More November reading

Here are a couple more brief accounts of recent fiction reading.

Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon (first published in Italian, 1963; this translation by Jenny McPhee, Daunt Books 2018, previously in America by NYRB). Another book by an author I’d read so many good things about I thought it was time I gave her a try. This one wasn’t for me.

It’s autobiography that the author says should be read as a novel. I didn’t think it worked as either. Its fragmentary, repetitive structure and huge number of ephemeral, lightly-sketched characters prevented me from sustaining any interest.

The narrator’s scientist father is a monster: a bigot and a tyrannical bully who constantly shouts abuse and insults at his cowed family members, and anyone else unfortunate enough to cross his path. Ok, so lots of novels feature monstrous parents. But this despotic man doesn’t lead to much in the way of insight or redemption; he just is. I suppose that’s Ginzburg’s point: as a child she had to learn to survive his tantrums, and this made her perhaps a stronger person. But this didn’t come across in the stilted narrative.

Her mother is fickle, complaining (not surprisingly, given her husband’s nature) and frankly not very bright. Her four siblings bicker and fight, but the jerky structure means there’s little coherence or continuity. It’s like watching a magic lantern show – shapes just flit across the scene leaving little impression.

Even the main, important subject – the persecution of Jews in Italy from the 30s through to WWII – is curiously distanced and muted.

Plenty of readers had a much more positive response to this book; all I can do is to present my own, for what it’s worth. We can’t all admire the same stuff.

Clerson To See Out the Night coverDavid Clerson, To See Out the Night (QC Fiction, Canada, 2021; translated from the French by Katia Grubisic; ARC courtesy of the publisher). These twelve very short stories all contain surreal or fantastic elements. This is not a genre I usually like, but this collection is accessible and nimbly told and translated.

The central theme is to question what the ‘real world’ is, and how do we recognise it if and when we experience it, how do we perceive or distinguish reality from…the unreal, imagined or fantastic? So characters are transformed, or believe they are, into other entities – an ape, in the opening story, or an insect in another.

Dreams are another recurring feature. Most of the events narrated have a dream-like quality. Sometimes the characters appear to know they’re dreaming – or they think they do. Subterranean or forest worlds are as accessible and remarkable as the mundane. Being human is as potentially alien and solitary as the life and form of a mushroom.

Several stories involve characters who write or tell stories that often weave into the perceived reality of their own and other people’s lives. The boundaries between these worlds of fiction are as blurred as those in dreams.

The dustjacket blurb describes the stories as ‘visceral’ and ‘surprising’ – a reasonable claim.

There’s a fuller, perhaps more enthusiastic review of To See Out the Night at Tony’s Reading List (link HERE).

November reading catch-up

Because of my week in London on a social visit, and a work project this week, there’s been no time for book posts here lately. Here’s a (very) brief round-up of recent reading.

John Banville, The Blue Guitar (first published 2015). This was for me what Mrs TD used to call a damp squid. Although JB – as always – writes extremely well, the content of this novel failed to stir much interest in me. It’s a rather squalid (double) love triangle plot. The protagonist is a verbose kleptomaniac artist, a painter who calls himself a ‘painster’ (he likes this kind of rather annoying wordplay) because he portrays himself as an epicure of suffering. He’s short, fat and ugly, and frankly a bit of a pain himself. He’s self-regarding, duplicitous and judgemental. It’s a curiously lifeless, cerebral novel. Disappointing, because I’d enjoyed other JB novels in the past.

Dave Eggers, The Monk of Mokha (first published 2018). I didn’t know that coffee was first grown in Yemen, discovered and developed into the caffeine-rich drink by the titular medieval monk. He was based in the city of Mokha, anglicised as mocha. Coffee subsequently spread in popularity across the world, as the Yemeni market almost disappeared, supplanted by its imitators. This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American man who tries to restore his country’s pre-eminence as a producer of high-quality coffee. Unfortunately his project takes place as a vicious war breaks out in Yemen. Young Mokhtar learns the coffee trade and travels the country, sourcing the best beans and finding places to process and roast them. His quest to get his prestige product to international markets is a page-turning thriller as he blags his way through hostile militia checkpoints and dodges air-raids. This narrative eventually palled for me as it became a little repetitive. But it’s an entertaining and unusual story.

