Three books

Walking to and from the shop today (to buy soft food for Mrs TD, who has toothache and is feeling wretched; her dentist recommends root canal work – poor thing) I listened on my phone to the BBC Radio 4 podcast of their weekly book programme, ‘A Good Read’. It’s one of several literary podcasts I subscribe to (I did a piece on this and related topics a while back HERE).

This was last week’s show (link HERE). Guests were the journalist Grace Dent and comedy writer Sian Harries. All three books they chose (presenter Harriet Gilbert gets to speak about her choice each week – she has good taste) gave rise to some interesting discussion:

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart (2015)

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015)

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

I posted on the fabulous Pym’s book a couple of years ago – she’s sharp and funny. In discussing the book Dent, Harries and Harriet Gilbert speculate whether men would like this sort of novel; I can answer that – she’s one of my favourite authors. My posts the seven novels of hers that I’ve read so far can be found HERE.

I hadn’t heard of (or, more accurately, realised I’d heard of) Lissa Evans or Crooked Heart, her fourth novel for adults (she’s also written children’s books). From the account given of it in the podcast it’s definitely going on the To Read list.

According to Wikipedia she qualified as a doctor in 1983, then had a career in stand-up comedy, was a TV and radio producer and director (including the excellent Father Ted). Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (published 2009) were longlisted for literary prizes. The latter was filmed as Their Finest a year or two ago, and I found it ok as entertainment; maybe the novel is more substantial.

Just looked her up on Amazon and see that her novel Old Baggage, that came out in the UK this summer, is one I’ve seen in the bookshops and passed over.

I’d resisted the Max Porter partly because of the hype about it when it was published, and also because of its subject: grief and bereavement. It just didn’t appeal. Now that I’ve listened to this thoughtful trio of readers discussing it, and having read this review by Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian when it was published, I think I’ll add this title to the list, too.

I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who’s read either the Evans or the Porter novels: are they as good as this podcast suggested? As for the Pym: well, I recommend her work wholeheartedly: beneath the slight exterior (timid or anxious spinsters, vicars and jumble sales, caddish chaps, etc.) her novels are pulsing with intelligence and wit.

I’d started working on a post about Angela Thirkell, but that will have to be completed another day.

Lost at sea: Charles Quimper, In Every Wave

Charles Quimper, In Every Wave. QC Fiction, available from 1 November 2018. First published 2017 as Marée montante

In a recent interview in the online magazine Québec Reads Charles Quimper was asked:

What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?

 

An inwardness of character, I think, and a complexity in the emotions they experience. There’s a toughness, a harshness of tone that’s difficult to capture or define in just a few words.

This sums up the first-person narrative – monologue – and the narrator’s tangled, indefinable sensations and emotions in Quimper’s first novel, In Every Wave.

Quimper Every Wave coverIt belongs to that sub-genre of fiction which deals with a parent’s anguish and torment at the loss of a child. Ian McEwan is the only example that comes to mind (toddler goes missing in supermarket), but I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten about.

In the same interview the author says that it’s a novel’s ‘opening lines that grab my attention. They have to land, leave their mark. I enjoy discovering images that are still new to me, scenes made up of words that leave me in a swirl of ideas.’ Here’s the opening paragraph of his novel:

It was June when I set sail on my boat’s maiden voyage. I carried the bare essentials. A few pounds of supplies, your little pink box, a battleships game, and the endless echo of our days together.

I’m not sure ‘harshness of tone’ is what he does here, though there’s a brittle matter-of-factness masking the pain underneath. The two short, simple sentences are deceptive, their apparent confidence waylaid by the heartbreaking list of stores that’s given in that long, swirling third sentence – all addressed to the lost child. After the mundane, trivial objects, with their connotations of seafaring and childhood, we get that tortured abstract noun phrase signifying emptiness, loss, bereavement.

What follows is a poetic evocation of the father’s descent into personal hell as he tries to come to terms with the death of his little girl. The narrative is slippery and unreliable: we’re given three different accounts of how she died. It’s as if the detail is immaterial; it’s only the grim fact that she’s dead that counts. The rest is narrative.

As he builds his ship of death, then sails it on an increasingly fantastic voyage reminiscent of legendary travellers like St Brendan and Mandeville, one is invited to share all that’s happening in his head, as in Golding’s Pincher Martin. He’s in such inner turmoil he’s incapable of distinguishing the material world, which increasingly lacks definition for him, from the infernal zone he’s trapped or adrift in with memories of his equally lost, unanchored little girl.

