Saturday, 21 January 2017

Exposure, by Helen Dunmore

Although I'm a big fan of Helen Dunmore, I almost didn't want to read this after the first few pages, intriguing as it was - because it re-creates so convincingly the world of post-war Britain. This was the world of my childhood. Unlike Lily, the main character in this book, I lived not in London but in the industrial midlands, and not in a private house but a council house. But these are not large differences. What is instantly familiar is the sense of only just managing; the sense that, although there's enough to eat and enough money to buy what you need, there's only ever just enough: that there's only a thin curtain between everything being all right and everything being very much not all right. The war was over before I was born, but it still loomed large. 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Lara, by Anna Pasternak

I must have been about fourteen when I first saw David Lean’s hauntingly beautiful film of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. Set in and after the time of the Russian Revolution, it starred Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor; and Julie Christie as Lara, the woman with whom he falls deeply in love. Geraldine Chaplin was Tonya, his wife – whom he also loves, but in a much quieter way. Rod Steiger was the brutal realist and seducer of the young Lara, and Tom Courtenay was the young revolutionary whom she marries. But the backdrop was a huge part of the magic too: the vast forest and steppes of Russia; slender birches with leaves stirred by a restless wind; the snowy streets of St Petersburg, splashed with the blood of the poor.

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif as Lara and Yuri

The story matched the sweep of the landscape, and Omar Sharif – dark, sensitive, tender – and Julie Christie – passionate, vulnerable, and so beautiful – were the perfect vehicles to drive it. I, along with at least a generation, was bewitched by it – and so when I saw this book, called Lara and with a picture of Julie Christie on the front (though, rather oddly, the picture is not from the film), I immediately reached for it.

But it’s not, of course, the story of Lara – that was Dr Zhivago itself. This is the story of Olga Ivinskaya, the woman who inspired much of the character of Lara. Not all: the inciting incident, Lara’s seduction by Komarovsky, is based on something that happened to Pasternak’s second wife, Zinaida, whom he had wooed away from her first husband (who happened to be one of his best friends). In order to be with her, he left his first wife and child. But they turned out to be very different people; she had little interest in his career as a highly successful poet and was fearful that his determination to speak out freely would cause trouble with the authorities. (She was quite right: it did.) It seems typical of Pasternak's devotion to his art that he would take whatever he needed from the lives of both his wife and his mistress to create his heroine.

Boris met Olga in 1946, when he was 56 and she was 34, twelve years after his marriage to Zinaida. They met in the offices of a literary magazine where she worked. She was blonde and very pretty, and she was a passionate fan. Her romantic life, like his, had been eventful: her first husband killed himself when he discovered that she was having an affair with the man who later became her second husband - who in turn died young, from lung disease.

Boris courted Olga, and they were soon lovers. They had a great deal in common. As Anna Pasternak writes: Both were melodramatic romantics given to extraordinary flights of fantasy. ‘And now there he was at my desk by the window,’ she (Olga) later wrote, ‘the most unstinting man in the world, to whom it had been given to speak in the name of the clouds, the stars and the wind…’ Epic romantics indeed. They were together until Pasternak’s death; their lives were closely intertwined. She supported and encouraged his writing, he relied on her utterly, he had a close relationship with her daughter Irina – but he never left Zinaida for her, even though, had he done so, his name would probably have protected her from a great deal of suffering - including two stints in the Gulag.

Interestingly, Anna Pasternak is Boris’s great-niece, so she has access to sources which would have been less easily available to another author. She tells us that 'both Olga and her daughter, Irina, have received a bad rap from my family. The Pasternaks have always been keen to play down the role of Olga in Boris’s life and literary achievements…for him to have had two wives… and a public mistress was indigestible to their staunch moral code.' Anna clearly sees things differently. She writes towards the end of the book: 'When I began Lara, I was secretly concerned that I would discover that Boris used Olga…' but as she went on, she concluded that this was not the case, and she was surprised to develop a more tolerant affection for Boris.

Olga as a young woman

Olga inspired the character of Lara, but she assisted at the birth of the novel in another way too. When, in 1957, after twenty years in the writing, it was finally ready for publication, the Russian authorities were outraged by its critical portrayal of the Revolution. They refused to allow publication unless Boris would agree to water it down considerably. Unlike Zinaida, Olga supported his refusal to do this, and worked with him and with an Italian publisher to enable it to be published, first in Italy, later all over the world. Pasternak was held in high regard in Russia, and had been for many years – even Stalin had been an admirer. He was shielded from the fallout – but Olga was not. She was sent to Siberia twice because of her association with Boris and the book.