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (first published 2020). RT is at her best when writing historical fiction like this. It’s set in Bath and London in 1865. A young woman called Jane is known as the Angel of the Baths because of her remarkably restorative powers of ministration to those taking the spa waters under the supervision of her doctor father. She’s forced to choose between bland marriage with the earnest young assistant doctor who isn’t perhaps as decent as he seems, and a passionate affair with a beautiful married woman. The most interesting character is Jane’s bohemian aunt, a London artist who sees Jane’s true spirit and advises her accordingly. There’s a strange, Gothic-inflected Heart of Darkness section in the middle in which this doctor’s botanist brother endures a torrid time in a tropical jungle. The narrative wobbles into melodrama at times, but it’s a spirited and highly enjoyable novel.

William Boyd Trio coverWilliam Boyd, Trio (first published 2020). Another disappointment from an author whose work I’ve found either very good or mediocre. This falls into the latter category. It’s a frenetic, farcical account of three lives (hence the title) involved in making a film that would surely never have been made, let alone in Brighton in 1968. The plot is too contrived to summarise, and the characters are mostly caricatures or types. Only Elfrida, the blocked, once-successful novelist, fuddled by booze, raised much interest. She decides, unwisely, to write a novel about the final day in the life of Virginia Woolf. I read today that Richmond council has been castigated for planning to place a statue of VW by the Thames at Richmond: it’s been suggested that it’s in poor taste to position the statue of her gazing over the river, given the manner of her suicide. But she drowned in a different river in a different county – doesn’t seem too problematic to me.

That’s enough for now.

Gaudí nights (and days): 2

Casa Vicens rear facade

Casa Vicens rear 

A visit to friends in London and then a work project after my first Gaudí/Barcelona post at the start of this month prevented me from writing, so here’s the delayed second one.

Towards the end of our final few days in Barcelona last month having ‘grown-up’ time, me and Mrs TD alone, no little grandsons to amuse, we visited another of the houses designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. My previous post was about his final civic commission, Casa Milà; this one, Casa Vicens, was his first one.

It was built 1883-85  in the then suburban district of Gràcia as the summer house of the Vicens family. As the house’s official website Casa Vicens roof towersays, it embodies ‘all of his sources, influences and experiences on other projects, and his own idea of a single-family home…where construction and ornamentation are integrated in such a way that one cannot be understood without the other.’

Casa Vicens blue palm ceiling

Casa Vicens blue palm ceiling

The most striking feature of the exterior and facades is his use of colourful ceramic tiles, featuring vivid yellow-orange marigolds (though some say these are Indian or Moorish yellow carnations that were found growing in the garden where the house was to be built), alternating with plain green and cream/white tiles. Here and in the interior decoration the influence is apparent of oriental style – Indian, Persian and Japanese, as well as Moorish-Hispanic details (all found together in the side of the house with its plashing fountain, slatted shitomi blinds and more colourful ornamental tiles).

Casa Vicens side fountain screenUnlike most of his later undulating work with a defining reliance on curved lines, this house is built on geometric, straight-line principles. But Gaudí used all his skill to ensure that every window and balcony made maximum opportunity for the occupants to enjoy the semi-rural light, shade and fresh air. And there are a few of what were to become his trademark sinuous wrought-iron balcony railings.

Inside it’s also possible to see what was to become his main design inspiration: the natural world. So there are painted or papier-mâché flowers, fruit leaves, tendrils, palm-hearts and fronds, and plenty of birds (including a gorgeous flamingo – though I think these birds were done by other artists).Casa Vicens ceiling birds

It doesn’t have the extravagant boldness and panache of his more famous later buildings, but the signs of his idiosyncratic genius are clearly apparent in this early work.

Casa Vicens porch from inside

Interior image: By Canaan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105999185

 

Casa Vicens roof turrets

Casa Vicens roof turrets

 

 

 

Gaudí nights (and days): 1

While staying in Sant Cugat with our son and his young family last month (see previous post) we took the train into Barcelona a couple of times, and spent the last four days of our visit having adult time in the city. This enabled us to visit a few more of the houses designed by Gaudí.

La Pedrera façade

La Pedrera façade

In previous visits we’ve been to Park Guell and Casa Batlló, as well as the iconic basilica Sagrada Familia. Our first visit this time was to Casa Milá, aka La Pedrera (meaning ‘stone quarry’, because of its remarkable undulating, rough-hewn façade). Architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) is the most famous of Catalan ‘modernistas’. All of his work reflects his love of nature: there are very few straight lines, all is fluid, sinuous curves, imitating the spirals of snail and sea shells, plants and other organic entities. It’s a style known as biomorphic.

The house, completed in 1910 and occupied the following year, was commissioned by Pere Milà, a wealthy developer, and his wife Roser Segimón. This was Gaudí’s last civic architectural commission. It is perhaps his most daringly innovative design, with its unique framework structure and undulating façade and roofline. It even had an underground carpark.

