On Positivity

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When I decided to write about my experience of negative comments, I certainly wasn’t looking for sympathy. My intention was for those who have been leaving nasty comments to read it and hopefully reflect upon their behaviour. I think it worked, because I haven’t had any since. Instead, I have been overwhelmed with how many lovely comments I’ve had from all of you out there reading, both on the blog and via email, telling me how much you appreciate what I write. Ordinarily I would reply to each and every one of you personally, but the sheer number of comments I was so surprised to receive means I’d be here until next month if I started composing an individual response to everyone, so please do forgive me for not doing so. Please do know, however, that your messages of support, praise and encouragement have meant a huge amount to me, and it has been a pleasure to hear from people who don’t normally comment. Blogging can occasionally feel a little like a chore, especially when I’m having a busy week at work; all of my creativity tends to have evaporated by the time I get home from school, and is replaced by a state of exhausted apathy that leaves me with little energy or inspiration to write. However, all of your lovely responses have reminded me of why I do make the effort to blog; being part of a community of readers is immensely important to me, and it brings me great joy to share my passion with  such interesting, enlightened and enthusiastic people. So, thank you for indulging my blatherings, for engaging with me, and for actually thinking that I have something of worth to say. Now if only you could come en masse to my school and tell my pupils how amazing I am, that would be great…any takers?!

On Negativity

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I thought that having a book blog would make me immune from those who like to use the anonymity of the internet to vent their unpleasantness upon perfect strangers. We all enjoy a lively debate now and again, and I know that many readers love nothing more than a heated defence of a favourite character or a grumble over a poorly chosen shortlist, me included. But at heart, readers are gentle souls, are they not? Idealists, dreamers, tea drinkers. Lovers of fairytales and fancies, not malice and malevolence, surely?!

Sadly, of late, the numbers of nasty comments I receive from ‘readers’ has been increasing. I am often called ignorant or stupid. Occasionally, I am, apparently, narrow minded. Also, naive and uneducated. I don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘review’. I don’t write what people want to read. And I write too much, anyway. Plus, I am too dense to understand what some writers were trying to achieve and need to re-educate myself on how writers work. If that wasn’t bad enough, I am a horrible person for writing bad reviews of books. I am wrong, always. I miss the point, frequently, because I am, again, stupid.

The list could go on.

Thankfully I couldn’t care less what these people with such small, sad lives think. Their pathetic, pedantic comments actually make me laugh rather than upset me, which I am sure wasn’t their intention. However, I find it quite depressing that these people are out there, and find it acceptable to treat other people in this way. It is a form of bullying, of the type that is becoming more and more prevalent and insidious. The amount of cyber bullying that takes place is horrendous; I have complaints about it every week from students who have been relentlessly targeted on various social networking sites by their peers. When you don’t have to look at someone when you are communicating with them, it seems to remove the accepted boundaries of social behaviour, and all manner of hideousness comes forth from people who are probably, in all other areas of their lives, perfectly nice. What has our world come to, when a girl can’t even write a review of a book no one has probably even heard of without having a bucket of bile poured onto her head?! I might not care what these people think, but other people certainly do. Thoughtlessly abusing other people online is a dangerous game, and as a teacher, I know too well the damage it can cause.

I love the fact that the internet has introduced me to plenty of wonderful people who share my passion for books and culture and have widened my world in so many ways. I love that people find pleasure in reading the posts I cobble together. I will never stop feeling a little frisson of excitement when I get notified of a comment on my blog. I love that I am allowed to write about the things I’m interested in, and talk about those things with other people who are interested in them too, in a space I have created to do what I want with. It is incredibly liberating. Of course I recognise that in choosing to publish what I write on the internet, I open myself up to all manner of people accessing my words. However, I am not in this blogging game for controversy or debate. I have enough of that in my real life. I am not making anyone pay for what they read, and I am not forcing anyone to read what I write. So, if you don’t like me, or my opinions; if you think I’m stupid, ignorant, or both; if you think I have poor taste, write too much, or don’t know anything about books, actually – then simply press the little cross in the top left corner of your internet browser, and I will disappear. Now if only everyone had that feature…wouldn’t the world be a better place?

Harvest by Jim Crace

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My first experience of Jim Crace’s writing was when a colleague at the V&A recommended his novel Being Dead for our newly inaugurated staff book club. I wasn’t keen; reading about dead bodies didn’t sound like a thrilling way to spend an evening. However, I was surprised to find a compelling tale that was beautifully written. I had found something special in his style; a clarity and a lyricism that was finely crafted but completely without pretension. As such, I fully intended to read everything else he had written, but as always, life got in the way. So, when Harvest found its way onto the Booker Prize Shortlist, I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in another of his novels at long last.

Set in the rural landscape of pre-industrial Britain, Harvest is the story of a tiny, unnamed community nestled in the timeless folds of England’s green and pleasant land. For years the same people have lived there and farmed its fields, their lives marked and measured by the changing of the seasons. They exist peacefully and harmoniously, their histories and interests inextricably linked, generation after generation. We view them through the eyes of Walter Thirsk,  a relative newcomer to this community, having followed the new Master of the estate to the village upon his marriage to the heiress of the manor a decade previously. Walter has grown to love the land and its people; despite the death of his wife, he has stayed on, grafting his life to those of his neighbours and bending his ways to their routines. Master Kent is their benign, benevolent overseer, an unshowy widower whose own devotion to the land sees him mucking in with those who depend upon him for their livelihood. They want for little and ask for nothing but to be left alone to work their land, indulge their primal desires, and participate in the feasts and festivities that mark the passing of the seasons. This is a simple, unadulterated world, ungoverned even by religion, as they have never bothered to build the church they made a space for many years before.

This idyll is destroyed swiftly over a period of seven days when newcomers arrive and upset the equilibrium of daily life. The arrival of these travellers, accused of stealing doves from the Master, reveals an unexpected darkness at the heart of the villagers that reveals how fear and self interest cannot help but infect even the most simple of lives. At the same time, a man the villagers call Mr Quill also arrives, sent for by Master Kent to draw a map of the open land belonging to the community and parcel it off into sections. Over the next few days, as the newcomers and their transgressions are punished, the realisation dawns that the mapping of the land is foreshadowing a bigger change to come, and the villagers begin to turn on one another in their desire to save themselves, the world we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel falls completely apart.

This is a fascinating, compelling novel that speaks to the human condition and our inherent hatred of change. Crace encourages us to indulge in our feelings of nostalgia and affection for a golden age when people knew their neighbours and were content with their place before carefully deconstructing this image and revealing the reality beneath the surface of such naive idealism. I loved every word; Crace is such a remarkable stylist and his imagery has a power so strong that I felt I was stalking the mud caked lanes of this golden hued pre-industrial world. Of all the novels I have read from the Booker shortlist, this is the one that has stayed with me the longest. It was beautiful but also profoundly disturbing, and I very much hope that this won’t be his last novel, as he has threatened. I have the feeling that his best is still yet to come.

Museum-ing

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During half term, I had the great pleasure of going on an epic tour of three of London’s museums. The V&A has always been my favourite London museum and is usually my first port of call when I go into town for a culture fix. I grew to love it with a passion when I worked there in my early twenties, but though much of the building is well known to me, I never fail to be surprised on every visit. My latest trip saw me purposefully trying to avoid my usual gallery haunts in order to open my mind to forms of art and design I don’t naturally find fascinating, and hopefully learn something new in the process. This time I started in the architecture gallery, which I have always felt I can’t enjoy because I don’t know enough to appreciate what I am looking at. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t need any technical knowledge to understand and enjoy the displays, and I spent a very enjoyable half an hour looking at a wonderful little exhibition about British architects working in the colonies between the 18th and 20th centuries. I then popped upstairs to the ceramics galleries, where I absolutely loved looking at a range of beautiful, decorative pieces of pottery of all different periods and designs. I had never noticed the huge collection of 1940s and 1950s ceramics before, and seeing the gorgeous Eric Ravilious Wedgwood designs I have coveted for years in the flesh was quite the treat. A further treat on my way out of the museum was popping into the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, whose colossal sculptures can often feel overwhelming. However, having time and space to view them up close showed me how breathtakingly intricate they are, and gave me a newfound appreciation of their beauty.

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After hopping off the tube at Leicester Square for a quick trip to my favourite second hand book shop, Any Amount of Books, I thought I’d pop into The National Gallery while I was in the neighbourhood. I did have the vague idea of seeing the Van Gogh sunflowers exhibition, but the queue was ridiculous and frankly, I don’t rate Van Gogh sufficiently highly to justify spending an hour of my life being attacked by pigeons in Trafalgar Square in order to see his pictures. So, instead, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in my favourite gallery, which is presided over by a wonderfully pompous equestrian portrait of Charles I that never fails to make me smile at its sheer arrogance. Next to Charles is a portrait of two Royalist brothers who died during the Civil War, and I have always loved it because I find it hilarious that these likely lads represent the pin-ups of early 17th century Britain. Check out the luscious hair! Those elegant, manicured hands! Those shiny shiny trousers! Those four inch heels! Those lantern jaws! What’s not to love? The fact that one of them was called Bernard makes them even more of a catch. I’d love to know more about what shenanigans they got up to before they were sadly cut down in their prime. Those gloves have definitely got some stories to tell.

