I want some clichéd spring!
Like most writers, I abhor clichés, but one cliché that makes me glad each year is the certainty of the English spring, in all its sweet naffness: little lambs gambolling, pale flowers bursting into bloom, pussy willows, forced rhubarb and chocolate cream eggs jazzing up the fare in the supermarkets… and all of the 101 other things that mean that winter is being pushed off into exile. And, if I hadn’t realised this before, last year’s spring (which, if you remember, didn’t happen) left me mourning for an annual cliché that was then even more powerfully etched into our minds by its absence.
When I was young, I didn’t mind heading into the winter: autumn meant pristine new school exercise books or, some years later, the excitement of a new university year; it meant going home in the slightly scary darkness; it meant that the ice cream van that had stood at the end of the street on long summer Sundays had been replaced by the toffee apple man’s van (he who vigorously summoned the children of the neighbourhood by ringing an old school bell out of his window); it meant chestnuts and hot toast and Heinz vegetable soup. But that kind of cosiness and the underlying slightly edgy sense of the danger that might be lurking in the dark (and would, perhaps, grasp you in its claws if you were sent up to Mrs Dack’s shop for some milk after the 6 p.m. news) has long since been replaced for me by the dreary feeling of unwell-being that winter brings: of snivels and snuffles, mornings that are wet and foggy rather than icy and bright and, in the part of the world where I now live, mud, mud and more mud.
I think that much of the problem lies in the fact that we English don’t ‘do’ winter well. Go further South in Europe and the Italians and Spanish celebrate short sharp winters that include coping with heroic bursts of snow before getting back to the norm of a balmy spring-to-autumn of sunshine that lasts for eight months of the year. Go North, and you find Germans, Scandinavians and Russians revelling in the winter, showing off their prowess on skis and skates, sometimes with a great deal of bravado. (A few years ago, I had a Finnish client (day-job) who boasted that he always skied in T-shirt and shorts.)
Perhaps the only country that is as bad at wintering as we are (or worse!) is France, but the French people that I know seem to solve the problem by going into virtual hibernation: The weather is foul – they stay at home – and eat and drink, mon brave, and sulk until the spring appears. Then there are the Scots, whose winters are colder and gloomier than ours and who succeed in behaving in a correspondingly chill and more lugubrious way. However, there is a grandeur about their melancholy: it is a Carlylean gloom of grandiose proportions, not to be compared with the trivial gnat-like whining about the weather in which we English indulge. And, like the French, the Scots understand that the only way to get through the winter is by eating the appropriate food and taking a wee dram whenever the opportunity presents itself. I endured three Scottish winters when I was working in Dumfries (home of the deep-fried Mars Bar, though even Dumfries folk regard this delicacy as an extreme remedy, to be used only at times of urgent necessity) and I have to admit that getting through day after day on six hours of daylight was not easy. At the place where I worked, we were supported through the winter months by the culinary achievements of our two stalwart canteen ladies. Menu favourites were meat and tatties, beefsteak suet pudding and haggis or hash with chips. If we asked for something light, they served up lasagne. I once suggested that a winter salad would make a nice change and they nearly fainted. ‘Salad? In the winter? How will you get the energy to do your work, hen? How will you keep warm while you’re working?’ (Of our workforce of 160, half a dozen worked in the packing bay; the rest of us were seated at desks, with the heating turned up a good 5 degrees higher than was strictly necessary.) Yet perhaps they had the right idea: we were trapped in the catastrophe of winter, and they were battling with it on our behalf.
So I say again that the English are the most hopeless of all nations when it comes to winter. But we are good at spring, and especially at perpetuating the clichés that go with it. Tomorrow is the first of March: not officially spring yet, therefore, but good enough for me! And I invite you to celebrate it with me in whatever joyful, hackneyed way you wish.
[Being as usual snowed under (a winter metaphor indeed!) with work, I asked my husband to take some clichéd photos to go with this post, but, with his usual delicate touch when behind a camera, he has instead, I think you’ll agree, managed to capture some extraordinarily un-clichéd pictures from what would otherwise have been very commonplace spring-time situations.]
