Wainwright Golden Beer Prize

I feel a little overwhelmed at times by lists of books that I feel I should read. (As we know, any sentence with “should” in it is a cause of stress.) All the books on the Wainwright nature writing longlist sound delightful, but will there be time? Like T. S. Eliot’s procrastinating J. Alfred Prufrock, I wonder about time and if it will be worth it:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
These authors are still living, they have lots to share with us and a dialogue with them will certainly expand my universe. But where to start? Do let me know if you can recommend any of these…

The 2017 Wainwright Golden Beer Prize Longlist:

 Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta)

The Otter’s Tale by Simon Cooper (HarperCollins)

The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley (Saraband)

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones (Elliott & Thompson)

The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld)

Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel (Orion)

A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt (Ebury)

Wild Kingdom by Stephen Moss (Vintage)

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham (Ebury)

Love, Madness, Fishing by Dexter Petley (Little Toller Books)

The January Man by Christopher Somerville (Transworld)

The Wild Other by Clover Stroud (Hodder & Stoughton)



Helen Dunmore Rest in Peace: A Tribute to Exposure

Helen Dunmore died yesterday, and by coincidence Exposure is the novel for our book group today. The New Writing North (http://newwritingnorth.com) book group meets in the first-class waiting room of Berwick railway station and it’s a swell place to meet. There aren’t many trains (only two platforms) or first-class passengers but it feels like a convergence of people coming from all directions to talk books, a true forum, a marketplace of ideas.

I found Dunmore’s writing only last year and am about halfway through my stack of her novels now. Helen Dunmore gets inside people who cannot communicate, people who are frozen on the outside, a hard shell around them. Her books reveal how much of a bitch life is, and the struggle that ordinary mortals have. In particular, what haunted her are the “long shadows of war” that are in our genes.

In Exposure, the people we meet have been formed during World War 2 and by the harshness of English society. Simon Callington is scarred by the bullying of his two elder brothers and then subsequently at boarding school. His mother, a particularly cold and heinous mother, seems unperturbed as his brothers dangle him out of a bedroom window. Giles, whom he meets while at university, is a nurturing father figure—but one who leads him into the secret world of homosexuality and gets him a job at the Admiralty. We know how that’s going to end in post-war Britain, and, sure enough, the ineffectual Simon needs to be rescued by his wife. Simon’s wife, Lily Callington has her secrets too—she came to England as a child of a Jewish refugee during the war and she knows what it is to be hated for being “other.” With the German language buried inside Lily, Dunmore plays with themes of communication as well as secrecy; she gets inside people who cannot communicate, people who are frozen on the outside, a hard shell around them. Lily Callington has buried the German of her childhood that she spoke when she was Lili Brand and was a victim of hatred, but when she needs strength, it returns and her two identities merge.

Dunmore directly quotes from T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, but I also detect Prufrockian traits in the dithering and ineffectuality of both Giles and Simon, whose relationship starts as sexual. Maybe J. Alfred Prufrock was Eliot’s depiction of being closet gay in the time when to come out was to be punished?

Being gay in the 1960’s must have been horrendous. What a cruel society we were. This novel is an indictment of public schools, the sodomy, the bullying, and the class system run by the over-entitled, old school tie network. Kids who were bullied and sent to school at age seven were then probably forced to engage in sodomy by older boys/fags. It became “natural” for them to be used in this way, but then if they have gay relationships at university, they become blackmail fodder. Inevitably, the well educated and connected public school kids all go to work in government and are easy prey for Russian spies. What an abominable system that made homosexuality illegal (punishment by prison or injections of stillbestrol), and wrenched seven year-old boys from home into a warehouse of bullying.

On 23 January 2016, Kate Clanchett wrote a review of Exposure in The Guardian which seems prescient when we look back, given the build up of hatred and prejudice in June 2017. Clanchett, describing the 1960’s, said:

This England suspects people who want a little mild change, as Lily does, who might even be persuaded to go on a peace march one sunny afternoon in Trafalgar Square. It thinks they might be spies, like Guy Burgess or the Portland spy ring. This England thinks cabbage with caraway is suspect and that all Germans, even Jews, are Nazis. It thinks aliens should be sacked from their humble little jobs, turfed out of their homes the way Simon’s brothers once picked Lily from the chair where she was sunbathing, and tossed her, not at all jovially, into a lake.

Pray God we do not go back into the world of the 1960’s; the conditions are ripe as we have the leaders and media who seem determined to control us through fear and hatred of the “other.” The shadows of history and politically drawn maps haunt us still and it’s not the over-entitled and over-privileged classes who will suffer.

Words of power

Whenever I’m able to, I attend services at historic churches. T. S. Eliot gave voice to my feelings when he says in Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” that:

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

You can find “the intersection of the timeless moment” in the sacred places of the world, whatever they may be: churches, temples, and mosques that are built on top of springs or wells; or towns built on ley lines; or in ancient forests or caves. Sacred places have one thing in common, their sites have been blessed by the thousands of ancestral people who have worshipped and praised there before us. So much concentrated worship must be a benediction conferred upon the atoms in that spot and I believe we breathe and absorb those atoms when we visit quietly and with open hearts. The Romans called this spirit the genius loci, the spirit of place.

(Conversely, when we visit sites of atrocities, such as Auschwitz, we feel steeped in cold misery. There, the very atoms that make up the stones and rocks are impregnated with despair and suffering.)

Yesterday, Whitsunday, I attended the monthly service at Foulden village church constructed in 1786 on a medieval site where a meeting of English and Scottish commissioners in 1587 followed the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The church stands next to a Tithe Barn, one of only two left in Scotland.

The service was about Pentecost, the birth of the Holy Spirit. This great wind rushed through the disciples and enabled communication even between those who didn’t speak the same language. Communication is pretty important to authors and Romantic poets longed for this inspiration, this Muse which they saw as coming with the wind to inspire them. Remember Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” when he implores the wind to “Make me thy lyre”? In that poem he is also longing to embody the wind and have it: “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth.”

Of course, to in-spire is to be alive, to take in breath, and from the Latin inspirare, just as to ex-pire is to breathe out, to sigh one’s last breath, from the Latin exspirare. As the living, we need to be in-spired in every way we can.

Interestingly, the sermon mentioned enthusiasm as a religious word (from the Greek enthous) meaning to be possessed by a god and thus able to inspire others. I’ve always been inspired by the enthusiasms of others, whether they be teachers or not, so this word pleases me.

So, going to church gave me lots of inspiration and time to reflect on words.