It’s impossible to read this novella – it’s less than eighty pages long – without partaking in that parental torment. Quimper takes us to places most of us hope never to go in real life, creating a work of art out of imagined catastrophe.

The translation by Guil Lefebvre is seamless and fluent: it can’t have been easy to render this heightened language from the French, yet he’s produced a version that reads idiomatically and smoothly – the sign of a good translation is that the reader is never conscious of reading something translated.

QC Fiction continue to produce an impressively varied and consistently interesting sequence of prose fiction titles.

There are fuller accounts at the following blogs:

Stu at Winstonsdad

Tony at Tony’s Reading List

ARC courtesy of QC Fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rail trip, pt 2: Grindelwald and the Swiss Alps

First cablecar trip

View from above the First cable-car station, high above Grindelwald

After London and Colmar (see previous post) Grindelwald in Switzerland was our base for another week. It’s a beautiful village clustered under the Eiger and other peaks in the Alps, served since 1890 by BOB, which we eventually discovered was nothing to do with an English builder, but the Bernese Oberland Bahn: the local railway.

When we were travelling across Europe by train Mrs TD and I struck up a friendship with a charming couple, H and M, who’d run a school for years. M has a wicked sense of humour (offset by a baffling love of golf) and enjoyed setting challenges for us. His first: what’s the meaning of the name Grindelwald? (Nothing to do with JKR and the annoying Potter person). I knew that ‘wald’ was forest or wood, so ‘Grindel’ must be a version of Grendel, the monster dispatched by Beowulf in the Old English epic poem – so ‘monster-wood’. No, said M. Nothing to do with monsters. It’s from old German-Celtic for ‘a piece of wood serving as a barrier’ – so it’s the valley blocked off from the rest of the world. Suggests the source of Grindelwald’s other-worldly tranquillity (despite the tourists).

We taught M and H to check the number of steps they’d taken each day on their phones – another challenge: who could do the most steps each day? It all became very competitive. On one occasion I noticed M doing a little circular jig on Grindelwald station platform as we waited for a train, just to increase his step count. Shameless.

Bachalpsee

Bachalpsee

Our first trip took us up via a scarily vertiginous cable-car to First ridge, where we hiked up to the lake of Bachalpsee. Resting by the lake we were stirred by the haunting melody of an alpenhorn. It took a few minutes to locate the source of the music; eventually we spotted a man with his alpenhorn, standing on a peak hundreds of metres above us, playing. The sound resonated round the natural mountain amphitheatre – magical.

Eiger North face

Below the N face of the Eiger.

Most of the people on holiday around Grindelwald were from S. Korea, Japan or China. I know this because another of M’s challenges was to interview as many of these tourists as we could to determine where they were from.

Eiger trail

Looking back down the Eiger trail towards Alpiglen

Backfired on one occasion; I asked a couple who looked Chinese (and were talking in what I took to be Mandarin) where they were from. ‘Actually, London,’ they said.

Another day we took the local train to Alpiglen and walked as far as we could up the trail that’s at the foot of the infamous north face of the Eiger. When the going became vertical we chickened out and retraced our steps, but not before Mrs TD had to resort to humming and singing as we walked through a meadow full of tranquil, handsome cows of a curious shade of grey-violet, with long white eyelashes; she’s very scared of cows. They all wore huge cowbells that could be heard for miles. I suppose that’s the point.

We had coffee one morning on a terrace by Brienzersee, waiting for the little steam rack train to take us up to Rothorn mountain. By the entrance to the hotel was a statue of Goethe, and a plaque saying he’d stayed there.

Alpine cow

Ferocious Alpine cow

I was slightly disappointed to see little local wildlife on the trip. Marmots and ibex were seen by some in our group, but all I managed was the ridiculously tame alpine choughs, which scrounged food at Jungfrau and most other popular tourist spots, like importunate sable Cornish seagulls.

I did see an albino deer with splendid antlers near Interlaken, but it was made of wood.

We often saw signs for a St Petronella route in the mountains. She was an early Roman virgin martyr, said to have been so beautiful her father (possibly St Peter) locked her in a tower to keep her safe from potential suitors. A pagan king wanted to marry her (how did they meet? Did he break in?) so she starved herself to death. It’s more likely she met a traditional martyr’s death.

Jungfrau view from top

View from Jungfraujoch

So why the trails and chapels in the Alps? Because she’s the patron of mountain travellers. I haven’t been able to establish why. Maybe the ‘rock’ element of her name.

We’d never travelled as part of an organised group of 40, with a tour guide to shepherd us. We’d always gone independently. We were a little apprehensive when we first met our fellow travellers at St Pancras. But all went well, and we had a great time, meeting some lovely people.

