Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Learning to read Virginia Woolf

October 26, 2014
Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

In my copy of The Waves I find that I have written the  date: 11/6/69, and my name as it was once, in the handwriting I used then – halfway between a schoolgirl’s and the self-conscious italic I was just adopting.

2014-10-26 21.11.21

I have no memory of buying it or reading it, but it has been read.  There are timid pencil marks in the margins.


What I do remember is that I didn’t like Woolf.  That was my third year at University and I had just turned twenty.  I had also not long decided – passionately and abruptly – that I couldn’t bear another moment within the Japanese department, and so the authorities had kindly cobbled together a degree I stood some vague chance of completing.  It involved English Literature instead of Japanese Language, and a rushed purchase of the pile of books we were to read.  Yeats and Eliot, Bleak House I think, something by D H Lawrence.  Some plays.

I knew I hated Virginia Woolf.  Maybe I had read Mrs Dalloway in the first year, but what could a naive and desperate teenager possibly make of Clarissa Dalloway or her world?  Let alone the filigree qualities of Woolf’s slow and delicate exposition.  I thought her wordy and woolly, meandering, and poetic in a vague way that irritated me profoundly.  That judgment lasted me quite well all through the seventies and into much of the eighties.

No – the love of my reading life was Lawrence: passionate and direct, he knew what he believed and was utterly uninhibited about how he expressed those beliefs.

D H Lawrence

D H Lawrence

He wasn’t just my hero, he was a prose style icon for all that little coterie of closeted gay friends who were clearly going to get starry firsts and go on to glitter in academia.  Lawrence: the master of rhetoric and of the image that argued, clarified and told all.  He seemed to me then a writer who didn’t tiptoe around or mince his words.  He was the broad sun of wide judgments, in comparison with Woolf’s misty, uncommitted particularity.  He could blunder and burn; his prose had sharp edges – but it felt clear and exciting.

This, at least, was the substance of my conversation with Debbie one spring day in the  mid-eighties in Leamington, in the staffroom of The Trinity School: a progressive comprehensive secondary school (a rare beast then and always) with a genuinely dedicated, egalitarian, and overwhelmingly kind staff.  She was astonished that I could possibly prefer that old rogue woman-hater to the stylish, subtle Virginia Woolf, and I had to listen to her.  Lawrence was a misogynist and his writing was rushed and sloppy.  She had thought better of me: I felt her silent disappointment.

I have known several wonderful Debbies and Deborahs in my life, but the name itself  has always baffled me.  Debbie seemed a vulgar sort of name, as in Debbie Reynolds.


My mother raised us to eschew vulgarity in all its forms, with a passion generated by proximity and the fear of falling.  On the other hand ‘Deborah’ as a name felt strained: scrambling for a dignity that swirled its skirts just out of the mud.  Again, and even within our own pretentiousness, we were raised to mock and fear pretension or social climbing.  There we were: barefoot Australian kids, stumbling over the bindi-eyes, while all the time we were forming these nuanced social prejudices.  They take a lot longer to shake off than they take to form.

I admired Debbie the dedicated teacher so much.  Debbie (never Deborah) whose surname I have long forgotten, was fresh out of University, pretty, very clever, and effortlessly upper-crust both intellectually and socially. She wore an unobtrusive gold bracelet: a present from her mother on her eighteenth birthday.  Mired in my mid-thirties and trailing so many mistakes – how I longed to be Debbie!

We each agreed to read one of the other’s favourite novels, bearing in mind the praises we had heard.  I fought to find what she liked in Woolf.  In this way, Debbie (and Woolf) showed me how to slow down, to leave Lawrence’s pell-mell rush of ideas and read poetic prose with a relaxed attention.  To read almost languidly and yield to its particular sensuousness, its sweet precision.  When I went on to read To the Lighthouse, it flew to the depth of my heart and my mind, and stays there to this day.  Debbie politely conceded that Lawrence’s writing is not without virtues.

We were both wrong, of course, in our dislikes.  But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?

The Ten Book Challenge

September 11, 2014

Is it a bit like the ice-water challenge?  Well – in a way; but also in a way, not.


For the “ten books” you don’t throw them around, you just list them.  But unlike the ice-water, it can’t just be any old ice water – I mean books.  You have to list ten books that have ‘been with you through life’.  And that’s a really interesting category.  It so quickly morphs into ‘ten books that have changed me’.  And then nominate ten friends to do the same.  Here’s the form in which I saw this challenge:

10 books that have followed me around, not great works of literature, don’t think too long or hard just write them down and tag me and 10 friends.

My first thought was: do I have ten friends?  Or, more precisely, ten friends who both read lots of books and use facebook?  These tend to be mutually-exclusive categories, at least amongst my friends and relations.  (Hi, Mum!!)  Then I tried to think of the names of some books.  (Not many came to mind.)  Immediately, too, I see ways in which the challenge is open to interpretation.  Through life’? How literally do we interpret that?  Can a book I first read five years ago seriously be included?  Even if I’ve read it a lot ??  Is a Dictionary a book?  What about a book you used to read often, but more recently you have really only thought about quite often?  As a teacher I know a range of often-recommended books – books I suggest that people might like to read.

Now I realise that I am already overthinking  the whole thing.

