Posts Tagged ‘Kate Atkinson’

A god in ruinsFor which we must be thankful.  A god in ruins (Transworld, 2015) is not as tricky as Life after life, mind, to which it is a kind of sequel, but it still delivers a powerful tale on its own, complete with the rich collection of nods, winks and swerves that I love about Kate Atkinson‘s writing.  In the Author’s note at the end she says:

I get tired of hearing that a new novel is ‘experimental’ or it ‘reinvents the form’, as if Laurence Sterne or Gertrude Stein or indeed James Joyce never wrote a word. Every time a writer throws themselves at the first line of a novel they are embarking on an experiment. An adventure. I believe in the rich textural (and textual) interplay of plot, character, narrative, theme and image and all the other ingredients that get thrown in the pot, but I don’t believe that necessarily makes me a traditionalist (as if we’re not all in a tradition, the tradition of novel writing).

The thing is, with Kate (if I may be so bold) you get the joys of both: acutely observed storytelling of great emotional power along with some really clever, often unobtrusive, mucking about with the novel form, sparing us any of the po-faced intellectualism one might fear from such theorising.  She has fun either way.  ‘Not‘ – as she says  (in parenthesis) just before the passage above – being ‘as post-modernly self-reverential as it sounds.’

Anyway, whereas Ursula Todd lived a stop/start (or rather start/stop) series of contingent lives in Life after life, here nice guy younger brother Teddy has just the one.  In the Author’s note Atkinson explains that many of the details of his one life in A god in ruins are not consistent with what goes on in Life after life.  She likes to think of it as one of Ursula’s lives, an unwritten one. This sounds like novelist trickery, as indeed it perhaps is, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”  I second that emotion; along with the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that the title is taken from (“A man is a god in ruins“), one of the other quotes that grace the space betwixt title page and opening chapter comes from one of Atkinson’s own characters, the mother of our main man here.

Just as Ursula’s experiences in the London Blitz are the compelling core of Life after life, so Teddy’s wartime exploits flying in Bomber Command – the allies returning the compliment on Germany’s civilian population – are at the non-sequential heart of A god in ruins.  This is heavy stuff, and while Teddy’s and his descendants’ postwar experiences takes up much of the book, even though we know what is going to happen eventually one is riveted, electrified, again and again, by the piecemeal episodic revelation, mission by mission, of what actually went down for him in the war.  I do not evoke a couple of other classics of the Second World War lightly, but Joseph Heller achieved the same sort of effect with Snowdon’s fateful flight in Catch-22, while Atkinson skillfully avoids straying into and rehashing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five territory by ending Teddy’s war early: “He was glad he had sat out the last eighteen months of the war in a POW camp, hadn’t witnessed Bomber Command trying to remove Germany from the map of Europe.”

As I’ve suggested, A god in ruins jumps about time-wise, giving us, as well as his wartime experiences, glimpses of four generations of the Todd family, both independently and as they directly impact on Teddy’s life.  So we get the background to Teddy’s marriage (girl-next-door Nancy – one of the maths gals at Bletchley Park!), how that played out, his daughter’s trajectory, his grandchildren’s coming of age, and his growing old.  In so many ways a sad, sad tale of a good man living with dignity through times and events he neither chose or deserved.  One pines for him, his noble travails, but there are saving graces.

“Britain’s Greatest Generation”

So here’s Teddy: “Before the war he had fancied himself as something of a poet and had a couple of poems published in obscure literary magazines …” Come the war he finds himself judged a hero, a wing commander in Bomber Command: “a leader of men, the master of his fate, the captain off his soul and of a bloody big four-engined Halifax with an unnerving tendency to swing to the right on take-off and landing.”  (Ah, the delicious flavour of Kate Atkinson’s prose.)  ” ‘You have a pagan soul,’ Nancy had once told him but he didn’t agree.  He had the soul of a country parson who had lost his faith.”  Faith?  On yet another bombing raid: “That was the trouble with faith, Teddy thought, by its very nature it was impossible. He didn’t believe in anything any more. Trees, perhaps. Trees and rocks and water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer.”  After the war, one of the things he does is contribute a country diary for a newspaper in Yorkshire.

Teddy is one of those men for whom the war proved to be the time in their lives they felt the most alive: the comradeship, coming through danger, a certain freedom.  There’s a wonderful passage when, on leave, he and Ursula go for a walk after a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in the Albert Hall and it’s climax of The ode to joy.  “Afterwards – because it turned out there was an afterwards for Teddy – he resolved that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all he could do. And it might be love after all.”  And that, though “Part of him never adjusted to having a future,” is what he does.  There’s a lot still to happen before of course, but his longest term future is in an old people’s home:

A woman hirpled along the corridor towards them with the aid of a walking frame. ‘Hello, coming to join us, are you?’ she said cheerfully to Teddy. It was a bit like a cult. Teddy was reminded of that television programme from the Sixties that Viola had liked to watch. The Prisoner. His heart sank. This was to be his prison, wasn’t it?

Hirpled!  When Teddy comes home from the war, wife Nancy feels a lack in him.  “They must have a baby, she thought. They must have a child to heal Teddy, to heal the world.”  That child was Viola, and what a daughter she turned out to be.

My Generation?