Jungfrau: Alpine chough

An alpine chough scrounging for titbits from the Jungfrau tourists.

One chap of 86 was perhaps the most intrepid among us. He took a sort of go-kart down from the First summit, and later a zipwire over a precipice. He’d regularly hike off on his own for hours, fitter and braver than us all. Hope I have even half of his energy if I reach his age.

Eliot has a character in his 1922 poem The Waste Land called Marie, probably the Bavarian countess Larisch; recalling a sled trip, presumably in the Alps south of Munich, with her cousin the arch-duke, she’s at first frightened but he tells her to ‘hold on tight’ and ‘down we went’. She exclaims: ‘In the mountains, there you feel free.’ I’d always taken this as an indication of what Eliot took to be her vitality (after the boring social coffees and smalltalk in Munich’s Hofgarten) but also perhaps her

Jungfrau glacier, looking up at the Sphinx observatory

Jungfrau glacier, looking up at the Sphinx observatory

superficial gushing and aristocratic sentimentality – or even a sexual frisson as she and her cousin embraced on their exhilarating descent. Whatever Eliot meant, a rousing sense of awe and freedom is something we all experienced in the Swiss Alps.

Lake Brienz

Brienzersee seen from the top of Rothorn range. The water is turquoise because of the ‘rock flour’ sediments washed down by glacial rivers

Rail trip, pt 1: BL, St Pancras, Colmar

I’ve just returned with Mrs TD from a wonderful holiday by rail to Switzerland via London and Colmar. As I prepared a narrative with pictures I realised it would need more than one post.

After travelling from Cornwall by train to London we checked into our hotel in that literary hotbed, Bloomsbury (home of the Virginia Woolf burger), then walked to the British Library. I’d worked often in the old home of the BL in the British Museum, usually in the manuscripts reading room or the old, domed Reading Room, now an exhibition area and café. This was the first time I’d entered the new place.

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi in the square in front of the BL

The outside of the building is rather forbidding and prison-like, with a huge number of red bricks and very few windows. Inside is airy and bright. We looked in the Treasures room and marvelled at some beautiful manuscripts and books. Must go back and have a proper look. There are some interesting touches and humorous details, like the bench in the shape of a book, chained to a huge cannonball to stop it being stolen – a witty take on medieval chained libraries, like the one at Hereford.

BL chained bench

We had to move on to St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where we were to meet old friends for a drink prior to a meal at the new Ottolenghi restaurant near Oxford St (delicious).

I remember this imposing Victorian Gothic cathedral to the train from my student days when I often passed through the station on trips to London from Luton, where I lived for a few. Like the BL, it’s a brick structure, but of contrasting colours. It was designed by Gilbert Scott and opened as a hotel and rail terminus in 1873. It was refurbished, restored and reopened as a sumptuous hotel in 2011, having narrowly escaped demolition.

St Pancras Renaissance bar

The bar where we had our g & t, in the splendid old booking hall of the station

Who was St Pancras? A Roman Christian convert, martyred at the age of 14 during the Diocletian persecutions around 304. He’s known as one of the ‘ice saints’, a trio whose feast days fall between May 11-13, dates which in northern Europe are traditionally believed to bring the last frosts of spring.

St Pancras old church, further along Euston Road, is one of the oldest Christian sites in England.

Often confused with St Pancreas.

Next morning via Eurostar to Colmar, and old town in Alsace, France. We stayed with our group in the hotel opposite the station, another fine example of the late 19C fashion for grand statements of steam power.

Colmar station at night

Colmar station at night

Colmar station in daylight

Colmar station in daylight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d never been to this part of Alsace. It was part of Germany from 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, then returned to France after WWI in 1919. The old town is lovely, full of wooden-framed and gabled houses, very Germanic. The central area around the canal is known justifiably as Little Venice. Breakfast on the terrace outside the old covered market, where farmers would land their produce for sale, boated in from the country farms. Nowadays electric-powered punts ply tourists along the tranquil canal. The bridges are so low they all have to duck their heads when passing under them.

Colmar timbered houses

Colmar timbered houses

At lunchtime we boarded another train and headed for Grindelwald, Switzerland, via Basel and Interlaken.

I took with me to read a novel by Patricia Highsmith (I posted on her novel Carol last year HERE ) and a collection of prose pieces by Swiss author Robert Walser, both of whom have featured here at TDays. Our days were so full, however, I didn’t get much time for reading, and only finished the Highsmith earlier today, back in Cornwall. More on that another time, too.