By the 1980s the house had fallen into disrepair; it’s been sympathetically restored to a state as close as possible to Gaudí’s original vision.

La Pedrera roof terrace: helmets The self-guided tour of La Pedrera begins with its spectacular roof terrace on the sixth floor. The flamboyant staircase exits and ventilation shafts (I think that’s what they are) are given the designer’s trademark attention to detail. Instead of purely functional adjuncts to the building, they are works of sculptural art. What look like chimneys (but their purpose is a mystery) are designed to look like the torsos and heads of fierce guardian warriors or sentinels in medieval armour and helmets reminiscent of the famous Saxon one from Sutton Hoo. They’re known as the ‘witch scarers’, so I suppose their function and aesthetic is similar to that of gargoyles under church roofs.La Pedrera roof: warriors

From this rooftop there are marvellous views across the city. In one direction the sea can be seen shimmering about two kilometres away. In the other direction is the mountain range that looms over the city, with the slightly cheesy fake castle Tibidabo amusement attraction on its summit.

The top attic floor has an amazing ribbed vaulted ceiling. The curved beams are in fact all made of stone. The effect is meant to evoke the inside of a whale. There are scale models of the house on show here; Gaudí preferred to work from models like this rather than from drawings.

La Pedrera inside a whale attic

Inside a whale: the attic

One can visit several of the rooms on lower floors. Here there are countless examples of Gaudí’s idiosyncratic eye for detail. Even the doorknobs are little works of art, ergonomically designed to invite the hand to caress them before fulfilling their mundane purpose. On the main floor intended for the Milà family to live in he included his designs for every aspect of the décor, including the floors, ceilings, custom-made doors and even the furniture – all with his distinctive ‘organic’ as well as ergonomic flair.

The city has incorporated a tribute to this extraordinary architect’s legacy to Barcelona by paving the Passeig de Gracia, on which the Casa Milà is located, with small stone tiles etched with a flowing, plant-like design that he often used to decorate his structures.

The whole experience of this visit was exhilarating. It’s easy to dismiss Gaudí’s highly idiosyncratic style as over-fussy and quirky, and when this house was first built it was widely criticised: its nickname ‘La Pedrera’ was intended in a pejorative sense. But when you relax into it and let it wash over you it really takes your breath away. And of course La Sagrada Familia is his masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

Homage to (part of) Catalonia

The blog has been silent for a month or so while I travelled with Mrs TD to Catalunya to visit our son and his family, who live near Sant Cugat del Vallès, a few kilometres behind the mountain that looms over the city of Barcelona. I posted last about this area back in 2018 (link HERE). It was lovely to see them after an imposed separation of nearly two years (because of…well, you know.) Our two little grandsons, now six and seven, had changed so much since 2019.

S Cugat monastery tower

S Cugat monastery tower

It was interesting to see how compliant everyone in this part of Spain was with hygiene measures: everyone wore masks in indoor settings and on public transport, and in busy streets outdoors, and scrupulously observed social distancing. It remains a mystery to me why our British government remains implacably opposed to such simple and effective means of mitigating transmission of this deadly virus in the community.

Sant Cugat monastery and church.

We visited the handsome honey-coloured monastery at the centre of the town several times. Legend has it that the saint after whom the town is named was executed on the site of what became the Benedictine monastery.

Ayne Bru, Martyrdom of Sant Cugat

Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21929804

Born in 269 to a noble Christian family in Scillium on the N. African coast (modern-day Tunisia), Cucuphas (Cugat is the Catalan version) travelled to Barcelona to evangelise the area. During the Diocletian persecution he was imprisoned and tortured by the Roman governor of the area, and was martyred around 304. As my image shows – apologies for the gruesomeness – when all other efforts to dispatch him failed his throat was cut.

German-born artist Ayne Bru was commissioned in 1502-07 to paint the retablo (altarpiece) of the church of the monastery of Sant Cugat with scenes from the saint’s life. The monastery building can be seen in the background of the picture. The original is in a museum in Barcelona. I rather liked the insouciant sleeping dog in the foreground. This dog was reproduced in the 1954 painting by Salvador Dalí, ‘Dalí nude contemplating before the five regular bodies’ (I can’t include it here for copyright reasons, but it’s worth Googling). Dalí of course was born and brought up in Figueres nearby on the Catalunyan coast, and later returned to neighbouring Cadaqués, so would no doubt have been familiar with this image. Interesting that it was the dog that stuck in his memory, and not the graphic depiction of the demise of the martyr saint.

