Monday, 27 August 2012

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

There has been a lot of press about Kathleen Jamie's new book Sightlines which inspired me to try her, but I thought I should start with this book first.  Findings is a book of essays, some recounting journeys, some considering the natural world, others the details of the world we have made for ourselves.  Jamie's message could be summarised, simply, as pay attention: pay thoughtful and critical attention to the things you encounter, reflect on them, consider their meaning.  Jamie doesn't articulate this as a set of shoulds and oughts; she simply recounts, in beautiful and resonant language, her own thoughts and reflections on the things she has seen.

Sometimes this is exuberant - such as in the last chapter when, on a whale-watching boat, Jamie, the passengers and crew are treated to an astonishing encounter with a huge school of dolphins - and sometimes it is sombre.  The separate essays twist around, not necessarily going in the direction you might expect. Her themes can be exotic or strange, such as the preserved anatomical specimens in the Surgeon's Hall in Edinburgh, and utterly familiar.  Here is a typically lovely paragraph that considers the cobweb:

"The cobwebs make me think of ears, or those satellite dishes attuned to every different nuance of the distant universe.  One cobweb after another - a whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar with all the cobblers, all the spice-sellers, all the drapers together in their own alleys.  The biggest web measured about a hand-span and a half, a pianist's hand-span.  I wondered if all the spiders were related, a family group."

Jamie is very good at making the familiar strange so that we can see and consider it from a new perspective, so that we too can wonder about the meaning of the everyday.  She also describes the Scottish landscape in a way that makes it both tempting and accessible, articulating the lure of islands and mountains, relating them to daily life, and then shifting perspective again so they acquire a renewed remoteness. Having finished this book, I found I had so thoroughly absorbed the message of mindfulness, the need to pay proper attention, that I immediately read it again - and, unsurprisingly, it yielded up new meanings that I had missed the first time.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

The good man of the title is Barnaby Johnson, a middle-aged Church of England priest with a parish in West Cornwall. The novel opens, though, on the last day of Lenny Barnes's life; Lenny has been paralysed in a rugby accident and, at the age of twenty, has decided to take his own life.  Barnaby is the person he asks to be with him while he takes the drug that will bring about his death.  The novel traces the stories of Barnaby, Lenny and those around them that led to this moment, and follows its consequences for all of them.

Patrick Gale's technique of moving the narrative viewpoint between the characters and shifting it about in time is well-deployed here, dropping in bits and pieces of knowledge, some of which will remain obscure until later in the text, some of which are little unexploded bombs, maintaining tension in a non-linear narrative.  Driving through all this is the theme of goodness; what it is, where it comes from, how closely it is allied to religion.  Barnaby's goodness can be a shield, a mask, and a challenge; characters in the novel may believe in it implicitly but the reader is in the privileged position of knowing about his flaws and mistakes, but Gale's sympathy for his characters ensures that Barnaby remains likeable rather than being irritatingly perfect. The book is particularly interesting when considering the position of a priest in a society mostly indifferent to religion, his separateness and his accessibility, and the impact this has on Barnaby and on his family. 

Gale at his best is excellent at narrative tension, at keeping the reader engrossed in his characters and the evolution of the plot, and this works really well in this novel, as secrets and tensions emerge.  There is also a chance to meet some of the characters from Notes from an Exhibition again and Gale, as usual makes good use of the Cornish setting.  This book is far more complex in structure and content than the beach-read cover suggests, absorbing and satisfying as well as challenging.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson

Subtitled Women's Lives during the Second World War, this book - like Singled Out - draws on a vast range of personal accounts of the experiences of British women.  Virginia Nicholson uses interviews, diaries, Mass Observation records as well as published sources to construct a sense of how women lived their lives during the war.  As she points out, relatively few women entered the uniformed services during the war, with most continuing to keep house and look after their children through the privations of wartime, and the book seeks especially to tell the story of that Home Front.

While she succeeds in this - and with diarists like Nella Last at hand, she has plenty of good sources among the women who struggled with rationing and did their bit as volunteers in the WVS or similar - one of the problems with accounts of quiet, stoical endurance is that they may not always be terribly exciting.  But the book also includes plenty of accounts of women who ventured a bit further, and whose bravery and heroism makes for a little more drama such as Mary Cornish, who survived the wrecking of a ship taking evacuated children to Canada, and Aileen "Mike" Morris, who served in Malta and North Africa with the WAAFs; a fluent German speaker, she listened to and interpreted their radio messages.