Here’s a taster of what we were about to experience in the breathtakingly beautiful Swiss Alps. More on this part of the trip next time…

Hotel view: the Eiger

This was the view from one of two terraces to our hotel room: the Eiger

View from the hotel room's other terrace

And this is the view from the terrace at the side of our room: another mountain – I think the Wetterhorn

Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good Company

Some of my recent reading about the 1936-39 Spanish Civil war was inspired by my recent visit to Catalonia: I’ve posted on Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain; George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia; back in 2014 I wrote about Javier Cercas’ semi-fictional Soldiers of Salamisin which the lives of real and possibly imagined heroes of that terrible conflict are recounted in the context of the post-Franco ‘pact of forgetting’ – la desmemoria. In 2000 the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was founded; here’s what they say on their website:

In the spring of 2002, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called on the Spanish Government to comply with international law, calling on Spain to: undertake a proper exhumation of the bodies; return the remains to family members; arrange for their proper burial; and undertake a judicial investigation of the facts surrounding the disappearances.

Such developments have enabled the ARHM to campaign for the exhumation of the graves of the estimated 134,000 who disappeared during the war, and in the Franco dictatorship in Spain 1939-75:

It is estimated that 200,000 men and women were killed in extrajudicial executions during the War, and another 20,000 Republicans murdered by the regime in the post-war years. Thousands more died as a result of bombings, and in prisons and concentration camps. [ARHM website]

The recent news of the pending exhumation of Franco’s body from its grandiose tomb at the Valley of the Fallen complex 30 miles from Madrid, where lie buried some 34,000 bodies – most unidentified – from both sides of the conflict has led to calls for a South African-style ‘truth commission’ in Spain. It’s to be hoped that this will end the ‘desmemoria’, and enable exhumation, identification and decent burial of as many of those victims of the fascist era as possible. (I’m reminded as I write this of Javier Marías’s treatment of this theme in many of his novels).

Cover of Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good CompanyPulitzer Prizewinning author Richard Rhodes has produced in Hell and Good Company something rather different from the standard and well-known histories of the war by the likes of Hugh Thomas, Anthony Beevor and Paul Preston. He does give a highly readable, well researched chronological account of the war, from Franco’s shipping over thousands of Moorish mercenaries to support his coup against the democratically elected socialist Republican government, to his ultimate victory, taking Barcelona and finally Valencia, whence the government had decamped from besieged Madrid.

Also well known, and retold here, is the story of the military support provided to Franco by the shambolic but ruthless Italian duce and by Hitler – who cynically held back some of his troops and munitions to ensure the war dragged on as long as possible, to distract the attention of the British and French from his own sinister preparations for world domination.

Rhodes gives us the familiar stories of the big names associated with the war, including writers Orwell, Hemingway, Gellhorn and Dos Passos, and artists Picasso and the Catalan Miró. More interesting are the profiles of less prominent participants, from volunteers in the International Brigade to doctors and nurses (like Patience Darton) who pioneered medical and technological developments such as blood collection systems and the methods for preserving and subsequently using the stored blood in field-hospital transfusions – or simply made huge personal sacrifices in their struggle against the larger, better trained and better equipped fascist Nationalists.

The western democracies and the USSR effectively abandoned the anti-fascist Republic, while fascist states leapt at the chance to crush a leftist regime while establishing a strategically vital political-geographical foothold in preparation for the world war to come:

[French and British] businessmen allowed Franco to order on credit; Germany and Italy supplied him in exchange for shipments of Spanish minerals. The Soviet Union required the Spanish Republic to pay in gold, however, for its strictly commercial transactions. Spain shipped $518 million in gold to the USSR in late 1936, primarily to move it beyond the reach of Franco’s forces.

The Republic’s only major ally and supporter, the Soviet Union, gradually lost what little enthusiasm it had for the anti-fascist cause, and proved to be as cynical in its policies during the war as the Nationalists were murderous. Stalin seemed more anxious to eliminate anti-fascist, pro-Republican fighters like the POUM and the anarchists, as Orwell recorded, than to defeat Franco.

Particularly chilling are the accounts of the growing sophistication and thoroughness of the fascist aerial bombing campaigns that were to become such a feature in WWII; Spain was the testing-ground for Hitler’s infamous blitzkrieg – targeting and near-annihilation of largely civilian urban populations. Most famous, and related in sobering detail by Rhodes, was Guernica. The obliteration of the symbolic heart of the Basque Country by the ruthless German Condor Legion finally persuaded Picasso in Paris to paint his famous mural and openly declare his opposition to the fascist coup.