Something that I just cannot swallow, but the book is a good read…
I remember reading a review of this book when it first appeared, though I’m surprised, now that I’ve looked at the title page, to discover that it was published in 1999. I didn’t read the book itself then and, although I acquired my copy last autumn (by somewhat roundabout means – I didn’t exactly choose it), I have been in no hurry to read it. However, a couple of weeks ago, having subsisted for perhaps too long on a reading diet of mostly crime fiction, but too tired to embark on one of the ‘serious’ history books I have in reserve, I decided to give it a go.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is both witty and extremely erudite. Mea culpa, but, either because I misremembered the review or the review misrepresented the book, I had assumed that it would be lighter and frothier than it actually is. Beginning with the stories of the mistresses of the Greek gods and continuing with that of Heloise and Abelard (in which I have a particular interest, because George Moore offers a version of it in one of his novels), it traces the story of the mistress through history, sorting her into types: the royal mistress, the political mistress, the artist’s mistress etc. Griffin announces at the very start of the book that she is a mistress herself. She says this with some defiance, indicating that she has chosen the role in preference to that of wife, and that ‘mistress-types’, particularly if they are writers, like herself, or pursuers of some other creative career, value the freedom that being a mistress gives them. Wise mistresses know not to stray into the territory of the wife and they certainly don’t seek to replace her: those who attempt the latter usually find that they lose their lovers in the process.
Griffin is both knowledgeable and entertaining, but there is something about this basic premise that I just can’t swallow. Given that she concedes that mistresses not only have to endure the privations associated with being forced to keep their liaisons secret, but also spend many hours waiting in vain for their lovers to arrive, I cannot understand how this makes them ‘free’ to pursue their own interests. For example, only a very special type of writer can shut out all specific annoyances and worries from the external world to get on with her/his work. Most writers are super-sensitive to any kind of external niggle or worry and find that thinking about it impairs or completely destroys their concentration. Not knowing when, or even if, their lovers were going to turn up would certainly not help mistresses who were also writers to fill in the intervening hours with productive work.
Then there’s that burden of secrecy. The brunt of it is shouldered by the mistress, who sometimes cannot confide in or complain to even her closest friends if her lover neglects, forgets or completely abandons her. It is a condition insisted upon by the lover in order to protect his ‘real’ life, to ensure that it is comfortable and free from a wife’s chidings, tears or worse. In other words, engaging in an ‘affair’ or illicit liaison carries very unequal benefits for the two participants. I’ve known only a few mistresses during the course of my life (though there may have been others among my friends and acquaintances who were discreet enough to conceal their affairs completely) and, without exception, they’ve been worn down by the deceit, the waiting, the uncertainty and often, ultimately, tragic abandonment after many years of ‘service’. Griffin herself acknowledges that she and her lover have discussed whether, if his wife were to die or divorce him, they would marry, and concludes that they probably would. ‘But’, says the lover, ‘I really want you to be my mistress.’ Griffin presents this conversation as mature, sophisticated and loving. To me it reveals a childish man with a huge ego, a man who succeeds in getting away with ruthlessly having his cake and eating it by cloaking his real outlook with a flimsy veneer of wistfulness. He is doubly fortunate in that Griffin, who is proud of her financial independence, also refuses to let him pay for her, whereas a mistress from an earlier era would undoubtedly have expected substantial monetary assistance from her lover.
Something else that I find difficult about this book is that all the ‘mistresses’ are women – ‘the other woman’; all the lovers (i.e., duplicitous two-timers) are men. The book would have had more credibility had Griffin also included some accounts of two-timing women being unfaithful to their husbands. History offers some famous examples: Emma, Lady Hamilton; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; even some of the mediaeval queens, such as Isabella of France, who cuckolded Edward II when she embarked upon her liaison with Roger Mortimer. Although she devotes a chapter to George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, Griffin says little about the equally interesting affair that precipitated Eliot into Lewes’ arms: that between Agnes, Lewes’ wife and Thornton Hunt, which, very unusually for the mid-Victorian period, had resulted in Agnes’ giving birth to several of Thornton’s children whom Lewes then acknowledged as his own.
