Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

It was a situation where I felt I had to buy a book before I left the shop and the longer I looked, the less likely I felt I would end up with something I wanted. But all of a sudden I stumbled on this Tyler from 2016, which is apparently part of a series where modern writers are commissioned to do a take on a Shakespeare story. On the one hand, I have read all the books written by Tyler except for the one that won a Women’s Literature prize, which I felt obliged to boycott. On the other, I hate The Taming of the Shrew and I could see no good coming from this.

Yes, I thought to myself grimly after ten pages, just as I suspected. A dud if ever there was one. But actually, sticking to it, I quickly came to like it. Not love. And I think it fades towards the end. But not awful, at any rate. I don’t feel like I should have spent the ten bucks on smashed avo instead. High praise indeed.

At its best this is classic Tyler. The caricature of scientists is well done. The scenes where she is working as a teacher’s assistant with little children are as charming as Tyler gets. Indeed, one is left wondering if it is a happy ending that she marries and becomes a one child family botanist when she could give so much joy to so many children.

I’m really undecided overall with this one. Anybody read it? Please tell me what you think!

Loving Roger by Tim Parks and The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini

I want to rant and rail against the system. Loving Roger is a wonderful – let me shout that, WONDERFUL – novella which is, 25 years or so after being written, neither fish nor fowl. Not old enough to be considered for Classic status. Not young enough to be modern. It’s the sort of book not read because its date is wrong.

On top of this, to add injury to insult, Tim Parks is an all rounder. Every bit of it is connected to writing. It isn’t like he does spin bowling and writes novels. No. However, he just won’t specialise and that’s considered plain unseemly now and for some time past. One isn’t allowed to be good at more than one thing. The very hint of it smacks with the suspicion that maybe one isn’t very good at either. Or, in the case of Parks, more.

He’s a teacher of literature. He writes novels. He writes memoir. He translates. He writes important books about translation. As far as I can tell, he’s damn good at all of these. But he must suffer the fate of the all rounder and somehow escape the much higher praise he would have been awarded for any one of these, if only he could have stuck to it and only it.

Grrrrrrr. I regularly get very cross about this!

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving away things that are best left discovered in the reading of. He is amazingly good at doing a female perspective, in the process making many sad-amusing digs at males. This makes me want to reference The Bleeding Tree by Cerini, of which we saw a wonderful production on Saturday night. Both start off with a killing which one might describe as a murder. In each the murderee is male. In neither does one wish to see him as a victim. From that start, Cerini and Parks go in very different directions, but nonetheless they share a point which is to talk about how it transpires that women may do these things. In the process the reader will not have the tiniest sense of sympathy for the blokes. There is nothing to be generalised here, they aren’t ‘people’ doing these deeds, they are ‘women’ and the dead body in each case was up to that point a ‘man’.

The styles of these two pieces are very different. Cerini’s is poetry, very stylised, but this, as one or more reviewer have mentioned, gives an impact which a more natural approach could not produce. He uses ordinary colloquial language as would have really been used by his characters, in his chosen setting. The action is swept along in the rhythm and cadence of the lines. Parks’ story is presented in a very naturalistic and true way. The murderess, who speaks to us from page one, is transparent. Yet at the same time, in that subtle way in which Parks excels, one realises as things go on that something is changing. Or perhaps that despite all that transparency, things were hidden. He has such a good ear, as no doubt a master translator must have.

These are both short works. Two writers who are able to distil the essence of what needs to be said without any padding. Fifty-five minutes from Cerini. One hundred and fifty-seven pages from Parks. Bravo gentlemen!

Lost Illusions by Balzac; pt 1

Blackadder:
[describing a novel he’s written] ‘Edmund. A Butler’s Tale. A huge, roller coaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters. A searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in.’

Okay, so Balzac’s novel is early nineteenth century, it’s hot teenage actresses, not gypsies and the indictment is of society as a whole – nothing escapes Balzac’s eye. But in spirit, Lost Illusions is Edmund to a tee. Sizzling roller coaster ride that never stops, indeed.

Update: I am happy to report that when I wrote on social media for my friends that I’d finished a Balzac that could be thus described, Gareth, immediately guessed ‘Lost Illusions’? My comparison was presumably apt.

