picking out the words she can understand. She would be so thrilled and overjoyed by a visit from a children’s writer in their school but I have only known one such writer go in over the last couple of years.
Sometimes, the value of writers going into schools is questioned but if those questioners could talk to the children, they would soon understand how much excitement is generated by a writer going in, how important and special it makes the children feel and how all the children, but especially those who love stories, are inspired by their visits. And also how their story-telling improves because there, in front of them, is a person who can and does help them with their work. So, stories are important then and THEIR story is important because this is what a visit from a children’s writer says to them. Stories are important so keep writing.
The visit to the Pound shop was brilliant this time because she found a book made especially for story telling. The top half of the page is blank for illustrations and the bottom half lined for the story to be written on. She thought this was great because she’s a little insecure without lines to write on. She’s already covered both sides of a good dozen pages with her stories and her illustrations. She’s been in too much of a rush to colour in the illustrations but says this will come later.
Any writer who has been into a school, if they are allowed proper time to talk and work with the children, will know just how much encouragement their visit gives. It seems as if the golden days of school visits are over but they shouldn’t be. When writers speak of their favourite books and stories when they were children, we know that each one of those books and stories planted a little seed of desire to write ourselves. Everyone gains from children having contact with writers. The children, the community and yes, even the country because children grow up and the work they then do adds immeasurably to the creative and cultural life of their country.
I could go on but instead I’ll tell a couple of stories.
Some years ago, I went into a Young Adults Detention Centre and when the young men came in, one of them had two guards with him and a great pile of Enid Blyton books. He carefully set the books out on the table in front of him and at the end of the session, he and I had a long and invigorating talk about Enid Blyton and her stories. He said this was the first time he’d been able to get hold of all her books and read them and he was so pleased by that, but he was even more pleased to be able to talk about them. I don’t know what he’d done or even what he would go on to do but for the space of about 30 minutes, he was able to step out of the life he was in and enter the world of these much loved books.
The other story concerns a hare that had been run over on the road outside our house and I was really upset by this, so I read again Dennis Hamley’s beautiful book HARE’S CHOICE to comfort myself. It’s actually about a hare that is killed and whose body is found by two children who take it to school, where the teacher uses it as a starting point for a story. It is a story that stays with you because we are allowed into the hare’s consciousness and it was THIS story I needed when I saw the dead hare - a children’s story, alive with compassion, understanding and beautiful images and, that day, nothing else would have done.
The book’s gone now, borrowed by a child. I might get it back but, somehow, I doubt it.
My Occasional Notes
I was asked by WRITERS REVIEW to choose any book I wanted and review it. This was such a lovely request that, although I went to my bookshelves, dithering over other books, it was actually always going to be ‘What Love Comes To’ by the American poet, RUTH STONE. It’s a rare day I don’t read a Stone poem.
This Review was picked up by Bloodaxe Books and reprinted on their website. Bloodaxe is a brilliant poetry magazine. The American cover, which is of Ruth Stone herself, is the cover Bloodaxe used and it can all be found here
‘WHAT LOVE COMES TO’ New and selected poems by RUTH STONE
The American poet, Ruth Stone, writes poems that shine with clarity, understanding and beauty, poems which I absolutely love and admire for their finely balanced, rhythmic elegance. Stone is witty, wise and, at times, funny, but she can also be a very tricky customer, for she has this great gift of being able to change course mid-poem, so that what seems all set for plain and simple will, quietly, unexpectedly, lead into much darker waters. It’s like being mugged by a feather. You do’nt know it’s happened until you reread a poem and find something new in it that you somehow missed before. Every Stone poem is a journey into a new understanding for she is a force of nature, a poet in possession of her world and ours.
In SECOND-HAND COAT, she begins with two words then in the following twelve short lines, turns this poem about an old coat into a surreal story of how, once it is taken home, it begins to talk, asking solicitously if its new owner has everything they need before leaving the house, the distinct impression being that it is speaking in the voice of the woman who once owned it. Alchemy of the highest order.
‘WHAT LOVE COMES TO’ is made up of new poems and poems selected from earlier books, witty, acerbic, hostile, elegiac, fierce poems, some political, some absorbed by science, some with rough sexual imagery, some deeply sensual and some so tender, you can hear the poet breathing, feel her heart beating.
All Ruth Stone’s poems have such integrity, you trust her to tell it how it is, which is a tall order for a woman who was no stranger to tragedy. Early in their marriage, Stone’s husband, Walter, killed himself, leaving her with three small girls to raise. She has said that all her poems are love poems written to a dead man, whose suicide forced her to live in limbo. Yet Stone keeps this compact of honesty between herself and the reader, sparing herself nothing and, therefore, sparing the reader nothing. In ‘TURN YOUR EYES AWAY’, so hard to read, so impossible to think of how hard it must have been to write, the Gendarme notifies her of the nature and death of the man she loved.
Each plain and unforgiving line of TURN YOUR EYES AWAY stonily taps into the next line, telling the bleak sorrow of how Walter died. Of what happened when they pushed the door to his room open, of where his dead feet lay, then going on remorselessly to where his tagged body lies in the morgue. Then, almost before there is time to feel sadness for such suffering, Stone whirls around, remembering how they once lay together in a single bed, face to face, breath to breath, not wanting ever to part, that erotic love poem, the Song of Songs, lying open in the hotel’s Gideon Bible.
It is through Ruth Stone’s absolute honesty and unflinching gaze in this poem as in all her poems, that in these last lines, we are able to feel the passion and sexual desire these two had for each other; a love that seems to shatter sorrow, swipe death out of the way and burn up the page with longing.
In ‘THE SPERM AND THE EGG’, another mid-course change poem, the egg hates the sperm and then the sperm hates the egg, wanting its tail back because then it was free. Dark waters here, for every reading throws up new thoughts. It is Ruth Stone’s genius that this poem ends with an absolutely apposite quotation from Hamlet. Then the lovely humour of SETTING TYPE, where the semi-colon, the paragraph, the vocabulary and good punctuation get it together.
Finally, from ‘THE WIDOW’S MUSE’, Poem XLII tells how the widow is triumphant having got through thirty years of widowhood, until her muse forces her to smell an old undershirt of Walter’s, which still retains his scent. At this, the widow whimpers with grief whereupon the muse knocks all the sense out of her. Harsh, hard and truthful.
Ruth Stone, who died aged 96, in 2011.
© Gwen Grant 2019