Saturday, 24 October 2020

A Secret Garden for our age

In 2019 BC (Before COVID) when The Other Half and I were still regularly visiting the cinema on our way home from work on a Friday, we had already seen, more than once, the trailer for a new adaptation of Frances Hodgson’s Burnett’s classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden.

Trailers are teasers, of course  but this one provoked optimism and indeed prompted me, in February this year (still just about BC) to re-read the book.


The copy had been my mother’s, which I had brought home when I cleared my parents' home after their deaths. 

It was a new edition from 1942, with colour plates, a tattered dust jacket and inside, a loose, unfilled bookplate from the token with which she had almost certainly bought it for her eleventh birthday.

On the bookplate was a picture of a giant tulip growing up from bombed urban ruins.

I hadn't seen the bookplate for years but, while I remembered it visually, it was only this year that I felt a sense of what it was about.


On 3 May the year, CE (COVID Era), on the third anniversary of my mother’s death, the book and plate found itself in a poem I wrote about her.


Today, I finally caught up with the new film, released in a hodgepodge of ways, given the pandemic, including via Sky Cinema.


The novel was written in 1911, but Burnett's work avoided any of the cloying sentimentality that might have been left over from the Victorian era. Both Mary Lennox and her cousin Colin are unpleasant children: as we discover, that is a direct result of their respective upbringings, and redemption and reform is possible.


Mary has been orphaned; Colin has lost his mother and been confined to a room in the family manor by, in effect, his father’s utter terror that his son is weak and will die like his mother before him.


Here, the film has been updated to 1947. And it suits a version of the story that reflects today’s far greater awareness and understanding of psychology, of mental health and ill health, of grief, loss and much more.


It also chimes with our growing understanding of the restorative – and indeed, redemptive – nature of nature. This is a film that, without doing so clunkily, acknowledges the benefits of nature for mental health, and thereby presents a subtle but strong environmental message too.


Nature needs to be healthy for us to be healthy. We cannot exist separately.


Jack Thorne’s script is to be applauded for all this – and for its eschewing of an easy sentimentalisation of the story; for making Mary and Colin both initially unpleasant, but also understandable and redeemable. It’s a fine line, and one that the film charts well.


Director Marc Munden lends the story a sense of the magical that is far more pronounced that in the novel, but it works – again feeding into that environmental theme.


This is a small cast, but Dixie Egerickx as Mary, Edan Hayhurst as Colin and Amir Wilson as Dickon are excellent as the children upon whose shoulders any sense of believability in this fable rests.


As the adults, Colin Firth as Lord Craven and Julie Walters as housekeeper Mrs Medlock are … well, precisely what you’d expect from a pair of such fine actors.


If I have a criticism, it’s primarily that Dickon and his sister (Isis Davis) are not seen as fully as they are in the novel and that we don’t get as full a sense of the Yorkshire moors in the film as we do in the novel.


But this is probably a bit whiny – and I have to say that I do love the giant rhubarb!


Sunday, 4 October 2020

Flights of glorious nature writing

In May 2018, on a brief sojourn to Margate as part of my extended recuperation following cancer surgery, The Other Half and I found ourselves visiting the Turner Contemporary, taking in an exhibition about the relationship between animals and humans.

In the shop, we came across copies of H is for Hawk, signed by author Helen Macdonald, who had (presumably) been at the previous evening’s opening and had either been asked to sign them or had undertaken a Gaimanesque exercise in guerrilla autographing.


Finding that the book was about the author’s struggle with grief at the loss of her father – and the role of a goshawk in dealing with that – I picked it up. The sentiments might have been different, but my own father had died exactly a week before my surgery and exactly 50 weeks after my mother.


Reading it was a difficult emotional journey, but its impact was such that, when I saw that Macdonald had a new book out, I wasn’t going to wait for the paperback.


In her introduction, she explains that Vesper Flights is intended to be a literary version of 16th century Wunderkammer – usually known in English as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, but far better understood with a literal translation from the German of ‘cabinet of wonders’. Boxes and cabinets that were, in effect, small museums/galleries, they could contain anything from bones or fossils to works of art.