 

 

 

 

 

The Scarecrow by Ronald H Morrieson

On the way home from somewhere, I noticed that our local op shop had a bookshelf out on its verandah. I picked up six books for which I still owe $3, the shop being shut then, and for the duration of the Thing. Luckily for me, one of the books was The Scarecrow. The copy is the text classics edition, one of the series inspired by Di Gribble.

New Zealanders will have to forgive me for listing this under Australia. If you want our dole money then quit complainin’. The rural setting and the appalling drinking surely could come from the Australian backblocks. But this has an assurance and a ‘I’ll do this how I darn well please’ attitude that are pure NZ.

The assurance is not polished, it’s the confidence of existing with no natural predators. That’s NZ for you. Only a confident and inexperienced writer could even think of writing this book, let alone bring it into the world. The young teenager’s view is honest, witty, scared, sexual, full of the bravado which shows its true colours fast enough. All this creates a really beautiful small town story and that, despite the ugliness of it. Yes, it stacks up though it’s hard to understand how.

The author’s sad short life explains why he was so able to capture the setting of this and his other books. More on that here. And please, despite being thus referred to on Wiki, it is not a horror story, not even close.

There is a movie, but I have so far no luck in getting hold of it.

Highly recommended for: those who like reading. Those who want to understand a bit more about the rural areas which are so important to the ethos of Australia and New Zealand. That said, I am pessimistic enough to file it under ‘books you won’t read before you die’. Prove me wrong, please.

Text Publishing — The Scarecrow: Text Classics, book by Ronald Hugh

 

Martha in Paris and The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

‘I’ve come,’ announced Mr Joyce, ‘to talk about Martha.’

That’s a real suck-you-in sentence which had me loving Martha without knowing a dang thing about her. I imagined that she’d run rings about Mr Joyce and that she’d make me laugh in the process.

Margery Sharp again manages to combine sheer elegance of language with heroines that are anything but. Martha is fat and plain, but she doesn’t give a toss – or not even that, it’s more that she hasn’t even ever thought about such trivial matters. She’s an artist, obsessed with shape, and then with colour. Nothing matters to her apart from that. Oh, she likes a good bath, and she eats like she is built. But if she had the least reason to think that either of those habits were bad for her art, they’d be out on their ear. Just like Eric.

In fact, just like her baby. She gets pregnant to Eric. Drops him without his knowing that – he had plans to marry and obviously then she’d give up art. She has the baby in secret, and then leaves it with a note at Eric’s front door. It’s the spitting image of him. He lives with his mother. She left formula for the baby. Sorted. Back to painting.

I suppose that all sound awful, but it isn’t. It’s just funny and admirable that she can live in such a male-like way, obsessed with the thing she does and survive even the potential inconvenience, if not trauma, of an unwanted pregnancy.

*******************************

After reading this and picking up the other Sharp I’d bought at the same time, I discovered I’d read them in the wrong order. The Eye of Love is an account of the charming love affair between Martha’s aunt and her (spoiler) husband-to-be. It will come as no surprise that this pair is as unattractive as Martha. But they have only eyes for each other as those who attempt to part them discover. If you ask me, it doesn’t matter whether you read this or Martha in Paris first. But there is a third and I am pleased that I am going to read that last, when I am able to pick up a copy.

The edition I have of these two is just awful, not least because it wants to turn Sharp’s exceedingly clever writing into the most tawdry of chick-lit, or whatever it was called in the early sixties. The cover of Martha in Paris proclaims:

Martha went to Paris

to learn to paint…

and learnt to love instead.

It’s so insulting to Sharp when love of any kind, of her rellies, her baby, the father of the baby is just not happening. NOT HAPPENING. New English Library what on earth were you thinking?

Scotland Before the Bomb by M.J. Nicholls

I’ve read this in an unconventional way and I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read a substantial portion. I began with a couple of the episodes that were on themes I warm to.

