Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Salon: THE SEESAW GIRL AND ME by Dick York

I don't think I shall ever forget Dick York. BEWITCHED was my favourite programme on TV as a young child and I was a fan of that kindly-natured, goofy husband, Darrin, played by Dick York. When he was suddenly replaced by another actor I felt slightly aggrieved; but I have learnt today that the original actor had had no choice but to depart.

THE SEESAW GIRL AND ME is Dick York's memoir, and I've never read anything like it before. It consists of very short close-to-metaphorical stories, conversations with the reader, snippets of plays (complete with stage directions), straight accounts and anecdotes. The reader is bombarded with images, ideas and whimsical thoughts - from childhood to middle-age - again and again. It is rather like the old fashioned process of making a coloured print. First one colour is applied, then another and another - until gradually the whole picture appears in fascinating detail. It is highly original and very effective.

Dick York was brought up in a loving but poor household in Chicago. He met his future wife Joan (or Joey) when he was a teenager. He was talented and gradually established a career for himself in radio, film and TV. But an accident on a film set tore the muscles on his back and they never healed properly. He subsequently suffered bouts of such nauseating pain that he became addicted to painkillers. After a particularly bad period of not sleeping he had a seizure on the set of 'Bewitched' and this ended his television career in 1969.

By this time Dick and Joey had five children. Without work, they seemed to quickly return to poverty. They had to resort to being cleaners to earn enough to live. There are pictures in the book which vividly illustrate this change in circumstance; before the seizure Dick is svelte, smiling, and at ease with Elizabeth Montgomery on set. Joey, at thirty five, is strikingly similar-looking to the York's on-screen wife, the glamorous witch, Samantha: blonde, slim and very pretty. Just six years later, in 1975, the two are utterly changed: overweight and dressed in shapeless clothes, they look, nevertheless, very happy as they hug their first grandchild.

Dick York recorded his memoirs and then gave them to an interested journalist, Claudia Kaehl, who turned them into a book. I suppose this accounts for its unusual structure. Dirk York proves himself to be an outstandingly eloquent speaker: here is what happens when he loses a quarter which he needs desperately for tuition at school.
'So I looked at everything. Everything. The banks of snow, the little sticks of bushes sticking up through the snow, little pieces of leaves, piles of dogs...'

'Everything, he could see everything, he could see other kids' footprints on the way to school he could see everything he could see everything but that fucking quarter WHERE WAS IT? And he looked and he looked and his calm grew from alarm to total panic and frustration and then anger. And then he screamed out loud: "If you're really there, if you're REALLY THERE, show me where it is!"

'And there it was. There it was. The tiniest black line in a deep bank of snow. A tiny line couldn't possibly be that quarter - or could it? So he brushed away the snow brushed away the snow brushed away the snow brushed away the snow. And there it was.'

'And there he was, stuck with the truth. And he's been stuck with the truth ever since: There is something, or somebody, or everything, that delivers quarters on demand.'

This is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit; towards the end of Dick's life he had a happy and productive period helping charities for homeless people. Dick and Joey had hard times, but they fought the world together, and eventually they had something of a triumph. It is this union that is the main theme of this book - an account of the enduring love of Dick for Joey; and Joey for Dick.

Thanks to Debra Hamel for the competition in which I won this book (Debra's review, which is well worth reading, is here). I don't normally select memoirs to read - but I'm very glad I spent several hours today reading this one.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Shoes

A big event!

I bought a pair of these in black a few months ago and they are the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn. So when I saw my size in a sale in brown, cream and red today I did not resist...I think they will go very well with every evening dress that I own.

Of course this means that I have to get rid of three pairs of shoes in compensation - and I have! I have got rid of six - plus one pair of knee-high boots. I am feeling very self-satisfied. My decluttering is going well, unfortunately I am having no success at all at getting the rest of the Hodmandods to part with anything.

Defeats and Victories.

This quote landed in my in-box yesterday from 'assistant':

'History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.'

Bertie C. Forbes

I don't know who 'assistant' is, but thank you (even if you are a machine!). It's inspiring.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Louis Pasteur: a certain vintage.