Kate Atkinson was born in 1951.  She’s one of my generation.  Teddy and Nancy are our parents’ generation.  Kate is also – good for her – fiercely guarded about her own life.  Frustratingly, nevertheless, you’ll find very little biographical information about her on the web, save that she has been divorced twice and had a child while still at university.  Oh for a ‘straight’ – as if that were possible – memoir, never mind autobiography.  I say this because – disturbingly – Viola, Teddy’s daughter, the main representative of my (and Kate’s) generation in A god in ruins, is a self-centred monster.  (And she subsequently becomes a successful novelist too, but later for that.)  The scorn is palpable, sour, vicious.  The next couple of paragraphs may on the surface appear to be full of clichés, but reading A god in ruins it doesn’t feel like that.  At the very least she has known people like this.

For reasons I’ll not go into here, though it is a compelling sub-strand of A god in ruins, Teddy becomes a single father;  “He loved Viola as only a parent can love a child, but it was hard work.”  Empty nester he was not: “She had spent her sulking teenage years champing on the bit to escape its confines (‘dull’, ‘conventional’, ‘little boxes’ and so on). When she had finally left to go to university it had felt as if a great darkness had left the house.”  At uni she shacks up with Dominic, the estranged druggy scion of a wealthy family, a wannabe artist; when Teddy meets him and asks him what the problem is with his family, the response is (I report with some pain), “ ‘Oh, you know. The usual – drugs, art, politics. They think I’m a waster, I think they’re fascists.’ ” (Though, to be fair, his mother is a vile creature too).

‘We were children of the sixties,’ Viola liked to say in later years, as if that in itself made her interesting.”  Ouch. They have two children: a boy named Sun and a girl named Moon.  Teddy visits them in a squat in London: ” ‘So this is a “squat”, eh?’ he says as they squeezed their way past bicycles, mostly broken, and cardboard boxes in the hallway. (‘Oh I was a radical, an anarchist even,’ Viola declared in later years. ‘Lived in a squat in London – exciting times.’ when in fact she was cold and miserable and lonely a lot of the time, not to mention being paralysed by motherhood.)”  They move to a rural commune that Teddy has to rescue her and the kids from: “ ‘I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight.’ the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)” (She likes a good set of brackets, does Kate).  (I do too).  Viola has a stint at Greenham Common too. In Viola’s final fling before marrying again (a rich man this time) and quickly divorcing big, by which time the kids are living with Teddy, she’s a member of a “women’s soul drumming group in Leeds, where she studied for a part-time MA in women’s studies on the topic of ‘post counter-culture feminism’. The north in the eighties was a hotbed of revolt.”  Ouch again.

Talking to Bertie, the daughter previously known as Moon, years later, Viola asks, “Was I really such a terrible mother?” only to be met with, “Why the past tense?”  Bertie (from Roberta, her middle name; she soon dropped Moon) is a bright shining star, commenting on her parent in parenthesis:

‘What about me? Am I included in that?’ Viola said in that faux-chirpy way that she had when she was trying to pretend they were all one happy family. (‘The family that put the “fun” in dysfunctional,’ Bertie said).
‘Of course you are,’ Teddy said.

The novelist

So Viola writes a novel:

  • He father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. That was a nice phrase. She tucked that away for later use as well. She was writing a novel. It was about a young girl, brilliant and precocious, and her troubled relationship with her single-parent father. Like all writing, it was a secretive act. An unspeakable practice. Viola sensed there was a better person inside her than the one who wanted to punish the world for its bad behaviour all the time (when her own was so reproachable). Perhaps writing would be a way of letting that person out into the daylight. (p132)
  • Sparrows at Dawn [by Viola Romaine] was a solid, tangible item in the phenomenal world rather than a jumble of ideas in Viola’s head. (What next? Bertie said to Teddy. ‘Badgers for breakfast? Rabbits at Bedtime?’). (p312)
  • Her first novel, Sparrows at Dawn, (what a terrible title), had been about a ‘clever’ (or annoyingly arrogant) young girl being brought up by her father. It was clearly meant to be autobiographical, a message of some sort to him from Viola. The girl was relentlessly badly done by and the father was a doltish martinet.  (p172)

It turns into a steady job, a career even.  “That was where the best of her was to be found, in her books. (Almost as good as Jodi Picoult,’ Mumsnet.)”  Ouch, ouch.  The writing life, then.  “A whole life could be contained in a dinner-service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away.)”  Unlike Kate, as I’ve already quoted, Viola uses edited slices of her old life for PR.  How much of Kate, though, is there in, “Literary festivals, bookshops, interviews, online chats, you were just filling up other people’s empty spaces really.  But they were filling up your empty spaces too.

And in the end …

Don’t worry, I’m giving nothing away.  A god in ruins is a great novel.  I’ve got a bit carried away here wondering just how much of herself the author has put in there, and worrying how much of an allegory of the generations is intended (and how maybe we don’t measure up in a number of ways … but surely our idealism must have counted for something).  There is so much else going on in the book, stuff I’ve not got near mentioning.  Thoughtful, provocative, energetic and enervating, it’s not so much a moral tale as a long conversation about morality, about living a good life as opposed to ‘the good life’.  The old cliché is that things are never black or white, but, ignoring the ‘grey’ word, Kate Atkinson is working with a full paintbox.

Did I say how much I love Kate Atkinson‘s writing?  How about this?

Later, much later, after the war, when all the history books and memoirs and biographies started to come out and people stopped wanting to forget the war and started wanting to remember it again …

Here’s Bertie again.  Wouldn’t it be great if she turned up in the next (oh please let there be another) Jackson Brodie novel?

[Teddy] felt similarly disappointed when Bertie took a job in advertising, which as far as he could tell was just encouraging people to spend money they didn’t have on things they didn’t need. (‘It is,’ Bertie agreed.)

And of course there has to be mention of Emily Dickinson (an Atkinson signature), Teddy to monosyllabic teen proto-goth Sun:

‘ “Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, sleep the meek members of the Resurrection, rafter of satin and roof of stone.” Emily Dickinson. It was your mother, funnily enough, who introduced me to her. She was a poet,’ he added when Sunny looked puzzled, as if he was mentally riffling through a list of Viola’s acquaintances to find an Emily Dickinson. ‘Dead. American,’ Teddy added. ‘Quite morbid, you might like her. “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” ‘ Sunny perked up.

You don’t have to have read Life after life to get an awful lot out of A god in ruins, though they do, as suggested earlier, make a fine pair.  But there’s a wonderful appendix in A god in ruins of an excerpt from one of the series of children’s books that saved Teddy’s Aunt Izzy’s bacon, The adventures of Augustus.   To his great annoyance and embarrassment, Izzy always said it was Teddy’s exploits as a young boy that had been her inspiration.  If you haven’t read Life after life yet , Izzy is worth spending time with, and, especially, Ursula too.


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Crewe AlexandraNah, not really.  It may have been my hometown team up against a club I’ve learned to love through the osmosis of sharing an office for a decade or more with a Crewe Alexandra fan and changing the month of their precariously mounted official calendar when she wasn’t there – hi Sal – but there was little to get worked up about in the first half at stadiumMK on Saturday.  Apart from the MK Dons scoring – under our noses in the away end – a moment of clarity from the left winger’s penetrating run (which we saw coming from a mile off but not so, seemingly, the Crewe defence) and a deft cheeky flick from a young blonde Chelsea loanee – there wasn’t much to excite in what was basically a poor game between two poor teams, with Crewe’s newest local wunderkind (a fresh striking legend every couple of years) contributing little of worth – not helped by an over fussy ref.


Chuks Aneke

Second half was a game of two quarters as the Railwaymen, showing more commitment, came back strongly in the last twenty minutes, especially once they realised that in order to score it does help to take a shot at goal now and then; “it’s just like watching Arsenal,” I said in jest (though more of that in a minute).  When they did, the Dons’ Martin (Crewe had a Martin in goal too, no relation) proved up to the challenge.  The home team were lucky to hold out.  Throughout, Crewe’s Arsenal loanee Chuks Aneke’s pedigree shone in the quality of his passing in midfield; given the freedom (or maybe just the confidence) to break forward and go for goal the 20-year old could be one of the First Division’s outstanding players this year.

A crowd of only 6,911 for the first Dons home game of the new season on a decent summer’s afternoon was surely disappointing but then it has to be said – not for the first time – MK Dons’ patient possession style of football is, frankly, boring a lot of the time (though Izale McLeod did liven things up a bit when he came on near the end).  But anyway, the game’s afoot again, season sprung and all to play for for the time being.

Emotionally weirdAll sorts of games being played in Kate Atkinson‘s delightful Emotionally weird: a comic novel (2000).  For a start the framing story – narrator taking refuge with mother (“who is not my mother“) stuck on an isolated storm-swept Scottish island – is not particularly comic at all,  revolving as it does around one of Atkinson’s favourite themes – motherless children having a hard time & tangled parenthood tales – and that particular denouement is a neat update on the Victorian end-tying.

The book actually starts with a cod crime novel – narrator Effie’s creative writing project – which develops a nice life of its own, but the bulk of the novel, seated within the mother’s tale (with interjections), is a glorious chronicle of a mixed bunch of English and philosophy students’ lives set in Dundee in 1972.  Given that KA was at the University of York in 1971, the students – the stoned, the political, the earnest, the absentee and all the rest – far from being the easy clichés are a reasonable (and laugh-aloud funny) extrapolation of the life at the time, while the staff don’t get away with anything either.  Indeed, the EngLit tutorials seem designed to illustrate Steven Pinker’s observation, in Science is not your enemy, his recent beautifully argued New Republic article, that

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.

For me Emotionally weird had been the Kate Atkinson novel that had got away but I’m glad to have finally made its full acquaintance.  There’s the usual characterisation and easy flow of quotable one-liners, all sorts of delightful twists, shifts and tangents, and some glorious mucking about for the sheer love of storytelling and novel-writing (never mind Effie struggling with an essay on Henry James’s strictures on ‘the novel’).  There’s a nice 1999 round-up of what happened to them all; the hapless Bob, the stoned  Star Trek quoting boyfriend is a bit of an anticlimax, while others surprise.  There’s a coda – “Last words” – with a sentence or two from 6 novels at various stages of writing by various characters touched on in the novel, not least a fantasy saga that has been a rich comic source throughout.  And on top of all that, in Chick Petrie, the private investigator, we have the first stirrings, a precursor even, of the great Jackson Brodie, the central character of Kate’s next four extraordinary sort-of-crime novels.