MJ Nicholls

The first, a diatribe on the Fringe Festivalisation of Edinburgh. As a resident of Adelaide, at the other end of the world, which vies each year to be bigger than Edinburgh, I entirely sympathise. These festivals suck. They suck the life out of theatre for the rest of the year. They suck the life out of originality and complexity. As Fringe Festivals around the world become more and more about extracting money ‘for the economy’ from back packers, many of whom have no English, linguistic complexity is an absolute no-no. Preferably one can dispense with language altogether. Physical ‘theatre’ take a bow.

The next one I turned to was about Amazon. Our future Amazon-driven world. I’ve listed this book under comedy, but the laughs are often bitter.

Having a couple under my belt that I immediately took to, I started dipping into others. This is a strange, compelling book, probably because the author doesn’t give a flying f*ck about the reader. He is doing what he wants. As Odetta (among others) had it:

I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler
I’m a long way from home
And if folks don’t like me
They can leave me alone

MJ makes me think of these words, it’s really lonely, doing what you want. The audience for this book is consequently niche, but I recommend you find out for yourself if you are part of it. At the very least it’ll do you good to be out of your comfort zone.

My favourite is Tickertape of Misery. Anybody who has read the book may laugh at the idea that I forced somebody to listen to me read the whole piece out loud. I’m pleased to be able to report we are still conducting conjugal relations.

Kudos to the author for employing a real artist to do pictures for the book, Alan Lyons has a striking style which genuinely adds to the finished work.

To end with a small rant about the ‘star’ system. I want to give this three stars, but we live in a world where that’s failure. I don’t think it is at all, but my opinion doesn’t count. So, I’ve given it four stars because I think that reflects how others use the star system and that probably matters.

In Pious Memory by Margery Sharp

I discover as I wend my way through Sharp’s books, that she has her bad ones. This is too thin by any stretch. It’s not an absolute stinker, but it’s hard to recommend it. Those who are compelled, as I seem to be, to read the lot will, nobody else should.

I love the way Sharp uses the vocabulary of the day, reading any Sharp is to discover new words.

Latch-lifter (page 97)

? – damn it, I’ve lost the other one.

Six New Tales by John Clanchy

Nothing like being sick to test a book’s staying power and this 2014 collection from Clanchy easily passes. For me the standout story is #3 Slow Burn. His comedic touch has such perfect pitch and timing that one is almost taken aback that he is capable of a different note altogether, one which is all but bereft of humour. They are all gripping and they all surprise.

It was a bit of a challenge finding this one, but Avenue Bookstore in Albert Park sourced it, and otherwise the publisher would have sent me one. Indeed, this book is a labour of love by Finlay Lloyd, an Australian non-profit publisher. Clanchy ends his book with the acknowledgement ‘May it flourish as it deserves’. They have an interesting selection of books on their list and Clanchy himself has another appearing under their aegis shortly. I’ve put a few on my to-read list.

By the by….I learnt a new word – sool – meaning to worry or attack in the way a dog might. It’s an antipodean word, apparently, but I’m sure I’ve never come across it before.

 

 

 

Play Little Victims by Kenneth Cook

To me this felt heavy handed, both the text and the pictures, done by his daughter. I dare say it would have read better in the late seventies, when it was written.

Still, it’s interesting if for no other reason than to see such a different hat for Cook, from that he is wearing when he wrote Wake in Fright and Tuna. I am going to read all his books, he is under-rated to the point of no longer existing now. It’s such a shame!

Hamun & Giben and other stories by Alan Wakeman

I have this rather odd book on my shelves and I dip into it. I like this one on writing. It’s called Muse.

Muse

Hamun returned a volume of Giben’s poems, saying: ‘They’re truly wonderful. I was overcome with emotion and I cried. How do you manage to write so wisely and beautifully? ‘

‘I get out of the way,’ said Giben.

I suspect a lot of writers would do well to take this advice.

Interesting how quickly one is forgotten. It transpires that Alan Wakeman is a very interesting person. After a doubtful start in life, tormented by his homosexuality and unable to do anything about this, he became an early pioneer in the use of technology for language learning. This was in the 1960s – if you are my age you may recall language laboratories, which I, for one, hated. He made enough money to stop working not so long after this and began to do what he wanted.