Just reading the introduction to LOUIS PASTEUR by Patrice Debré (translated by Elborg Forster (great name!)). According to some accounts Pasteur was a cantankerous man who loved to get one over on his contemporaries. Debré, however, clearly thought Pasteur was great.

I think all good biographers should fall in love a little with their subjects - only that way can they hope to get under their skin and see how they worked. Debré relishes his emotional response to the life of the man, and his descriptions of how he feels are engaging.

He worked on the book in a tiny village called Vernon-sur-Brenne. At the end of the preface he describes walking around the village deep in thought. At one stage he finds himself automatically deciphering the name of the street sign in front of him: 'rue Pasteur'. This, he says, is something to think about. He then examines the names of the other connecting streets: Victor Hugo and Aristide Briand. A splendid academy, he says.

I like the way he ends: 'Continuing on my way, I leave Pasteur in this honorable company. At the village gates, the vineyards have already turned purple.'

Very French...which takes me neatly to the glass of cold 'appellation côtes de Luberon contrôllée' that is waiting for me downstairs.


Grey sky, driving rain, the wind blowing so hard that it wrapped my sodden clothes around me as tightly as bandages.

I heard them before I saw them: 'If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.'

About ten knee-high children were hoarded together under the platform shelter with a group of grinning adults around them - a collection of middle-aged parents each similarly dressed: blue cagouls, grey back-packs, jeans trailing over track shoes, their eyes catching mine.

'If you're happy and you know it, shout 'I am.''

'I am!'

I too must have once had this ability to be so ecstatically happy to order.

One man, a father, smiled determinedly in my direction. There was something evangelical about that grin, something too earnest, something that made me glance downwards at the railway track.

An overhead cloud released a fresh torrent.

'I am!'


'I am!'

I walked further down the platform until I was out of earshot.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Other peoples' Dens

As you can see the place to write is a shed....

(Thanks to Dave Lull for the link)

...though obviously not one of these places is a patch on mine.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Salon 22 June 2008: The Gritty and the Smooth

Hello again, Saloners. I'm back after a couple of weeks' absence due to working flat out on a book proposal. I enjoyed it but I have not been out of the house for a few weeks in consequence. Anyway I have now returned to the book pile and find it has grown somewhat in my absence. I've consequently attacked the two top ones (ie most recently acquired) first. Both were quick, easy reads but that's where the similarity ended.

UNDER CONTROL by Mark McNay was sent to me from Canongate (an uncorrected proof so I have been asked not to quote from it). This was a gritty fast-paced read about a prostitute, her psychotic boyfriend and the man from the health service who was supposed to be helping them free themselves of their drug addiction. My review is on Revish here.

This is Mark McNay's second novel - his first having won an Arts Foundation New Fiction Award and the Saltire First Book of the Year Award.

AN UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett, in contrast, was about as ungritty as you can get. It was an extremely funny fantasy based on the idea of what would happen if the Queen of England suddenly became obsessed with reading books. It was sent to me by Profile books. This is a very short, light-hearted book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Despite its lightness, I did find it had a few things to say about the effect of reading books on a person's life, which were quite profound. I shall also review this on Revish here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Decluttering My Self

I have decided to declutter - one day at a time. For this little project I have decided to dedicate a new blog. It is here.

Book Catalogues

This came in the post this morning - Sceptre's new catalogue. A particularly classy one this time, I think. It's in black for a start (always a good choice, as Yves St Laurent would attest) and matt (also good) and designed like a memo pad, with excerpts from the books as if they've been paper-clipped into position and someone's made notes.

I appreciate this sort of quirkiness. I read on someone's blog recently that these catalogues are a waste of time and money - this was from a bookseller - his main grouse being that they get out of date so quickly. He's probably got a point, but I have to say that I appreciate them. I love to look through the pages, and I love to have something in my hand. Someone had fun designing this, and I'm glad they did. It's part of the celebration of a book coming out.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Listening to Lord Haw Haw

Ah, the 1940's when things were milder, and voices oozed from wireless and gramophones, and doors were held open, and people stood for the National Anthem, and everyone was so refined...except for the odd matter of a world war, of course.