S Cugat monastery cloister

The monastery cloister. The lower level is romanesque, the upper floor is renaissance

The saint’s legend shares many of the topoi of other hagiographical accounts of early martyrdoms: multiple cruel types of torture fail to harm the victim, bad things befall the tormentors (or they’re converted to Christianity as a result of the miraculous preservation from physical injury of the prisoner at their torturers’ hands), etc.

From the eighth century the monastery of Sant Cugat claimed to preserve his relics and dedicated itself to his veneration.

Cal Gerrer

Cal Gerrer

Across the central town square from the monastery and church is the ornate modernist building now the museum Funcació Cabanas, popularly known as Cal Gerrer, formerly the Arpi family’s old ceramic factory. Built in 1853, it is famous for its incorporation into its design of some of its own pottery and gorgeous ceramic tiles (see the frieze under the roof eaves). There are many more modernist houses across the central town area, many featuring ceramics by the Arpis and others, along with decorative details that I’ll write about another time.

Cal Gerrer roof

Cal Gerrer roof: tiles and decoration made in the Arpi factory

From the early 1920s the house was occupied by members of the creative Cabanas-Alibau family. Three of the brothers became noted for their work in the fields of photography, painting and literature. Many of their artworks and family relics are exhibited in the museum. One floor, weirdly, is full of exhibits representing the life and career of

Arpi bat

I like the bat in this image of a detail of the front of Cal Gerrer

Marilyn Monroe.

More on Sant Cugat, Girona and Barcelona to come in future posts.

 

 

 

 

Recent fiction reading

After two posts on recent non-fiction, here’s a quick summary of recent fiction reading.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair Picador pb. (2018; first published 2017) I read The Line of Beauty years ago and enjoyed it, but this one I struggled with. David Sparsholt is first seen as a 17-year-old ‘new man’ at an Oxford college in 1939, lusted after by a group of Evelyn Waugh types. Years later he’s involved in a homosexual scandal which haunts his son, whose life is the subject of the rest of the novel. Louche socialites and some explicit sex should add up to a more engaging narrative, but it didn’t gel for me. I found them to be a self-indulgent bunch of shallow narcissists.

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire Bloomsbury pb. (2018, first published 2017) This was far better. A timely plot involves Muslim ‘fighters’, jihadi brides, and the families they’ve left behind in Britain; there’s also a Muslim home secretary whose role is compromised in this plot. In a nail-biting finale the family ties of the characters we’ve been introduced to with such compelling narrative skill are tested to the limit. It’s a retelling of the Antigone story.

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary Windmill pb. (2020) I’d read and heard good things about this, but was disappointed. Alternating narratives thread together two linked narratives: in the present day, Mallory is engaged in work on digitising the (unfinished) Swansby New Encyclopaedic Dictionary – a pale rival of the OED, and culling the ‘mountweazels’ or ghost/invented words included as a sort of linguistic-existential act of guerrilla lexicography by one of its original (deadly bored) clerical contributors. This is the subject of the second narrative thread: in 1899 Peter Winceworth is one of a huge staff working on the original version of the dictionary in the same building in which Mallory now toils half-heartedly as a low-paid intern. There’s a complicated, rather silly plot that’s entertainingly put together, and it’s all quite good fun – but insubstantial. The narrative voice is the best thing: Williams playfully savours the intricacies and textures of the English language.

William Trevor, The Children of Dynmouth Penguin pb. (2014; first published 1976) This also came highly recommended – JacquiWine’s blog in particular praised it. I’m afraid this one disappointed me as well. As always with William Trevor, it’s superbly well crafted, but I found the plot rather tacky and nasty. There’s a creepy central character, an obviously disturbed teenage boy who blackmails inhabitants of his small seaside town into helping him fulfil a bizarre plan to stage a macabre act he thinks of as comedy for the forthcoming church fête’s talent competition. That his routine is about a serial murderer of women indicates the depths of this lad’s depravity. As a portrayal of the murky depths beneath the bland surface of an apparently sleepy town it’s quite effective, but, oh dear, it’s not uplifting. I need a bit of a lift these days.