Despite shelters, Haldane reports that nationwide, up to May 1938, the number of Spanish children known to have been killed by bombing was 10,760…Civilian deaths from Franco’s bombing raids throughout Spain would total around 54.000 men, women and children among more than 100,000 civilian casualties from bombing alone.

The hardships endured by the thousands of Basque women and children evacuees foreshadowed the shameful anti-refugee callousness being witnessed again in Europe and elsewhere today. Near the end of the book Rhodes has this quotation from the Caudillo:

“Our regime”, Franco announced grandly [after his victory parade in Madrid], “is based on bayonets and blood, not on hypocritical elections”.

The ARHM website reminds us of Spanish-born philosopher Santayana’s famous statement, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. As one contemplates the anti-democratic behaviour of some of the western world’s leaders, and the disturbing rise of the forces of reactionary nationalist chauvinism, these are salutary words.

Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World it Made is a Simon and Schuster paperback, published 2016. Unfortunately the black-and-white photo glossy plates numbered 15-26 in my edition are given twice; numbers 1-14 therefore are missing – annoying.

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. First published by George Smith (of Smith, Elder & co.) in 32 monthly parts, each one with an illustration by George H. Thomas, 1866-67; 2-vol. edition 1867 (there’s a feature on these images at the Trollope Jupiter blog HERE; the Jimandellen blog has a detailed account with reproductions HERE)

For a more general feature on Trollope and his illustrators there’s a useful guide by Simon Cooke at the Victorian Web site HERE

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition depicts 'The Bromley Family', 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

The cover of my 900-page Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition depicts ‘The Bromley Family’, 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

In this sixth and final Barsetshire novel (I’ve posted on the previous five earlier this year) Trollope reworks some familiar themes from the previous volumes, especially the central feature – the threat to rural-pastoral peace from metropolitan and other destabilising agents. This is achieved when in the final chapters the troubled and penniless Rev. Crawley replaces Harding in the role of vicar of St Ewold’s, which the former warden of Hiram’s Hospital took on when he resigned that post as a matter of honour and morality in the first novel in the chronicles: The Warden. He is thereby accepted fully for the first time as a ‘gentleman’ into the contemporary Barsetshire clerical circle, while symbolically inheriting from the saintly Harding the role of guardian of its traditional moral values. He’ll fulfil that role with less charm and self-effacing grace than his predecessor, but with the stern asceticism of St Simeon Stylites – with whom he’s overtly compared in Ch. 41, when he pushes himself to physical and mental breaking point in his parochial duties as a way of atoning for his failings (he’d been charged with the theft of a £20 cheque):

He would spare himself in nothing, though he might suffer even to fainting…But he would persevere…No personal suffering should deter him. He told himself that there had been men in the world whose sufferings were sharper even than his own. Of what sort had been the life of the man who had stood for years on the top of a pillar? But then the man on the pillar had been honoured by all around him. And thus, though he had thought of the man on the pillar to encourage himself by remembering how lamentable had been that man’s sufferings, he came to reflect that after all his own sufferings were perhaps keener than those of the man on the pillar. [ellipses mine]

Trollope has become a skilled and often subtle narrator of these otherwise rather creaky and glacially-paced plots – the mystery of the provenance of Crawley’s cheque isn’t resolved until p. 757 of this 900-page novel, largely because the person who could have cleared his name is conveniently out of the country and incommunicado. Those looping verbal repetitions (in the quotation above) demonstrate Crawley’s tendency symbolically to flagellate himself in order to show how he can outdo the world in inflicting pain and suffering on himself, while railing at the world’s failure to esteem him. This tendency has been largely responsible for the frequently-expressed view in his community that he’s prickly, proud and obsessive to the point of insanity (young Lord Lufton, a key character from earlier volumes in the series, calls him a ‘poor, cracked, crazy creature’). His bizarre forgetting where he obtained that cheque is typical of his manic, half-mad eccentricity and morose self-absorption. His self-pity at the ‘trials’ of poverty he suffers as a member of the ‘poor gentry’ verges on the monstrous, especially in his overbearing, patriarchal treatment of his children and his indulgent wife, whose love and devotion to him never falters, even when he’s at his most high-handed and bitter. Indeed, Mrs Crawley, who ‘saw clearly the workings of his mind’, perceives that he was

good and yet weak, that he was afflicted by false pride and supported by true pride, that his intellect was still very bright, yet so dismally obscured on many sides as almost to justify people in saying that he was mad. She knew that he was almost a saint, and yet almost a castaway through vanity and hatred of those above him.

This astute insight into her husband’s grotesquely conflicted, flawed character from one of Trollope’s typically wise, sympathetic mature women is again highlighted by that telling use of repetition and the symmetrical balancing of synonyms with their antonyms, enhanced by the spot-on rhythm, imagery and cadence of the sentences.