This morning I came across this very interesting site with snatches of sounds from the forties. I wanted to hear Lord Haw Haw (who was actually three different people according to Wikipedia), but ended up hanging around long enough to hear the doodle bug and 'a heavy air raid' too. They are both really evocative. I could easily imagine my mother listening to this. She was too young to be frightened, she says - all that mattered was that her parents were with her.

The Lord Haw Haw recording is quite moving. My grandmother did a particularly good Lord Haw Haw - pinching her nose to get his upper class nasal drawl: 'Germany calling, Germany calling, Germany calling...' Apparently 6 million people listened to him - I suppose perhaps because they were advised not to - never fails, that one!

Lord Haw Haw's (or William Joyce's) last broadcast is dramatic. He is obviously drunk. He gives a final defiant 'Heil Hitler' before promising to return in a few months and fading away. But he is followed by the man from the BBC (who actually sounds a bit like Lord Haw Haw, but somewhat crisper) and tells the long-suffering listeners that William Joyce 'has been most unfortunately interrupted in his broadcasting career, and has left rather hurriedly on vacation - a very short vacation if the second British army has anything to do with it...'

It must have been a joyous moment.

Lord Haw Haw was later captured and hung for treason.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An Ignobel Award.

Very Funny...

At Last!

Look what arrived this morning...

'Something to Answer For' by P.H. Newby - a 'Faber Find' , which is a branch of Faber and Faber dedicated to bringing lost classics back into print. Apparently they are reprinting five of his other books too. I do find it incredible that this book was ever allowed to go out of print since it won the first Booker (something to answer for, indeed (heh - very pleased with that)), but still, I'm glad I've managed to get hold of a copy now.

I ordered it from Amazon a couple of months ago, and every few weeks have been getting emails from them saying they are still looking - but today it arrived. At last. I am pleased.

Of course I don't know when I am going to have time to read it. I do have a slight back-log...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Snails in the News

A not-so-fast way of sending messages. Not sure I have the patience for this. In fact I know I haven't got the patience for this.

Right, back to the den...

For the Love of Snails

Wonderful snail site here! Close-ups of snails mating, eggs, courtship - I particularly like the snail slithering over a knife blade experiment...

Thanks to Robert Nordsiek for taking so much trouble.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Page 123 sentence 5...

I have just been tagged by Jeff VanderMeer. I have to reach for my nearest book and find the fifth sentence on page 123. It is: "This question leads directly to my theory of relativity."

Does anyone know where that's from? I shall answer in comments.

Who shall I tag...Crime Fic Reader, Marly Youmans, Anne S, Susangalique and Jan - only if you want to, of course.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Report from the den: birds - their brains, songs and barbaric nature

The writing den is also doubling as a rather good hide from the birds. Quite often I hear a couple of heavy-footed pigeons walking around on my roof and just now I heard a curious little tapping just in front of my window. It turned out to be an (evil) thrush with a snail on the patio. I witnessed the last few assaults on the shell, and then, since it was too late to intervene, the delicate pecking out of the slimy morsel. I'd never seen a thrush doing that so close before. It was somehow mesmerising.

In other news, I am happy to report that Mario the blackbird has now found a friend to sunbathe alongside him, and for several minutes the two of them lay prone on a sunny patch of grass, beaks open, wings and tails outspread. Mario, I have decided, is the bird brain of birdbrains. I doubt he will survive until Autumn.

I have also noticed that the birds seem to be imitating electronic gadgets in their songs. One sounds exactly like a mobile phone ringing at the start of his little repertoire, and another has the startling stridency of a car alarm. I am sure I have never heard bird song like this before, and feel certain that whatever bird is doing the singing, like parrots, can imitate what they hear.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Recommended Mug for Writing Dens

I bought this mug and lid when I went to the 'Last Emperor' exhibition in the British Museum last year - essential equipment for transporting one's tea to one's writing den, especially if one tends to drink rather a lot of the stuff.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Grand Ideas of Elie Metchnikoff

Today I've been reading THE LIFE OF ELIE METCHNIKOFF by Olga Metchnikoff. He was a wild Russian genius and I've found reading about his life exciting because although he didn't see much of the twentieth century, he had ideas much ahead of his time. As I read I felt like cheering him on, and wishing I could tell him he was right - but I think he knew.