I’d like to suggest that today this is no longer an unusual phenomenon and that women are just as capable as men of being the double-dealer in a love triangle. I offer a very commonplace example, my second cousin Ruby, some years my senior, a pale and fairly insipid girl who aspired neither to obtaining a good education nor to building a career and had only limited interest in becoming a ‘home-maker’ – I realise that this is a very catty description, but Ruby, who certainly won’t be reading it, would as certainly agree that it is accurate if she were to. She bore one man’s child very shortly after her marriage to another man who was not the child’s father and caused both men to come to blows as they competed for her favours.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that women can give as good as they get and that mistresses who accept martyrdom sugared over with ‘free spiritedness’ have only themselves to blame, particularly today, when the kind of double standard that allowed Lewes to mix with the Victorian literati while George Eliot was obliged to sit at home, completely ostracised, no longer prevails. Psychologists say that in every relationship there is always one partner who cares more than the other. I think that perhaps this is the truth that I am trying to explore and I’d suggest that in probably 90% of cases it is the ‘secret’ mistress who cares more for her lover than he for her and that she is deluding herself if she believes otherwise, however noble and ‘pure’ (in the sense of independent of material consideration) she may paint their love.
Nevertheless, The Mistress is a book of many delights because of the histories that it recounts and the ideas it expresses, all captured in Victoria Griffin’s very fine prose. I am sure that it will become a classic, if it is not regarded as one already (hence the reprint). I recommend it to anyone who is looking for some unusual and gripping non-fiction to read this weekend. Let me know what you think!
Called to serve…
First of all, I’d like to apologise to everyone who reads this blog for having been so silent lately. I’ve been doing jury service, which has knocked the wind out of my sails much more than I expected – partly because I’ve had to keep up with bits of the day job as well (in particular, the March conference for which I organise the speaker programme), partly because it was quite a debilitating experience. However, I’d like you all to know how much I appreciate your continued interest in the blog and I promise to do better in future, starting with today!
I’m not going to write too much about the trial itself, as I don’t think that this would be fair, particularly as the judge has yet to pass sentence on the two defendants (whom we found guilty on one of the three counts, not guilty on the other two), but I should like to reflect briefly on the overall experience.
I was first called to serve on the jury of a much bigger trial, of a doctor who is accused of thirteen counts of rape that are alleged to have taken place across four decades. I’d very much like to have been one of these jurors, but the judge warned that this trial would last for at least six weeks, so I had to ask to be excused, because of the very conference I’ve already mentioned. I was a little apprehensive about it, because this judge was quite strict about which excuses he would accept – he didn’t rate lambing as a good one, for example.
I’d been warned by others who’ve done jury service that it involves a lot of waiting about. This is true, but the only really tedious bit is waiting to be assigned to a trial. I was assigned to ‘my’ trial on the morning of the second day – not bad, considering I’d already been asked to serve in the rape case – but at least one juror in waiting who arrived at the same time as I did on the Monday morning was still waiting to be called at the end of the first week!
Jurors are repeatedly told that they are the most important people taking part in a trial, because, of course, it is their verdict that finally finds the defendant guilty or not. Despite this, being a juror was curiously like the first day at primary school – trouping around with a group of other people, all of us united in not really knowing what we were supposed to do next. We soon got the hang of it and we had a particularly nice court usher looking after us – a woman called Shirley who, surprisingly, said that one of the most interesting cases she could remember involved a dispute between neighbours over bees (she indicated that, after a while, ushers become blasé about rapes and murders, because they have to listen to evidence about so many). My ears pricked up at this, as my husband keeps bees, as does one of our neighbours, but (as far as I know!) their relationship is extremely amicable and mutually supportive and neither has yet tried to sabotage the other’s hives.
Even when a jury has been sworn in and the trial has started, jurors get lots of breaks. Some of these are to allow the lawyers to discuss ‘points of law’; some are because witnesses are delayed or there is some other hitch – for example, a policewoman giving evidence at our trial had to go back to her office to fetch her notebook. The jury sits out short breaks in an ante-room just beyond the court; if the break is likely to be longer, the usher escorts the jury members back to the jury waiting room, where there is a small café, a television and a supply of books and magazines. Jurors are given a swipe-card that allows them to spend £5.71 per day on drinks and food from the café. (The sum appears to be adequate for female jurors, while most male jurors need to supplement it!)