The story of Olga and Boris has almost the romantic, epic sweep as that of Lara and Yuri – and it gives us a sobering glimpse into how life was in an autocratic society which lacked the freedoms which we take for granted. It’s a fascinating read - and it really makes me want to see that film again...

A version of this review appeared early last week on Writers Review.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Happy New Year!

Well, it's over a week late, but HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

I have to admit, I'm usually a bit of a Scrooge about Christmas, and am generally delighted when the year turns and I can have a good old clear-out and start looking forward to the spring.

This year, all the family, including three grandsons, were here, and it was marvellous. (And now, it's oh so quiet!) So all the more reason to look for signs of spring.

There are some brave bulbs pushing green shoots up above the ground, and I've even seen snowdrops out in other gardens - but not in ours. But there is this rather splendid clump of hellebores, or Christmas roses, as my mother used to call them. She was a much better gardener than I am. Several times she gave me a clump of Christmas roses - which she loved - but without fail, they disappeared. So I'm very pleased that, for the first time, I have a thriving plant.

So I give you Christmas roses, beautiful and sturdy, as a sign of things to come. I hope.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

Hope you all have a lovely, peaceful Christmas - though I know that for so many people this year, Christmas will be far from peaceful. The world seems a grimmer place than it did last year; let's just hope things get better in 2017.

In the meantime, here's a snowy picture of Cheddar. (It's a cheat: no snow yet this year.)

And I'm sorry there haven't been many reviews lately. Someone put me on to Robin Hobb a few weeks ago; she writes long fantasy novels - lots of them, and they're ADDICTIVE. I'm currently on the third trilogy. It doesn't seem a bad idea these days to take refuge in another world...

Normal service will be resumed in the New Year...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Coleridge's Cottage at Nether Stowey

A couple of weeks ago, while the weather was still sharp and bright and frosty (as opposed to dim and damp and dismal, as it is now), we went down to Nether Stowey, which nestles at the foot of the Quantocks, not far from the coast of West Somerset. It's a beautiful spot. Close by is Alfoxden, the house where William Wordsworth came to stay in 1797. He came there in part to recuperate after a turbulent few years in which he became inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution (and fell in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon, who had his child), only later to be horrified by its excesses.

A particular reason for choosing this area was that his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was living in a cottage in Nether Stowey with his wife Sara and their baby, Hartley. They were very close at this time, and were collaborating on a book of poems which they were to call Lyrical Ballads - a book which was to create a colossal shift in the language of poetry, and in the kinds of subjects which inspired it. The two poets wanted to move away from the elegant, mannered artificiality of the Georgian Age, in favour of something they saw as much closer to life and to nature and to a deeper reality, something fresh and new and exciting.
Alfoxden is the white house near the centre of the picture.

Alfoxden is a large white house which looks out towards the sea; Wordsworth was able to afford it because he'd recently been left a generous legacy by a friend. Coleridge's cottage, which has just been restored by the National Trust, is small and must have been very cramped for a family. After its recent refurbishment, it looks charming. But when the Coleridges first rented it, the house was suffering from damp and neglect. Samuel and Sara worked hard to make it more habitable; Sara sewed curtains and I expect they white-washed the walls; regular fires dried it out - and friends, particularly Wordsworth, dropped in regularly. The conversation must have effervesced - it was such an exciting time, with new developments in astronomy, ballooning, exploring and science: a time when there wasn't the division between art and science that there is now, a time when anything seemed possible. These men were close to the centre of it all. So was Dorothy, Wordsworth's sister. But Sara? Well, probably not so much. Sara did not,have an easy time of it. There was a story we were told at the cottage: that one morning, Sara was warming milk for the baby on the fire. She accidentally spilled some of it on Samuel's foot, scalding it so that he was unable to go on the walk he was planning with a couple of friends.

He was disappointed, cross with Sara and very sorry for himself, and he limped off outside to sit under a lime tree and gaze out in the direction his friends had gone. And according to the story, this was the starting place for his poem, The Lime-Tree Bower. It's an eloquent, passionate poem, full of awareness of loss, the passing of time and separation from friends.

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told...

But I have to say - I feel sorry for Sara. I mean - he missed a walk with his pals - it wasn't the end of the world! She didn't mean to spill the milk. And if he'd been helping her, instead of sitting around planning his day out with his friends, perhaps she wouldn't have been in such a fluster and it would never have happened. But that was the way it was with them. The marriage wasn't to last.

