Barbara Kingsolver – Pigs in Heaven

Barbara Kingsolver never disappoints, ‘Pigs in Heaven’ is no exception to this literary ‘rule.’ The novel is a essentially a sequel to the earlier ‘The Bean Trees,’ where a child is deposited on the front seat of a Taylor Greer’s Volkswagen in Oklahoma, close to a Cherokee reservation, by a Native American who immediately disappears.  Taylor essentially keeps driving until her car breaks down in 1000 kilometres away in Arizona.

pigs-in-heavenRoll the lives on three years from ‘The Bean Trees’ and, at a visit to the Hoover Dam, the ‘daughter’ who Taylor names Turtle due to her grip, notices someone fall into a drainage channel.  A man with learning disabilities is eventually rescued and mother and ‘daughter’ appear on ‘Oprah’ as a result. One of the viewers is a lawyer from the Cherokee Nation who notices a Native American daughter with a mother that appeared not to be.   The lawyer starts to dig a little deeper and Taylor, worried that she might lose Turtle, flees.  A poverty-stricken road trip with cheap motels and worse jobs ensues which eventually ends up back at the Native American reserve at Heaven, Oklahoma.

Don’t expect a fast moving plot, it isn’t Kingsolver’s style – the narrative is subtle, thoughtful and thought-provoking; the real power of the writing lies in the warmth and depth of the characters, mostly women, women who have been left or have had to leave:

Women on their own run in Alice’s family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.

There are men, but they are flawed and almost incidental to the plot:

She married him two years ago for love, or so she thought, and he’s a good enough man but a devotee of household silence. His idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks. … The quiet only subsides when Harland sleeps and his tonsils make up for lost time.

The final denouement is possibly a little contrived and leaves perhaps too many loose ends – it was probably deliberate, life doesn’t always have tidy endings, novels shouldn’t either. Perhaps part of the reasoning may have been leaving the door just slightly ajar, to allow the potential for developing the characters elsewhere.

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Dorothy Richardson – The Interim

I have written about Richardson’s work a couple of times before, both here, in relation to The Tunnel and in my other blog, Running Past, about the first volume of Pilgrimage, and particularly Pointed Roofs. Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately although were subsequently brought together in four volumes by Virago; they describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised fictional self, Miriam Henderson. The Interim is the fifth novel in the tridecology and sees Richardson’s fictional alter ego still in the lodging house in Bloomsbury, still working as a dental assistant.

PilgrimageIf The Tunnel can be seen as a book about exploring London and exploring ideas, The Interim is perhaps more about exploring people – observing those passing through the lodging house where Miriam has an eyrie-like room in the eves, overlooking the roofs of the city. It is a masterclass in people-watching, perhaps only bettered by Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Slaves of Solitude’, written 25 years later in a very similar setting.  Possibly a lodging house is a setting that ideally lends itself to the observation of others.

The focus on the people though doesn’t mean a move away from some sublime descriptions

Windows were being pushed open up and down the street.  The new year changed to a soft moonlit breath stealing through the darkness, brimming over the faces at the doors and windows, touching their brows with fingers of dawn, sending fresh soothing healing fingers in amongst their hair.  Eleven … twelve.  Across the rushing scale of St Pancras bells came a fearful clangour.  Bicycle bells, cab whistles, dinner bells, the banging of tea-trays and gongs.  Of course.  New Year.  It must be a Bloomsbury custom.  She had had her share in a Bloomsbury New Year.  Rather jolly … rowdy; but jolly in that sort of way.  She could hear the Baileys laughing and talking on their doorstep.  A smooth firm foreign voice flung out a shapely little fragment of song.  Miriam watched its outline.  It repeated itself in her mind with the foreign voice and personality of the singer.  She drew back into her room.

The Interim was published in 1920 but much of it was serialised the year before in the ‘Little Review’, an American journal which promoted modernist writing set up by Margaret Anderson with links to the likes of Ezra Pound.  ‘Little Review’ had begun serialising ‘Ulysses’ in 1918 an continued until 1921 when the US Post Office refused to distribute, claiming it was obscene; there was a subsequent trial which found against ‘Ulysses’ and the ‘Little Review.’