Jury service officially lasts for two weeks, but if the trial takes longer jurors have to serve longer; if the trial is shorter, sometimes the jurors are allowed to go early. Some jurors serve on four or five short cases, each of which lasts only a day or two. Our trial went on for eight and a half days, which meant that we had fulfilled our duty as jurors by the time that it was over. More than a day of this was spent on reaching our verdict – it was a difficult case for several reasons, not least being that the victims suffered from dementia and therefore could not testify.
As a crime writer, I had been looking forward to doing jury service and although, as I’ve said, I don’t intend to write about the trial directly, I’m certain that the experience will have benefited my writing. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for how physically and emotionally exhausting it would be – hence my long silence. I’d like to apologise again for this. Thank you for waiting for me.
He didn’t smile as he inserted the knife, but he felt the satisfaction within him. With only slight pressure, the fine blade slid remarkably easily into her chest. The sun was shining and the sky quite, quite blue, just the way he loved it for a moment like this; colour mattered. The grasses on the dyke bank softly sighed their green tune and swallows looped and flickered with azure ease down over the water to drink, unconcerned about the scene being played out just above and alongside their surface glide. The savage bruise to her face was turned to the ground and she seemed almost asleep, were it not for the now irregular breathing and the gurgle in her throat. It was kindness itself to ease her out of this life whilst she lay unconscious, the violence of an hour ago lost to her. He cradled her head as she moved on, stroking her hair with the tenderness of the lover he wasn’t.
A moment of stillness hung over the fen, as of a breath held for fear of disturbing a sleeping giant. Then, as he pushed his boot hard against the bank to raise himself and turned his head to check the horizon for human interference, a frog leaped into the dyke and a wren skittered away from a waterside reed thicket. The moment and he were done.
He slid her into the water, rinsed his hands and the knife and walked away without looking back, along the bank to the rough hardcore track where the stolen van stood in the space between rough elders and hawthorns. Glancing frequently towards the distant road, he pulled the bike from the vehicle, stripped off his every garment and threw all into the back before dressing again in the mountain biker gear he’d brought with him. A sprinkle of petrol, a tossed match and he was off on the bike, on his way up the track away from the road with just the knife, wrapped in plastic, in his Camelbak. From a distance, the smoke looked like the work of a farmer.
Twelve miles away, he dropped the knife from a bridge into the waters of the Welland and tossed the plastic wrapping after it. Then he rode home, where he hosed off the bike and his shoes with the meticulous care he always applied after a cross-country jaunt and went inside to complete the cleansing process. In the bathroom, he stared carefully at the image in the mirror, gazing with calm confidence into the eyes which had now avidly watched the utter horror of three randomly-chosen women.
Away in the fen, the woman’s body had floated face down to the centre of the dyke. It would be four days before a field hand in a tractor would glance down and then stare intently at a shape which could not be misinterpreted.
Doing it differently…
I know from the blurb on the back of this crime novel and the short reviews that accompany it that it is one of a series, but – like the anonymous Guardian reviewer who is quoted on the front cover – I’d never come across this author or his work until I found Death in Sardinia in a bookseller’s warehouse just before Christmas. The Guardian reviewer says: ‘A real find… atmospheric, humorous and thought-provoking.’
I agree with all of these adjectives and to them I’d add, ‘highly original’. One of the most appealing things about this novel from my point of view is that it is set in the Italy of the 1960s, in the aftermath of the Fascist régime, when the country was still reeling from the effects of its Second World War defeat. That the author presents Italy from the perspective of a policeman who formerly served as a soldier in a defeated army gives it both depth and substance. Partly because of the background to its setting and partly because the main action in the novel takes place fifty years ago, Vichi is able to create a springboard for some serious – but never over-weighty or didactic – reflections on morality. (For example, Inspector Bordelli recalls an occasion during the war when he and some fellow soldiers came upon an isolated detachment of Americans who were shaving, and decided not to kill them because they were thus rendered defenceless.) The murder investigation that is central to the novel – it is the killing of a very unpleasant debt collector, stabbed in the neck by a pair of scissors – also raises some knotty moral issues, which increase in complexity as Bordelli closes in on the killer.