Benjamin Myers, The Offing cover Benjamin Myers, The Offing Bloomsbury pb. (2020, first published 2019) A coming of age novel that also failed to intrigue me. There’s some fine (sometimes over-written) nature writing, but the plot is clunky and the characterisation unconvincing. Another teenage lad undergoes a sort of extended epiphany when he meets a bohemian, artistic woman called Dulcie, who lives a kind of hermit’s life with her fine German shepherd dog in a cottage overlooking a bay on the coast of N. Yorkshire. It’s 1946, and the country is trying to heal itself after the war – and the boy is trying to find a direction in life that’s preferable to toiling down ‘the pit’ like his coal-mining forebears. Unfortunately I didn’t really care if things worked out for him, and Dulcie’s story, gradually revealed, invites us to believe she was in a circle that included every major artist and writer of the pre-war decades. The name-dropping becomes slightly ludicrous, and the dialogue Myers attributes to her is implausibly literary and polished.

 

 

Failures of State

Jonathan Calvert & George Arbuthnot, Failures of State: The inside story of Britain’s battle with Coronavirus, Mudlark hardback, 2021. 426 pp.

 Jonathan Calvert is the editor of The Sunday Times’s Insight investigative journalism team; George Arbuthnot is its deputy editor. Failures of State is their account of the disastrously inept handling by the British government – and PM Johnson in particular – of the Covid pandemic.

Failures of State front coverTheir tone is set in the prologue, where they juxtapose Johnson’s portentous ‘You must stay at home’ lockdown speech on 23 March last year with his characteristically preposterous, boastful image of ‘Clark Kent, champion of free market libertarianism’ in a speech he made a month earlier. They go on in the rest of the book to trace the chronology of the British government’s and PM’s failure to act swiftly or decisively enough to stop Britain becoming one of the world’s worst responders to the crisis, with some of the highest rates of infection and death in the developed world as a consequence.

The first chapter explores the obscure origins of the virus in China. Was it, as some believe, the result of an accidental leak from a research lab in Wuhan? This seems more feasible than the ‘bat cave’ source more usually identified – this is hundreds of miles away from Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. Whatever the case, the Chinese seem guilty of attempting a cover-up that resulted in catastrophic delays in the rest of the world’s response to the spread of the virus.

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’ is the title of the second chapter (Jan. – March 2020): despite ominous warning signs from Dec. 2019 and earlier, government failed to take the danger seriously. Johnson missed the first five meetings of Cobra (the national crisis committee), more interested in his own turbulent private life and his obsession with Brexit. He made light (like his chum the then-president of the USA) of this minor ‘flu’ virus. He allowed events like football matches and the Cheltenham horse race festival to take place – these became super-spreader events. Warnings from Sage (the expert scientific advisory group for emergencies) went largely unheeded. They still are today.

Subsequent chapters describe with chilling detail why the first lockdown in March was fatally too late, and this reluctance to take prompt, decisive action was to be repeated several times over the following months. Johnson and his chancellor, Sunak, prioritised the economy over public health. ‘Herd immunity’ was their heartless tactic (despite denials that this was the case). They dithered and delayed, allowing tens of thousands to suffer and die needlessly. Their mantra of ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ proved just more empty rhetoric – our health service was rapidly overwhelmed.

The then health secretary Hancock was as fond as his leader of making empty, sweeping boastful staments, from creating a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace system (that turned out to be useless) to claiming he’d put a protective ‘ring of steel’ round older people in care homes; the reverse turned out to be the case. Some 25,000 patients were controversially discharged from hospitals into care homes during the pandemic’s height, many of them ‘without first being tested.’ This had the effect of ‘dispersing the virus into the very place where Britain’s most vulnerable were supposed to have been shielded.’

It is one of the most scandalous facts of the lockdown weeks that hundreds of patients who had tested positive for the virus were also deliberately sent into care homes.

By 17 April 2020 there had been almost 10,000 excess deaths in care homes since the beginning of March. This was, the authors say, ‘another big but unsustainable claim.’ Johnson even told a parliamentary committee in May that ‘every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims.’ He was either badly informed, say the authors – or using language to obscure the truth: many of those discharged would have been asymptomatic, so even clinicians wouldn’t have suspected them of being infected without testing them. The reality was that there simply wasn’t the capacity to test so many.

There I’d better stop: it becomes to upsetting and infuriating to consider the evidence provided so meticulously in this book of this country’s leaders’ hopeless, dangerous and reckless response. What’s worse, Johnson and co. constantly claimed to be ‘following the science’, when all the data indicates they were not. Their dismal list of bad decisions precipitated the successive waves of infection and economic depression that afflicted this country more disastrously than in any other western country.