It is apt that the work Richardson and Joyce appear side-by-side, both were ground breaking, but is seems strange that Richardson’s work has been largely forgotten – she deserves a much wider audience.

 

Helen Dunmore – Exposure

Helen Dunmore is one of my favourite modern authors, while she won the Orange Prize in 1996 for ‘A Spell of Winter’ she frequently appears not to get the attention that her wonderful, carefully crafted prose deserves.

exposure‘Exposure’  received generally good reviews at the start of 2016, but in the normal run of events it would not have been a novel I would have not read yet, the paper-back and paper-back priced, electronic editions are not yet out.  But I stumbled across it at the fantastic Blackheath and Greenwich Amnesty International second-hand book fair – held biannually in June and November.

The plot treads familiar ground, both in terms of the Dunmore returning to issues of the Cold War but a pioneering children’s novel that most will be familiar with, even if only via the film version, Edith Nesbit’s Railway Children.  By a pleasant co-incidence Nesbit lived for a while about 100 metres further north along Dartmouth Grove from where the novel was purchased.

The setting isn’t the Edwardian England of Nesbit but a London of 50 years later – a London that, despite the proclamation of Macmillan that Britons had ‘never had it so good’ in 1957, seemed to still be suffering from some of the privations of the early post war years and was ‘home’ to CND demonstrations as the post-war powers began a nuclear arms build-up.  The gloomy autumnal setting added to the rather melancholy feel to the Dunmore’s London.

Unlike the ‘Railway Children’, while some of the tale is told through the eyes of the three children, the narrative is through is generally through the perspectives of all the main adult characters.  As was the case in both ‘The Siege’ and ‘The Betrayal’ there is a real depth and warmth to main female character, Lily, the German Jewish émigré wife of the falsely accused Simon Callington. Dunmore fills Lilly’s life with a vast array of period household detail – much of it probably gleaned from her own upbringing.

Dunmore deftly flits from the 1950s to earlier decades, from character to character, and delightfully evokes both the detail of Muswell Hill as well as the isolated cottage on the coastal fringes of the former Kent coalfield. The twists and turn of the complex plot is subtly underplayed as she creates an excellent novel – it is so, so much more than the adult pastiche of the Edwardian children’s story it could have easily become.

Ron Goodwin – ‘Schickel Shamble’

I am a Radio 4 person; I almost certainly spend more time listening to Radio 4 than I do watching television, often now ‘on demand’.  Television by its very nature is something that requires at least most of your attention, it’s the visual nature.  Radio though is much more pervading and, for me, it has always felt like I am inviting presenters into my home, sharing my space with them while my life happens.

Presenters become an important part of life – you form a bond, a relationship, a friendship with them; you know it isn’t shared but that doesn’t matter, you perhaps spend more time with them that with real family and real friends.  Their deaths hit you hard – I still remember the January over 20 years ago when both Brian Redhead (Today) and Brian Johnson (Test Match Special) joined the choir invisible, part of my growing up had disappeared and tears were shed for both.

I love the cornucopia of the spoken word of news, politics, arts and comedy that comes with Radio 4.  Of the latter, my favourite is, without any shadow of a doubt, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ – I can’t claim to have listened since the first episodes in 1972, but have certainly been listening off and, mainly on, since around 1978, when I recall my Dad tuning in to it on a massive ancient ‘wireless’ in our kitchen.

Just hearing the first few notes of ‘Schickel Shamble’ brings a smile – I know I am in for a treat, it is like being with a bunch of old friends – knowing all the in-jokes, understanding the ‘rules’ of Mornington Crescent, the making fun of the host towns, of the panellists and of the pianist Colin Sell’s musical ability, knowing what comes after ‘Hamish, Dougal …’ in ‘Sound Charades’, looking forward to Jeremy Hardy ‘singing’, sniggering at the Samantha-related smutty innuendos, and knowing that closing time will be called in a delightful and bizarre way ….