This narrative skill changes up a gear in the next sentence:

But she did not know that he knew all this of himself also.

She does not comprehend that he castigates himself constantly with the knowledge that people ‘were calling him mad and were so calling him with truth’, and neither does she ‘dream’ that ‘he was always inquiring of himself whether he was not mad’, and should therefore resign his pastoral office.

Even as shrewd an observer of this difficult man’s complex nature as his wife is surpassed by our narrator in psychological perspicacity – and all of this conveyed with a subtlety and sympathy that in other Victorian novelists would be praised as genius.

GH Thomas illustration of the Crawleys

Image above of the Crawleys at the Victorian Web Here:

This bleak and imposing design is Thomas’s first illustration and establishes the anguished tone of the Crawleys’ narrative. Though modelled on Millais’s earlier design for Framley Parsonage, it shows the reverend and his wife in later years; both have aged and their economic circumstances have declined from poverty into penury. The glum ambience is powerfully conveyed by the worried gestures and glances and the emptiness of the room suggests both material poverty and the emptiness of anxiety. [Simon Cooke, cited above]

This is a superb ending to the Barsetshire novels. The three sub-plots are less satisfying than that of the public humiliation and redemption of Crawley: Trollope’s lack of sustained interest in romantic plots is apparent in his recycling of the doomed Lily Dale-Johnny Eames affair from the previous novel – he even gives Eames another foolish and dangerous romantic London dalliance to take his mind of his humiliating, dogged pursuit of annoying country belle Lily. Trollope also returns to his staple plot of a spirited son’s defiance of parental disapproval of his choice of wife whose lowly social-financial status is their main concern (Henry Grantly and Crawley’s daughter Grace). The other London plot involving a society artist’s flirtation with a woman married to a dodgy city ‘financier’ (usurer/loan-shark) is more lively and exciting, but skirts close to farce towards its end – as the Johnny Eames flirtation plot does.

What lingers in the memory after finishing this fine, uneven novel is the portrayal of noble, heroic, infuriating Crawley, wallowing in self-pity and rancour, spurning the kind offers of aid from his loving friends and family, but capable of facing down the bullying of Mrs Proudie, and of providing genuine support and comfort to the oppressed brickmakers and their families who live in his impoverished parish.

Good to see the indomitable Miss Dunstable, now Mrs Thorne, reappear and provide moral sustenance for faltering lovers – though even she’s incapable of enlightening the ‘morbid’ tenacity of Lily’s infatuation with the scoundrel Crosbie.

Catalunya one year on

Exactly one year after my long road trip with TD jr and two cats from Berlin to his family’s new home at Sant Cugat, near Barcelona, Mrs TD and I revisited the new house to which they moved a few months later. It’s in a community called La Floresta, some kms nearer the city, on the other side of the mountain that looms over Catalunya’s capital.

Early in the week we drove into Sant Cugat to the Mercantic antique market. There is found the most amazing bookshop: part of it is in what must once have been a cinema or theatre: the curtains are still there, and some of the seats. Next to the main store is a buzzy bar, also lined with books.

Theatre bookshop Sant Cugat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day we went to the seaside resort of Sitges, some 30 kms down the coast from Barcelona. Flags were draped everywhere to celebrate the Fiesta Mayor the previous week. Then the town goes crazy, in honour of the town’s patron saint, Bartomeu. Here’s a link to a site with images of the celebrations, including a trailer for a documentary on the week’s festivities

S Bartomeu flag

S Bartomeu’s flag, with that of the town of Sitges (presumably: it was seen on nearly every balcony)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later this month is the slightly less elaborate fiesta of Saint Tecla:

S Tecla flag

 

 

 

 

A couple of days later we were on the way home when out of the forest and on to the road round the corner from TD jr’s house came a mother wild boar and her family of babies. My snap was taken hurriedly through the car’s rear window, and quality has suffered where I’ve enlarged the image:

Family of wild boar

 

 

 

 

 

 

Near the end of the week we took the local train to the city and on via the R line to Sant Pol, 30 km north. The railway line skirts the coast all the way, with sandy beaches right next to the line:

Line outside Sant Pol station

Line outside Sant Pol station

There are some lovely old buildings in the town; the bougainvillea tumbling down the side of this one was glorious, and the hibiscus put to shame my own puny plant at home, which produced just two blooms this summer for the first time in four years.