The Trust has done a brilliant job with the cottage. At the moment, it is decorated as it might have been in Georgian times; there is a Christmas tree, but it's hung with dried slices of orange and (perhaps?) little bunches of cinnamon sticks - not with glass baubles and tinsel. (I had always thought Christmas trees were a Victorian invention, but apparently this is not so: Queen Charlotte is thought to have introduced them, in the 1780s.) There's a scent of cloves and other spices, and wood smoke from the fire. The volunteers are dressed in clothes of the time, and they're knowledgeable and very welcoming; you're encouraged to touch things and try clothes on, to sit down at a desk and write a message with a quill pen dipped in ink - not easy! - to read from the extensive collection of books that line the walls of the reading room.

And that morning, someone sat by the fire in the tiny parlour and read some of the poems that were well-known at the time - including The Night Before Christmas, which was popular then in America. But most memorably, he read an excerpt from Coleridge's own Frost at Midnight. At his feet was a wooden cradle, and he rocked it gently with his foot. The firelight flickered on the walls, and when he began - very beautifully - to read, it was as if we were actually there, with Coleridge himself, in the middle of the night, with nothing stirring except a candle flame and the occasional mouse.

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.

The parlour. It's much smaller than it looks in this picture.

I did English at Durham, and I remember a good many lectures on the Romantic poets and the significance of Lyrical Ballads. But I think I learned more about Coleridge and Wordsworth and what they were trying to do in one hour in Nether Stowey than I did in many hours in lecture rooms and libraries. A sense of place - such a powerful force, and here so skilfully mediated.

Afterwards, we went down to the coast at East Quantoxhead. The rock formations there are quite extraordinary: I wonder what those late 18th century visitors to Coleridge, intensely curious and observant, made of them?

 A version of this post was first published yesterday, on The History Girls.

Friday, 2 December 2016

New book... hurrah!

It's always a lovely moment when you can actually hold a copy of a new book you've written in your hands - and here's A Time To Live, published by Ransom, which popped through my letter box this week. It's a story for 'reluctant' teenage readers, so naturally, it's short - a mere 5000 words.

It's set in rural France during the war. A young British airman escapes when his plane is shot down, and Sylvie finds him. He's injured, and she's determined to look after him - but her father is very much against doing anything to attract the attention of the German occupying force. He's not a collaborator - he just wants to keep his family safe. So Sylvie knows she must keep the young airman secret; but he's injured, and infection sets in...

I think it must have been so difficult, living in occupied France. To us from a distance, the resistance fighters seem - were - heroic; but at the time, if the resistance blew up a train and as a result you, your friends, your family, were at risk of being shot in reprisal - well, how would you have seen them? It couldn't have been easy, working out where the moral high ground lay and plotting your own path across it. And yet there are lots of documented stories of incredibly brave actions on the part of ordinary people like Sylvie and her brother. I hope I've done justice to them in this story - and I hope it will find readers who'll enjoy it!

There's more about about 'reluctant' teenage readers here.


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Autumn leaves

A long and rather lovely autumn suddenly hit the buffers a few days ago, and roared off amid howling winds and relentless rain. In Cheddar, where I live, water poured off the Mendip Hills and roared and tumbled down the gorge, bringing with it rocks and mud and causing the road to be closed. The reservoir, which after a dry summer was emptier than I've ever seen it, is filling up rapidly, much to the relief of the water birds.

But a couple of weeks ago, I was staying with my son in his family in Brussels - and I don't think I've ever seen such glorious autumn colour. Near where they live, in the south east of the city, there is a beech forest. It's called the Forest of Soignes, and large as it is, it's just a remnant of a much larger forest which has existed since Roman times. We've walked there often - but what was different this time was that we'd acquired a map, which showed how the different sections join together. My ten year old grandson is, unlike me, a superlative map reader, and so we set off to explore.

The forest is divided by roads, and crossed by paths and drives. It's well-used, and yet very quickly, the sounds of traffic die away and the peace of the forest surrounds you. There are pools to reflect the autumn leaves, and in one particular area, fungi flourished. Here are some pictures.

The map reader!

We also travelled south into the Ardennes, and the colours here, in a town called Bouillon, were even more beautiful.

All through this autumn, as I scuffed through drifts of brilliantly coloured leaves, I kept hearing the words of a half-forgotten song. Finally, yesterday, I tracked it down. It's called Forever Autumn, and it's from Jeff Wayne's musical adaptation of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds. Martians have invaded the earth, and in the resulting turmoil, the narrator has become separated from Carrie, his sweetheart. The song is a lament for her, and for autumn, and for loss. Here are a few lines:

Through autumn's golden leaves, we used to kick our way
You always loved this time of year.
Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now,
'Cause you're not here...

But of course it's a song, and you need to hear the words with the music. So here you go.