Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Read in tooth and claw.

I recently read The Child That Books Built by lovely Francis Spufford, one of our lecturers at Goldsmiths and also winner of the Costa first novel award for Golden Hillwhich I've also read and heartily recommend. And this got me thinking about which books have meant a lot to me over the years and which have, in some small way, made me what I am, particularly the children's books. 


In his book, Francis mentions visiting his town library a lot when he was a boy, in Keele, where he grew up, and by coincidence one of the lovely old people I chat to on the phone (I'm a telephone friend for Age UK) told me yesterday how important her local library was to her when she was a girl because the house she grew up in didn't have any books. I was lucky. I grew up in a house full of books, with a mother who loved to read to us and who continued to do so long after my brother and I were able to read to ourselves. I particularly remember The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit and later a book called A Likely Lad by Gillian Avery. We used to rush home from school for that, then sit either side of her on the sofa as she read. I know my brother was about eight so I must have been about eleven which is embarrassingly old, but there you have it. So, here's my life in books, Francis Spufford-style, except without his wonderful narrative, or beautiful prose, or intelligent analysis, or heart-wrenching ending. So nothing like his, in fact, just a random list of books.


I remember The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aitken, The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett, The Ghost of Thomas Kemp by Penelope Lively and particularly The Witch's Daughter by Nina Bawden, one of the first books I read to myself. I don't remember anything about the plot of The Witch's Daughter, I just remember the cover sitting there on my bedside table and that at the end of the story there was a cave, I think. I do remember the atmosphere, how it made me feel, that I could escape to another world where no one would be able to find me, which is the joy of reading. I'm still there a lot of the time. I also remember Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh which is set in New York and which I read in Canada. Harriet was a role model, a girl-hero who writes a notebook/diary and spies on people. I really wanted to be her.



The teen years are so important for laying down a reading foundation. In my early teens I read everything by Somerset Maugham and H.E. Bates plus lots of historical/hysterical fiction. I particularly remember Katherine by Anya Seton, also the usual stuff - The Bell Jar, Little Women, Gone with the Wind, then Frankenstein, which sparked a gothic craze so I read The Monk, which is very long and The Castle of Otrantowhich is very short. Then there was a Nancy Mitford phase, an Evelyn Waugh phase, an E.M. Forster phase, then George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan - all made a big impression. Also kitchen sink stuff, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe), A Kind of Loving (Stan Barstow) then James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (such a beautiful book) and of course everything by Jane Austen and the Brontes, as well as those foreign fellas I've mentioned before, Tolstoy and Flaubert. 


Going to university to read English very nearly killed my reading completely, it certainly killed my writing for a long time. It made me feel completely inadequate. I should have done a degree in creative writing instead but there was no such thing back then. It took me years to realise it's okay to be an okay writer. I can be very obstinate and if someone tells me I must do something I tend not to want to do it, but I read what I had to, I just stopped enjoying it. And I don't care what anyone says, I still can't stand Henry James.


After I left university I slowly began to enjoy reading again. I remember Vita Sackville-West's The Edwardians. I discovered  Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster - I've read everything Margaret Forster wrote. If you're out there struggling with an ageing parent I highly recommend Have The Men Had Enough?. MF is brilliant on family life. Not as brilliant as Anne Tyler, though, who I discovered more recently. I love everything by Anne Tyler as well, particularly The Accidental Tourist


I've already written about the profound effect reading Birdsong (by Sebastian Faulks) had on me when I read it days after giving birth to Middle One. 


Straight after that I read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. Everyone should read these books before they die, along with Testament of Youth, Wild Swans and Schindler's Listall of them real and tragic tales that ooze empathy. Beyond these, the books that pop into my head straightaway are Small Island by Andrea Levy, The Poisonwood Bibleby Barbara Kingsolver, Wolf Hall (obvs) anything by Kate Atkinson (she comes from York, you know) or Nick Hornby (I think he may have briefly lived in the same village I lived in as a child in North Yorkshire, small world) and if you live in south London and have secondary school-age kids you really must read May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell. 