These essays, new and collected, are Macdonald’s effort to combine both science with the power of literature to inspire in readers a better understanding of the magical nature of nature, and what we stand to lose in the environmental calamity that is already befalling our planet.


But there’s a thing: “our planet”? One of the threads that runs crystal clear through Macdonald’s book is that we neither own ‘nature’ nor the lives of Earth’s non-human residents.


She wants to use literature to awaken (or reawaken) a sense of awe at the natural world – and with it, a greater sense of urgency at what is at risk in terms of the environment.


From considering the class nature of attitudes toward watching or keeping birds, to the relationship created by hides and feeding birds and mammals, Macdonald is determined to make us think with more detail about our relationship with the rest of the world.


Indeed, one of the points that comes through is that humanity is not apart from nature – but part of it. And there is a disconnect and massive problem in not realising that.

Some of my own shelves

Since Macdonald is such a very good writer, she succeeds: the essays capture a sense of the ephemeral and the mysterious; of the lives of birds and creatures that we do not understand, but are no less real, lived lives.

And with all this, a sense of the extraordinary, beautiful, mysterious world that we are already losing – and will lose altogether, if we do not act soon.


It is a collection that also has the power to feel deeply personal.


For instance, there is one moment when the author describes how, as a child, she collected her own Wunderkammer – using her nature findings to decorate the shelves of her burgeoning nature library.


Reading it was a sort of jolt, as I realised I’ve been doing the same thing in recent years. A personal Wunderkammer.


This is a deeply serious book, with a deeply serious purpose. Don’t let that put you off. It will haunt you, but it is wonderfully written and a joy to read – and will hopefully inspire many to increase their contributions to saving this extraordinary planet and the incredible, awesome range of life that lives on it. 


Do buy (or get your library to do so).

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Born to run – or possibly not?

Unlike Joe Biden, I don’t have a running mate. But then, I haven’t run since around – oh, 1986 – and nobody has been waiting around for me to join in.

I liked running – but then I liked sport, even if I had limited opportunities to engage in it. For my first five years at secondary school, we’d only run around a field, since we were near the middle of Manchester. With my second secondary school – in semi-rural Lancaster – I’d missed cross-country PE (though I loved volleyball and particularly badminton). In terms of running, I was inspired by the 1984 Olympic Games.

It almost goes without saying that I was stopped from playing football, which I wanted to do so much that, in my pre-teen years, I prayed to God to make me be a boy so that I could play the game.

I have always been competitive. I can’t resist it. I want to win. I remember playing non-competitive pool in a lesbian bar in Amsterdam in the 1990s and finding myself wondering how you even begin to do that! I mean … how do you endeavour to not pot the ball?

That didn’t win me any friends.

So inspired by top athletes, I bought shoes (Reeboks) and ran circuits around central Lancaster, where my family lived at the time. There were comments from passing drivers. ‘Don’t give yourself a black eye!’ was the wittiest that I remember. Because some people are fecking idiots and I had always had big boobs, irrespective of weight and BMI.

But I carried on running.

I registered for a race – can’t remember how long, but it was the sort of race that saw you sent An Official Race Number to attach to your shorts.

God, I was so proud when I got that, propping it on a shelf to be in view. I wasn’t quite at the distance for the race, but I was on the way and it was an incentive to pump up my training.

And then, in a sporting competition between the Lancaster Footlights (for whom I was the captain that night), the Duke’s Playhouse and the local leisure centre, I tore the lateral ligaments in my left knee: a full-blown ‘Gazza’.

I completed the night’s competition – in agony – and the next day, dragged myself to A&E, where my leg was encased in cotton wool and lots of plaster, and I was given crutches.

I got over it enough to be thrown to the floor by Salieri in the Footlights’ award-winning production of Amadeus that spring (I was playing Mozart’s missus), but I had issues with the knee for years (particularly in damp winters) and, when I moved to London to find work in 1988, discovered that running on uneven London pavements was not fun.

And there my running career ended.

Until now.

For reasons about which I have no clue, at the beginning of this year – before COVID-19 – I started to feel an itch.

Could I run again? For some reason that I don’t particularly understand, I wanted to.

The lockdown intervened and I didn’t do so until 6 August, a day or so after I’d signed up to a charity fundraiser.

Step Up September will raise funds for There for You, a charity from public service trade union UNISON, which helps members in need. In recent months, that’s been affected hugely by the new Coronavirus. Members who clean hospitals, care for the elderly and the vulnerable, and carry out myriad other essential tasks have found themselves struggling too – and There for You is helping.

My running can hopefully help those who have been helping us all.

Because of the pandemic, Step Up September doesn’t carry specific targets. But as an overweight woman of almost 58, who hasn’t run in decades, then if I can manage, by the end of September, to run more than five minutes, it’ll be an achievement built on bloody-minded grit and really quite serious, regular training.

My first session was on 6 August and saw me using interval training: I could only run for 30 seconds at a time. Two weeks later, I am hitting two minutes regularly, with a maximum time of two minutes and 24 seconds.

Look – I know it’s not exactly Olympic standard, but it requires genuine effort (believe me!), and my own GP is delighted.

And if you can manage to make a donation to a really good cause, then I thank you in advance.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Literary joys in lockdown

Lockdown has been tough for everyone, but from a personal perspective, one of its few high notes thus far has been that I have been reading as though possessed.

The year had already started well on the book front: by mid-March, I’d read 10 titles. About a week later, when I started working from home because of COVID-19 – seven days ahead of the curve – I was about half way through what would be my eleventh book of the year.

Perhaps I should explain a little: for some anal reason or other, I like lists – and I keep ones of books I’ve read, films I’ve seen at the cinema and live performances of various sorts, together with a bit of a rating system.

Additionally, in as much as I ever make new year resolutions, reading more is a perpetual promise I make to myself.

Strangely enough, it’s also the only one of those lists that is thriving this year. Roughly a book a week until I went into lockdown. In the 15 weeks since, the total is 23.

That doesn’t include anything I haven’t finished – and there have been one or two: almost always when I’m struggling to get going again after something that has absolutely grabbed me and refused to let go until the last page.

Some of the books involved are very slender – not least because I started reading poetry quite seriously. But then again, more than one book has been well over 400 pages.

Indeed, the one that I was reading when I went into lockdown was one such example – Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery.

Eco’s The Name of the Rose was the first literary novel I ever read voluntarily. It took me ages, but I loved it. I subsequently spent a long time getting through Foucault’s Pendulum.

Like those, The Prague Cemetery is about conspiracies: Eco is obsessed with them – and he is very good at showing you how they are created and how they grow.

There’s something unpleasant about the taste that The Prague Cemetery leaves in the mouth (albeit less so than after reading pretty much anything by Nabokov), given the nature of the anti-Semitic conspiracies that are created in this book. Almost all the characters really existed and what Eco has done is gloriously written and shines an unforgiving light on the conspiracy industry.

After that, Autumn and Winter, the first two volumes of Ali Smith’s seasons quartet. Written about a Britain in the wake of the 2016 referendum result, these are both are wonderful. Stunningly imaginative, they challenge the reader in unexpected and poetic ways. A joy to read and I look forward to the next two.

If you fancy something a bit more factual, then Hold on Edna! Is the story of the birth of the NHS, from the first baby born in it, Aneira Thomas – and I reviewed it here.

Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party is a classic murder mystery in a closed room. I found it really quite irritating until I metaphorically slapped myself around the chops to remember that most of the characters in Agatha Christie are irritating too.

Foley has created a seriously tense story that will have you turning the pages madly to the end.

And now to Ransom Riggs and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its sequel, Hollow City.

These are wonderful works of fantasy; beautifully written, and illustrated by the most extraordinary vintage photographs, which both inspired the stories themselves and also give a really different feel to the books. I loved the first one – but the second is even better.

Wonderful stuff – and a perfect illustration that ‘children’s books’ can have plenty to reward adult reading.

On the fantasy front, it took me two goes at it, but I finally made my way through John Gardner’s novella, Grendel.

This entry into the Fantasy Masterworks selection is an alternate take on Beowulf and is short, but dense with ideas and images, and has a wonderful sense of the mythological that makes it very special indeed.

I mentioned poetry, and I’ve been reading a fair few slender volumes, so let me give particular mentions to Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns, Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover! and Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House.

