13 November, 2011


On 11 November we visited a dear friend in hospital. It was her birthday: one that we don’t forget as poppies come out to remind us. Alzheimer’s is taking its toll but  the conversations with her were, as always, bright, sharp and likely to end in laughter. Sadly, once our exchanges finished, a circuit would break and she couldn’t remember them. However, the familiar twinkle in her eyes led me to believe that although these moments of clarity and fun may not have found a berth in her memory, they were still nourishing her. 

We took her in her wheelchair to the cafĂ©. While she was relishing a cappuccino and a sticky bun, Big Ben sounded from the large TV on wall behind us. As everyone stood for the two-minute silence, I went to tell her not to worry about getting up but but she was already struggling painfully to her feet. She swayed a little but remained upright and unsupported until the Last Post sounded, no doubt remembering — with absolute clarity — her soldier husband and others .

This was her 91st birthday and, if the doctors are to be believed, she may not see her 92nd. 

In a hospital canteen, on a grey Armistice Day, it was a privilege to witness what could have been a last salute from a brave and beautiful woman. 

19 December, 2010

Of 'he' or 'she' denoting both genders

More writers (male and female) of non fiction seem to be using feminine pronouns and possessive pronouns to cover both genders, eg, 'the writer tells herself that her readers...' Until recently, I thought, 'fair enough, the masculine form has had a good run'.
However, the practice has begun to irritate me. Why? (As the only male in our family, I've found it to be safer practice to ask before commenting.)
Do most women object to mankind being used to encompass men and women?  Or to God being referred to as He for his male and female flocks? If they do object, fine by me. Not long ago, the masculine form was accepted as generic for men and women; so the wish, now, to indicate both genders seems fair. However, such balance can render sentences longer and uglier: too many 'he or she' and 'himself/herself' constructions. And the journalistic practice of deploying plurals to provide uncontroversial 'they/them/themselves' alternatives isn't always appropriate.
I guess that using the feminine generic for both genders results from the pendulum swinging beyond the centre of its arc, under laws of equilibrium (and justice), after being stuck so far and so long to one side.
I hope it doesn't stick on the opposite side. Inaccuracy or political correctness may render the masculine  descriptor for both sexes unacceptable, but is a feminine version any better?
I don't think so. And I part company with those who wish it to become some form of new standard, or simply a matter of writer's choice.
Is there a solution that is both elegant and fair?

09 September, 2010

Of the best short novel ever

I read The Great Gatsby again this summer; something I do every year. It's a holiday event that never disappoints. While Gatsby  may not be the best novel ever written, I think it's the best short one. And, proportionally, it contains more beautiful sentences and passages than any of the longer ‘greats’.

One day I’ll read it in New York. Who wouldn’t want to after: “I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away. There’s something very sensuous about it — overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands.”

Fitzgerald's famous final paragraphs are chromed genius. However, equally affecting are the times when the surface of the reservoir of mainly implied emotion (Tom Buchanan's rational narration keeps the lid on most of the time) is broken by small, heartbreaking bubbles.

Like when Gatsby is told that he can’t repeat the past with Daisy and he says, “Can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can.” It makes you want to cheer.

And when, for last time, Tom sees his driven, flawed, and marvellous neighbour in whom "No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart" and says, “They’re a rotten crowd... You’re worth the whole damn bunch together.” It makes you want to cry.

Guess I’m a fan.

22 August, 2010

Of true life and fiction

Now and again you come across a piece of writing that explains something you've felt for a long time but lacked the necessary brain power to write down concisely.


In Shop Talk, Philip Roth interviews other (mainly Jewish) authors. One is Aharon Appelfeld (pictured left), whose work, I regret to say, I've never read — something I will put right soon. 

Appelfeld suffered greatly during the war in which he lost both parents to the Nazis and was forced to wander and to survive, often ferally, from the age of eight.  

When asked by Roth why he chose to record his experiences only as fiction, he says:

I have never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but they are not ‘the story of my life.’ 
The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the process. To my mind, to create means to order, sort out, and choose the words and the pace that fit the work. The materials from one’s life, but ultimately the creation is an independent creature.

I tried several times to write ‘the story of my life’ in the woods after I ran away from the camp. But all my efforts were in vain. I wanted to be faithful to reality and to what really happened. But the chronicle that emerged proved to be a weak scaffolding. The result was rather meagre, an unconvincing imaginary tale. The things that are most true are easily falsified.

Reality, as you know, is always stronger than the human imagination. Not only that, reality can permit itself to be unbelievable, inexplicable, out of all proportion. The created work, to my regret, cannot permit itself all that.


