Talking about Edith

It was book club tonight and after discussing the Edith Wharton book we had read, we moved onto other things, and for some reason someone mentioned the Woolwich ferry and I mentioned another Edith, Edith Nesbit, much loved as a children’s author. Is she still popular? Do children still read her wonderful books? I somehow doubt it! The reason I mentioned Edith N. was that she married the skipper of the Woolwich ferry… and this is what i wrote about her quite a few years ago:

E. Nesbit was a favourite author of mine when I was a child, I read and reread  The Story of the Treasure Seekers,  The Wouldbegoods,  The New Treasure Seekers,  Five Children and It,  The Phoenix and the Carpet,  The Story of the Amulet,  The House of Arden and of course The Railway Children… What cracking tales they are, and I was surprised when I tried to find out more about Edith Nesbit that she was born in the middle of the nineteenth century and wrote (or published)  those stories between 1899 and 1906… they are so timeless, , and surely there must be children today who read and enjoy them as I did; certainly they crop up on television and the cinema frequently.

Edith was born in 1858 in Surrey but very sadly her father died when she was only four years old. Her sister suffered ill-health, maybe tuberculosis,  and they travelled around from seaside town to seaside town, to France to Spain before settling back in England. Edith had the sort of life which you’d normally think of as belonging in a soap opera; she married a man called Hubert (which is surely a name which will never be revived!) Edith was already seven months pregnant but she didn’t live with her husband as he was still living with his mother… living with his mother???? What sort of bloke was he?! Then Edith found out he had a fiancée (his widowed mother’s companion) who unknown to Edith had already had a child by him. If that wasn’t bad enough, her best friend Alice had a fling with him and also became pregnant. What an evil toad Hubert was.

Poor Edith; when Alice had confided she was pregnant, Edith had agreed to adopt Alice’s baby, not realising at first who the father was. The toad Hubert told Edith he would leave her unless she agreed to take Alice in as a housekeeper as well s bringing up the child, Rosamund. This situation continued and Alice became pregnant again thirteen years later and Edith (what a brick) again adopted the child.

Edith herself had three children, Paul, Iris, and Fabian. Fabian who was named after the Fabian Society in which Edith and Hubert were involved, died at the age of fifteen after he had an operation to remove his tonsils.

Edith must have really loved Hubert to continue not only to live with him, adopt his children by other women and keep him through what she earned as a writer. He died in 1914 and three years later Edith married again, Tom Tucker an engineer on the Woolwich Ferry; he was a completely different character from her usual circle of friends, no doubt deemed ‘common’ and speaking with a broad Cockney accent. She died in 1924, and Tom died in the same house eleven years later.

This extraordinary life is in such contrast to the safe and gentile world of the children in her stories, and it makes her an even more remarkable woman.

These are her books which I have read:

1899 The Story of the Treasure Seekers

1901 The Wouldbegoods

1904 The New Treasure Seekers

1902 Five Children and It

1904 The Phoenix and the Carpet

1906 The Story of the Amulet

1908 The House of Arden

1906 The Railway Children

Where Alph the sacred river ran…

For some reason I have an earworm… a mixture of Xandu as featured in Coleridge’s unfinished poem Kubla Khan, and a song by… by ELO and Olivia Newton-John! Well, I had forgotten that she sang it, forgotten that she collaborated with ELO… I think I was confusing that song with another ‘The legend of Xandu’ by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.

Xanadu, an actual place associated with Kublai Khan, is where the town of Shangdu is now in Mongolia. It seems as if most of its remains have been plundered for more modern buildings and little remains. Xanadu – where Kublai Khan ‘stately pleasure-dome decree‘…

So twice five miles of fertile ground 
With walls and towers were girdled round; 
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, 
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; 
And here were forests ancient as the hills, 
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 
Orson Welles was taken with this idea and name Charles Foster Kane’s large estate Xanadu in his 1941 film. In reality various luxury places have been given this name, and also a mysterious bright, shining spot on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.
There was a musical film with the name – a film which was a box-office failure, although the soundtrack was a hit!! It became a musical on Broadway where it achieved greater success. There have been songs, games, comical characters, all with the name or associated with Xanadu.
What put it in my head I have no idea, but here is Olivia, and some very dodgy costumes!

I have no pictures of pleasure-domes, so I have used Brighton Pavilion for my featured image.

Surveying or surveilling

My fellow writer Richard Kefford and I have challenged ourselves – or each other, I’m not sure which, to tackle a list of blog subjects we randomly found on the net… there were seventy-three different types of blog suggestions, so we are having a go at doing all seventy-three. Richard is attacking the list at random – at least he was until we hit on the idea of producing a book of our blogs; One hundred and forty six blogs might be a little long – so we are thinking of producing three volumes,. I started at number 1 on the list and worked my way through and I am now at number twenty-four, surveys and polls.

I must admit I am a bit stumped; how interesting would a survey that I might conduct be to anyone? I got to thinking about surveys, and began to ponder on the word… sometimes pronounced sur-vey, sometimes more like s’vey, depending on whether it’s a noun or a verb. I guess that it might come via French (from Latin) sur meaning over or above and veillée  which means vigil or watch over something – my rough explanation! There are words which come from it – verbs meaning to look at something, and verbs meaning specifically to measure and look at something, and the noun which is the product of the measuring and looking. Then there is surveillance, definitely all about watching and looking! So am I right? 

So, survey comes from Middle English, surveyen which in turn comes from from Old French sourveoir –  as I thought from  sur – over, and veoir to see . It was certainly around and about at the turn of the fifteenth century meaning to consider or think about or ponder, and then it shifted to include to guard or watch over, and then on to inspect and check and look at in detail. By the middle of the sixteenth century it began to take on the meaning of measuring and recording information about a piece of land.

Surveillance, however – as I understand it, does not come from the same thing at all, even though it sounds as if it should. It’s a loan word from French but it comes from that Latin vigilare meaning to watch over – and watching over in the French Revolutionary sense  were les Comités de Surveillance – surveillance committees. It’s a concept we are very familiar with now, with CCTV on every corner.

I guess on social media if you mention survey, most people would think of a list of questions which could be about anything from favourite books to favourite ice-cream! Some give choices for answers and then give results as a percentage, some are open for any answers. So here is a little survey, just a little one:

  1. Dickens, Austen or a Brontë?
  2. Poirot, Campion or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford?
  3. Holden Caulfield, Yossarian or Jay Gatsby?
  4. The Cherry Orchard,  The Government Inspector or Boris Gudunov?
  5. Girl With a Pearl Earring, or A Secret History or The Handmaid’s Tale?
  6. The Hunger Games, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) or Artemis Fowl?
  7. Dracula, Frankenstein or The Triffids
  8. Macbeth, Hamlet or Richard III
  9. Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas or Edward Thomas
  10. Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke or Jackie Kay

… and more on surveillance:

A chance encounter

I guess these days we have much greater opportunities to meet a much wider range of people, and not only meet them as in bump into them face to face, but to ‘meet’ in a virtual way. Through my love of music, in particular the Mavericks (yes, I have to give them a mention!) I have met many people on-line… some I have gone on to meet in real life and it’s a great thrill to actually do so.

There is another sort of ‘meeting’, and that is when you read about people, maybe people who are no longer alive, but you read their words, or you read about them, and become close – only in your own mind, obviously! These days we have access to a wonderful wide community and just as in real life when you bump into a stranger and get to know them, you can have chance encounters right here.

I was looking at what different people had been sharing on Twitter, and stopped to look at an image of a beautiful young woman and a card or postcard with some writing in a script I couldn’t read but I guessed to be Farsi or Persian. The comment was ‘in loving memory of Forough Farokhzad’, describing her as an influential and modernist Iranian poet, film director and feminist’; it was in loving memory because her life was cut tragically short at the age of only thirty-two whose life was cut short fifty-two years ago, almost exactly, on  February 13th 1967.

I was interested because I knew some amazing Iranian people, many years ago now; I had an Iranian boyfriend for a while, and then when I started teaching in Manchester, some of my students were from Iran. I was teaching them when the Shah was overthrown and it was a worrying time for them, thinking of their families back home… back to the poet, back to Forough Farokhzad.

Forough was born in the last days of 1934 in Tehran; her father was in the military, a colonel, and he and his wife had a big family, seven children and Forough was the third. She was married when she was only sixteen and had a son, but then she and her husband divorced and he had custody of their child. Forough began to write poetry and her first collection of poems was published when she was only twenty-one – what a precocious talent, and how hard it must have been for her as a woman living in Tehran at that time. Her short life was eventful; she wrote more, she became a film director, she had a close and loving relationship with Ebrahim Golestan an important writer and director. A demonstration of the sort of person she was is an episode when she was making a film in a leper colony and after less than a couple of weeks took on and adopted the child of two of the people she met who were suffering from the disease. Her death was the result of a terrible accident; swerving to avoid a school bus she had an accident in her car and as a result died… at only thirty-two.

Here is a link to one of the many biographies you can find about her.

I have ordered one of her books… I found her words by just a chance encounter!!

Underground, going underground…

I have been rereading a series of books I enjoyed many years ago by the brilliant writer, Nevada Barr; her main character Anna Pigeon is a law enforcement officer and National Park ranger and in all o the books I have read so far she has been involved in an adventure in a different National  Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Mesa Verde, Lake Superior and in the most recent I have read (which I had to read in daylight hours, not just before I went to bed because it was so exciting!) it is set in a subterranean wonderland. You might wonder how a National Park can be underground, well in this adventure it is not a park but a cave system – the  Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I read a story about potholing when I was a child, and the idea always fascinated me. When I was working with young people who had various difficulties engaging with education, we explored many different ways of re-engaging them… one of which involved an adventure underground… we took them potholing. As teachers with these students,we were expected to accept the challenges they did and when i discovered caving was one of them I was so excited!! My childhood dreams of adventure were about to come true! Not everyone was as excited as I was, and they were delighted to stay topside while I went with the kids and the caving instructors into the bowels of the Mendips. I had a moment’s thought that I might feel claustrophobic, or struggle trapped in tight spaces in the dark… but no! I loved it! It was as exciting and enthralling as I had imagined all those years ago.