In a melding of poetry and prose, I finally got around to reading the very short – but utterly stunning – Grief is the Thing with Feather by Max Porter. Do read – possibly after reading Ted Hughes’s crow poems first.

I’ve already mentioned Atwood, but if her poetry is good, her short story collection, Stone Mattress is, for me, even better. Frankly, it is the sort of dark gothic stuff that has lingered in the mind since.

It hasn’t all been ‘arty’: I’ve also finally read Stephen King’s one vampire novel, Salem’s Lot (and loved it.

But my bookish highlight of the last few weeks is absolutely a literary one.

For various reasons, I got around to James Baldwin and his semi-autobiographical first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

It is stunning. I feel a link because, while not personally knowing the Pentecostalism of speaking in tongues, I have experienced other elements of the evangelistic Christianity that he describes.

But beyond that, Baldwin, in this gloriously written debut, seems to me to make the lived experience of those with a heritage of slavery to be immediate and understandable to all. I have never seen it, and felt an understanding of it, so clearly.

It is an incredible book and, if I had to recommend just one from this lockdown of reading, that would be it.

I’ve just ordered more Baldwin – so what more can I say?

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Summer solstice … bone and stone and feather


Bone and stone and feather
Leaf and stick and shell,
Scent of purple heather
Sound of ocean swell.

Green of grass below me
Blue of skies above,
Iced beck burbling freely
Cooing of a dove.

Thunder up in heaven
Drizzle in the breeze,
Kronking of the raven
Snow upon the trees.

Swooping murmuration
Swirling Northern Lights
Swifts’ airborne gyration,
Bumble bee in flight.

Fledgling’s hungry calling
Curlew’s haunting cry,
Wind through grasses rushing
Breeze’s gentle sigh.

Mist through woods now pouring
Ghost of breath in air,
Sun in azure soaring
Moon in ink set fair.

Bone and stone and feather
Leaf and stick and shell,
Whatever be the weather
Such things will keep me well.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Freedom Bid

A budgie, pretty in lilac, cream and brown
Perches on the trellis,
Glancing all around and seemingly

Yet just yesterday,
The next-door blackbirds lost a chick.
Fledging too soon from the shielding hedge,
It dropped from the ledge and once on the ground
Was trapped.
Easy meat for a magpie to peck.

The budgie, charming colours so striking here,
Perches on the trellis
Alongside dowdy sparrows,
Pecking at jasmine flowers.
Ceramic white petals float to the ground.

Forget the local sparrowhawk or passing peregrine.
Staying alert, a black cat leaps
To snatch.
The budgie breaks away with a squawk,
Escaping – this time at least.

But having leapt from some shielding cage
Spread its wings and flown free,
How long can it survive?

The budgie, exotic in its parrot hues
Returns to the trellis,
Glancing all around and seemingly
Still unafraid.

But up and down and all around,
They watch.

And wait.

4 June 2020

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Lockdown's creative surge continues

The lockdown brings with it plenty of difficulties, but there can also be opportunities – not least to think about things. 

I’ve already explained briefly here that for me, it has produced an entirely unexpected creative burst, as I have found myself writing poetry for the first time in decades.

In the last couple of days, remembering old family photographs uncovered when clearing my parents’ home two years ago this summer, I found that a couple of the pictures made me want to talk about them.

Or to put another way, I felt that I wanted to write about some of them, to build a picture in a different way. The photographs themselves will be included, because this is – hopefully – one thing complimenting another.


Snow-dumped fells blur
Into snow-filled skies;
Drifts arc up from the road
Like a pitted bobsleigh track.
She stands in the middle distance,
To the bottom left.
has a black hedge tower over her,
Drawing the eye
and accidentally lending the shot
                        good composition.
The slide was colour but
Winter and time have leached that.

Blow it up and there is no trace
of a smile
in the smudge of a face.
Booted, with feet turned out
(Later, she’d say not to stand that way).
Stockings beneath a dress or skirt,
She relies for warmth on a big coat,
collar up
And hands hidden in gloves or overlong sleeves.  
Her hair is tucked away, queen-like, beneath a scarf.
Further off, two men in caps
            clear the road.
It was December ’62 and
The snow that had snowed
            would be followed by plenty more;
And, just a few days later,
            By me.

23 May 2020