On a much less exalted level, this holds true for me. And it's  encouraging to see it expressed so lucidly.

My own recently finished novel is based in ‘Sixties London’ but it's also, unavoidably, based on my life since. This is why Appelfeld's comments are so liberating: without experience of the time since the sixties, the story set in the sixties couldn't have been written.

An autobiographical story may be way short of 'true' in the non-fiction sense and some characters
(including narrators) and places may be partly recognisable. But most of them will, more often, be adaptations or inventions. This doesn’t make the story less true. Thanks to Mr Applefeld, I’m more confident in saying so.

31 May, 2010

Of digging and commenting

Until recently, my small lawn was a beautiful moss green. However, to be a proper lawn, it really needed to feature grass. So I decided to do a proper renovation job and dig it over.

A couple of hours later, sore and exhausted, I retreated indoors for a severe lie down. The blisters on my keyboard hands brought to mind the unbreakable skin on the strong, shovel-hard hands of my father. And his advice from years ago, as he helped me dig over the new garden for the first time. “Go steadily, don’t overload the spade and take frequent rests.”

I had been all enthusiasm and energy alongside his strength and stamina. Many times, he urged me to rest, to straighten up and to take a breather. But we had only a few hours before dark, and I didn’t want to leave the rolling and seeding until the next weekend. I pushed on at my pace until we took a break for tea and sandwiches. Fifteen minutes later, we were at it again but I was stiffening and struggling. Soon I was doing more resting than digging.

Then I found a number of urgent things to attend to inside the house. Outside, my father kept going till dusk, when the whole garden was turned over like a new allotment.

That evening, we stopped at a pub on our drive to his home. My growing soreness heralded an uncomfortable Monday at the office. But at least I wouldn’t be on a building site at 7am with ten hours of physical labour ahead of me.

My father put down his pint and took my hands to study the blisters. “They’ll be OK if you keep them clean.”

I mentioned that I was probably not cut out for digging. Behind his blue eyes, I sensed an abundance of things he might have said. He simply gripped my arms. “Sure isn’t one labourer enough for the family?”

Once, on hearing a TV comedian’s joke about ‘Paddy’ idly leaning on his shovel, my father ignored the unfair Irish reference and said, “Now there’s a man who has never dug a trench. Digging is always hard. Any man who has put effort into it — no matter how strong he may be — would know he has to rest, and often.”

While nursing my recent aches in a hot bath, I wished I’d remembered his digging tips. However, I cleave to his more important advice (although I constantly fail to follow it); namely, to find out a bit more about people or issues before commenting.

Familiar, ready-made views and generalisations can get us through a day’s worth of moments when we feel our opinion is wanted (really?) or merited (maybe). But they rarely take us — or the recipients of our wisdom — forward.

14 April, 2010

Of cultural history - the James version

I’m still reading and re-reading Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia. It’s a scintillating A-Z of his own takes on characters who, for good or ill, have helped to shape the world we live in.
I now know something about many people I knew only by name, or not at all - and much more about those I thought I knew.
James’s references to their life and work are opinionated, illuminating and provide a mini history lesson of their times. And everywhere, even when dealing with the darkest events, his humour is peerless.

Those in the know may have been unsurprised that he has written such a scholarly tome, but I was. I enjoyed his biographical books and miss him as a TV interviewer (unlike some hosts, he didn't think the chat show was as much about him as the guest). 

Until recently, I didn’t even know he was a poet, let alone a heavyweight intellectual. Shame on me. It’s a bit like discovering that the man who sold ice cream from the Tonibell van was really Raymond Blanc.

Among the many ‘unheard-ofs’ in the book is Egon Friedell, a brilliant Austrian polymath who jumped to his death when expecting arrest at the time of the Anschluss in 1938. I defy anyone not to want to read Friedell’s Cultural History of the Modern Age after hearing what Clive James has to say. At one point he refers to it as, ‘that kind of book: it makes you feel civilized'. Cultural Amnesia has the same effect.

11 February, 2010

Of serious reading lacunae

These two smilers haunt me.

I'm reading Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog. Some fine, fine writing by yet another author for whom Henry James is a key reference. And I remain an aspiring writer who hasn't read a word of his or, even more shamefully, of Jane Austen.

Irritating how self judgement focuses so readily on what one hasn't done.

So, this year I'm coming for both of them. And I'm going to start with the divine Miss A, as she's at least polite enough not to stare so disapprovingly.

But with which book do I start?