Luckily, the friend who put this on her facebook page included her own ‘list of ten’:

1. Eliot’s Middlemarch – I reread it annually for many years
2. A-Z of London – on my 3rd copy, wish I’d saved the others as it had marks and notes about meetings and places I’d been
3. Winnie the Pooh – it’s humour and simple wisdom has amused and enriched communication between me and my brothers and me and my sons
4. Jenkins Convergence – we used the word first in the journal title, so it has definitely followed us
5. History of English Language – began a love affair really
6. Score and libretto of Tristan and Isolde – another love affair, and the enjoyment of reading and listening
7. Shakespeare’s King Lear – which I studied the same time as my mother, yea, across the parental divide
8. Anything Eric Gill did for Golden Cockerell Press – the aesthetic of simplicity is something to aspire to
9. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy – I’d never met one who used words like scalpels with such a clear mind
10. Wildlife photographer of the year book – got a few now – art and natural world

I love the way she has annotated her list.

She didn’t tag me – but perversely, I set off to write mine down anyway.  I am forced to conclude that I have been reading far too many different books.  Spreading my attention too thinly to play this game well.

1.  Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker – loved Hoban’s playful use of English ever since I first read it.

2.  my 2-volume Oxford English Dictionary – still the go-to source for etymologies; first book I bought with my first teaching cheque.  I love to see it on the shelf.

3.  Maurice Sendak, Higglety,Pigglety, Pop; or: There Must be More to Life  – wonderful illustrations and a little book that tells so much about life and performance.

4. Gwen Bailey, The Perfect Puppy – yes, folks, it’s a how-to book about dogs.  Unashamedly listed here because it’s soooo useful and wise and humane.

5.  Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll – inclusive, tolerant, exemplary.  And witty.  I’ve known this book since I was a teenager, and my mother was enjoying it, even though it looks like a kids’ book.

6. The Margaret Fulton Cookbook – has really accompanied me through life – given to me when I was about twenty; gnawed by my dog about seven years ago; now held together with string.  In regular use now for 45 years and still a key point of reference.

7. Doris Lessing The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 – another book about being human and being humane.

8.  But I want Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child as well – so wise.

9.  There are some books that linger in your mind: the opening of a particular version of ‘The Gingerbread Man floats through my mind surprisingly often. The trees around their small house were tall and green and full of birds.

10.  That’s it – in the number ten slot there are just far too many.  Do we go for sentiment, wisdom or humour?  For Blyton, Drabble or Pratchett?  Which one of all those le Carrés?  All those informative and clever Franzens and Rushdies?
Nope: hilarity wins.  At number 10: Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop.  It can cheer unfailingly: just the thought of that book makes me smile, and reminds me of all the other books that have stood by me over the years.


Next you have to think up the names of ten friends.  (You know who you are.  I am thinking your names, but I’m not going to write you down here.)


There’s the last way in which this differs from the ice-water challenge, of course.  It’s not painful at all.  In fact, thinking about your long-beloved books is downright pleasurable.

the raincoat

August 14, 2013

Mentioned in despatches twice now, the raincoat feels that it deserves a moment all to itself.

a downpour in the Berry - raincoat doing well.

a downpour in the Berry – raincoat doing well.  Also note strong sandals.

Dostoyevsky purportedly said that we all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ – he meant the short story, of course, not any literal overcoat.  It turns out that he didn’t mean ‘we all’ in the sense of the whole human race, though one can easily place that kind of interpretation on Gogol’s story.  Taken in context, his comment referred (I am told) to the cutting-edge fiction writers of his time in Russia.  Dostoyevsky’s own ‘new wave’ of writers who explored what it is to be human – and to be human in the darkly cruel social world of contemporary Russia.

There you go – it wasn’t just a post about a raincoat after all.

In fact this is my favourite of all the many raincoats that I have never bought.  Back when we had teenage children, there were lots of visitors to our house.  Sometimes they arrived in wet weather, kindly kitted out with umbrellas and/or raincoats by their fond parents.  Many times the rain had stopped by the time they left, or else they were going somewhere where sensible practical garments were just not cool.

Too cool for a raincoat - no names no pack drill!

Too cool for a raincoat – no names no pack drill!

They left their coats hanging in the hall, and their brollies dripping quietly in the lean-to conservatory out the back.

Darth Vader never wears a raincoat.

Darth Vader never wears a raincoat.

When we packed up that house and moved out we found maybe six or eight ownerless raincoats, and three useful brollies (I didn’t count the broken brollies).

A brolly would only get in the way.

A brolly would only get in the way.

I’ll admit that we had bought some of the raincoats for ourselves in France – caught out by unexpected summer rain (one daughter-in-law would deny the word ‘unexpected’).  One can buy very useful, flimsy rain jackets cheaply in SuperU.  Of all of those, though, the raincoat in question was clearly superior – lined, a perfect fit, strong, and sporting its own hood.  It is even a recognisable brand-name, that chance acquaintances and even my adult kids respect.  Perfect.  Yes – I really did try to find its owner – but it has a happy home with me now.  I am growing ever fonder of it, as it progresses through so many adventures of its own.  Maybe I, at least, have come out of this wonderful raincoat.

%d bloggers like this: