Posts Tagged ‘Marina Lewycka’

In the days before the internet I was puzzled by a line from Trouble in these fields, a song on one of Nanci Griffiths’ fine early albums – “And if we sell that new john, dear” – until I happened to drive past a John Deere dealership on the road into Carmarthen one day.  A minor mondegreen, then.  I learnt a lot more about tractors returning to Marina Lewycka‘s very funny comic novel A short history of tractors in Ukrainian (2005) for book group last week.

SHOTIUkIt’s an easy read but it certainly bears re-reading and I wasn’t alone in appreciating aspects of the book that were missed in that first rush (for it is a book you get a real rush from).  For me it was darker the second time around, in particular the back story of the Ukraine under Stalin, then under Hitler, the family’s escape to England.  Black humour then, a neat mix of Charles Dickens and Kurt Vonnegut no less.  As well as the witty portrayal of waspish sisterly differences, reflected in a broader view of two Englands – “See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries” – we get the agonies and absurdities of old age,  loneliness, post-Communist emigration and a whole lot more.

The old man at the centre of the dramas toys with the readers’ sympathies throughout – an old fool but also not without an eccentric occasional valid dignity – “I am not sick … I am poet and engineer” – and the conclusion of the story his marriage to the grotesque money grabbing younger country woman at the heart of the novel is beautifully worked out to one of the more unlikely happy endings I can recall.

Marina Lewycka is a writer with a lovely touch when it comes to the art of picking words.  Here the younger daughter (and narrator) is wondering how her dad got himself into this situation:

How does she persuade him?  Does she cradle his bony skull between her twin warheads and whisper sweet nothings into his hearing aid?

And I found his book about the history of tractors fascinating too, an interesting parallel history of the first half of the twentieth century.

On falling out with Alison Graham

For a long while I have felt I could trust Alison Graham‘s previews in Radio Times.  As a bonus to the wit of her writing, if she said something was rubbish I didn’t bother.  Hence I’ve never watched Luther, despite her promise of hidden delights for July 16 – This is the most unintentionally hilarious hour of the week” – which was followed the next week with:

I’ve decided that the best way to approach Luther is as if it’s a black comedy, where everyone behaves like an idiot and is devoid of even the merest smidgen of common sense.

And then there’s her recent take on The White Queen, which she warmed to, though I couldn’t be bothered.  Nevertheless for the August 11 programme I appreciated

The White Queen‘s King Richard III isn’t the foul hunch-back’d toad of Shakespeare – he’s a hunk who bears a passing resemblance to One Direction’s Harry Styles.

followed the next week with, “Give that man a horse.”  But lately I have been disturbed by her take on two recent supposed comedies.  After watching Count Arthur Strong she says she laughed

so helplessly at this episode that I had to re-apply my mascara, and I was still chortling on my way out of the office and on the train home.

I didn’t, and I wasn’t, and not just because I don’t do mascara.  I gave the show more than one chance (Alison likes it) but couldn’t actually bear to see it through to the end, so much did it creak.  And I haven’t even said anything yet about one of the worst dubbed laughter tracks I can recall, so bad I wouldn’t be surprised it was done by someone on work experience.  There is something badly amiss with BBC1’s comedy output.  Still, Alison pleaded for David Walliams’ Big School on August 16:

So please give Big School a chance. It doesn’t ooze sophistication – it’s pretty silly. But it has a great cast and I heard myself laughing out loud in places. […] A sweetly old-fashioned sitcom – in a good way.

I couldn’t last 5 minutes.  And Euan Ferguson in the Observer described it as consisting as

too occasional mini-smiles leavening a fast succession of stereotypes, interrupted by a lazy cliché or three, shot through with embarrassing pieces of slapstick.

Oh Alison.  What happened?