Purity Brewing Company - Mad GooseMeanwhile, an exceptional pint of beer has passed my lips, bursting with flavour from the first taste.  Take a bow, Warwickshire’s Purity Brewing Company, for the splendid Mad Goose bitter.  And Stony’s Fox and Hounds for stocking it.


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Life after lifeSadness is what I got from Life after life (Doubleday, 2013).  For all the joys of reading and writing (the flash and filigree of her prose, the dazzling one-liners and glorious tangents) that are Kate Atkinson‘s stock in trade, compassion and an undercurrent of sadness are never far from breaking through, even in – nay, especially in – the Jackson Brodie sequence of books.  They are there in pretty much all the surprises sprung on us here.

Although not devoid of the quality, Life after life isn’t as much fun as her previous novels and that’s not just because Ursula Todd, her main character, keeps dying (or as “the black bat” descends) as the spelling out of the crucial role of simple contingency in human affairs – the what ifs and what if nots (when the snow storm hits, how deep it lies, falling in love, pregnancy, a falling wall’s reach) –  is cascaded out.

It’s that Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors spread over a lifetime with serial mortality added rather than Groundhog Day.  The rubric ‘What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?‘ from the back cover (and something her favourite brother Teddy says) does not really apply to Ursula Todd’s many lives, though she does discuss reincarnation with her therapist and the book is pretty much book-ended with two episodes set in Germany in 1930 – a dimension I’m not going to expand on here – which rather beg that question.  The what-ifs are intriguingly personal, familial and global.

The powerful core of this splendid book is a tale of Londoners living through (or not, as the case may be) the Blitz.  This – the people she shares a house with, the people she works alongside in the rescue squads, the aftermath of the raids – is going to stay with me a long time.  We arrive there through various twists and turns of fate in what starts out (after the false starts of early death) as a conventional upper middle class home counties family saga with an acknowledged touch of the E.M.Forsters.  For me this dragged a bit until the appearance on the scene of Lizzie, the aunt who’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, who brings with her a sprinkling of scepticism and the Atkinson prose sparkle and then we’re well and truly off.  The family dynamics over the years are beautifully portrayed.

In previous novels of Kate’s you could almost pick a bon couple of mots or a witty one-liner off practically every page for quotation, but as I’ve said, in respect to the subject matter, such delight is not exactly falling off the trees here.  But it’s there, nevertheless, along with her penchant for invoking Eng-Lit – she does not talk down to her readers.  Dickens, Jane Austen, John Donne, John Keats, even Charlotte Brontë’s dog, all get a mention, and there’s a nice running trope about the moon Keats and other poets saw.  In one particularly unfortunate life of Ursula’s, she marries a monster – “She had married a Casaubon, she realised” – and in failing one tragic morning, even she has “… to admit that the egg she presented for Derek’s breakfast was a sad sight, a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die.”  And if you like the idea of someone confusing a quote from Pindar with something found in Pinner, Middlesex, then you’ll love the child’s confusion of Nietzsche’s notion of Amor fati – the acceptance of fate, the embracing of fate, as her therapist tells her – with being fat.  If not as profuse as previously, it’s still there.

If I do have a problem with Life after life it’s a small annoyance.  I think Kate Atkinson has always enjoyed playing with the idea of the novelist as participant in the action of a book, making her presence known, and at least with the stop/start again structure here it’s obvious.  But I have to say I am disappointed with the hints, the deja vu and second sight moments, the “little flicker in time” here, the “Oh, Ursula said. I’ve been here before” there, that Ursula experiences in the course of her lives and which strike a false note with me.  If it’s a nod and a wink it’s an unnecessary one.

But back to the sadness I started with.   At the age of 57, in 1967, the Ursula who survives longest gets to review the satisfactions and disappointments of her eventful yet ultimately unfulfilled life.  It’s a lovely chapter; it sings.  The social changes she has seen and played a small part in are factored in alongside what has been lost, what gained, what needn’t have happened, what’s still to be done.  I made a note of a quote – I’m not sure if it came from here (the book’s gone back to the library) – but it fits: “She made fast her heroine heart.”  Reading that testimonial now, 46 years on from when it’s set, was an overwhelming experience.  And a huge achievement from the pen, or word processor, of our Kate.  From whom one last quote, that took me straight back to her marvellous Human croquet where a wych elm is almost a character in its own right:

She thought about Dr Kellet and his theories of reincarnation and wondered what she would like to come back as. A tree, she thought. A fine big tree, dancing in the breeze.

Tim Hardin

Tim Hardin

Sadness compounded.  As it happens 1967 was the year Tim Hardin‘s first two albums (Tim Hardin 1 and, er, Tim Hardin 2) were released.  I’ve been listening to a compilation which – sadly – doesn’t include his most optimistic and well-known song – If I were a carpenter – but does contain some of the finest (and shortest) odes to melancholy of the past half century.  The yearning of Black sheep boy is just the starter, the exquisite ache of How can we hang on to a dream hard to bear at times.    Sometimes all you need is two minutes.  I wish a few more could learn that lesson.  Why, only this week it was pointed out to me that it only took Fats Domino 1 minute 47 seconds to walk  to New Orleans.

Lucky Jim - Nicholas Bentley

Lucky Jim

Meanwhile, back at the reading group I was in a minority of one when it came to Kingsley Amis‘s Lucky Jim (1954).  I think it’s the third time I’ve read it and it still has me chortling out loud (and will do again, no doubt).  The others (all women) all more or less hated it while (some of ’em) giving grudging credit to its language and comic timing.  OK, he wouldn’t get away with the women these days but it’s one of the great comic novels.  You can’t take away from timing and the precise wit.  Prime scorn, here exercised at the right targets and some of the best drunken literature – “He was already beginning to feel a little splendid” – to be found anywhere.  Who has not encountered the equivalent of a Beesley – “bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis” – or suffered ” … the familiar mixture of predicted boredom with unpredicted boredom …”

What a difference two or three strategically placed words can make in “The amateur violinist nodded the top half of his body and, supported by the local composer, burst into some scurrying tunelessness or other”  while who can deny “how inefficient a bar to wasting one’s time was the knowledge that one was wasting it“?

And who could possibly argue with this classic statement of political reasonableness?:

If one man’s got ten buns and another’s got two, and a bun has to be given up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns.

That’s a rhetorical question.





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Lillabullero is a bit all over the place this morning but not necessarily in a bad way. And it didn’t just start with hearing Morrison HotelBreak on through (to the other side) on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as I was making the first cup of tea of the morning.  RIP organist and keyboards man Ray Manzarek.  Was it really 46 years ago we’d wake to the sound of that first Doors album?  That still sounds fresh most of the time; though age has withered my appreciation of Morrison’s Freudian excesses on The end it still works on the level of pure sound.  I loved those last two Doors albums too – Morrison Hotel and L.A.Woman – quality creative returns after the hiatus of the middle albums, which never really got the critical acclaim they deserved at the time.  Such drive and subtle playing.

Life after lifeSome of the blame must go to Kate Atkinson.  I’m on the finishing stretch of her latest book.  For me one of Kate’s great qualities as a writer is that she is all over the place a lot of the time.  I love her tangents.  Life after life (Doubleday, 2013) is full of them given its structure – the what-if contingencies of life that mean her main character dies in various circumstances (from birth onwards) and is then followed through (though not necessarily in that order) as if, in various circumstances, that hadn’t happened and something else just a bit more substantial than a butterfly flapping its wings had.  Absorbing as ever if more sombre than usual and I’ll doubtless have more to say when I’ve finished it.  As it happens the new series of adaptations from her Jackson Brodie novels started on telly this week under the generic title of Case histories, with Jason Isaacs as Jackson brilliant as ever.  This one is based on Started early, took my dog, the novel that has won a fair number of hits on Lillabullero due to the discussion around the identity in the book of Courtney, the child the Victoria Wood character runs away with on tv.  Things are less opaque on the box: Courtney is shoplifter Kelly Cross’s child – a notion dismissed in the book – plain and simple.

And with the television still turned on, let us celebrate all the music on BBC4, which is practically worth the license fee Opening shot of JC's Hurt videoon its own (and I haven’t even watched Rock’n’roll Britannia yet).  The joy of country did a neat job of telling the tale (the Western in C&W was pure Hollywood) and then briefly quoted from that incredibly moving final Johnny Cash video of his American recordings IV recording of Trent Reznor’s Hurt, which I then felt compelled to hunt out and watch again in full; it never fails to have me all over the place, flinching and weeping inside.  (That, by the way, David Bowie, is how you use religious iconography to real and genuinely shocking effect).  Mortality again, though I’m not morbid about it.

PL2PL1Then there was Queens of Jazz: the joy and pain of the jazz divas, who are all dead too, of course.  Some great footage and, again, a tale well told, nicely broken up with talk to camera spots from some current British women jazz vocalists – which was refreshing – telling us more.  On the whole not an era and scene I can claim too much familiarity with, but I know where I shall be exploring further soon.  I was struck by the profundity of Sarah Vaughan’s voice and, frankly, fell in love with the young Peggy Lee – the smile, the eyes, the phrasing, her restrained presence.  Here she is singing Why don’t you do right? with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1942.  See what I mean?  Nina Simone was portrayed as the last of the tribe and, as it happens, the next thing I watched in an extended catch-up exercise featured another extraordinary voice.  It was Emeli Sandé‘s Albert Hall concert, where she paid her own tribute to the inspiration of La Simone.  It’s a concert of huge emotional power and the celebratory delight of the audience, a rediscovery of themselves and a disbelief that what they were hearing could be quite that good, was palpable.  I bet Nina Simone would have loved to include Our version of events – I still get goose-flesh – in her repertoire and I’d love to hear it.  And speaking of divas …

May 2013 ScribalBelatedly, May’s Scribal Gathering was quite an assortment of talents:

  • Stephen Hobbs ably MC’d (standing in for Richard Frost, Stony Bard and regular mein host, who was moonlighting in one of the featured spots) and ruled the time slots with a rod of iron …
  • … though uncharacteristically failing (he can take it) to nuance The Fred Perry Comb Overs‘ name before their short covers set, which ticked all the boxes with an interesting guitar trio take on Human League’s Don’t you want me
  • And lo and it came to pass that The Last Quarter did add a drummer (welcome Pete) and it was good
  • Acoustic Zoo did a stomping version of Fleetwood Mac’s The chain, injecting some anger into the situation
  • Dick Skellington (put him into Google and you’re not far from Richard III’s recently rediscovered skeleton) scored with a verse warning to Stony Stratford’s Bard not to follow the path adopted by the Bard of Avon (that’s Stratford-upon-Avon), Shakespeare having of late been outed as a hoarder of grain in times of shortage and a tax cheat.  (Purely coincidentally, I read somewhere recently that his leaving his wife ‘only’ the second best bed was not as bad as it sounds).
  • and a good time was had by all.

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I posted about Kate Atkinson‘s Started early, took my dog (2010) early last September and largely due to the comments that have accrued there it has easily become (with the exception, understandably, of some Kinks related stuff) the most visited page or posting here on Lillabullero by a long chalk.  In that post I asked a simple – though more than rhetorical – question about Courtney and that birthmark; as you might have seen, various theories were floated in response, including a couple querying both Courtney’s gender and race, along with a more general discussion of the book, its genre and Kate Atkinson’s other tomes.

I have just had the pleasure (pleasure? – yes, indeed! though part of me is still traumatized) of returning to Started early, took my dog (hereinafter SETMD) and, in the light of all the above, this is what I think is going on.

Basically, very little is revealed.  Let’s get rid of the red herring that first crossed my mind, of looking for clues other than anywhere on Courtney’s arm.  No-one else in the book has one, and birthmarks of that ilk are not, anyway – my Google research tells me – hereditary; not that that necessarily stops an author using it as a plot device, but I think we can credit Kate Atkinson with that knowledge and, as I say, the birthmark on Courtney’s arm is the only one we get to see.

Who else sees it?  Tracy, when bathing her soon after she buys Courtney.  And Jackson, in his Saab, when he gives them a brief lift before Tracy steals his car, though it is not mentioned at the time, only right at the end of the book, when an unresolved connection starts “nagging at him”.  That nag is the inclusion of just such a birthmark in a list of identifying characteristics in a catalogue of lost children held in the files of a righteous unofficial guerilla agency that Jackson has free-lanced with in the past, a list that occurs in the book in the course of a meditation of Jackson’s on the plight of all the lost children.  And at the end of the book he hasn’t consciously recognised this.

I think that nails it.  Whose child is she?  Not Kelly Cross’s, obviously, the prostitute Tracy buys Courtney from, nor is Courtney recognised by Kelly’s daughter or co-worker, so that rather rules out anything in the local community long-term, or indeed short-term and wider, because Tracy establishes that there are no current missing child alerts being dealt with by the police.  Nor does Tracy find any sign of a child staying in Kelly’s hovel.  So why was she with her? – this remains the big question.  Courtney understands and talks (albeit sparingly) in English.  “I don’t have a mummy,” she tells Tracy while she’s being bathed, Tracy not finding bruises or evidence of any other physical damage while she does it; her hair is in plaits, which signifies something about her having been looked after.
Nevertheless: “By the end of the day Courtney had that stunned look again, the one abused kids wore” (p484 pbk ed).  Earlier: “She looked like a kid who never got to make a choice” (p188), while a bit later, on the run with Tracy, “The kid woke up quickly as if she was used to having to exit houses with little warning” (p301).  But she knows her fairy tales, and Bambi.  Apart from her fascinating little museum (a Chinese coin? – nah, I doubt that’s a significant clue) nothing else is delivered – not at least in this volume.  We can only wonder if the author has it all worked out for the next one.

On re-reading, my admiration for the book and love of Kate Atkinson’s writing is undiminished.  I thought the recent TV adaptation of the first three Jackson Brodie novels was really well done, so much better than the recent Peter Robinson shows, Jason Isaacs as JB right up there with the Ken Stott ‘s Rebus.  (And yes, girls, OK, I get it).  What did annoy me – nay, angered me – was the way a goddamn TV link announcer rudely intruded on the end credits (we all know the news is on next, ferchrissake) and more particularly the play out music of Mary Gauthier‘s heartbreaking, beautiful and cracked Mercy now – so, so appropriate and even more so with SETMD.  Unhappiness abounds, misery and trauma, lost and unfulfilled lives all around.  And yet …  a wryness, inflections of joy, a sense of wonder; this is Kate Atkinson’s unique talent – throw in stoicism, bad temper and a lightness of touch (with the odd belly laugh) as she rolls out the unremitting horror of what human beings can do to one another.  And the moral scorn; and the compassion.  Tracy contemplating the turn her life has taken: “One minute she was buying a sausage roll in Greggs, the next she was on the run from murder and kidnapping.” I wonder how readers who have turned to the books because of the TV show have found her style.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, because I’m quite proud of it: Kate Atkinson is the missing link between Virginia Woolf and Victoria Wood.  I’ll essay another one: if Kate Atkinson were a multi-occupied dwelling therein would dwell Emily Dickinson, a couple of class stand-up comedians (perm from Bill Bailey, Paul Merton, Dylan Moran, say), a couple of Victorian novelists (George Eliot, Dickens, and let us not forget some earlier guys and gals); there’s some decent music you can hear coming out an open window and in the garden a corner of Shakespearian Arcady and a broken bicycle.  I marvel at the wit and intelligence that can make Brian Jackson say to Jackson Brodie as he gets in his car at such a juncture (I’m presuming if you’ve got this far you’ve read the book), ” Right squire, here we go. First we take Manhattan, eh?”  Such loaded popular culture references casually thrown in; a back road becomes literally ‘The road less travelled’; on another journey,  “He set the SatNav for the heart of the sun” which for JB is York.  (A Leonard Cohen song celebrated in the first instance, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd in the last).  Tracy sees her and Courtney on the run as Butch Tracy and the Kidnapped Kid.