Old house Sant Pol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a week with two small grandchildren we spent our last days in the city having grown-up time. This was the view from our hotel window – the magnificent Gaudi house, Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

While on the trip I finished reading the last in the Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope – post coming soon. I then started a history of the Spanish Civil War, Hell and Good Company, by Richard Rhodes. It doesn’t just relate the usual sad story of the fascist coup in 1936 that ground on for three terrible years, but focuses on the developments in medicine, technology and the arts at that time.

Book haul: Trollope, Eliot, Dundy, Rhodes, Quimper

Just been into town for the last time before a trip to Catalonia, and couldn’t resist the allure of the books in charity shops. Here’s what I came back with:

Book haul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m taking Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset with me; have got to p. 500 or so, but 400 pp. remain, so I need another one to follow up with – I have a whole week, with plane trips to fill with reading. So that Glendinning biography will come in handy, maybe when I get back. Too heavy for plane travel.

I posted with muted enthusiasm on Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado recently, and Jacqui (Wine) wrote about it just a week ago, so am interested to see what The Old Man and Me is like. One of the better new VMC covers, I think.

I used to have a copy of that Eliot prose collection – it might still be lurking in a box in the cellar or garage – but I noticed there’s an essay on Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, so had to make sure, as I’ll be teaching it this year again.

The book on the Spanish Civil War will be appropriate for where I’m going; sounds like an interesting take on the subject. The blurb says it focuses on the impact of the war on writers and artists, and on technology – military and medical. This summer I’ve reread Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and read a fine French-Spanish novel on the subject: Cry, Mother Spain, by Lydie Salvayre, so it’ll be good to see what Rhodes has to say.

When I got home that Quimper ARC from those fine people at QC Fiction (Québec City) was in the mail. I have a bit of a backlog of their titles to post on here; another task for when I’m back. I’ve found all of their backlist stimulating so far.

Now to finish packing – and a few more pages of Trollope.

Very like a whale: pareidolia

Granddaughter (E, aged 10) has returned home after her week’s holiday alone with us here in Cornwall. On her last full day we sat in the garden, enjoying a beautiful sunny day. A few cotton-wool clouds drifted sleepily across the bright blue sky, and we amused ourselves deciding what we could see in their shapes.

Where I saw a donkey, she saw a bunny. Me: a sad horse; her: a squeaky mouse. Well, she is ten, and loves unicorns and fluffy things.

I got to thinking of Polonius and his devious humouring of Hamlet in a similar situation, agreeing with his prince with feigned servility that the cloud they saw was indeed backed very like a whale, if not a weasel. I remembered a while back coming across a word for this phenomenon – seeing faces and other real-world objects in inanimate, random patterns like lichen-covered walls, carpets…or clouds. I flicked through some notebooks and found it:

PAREIDOLIA.

This is the OED definition (psychology):

The perception of recognizable patterns or images, in random or vague arrangements of shapes, lines, colours, etc.

It’s from the German via Greek ‘para’ – alongside, instead of (i.e. wrong); ‘eidolon’ – image, form, shape, likeness (from which we take our word ‘idol’).

According to Wikipedia’s account of the term, our brains are wired to identify human faces in particular in all kinds of unlikely situations: two fried eggs and a sausage in a cooked breakfast, or smiley faces in emojis consisting of a colon and a bracket. We even attribute emotions to these images – hence the smiley face; it seems it’s probably something to do with our cognitive processing of human emotion in others – or possibly for distinguishing friendly from potentially hostile approaching shapes at the subconscious or pre-conscious level.

Hence we see a ‘man in the moon’ formed of craters in the full moon’s sphere, or old men’s faces in rock formations. Many astronomical groups are named as a consequence of their resemblance to terrestrial objects like horses’ heads, ploughs or great bears. I’ve seen Don Quixote’s gaunt features in the abstract shapes on the tiles in my bathroom.

Stories abound of religious imagery like faces of the Virgin Mary or Jesus in foods or vegetables; Mother Teresa’s likeness was said to be found in a cinnamon bun in Nashville in 1996. I seem to recall that such items sell for large sums on eBay.

Arcimboldo, The Librarian

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ‘The Librarian’, c. 1566, now in Skokloster Castle, Sweden.
(Wikimedia Commons, public domain.) Here the use of books, not fruit or veg, is particularly appropriate

Arcimboldo specialised in paintings which looked like human figures but which were made up, on closer examination, of configurations of vegetables, plants, flowers and other non-human objects.

The Rorshach inkblot test works on similar principles as a means of the analyst’s determining a person’s psychological state – we tend to project on to such shapes images we’re inclined to see.

Even ghost imagery may owe something to the way shadows cast by harmless objects can resemble more sinister entities which are taken by the frightened human as some supernatural emanation (though winding sheets on corpses play a role here, too).