It’s dispiriting to read this relentless catalogue of mistakes made by the very leaders who should have been protecting their people. Their blunders and subsequent blustering denials that they’d done anything amiss resulted in millions more Covid cases in Britain than would have been experienced if they really had followed the advice of their scientific and medical advisers. Their decision to protect the economy and jobs instead produced the opposite outcome: Britain’s GDP suffered proportionately far more than most. As the bereaved families for justice group wearily stated, ‘they ignored us and repeated the same mistakes.’

They still are: we are seeing a million new cases a month in this country this autumn, and yet we’re being told to abandon all the protective measures we’d previously been adopting, as we’ve ‘come out the other side’ of the pandemic, as former health secretary Hancock was heard telling constituents the other day. Let’s hope that the public enquiry into these matters, which Johnson will have to face – he can’t keep delaying it indefinitely – will expose those responsible for ‘one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.’

 

How to become a good doctor

It’s been a busy month, and I have a backlog of books to post about. I’ll start with the first of a couple of non-fiction titles from recent reading: one about the process of becoming a doctor, the other about failing to protect the British people during the pandemic.

 Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions: A doctor’s story, Fleet hardback, 2021. 248 pp.

Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions front coverThe author graduated in 1995 with a degree in English, then, after a few jobs, became an editor at Grantamagazine. On an exotic beach she had an epiphany and decided at the age of 28 to become a doctor. A junior doctor she met gave her a tip for her medical school interview: when asked why she wanted to become a doctor, not to say ‘Because I want to help people’ – everyone says that. But that was the answer she gave.

Her training began in 2003. This book is her entertaining and illuminating account of that process, from F1 through to qualification, rotating through different specialties. When she decided to become a GP, her colleagues were incredulous: that was for those not good enough to become specialist surgeons or whatever.

I was alerted to this book by hearing Harrison interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 language programme ‘Word of Mouth’, in which she told Michael Rosen about those sections of the book dealing with the language used by clinicians. These were the most interesting parts of the book for me – though there are many fascinating sections about her other experiences.

Medical students were advised to talk to patients

in what we believed to be everyday speech, although it was in fact another language again: infantile, nursery-inflected. We called abdomens ‘tummies’ and warned ‘this might feel a little chilly’. We used soothing, neutered verbs. I learnt to ask patients to ‘pop’ off their clothes before ‘hopping’ up onto the bed, where I would just ‘slip’ this nameless thing I was holding up their noses or down their throats or up their ‘tail end’.

There was also the slangy practitioners’ jargon that often veered into dark humour (a kind of coping mechanism). And the specialised, obscure technical language of medical science, as Harrison shows from her anatomy classes:

 Once I had known that the thigh bone connected to the hip bone. Now I discovered that the iliofemoral ligament arises from the anterior inferior iliac spine and then bifurcates before inserting into the intertrochanteric line of the femur.

 Other chapters deal with Harrison’s learning about our bodies’ internal organs, end of life, observations, the heart, surgery and medicines (especially opiate addiction), women and babies (and her own experience of an emergency caesarean), and pain and how to describe and assess it meaningfully (you can’t).

The final chapter deals briefly with the Covid pandemic. Doctors, like the rest of us, had to learn quickly a whole new way of speaking and acting, with attendant acronyms: PPE, WFH. When a new consignment of boxes of protective aprons arrived at her GP surgery, a nurse exclaimed: ‘These are bin liners!’ Another practice had scrubs donated by patients, who had sewn together old sheets and duvet covers. In my next post I’ll discuss a highly critical account of the British government’s hopelessly inept response to this crisis, and its continuous stream of boastful misinformation about the horrific reality on what they liked to call ‘the front line’.

Ultimately in The Cure for Good Intentions it’s the author’s stories about people and the ailing, imperfect bodies we’re all born with that provide the energy and hope in this engaging account. We’re all going to get sick and decline at some stage – as we all know only too well during this pandemic – and we all fear this inevitable process. Thank goodness we have caring, humane doctors like Sophie Harrison to look after us when we do.

The final paragraph sums up what she learnt going through medical training and acquiring the new idiolects of the doctor’s world:

I had learnt, at least, that medicine was not about finding new ways to express yourself, or how nicely you could put together a sentence. It was about trying to understand what others meant, not just the words they said.

 

 

Dorset days: sculptures, sand, sea, a castle and a church

I haven’t posted here for a while because of work commitments, a week’s holiday in Dorset with Mrs TD and two old friends, then more work.