One think he believed was that senility was due to the toxic effects of bacteria in the gut. He therefore advocated soured milk - because he thought its acidity would combat the alkali-loving bacteria in the intestine.

He was an atheist and reasoned that if in order to live a man has to have faith, then he would have faith in Science. Through Science, he thought, mankind would live well and long, and then would not suffer old age or fear death, but would come to need them, just as the body craves for sleep at the end of a hard day's work.

At the age of 70 he had a severe heart attack, and wrote down his symptoms (a natural blogger) as they happened - until he was in too much pain to write any longer. When the symptoms lessened, after six hours, he wrote again. The most pleasing thing, he said, was that he no longer feared death but felt he had lived long enough, and expected it.

In 1908 he won a Nobel Prize for Medicine, and in May I went to a conference that commemorated this centenary in the Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris. He spent the last twenty-eight years of his life there and was very happy. His ashes are still kept there in the library. At the end of the conference an elderly research worker gave a talk, and at the beginning he pondered over his longevity, wondering what it was due to...

'Yakult!' called out a man behind me - but very, very quietly.

It is making me smile even now.

Monday, June 09, 2008

My Den Escape.

The den is almost furnished now. So far there is a desk, a chair, a light and a rug - enough for me to start working in there. It is a tranquil place. Even though it is just a few feet from my back door I feel as though I've escaped from the rest of the world.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Just look at this bird...

I noticed him last week. Every time I look through the window he is there, sunning himself, all feathers fanned out, usually with his beak open. I can't work out if there's something wrong with him...

...or he's just plain lazy. When I go close he can't be bothered to fly, just hops away. He can fly though. I've seen him. If I just watch him he eventually draws in his feathers...

...and flies away (though not very far). I call him Mario, and I am thinking of making a tiny medallion for him to hang round his neck. I think he'd like that.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Odd Box Moment.

Dominic Byrne is being very creative with his head in this week's Odd Box. Dominic, if you're reading, I just want you to know that Odd Box is becoming the highlight of my week.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Blazing June.

It is not often I get flowers, but this week, for various reasons, I have acquired two. I now have a bouquet in the front room and one in the back. The perfume from the lilies in this one is permeating the house, reminding me they are there and it makes me feel happy.

Meanwhile, out in the garden there are more flowers - next-door's climbing rose cascading over our apple trees, and just at the moment, smelling quite heavenly. I keep going out to my den just so I can pass them again, and I feel happier still.

Then, later this morning, the postman delivered this from Profile books: THE UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett, together with a tea towel. I have never had a literary tea-towel before. This one says...

I just read the first few pages to Hodmandod Senior and we both found it hilarious. I don't like everything that Alan Bennett does but I think I'm going to love this. I am working on draft two of my proposal now, but when I've finished I'm going to give myself a treat and read this book. Still more happy...

And, the best news of all, yesterday the contract from Seren books arrived. A PLACE OF MEADOWS AND TALL TREES, my novel about the Welsh going to Patagonia, is going to be published - sometimes in 2009, I hope...or maybe 2010. It has always been my brother's book, and I am delighted it is going to go out into the world by such a highly-respected Welsh publisher. I am very lucky. And very happy.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Interesting Facts 2.

Another couple points of interest from my research today.

1. In 1916 women were admitted as medical students into St Mary's Hospital, London in response to a dearth of male doctors during the first world war. This continued until 1925 when the medical school committee gave into a petition by the male students to stop talking in women...

... on the grounds that St Mary's rugby team was habitually losing the Hospital Rugby Cup.

2. June 14th is blood donor day. It is also Karl Landsteiner's birthday - who discovered blood groups, was born in Vienna, and died in New York. When he won the Nobel prize for his discovery, a friend went round to his apartment to congratulate him. He discovered the Landsteiners reading, oblivious to the radio or telephone. Dr Landsteiner had been told the news earlier that day but after that it had slipped from his mind so completely that he had neglected to tell his wife and son.