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Finally, I swung by Two Temple Place, which is the best new cultural visitor attraction London has gained over the past few years, in my opinion. Its exhibitions are always interesting and unexpected, and the building itself is a real gem and just as worth the visit as the objects on display. Don’t miss the chance to stop and stare at the incredible carving in the main stairwell; one of the staff members explained that the figures are from a range of Shakespeare plays and Sir Walter Scott’s novels, which makes for good fun trying to spot who is who while balancing precariously on the stairs. The current exhibition is Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge museums, and it is absolutely fascinating, with a huge range of artefacts that can’t fail to amaze and delight. From a dodo skeleton to Victorian photographs of the Australian outback, to beautiful 18th century telescopes and exquisite Japanese paintings, the selection of exhibits is brilliantly eclectic and so different to anything I would normally see. What makes it even better is that it is completely free, and the cafe serves absolutely delicious cake. All in all, a great day out and another reminder to be grateful for the variety on offer amongst London’s museums.

On Being Ill

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There is nothing more horrid than being ill. You lie in bed, the sun streaming in at the window, the muffled noises of life going on around you, while you must be still and quiet, set apart from the world. You feel cast adrift from normality; the busy routines of your normal day become mere memories. Instead, you must reduce your life to fit within the suffocating quietness of your bedroom’s four walls. Occasional visitors tiptoe in, their voices hushed, their faces full of sympathy but also relief that today they are not banished to the sick bed and  can leave, rejoining the ordinary world of wellness as soon as they shut your bedroom door. They deposit glasses of water, plates of hot buttered toast, well wishes; then retreat, leaving you adrift on the sea of your own boredom. You lie, slipping in and out of unsatisfactory sleep, hoping that next time you wake the pain will be gone, the symptoms abated, that you will soon be permitted access once again to the world of the well. For a while, at least, you must relinquish your control over the course of your own life. You must surrender to the greater power of illness, which will briefly remind you of how little you appreciate the health you take for granted. It is only here, as your head turns from the hot pillow over to the window, outside of which cars rush by, birds sing, flowers and trees sway in the wind and people walk past, that you stop to realise how much it matters to be well.

For the past few days, I have been stuck in bed.  Excitingly, I had my first experience of riding in an ambulance after I fainted and managed to hit my head so hard that I knocked myself out for several minutes. Everyone was very nice to me, despite sticking lots of needles into my arms, and after lying in a very comfortable private cubicle in A&E for a night, it was decided that there wasn’t any nasty underlying reason why I’d fainted – just the flu I’ve been fighting for a couple of weeks – and I was allowed to go home. Unfortunately, I look like I’ve been in a fight with someone about three times my size, with a very swollen jaw and an impressive black eye, not to mention a banging headache. I have no idea how I managed to hit my face in so many different places, but I’ve now learnt the lesson that if you feel dizzy, sit down quick! I’ve also learned, as the very kind but very stern A&E doctor told me, with wagging finger, that I am not invincible and going to work with full blown actual flu (not the man variety!) for several days and not expecting there to be consequences was Very Foolish Indeed.

So there you go. It shouldn’t have taken such drastic events to make me stop and rest, but every cloud has a silver lining and I have now been able to finally catch up on my huge pile of reading. The marvellous Harvest by John Crace was quickly finished, followed by the lovely Sissinghurst by Sarah Raven, which had me longing for sunny afternoons and summer holidays which are still so far away. I then picked up my very sweet and thoughtful Valentine’s Day present from my dad; a copy of the beautiful Persephone edition of Diary of a Provincial Lady, which I haven’t read in years and is the most perfect sick bed companion (it doesn’t appear to be currently available, but will be again when the Spring books come out very soon). I have been giggling away at the Provincial Lady’s many problematic encounters with daily life; while I do not have a house, husband, servants and small children to care for, I do know what it is to be continually upstaged by irritatingly successful and completely insular friends, to fail at most attempts at appearing sophisticated, to never have anything to wear and to never be able to manage my finances. I too continually long to be in sunnier climes, often find myself with nothing to say to people I am put next to at parties and love nothing  better than  a good gossip over a cup of tea. I like to think that E M Delafield and I would have been great friends, and had enormous fun causing trouble in our sleepy backwater. Re-reading these delightful vignettes of what has remained perfectly recognisable middle class life really does reveal how little we change as people, despite the customs and routines of our existence moving with the times. I already can’t wait to get stuck into the other volumes of the Provincial Lady’s take on life that have been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, and I hope they will merrily speed me back to health!