Throughout the book, Nicholson considers where feminism is in all this activity, whether women were motivated by patriotism, the desire to defeat fascism or a wish to extend women's social role.  Particularly interesting are the chapters on the years immediately after the war, when many women went back, with some relief, to home-making and child-rearing.  The impact of prolonged separation from their husbands and the independence this enforced affected even the most devoted housewife, however; Nicholson tells of returning husbands whose need to reassert their masculine authority marked the end of the marriage.  For other women, the end of the war was a time of frustration; sidelined out of their jobs to make room for returning heroes, they felt unvalued, no longer of use to their country.  But many women, as Nicholson points out, were entirely identified with the idea of home; home was, as she says "who they were", and the chance to return there meant self-fulfilment and expression rather than constraint.

Perhaps this position partly has its roots in the type of war service women undertook; as Nicholson explains, most women's wartime roles were ancillary, supportive of the front-line war service of men, and kept that way deliberately by the wartime administration; anything else was far too challenging to the notion of woman as man's helpmeet and women with an idea of themselves as equal to men were, in any case, few and far between.  To the modern feminist reader this can, as Nicholson acknowledges, be frustrating, but she is always fair and balanced in her approach, seeking to understand their position and its origins rather than to criticise.  The whole book is deeply empathic; Nicholson's fellow feeling for the women she writes about means that their stories are moving and engaging, although even Nicholson couldn't make me empathise with Barbara Cartland.  My one minor criticism is that, although there is quite a lot of material on women's sexual lives during the war, lesbianism only seems to be mentioned in terms of predation.  There are several published memoirs of lesbian life in wartime that could have amplified this - the book It's Not Unusual has a chapter on the Second World War, if you are interested in finding out more.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

A short holiday on the border between the Somme and the Pas-de-Calais seemed a good place to read this; Edward Thomas spent the last months of his life near Arras and was killed and is buried there.  I first came across Thomas's poetry during my A level English exam; his poem "Lights Out" appeared in the exam paper for the practical criticism element.  The alternative practical criticism test was an undigestible chunk of Walter Pater, so I wrote about the poem.  Its formal elegance and its graceful ambiguity made me want to find out who wrote it, and to read more of his work.

Matthew Hollis's book describes Thomas's life during its last four years, from 1913 to 1917, but inevitably brings in a great deal of his earlier years, showing how he got to where he was.  It is structured into four sections, one for each year, and each section has four chapters, one for each season of that year.  This gives a great sense of time passing, the precious few years that Thomas has left slipping away.  Thomas the man can be difficult to like.  Depressive, often despairing, and feeling trapped by family life, disappointed with the literary 'hack-work' by which he earns a living, he is rather like a Gissing character made flesh; there are strong echoes of New Grub Street throughout.  His long-suffering and devoted wife Helen yearns to make him happy, but Thomas believes his best chance of happiness - and that of his family - lies in their separation.  Hollis carefully describes the friendships and incidents that  - if they do not transform Thomas into a happy, contented man - open up the possibilities of his life and lead to the remarkable poems he wrote between November 1914 and his death.

A key friendship is that with Robert Frost, making a long stay in England with his family.  The two men met through the Poetry Bookshop, Thomas having been a critic of poetry before he began to write it, and a warm friendship ensued, with the Thomases and the Frosts eventually living near each other (and a number of other poets) in Dymock.  Hollis writes very well about this friendship, which can be a difficult thing to describe; the text gives a real sense of the bedrock of affection that underlies the ups and downs of any such relationship.  He also shows the exchange of influence between the two writers, and explains how Thomas is the likely inspiration for "The Road Not Taken". 

Hollis is a poet himself and this book is not only beautifully written but fascinating, as it shows, from a poet's perspective, how Thomas wrote his poetry.  Using Thomas's notes and drafts, he demonstrates how a brief experience or idea is worked and reworked from the basic account into poetic form, how extraneous words are pared away to increase the intensity of meaning, and how hard Thomas worked to perfect his writing.  There is a vast amount to enjoy in this book from whatever angle you approach it; whether you like biography, poetry, books about World War I, or all three, there will be something to interest you.