…and so, as we rapidly approach the bus stop of the Apocalypse, I notice that the Four Horsemen have all come along at the same time…

Like the demise of the two Brians, I shed a tear for ‘Humph’ (Humphrey Littleton, the first ‘host’) when the Goofy hand on his fake Rolex stopped ticking; I feared for the show and its ‘traditions’ but Jack Dee’s droll humour is perfect for ISIHAC and has re-invigorated a certain Mrs Trellis from North Wales.  If you have never experienced the delights of ISIHAC, the stage show below (the final recording of ‘Humph’) gives some idea of what it is all about, but to fully appreciate the nuances, though, at least half a lifetime’s listening is required.

Dorothy Richardson – The Tunnel

It was writing about Dorothy Richardson in my other blog that made me think about starting Unreliable Narratives.  I had been attracted to Richardson via Louisa Treger’s excellent ‘The Lodger’ – a fictional retelling of part of the Richardson’s life, particularly her affair with HG Wells.  The post in Running Past had looked at Richardson’s final Pointed Roofs in Beckenham, but was, in reality, an opportunity to write about Richardson’s fiction.

Dorothy Richardson is the almost forgotten pioneer of stream of consciousness writing in English, predating the internal monologues of Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (serialised from 1918) by several years.

Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately, although were subsequently brought together in four volumes.  They describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised alter-ego, Miriam Henderson.

Pilgrimage‘The Tunnel’, part of the second volume of Pilgrimage, is the fourth in the triskaidecalogy (or tridecology, if you prefer) and is a real coming of age novel, both as an author and for her semi-fictionalised self.  ‘The Tunnel’ marks a growing confidence from Richardson as a writer, a writer who has honed her skills in terms of her narrative style and in her description and is using them to explore ideas, explore her own consciousness, and to explore her new urban environment. There were hints of the former in the closing pages of the previous novel in the series, ‘Honeycomb.’

The coming of age as a person sees Miriam/Dorothy move from being a live-in governess to rich children to becoming a dental assistant on Harley Street, living in Bloomsbury lodgings. There is an explosion of new ideas and experiences from reading, from lectures, and from the people she meets – including a thinly disguised HG Wells.  The novel explores her nascent feminism

They invent a legend to put the blame for the existence of humanity on woman and, if she wants to stop it, they talk about the wonders of civilisation and the sacred responsibilities of motherhood.  They can’t have it both ways.  They also say women are not logical.

The highlights for me, though, are the descriptions of the Edwardian central London which are really brought to life

The trees in Endsleigh Gardens came along, gently waving their budding branches in bright sunshine.  The colour of the gardens was so intense that the sun must be going to set behind Euston station.  The large houses moved steadily behind the gardens, in blocks, bright white, with large quiet streets opening their vistas in between the blocks, leading to green freshness and then safely on down into Soho.  The long square came to an end.  The shrub-trimmed base of St. Pancras church came heavily nearer and stopped.  As Miriam got off the bus, she watched its great body in clear sharp outline against the blue.  Its clock was booming the hour across the gardens though the houses and down into the squares.  On this side its sound was broken up by the narrow roar of the Euston Road and the clamour coming right and left from the two stations.

It is a fantastic novel, beautifully written novel, one of my favourite’s using internal monologues.

Zaine Griff – Run

Mansfield was a desperate place to grow up for live music in the 1970s; there were no venues in the town and no late buses back from either of the places that did have them – Nottingham or Sheffield. That I remember seeing Zaine Griff in 1979 says much for the paucity of the live musical options.  I only recall having seen one other band in the town – a bunch of Van der Graaf Generator wannabes, who vaguely knew Peter Hammill from Leicester, and wanted to emulate him.  Sadly for them, they were playing terrible chart covers in a pub on one of those uncertain boundaries, between suburbia and council estate, to a handful of bored looking drinkers and me, drowning my sorrows after some set back or other.  Putting their gear and squeezing their bodies into their van, to make the trip back down the M1, was probably a relief for them.

