Sunday, 30 December 2007


As is usual with Claire Tomalin biographies this is a wonderful evocation of a life. She deals with Hardy's complexity both as a man and a writer without ever being judgemental. It is hard to reconcile the man who wrote to Rider Haggard, 'sympathy with you both in your bereavement. Though, to be candid, I think the death of a child is never to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.' with the man who wrote such wonderful poetry in mourning of his first wife. Emma Hardy is a fascinating character in her own right and one who it seems has been unfairly demonised throughout the years, Tomalin writes that 'she had many faults, but her courage was unflinching and she remained stoic.'

I first studied Hardy years ago when I was studying for my English Literature O'level, The Mayor of Casterbridge as well as his Selected Poems. I had a wonderful teacher called Mrs Sampson, who was probably Hardy's biggest fan, but I didn't appreciate his writing. She also taught me for my A'Level Literature, when we studied Tess of the D'Urbervilles and took us all to Dorchester to see Hardy's birthplace at Bockhampton as well as Maxgate. I was just too young to appreciate Hardy's writings and so she had a hard time convincing us of his merit. I came to appreciate Hardy's novels in my twenties and his poetry, which I feel is greater than his novels, in my thirties, so Mrs Sampson, I am so sorry, you were right Hardy is one of the great English writers.

Tomalin's biography had me searching on the net for this poem, which Hardy wrote in reminiscence of his visit to the churchyard the day before his friend Horace Moule's funeral (Moule was a depressive who committed suicide):

Before My Friend Arrived

I sat on the eve-lit weir,
Which gurgled in sobs and sighs;
I looked across the meadows near
To the towered church on the rise.
Overmuch cause had my look!
I pulled out pencil and book,
And drew a white chalk mound,
Outthrown on the sepulchred ground.

Why did I pencil that chalk?
It was fetched from the waiting grave,
And would return there soon,
Of one who had stilled his walk
And sought oblivion's cave.
He was to come on the morrow noon
And take a good rest in the bed so hewn.

He came, and there he is now, although
This was a wondrous while ago.
And the sun still dons a ruddy dye;
The weir still gurgles nigh;
The tower is dark on the sky.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Last Emperor

I spent Christmas Eve at the British Museum at a special showing of The Last Emperor Exhibition. Apparently this is the first time that the British Museum has ever opened on Christmas Eve, they also opened the doors for the Exhibition on Boxing Day and I see that there is a chance to do the same on New Years Eve as well. The rest of the museum was closed, so there wasn't any chance to go and browse the other exhibits, but there was tea and cakes as a welcome and a special exhibition of Chinese dancing in the Great Court, which passed the time until it was time to enter the exhibition. It all felt very grown up and it was great to have the chance to see the Great Court without too many people around.

The Exhibition has taken over the Reading Room and they use the space superbly. As for the Exhibition itself, as someone who plays around with clay, I found it very moving to stare directly at these figures made over two thousand years ago and see the tool marks in the clay as someone personalised each piece. Its also very sobering to realise that the techniques for working clay haven't really changed that much in the intervening years. I want to go to China and visit the site at Xi'an as this just feels like an appetizer and I just can't imagine how it feels to see hundreds of these figures lined up


And my favourite piece, strangely not one made of terracotta, but this beautiful and elegant bronze crane, which was discovered alongside other bronze birds by a mercury river in one of the many pits around the site.

My only complaint, and its one I have at every exhibition I go to, is audio description, somehow plugging into headphones makes people very rude as they shove other viewers out of the way to view the piece that is being described, and then linger to read all the information labels, which are telling them everything that they've just heard and yell at their friends and family "to come see this". I appreciate that audio description fulfils a need, I really do, I just wish that people would remember that they are not viewing and listening in isolation and that there are others around who have paid just as much as them for the privilege of viewing the exhibition.

If you haven't booked tickets, the British Museum have just released some more late night tickets, so do go as its absolutely worth it, just watch out for those people with headphones!


I work for someone who is a self-confessed train spotter and, for various reasons, he recommended these books to me for a Christmas read.

This first book is fascinating, did you know that at the turn of the century there was a dedicated railway from Waterloo taking bodies for burial at Brookwood Cemetery, I didn't. Andrew Martin has created a great character in Jim Stringer, an engine cleaner on the Necropolis Railway who gets caught up in a mysterious series of deaths. There is a lot of background colour which gives and authentic feel to the novel. As I knew this was all about trains it feels churlish to comment that, for me, there was a little too much information about trains and not enough mystery.

This is the second book in the series and Jim Stringer has now moved to Halifax and has been promoted to fireman. Once again the period is beautifully evoked, I'd forgotten about trips to the sea and Wake Weeks for mill workers, but as for the first book there was not enough mystery and too much train and not enough about Jim Stringer's personal life.

Sarf London...

First of all I have to admit that I've met Debi Alper a couple of times as she is a good friend of Cailleach and I read her book with interest. This book is fast, funny, tragic, compassionate and rude and I really enjoyed reading it. Set in and around an area of South East London I know well there is lots of local colour. She's a great storyteller, but for me its in her depiction of the characters that Debi really excels, the central character, Jenny, is funny, loyal, sexy, troubled and flawed, as she attempts to come to terms with the damage inflicted on her during her childhood. But Jenny has found refuge and a new family amongst her diverse and compassionate fellow inhabitants of the Nirvana Housing Co-op. The bizarre job interview at the BBC where Jenny comes face to face with Stanley, who she previously knew as "Stapled Stan", is hilarious and very rude, but I was also deeply moved as Jenny and her friends are devastated as they try to help Stanley. As you can only buy this second hand from Amazon it seems that this is yet another book that seems to be out of print and shouldn't be, Kerry Katona and her ilk have a lot to answer for.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

That's Better

This may be too much information for some people, but I spent ages wallowing in the bath yesterday as the next thing on my list was a visit to my local supermarket, which at this time of year could easily be one of the rings of hell in the Inferno and, when I finally got there, it was just as bad as expected... So I lay in the bath, procrastinating, topping up the hot water and reading this book.

From the Amazon listings it seems that this book is out of print at the moment, this copy came from my local Oxfam shop, and I don't know why. Unlike Arthur and George (see posting below) Esther Freud's characters are all three dimensional and very engaging so I was immediately drawn into their world, which is also beautifully described. The central character is a child, Tess, and I really felt that as I read I was inhabiting her skin and experiencing her pain as William, her pseudo stepfather, ignores her and exposes her embarrassing secret to the world. All the characters in this book are three-dimensional but Freud has also got under the skin of William, who, while not truly evil, is self-obsessed and selfish, seeing the world only in terms of his needs and inevitably causes pain and anguish to those who love him, including his own children. The world in this book is beautifully evoked and so painfully realistic that there were times when I felt that I wanted to shake Tess's Mum, Francine, and ask her what the hell she was doing. I'm not sure why I haven't read any Esther Freud before but I shall definitely be looking out for her other works and if they are half as good as this one I shall be happy.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

OK but

This is an interesting, surprisingly gentle book based on a real-life case which ultimately led to the setting up of the Courts of Appeal. It reads, more or less, like a typical work of historical fiction with a narrative that is alternatively focused on George Edjali, accused and convicted of mutilating animals, and Arthur Conan Doyle who was convinced of his innocence. My main criticism is that the characters just do not come across as three-dimensional and emotionally sound leaving me, as a reader, as a detached observer of the events described in the text. Ultimately as a work of fiction I preferred This Thing of Darkness.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Oh well..

Its clear that I am not supposed to have children, real or ceramic. At my last ceramic session I had a go at interpreting Barbara Hepworth's Baby in clay. This was my second attempt, the head of my first attempt exploded in the kiln smashing another of my pieces in the process. But I'm not one to run away crying when something doesn't go to plan so I decided to have another go. How foolish I am. This time during the biscuit fire the baby's face slipped right off, oh how I laughed when I found out. It may not be terminal, so I've glazed the body and the face as there is always the possibility that one application of hard of nails later no one, but me, and you, will ever know about my faceless baby! Although it may be a case of third time lucky.

But I did pick up a couple of other of my creations which are now fully glazed and finished and I promised a friend that I would photos of them to the blog.

This one you may recognise as its been here before, but this is it finished. The glaze is my favourite glaze and is the Gok Wan of glazes, or dolomite to those who pot.

This one you won't have seen, he's based on a lovely garden gargoyle owned by friends, I've cropped the photo to hide the mass of books on my floor.

I absolutely promise any friends popping by that these will not be wrapped under your tree this Christmas.

Sunday, 16 December 2007


I was asked to read this book by a friend, who wanted a second opinion, which is yes this book is bonkers, but then the Amazon blurb does warn you:

"Brenda has had a long and eventful life and she has come to Whitby to run a B&B in search of some peace and quiet. She and her best friend Effie like nothing better than going out for tea at the Walrus and the Carpenter or dinner at Cod Almighty and keeping their eyes open for any of the mysterious goings on in town. And what with satanic beauty salons, more than illegal aliens, roving psychic investigators and the frankly terrifying owner of the Christmas Hotel there are no shortage of nefarious shenanigans to keep them interested. But the oddest thing in Whitby may well be Brenda herself. With her terrible scars, her strange lack of a surname or the fact that she takes two different shoe sizes, Brenda should have known that people as, well, unique as she is, just aren't destined for a quiet life."

And shenanigans just about sums it up. I love books like this, they are fun and play around with popular culture. There are other authors out there I would recommend before this one, Terry Pratchett (and long may he continue to write) and Jasper Fforde, but this book passed the time nicely. If you don't like fantasy fiction don't read this book.

Small Rant...

I see on today's BBC website that several top British authors have approached the government about declining standards in children's literacy asking that children be encouraged to read for an hour each day. On Belle's night out on Friday themymblesdaughter and I had a quick conversation about the crisis in publishing in Britain. What crisis I hear you ask, well the one that means that the best selling books each year are generally connected with a film, television programme or have a celebrity endorsement, which means that its hard for new writers, both fiction and non-fiction, to get published, let alone make some money from their efforts. The sublime example of this was on Jonathan Ross on Friday night, Kerry Katona was on promoting her new work of fiction by Kerry Katona, which to be fair she admitted wasn't actually written by her. I rest my case..

Wednesday, 12 December 2007


I've been out and about today, meeting someone about finding some more work, and at the lovely Christmas lunch held by one of my clients and while I was out the sneaky OU published our results. I've just checked my results and I've gone and passed my last course for my degree. So on Monday I will be accepting a honours degree in literature. Whoo hooo.

Monday, 10 December 2007

You have to read this book

Every so often a book comes along that I recommend to all my friends, last year's was This Thing of Darkness and this is the one for this year. Buy or borrow this book as its certainly one of the best books I have ever read. Its well written and has an engaging central character, Sophie Riedesel, who grows from precocious child to woman during the course of the book.

I know some people won't want to read the book as it is set mainly in 1930s Berlin and so is, inevitably, harrowing. Sophie's friends are Jewish and ex-circus performers, some of whom are disabled, and she has an autistic brother, all of whom she tries to protect from the horrific policies that are put in place towards the 'inferior'. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried as these policies began to take their inevitable toll on her friends and her family. But this is also a beautiful and enduring love story.

Its also helped me to understand how events in Germany unfolded during the 1930s and and how something similar could easily happen again, if it hasn't already. Zimler shows ordinary people having to decide whether or not to stand up for what they believe is right, in the knowledge that by doing this they would inevitably put themselves, their families and friends in grave peril and how the smallest compromises can lead to the acceptance of a great evil.

I'm sure a few people have been put off reading this book by the Kabbalist framework, don't be, it works and makes sense within the book.

I'm supposed not to be buying any more books until I've reduced my piles of books to be read (which extend along my hall) but I'm now in the process of acquiring other books by Zimler because if they are half as good as this one they will be worth it.

Seven Things

I see Belle's tagged me for the Seven Things meme, which I will do, but not today because all I can think about is the seven bloody times I've had to pull my washing machine out into the centre of my kitchen because of an annoying alarm telling me that my hose is kinked, when it isn't and the pump has been checked too. Even though the machine is still under warranty this is one of those problems they charge you for fixing so I want to be sure before I go to the expense of having an engineer tell me I'm imagining things! I thought I'd cracked the problem by leaving the machine pulled out all over the weekend but obviously not as I can hear it bleeping away again, sigh.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Another Day Another Book

One of my old English teachers used to start every class with "It was a dark and stormy night..." and expect one of us poor students to come up with something witty and intelligent to follow on, we didn't, ever. But last night was a dark and stormy night, so stormy that it felt as if the house had been transplanted from its snug London suburb to the Yorkshire moors, with Kathy Earnshaw's shade, looking remarkably like Kate Bush, dancing around outside howling to come in.

So rather than trying to sleep I finished reading The Savage Garden. Hmmm. Its a nice book, but strangely unsatisfying. As I read I found my mind wandering to other things, of which more in a moment. The book is a mystery tale which has echoes of The Da Vinci Code as Dante's Inferno is the key to the story of the garden. This is very interesting and has encouraged me to reread Dante, but somehow it just doesn't work, while the contemporary mystery which is intertwined throughout the story just isn't mysterious or compelling. The best I can say about this book is that it feels well researched and Mark Mills isn't a bad writer, but something went slightly wrong as it just didn't grab me the way a mystery novel should.

One of the characters in the book is an up and coming sculptor and the book lists contemporary sculptors, one of which is Elisabeth Frink, one of my favourite artists. My very first job was working for an embezzler, I'm serious - he was eventually sent to prison in the US for embezzlement and allegedly found God while inside, but that is a whole other story - who had a sculpture park and herb garden at his house in Hampshire, I absolutely promise I am not making this up! Anyway he had two Frink heads in his sculpture park, In Memoriam I and In Memoriam II which were placed together in a walled garden, these two pieces of art were so full of power and emotion, I used to sneak out of the office and just spend time sitting by them, trying to understand them. There were other sculptures in the park by Henry Moore, Miro and even Barbara Hepworth, but none of them affected me as much as the two Frinks. Her Walking Madonna at Salisbury is also amazing and powerful, but I can't find an image of it at the moment to link to. Her works are everywhere, London, Chatsworth House, Winchester, Belfast and worldwide, if you get a chance to see one or see a collection do, I promise it will be an experience, whatever you think of her work you won't be indifferent I promise.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Books and Stuff

When I started this blog it was supposed to be about books, not quite sure what happened there. Anyway if you've been reading the blog you'll have seen the posting about being reader which was written in response to a friend of mine who can only read a pristine copy of a book, preferably one that has never been sullied by human hands and if the cover is creased heaven forfend.

Setting aside all that the literature degree brings (there is just about a week to the results and I do feel sick) one of the things I demand of a book is that it fulfils whatever criteria the writer set out to fulfil, so its a thriller, it thrills, if its a detective novel there's some investigation, etc.

But I digress, I've just finished reading The House at Riverton and, to my surprise I really enjoyed it. Its one of those Gothic novels set in the first half of the twentieth century, with a mysterious tragedy haunting the present and a big English country house at the centre, the kind of story that generally rocks my boat. Its well written and I certainly didn't feel Kate Morton reaching for a metaphor or getting carried away with her own cleverness, like Henry James and Ian McEwan, I think I am the only person in the world who loathed Atonement.

This is the first book recommended by Richard and Judy that I've enjoyed in a while, and makes me feel a little easier about the collection of Richard and Judy recommendations I was seduced into buying by the Book People earlier this year. Sadly I really didn't like the first two books I read from the collection, Looking After Matthew, which was at best an OK read until the ending, or Relentless, I love thrillers, but Relentless neither thrilled or engaged me, if you want a good thriller my advice is to read Christopher Brookmyre.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

When I was at school...

I wanted to be a writer of some kind, but the teachers at my school said no that's not a career, you need to do something practical to earn money. So, partly because my parents had paid a small fortune for my education and partly because then I was a superficially compliant girl, I followed their advice and chose something else that made them, but necessarily me, happy. Of course as soon as I left school I did something completely different just to be annoying, finally falling into my career by chance in my twenties. Don't get me wrong on a good day I still kind of, sort of, like my job, but today, some 20 years after I left school, I printed out the 130 pages of my NaNoWriMo novel and I want to look all those teachers in the eye and tell them "You were wrong. I am a writer."