He retired in 1939 aged seventy-one...

...but went on to discover the Rh factor. He died of a heart attack with a pipette in his hand.

Dr Grump has a lot to say on both these points but at the moment I am keeping her tied up and gagged in the corner of our office.

Monday, June 02, 2008

My writing den's new floor... 'dark oak' - gorgeous, isn't it?

Today's Beautiful Distractions

Look what arrived through the door this morning:

THE BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO WINNING THE NOBEL PRIZE by Peter Doherty (because it's never too late (ha!))

and UNDER CONTROL by Mark McNay a very nice surprise from Andrea See at Canongate. The cover reminds me of something...the signature self-portrait on the top of my page. Ah, great minds and all that.

I flicked through the first few pages and was immediately drawn in, but... I... must... resist...
No, book, get out of my head. I am determined to finish Baricco's Iliad first.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sunday Salon: An Iliad part 2.

I am going to summarise the chapters in one post and then publish all at once.

This is told from the point of view of some elderly guru-type figure. After a lots of dilly-dallying around Agamemnon is convinced to go into battle against the Trojans by Odysseus. Just as they are about to engage, Paris comes face to face with Menelaus. It turns out that's why they've been here for nine years, camped outside Troy: Paris (who is good-looking, apparently) kidnapped Helen from Menelaus. To everyone's delight they decide to go head to head. This will save everyone else from being killed too. Good move.

Helen watches them posturing and as she talks to Paris's father we learn a little more about Paris, Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus - who 'has a voice so deep it is like winter snow'. Paris and Menelaus have a duel, Menelaus succeeds in removing Paris's helmet but he runs off. Paris, apparently, is a wimp....or very sensible.

Helen is then summoned to Paris's bedchamber by a scary seamstress (scary because she is old, apparently) Then, after Helen has said that she tells him that not only she wishes he were dead, so does everyone else as well, she follows him to his bed. Odd..and smacks just a little of the dominatrix.

Pandarus and Aeneas
Panarus is a Trojan warrior who is enticed into shooting an arrow at Menelaus. This is a mistake. The arrows hits him but not fatally and instead drives the Achaeans really wild. Battle commences and is described in detail with lots of fatal injuries. Spears go through skulls and cut off tongues more than once. Pandarus dies (or his strength abandoned him, and with it, life); and Aeneas discovers something significant about himself: he cannot die. He is then cajoled (by someone called Helenus who I thought had already died, but it must have been another one) into fighting until the end - and that is how he is left.

This part is added later...

The Nurse.
This the voice of the nurse of Hector's infant son. Hector returns from battle and tried to persuade Paris to return, but he is with Helen, and says he will come along later. Meanwhile the older women take their best clothes and pray at the temple of Athena for Diomedes to die because he is 'a savage fighter, and is sowing fear everywhere.' Hector then goes back out to battle with his wife and all her women weeping because it is unlikely he will return.

Nestor is one of the elders and hence people listen to him. The Trojan and Achaeans fight, halt for the night and fight again. The Achaeans build a wall around their ships and are eventually beaten back behind it so that 'we who came from far away to lay siege to a city, became a city under siege.'

The Achaean princes go to Achilles in his tent and ask him to help them fight the Trojans but he refuses. He tells them to go back to Agamemnon and tell him that he refuses to go because Agamemnon stole the woman Achilles loved.

Diomedes and Odysseus
The Achaean princes decide that they need to send a couple of men in to attack - a kind of guerilla tactic. Diomedes volunteers and then asks for Odysseus to accompany him because he has a good brain. On the way to the Trojan encampment they encounter a Trojan spy, Dolan, who on interrogation suggests they attack Rhesus and his men who have only just got there. They then cut of Dolan's head and follow his instructions. The mission is successful. They kill all of Rhesus's men and steal some of his horses. Then they come back to the Acaean camp and have a good bath.