Poole harbour at sunset

The shallow waters of Poole harbour

We rented a house on Sandbanks, the weird spit of land, originally a string of sand dunes – just a few hundred metres wide and maybe a couple of kilometres long, sticking out into the huge natural harbour of Poole, on the south coast of England. Sandbanks is said to have some of the most expensive real estate in England: there are huge glass and steel architectural fantasies, mock-Spanish colonial mansions, art deco ship-houses, and a scattering of the original pre-WWII houses of more humble proportions. It’s a cross between Beverley Hills and Bournemouth (just a mile or two up the coast, and much more down-market). How they managed to build massive houses on foundations of sand defeats me.

Our house was one of the originals, built in the mid-30s: art and crafts, with terracotta tiles and attractive angles and details. It was right by the terminal of the chain car-ferry that plies across the narrow entrance to the harbour, linking Sandbanks with the mainland promontory on the far side of the harbour at Studland. Gin palaces, yachts, jet skis and pleasure boats constantly sailed or buzzed past, playthings of the wealthy holiday-home owners who were our temporary neighbours.

There was an air fair at Bournemouth the first weekend. We were aghast to hear that a biplane with a wing-walker that we’d seen fly over our garden had crashed into the harbour near the ferry terminal just minutes after we’d been sitting on a bench admiring the view there. Fortunately, the pilot and passenger survived with just minor injuries.

Grandees scupture by lake

These striking figures are called ‘Grandees’. They look a cross between Egyptian gods and revellers at a Venice carnival

The highlight of the week was a visit to Sculpture by the Lakes. Simon Gudgeon gave up his city job to buy a former lake fishery to concentrate on his sculpting – especially his beautifully graceful images of birds and aquatic animals. He positioned some around the picturesque pools, where they fit beautifully, and finally decided, as the collection grew, to include sculptures by other artists, and to open the place to the public. My favourites are included here.

Falcon sculpture

This falcon is one of the many birds and animal sculptures that blend so naturally into the lovely lakeside setting

 

Another day we took the ferry across to Studland and on to Swanage on the local bus (to avoid the massive queues of cars; buses have priority). After lunch on the promenade, we caught the vintage steam train for the short trip to Corfe Castle.

Corfe CastleThis is a dramatic ruin on top of an implausibly high, steep hill. Its construction started under William I a few years after his victory at Hastings in 1066. Subsequent monarchs extended and modified it until it passed into private aristocratic family ownership. During the Civil War in the mid-17C the family supported the Royalist cause of King Charles I. They were besieged and defeated by the Parliamentarians, who destroyed the castle to prevent it being used for military purposes again. Handsome grey sheep graze the rich undergrowth on the hillsides beneath the walls.

For most of the week we had beautiful sunny weather, and were able to spend time on the beach and swimming in the (not so cold) sea. With a bit of imagination the miles-long sandy beach could have been mistaken for South Beach, Miami (without the pastel lifeguard posts).

Towards the end of the week the weather changed: cloud and mist. The queues of cars for the ferry dwindled, so we were able to take the car across to Studland and do the coastal walk to Old Harry rocks – huge pillars of chalk at the end of a headland. A group of coastguards was preparing to do a cliff rescue exercise, with abseil ropes and crash helmets. I would not want to launch myself off those cliffs, even with a harness and rope.

Studland church After lunch in the garden at the famous Pig on the Beach (pizzas called rather grandly ‘flatbreads’ – delicious, and a pint of local ale) we walked to Studland church. This is one of the oldest surviving churches in England, almost unchanged since it was modified from its Saxon original form by the Normans in the 11C (around the time Corfe Castle was being built). The tower was never finished (the masons were worried about the soggy, sandy foundations – something that the builders of mansions on Sandbanks don’t seem perturbed by), so the building looks more like a fortress. The windows are mostly tiny and plain glass – no fancy gothic arches, buttresses or stained glass windows (apart from a couple of gaudy Victorian ones).

Studland corbels One of its most curious features is the sequence of carved corbels under the eaves of the roof. Many of these would have been familiar to early Saxons and Celts: animal heads and human faces with bulging eyes, looping amorphous creatures. But also some that could only be described as downright rude: naked exhibitionist figures – ithyphallic males and the notorious female sheela na gig. These may well have served as apotropaic figures (to ward off evil; I did a post on this in the early months of this blog – link HERE.) Others believe that they were survivals from the days of pagan fertility deities, or more austere warnings against the sins of the flesh (strange way to do it).

Now, back home, our case numbers of Covid are frighteningly high, the government repeats its ‘don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, let’s get back to normal’ mantras of the past (disastrous) 18 months, and drops all public health restrictions – even as scientists yet again plead for caution, unheeded. A week in Dorset was therapeutic, but its benefits quickly evaporated as we brace ourselves for yet more unnecessary pandemic suffering as a consequence of our leaders’ obduracy: economy, selfish notions of ‘individual liberty’, and free market capitalism taking priority over lives and people’s health and safety.

