The Years by Virginia Woolf

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I have now officially read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels, and unfortunately I finished my Woolf reading adventure on one that left me feeling utterly uninspired. The Years, her penultimate novel, is a move away from the impressionistic, stream of consciousness style of her most famous works such as To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and is much more traditional, though certainly not as conventional as The Voyage Out or Night and Day. Its prose is most similar to Between the Acts, though for me, it had none of its beauty or lyricism. Though the earlier chapters, describing the gas-lit streets of Victorian London and shadowy, over-stuffed rooms of the Pargiter family’s home were incredibly evocative and absorbing, as the events moved through to the 20th century, it became increasingly incoherent and rather dull.

The novel centres around the aforementioned Pargiter family, who begin the story in the 1880s in a large, warren-like terrace in Kensington, waiting for Mrs Pargiter, an invalid of some years, to die. As one would expect of a Victorian invalid, she has no identifiable illness, but is just wasting away in a darkened bedroom upstairs, a nurse in constant attendance, while the rest of the family struggle with the guilt of wishing she would just die, and free them all from the tyranny of perpetual sickness. Eventually she does, and slowly the impressive number of Pargiter children drift off to find their places in the world, with several sticking to the conventional roles expected of them, while others take on the stereotypical roles assigned to characters novelists wish to use as symbols of 20th century progress; political agitators, suffragettes, artists, etc. We also meet the Pargiters’ cousins, and over the course of the novel, which skips ahead in sections to significant dates up until 1937, various extended members of the Pargiter family marry, die, have children, become spinsters, move abroad, move to various down-at-heel neighbourhoods and flit in and out of each other’s lives with no real narrative purpose or meaning that I could find besides serving as metaphorical representations of societal change between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Through the characters, Woolf asks questions about the meaning and purpose of life, of work, of war, of relationships, and this is all very well and good, but as we spend so little time with each of the characters, their thoughts and experiences become rather meaningless as there is no opportunity to become invested in or truly understand them. They are all just a series of shifting shadows, and though this is perhaps Woolf’s point about the essential meaningless of human existence, she does cover this ground far more skilfully in Between the Acts, which had a compelling story and characters as well as beautiful writing. While The Years certainly has its moments in the descriptions of the creeping fog, white-pillared crescents and aspidistra dotted drawing rooms of Victorian London, much of the latter portion of the novel is taken up with the unconvincing and very random conversations between various distant relations. In fact, I gave up fifty pages before the end, deciding that life is too short to wade through passages of prose that contain, for me, no pleasure or purpose. I’m sure that for some this book is a masterpiece, but personally, I found it turgid and self-indulgent, and certainly not representative of Woolf’s true powers as a stylist. It’s a strange novel, with the air of being rather unfinished; I felt like it was a first version of what could have gone on to become a brilliant final draft. I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions of it, however; did I miss something?

A Miscellany

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The unthinkable has happened; despite feeling like a twelve year old inside, last weekend, I turned 30. This was a birthday I was not particularly looking forward to; I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the various existential crises that I had swirling around inside my head as the seemingly enormous figure loomed and I contemplated the failures of my lost youth. However, one week on, I can report that I am feeling absolutely fine, and no different to the 29 year old me whatsoever. I may have achieved precisely none of the goals the younger me had expected by the time I reached this grand old age, but my life has wandered down many different paths that the younger me never even imagined I would tread, and my dreams and ambitions have altered as I have rerouted myself on the map I had previously marked out.In my twenties, I had a lot of fun and I also experienced a lot of heartache. I made wonderful friends and said painful goodbyes to some old ones. I fell in love and out again, I moved countries, I tried different jobs until I was lucky enough to find my true vocation, I moved house more times than I dare to count, I travelled, I explored, I took risks, I rejoiced in my successes and I cried over my many failures. I learned how to do grown up things like unblock my own sink, fill in a tax return, bake bread, manage my finances, change nappies and look busy at work. I also learned the truly important stuff that you don’t really think about when you leave university and launch yourself into your twenties: that the things I was afraid of doing were not as frightening as failing to do them, that listening is more important than talking, that it’s far more rewarding to help someone else than push yourself forward, that happiness does not lie in money and status, that you can’t impose the expectations you have of yourself onto other people, that true friends really are worth their weight in gold. So, despite the fact that I don’t have an awful lot to show for myself other than an impressive collection of books and the half dead contents of a miniature greenhouse, I don’t think I’ve done too bad a job of my first three decades. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store as I tentatively paddle into the next one!