A few crossword clues …

… that tickled my fancy earlier this year in the Guardian and Observer.  Politics, culture, a couple of bad puns and perfect Spoonerisms.  Answers under the photo of the frogs.  Prepare to groan:

  • from the Observers’ Everyman: Vote against party? (6)
  • from setter Rufus: A time when the populace is at cross-purposes? (8)
  • from Chifonie: Major was once a skilled craftsman (12)
  • from Everyman: Which dear French PM? (8)
  • from Rufus: Fail to draw positive conclusions from Dante’s work (7)
  • from Araucaria: People like Lolita – it’s a difficult thing to do (3,7)
  • from Paul: Reproduce artist, say, for the royal issue (8,4)
  • another from Paul: Cassius claims Van Gogh’s surgical instrument possibly makes things tidy (6,4)
  • from Paul: By the sound of it Richard has overcome King Edward the Tyrant (8)
  • from Puck: Pirate can’t do this with mermaid, as some may ‘ave said (11)
  • from Pasquale: Spooner’s Sunday clothes? Not what would normally be seen in the pub (5,4)
  • from Arachne: Spooner’s to kill writer and collect £200! (4,2)
Froggy went a courting

Froggy went a courting (Yes, I know this is not how they mate but an irresistible caption, surely)


  • from the Observers’ Everyman: Vote against party? (6) Beano (Be a no)
  • from setter Rufus: A time when the populace is at cross-purposes? (8) Elections (X)
  • from Chifonie: Major was once a skilled craftsman (12) Cabinet maker – (John Major – PM)
  • from Everyman: Which dear French PM? (8) Thatcher
  • from Rufus: Fail to draw positive conclusions from Dante’s work (7) Inferno
  • from Araucaria: People like Lolita – it’s a difficult thing to do (3,7) Sex kittens
  • from Paul: Reproduce artist, say, for the royal issue (8,4) Princess Anne (Print Cezanne!)
  • another from Paul: Cassius claims Van Gogh’s surgical instrument possibly makes things tidy (6,4) Clears away
  • from Paul: By the sound of it Richard has overcome King Edward the Tyrant (8) Dictator
  • from Puck: Pirate can’t do this with mermaid, as some may ‘ave said (11) Counterfeit (Count her feet)
  • from Pasquale: Spooner’s Sunday clothes? Not what would normally be seen in the pub (5,4) Guest beer (Best gear)
  • from Arachne: Spooner’s to kill writer and collect £200! (4,2) Pass go (Gas Poe! – Monopoly)g



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The fine specimen above – it’s effectively a kissing seat for the gymnastic because there’s bench space the other side of the fin too – is in Bedfordshire’s Harrold-Odell Country Park, close to the café where they do a splendid ginger cake.

a kingfisher to the rightAnd at the far end of the Grebe Lake – we saw a couple – there’s another enhanced example of the genre.

Despite misgivings mentioned in my last post, I did finish Marina Lewycka‘s Various pets alive & dead (Fig Tree, 2012).  It’s an entertaining, compassionate and committed read, if less than the sum of its parts –  never really settling down to be one thing or another – and while structurally seeming to build – actually ending a bit anti-climactically.  Set half in Doncaster, half in London, with brief sojourns in Cambridge, shifting backwards and forwards in time, the book relates episodes in the lives of the couple at the heart of an idealistic left-wing commune established in South Yorkshire the late 1960s, as they get older, the world changes, and their children try to make their own way in this current time of banking scandal and collapse (which is concisely explained and very much to the point) and public sector decline.

The basic thrust is that son Serge is earning shed-loads of money using his maths degrees in the City of London rather than finishing off his PhD as would-be horrified parents Marcus and Doro think (“Values and stuff. It all seems a bit retro“), while daughter Clara is an idealistic primary school teacher, working in Doncaster.  All of this – taking in many things like commune life, ‘free love’, the miners’ strike, primary schools, allotments, the City bankers, even a Downs Syndrome child – is played for laughs while never losing the moral dimension.  Indeed, the character of Oolie Anna, the youngest daughter, named originally after Lenin (Ulyanov), the Downs Syndrome child, now an adult, is important to big changes in the commune, but her story cuts across the central plot strand and muddies the book as a whole.