But above all, it is the glorious cast of characters that makes this novel special. All are originals; some, like Rosa, the ex-whore who is one of Bordelli’s ill-assorted menagerie of friends, are highly eccentric, yet none lacks credibility. Then there is Bordelli himself, a highly-principled, slightly lonely character who doesn’t exactly live for his job yet often ponders on what he will do without it, now that his retirement looms. His repeated invitation that acquaintances should join him for dinner on Christmas Eve gathers poignancy as none of them quite refuses, but – until very late in the day – none of them gives him a firm acceptance, either. He is very susceptible to the charms of the women and girls that he meets during the course of his work, sometimes dangerously so, but he always manages to wrestle down temptation and allow his professionalism to win the day. His solicitude for his dying colleague Baragli particularly arouses the reader’s sympathy.
Three quarters of the way through the book, the narrative temporarily takes on a picaresque style, as several of the characters relate in detail stories that have been of key influence in their lives. Despite the almost Chaucerian vitality and immediacy of these stories, on a first reading they have the annoying effect of stalling the plot, but eventually the relevance of each of them becomes apparent and I’m certain that, if I were to read the book again, I should be less impatient of them and enjoy them to the full for the minor masterpieces that they are.
Death in Sardinia is a crime novel, but it is much more than that. It is a perceptive distillation of the human condition that captures many of its foibles as well as the depravity into which it is capable of sinking and the acts of nobility to which it can sometimes rise. This novel apparently comes third in the Inspector Bordelli sequence; I am now determined to seek out some of its companion works and enjoy them, too.
Turning the eye upon our selfies…
I was struck by the appearance in Monday’s The Times of the Jan Van Eyck ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, a painting I have always found fascinating for its depiction of a wealthy merchant and his wife. The detail to be explored in this marvellous creation of character and setting has not only human but also symbolic value, suggestive of the real existence, aspirations and lifestyle of this couple in their Bruges home. It cries out: ‘Here we are! We are rich and wonderful people! Look at us!’ The most intriguing aspect for me is the reflection in the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple, depicting two figures, one of whom is commonly assumed to be Van Eyck himself. Velázquez later did much the same thing in ‘Las Meninas’, showing himself as painter of the scene. It’s a clever way of putting your personal stamp on your work. As well as that, Van Eyck painted boldly on the wall (in the style, popular at the time, of a maxim or moral text): ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ or ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434’. I’ve always found it pleasantly ironic that the painter should have muscled in on the proud self-declaration of the Arnolfini couple, in a kind of portrait-bombing that elbows aside the intended subject.
My mind jumped quickly to the concept of self, as presented by ‘Kilroy was here’ and graffiti tags: ‘Notice me – I’m everywhere – I can get into the most unlikely and bizarre places… because I’m wonderful!’ That too seems pretty ironic to me, as I feel that shouting out about myself or my achievements is de trop and immodest; creating a ‘Christina James’ brand and promoting my writing here on the social media, I confess, does make me feel uncomfortable, even though I accept the need for it in the current bookselling market and therefore join in. However, I know how I feel about those who simply churn out plugs for their books without any engagement with others – it’s so much spam. Van Eyck’s skill sold itself and I suppose all writers and artists and craftspeople hope that the quality of their handiwork will do the same and that people will notice; in the meantime, they give it what they consider a helpful push. Shakespeare definitely, with his choice of the word ‘powerful’ in Sonnet 55, knew the value of his own words in outlasting even the hardest stone (‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.’) and was clearly right to say so: his sonnet certainly seems to be standing the test of time. So… we turn the words and polish them, with ‘perhaps’ floating in our heads… and promote them.
Which in turn leads me to the ‘selfie’, a bizarre bi-product of the technological society in which we live. We have a ‘smart’ phone (there’s a misnomer) which we can turn upon ourselves with no skill or effort whatsoever and take our own picture. Why? Narcissus fell in love with his reflected image, because Nemesis, having noticed his overweening pride in himself, led him to the pool in which he saw himself and he couldn’t drag himself away from the image in its surface; he therefore died, his hubris preventing him from seeing reality. Messrs Obama and Cameron, perhaps flattered by the photographic attentions of the personable Danish PM, fell into much the same trap, losing their sense of reality in the process. Not only did they use no art in the creation of the resulting silly picture, but also failed to use even the most basic commonsense, and Mrs Obama and the rest of the world clearly eyed them with the sharp vision of objectivity. Oh dear. The ‘selfie’ doesn’t work very well as a self-promotional tool.