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In between attempting to keep myself from falling into an abyss of despair, I have been up to quite a lot over the past month or so. I had the great joy of visiting Hampton Court Palace for the first time, which is impossibly beautiful and full of so many delights that you could stay for a week and still not see everything. I loved the intricate details in the windows and mouldings that revealed the changing occupation of the rooms over the years, the melange of Tudor and Baroque architecture, the acres of gardens filled with a rainbow of tulips and daffodils, and the miles and miles of delicately wrought iron fencing that separates the gardens from the Thames, which flows rather lazily past as if it were a mere country brook. It’s magical, and highly recommended. Though, this was a description of my first visit; it wasn’t quite so magical a couple of weeks later, when I took my Year 8s on a school trip and lost three of them in the maze…

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I popped to Broadstairs for the day with some friends in order to celebrate my birthday last weekend; it’s such a wonderful little seaside resort, with a sheltered sandy beach, bracing cliff walks, a lively high street, plenty of excellent fish and chip shops, a brilliant 1950s ice cream parlour (Morelli’s), a great second hand book shop, glorious historic architecture, and more Charles Dickens themed pubs, shops and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Dickens loved this town, and used it for inspiration for many of his novels: perched on the cliffs above the bay is the Bleak House; now a B&B, and the home of the woman who inspired Betsey Trotwood is now the Charles Dickens House Museum. The winding lanes and huddles of beautiful, historic homes make it easy to imagine what it must have been like in Dickens’ day, and it makes for a lovely day out from London: the high speed train from St Pancras gets you there in just an hour and a half.

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In literary news, now I am old I feel I can give up on books, and I found myself handing Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch back to the charity shop after getting to page 100 and still waiting for something to draw me in. I was so disappointed, because I loved The Little Stranger, but I was drowning in description and found myself not caring for any of the characters at all. I’ve returned to a trustier source, and am now reading The Years, which is the only Woolf novel I’ve not read. It too is full of description, but this description is different; it transports me to another plane, and I am adoring every minute of submerging my senses in the world of the Pargiter family as they journey through the 19th and 20th centuries. On my way home from work the other night, I popped into Foyles for a browse and came out with this gorgeously illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice; Alice Pattullo, the illustrator, is a wonderful artist who I’ve been interested in for some time, and her drawings bring a wonderful whimsicality to the text. I already can’t wait to re-read it!

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I also want to apologise for blogging so sporadically these days; it is not intention, merely circumstantial. I am still attempting to write a book (aim: finish by 40), I started learning the piano just over a year ago and it has become a rather unhealthy obsession (I recently passed my first ever music exam – Grade 3 –  which I was more proud of than any other certificate I have ever received!) and I have very little time to read amidst the general whirl of work and socialising and other hobbies. But from now on I resolve to be better at coming here more often and sharing more of what I am doing. It’s been almost seven years since I started this blog, and it continues to be a source of great pleasure; I appreciate every single reader and I hope to give you more posts that are worth reading from now on! (Also, don’t forget that Simon at Stuck in a Book and I record a podcast every two weeks, where you can hear our rambling opinions on a variety of bookish topics – you can listen to the latest one here!).

 

 

The Baltic

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Over Easter weekend, I went on a whistle stop tour of three lovely Baltic countries; Latvia, Estonia and Finland, all of whom used to be part of the Russian/Soviet Empires and have absolutely fascinating and quite turbulent histories. Latvia and Estonia are very newly independent countries, having only been separated from the USSR in 1991, and Finland became independent in 1917, but all three have a strong Russian heritage that survives in their culture, architecture and cuisine, which was something I found very interesting and evocative as we travelled around.

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Latvia and Estonia share similar landscapes and architectural styles: unsurprising as they have been so closely linked for centuries. Endless lines of birch and pine forests spread across their horizons and the cities are characterised by their medieval buildings and tall church spires. Both are fairly recent entrants to the EU and are experiencing exciting change and progress as the impact of this on their economies develops. Tallinn in particular is thriving; known for its technology industry, there is a real feeling of rebirth on its streets, and the younger generation are enthusiastically converting former industrial spaces into quirky shops, high end restaurants, wine bars and coffee shops.

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Finland is much more Russian in its appearance; its central square reminded me very much of St Petersburg, which is no surprise, as it was largely remodelled by Alexander I in the early 19th century to make it feel more a part of Russia. It is also distinctively Scandinavian in its watery surroundings, pale colours and emphasis on outdoor life, with loads of parks, islands and walkways around the waterfront, which were a delight.

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My highlight of the trip was definitely Tallinn; I found its medieval old town breathtakingly beautiful and fairytale like, and I also loved its more modern, up and coming industrial side, which is filled with loads of fantastic shops and restaurants, such as the delicious F-hoone. Riga has a wonderful collection of Art Nouveau architecture, which is worth visiting the city for alone; it’s concentrated around Alberta Iela, and the museum on the street, which recreates an authentic Art Nouveau interior, is brilliant. The Museum of the Occupation is also a really eye-opening experience, revealing the treatment of Latvians under the Soviet regime. Helsinki felt a little quieter, and its proximity to the water made me feel entirely relaxed and hardly like I was in a capital city at all. I loved its art museum, the Ateneum, as well as its incredible Art Deco station. All three cities are easy to travel between in a short space of time and offer a fantastic range of cultural, historical and architectural sights to enjoy. I’d highly recommend a visit!

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London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

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London Belongs to Me is an enormous doorstopper of a book that looks rather overwhelming when you first pick it up, with its almost transparently thin pages, tiny text and a vast array of characters who you initially feel you might need a family tree to keep track of. But, as soon as you’ve read the first chapter and are immersed in the colourful, lively, hilarious and often touching world of the inhabitants of 10 Dulcimer Street, any trepidation falls away, and you become lost within the streets of prewar London.

10 Dulcimer Street is owned by middle aged, straight-laced widow Mrs Vizzard, who, anxious not to touch her capital, has let out the various floors of her Georgian terrace to fellow Londoners in order to make ends meet. Ever conscious of frugality, she herself lives in the basement, where she focuses her interests on spiritualism, leaving the best part of the upper floors to be rented by the Jossers, a couple in their sixties.Mr Josser has just retired, and is looking forward to using his life savings to buy a country cottage for he and his wife to live in, away from the smog of London. But now it’s come to it, Mrs Josser isn’t quite sure she wants to leave London, especially as their daughter, Doris, has decided to get a flat with her hoity-toity friend Doreen from the office, and thinks she’s too good to stop at home with her parents. Much family distress ensues. Upstairs lives quiet, devoted Mrs Boon, also a widow, who lives for her son Percy. Percy is quite the young man on the up, making a name for himself as a successful mechanic, with dreams of owning his own garage one day. But the thing is, making enough money to buy the smart house and top notch car Percy desires will take time, and Percy isn’t sure he wants to wait. He’s got his eye on Doris Josser, and when a friend offers him the opportunity to dabble in a little bit of car thievery on the side to make a tidy sum very quickly, Percy jumps at the chance. Getting up to no good comes naturally to washed up, elderly actress Connie, who lives above the Boons with only her canary for company. Her face perpetually made up in a doll-like mask, she forces her way into the lives of the inhabitants of Dulcimer Street, never one to miss the opportunity for a gossip, or a free meal, living hand to mouth as she does since the boards have given her up. Facing her own destitution, Connie could be forgiven for her fits of tears and melancholy as she lies in her lonely bed, but she always manages to find a reason to carry on, especially when it involves sticking her nose in where it’s not wanted. Above Connie is Mr Puddy, a lazy middle aged widower, who lives for his food and a quiet life. He tries not to get involved in the lives of the others, and instead focuses his energies on making sure he can get the most for himself by doing the least work possible.It’s no surprise that he’s forever at the employment agency after a fall-out with a boss who had the cheek to ask him to do more work than he ought by rights be asked to do.

However, life begins to change for the inhabitants of Dulcimer Street as Doris moves out, a mysterious Mr Squales moves into the spare room in Mrs Vizzard’s basement, Percy’s criminal doings catch up with him, and the war starts to become an ever likelier possibility. Though they are all separate family units with entirely separate lives, their changing circumstances begin to demonstrate that the bonds between the residents are stronger than they may have realised.  When tragedy strikes, the house must come together to fight, with the true characters of the residents being revealed as they struggle and make sacrifices to try and keep their Dulcimer Street family together.