What he wanted, included writing strange books like this which he illustrated as well. It also included being a leader of the fight for rights for homosexuals. Interalia, he wrote was is now acknowledged to be the first positive overt song on the matter of homosexuality. He fought until his death for the preservation of Soho. He wrote one of the first – and highly regarded – Vegan cookbooks.

You can see his Guardian obituary here. And now I  repeat from Webcite his own story, preserved from his now non-existent website. At the original link you will also find pictures.

 

A brief biography of the author

I was born in London in 1936 of ordinary English parents and grew up during the second world war. When I was five my family moved to Coulsdon in Surrey which then still had the feel of a country village. My earliest memories are of wading through fields of wheat with skylarks singing their hearts out overhead on my way to sun-dappled, secret bluebell woods with shady pools where kingfishers, chaffinches, wrens, owls, butterflies, dragonflies, spiders, lizards, snakes and every conceivable kind of beetle scurried about on evidently vital business. Paradoxically, despite the second world war and its Nazi bombs daily dropping indiscriminately into this childhood dream, I felt quite safe on these sacred expeditions which always began with my heading up to the downs where, usually alone, sometimes with my kite, sometimes with my brother, I relished each new secret exploration into the fabulous and infinitely fascinating world of tiny creatures that inhabited every myriad crevice and chink of what to me was my personal realm.
Sometimes, during these expeditions I would encounter a lusty young farmhand with his shirt off and be confronted with the perplexing truth that the sight of a beautiful young man’s body stirred in the depths of my being a powerful mysterious instinct to touch, to caress, to… what? I didn’t know, though somehow I knew instinctively not to speak of this perplexing mystery to either adults or childhood friends. Despite this early self-knowledge I had no sexual experiences whatsoever during a decade of primary and grammar schooling although I did occasionally find myself almost overwhelmed by longings aroused by a select few of the more athletic senior boys who seemed to belong to an admirable and entirely unapproachable species of humanity from me.

While I was in my final year at grammar school, preparing for university, my father’s wholesale catering supply business went bankrupt (through no fault of his own – a change in government policy removed his entire market at a stroke). Although this seemed a disaster at the time I’ve since come to view this misfortune of my father’s as lucky for me personally because it prevented my following a conventional path to a conventional profession. I was only 15 but had passed seven subjects at GCE Ordinary Level and easily got a job as a junior assistant – office boy really – in an architectural office where I began evening studies with a view to qualifying as an architect. However, after two years’ of working eight-hour days and studying three hours a night, I was called up for national service. At the time this seemed a possible escape from what had developed by now into an overwhelming dread of my sexuality and its probably inescapable, almost certainly dire consequences.

I spent the next two years in the Royal Air Force where I was trained in electronics and sent to the Far East. After a month in Singapore I was posted to Ceylon (as it was then called) for a year working as a non-commissioned officer in charge of the Circuit Control Section of the Signals Centre, Negombo. This was a large RAF airport and base a dozen miles north of Colombo where my work consisted chiefly of selecting the best frequencies for transmission and reception of radio signals for CAF – the Commonwealth Air Forces Communications network. It was my responsibility to maintain 24/7 ‘solid’ (i.e. interference-free) teleprinter communication with Circuit Control Centres in London, Nairobi, Singapore and Melbourne, regardless of local atmospheric conditions. (It was a peak year in the eleven-year sunspot cycle at the time so this was no easy task.) I was also responsible for servicing and maintenance of the receivers and teleprinters and maintaining order in the section which consisted of about twenty airmen.

“Corporal” Wakeman in 1955
In the hut where I lived, my fellow national servicemen, all aged between 18 and 20 and many of them gorgeous, strutted about naked most of the time, boasting what they’d do if any ‘fucking queer’ dared approach them and I naively took their hostility and bragging at face value and tried to become invisible. I remember walking among the coconut palms at night crying with loneliness and despair as I looked into the pools of light in the huts that were our home where what I thought of at that time as ‘normal’ men were laughing together, drinking together and playing cards together. Curiously, all of this somehow caused me to doubt the wisdom of the career in architecture that had more or less been thrust on me but after leaving the RAF (with a glowing discharge certificate), I was unable to think of anything better to do and, still lacking the courage to ‘drop out’, reluctantly returned to the same architectural firm and studies.