(Memo to Kate: what about a Kinks reference next time around, please? Give Oklahoma USA a listen, from Muswell Hillbillies.  How I would love to enter you into the rolls of The Kinks in literature).

If Britain had been run by Betty’s ...” is something to ponder.  Jackson the philosopher.  ” … he didn’t set much store by looks any more … having witnessed too often the havoc wrought by beauty without truth.”  There are quotes on every page.  No contents page, so sheer readability means you might have missed the section titles: Treasure / Jeopardy / Arcadia / Sacrifice / Treasure.

Finally, just a thought, but, as I said in my original post, I’d thought it was about time I read some Emily Dickinson, whose poem about hope closes SETMD.  And so I finally did yesterday, picking up a  cheap copy bought with good intent the first time I read SETMD that I had put down again for no good reason other than other things came up.  Somehow appropriate, then, that this was only the fourth poem in the Wordsworth Poetry Library edition:
A Thought went up my mind today
That I have had before,
But did not finish, – some way back,
I could not fix the Year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely what it was
Have I the Art to say.

But somewhere in my Soul,
I know I’ve met the Thing before;
It just reminded me – ’twas all –
And came my way no more.
It remains to be seen whether Courtney will come Jackson Brodie’s way no more, or whether that’s just a throwaway line Kate put there to tease.  I’d respect the latter, but I do hope, though – the hope word again – that we do see Courtney anon, because I like her, that resilient child.  Here’s a thumbs up to that growing museum in her backpack, to her magic wand.

Reading further on in my ED book, I discover that there’s a second Hope poem (Hope:2):Emily D

Hope is a subtle glutton;
He feeds upon the fair;
And yet, inspected closely,
What abstinence is there!

His is the halcyon table
That never seats but one,
And whatsoever is consumed
The same amounts remain.

Not quite sure I get that one.  But as Jackson says,
I don’t know what it means either. I think that’s the whole point of poetry.
(As the exam papers say, Discuss).

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Human croquet revisited

The last page, taken from 'The family entertainer', published by Odhams in 1939 and reprinted in 'Human croquet'.

I started reading ‘Human croquet‘ (1997) again almost immediately on finishing it.  I wanted to see precisely where the major sleight of hand that is a key feature of Kate Atkinson‘s second novel was precipitated.  I missed it the second time too but I rooted around and found it in the end, surprisingly early on – about one seventh of the way in, in fact.  Not that that will necessarily help anyone else at first read anyway.  It was a labour of love.  It may well be that I’m easily led but Kate Atkinson is pretty convincing.  She will take you there with every shift and false coda (of which there are several).  This is actually a very dark book; murder, incest, and abuse are major plot drivers.  But it’s a lot of fun too, a quotable one-liner on practically every page.  And ultimately redemptive and revelatory in a mystic wild wood way.  I like it even better than ‘Behind the scenes at the museum’.  (If you want to know where the plot legerdemain happens, it’s quotedat the end of this post*).

In an earlier post I’ve described Kate Atkinson as the missing link between Victoria Wood and Virginia Woolf.  I can’t be so alliterative here, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe ‘Human croquet‘ as The Secret Diary of Bridget Mole (aged 16, more and less) written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez if he’d been exiled in England at an early age.  Not that I’ve read GGM but this is a nice strong cup of tea laced with ‘magic realism’, albeit an English magic realism of a midsummer night’s Shakespeare and the spirit of the trees kind; not for nothing is the house at the centre of the action named Arden.

On one level this is the story of  a vaguely northern provincial small town England from first forest clearance to a pre-Beatles 1960, and of a family over a shorter span of time, with some Childe Ballad references sneaked in (Carterhaugh, the blood-red wine, Thomas the Rhymer), but the main voice is still a 16-year-old girl (albeit in dramatic back-story context) doing biology and English Lit at school and coping with the usual teenage concerns, family, teachers, boys, friends.

Call me Isobel. (It’s my name).

is how the book opens – just like in ‘Started early took my dog‘ with a charming nod to Moby Dick.  And after those few snappy enticing words it goes off on a meditation … and it pretty much ends that way too.  You suddenly remember that bookending at the end, but having been so quickly drawn in the cosmic angle at the start is soon – many moons gone – forgotten.  This is a novel about storytelling and the stories people make and live by.  It’s a joy to be surprised.  The book is a bit of a heartbreaker too.   And I was incredibly moved by the catch-up what-happened-later chapter from the adult Isobel, written in the ‘now’.