The novel flits back and forth between the viewpoints of the different characters, bringing them thoroughly to life with their own distinct voices that often had me laughing out loud with their freshness and vivacity. I felt utterly steeped in the murk and dinginess of pre-war London, and the period details of Lyons’ Corner Houses, trams, and the depictions of London’s once very distinct neighbourhoods were a delight to read. I felt utterly involved in the world Collins created, and cared desperately for each of the characters. By the time I closed the pages, I was bereft at the thought of leaving them all behind, so real had each of them become, and I wanted to know what had gone on to happen to them beyond the events of the novel. How I wish there had been a sequel! This is one of those books that truly sweeps you away, and though it is by no means high literature, I would say it is very well written and one of the most entertaining and absorbing books I’ve ever read. I was delighted to find that the novel was adapted into a film quite quickly after publication and is available on youtube – I already can’t wait to absorb myself back into the world of Dulcimer Street! This is a book that you really can’t let pass you by – it’s pure reading indulgence and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Mudlarking

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Last week, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of being a mudlarker on the Thames. When I was at primary school, a man came in to talk to us about the treasure that could be found on the banks of the river, and showed us some of his haul. Clay pipes, pottery, even Roman coins; the thought that all of this was just floating about in the Thames, ready to be picked up by an eagle-eyed passer by, was incredible. Obviously I went home and told my mum all about it, and begged her to take me mudlarking so that I could find Roman coins of my own. My mum, unsurprisingly, was less keen on the idea, and so my dreams of discovering treasure amidst the detritus of centuries worth of rubbish slowly died. Over the years I have often seen people pottering about down on the river banks, but I never felt that I could join them. I wouldn’t know where to look, or even what to look for. The whole concept of mudlarking seemed silly and fanciful, and so it merely remained a wistful and much treasured memory of my childhood, destined, I thought, never to see the light of day.

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Until I taught my current Year 7 class about Roman Britain, that is, and I happened to tell them about the man who came in to talk to me when I was at primary school, and who showed me the Roman coins he had found on the banks of the Thames. My students, with eyes like saucers, demanded to be taken to find their own Roman treasure, and I thought, why on earth not? Finally, I would have the chance to fulfil my own dream, and get a day out of the classroom to boot! So, I looked into our options, found a wonderful tour run by the Thames Explorer Trust in conjunction with the Museum of London, and promptly booked us on. Trussed up in wellies and waterproofs, we went to the museum for a workshop, where we learned all about the different types of objects we might find on the river bank and how we could tell the age of the most common things we were likely to come across. It was absolutely fascinating; the bits and pieces of broken pottery, masonry, clay pipes, oyster shells etc that are scattered across the muddy banks are a window into the social history of London, revealing the habits of the people who walked the same streets I do every day, as well as the changing make up of London and the significant events of its past. I had no idea that it was still possible to find roof tiles that were thrown into the Thames after the Great Fire, or that there are so many clay pipes in the river because they were the equivalent of cigarettes. I also had no idea that oyster shells were the equivalent of our fast food wrappers, and that so many have holes in them not because they’ve been eroded in the waters over time, but because Victorians used to use them to make spare buttons. It’s amazing to think that so much of this history is still here, and in plain sight, too. It’s just lying there, waiting to be discovered.

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And that is exactly what we went on to do. Just a few yards from the museum are steps down to the river bank, and as soon as we set foot on the rocky slip of sand beneath the Millennium Bridge, we started finding treasure. Without even needing to dig or move any stones, we could pick up clay pipes, pieces of pottery, old glass and tiles. We were amazed at the ease in which we filled up our little bags with colourful shards of pottery, some of which was medieval, as well as 17th century glass and a very impressive collection of clay pipe bowls. I was thrilled to find a lovely selection of bits of white and blue pottery, as well as my own clay pipe, which was the only thing I really wanted to find, having been so amazed by the ones the man who came to my primary school had shown me all those years ago. We trooped back to school feeling like archaeologists, and though we hadn’t found any Roman coins, we had discovered so much about the history of our city and how much we can learn from the rubbish we leave behind. It was such a remarkable adventure and one I plan on repeating again soon. There’s nothing like a spot of mudlarking to connect you with the history of London and make you feel like a character in a Dickens novel. And best of all, it’s completely free! Just make sure you check the times of the tide before you go.

ps. mine and Simon’s latest podcast is now live – you can listen here!