Saturday, 20 September 2014

Game-changing Novels

So my daughter was asked to name her Top Ten Most Influential Books -  not the BEST, nor the GREATEST, nor the ones you've READ RECENTLY, nor the ones you think SHOULD BE on a top ten list.

What are the ten novels that have been MOST INFLUENTIAL on your life?  The ones that CHANGED THE GAME for you?  The ones that, after reading, your life was forever different?

Harriet's list

Harriet’s list was (in alphabetical order of title):

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Dai Sijie
The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
The Far Cry - Emma Smith
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern
Sum: Tales from the Afterlives - David Eagleman
The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht
A Town like Alice - Nevil Shute
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

My list

Here are mine (in order of the age, roughly, when I first read them):

Lord of the Flies – William Golding (read aged 14)
The Once And Future King – TH White (read aged 15)
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë (read aged 17)
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (read aged 17)
Great Expectations  - Charles Dickens (read aged 20)
Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey (read aged 24)
The Sea The Sea – Iris Murdoch (read aged 28)
A Man of his Word/A Handful of Men – Dave Duncan (read aged 38)
The Sunne in Splendour – Sharon Penman (read aged 40)
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (read aged 48)

What do I notice about the books that changed things for me forever?  History, myth, fantasy, love and violent actions are common threads.  Six of the ten works are written by women.  Should I have worked harder to include books by writers I admire like Alice Hoffmann or Anne Tyler, Philip Pullman or CS Lewis?  What about my childhood obsession, Enid Blyton?

What was I heartbroken to miss out?

Close misses from the list include (alphabetical by surname of writer) I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Emma by Jane Austen, Villette by Charlotte Brontë, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Bleak House, Hard Times and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, Howards End and A Passage to India by EM Forster, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Rainbow by DH Lawrence, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Treasure Island by RL Stevenson, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

If anyone knows me well, and wants to prompt me with anything I’ve forgotten – or provide their own list, please do so.  I might attempt a future blog about poets/poems/plays – but might have to exclude Shakespeare because of the impossibility of choosing between his creations….

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Out on the winding, windy moors

Rocks and scrubby heather

There are plenty of local walks near where I live in Saltaire. Returning North from Dorking it was only a matter of time before I trod the rocks and scrubby heather above Haworth. Back in May, following a university reunion, I came up here with a dear friend, Kerry Madden, and her high-spirited daughter, Nora. Thank you to Kerry and Norah for permission to use a few of their photographs of one of my favourite places on Earth. They say pictures tell a thousand words…..
Visiting Haworth with Kerry and Norah

Blowing away the cobwebs

The ruin of Top Withins has been subjected to parliamentary conversations and, although there are other candidates for the inspiration for the building, (notably one in the village of Haworth itself….) the setting of Top Withins is certainly a great place to blow away the cobwebs of life and contemplate one’s metaphorical navel. Making a round trip from Haworth and/or going via the picturesque Brontë falls – especially with a picnic in a rucksack – makes for an excellent day out.
Norah salutes the sky and dreams by the falls

Extraordinary family

I am of the opinion that the Brontë family were extraordinary and the three published writers were indeed geniuses for producing such works in the place and in the era that they did. I think Mrs Gaskell’s portrait of them in her excellent but romanticised Life of Charlotte Brontë definitely does them a dis-service; they were not recluses. They were women ahead of their time and though styles of writing in literature have changed, there are passages, situations and imaginative landscapes in their works that still hook me and bedazzle my soul – and the souls of millions of other readers around the world.


Wuthering Heights and Villette

Wuthering Heights is undoubtedly a masterpiece – an experimental book of audacious structuring and narrative complexity with characters that transcend their original home. Hareton is the one that breaks my heart and fulfils everything I love about novels in making the arc of the story redemptive. In Charlotte’s works I am an advocate of Villette, though recognising the mythical qualities of Jane Eyre and completely understanding anyone who rates it as the archetypal Brontë novel.  Villette, though, like Wuthering Heights, contains moments that are bonkers, brilliant and completely original: the ghost nun, dream-like scenes, set pieces like the theatre fire and, most of all, the self-deceiving Lucy Snowe, arch narrator and as reliable as Haworth’s early-Victorian sanitation.

