I’m writing this on the train to Glasgow, where I’m about to attend a conference. It’s a Cross Country train. Though I haven’t had a duff experience on Cross Country trains before, on this occasion I’m finding the service a little less than up to snuff. I’ve got a first class ticket (cheap weekend deal) and have been looking forward to being pampered in the way I have enjoyed so much on GNER / East Coast trains. The last time I travelled first class on one of the latter (cheap weekday deal, unsociable hours), I was regaled with tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish, a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake, a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket! By the time I staggered off that train, some two hours after I had boarded it, I’d have been happy to phone the Prime Minister and tell him how wonderful the experience was, if any of the crew had asked me to.
The standards on the present train are a little different. When I boarded, First Class was jammed with people, including one occupying my reserved seat. To add insult to injury, he was wearing a purple jumper. I was told that there were no seat reservations operative on the train, ‘as the system is down, but we have some boffins trying to fix it’. I was advised to grab or fight for a seat, on a may-the-best-woman-win type of basis. I decided to keep close watch on a man who hadn’t taken off his coat – a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t planning a long journey (I’m not a crime writer for nothing; I can read clues!). Sure enough, he ‘alighted’ (I’ve no idea why all train guards use this poncy term – perhaps they have a vision of the gossamer-winged traveller, wand in hand, floating like a dandelion seed from train to platform) at the next station, possibly relieved that I didn’t try to follow him, as he might have thought I was a stalker, and I hopped into his seat sharpish before another crowd of people with worthless seat reservations got on.
If I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman so far, that’s probably because by this time I’ve had a glimpse of the at-seat menu. The ‘complimentary’ food available consists of tea, coffee, water, fruit cake, biscuits and crisps. And there are lots of ‘ors’ on the menu, implying that two choices maximum would be seemly. I haven’t got to my age without knowing how to push the envelope, so I have demanded tea, water, fruit cake (which turns out to be one inch square and plastic-wrapped) and crisps in short order, in a very firm, dowager sort of voice. To this I’ve added an egg-and-cress sandwich and a tiny bottle of Pinot Grigio from the ‘paying’ menu (no hot food available – that will be £7.95 to you, Madam). There is not a newspaper in sight, although I have seen that a lady seated nearby is doing the crossword in Woman’s Weekly. I doubt if this has been supplied by Management. (I’ve also seen Management – he hides in the still room, guarding his supply of complaints forms, and twitches if anyone barges through to ask him about seat reservations.)
However, now I have eaten my sandwich and drunk my Pinot Grigio, water and tea and inspected the sell-by dates on the cake and crisps to see if they are fit for human consumption, I have to admit that I am quite enjoying myself. For a start, one of my fellow travellers is a man with two collies – I thought there was only one at first, but another peeped round from the seat behind mine and fixed me with her liquid eyes – and he has demanded not one, two or three, but four bottles of still water to put in their water bowl. And he wants free cake, crisps and coffee as well. So he has busted my temporary record of four free items by a margin of three… but I’ve been able to stroke his two lovely dogs to console myself for the disappointment!
And then there’s the journey itself. Of all the journeys I undertake, this one wins hands-down for interest and enjoyment. Already, from this train today, I have seen the innermost secrets of Victorian Leeds and the architectural wonder of York Station and I’m looking forward to the dour but unique crumbling red brick of the station at Darlington, Newcastle’s panoramic kaleidoscope of aesthetically gob-smacking, state-of the-art bridges, stupendous river, industrial buildings and purposeful roads, Alnmouth’s deceptive sleepiness (it lies between the buzzing commuter town of Alnwick and the lovely village of Alnmouth itself, on the gloriously beautiful Northumberland coast) and, best of all, the sight of the majestic, historic, sandstone bridge at Berwick-on-Tweed with the huge sweep of sea beyond it. And after Dunbar (another favourite place, with its Braveheart-style castle) and venerable, stately Edinburgh, I shall eventually arrive in vibrant Glasgow. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had time to map out the next few chapters of The Crossing (D.I. Yates 4).
So what’s not to like? Well, if Arriva’s UK rail Managing Director Chris Burchell is reading this, I have a message for him. At a push, he might get away with this service on the basis that it’s the weekend and the destination is magical, mystical Scotland, but he should know that I’m very glad that it’s Virgin, and not Arriva, which has won the East Coast franchise, because, on the basis of my experience today, the prospect of an Arriva standard for my regular, working week, London-and-return journey would fill me with despair. Next time I board the train at King’s Cross, I’ll be looking forward to what I’ve missed this time: tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish (or similar), a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake (or similar), a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket. I understand that Arriva’s Cross-Country franchise has been extended to 2019 from the original 2016; that’s a pity, but perhaps Virgin will win it next time around…
Ethel Lang, the lady who held the record as Britain’s oldest woman, died last Wednesday aged 114. I salute her.
I’m hugely pleased and not a little tickled that Mrs Lang’s home town was Barnsley, which I’ve known very well for at least forty years (my husband’s grandmother, aunt and uncle lived in Pogmoor; his uncle worked for the Coal Board). In fact, she spent her whole life there: Barnsley, the heart of the South Yorkshire mining industry and base of Arthur Scargill, former miner and for twenty years president of the National Union of Mineworkers (the final home of the NUM stands stolidly at the corner of Victoria Road and Huddersfield Road, a rather grim, castle-like building, with a poignant sculpture of a mining family as a memorial in front of it); Barnsley, home of the Barnsley chop (effectively a double lamb chop, of almost joint-sized proportions, served to an individual), one of which once famously over-faced Princess Diana; Barnsley, a town dominated by its massive town hall (George Orwell thought the money spent on it would have been better used to improve the terrible living conditions of the miners) and wonderfully served by a fine covered market with two identical car parks (I’m not alone in having had to seek assistance, having ‘mislaid’ my car: the non-pc male attendant told me with some glee that ‘lasses are always doing it!’); Barnsley, whose living and much-loved bard, Ian McMillan, sings its spirit in verse and paints its picture in tweets; Barnsley, whose huge and thriving college has sent out many of the district’s sons and daughters, including the Arctic Monkeys, to succeed in the world; Barnsley, whose metropolitan borough council struggles heroically to maintain its vast rural hinterland as well as the town itself without raising the council tax: a bastion of The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, as my husband observes with great affection.
So it was the bracing atmosphere and modest amenities of Barnsley that supported Mrs. Lang well into her twelfth decade, not the leafy lanes and rarefied air of a bijou village in the home counties or the endless facilities available in one of our great metropolises. How remarkable is that! And she wasn’t a member of the upper classes or even one of the ‘middle sort’: she left school at fourteen to become a seamstress in a shirt factory and married a plumber. From a solid working-class background, therefore: clearly not in want, but not a life packed with luxury, either.
Not surprisingly, there has been quite a lot of news coverage following Mrs Lang’s death. Most of the articles and TV stories have looked back at the main national and international events of her very long life and, of course, the list is rich and varied: she was born when Queen Victoria still had a year left to reign and lived through two world wars, all the moon landings that have taken place so far and, according to The Times, the births of ten billion people during her lifetime.
I’m sure Mrs. Lang will have been interested in these things, but what are likely to have affected her more nearly are the changes that have happened in Barnsley itself during the same period. She will have remembered vividly the General Strike that took place in 1926, the year before her daughter was born, which was called by the Trades Union Congress in support of 800,000 locked-out coal miners, including the ones working the Barnsley coalfield; she’s likely to have remembered the young evacuees sent to Barnsley during the Second World War and may even have helped to look after some of them; she’s bound to have remembered also the miners’ strikes of 1974, the first since 1926, which led to the temporary introduction of a three-day week, and the strikes of 1984, which were triggered by the announcement that some twenty pits, including Cortonwood Colliery, close by, near Rotherham, were to be closed; she’ll have seen the town grow shabby and poor as the prosperity brought by mining declined, gradually at first, but inexorably, and later much more swiftly, throughout the twentieth century. And I hope that she was also well enough – and mobile enough, after her eyesight began to fail – to see this proud town reinvent itself for the twenty-first century.
Mrs Lang’s daughter said that ‘she tried very, very hard with everything that she did’ and that she enjoyed dancing, knitting, baking her own bread and having her nails painted bright colours. Endeavour and enjoyment seem to have been the secrets of her longevity. She obviously had a strong work ethic. I think it’s likely that she wasn’t a driver, but, if she had been, she’d probably have scorned to be one of the ‘lasses’ who couldn’t find her car (though, if she had found herself in my mislaid-car predicament, it would be nice to think that, like other strong Yorkshire women I have known, she would have given as good as she got if a car park attendant had tried to patronise her).
I propose a toast to Mrs Lang. May her spirit live on in her home town. And may many other daughters and sons of Barnsley chalk up a century or more, sustained by a town that continues to try very, very hard.
The magazine that accompanied Saturday’s edition of The Times was full of lists. Each of the regular journalists contributed an article based on them, presumably to show solidarity with a population that is currently either toiling away at compiling Christmas lists or trudging through the streets to fulfil them as December sets in and we realise – indeed are perpetually being reminded by the media – that there are only x shopping days left. To be honest, the result is a bit contrived, though some of the lists – especially Caitlin Moran’s – are great fun. That said, I’ve long had a fascination with lists myself. Consciously, it dates back to my student days, when I remember that my tutor drew attention to James Joyce’s magnificent series of lists in Ulysses. “They may look effortless or random,” he told us, in his mildly admonishing way, “but just try writing lists to equal them yourself. You’ll find out then that only a genius can produce lists like Joyce’s.”
Whatever the truth of this, some of Joyce’s lists are indeed difficult to surpass. One of my favourites is the list that begins as a pastiche of a passage from the King James Bible and reaches its climax with the following description of Leopold Bloom, fleeing through the streets of Dublin from a hostile reception:
“And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.”
Lists were a part of my life long before I read that, of course. I belonged to a generation whose mothers sent us up to the corner shop at a very tender age, a note tucked into a purse that also contained exactly the right money to pay for the items listed. And, as well as shopping lists and Christmas lists, there were birthday lists, lists of people you wanted to come to your party (always more than you were allowed to invite), lists of books you wanted from the library and, on a more mundane note, the elaborate lists of ‘essential’ clothes and equipment that were part of the rite of passage of first attending a grammar school. Later, as my friends and I married, there were wedding lists – a phenomenon to which I’ve never been able to reconcile myself. The French go in for them in an even bigger way than we do: the poshest linen and china shops in France all carry ‘listes de mariages’ signs in the windows. But I’ve always thought that wedding lists are too specific, and therefore slightly off-colour, not to say mercenary. For example, it may be fine to tell your future wedding guests that you would like tea-cups, but it surprises me that accepted etiquette also allows you to specify ‘Wedgwood Daisy Tea Story’, or some such. It’s like smiling at someone while you’re simultaneously twisting her arm halfway up her back: ‘You will buy me this china, each set of six cups and saucers costing an eye-watering £240, because I have invited you to my wedding.’
Nevertheless, lists, both your own and other people’s, are mesmerising, and since I’m sure The Times has not devoted a whole magazine to them on a whim, I’m clearly not alone in thinking so. I’m not sure why this should be. Perhaps it’s because a list combines comprehensiveness with brevity. An eclectic list also allows the reader a tantalising, if puzzling, glimpse of its author’s mind:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax– Of cabbages–and kings– And why the sea is boiling hot– And whether pigs have wings.”
Lists can be sinister as well as humorous; they can help you to cope with everyday irritations; they can soothe by striking a common chord with the rest of humanity:
“I’ve got a little list–I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed–who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs–
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs–
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat–
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like _that_–
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-a-têtes insist–
They’d none of ’em be missed–they’d none of ’em be missed!”
And despite what my tutor averred, I think that compiling a list is an excellent way of achieving literary distinction without having to try too hard. It allows its author to give free rein to his or her imagination without having to take on the full responsibility of plot, characterisation or format. In order to create a list all you need to do is, as the saying goes, empty your head on to the paper. Though, with even half an eye on prosperity, you’re likely to want to tweak your list a little before you show it to anyone else.
I’m going to indulge myself by concluding with a bit of a digression. It’s about the word ‘list’ itself. It’s one of those words that has multiple meanings. Thus boats list when they’re sinking. Knights jousted in the lists. And ‘list’ was an archaic word for ‘please’. I love words like this! And since today’s has been a post full of quotations, I’ve chosen a suitably gnomic one that uses a different meaning for list, to conclude:
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, ‘How can these things be?’”.
Happy Christmas shopping! Don’t forget your list – you might not survive Christmas without it! 😉
I know that some of the readers of this blog have been following my contribution to the ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaign. I thought, therefore, that you might also be interested in an article that appeared in The Times last Thursday, which says:
“Economists have calculated the monetary value of sporting and cultural activities and found that going to the library frequently was – in satisfaction terms – worth the same as a pay rise of £1,359.”
Playing team sports came close behind – but still it was behind – at a value of £1,127.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to expect anyone to swallow this without a little pinch of salt. How do you put a monetary value on any activity? It could be taken to extreme limits: for example, I could estimate that the monetary value of my husband is £5,000 per annum, but only if he does the hoovering. If he doesn’t do the hoovering, it drops to -£5; and either figure would have to be offset by the amount that he ratchets up on my credit card buying stuff for his greenhouse. I jest, of course, though some of the assumptions made by the research team at the London School of Economics strike me as equally far-fetched. The article continues: “The authors … speculated that … the sort of person who went to a gym was probably already tired of life and unhappy with their lot.” I have no idea how they arrived at this conclusion. Most of the people I know who attend gyms are irritatingly bouncy, dripping their endorphins and their self-righteous early morning starts all over everyone else. I’m quite grateful for this observation, nevertheless, as it obviously lets me off ever setting foot in a gym again for the rest of my life.
But let me get back to the point. If libraries are worth so much to the well-being of the individual, you’d think that, by now, the government – and especially David Cameron, with his slightly suspect ‘well-being index’ – would have latched on to this and decided that it was a bad idea to keep on closing libraries and cutting their services. Just think how they could keep inflation down if every time someone asked for a pay-rise, they could be told that £1,359 of it would be paid in library benefits! By the by, the Prime Minister has responded to the splendid petition and letter given to him by ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaigner Julie Harrison by passing them on to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as being rather too hot to handle himself. He should realise just how much libraries mean to, especially rural, communities in the county of my birth and elsewhere and take a lead on this at least.
I know that the government is struggling to see the value of libraries in today’s society and that it can’t get away from the idea that they are ‘old hat’. In reply, I’d like to tell them to dust off their history books a little. Recently, I have been reading David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain. If you haven’t come across David Kynaston’s three books, which at present cover the years 1945 – 1959 (there are more in the pipeline), you should rush out and buy them immediately, because they are the most brilliant evocation of post-war society you are ever likely to come across. Austerity Britain chronicles the years 1945 – 1951 and, by chance also on Thursday, I reached the section on public libraries. Kynaston quotes some Mass Observation opinions on why public libraries were so little used in 1947 and why people preferred magazines:
–None of them subjects is interesting to me. All I like is gangster stories, though there’s precious much chance of reading here. Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around. No convenience, no water. I’m glad to get out of the house, I can tell you.
– Cos I ain’t got no interest in them [books] – they all apparently lead up to the same thing.
– I’m not very good at reading, I never was. I’ve never liked it some’ow.
– Too long. I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three times. I like to get stuck straight into a story – there’s too much preliminary, if you see what I mean.
You might have expected public libraries to be more appreciated at this time of austerity, when wages were low and almost everything was rationed. Apparently they weren’t. But ten years later, when the nation was back on the road to prosperity, public libraries were enjoying the start of their heyday. This lasted for at least three decades. When I started work as a young library supplier at the end of the 1970s, public libraries were still highly regarded and librarians enjoyed considerable prestige. They were also extremely well-supported by both local and national government.
Is there a moral here? I’d say that if the experience of the past can teach us anything, it is that people are more interested in culture, including cultural services, when their lives are financially stable. It makes sense, if you think about it, for people who are happy and settled in their jobs and home life to ‘make time’ to go to the library. It is also understandable if people who are unemployed and desperately looking for work don’t feel able to find space for using the free public library service. That is my take on it, anyway, and I think that the government should note the facts. If Mr Gove is as worried as he says he is about standards of literacy among the young, he should encourage his colleagues at the Culture Department to stick up for public libraries. There can be no cheaper or more effective way of encouraging high standards of literacy than to get children interested in books at an early age and to make as many books as they can read available to them, regardless of their social background.
When I was a child growing up in Spalding, the public library was on the ground floor of Ayscoughfee Hall. (It subsequently moved to a purpose-built building in Henrietta Street and it was while taking a gap year to work as an assistant at this library that my friend Mandy brought me the book about Jack the Ripper when I was working in the Chinese restaurant with the putatively murderous cook called Moon.) There were only a few shelves of children’s books, and I had exhausted these long before the end of my primary school years. The librarian there, a kindly lady, used her discretion and allowed me to join the adult section of the library, even though the rules stated that this was not possible for children under twelve. There exists a very stereotypical idea of librarians as mousy, unhumorous and devoted to regulations (especially ‘no talking’); I’m certain that this is unfair and that librarians like the one I knew in Spalding quietly go the extra mile all of the time in order to help people read and enjoy books. We should celebrate librarians as well as libraries: along with booksellers, they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of civilised society.
(But before I get too eulogistic, I’d like to add that I’m now planning a future blog-post called Librarians I Have Known. I won’t pre-empt it by offering more than a glimpse here, but, suffice it to say, it will include tales of red shoes, prostitutes, Spirella corsets and Sanderson sofas. I may just have been lucky, but many of the librarians I’ve encountered have been very far removed from the stereotype.)
It’s a beautiful spring day and I’m luxuriating in the winter’s departure – though still with a wary eye on the sky, as I’m mindful that this time last year there were hedge-high snowdrifts in the lanes near my house. When I arrived in Brighton in March 2013 for the conference at which I annually organise the speaker programme (and for which I am departing again tomorrow), the promenade was deep in snow and Brighton, that gaudy seaside princess accustomed only to balmy springs and mild winters, had stamped her foot and gone on strike: nothing was operating; not trains, buses or cafés, and the lone taxi driver who had ventured out deposited me at my hotel with all the air of a Himalayan Sherpa supporting a winter expedition. But tomorrow, I’m told, the sun will be shining, the temperatures unusually warm for the time of year.
It’s perhaps a little unseasonal of me, therefore, to embark upon a rant. Rants are normally reserved for foggy November days and chill winter evenings, when the humours are out of sorts and venting one’s chagrin upon the world is, if not de rigeur, then at least condoned. However, I haven’t had a rant for ages, so perhaps may be allowed a little leeway now. It is also unusual for me to comment on political issues, but I’m going to do that, too.
If you read the newspapers regularly, you will have noticed that the government’s latest frenzied preoccupation is with sugar. Yes, sugar. Not tobacco or marijuana or alcohol or ‘hard’ drugs or even prescription drugs, all of which we know to be major killers in the UK, but sugar. The government is considering the imposition of an extra tax on foods and drinks that contain high sugar content – whatever that means (the cynic in me whispers that this might – incidentally, of course – turn out to be a nice little earner). Meantime, the World Health Organisation (THE WHO?!) has suggested that sugar should form no more than 5% of our diet.
Now, I am not a scientist: in fact, if you were to line up twenty random people and assess their ignorance-of-science credentials, I reckon I would get the top slot, or certainly the runner-up’s. Because I needed a science subject in order to get into university, I studied Biology – that traditional ‘soft option’ for arts and languages students – and, after much labour, succeeded in obtaining a moderately respectable grade which was, incidentally, the worst of all my examination results, ever. However, I do remember quite a lot of the information from my ‘O’ Level Biology course, having managed to din it into myself by rote, and since then I have taken more than a passing interest in nutrition – particularly when I was a new mother – and food generally, as I like cooking. I can therefore state with some confidence that there are simple and complex carbohydrates and that both are absorbed into the digestive system as sugar. Yes, sugar. The difference is that simple carbohydrates don’t take any breaking down – they can more or less be absorbed in the form in which they are ingested, meaning that the person eating them feels satisfied for less time than if he or she is eating complex carbohydrates – which take longer to break down. Therefore, if you eat lots of simple carbohydrates – such as sweets, biscuits and soft drinks – you are more likely to feel hungry again sooner and therefore to get fat, especially if the next lot of food that you eat also consists of simple carbohydrates. Simple, isn’t it? (If I haven’t got this right, I invite those of you with a firmer grounding than mine in science to correct me.)
So far, so good. I have no quarrel with any of that, except to point out that simple carbohydrates are not always ‘bad’ – they can be very useful if, for example, you are out on a hike and need an extra boost. Think Kendal Mint Cake or Dextrosol tablets. And not all simple carbohydrates contain only ‘empty’ calories: some have vitamins, minerals and electrolytes that aid recovery from strenuous activity or illness – Lucozade, for example (though I accept that the same benefits can also be acquired through the consumption of more natural products, such as milk).
What I really want to contest is that the current witch-hunt to track down and vilify sugar seems to me to have confused simple with complex carbohydrates to such an extent that natural foods as well as manufactured ones are now being targeted. And, as I’ve indicated at the beginning of this post, the newspapers, which can often be relied on to counterbalance the government’s more ludicrous excesses with a little cod-wisdom of their own, have on this occasion jumped on to the same bandwagon. Take last Saturday’s edition of The Times, which contained a full-page illustrated feature called ‘The Good Sugar Guide’. At the top of the page, it says that the WHO recommends that we don’t eat more than six teaspoons of sugar per day. If you look down the chart, you will see that one of the biggest sugar ‘culprits’ is the banana. A banana contains, on average, seven teaspoons of sugar.
Exactly what kind of advice is being offered here? Are we being exhorted to give up bananas, that mainstay of just-weaned babies, children’s teas, lunch-boxes and commuters’ breakfasts on the hoof? Bananas, which have in some regions been a foodstuff since the dawn of mankind, and which are known to have a wide range of nutritional and medicinal benefits? (If you’re interested, some of these are listed at http://www.botanical-online.com/platanos1angles.htm.) Or are we supposed to eat six-sevenths of a banana today and save the rest of it for tomorrow, not minding that the remaining seventh is now brown and sludgy and possibly contaminated with bacteria? Or perhaps eat six-sevenths of the banana today and throw the rest away? Nothing else with sugar to be eaten, mind!
The chart proclaims, conversely, that a large glass of red or white wine contains only one quarter of a teaspoon of sugar. Now, I like a glass of wine as much as anybody – I’d say I am definitely in the top quartile of oenophiles. But even I baulk at the prospect of drinking twenty-four glasses of wine to meet my daily sugar requirement.
I’m exaggerating the case to the point of absurdity here, of course – but only so that I can point out that so is the government. I’d like to suggest that there can be no more futile a waste of time, and no more dangerous an exercise, than to confuse and worry people with a chart that lists a heterogeneous collection of foods of widely varying nutritional value with the sole purpose of isolating the sugar content and, on top of that, to fail to distinguish between added sugar and sugar that occurs naturally. We don’t need a nanny state to poke its nose in in this very unhelpful way. And we certainly don’t want to start paying tax on bananas. May I also suggest (if you’ll forgive the pun!) that bananas are low-hanging fruit as far as the government is concerned? Almost everyone eats them: all the major supermarkets rank them in their top five bestsellers. What the government needs to concentrate on instead are the thornier and more serious challenges: tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, ‘hard’ drugs, abuse of prescription drugs, and the rest, and leave us to take care of the sugar, in its various forms.