For the next four years I worked as a full-time architect at a number of different practices and studied in the evenings at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). I was still living with my parents in Surrey so this also involved the misery of daily commuting. Although I was good at the work and soon promoted to a well-paid executive position with a company car, running major projects with graduate architects under me, I was desperately lonely and unhappy and gradually became disenchanted with architecture because I always found myself working on projects I reviled. For example, one of my last jobs before I dropped out of architecture involved designing pig-farrowing and fattening houses for a farmer in Berkshire. The work was being constructed by direct labour so my boss sent me to live on the farm to supervise the laying and construction of the various buildings and spend my days working on a project I despised (with a sexy farmhand as my only distraction) and my evenings arguing with the farmer that factory farming was immoral.

At about this time I met and was desperately attracted to another young architect. As far as I could tell he didn’t mind but didn’t share my feelings so I thought I was as lonely and miserable as it was humanly possible to be but then he got married and emigrated to Canada and I hit rock bottom, came dangerously close to suicide, agonisingly decided against it until, finally, in 1959, I ‘dropped out’ (although the term hadn’t yet been coined), sold ‘all my worldly goods’ and took a one-way train ticket to the south of France. Looking back, it seems to me that it was at this point that my adult life began.
For the next three years or so I lived in France – winters in Paris, summers in Provence – and began pouring out novels and short stories full of anguish and romance. Of course I knew better than anyone that there was nothing romantic about being poor and alone in a big city because I was soon broke and had to do a range of jobs to support myself. I washed dishes, painted houses, sold crêpes in the street and worked as a waiter in various restaurants until, in one in Provence, to my astonishment, I virtually became the manager. My French gradually became fluent and I became more and more interested in the business of languages and language learning and, for my last year in France, was able to eke out a precarious existence giving private tuition in English to wealthy, usually mean, often exceedingly eccentric, French aristocrats of both sexes – who usually, though not always, made passes at me which I usually, though not always, rebuffed.

When I returned to London in the early 1960’s I began teaching English full time and in 1964 got a job at a recently-opened school in central London called International House and was almost immediately put in charge of their newly installed language laboratory. At this time this was a completely new field and as it happened my disparate experience in English teaching, architecture and electronics stood me in good stead. For the next six years I sublimated all my emotional and sexual despair in pioneering methods of working with this complex equipment, became a director of the school and travelled widely for them, setting up schools, installing language laboratories, training teachers to use them, giving lectures and seminars and so on in Europe, North Africa, the Far East and the USA. During this period also, I wrote and published a ground-breaking English language course for foreign students called English Fast comprising 12 books, 56 audio programmes and 2 song records, devised, written, produced and directed for Hart-Davis Educational, London 1966-1972. By 1970 it was selling well enough to support me modestly and enable me to give up full-time teaching and lecturing to return to more imaginative work. I’m happy to say I haven’t had a full-time job since.

In 1970, at the age of thirty-four, after a lifetime of vain boasting I was never ill I got insulin-dependent diabetes. Once I’d got over the initial shock of learning I’d have to inject insulin every day for the rest of my life, the inevitable question ‘why me?’ demanded an answer so I began reading on the subject and soon discovered I’d been eating entirely the wrong diet. This is a big subject and this isn’t the place to go into it. Suffice to say that had I known then what I know now I needn’t have become diabetic at all. So – despite my early concerns for animal welfare – my original reasons for changing to my present vegan whole-food diet, were concerned more with health than ethics.
Also in 1970, the Gay Liberation Front was awakening in Britain and I threw myself into it as soon as I heard about it. Among its many powerful influences was the almost ritualistic taking of LSD which was thought essential by GLF’s leading lights for the dissolution of the self-oppression foisted on us by our treatment throughout human history as pariahs. GLF pioneered techniques for the rebuttal of mainstream society’s vicious lies about us and thus for the historic recovery of our pride in ourselves as valuable equal citizens. As a result of all these dramatic changes, I dropped out (for the second time!) and threw myself into the alternative culture that was burgeoning everywhere at the time. This in turn led to two other important events in my life. First, a musician friend and I formed a band called Everyone Involved and spent a year making an album called Either/Or which, once finished, we idealistically gave away free, sometimes in the street. (In 2012 an Australian record-company released Strong Love – a compilation CD of out-front gay songs with A Gay Song from Either/Or featured as the first ever recording of a proud gay song in the world!) Second, in 1974, I was a founder-member of Gay Sweatshop, the theatre group which, in early 1975, staged the world’s first season of proud gay plays, including one of mine called Ships. Two world firsts! Wow! I felt, legitimately, proud of myself at last.
The forming of Everyone Involved and the making of Either/Or led to the most important event of my life. One day in October 1971, the band’s keyboard player turned up at a rehearsal session with a seventeen-year-old school friend called Peter Granger and I fell instantly, completely, absolutely, unconditionally and utterly in love with this magnificent man who became the emotional core of my life and remains so to this day.