Zaine+Griff+Ashes+And+Diamonds+439827Zaine Griff, was New Zealand’s answer to Bowie, I had never heard of him and I suspect that was true of virtually all the audience at the Civic Theatre in 1979, but it didn’t matter mind, it was live music, music from London. I remember nothing of the evening apart from a band from Sutton-in-Ashfield, the neighbouring town, providing the support.  They proclaimed that Mansfield was the ‘rock and roll capital of the universe,’ it was, but, only if your world only went as far as Huthwaite.   Having done a number of rock standards, the guitarist used the opportunity of being on the ‘big stage’ of the Mansfield Civic Theatre (where I had performed on numerous occasions in my junior school class choir, more on that another day, maybe ….) to enact that classic rock and roll guitar extravaganza – smashing the ‘axe’ against the speaker stack.  He obviously wasn’t that experienced in this – it took an age of pounding against the Marshalls to complete the task.

I can’t remember who I went to see them with it may well have been F (I have changed his initial to protect his identity), who had left my school at 16 to join the merchant navy who used to regale me with tales of the high seas, girls and VD clinics and buy me copious amounts of Hardy and Hanson’s bitter on his shore leave.

I have no idea whether Run was performed but it was certainly from that era of Zaine Griff’s career.

My next trip to the Civic (now Palace) Theatre was a couple of years later in 1981, a very different line-up – it was a rally of Tony Benn, as part of his Labour Deputy Leadership Campaign, and Arthur Scargill, who was standing for the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers.  It was really inspiring and, I think, spurred me to join the Labour Party that year.

Maxïmo Park – Going Missing

While my own youth and early teens had a variety or musical influences from home, many which have shaped music that I latterly listened to, none were things I could talk to friends about.  I did attempt to feign knowledge of ‘popular beat combos’ but generally made errors, suggesting the likes of Slade, The Sweet and Emerson Lake and Palmer – whose ill drawn logo appeared on the back of many a school rucksack of the era, including my own.  There was little or no actual knowledge of the music that I purported to like, so any cursory attempt to ask about which albums I had was met with blank looks on my part and the inevitable witty banter or derision as a result.  The ELP rucksack mysteriously ‘disappeared’ at school one day (although strangely I was able to take all the contents home in a carrier bag….)   I would probably have been better off sticking to things I actually knew about, such as Mozart.

Around the Millennium, I had returned to those classical roots, but as my older son was approaching his early teens, and the younger son not far behind, I wanted to make sure that they at least had the musical influences from home that might get imbued into their own musical consciousness and allow them to name drop without the risk of the mockery and embarrassment that I had experienced at their age.

220px-Goingmissing_cdThere would be no point dusting down the old Blur and Oasis CDs, they needed new sounds, new bands and new music.  So despite my dislike of adverts invading my life, my non-running journeys to work started to have the accompaniment of XFM.  One of the first songs I heard on the station, in the early summer of 2005, was Maxïmo Park’s ‘Going Missing.’  I loved it, it was proper, basic rock and roll music – it felt as though a musical space in my life had been filled.  The CD of the ‘A Certain Trigger’ was bought the next day – the first of many similar bands from the era like The Rakes, The Enemy, The Pigeon Detectives and a little later Arctic Monkeys.

A_Certain_TriggerAs for the strategy; well, it sort of worked – the indie music influenced my eldest and youngest; my eldest borrowed loads of my CDs and we saw a couple of dozen bands live together.  ‘A Certain Trigger’  was often the backdrop to return trips home from Selhurst Park with all three children,  my daughter always changing the words of one of the lines of my favourite track,‘The Coast is Always Changing’, from ‘And we look out upon the sea’ to ‘And we look out upon the ceiling.’  The reasons for the change presumably came from her six year old self mishearing, but it is still the same whenever she hears and sings it – now approaching 17.

MaxPFast forward ten years to the autumn of 2015; Maxïmo Park (still with a proper rock umlaut, although not in lights) did a short 10th anniversary tour where they played ‘A Certain Trigger’ in its entirety as the second half of the gig.  My eldest got tickets, as a present, for the ‘leg’ at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, I was a little apprehensive as one of the odd psychological impacts of my accident had been an intolerance of noise, including loud music, and I hadn’t listened to Maxïmo Park since January as a result.  I needn’t have worried though, I loved it – I was able to sing along, almost word perfect, and almost mimicking Paul Smith’s Geordie intonation.  For a couple of hours, I had gone back in time.

Sadly, I couldn’t find any footage from the Roundhouse of the song – but a few nights later they performed it at Newcastle City Hall.