More recently

A few years ago I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It's not a particularly well-written book but sometimes a book comes along that touches a nerve, this did this for me. I was just so envious of her journey (she walks from one end of the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States to the other). After reading it I wanted to pull on my walking boots and set off on the PCT myself, alone. It's immensely difficult for women to go off and walk in the wild by themselves, they're simply more vulnerable than men. Read Dark Chapter by Goldsmiths alumnus Winnie Li to learn just how vulnerable.



I really fell for Samuel Pepys when I read The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. A brilliant book. What a wonderful,
lovable, clever, candid, witty, flawed person he was. I recommended it to Middle One's history teacher who amazingly hadn't read it but then did, and mentioned it back to me next time I saw her. She had loved it, of course. It's one of those books you will never forget. Probably the best historical biography I've read.

There are so many more books I could mention here but the hour I set aside each week to write this blog is up and I've yet to find photographs and links to put with this. Happy reading and see you next week.

Love E x


P.S. I just finished Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Very sad.


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Some reasons to be cheerful.

Feel like going back to bed for the rest of the winter with a giant bar of Toblerone and watching something on Netflix on your laptop? Black Mirror, perhaps? I know I do. But January's not all bad, there are some reasons not to do this, to actually be a bit cheerful at this time of year. So let's turn to Ian Dury for inspiration because he wrote a song about that and because I have a dissertation to get on with. Here's the list of things that make him cheerful.

Getting back into bed - okay, covered that. Of course. Bed is great. Sleep is awesome. I once read that Jamie Oliver's dad got him out of bed early every day when he was a lad by telling him people die in bed and he shouldn't waste time in it. I suppose Jamie Oliver has done fairly well out of it, but I reckon having a lie-in is a million times better than getting up early to roll a pork loin in fennel seeds.

Summer - Yes! Summer is also great, but if it were summer all year round we wouldn't appreciate it. As I said to a friend the other day, the good thing about being in the middle of the worst bit of the year is that we're getting it over with now.

Buddy Holly - Well alright, we all love Buddy Holly. Well, I do. Everyday. All that tapping. Play it now. It will make you feel more cheerful. Guaranteed.

Good Golly Miss Molly - Then play this. Money in the bank.

Boats - Boats? Bit random. Arthur Ransome. The Wind in the Willows. Three Men in a BoatTitanic. Okay, maybe not Titanic. Book a trip on a boat, read about a boat, build a boat. Whatever floats your boat.

Hammersmith Palais - I don't know about the Palais but I was up the Shepherd's Bush Empire the other week to watch Bill Bailey and he was funny. Go and see a comedian. My boys like Tim Vine. The Pun Slinger. Good clean fun. He's on in the spring. Maybe catch him in Dorking. We have tickets for that, and for Flight of the Conchords. I know! They were like gold dust. Middle One sat on his laptop in a queue for two hours.

The Bolshoi Ballet - Only here because it rhymes. But sure, ballet is good. I like ballet. Something to go with your classical music. Like having a biscuit with tea. 

Jump back in the alley
- In Yorkshire we call them snickets. 

Nanny goats - Nope. 

Eighteen wheeler Scammells - WTF?

Dominica camels - Ditto.

All other mammals - Animals! Yes! We all like animals. Pets are good for us, slow the heart rate. I looked after Archie over Christmas (friend's dog) and he was gorgeous. But you have to walk dogs twice a day and worry about what happens to them when you go on holiday, which I reckon increases the heart rate.

Equal votes - Of course. Sad it's here at all.

Seeing Piccadilly - Not what it used to be. Could make you feel miserable. Mind you, The Picture House Central is near there, where we saw the new Paddington Bear movie, which definitely made us feel cheerful.

Fanny Smith and Willie - Not sure what this means.