My magnificent redeeming angel !

Peter Granger in 1976

Our magical loving friendship lasted for fourteen years until, on October 22nd 1986, my true love was run down and killed by a bunch of brainless teenagers in a stolen car. Wretched with shock, despair and disbelief, I was almost overwhelmed with grief for years until I conceived the idea of writing and publishing a poem to celebrate the joy and privilege of knowing the best and most beautiful man that ever lived: Beloved Friend, Gemini Press London 1989.

A quarter of a century has passed since Pete’s tragic death and forty years since I first met him and my love for him has not diminished one jot. On the contrary, I’ve slowly and painfully come to understand what a privilege it was to experience perfect love even for those few brief years. To such an extent that, by the turn of the millenium, life had become rich and rewarding again. Then, just before Christmas 2002, another event occurred to bring a taste of Peter Granger magic back to my life when his widow rang me from her home in California to tell me their son, James, now aged 17, had decided to return to London. She asked if I could help him find somewhere to live and I was so stunned, astonished and honoured at this totally unexpected reconnection with the magic man of my life that for a moment or two I was speechless; when I got my breath back, I said: “It would be a privilege.”

I’d last seen James as a toddler in his father’s arms but when we met again I found he’d grown up into an enchanting young man (of the exact age his father was when I first met him!) with Pete’s looks, charm and charisma. At our first meeting as adults we connected instantly and I truthfully told him his father would have been proud of him. This wonderful turn of events brought out all my nurturing instincts with the added bonus of having an amazing spiritual “son” to be proud of.

After seven rewarding and eventful years living in London James decided to return to USA and now lives in New Orleans. Although I personally preferred it when he lived here and I knew every single day that he might turn up at my door with his habitual cheery greeting and honest shining eyes – so like his wonderful father’s! – I also know that he’s a wanderer like his father so I’m confident he’ll turn up in London again one of these days – a thought that makes me smile.

As for me, because of the extensive air travel of the first half of my life (round the world three times!) I acknowledge that my personal carbon allowance has gone and it is now my moral duty to confine myself to walking, cycling and public transport.

Recently I’ve contributed articles, photos, videos etc. to the 40th anniversary celebrations of London GLF including organising a reprint of the original Gay Liberation Front Manifesto and on Gay Pride Day 2010 I joined other GLF veterans to lead a million marchers along the same route nine hundred of us took 40 years before. Back then we were defiant rather than proud but as you can see from the photo below this time we were cheered and applauded all the way! (I’m in the centre, hand in hand with my old GLF friend, Andrew Lumsden.) The blond man on the extreme left is Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, who had the cheek to join us at the front of the march despite his track record (when an MP) of voting against every piece of liberalising legislation introduced by the previous labour government so that, thanks to him and others like him, all we GLF veterans had to wait till we were old-age pensioners to get the same civil rights he’s enjoyed all his life.

GLF veterans leading a million marchers on London Gay Pride March 3rd July 2010. Photo by Tom Barber.

So now, I’m back where I started, making solitary daily explorations into the fascinating world of exotic creatures that inhabit London’s urban jungle whose forests contain denizens every bit as baffling and considerably more dangerous than those I first encountered over sixty years ago on my daily explorations of the idyllic Surrey countryside of my childhood.