Smiley, Oates, Hannah, Dandicat: the last four Granta American long stories

Smiley, Hannah, Dandicat: the last Granta American long stories

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverMy fifth and final post about Richard Ford’s collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story will be a quick note on the remaining four stories. Very quick, in one case.

Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief (1987). I don’t recall a story about a married pair of dentists before. This is one of the better stories in the collection, a touching account told from the husband’s viewpoint. His wife is having an affair, but he’s not a man who likes talking about their relationship – or about anything much – so he avoids confronting her about it. If she doesn’t confess, he can somehow cope. Smiley creates an engaging, affecting picture of this family and each character in it – there are three little girls as well – and I found myself wanting them to come through this crisis. It’s one of the least grim or depressing stories in the collection, despite this rather painful storyline.

Joyce Carol Oates, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990). This is probably the best in the book. Although it also deals with some emotionally fraught themes, it’s told with quiet authority. The central character, who calls herself Calla (like the lily), has the given name Edith Honeystone. She’s from a family of farmers in the Chautauqua river valley, Colorado.

The feckless father has lost most of his land, and finally absconds. Mother dies, too. Calla has always been mutinous, ‘a difficult child’, wilful, solitary, self-contained, intractable. She’s possibly ‘touched in the head’, whisper the locals – or maybe she’s of ‘unusual intelligence and sensitivity.’ When the scary schoolteacher in the tough country school attempts to whip her with her willow branch, Calla deftly seizes it from her – something even the tall, strong farm boys hadn’t dared or been able to do – and strikes her ‘full in the face’ with it.

Aged only 17 she accepts the offer of marriage from an ugly, earnest little ‘gnomish’ 39-year-old German farmer called George – ‘but with character, distinction’. She doesn’t love him, so why does she agree to marry him? To escape from her relatives’ house, or because of over-confidence and exultation in her sexual power over him?

This question is posed by the narrator, Calla’s granddaughter, who’s telling the story of her wild grandmother’s youth (Calla was born in 1890), wondering if her ‘mad’ blood courses through her own veins.

At first Calla refuses to let George touch her, then a change takes place and she has three children. She still frequently takes herself off alone into the wild country, and sleeps goodness knows where, coming back dishevelled and filthy, something she’d done since she was a child. She’s not unhappy, but retreats into her ‘aloneness’. Never once does she reveal her personal, secret name to her husband.

George’s disapproving mother, who lives with them, thinks Calla is ‘feral’, a disgrace, a bad mother and wife. She’s not wrong, but can’t begin to understand this complex, shameless young woman.

There’s a crisis, of course, and Calla’s disgrace is worsened considerably in the eyes of her husband, his family, and the community. What follows comes close to being both tragic and epic.

Barry Hannah, Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face? (1993) This strange sentence never figures in the story. I didn’t enjoy it. A troubled father-son relationship that I cared nothing about.

Edwidge Dandicat, Caroline’s Wedding (1995). This was much better, the second-best story in the collection. A charming, heart-warming portrayal (by an author of Haitian heritage) of the loving family of Haitian Americans in Brooklyn: sisters Grace, who’s excited to have just been given her US passport; her younger sister Caroline, who is a US citizen, having been born there; and their mother, still at heart a Haitian, who finds American life brash and alien. She’s still more comfortable speaking Creole than English, unlike her assimilated daughters.

The mother disapproves of Caroline’s fiancé, a Bahamian. Why can’t she find a nice Haitian boy? The story traces the days through the wedding preparations, the ceremony itself in a registry office (to mother’s consternation), and the wedding meal afterwards.

Mother’s solution to all problems is to make soup out of cows’ bones. She and the girls are still close enough to their roots to believe that the spirits of the dead, including that of the late husband and father, return to importune the living. As a sort of apotropaic defence, mother insists the girls, still at school at the time of his death, wore red pants, because ghosts don’t like the colour of blood. Secretly, the girls wear black ones, because they miss their father and would quite like him to communicate with them.

The sisters are American, but still play the word games their father taught them from his Haitian heritage. The same with their exchanges of proverbs, folklore and the everyday interpenetration of the natural and supernatural worlds.

Each character comes fully to life on the page. Their relationships are loving but spiky, and the clashes or tensions between the girls’ generation and new culture and their mother’s are dramatized with insight and deep sympathy. At last a story that’s not grim or depressing, but neither is it sentimental.