I feel an urgent need to wolf down a banana. I might have a glass of wine (gosh, alcohol), too. Excuse me.
And then… there’s cake…
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 was disgruntled to read in yesterday’s The Times that there is some kind of battle going on between Harwich and Plymouth about which place really ‘owned’ the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower. Both contenders are quite obviously charlatans: as every Lincolnshire schoolchild knows, the Pilgrim Fathers originated in Boston, from which Fenland town they had to flee as dissenters to the Netherlands. Subsequently they sailed to America, and founded a colony in Massachusetts, eventually naming its principal town… Boston! (See? Not Basildon or Barnstaple. Or Plymouth, indeed!)
The name of Boston, now borne with pride by one of the world’s great cities, should be sufficient proof that all other claimants to ancestral Mayflower fame are upstarts. However, I do acknowledge that the name of the rock on which they landed in 1620, which has always been known as Plymouth Rock, muddies the waters a little. But I’ve seen Plymouth Rock and, no disrespect, in a country that does everything BIG, it is perhaps the smallest and most understated monument that ever graced the description ‘tourist attraction’: a refreshing change from the biggest, richest, fattest and brightest (but rarely oldest) that is the more usual fare in America; yet, even to someone who thinks that small is beautiful, disappointing, nevertheless. And far from casting doubt upon my assertion, I think that Plymouth Rock proves it completely. Why? Because, with its limited dimensions, it’s quite obvious that no more than three people could have stepped ashore upon it. 102 people sailed in the Mayflower; two of them died on the voyage. Of the remaining 100, three obviously came from Plymouth; and the other 97 from Boston. In the absence of a rock bearing the legend Basildon or Barnstaple, and with a whole city to rely on, I rest my case.
Lincolnshire rules, ok?
I’ve just read that the shortlist of six titles has been chosen for this year’s Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. This is the thirty-fifth year that the prize will have been awarded, although I became aware of it myself only a few years ago.
I’m not sure about the candidacy of Was Hitler Ill?, by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann [Polity]. As I’ve read several books about Hitler’s state of health and his bizarre use of both conventional drugs and quack remedies, this seems to me to be a perfectly logical choice of title – and I’d guess that the authors intend it to convey irony as well (Was Hitler Sane? might make me sit up more).
Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts, by Jerry Gagne [Foy’s Pet Supplies], is perhaps quite amusing, but anyone familiar with the many minority publications that America’s huge population is able to support will know that it is not out-of-the way extraordinary; for example, when I was a bookseller, I remember deciding that the title How to Raise Your Own Barn was unlikely to thrill the UK public library community that I served at the time.
I am slightly disdainful of God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis, by Tom Hickman [Square Peg], as being a bit of a boys’ snigger title (I remember I once attended an author event at which Claire Rayner was speaking, when she amused the audience by saying that she was convinced that ‘every man was born with a ruler in his hot little hand’). I’m sure that Carol Midgley (The Times) would comment very bluntly on this particular choice!
How Tea Cosies Changed the World, by Loani Prior [Murdoch], succeeds with its juxtaposition of the mundane and the all-encompassing, but it doesn’t make me fall about; and Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, by Reginald Bakeley [Conari], is an arresting title, but (as one who lives in an area richly populated by foxes can testify), if ‘Goblin’ is taken as a pseudonym for Mr. Tod, it becomes a perfectly plausible one.
So what is my tip for the award? I’d give the prize to How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees [Melville House]. I take my hat off to anyone who can write a whole book on this topic… And now my quirky memory takes me back more than a couple of decades, to the bossy, humourless teacher of my son’s reception class, who told me with great condemnatory contempt that he spent all of his time sharpening pencils. So sadly uninspiring (by comparison with the many vital, enthusiastic and creative teachers he subsequently had the good fortune to know) was her manner that I could quite understand his interest in playing with a pencil-sharpener, especially (for him) as it was one of those desk-mounted ones, with an exciting handle to turn. I should like to make her a present of this book!
Gosh. I hadn’t realised just how much she still rankles in my memory!