Out on the winding, windy moors
We’d roll and fall in green
You had a temper like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you too

Bad dreams in the night
You told me I was going to lose the fight
Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering
Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff, it’s me, Oh Cathy
I’ve come home, I’m so cold!
Let me in-a-your window

Ooh, it gets dark!  It gets lonely
On the other side from you
I pine a lot.  I find the lot
Falls through without you
I’m coming back, love
Cruel Heathcliff, my one dream
My only master

Too long I roam in the night
I’m coming back to his side, to put it right
I’m coming home to wuthering, wuthering
Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff, it’s me, Oh Cathy
I’ve come home, I’m so cold!
Let me in-a-your window

Ooh, let me have it
Let me grab your soul away
Ooh, let me have it
Let me grab your soul away
You know it’s me Cathy!

Heathcliff, it’s me, Oh Cathy
I’ve come home, I’m so cold!
Let me in-a-your window
Songwriter: Kate Bush
Wuthering Heights lyrics © EMI Music Publishing

And from Wuthering Heights itself…. (chapter 1)

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff's dwelling. 'Wuthering' being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

Chapter 15….

Gimmerton chapel bells were still ringing; and the full, mellow flow of the beck in the valley came soothingly on the ear. It was a sweet substitute for the yet absent murmur of the summer foliage, which drowned that music about the Grange when the trees were in leaf. At Wuthering Heights it always sounded on quiet days following a great thaw or a season of steady rain.

Thank you, Emily....

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Imaginative History

Trip out
RHS Harlow Carr Gardens - with its great bookshop 
Unpacking boxes, bags and months of living in the South finally gave way to a trip to North Yorkshire, via Harlow Carr Gardens bookshop near Harrogate. Where else more appropriate for a visit than Fountains Abbey?

Buried in a secluded valley not far from Ripon, the word “magnificent” is not too strong to describe the experience of visiting Fountains Abbey.  Pretty quickly it is obvious why the place is a World Heritage Site – from the romantic abbey ruins, to the landscaped lakes and gardens of Studley Royal, the “High Ride” walk with intriguing follies, the deer park, St Mary’s Church, Fountains Hall, the herb garden, the display rooms….
Views from the "High Ride" walk at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
Time travel
If only time travel were possible…. To glimpse the place when the first 13 rebel Benedictine monks arrived in the valley in 1132, and then to see a time lapse movie of the growth of the buildings over several centuries into the richest Cistercian monastery in England, and then to despair as the site turned into the largest abbey ruins in the UK…. If only I believed that King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell had pure religion in mind when they began their dissolution scam.… (£!£!£!£!)
Vices and virtues
Fountains Abbey speaks of time, decay, conviction, faith, vanity, glory and power. The stones, without doubt, hide stories of anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Of course I am sure there were many monks who demonstrated virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. One of my favourite pastimes is to let my imagination roam on the sites run by the National Trust or English Heritage. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth is partly responsible for cementing my imaginative take on the blood, sweat and turmoil that went into the construction of church buildings in the medieval period.
Whose history is it anyway?
Seamus Heaney famously thought that history “is about as instructive as an abattoir” and Henry Ford wrote that "history is more or less bunk” but I suspect they were referring to the official version of history, the one written by the military winners. History to me has always been about the untold stories, the domestic details, the women and children, the teachers and builders, the doctors and bakers. Shakespeare’s history plays are as real, to me, as Holinshed or Plutarch in evoking the passions of the past; sure, they are biased, but so are the text books. The billions of words of conjecture written about the Tudors cannot all be correct. Give me Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour over David Baldwin’s biography of Richard III (though I have to say Baldwin’s is the best I know….) Both approaches are equally popular but I have yet to be convinced that a literary view of history is any less valid than a “historical” approach to history.
Either our history shall with full mouthSpeak freely of our acts, or else our grave,Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,Not worshipp'd with a waxen epitaph.

That was then, this is now
Wandering round Fountains Abbey can be an experience which involves the politics of the rise and fall of monasteries and the factual history of the architectural decisions, or it can be about imagining Brother Dominic and what brought him there, how he fared in the different seasons, what jobs he enjoyed doing the most, what were the greatest hardships, when did he experience his finest moments of faith and what caused his strongest moments of doubt? What kind of an abbot was Henry MurdacWandering round on a crisp September day in 2014, Fountains Abbey is an ideal place for contemplation of who we’ve been, who we are and who we’re going to be.