Pareidolia is said to be a sub-set of APOPHENIA: a tendency to see connections between unrelated things –  a condition commonly found, apparently, in conditions like schizophrenia, or to account for gamblers believing they detect patterns in random sequences. The ‘phrenia’ element there comes from the Greek for mind or cognitive faculties; the -phenia element may come from ‘phainein’ – Greek for ‘make appear’ – though it appears there’s some confusion over the etymology of ‘apophenia’. It’s sort of an antonym of ‘epiphany’ – which signifies an illuminating insight into to the innate reality of something.

I decided not to share any of this with E: she is only ten. Happy with her bunnies and unicorns, untroubled by apophenia. She’s heavily into slime at the moment.

Kneehigh Theatre: The Dancing Frog

Our 10-year-old granddaughter is staying with me and Mrs TD for a week. She comes for a stay with us every summer, but this is the first time without her big brother – he’s on a sea cadet camp. “I’ll be a lonely child,” she told us happily. “Don’t you mean only child?” my wife asked. “No,” she said happily; “lonely”.

Kneehigh Asylum brochure cover

Kneehigh Asylum (their outdoor dome at the Lost Gardens of Heligan) brochure

On Wednesday we took her to the afternoon performance of Kneehigh Theatre’s show ‘The Dancing Frog’, based on the children’s story by the gifted illustrator and writer Quentin Blake. It’s directed by Mike Shepherd, one of Kneehigh’s founders. We went last time with her parents to see Ubu Karaoke, which I posted about last week. This show is more suitable for a younger audience, and sure enough there was a row of tots sitting on cushions on the floor just in front of the performing area. They entered into the audience participation moments with gusto – we all did, it was irresistible.

It was typically exuberant, inventive and multi-talented Kneehigh. Elderly Gertrude, played by singing, accordion-playing Tim Dalling (who plays an array of other characters in the show), meets her youthful self (Jenny Beare), and they share memories of her sailor husband (also played by Tim), who drowned at sea (though we get to see some startlingly brief shore leaves before his ship hits an iceberg). Heartbroken, Gertrude stands by the river, feeling she can’t live without the love of her life. Like Ophelia, she enters the water, but as she sinks down, a frog swims in front of her and they surface.

The cover of Quentin Blake's book

The cover of Quentin Blake’s book

Then the frog dances for her. Entranced, Gertrude takes him home. He loves to dance to the music on her record player. Soon he’s performing on stage, at first in England (he makes his name as a replacement for a talking dog who develops a sore throat and can’t go on stage), and goes on tour all over the world.

We’re treated to cameo performances of his remarkable choreography in all the major world capitals, from flamenco in Spain to Swan Lake in Russia – memorably staged in front of us complete with corps-de-ballet in tutus and an evil villain. George performs a stunning solo.

There’s a heart-stopping scene at the end when George the frog is trapped by a fire on the 13th floor of his New York hotel. Gertrude stands below with a bucket of water: George has to leap into it – will he survive? You’ll have to go the show to find out!

Blake's illustrations on the book's inside front cover

Blake’s illustrations on the book’s inside front cover

George dancing (drawn by Blake)

George dancing (drawn by Blake)

It’s an absolutely delightful piece of imaginative theatre. The puppet frog (who looks just like drawings in Blake’s book) is handled by Alisa Dalling. Although she’s more or less holding him to make him move and dance, we quickly forgot her presence and believed entirely that this cheerful green creature was a living, worm-chomping amphibian who saved Gertrude from grief, and charmed all who saw him (apart from a nasty landlady and some rascally theatre folk who wanted to lock George up and force him to perform without Gertrude’s protection and love).

George and Gertrude have to get through some difficult and even dangerous times, then, reinforcing the heartwarming moral of this lovely story. The book has a frame narrative omitted in this dramatisation. Young Jo asks her mother for a story, and this is the tale she tells. When it’s finished, Jo asks if it was true, for frogs don’t normally dance, and nobody could catch one and make it perform on stage; her mother replies

‘You can do all kinds of things if you need to enough’.

The story is told with bracing vigour, humour, pathos and panache, with perfectly chosen music and songs (some original and cleverly pertinent to the plot and characters), dance and mime. There’s particularly clever use of props, like aeroplanes, butterflies, the husband’s ship (and that nasty iceberg) – and even the flames of the fire.

We all agreed afterwards that we’d enjoyed the show immensely, and completely suspended our disbelief. I’d highly recommend you go and see this terrifically entertaining show if you get the chance – or read the book if you can’t.