In ‘Blind Descent’  the Anna Pigeon book I read, Anna – despite her severe claustrophobia, went into a vast cave system to rescue an injured potholer. It took a couple of days to get there, and when she did the casualty told Anna that her injury was  not an accident! (I think we may have guessed that!) There was quite a complicated story which followed, mainly set in the caves, but which then went out into the park… and then (I hope this isn’t a spoiler) went underground for the thrilling, and heart-stopping denouement.

The adventure was incredible – Nevada Barr’s powers of description are sensational. I honestly wonder why she isn’t up there with the great story writers and novelists because her prose is stunning. The way she described the wonders of the subterranean world, the processes of caving (which involve climbing skills as well) the sheer slog and yet exhilaration of going deep into the earth with nothing but your own courage and physical strength – plus the characters involved in mystery – are they goodies or baddies – and even if they are baddies are they the baddies involved in the crime?

This is the Amazon blurb:

Lechuguilla Cavern is a man-eating cave discovered in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the mid-1980’s. Estimated to extend for more than three hundred miles, only ninety of them mapped, the cave was formed by acid burning away the limestone; corridors, pits, cramped wormholes, cliffs, and splendid rooms the size of football fields tangle together in a maze shrouded in the utter darkness of the underground.Anna
When a fellow ranger is injured in a caving accident, Anna swallows her paralysing fear of small spaces and descends into Lechuguilla to help a friend in need. Worse than the claustrophobia that haunts her are the signs – some natural and some, more ominously, man-made – that not everyone is destined to emerge from this wondrous living tomb. The terrain is alien and hostile; the greed and destructive powers of mankind all too familiar. In this place of internal terrors, Anna must learn who it is she can trust and, in the end, decide who is to live and who is to die.

If you haven’t read her… do!


Maybe it’s a young person’s book…

Book club this afternoon and our book of the month is J.D.Salinger’s novel ‘Catcher in the Rye’; it is hailed as a classic of modern times… but written nearly seventy years ago, (the idea for it began in 1940 so it is even older!) it surely is no longer modern. Maybe a post-war classic would suit it better, a coming of age novel, an angry young man novel? Or maybe it’s a spoiled brat novel, a selfish, immature kid who throws his toys out of the pram and blames everything and everyone for his ‘angst’ and disappointments?

From this, you will gather that on re-reading I didn’t enjoy it and was shocked at how alienated I felt from the character and his adventures! Holden is a wealthy young man (fencing? a brother who is a script writer? exclusive boarding school? taxi cabs and hotel rooms?) and yes, he does have what amounts to a breakdown, but as I reread it I lost patience with him – sadly I confess because when I’d previously read it I’d had a very different opinion. So maybe it is a young person’s book – but these days would an ordinary young person in an ordinary situation empathise with Holden and his problems? I must find a young person to read it!

Here is something I wrote about coming back to books you used to love:

We were talking today about books we had loved when we originally read them and then were disappointed on reading them again.

Catcher in the Rye‘ by J.D. Salinger was a book I first read when I was about fourteen or fifteen, and although it was never a favourite, I did like it and put it on my ‘good book’ list. I read it again recently and was shocked and disappointed, shocked because I thought it just hadn’t stood the test of time; it seemed incredibly dated – yes, I know it was written sixty years ago but some books are timeless. I loved Salinger’s other books more, ‘Raise High the Roof-beam, Carpenter,’ ‘For Esmé—with Love and Squalor’, ‘Franny and Zooey’ – dare I reread them? Might I be disappointed with them too? Maybe ‘Catcher’  is a young person’s book, maybe if a fourteen year old read it now they would enjoy it as I did.

Catch-22‘ by Joseph Heller was my all-time favourite book for many years… I reread it a short while ago and really struggled to engage with it… again, maybe it is a book for the young! I still remember so many scenes from it and quote from it, and I still think it is a great book but I have changed as a reader. For some light reading I have been catching up with Agatha Christie recently; and I had mixed feelings. I think she is underrated as an author by some people, she was able to capture a character in a few lines, she did not shy away from risky subjects, child murderers, incest, sexual grooming of young people, adultery, and murder of course.  I enjoyed the books I read again, but as I read them I wondered how much they would appeal to new readers, although the plots and characters are revisited again and again by TV and film makers.

I wonder if the reverse could also happen; I wonder if I read books I disliked on the first reading, whether I would appreciate them more? It didn’t happen with Thomas Hardy’s books, or Jane Austen, but I wonder if I might actually manage to finish ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin‘ by Louis de Bernières and enjoy it?

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt…

Although Robert Browning is not particularly popular as a poet any more, and many people haven’t even heard of him, there are several poems which are still appear, among them the rather creepy tale of Duke Alfonso II and his first wife Lucrezia de’ Medici. She was born on St Valentine’s day in 1545 and married the duke when she was only thirteen years old in 1558… he was twenty-five.  He was the last Duke of Ferrara in Northern Italy, the last duke because despite marrying three times, he died without having any children. Lucrezia died three years after her marriage at the age of sixteen… maybe she was poisoned by her husband…

My last Duchess

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!