Some of it works nicely enough.  There are some fine comic sequences, some decent one liners.  It’s worth reading for those and its decency.  Not sure the children’s translations of adult speech work that well as a running device (“the sobbing nation of women” for the subordination of women, “librarian tendencies” etc) and some of the specifics are a bit arcane (like the arrival of a couple of Althuserians in the commune – I’d forgotten all about them).  Into the mix you get stuff like, in the City the barrow boys of the Big Bang have been overtaken by talented mathematicians of all nations working the probabilities and patterns, employing chaos theory, the beauties of which Serge (also named after a revolutionary, naturally) first learned as a boy from a comrade in the commune; another child of the commune’s response to hearing of the potentially chaotic results elsewhere of that “butterfly flapping its wings” in another part of the world was to tear the wings off any butterfly he caught.  And so on.  The Shakespeare quoting school caretaker has his moments (“There’s something rotten in the state of Donny“) and Serge’s rotten love poetry (“Hear the song of Serge” and his difficulties finding rhymes) is a bonus.

In the end you cannot but cheer for good old earth mother Doro:

You’d have thought someone who can manage the history of the Fifth International could master a potato peeler, but apparently not.  [but still, another time …]  Doro sighs.  It was an adventure and, given the chance, she’d probably do it all again.  But with fewer lentils.

And finally, at a complete tangent.  How good to see, live from some festival or other on the telly, what was once (may still be) one of my nephews’ favourite band, The Cure, with Robert Smith keeping faith – paunch and all –  with that stupid hair.  A powerful performance, made all the better for that ‘2012 CITIZENS NOT SUBJECTS’ in large white letters on his black guitar.

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One of my favourite opening lines in all of literature:

There is a supreme God in the ethnological section

It kicks off William Empson‘s poem, Homage to the British MuseumGrayson Perry put various incarnations of his personal deity, Alan Measles – his teddy bear from childhood, still raggedly intact – into the works he exhibited, incorporated along with the selections of artefacts he made from the museum’s vast collection, into an installation in the British Museum, entitled The tomb of the unknown craftsman.  There’s another fine Empson poem, a villanelle even, called Missing dates – click on the link if you fancy hearing the great man reading it, but prepare to be depressed (“The waste remains …”) – and that exhibition was one of mine – I left it too late.  I’ve had to make do with the glorious book of the same name, published by Thames & Hudson last year.

So, his own newer stuff, including some beautiful ancient looking cast iron pieces (is that a London bus there? – yes) as well as more stunning pots and tapestries full of charm (a sometimes barbed charm), wit and intelligence, sharing the pages with his choices (and explanations of those choices) from the BM’s vast collection dating from pretty much the dawn of civilisation to this millennium.  He draws all sorts of parallels and continuations from past times and pontificates entertainingly on many things; he loves religion, while not being keen on beliefs, for instance.  The actual tomb is a cast iron construction, a ship, its masts hung with symbols in glass and other material.  It’s also a visual pun – a craft celebrating craft.  Previously Perry has said he has moved towards a better appreciation and understanding of the craft side of his work as that work has progressed.  This show pays a double homage.  “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman could be another name for the British Museum,” he says.  Later, he heralds craftmanship, but can’t resist a signature dig.  Who can he mean?

Craftsmanship is often equated with precision but I think there is more to it.  I feel it is more important to have a long and sympathetic hands-on relationship with materials.  A relaxed, humble, ever curious love of stuff is central to my idea of being an artist.  An important quality of great art of the past was the pure skill in the artist’s use of materials.  In celebrating craftsmanship I also salute artists, well, most of them.

This month’s reading group book, Azar Nafisi‘s Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books (Fourth Estate, 2003) took me places I wasn’t expecting.  Been a long time since I’ve come across any discussion of the heinous concept of ‘bourgeois individualism’ but here it is in the context of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, where an unholy alliance of Muslim clerics and Marxist revolutionaries seized the moment Lenin-style to scupper any chance of a liberal democracy being established – a classic case of the fallacy of the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ concept wherein the Marxists (the males of the species, of course) dismissed Iranian women’s complaints about the compulsory wearing of ‘correct’ apparel (chador, headscarves etc) as ‘bourgeois individualism,’ a diversion from the fight against the real (American) enemy.  I hadn’t realised the parallels with Russia in 1917 and what followed, the same progression of events, the brutal suppression of opposition, just different ‘faiths’ letting loose the dogs of doctrinal war.

Azar Nafisi‘s father had fallen foul of the old regime so she had spent time at US universities.  Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of her trying to fight the good fight for English literature (and the American novel in particular) in the face of what soon turned out, when she returned to Iran, to be ideological resistance, first in the university, where literal-minded radical students of both ilks took issue with having to read ‘imperialist’ books like The Great Gatsby because of their dodgy role models and their ‘promotion’ of American values, and finally running an unofficial seminar (“my girls“) before leaving for the US in 1997.  It’s illuminating on the lives and dramas of a group of educated women of varied attitudes in an Islamic state, and good on the way novels can have resonance outside their time and immediate milieu; as one of her students says, as far as choosing a husband goes, “The Islamic Republic has taken us back to Jane Austen’s times.

I don’t regret having read it, but at times it all gets a bit precious, while casual references to “our mountain retreat” and “ice cream therapy” raised my hackles, and I found it hard to accept the ‘fine’ writing and perfect recall of conversations, nuance and snacks included, like the “… limp captive lettuce dangling from the end of her fork.”  As for the books, I still won’t be reading Nabokov any time soon, though my view of him has altered (not a dirty old man, then), nor will I necessarily be picking up on Jane Austen anytime sooner than I probably won’t, while my youthful resolve to give Henry James a go when I was ancient enough to appreciate it is now toast – life is too short.

One of Azar Nafisi’s sound conclusions about the novel is:

… what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.

What are we to do, then,  when 62 pages into a novel we’re enjoying by a writer we like a lot, we find this:

On the car radio, they’re playing Bob Marley – ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ – as Clara sits tapping her thumbs against the steering wheel in the Parkway traffic jam […] It was her favourite song when they lived at Solidarity Hall …

when Bob Marley never recorded By the rivers of Babylon?  Hope the mistake is in character?  No, too subtle.  I’m not happy with this, in lesser company would abandon the book right there, but Marina Lewycka gets the benefit of the doubt because it’s a potentially delicious (mostly vegetarian) stew she’s cooking up in her latest novel Various pets alive & dead (Fig Tree, 2012), looking at the lives of the founders and children of Solidarity Hall, a South Yorkshire commune born of 1968 and all that.  I just hope, for Clara’s sake, it was The Melodians’ original version of The rivers of Babylon she’s recalling, because Boney M sound nothing like the great man (even if, in the novel, Clara’s hearing is an entertaining problem in her early years until she has grommets fitted).

Meanwhile, team SG delivered another good night at the August Scribal Gathering last Tuesday.  Featured poet local boy Stephen Hobbs was in fine form (and Olympics t-shirt), while Ryker Sear, the featured band doing an acoustic set on the night, were by far the youngest people in the room, though that didn’t stop them getting a rousing reception, not least for a fascinating cover (this from two blokes with guitars and a gal in a Guns’n’Roses t-shirt) of a Lady Gaga song.  What has stayed with me, though, not for the first time, is a highly individual  Naomi Rose song.  A hill of beans is indeed a funny thing, with a gorgeous melody that clings and quirky words delightfully delivered.  Spectacular in its own way.

I leave you with more Grayson Perry, and some fine words to live by from one of his pots, especially in a revolution and its aftermath in Tehran, never mind a commune just outside Doncaster.

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