I didn’t set out to be moralistic, but this is beginning to feel that way. We care about what we create and care about how others view it; there is ‘self’ in that! I have been privileged to receive positive reviews about Almost Love from writers whose own work I value and enjoy and I’m therefore sharply aware of how important it is to celebrate what I find successful and admirable in what others do; there is joy to be had in reviewing books that stand scrutiny. I’m also very much aware of how selflessly many of the people with whom I interact on the social networks behave; they deserve to feel proud of themselves for making someone else’s day. I’m glad, too, that the social media allow all of us to find our way to what we like; we’d miss out on some gems if their creators were utterly selfless!
I’ve always had a strong affection for the very heart of Leeds and first knew it when the buildings were still black with soot and vehicles could go everywhere in what is now a huge pedestrian precinct. I particularly remember shopping here before Christmas in the early seventies and finding it almost impossible to make my way along the pavements, which were packed with shoppers because the roads were likewise thronged with cars. It is much more pleasant now, with space for pedestrians as well as pavement cafés (one in a street completely covered with a glass roof that seals it from the weather and gives it the feel of the various Victorian arcades that lead off Briggate) and talented buskers; the several covered shopping centres (the latest, Trinity Leeds, adjoining Boar Lane) are a magnet to thousands of visitors from across Yorkshire and beyond.
The casual visitor, however, will probably miss the ‘ginnels’ (passageways) and ‘yards’ that preserve the history of Victorian Leeds and that thread their way through the buildings a breath away from the main shopping streets. The entrance to the far-famed ‘City Varieties’ theatre is in one such, though it has been considerably changed and modernised. And in one of these, leading off Briggate and cheek by jowl with the Trinity Centre, is the oldest pub in the city, Whitelocks. I suppose that I, too, should have missed it, but my husband, who seemed as a student to manage to find his way to most of the hostelries in town, took me there many years ago. I went back with him to enjoy lunch there on my return from China.
Here, indeed, is local Leeds. Sitting alongside us were a grandfather (his accent marking him out as a Leeds man) and his two grand-daughters, both of them students, who bought him lunch and beer, put him in the picture about their mother, his daughter, and bid him a merry farewell as they headed off to afternoon lectures; to my left, during the time we were there, a succession of elderly Horsforth (I asked!) couple, a market trader I recognised from many years’ enjoyable shopping in Vicar Lane’s Leeds City Market and a younger man who came in to sup his pint and put the working day aside for a while. The long bar was crowded with suits on lunchbreak and large groups of city workers of one kind or another.
Whitelocks has to be seen and experienced first-hand: it is a jewel of Victorian/Edwardian décor, replete with brass and copper and marble and coloured tile and mirrors and stained glass and ironwork. It gleams with a sociable splendour that makes ‘having a drink’ into an occasion of moment. For the contemporary cognoscenti, the range of real ales is special, the food traditional and beautifully prepared. Here is an inn which cherishes its guests and makes them feel warm inside.
It opened as an inn in 1715, serving local traders and customers in what was then a Briggate market; its original name, The Turk’s Head, lives on as the name of the yard, but the inn was rebuilt and (as its blue plaque confirms) extended to absorb a row of Georgian working men’s dwellings by the first of the Whitelock family, who took over the licence in 1867 and transformed it. Fortunately, it has been preserved for future generations of Leeds folk to enjoy.
My imagination was caught by my first visit there, on a foggy November evening; there may not have been gas lamps, but there was gloom in the ginnel and a warmth of welcome within. The past reached out and drew me in, to think of the divide between the relatively wealthy Victorian and Edwardian customers of ‘Whitelocks First City Luncheon Bar’ and the vagabonds and urchins and footpads outside in the sooty darkness, who no doubt relieved some of them of their wallets and purses. For a crime writer, pubs with character and a powerful history have huge potential. I’m sure that Whitelocks could very easily find its way into a story and may very well already have done.