Being rather silly - Got that covered.

Porridge oats - Also good for the heart. Going through a muesli phase at the moment.

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it - Life.

Yellow socks - Makes me think of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. I saw Tamsin Grieg playing him at the National last year. That definitely was a reason to be cheerful.

Too short to be haughty - That's me.

Too nutty to be naughty - Also me.

Going on forty, no electric shocks - Sure, be cheerful you've never had an electric shock. I once made an film about the dangers of electricity. A young mother died stepping into a bath. Check your wiring.

The juice of a carrot - Really? Not actually that nice in my experience. 

The smile of a parrot - Can parrots smile?

A little drop of claret - Ah yes! Lots of people do dry January, tho, so if you're doing dry January maybe skip this one. Personally I'm back on the booze after 31 days off. I think January is absolutely the last month to give up drinking. 

Anything that rocks - Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! To quote from When Harry Met Sally. Go to a gig, or just dance round your kitchen, guaranteed to cheer you up.

Elvis and Scotty - Love a bit of guitar, and Elvis, obviously. He once featured quite heavily in a story I wrote.

The days when I ain't spotty - N/A

Sitting on a potty - Also N/A

Curing smallpox - Not something we can easily relate to. Perhaps he means be cheerful that we live in an age when there isn't any? Someone once asked historian Lucy Worsley (I love Luthy Worthley) what age she would come back in if she could choose and she said anytime after the invention of antibiotics. Sensible lady.

Health service glasses - Are there any nowadays? I had to pay twenty quid for Middle One's NHS frames. 

Gigolos and brasses - ?

Round or skinny bottoms - I wouldn't mind getting to the bottom of this list.

Take your mum to Paris, lighting up a chalice - Lazy rhyming.

Wee Willie Harris - I looked him up. I Hear You Knocking. Yeah, oh dear, he may not have stood the test of time. Play it anyway.

Bantu Steven Biko - We had a Steve Biko room at my uni (the first one). Here he is in case you never heard of him -  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Biko

Listening to Rico - ?

Harpo Groucho Chico - Indeed, and all films. We watched Baby Driver over Christmas. Great soundtrack. 

Cheddar cheese and pickle - More of a smoked salmon and cream cheese girl myself.

A Vincent motorsickle - Like the silly rhyme.

Slap and tickle - Obviously.

Woody Allen, Dali, Domitrie and Pascale - Nice list. Woody Allen used to make us cheerful, before he got creepy.

Balla, balla, balla and Volare - ?

Something nice to study - Yes! Off to do that in a mo.

Phoning up a buddy - Nice. Actually we don't do this much anymore. It's all texting. 

Being in my nuddy - Does being in the nuddy make us cheerful? Depends who we're with. On the one hand naked bodies are nothing to be ashamed of, on the other hand we're British. In the sauna at my gym I sit in my swimming costume.

Love E x


P.S. Got bored. Hope you don't mind if I go off to find something nice to study now and leave you with the rest...

Saying okey-dokey 
Sing-a-long a Smokie
Coming out of chokie
John Coltrane's soprano
Adie Celentano
Beuno Colino
Yes, yes, dear, dear
Perhaps next year
Or maybe even now
In which case
Woody Allan, Dali, Domitrie and Pascale
John Coltrane's soprano, Adie Celentano
Beuno Colino


Monday, 1 January 2018

A Mother's Christmas in Tooting.

One Christmas was so very much like another in those Tooting years that I always remember it never snowed for any days, not even when I was thirty, or forty, or even when I was fifty. All the Christmases rolled together as one toward that two-laned High Road like pretty litter skidding down the pavement stopping at the ice-edged freezer section at Lidl, where we plunged our hands in to bring out whatever we could find: chips, peas, fish fingers, you name it... In goes the hand to that edge of the holidays, resting on the rim of the chest freezer as we paused to listen to the carol singing down at Balham tube, and out came Turkey Twizzlers and the memories...