Mostly a battle scene - fairly bloodthirsty - but interesting because all the way through it is clear that Patroclus is doomed. He comes through though, after promising Nester that he will have a word with Achilles and ask him to reconsider - and if he does not to take his armour and pretend he is Achilles to distract the Trojans.

Sarpedon, Telamonium Ajax, Hector.
Another battle scene. Somehow, crossing the trench and scaling the Acaean wall, the Trojans are scattered. Ajax throws a rock at hector and badly wounds him but he is carried away. The Trojans then run in retreat. Even though he coughs up black blood (usually a terminal sign) Hector renews the attack and finally boards the Aceaen ship. He sets it alight and says this is how he should be remembered - not his fate.

Patroclus persuades Achilles to fight the Trojans, and Achilles, seeing that Agamemnon has been forced back, and everything look pretty hopeless, agrees. He lends Patroclus his armour but tells him to come back once he has driven the Trojans back to the plains (somehow you know when he says this that Patroclus will disobey and do the opposite). So there is another battle scene, Patroclus gets carried away and Hector comes out and kills him.

Antilochus is prevailed upon to break it to Achilles that his friend Patroclus is dead. He takes it badly.

Agamemnon and Achilles are reconciled amid much rejoicing. Agamemnon gives Briesis back.

The River
Achilles massacres many Trojans and shows no mercy until the river can stand no more blood in its waters and sends a wave to overcome him. Achilles runs away but still the wave comes, the river overflowing its banks almost has him when the trees on its banks are set on fire and Achilles escapes.

All of the the Trojans escape into the city except for Hector. Then, as his father, mother and Andromache, wife of Hector, watch, Hector is chased by Achilles until his brother, Deiphobus comes out to join him and persuades him to stop and fight. However, once Achilles has thrown his spear, Deiphobus disappears back inside - a dramatic moment. Achilles then, inevitably, kills Hector, strips him, and drags his body around in the mud.

A strangely written chapter because it is sometimes written in the first person (i.e. from Priam's point of view) and sometimes in the third person realting what Priam did. Priam, Hector's father mourns his son and eventually rides out to Achilles's tent with gifts in return for his son's body. Achilles is won over by the father and gives him the body to be taken back.

This is an additional chapter. Years later a bard called Demodocus sings to a mysterious stranger at the court of the Phaeanicians. She tells of how Odysseus builds a wooden horse and sacks Troy. Achilles, and Paris, the cause of the evil, are dead by then. After she finishes the stranger weeps. When he is asked why he confesses to being Odysseus.


It flows quickly - and I notice from doing a little research (Wikipedia) that it was originally a play for several voices which spanned over three nights "during which the best contemporary Italian actors would impersonate one character each, eight per night." Unsurprisingly, given the technical difficulties, it was only staged twice. I think this would be a very good play for a school since lots of people would have a turn and they'd learn a lot about the Iliad in a really enjoyable way.

I am now going to review the book and publish it on Revish.

Sunday Salon: An Iliad part 1.

At the moment I am reading two books: THE HOUSE IN PARIS by Elizabeth Bowen (I started this months ago, and although I really love it - I keep getting distracted) and the other is AN ILIAD by Alessandro Baricco (translated by Ann Goldstein), which I started this morning.

The first chapter is written from the point of view of Chryseis, a beautiful woman who causes bad feeling between Achilles and Agamemnon. Agamemnon takes Chryseis as a spoil of war and refuses to give her back when her father asks. When this brings on a curse, Achilles demands that Agamemnon gives her back, but Agamemnon doesn't like it and they fall out. Chryseis is, however, returned to her father, and Agamemnon demands Briseis, Achilles's woman, in compensation.

Although the narrative tends to concentrate on the attitudes of the men, the women are considered briefly too: Briseis is sad to leave Achilles, and Chryseis is left sleeping alongside her father dreaming of 'dust weapons, riches and young heroes.' She seems to be yearning to be back with the 'king of kings' who 'throws to the winds his life and his people, for me: for my beauty and my charms.' Conceited woman.

Although I dislike Chryseis, I am slightly dismayed to see that the next chapter is written in a different voice. I would have liked to hear more - but maybe she's said enough.