A postscript about ‘Started early took my dog’.
Apart from a couple of Kinks specific posts flagged up for the world on the excellent unofficial Kinks internet flagship ‘Kinda Kinks’, the most visited post here at Lillabullero has been that of September 6, 2010 concerning ‘Started early’ in which there was discussion and commentary about the child Courtney’s birthmark the shape of Africa as clue to who she really is, who her parents are.  KA doesn’t resolve that … I won’t say unsatisfactorily because I think it’s a deliberate tease and it’s the trickster in KA – and her tangents – that makes her writing so attractive.  There is more Dickensian geneological confusion in ‘Human croquet‘.  We have a baby left on a doorstep, an earlier snatched baby and a child of doubtful parentage.  It would appear to be something of a theme.  At least in ‘Human croquet’ the mystery of Isobel’s elder brother Charles’s red hair does become clear; it’s a great tale.


Spoiler alert. This is where the big twist occurs.
The relevant passages are (in the 1998 paperback edition):

p48: “Gordon is contemplating the elder tree”
and p50: “Everything familiar has vanished”

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I usually have at least a couple of books on the go (an old one for the bath – never a library book – that won’t react to steam by swelling up) so it came as something of a surprise to find mention of  ‘The eve of St Agnes’ in two not particularly related books within a single half hour.   Not exactly synchronicity but I shall probably be giving John Keats’ verses a spin soon.

I say not particularly related but the thought occurs that it would not be too outrageous to describe the events portrayed in Suzanne Fagence Cooper‘s ‘The model wife: the passionate lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais‘ (Duckworth Overlook, 2010) as a game of ‘human croquet’ – men women and children being hit (mostly metaphorically, or rather psychologically, it must be said) through hoops –  the rules of which, quoted from 1939’s ‘The home entertainer’ (published by Odhams) appear as an appendix to Kate Atkinson‘s second novel – called ‘Human croquet‘ (1997) – of which a lot more later.  With ‘The model wife‘ the reference to Keats’ poem is with regard to John Everett Millais’ painting of the same name, that indeed, adorns the dust jacket; in Kate Atkinson‘s book it’s a teenage girl’s fantasy, played admirably for laughs.

I read ‘The model wife‘ to try and get back on track with John Ruskin.  Ever since a visit to Brantwood, in the Lake District, the house to which a burnt-out Ruskin retired for the last twenty years of his life, I’ve meant to explore the major intellectual contribution he made to the arts and the labour and environmental movements.  As far as great Britons go, while still hugely relevant, he’s now something of a hidden, relatively unsung colossus, .  And a problematic one too, due mainly to his disastrous unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray, the subject of Ms Cooper’s book.  The ‘lives’ of the book’s sub-title are all Effie’s.  While still married to Ruskin she modelled for Millais, a prominent member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Ruskin had championed and was painted by; after what was then seen as major scandal she subsequently married the painter.

Ruskin is given a fair crack of the whip here; while obviously in no way blameless for the failure of the marriage, he is not unnecessarily vilified.  We said when we saw this picture, commissioned by his parents, hanging in the dining room at Brantwood, that in many ways the poor sod never stood a chance. During the marriage he retained his study and book collection at his parents’ house.  He continued to work there daily – and he was a workaholic – when he and his wife were not traveling.  Cooper suggests that for him a great fear of pregnancy and hence children being a distraction from the great work was a significant factor in the physical no-go area of their relationship.  (The myth of his horror at the first sight of  female pubic hair is mentioned but not given serious consideration).  Why, then, bother to  marry a woman considered such a beauty?  Who knows.  As becomes clear in ‘The model wife‘, Victorian middle class family life, courtship and married life were a very different experience to now.  Even married to Millais, Effie would appear to have spent a fair amount of time abroad  – in an era when continental travel was still no easy thing – and apart.

I can’t pin it down but I get the feeling that Suzanne Cooper wasn’t quite as taken with Effie, for all her social significance, as she’d hoped she would be.  She is disappointed, for example, by her distant treatment of her daughters.  Effie stays subject rather than heroine, tends to fade into the background at times despite the kinds of touches more appropriate in a novel than a serious biography.  I’m sure I am not alone in bilking at lines like:

“Mrs Gray could see the expression of pain above Effie’s eyebrows, a twitch that marred her daughters fine features.”


“Effie held her breath as her maid laced her corsets a little tighter.”

or, while she’s modelling for Millais

“It was raining again. Effie listened to the steady dripping outside as she sewed.”

– how do you know?   Though I have to admit I do, for all the confused logic on his part,  quite like,

“John made no attempt to hide his displeasure. He decided she was making herself miserable by playing melancholy tunes in a minor key.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I read the book, have learnt a lot from it.  I don’t think there’s any doubt Millais was a sell-out as far as the PRB went, settling, with Effie’s connivance, for wealth and high society, for lucrative traditional portraiture.  Indeed he got a baronetcy (Ruskin always refused honours); but I wanted to see a lot more of the paintings talked about but not shown in the book.  For what it’s worth – a bit like watching a production of ‘Carmen‘ where Carmen is not the most stunning woman on the stage – I can’t really see the beauty claimed for Effie, prefer the looks of her younger (and ultimately tragic) sister Sophy, and Suzanne Cooper thinks Millais probably felt the same way too.  If anything it’s mad Sophy’s sad tale, given a chapter of its own  – an early demise, anorexic, musically manic,  it is suggested a victim of her early modelling dazzle – that will stay with me.

As befits the big literary tease that is Kate Atkinson, I think I’ll actually leave discussion of the many delights of ‘Human croquet‘ for another post.

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