First, the present-purchasing ritual that was, for some reason, always a mother's lot so that the voice she heard before sleep was always father's, saying "Oi! Stop pressing those buttons on your laptop. What's with all this Amazon and their evil tax-evading ways?"

"Ah," mother would say, replying the same every year, "if you are so against Amazon then you can jolly well sally forth on the tube to that hell-hole which is Oxford Street before Christmas with its fast-flow of people and lights and irritating music abuzz to the rooftops."

"You what?" said father, and of course he never did go.

So mother pressed the buttons and presents arrived post-haste at the threshold without so much as leaving the house which was like magic to her, except for in the case of her shiny-faced nieces with their colt-like limbs and flowing locks, for them she did venture to Oxford Street to that cathedral that is the top of all the shops, that is, Top Shop, where she bought them two of the most miniest of skirts - and while she was about it also five dresses for herself, yes, five, because fuck it they are the lowest of prices, she said to herself, and anyway this was the year she could also use her ten per cent off student discount, as she said to the sales assistant behind the counter, "I may not look like a student, but really I am one!" 

And the cheery sales assistant replied: "Never too old! Except for my Gran, who has gone back to college also and loves it but says she is so old she can't remember a thing they teach her." 

And mother said in reply... actually I can't remember what she said in reply...

Also, it was always mother who made the trifle every year with its pink and yellow strata, sponge and custard and fruit and custard and sponge and fruit and cream, lying soft white against cold hard bowl edge. She made it every year even though her three lanky lads cried, as they did every time, "but mother, we can't stand trifle!"

And every year it was the same Christmas quiz except for the year when the salt-and-pepper-haired, long-nosed grandfather asked them all, smiling atop his glasses, a lot of mysterious Beatles-related questions, like: name three Beatles songs which are also questions, and, which Beatles track has the longest title, and, which is the very shortest of all?

And then there were annual trips to the silver screen to watch War of the Stars episode 199 which went on an interminable time and turned out - when at last they got to the end of it and were turned out themselves onto the hard and frost-topped pavement - to have been in retrospect and also at the time an unbearable load of old crap, unlike the very best of British Paddington Bear movie they also attended at the most central of flickering Picture Houses, which delivered nothing but smiles and tears and laughter to every single family member no matter how young or old.

And then the Yuletide season was a wrap again, just like those silver and gold wrapped presents lying briefly beneath the tall and standing tree, which were now unwrapped, that same wrapping stuffed into fifteen black bin liners sitting outside the house for a week. And every trifle bowl was licked clean and washed up with Marigold-hands before being stored again in high cupboards; emptied viridescent children's stockings were folded and crammed back into already full blanket chests. Everyone was older and wiser and a tiny bit fatter and determined to lose that extra weight before long, turning down underfloor heating or raking ruby-red coals in the woodburner before climbing upstairs to bed. No words were said to the darkness and then they slept because Christmas was over and they were all slightly pissed and absolutely knackered.

Love E x


P.S. Not a bit like Dylan Thomas.


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A Merry Christmas from York, and Tooting.

York - where I come from - has been named most festive city in the UK due to positive tweeting - digitalspy.com/tech/news/a845…

Sadly, I'm not going to York this year but I always think Christmas is a place we mostly go to in our minds anyway, so even though I will be staying in Tooting I am going to be shutting the door, lighting the fire and the candles, and visiting Christmas for a while. See you when I get back. 

Merry Christmas.

Love E x


P.S. Meanwhile, here's a little poem I came across, by Roald Dalh.

Mother Christmas

"Where art thou, Mother Christmas? 
I only wish I knew, 
Why Father should get all the praise, 
And no one mentions you.
I'll bet you buy the presents, 
And wrap them large and small, 
While all the time that rotten swine, 
Pretends he's done it all.
So Hail To Mother Christmas, 
Who shoulders all the work! 
And down with Father Christmas, 
That unmitigated jerk!"