Ilka Tampke – Skin


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Excellently written YA/Fantasy Fiction/Historical Fiction/Dystopian Apocalypse with Lit Fic knobs on thrown in for good measure

SkinWell. Ilka Tampke is an Australian writer, and Skin is her first novel. And what a strange, but excellent novel it is.

Skin is set in Britain, and specifically in Summer (Somerset) between AD 28 and AD 43 in a matriarchy. Iron-Age Britain, a Druid culture, and the might of Rome preparing for invasion.

The central character, Ailia, born in AD 28, is some kind of outsider, and part of the book’s journey is to find her complex destiny, which will bring her to become a leader of her people. Ailia’s age, and her intelligent nature, her individuality and leadership qualities of course suggest the book has a YA market, with Ailia as a role model to identify with. There are also strong young men who are leaders or seers – so heroes of action and heroes of reflection and emotional integrity.

But this is not only a book for a YA audience – it is likely to have appeal for those who are followers of all the heroic myth and fantasy serials which are increasingly popular, probably for a 20s audience.

Celtic knot

Celtic knot

I’m neither of those markets, but was interested in this because although the cynic in me could suggest this might be a book written to capitalise on some populist markets, and is at least a small series (I understand there is a sequel), and the strong storyline and characters inevitably suggest filmic possibilities – the actual writing, not to mention the unusual setting, was the lure.

The exact rituals and beliefs of ancient Druidic culture have been rather lost in the intervening 2000 years, particularly as Rome did not tolerate Druidism, and, Christianity, some 300 years later, after Constantite the Great’s conversion, did much to complete its veiling. I’m not certain, one way or another how much Tampke’s very detailed, fascinating weaving of ‘Druid’ culture and ideology is real, partially real, wholly imagined – but what I will say is there is an absolute coherence in her blend, which is satisfying both in terms of its mysticism and ritual, and it’s very graphic depiction of the world. She has clearly woven into the story a central idea from Australian totemic spirituality (and, I think, Native American Indian culture) that of animal totems, a kind of connection to the rest of the living world which anchors humanity as a part of the animal kingdom and a part of the landscape. I found all those aspects of her possible invention absolutely fascinating and the book is ‘true to itself’ And has that wonderful quality of tapping in to deeper, wider myths. The book as a whole is absolutely ‘the hero journey’ It can be read on many levels simultaneously and doesn’t topple over itself for being made to bear too much.

Iron Age Celtic Des Res Round House

Iron Age Celtic Des Res Round House

If you love adventure stories, particularly fabulous ones which make integrated sense, rather than just being a gung ho collection of mythic or actual battles, I recommend this. I swept through it, turning pages fast, caught up in the story, but also found myself very satisfied with the integrity of her characters, the complex relationships, the believable structures and culture of her ancient society. And there are some wonderful – didn’t see this one coming – twists and turns.

Ailia, her central character is without ‘Skin’ in metaphorical rather than literal, anatomical terms. Skin is the totem tribal connection – her journey to find ‘Skin’ and its meaning is satisfyingly archetypal.

The passage from womb to world was only half a birth – the body’s birth. Our souls were born when we were plunged, as babes, into river water, screaming at the cold shock of it, given our name and called to skin.

Deer. Salmon. Stone. Beetle. The North wind. Skin was our greeting, our mother, our ancestors, our land. Nothing existed outside its reach.

Beyond skin there was only darkness. Only chaos.

Because I was without skin I could not be plunged or named. I was half-born, born in body but not in soul. Born to the world but not to the tribe. I could never marry less skin taboos were unknowingly betrayed…….I was not permitted to learn. All learning began and ended with the songs of skin

Finally, I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK.Ilka-Tampke-300x200

Even more finally, the hardback book itself is stunningly beautiful, with gold coloured mandala like shapes, suggesting complex artistic metalwork all nudging at symbols of interconnectedness, which underlines much of what the book is about.

Skin Amazon UK
Skin Amazon USA

Chris Mackey – Synchronicity


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An interesting book which might not quite reach its deserved audience

Synchronicity coverChris Mackey’s Synchronicity is a fascinating look at this phenomenon, which is at the same time not completely satisfying, as, for this reader, its tone means it may well be more likely to appeal to the New Age converted (of which, to a large extent I can surely count myself a member) but fail to appeal to those who could or might be converted by the well argued theory and research to take this book as seriously as it deserves to be.

Some of the information, and, perhaps more, the at times ‘Wow!’ ‘Awesome!’ tone, makes the book appear to come from the scientific equivalent of what might be thought of as the ‘loony left of psychology’ When in fact, the focus is much more grounded and pertinent.

Mackey is clearly a respected and experienced psychologist and therapist. He is a Fellow of the Australian Psychology Society. Fellowships are an honour bestowed on those who are influential and have made positive contribution in their field. An honour, moreover, bestowed by one’s peers. He has worked within a public setting in hospitals, and has his own private psychology practice, and has been working in the field for over 35 years.

He is a passionate, thoughtful, persuasively articulate advocate of what might be called Positive Psychology. Mainstream pharmaceutically based psychology and psychiatry has increasingly become focused on what might be thought of as ‘lesion management’ rather than health recognition. In other words, the identification of the illness, the syndrome, the abnormality of dis-ease. And this generally means a reductionist and biochemical approach to management. The complex politics and organisation of this has been brilliantly explained in James Davies’ Cracked – Why Psychiatry Is Doing More Harm Than Good.

Holistic/Positive Psychology recognises that in every living organism forces of health/wholeness/stability – or the potential to achieve this always exists, as well as the opposite potential to entropy and disorganisation.

Western medicine has a focus around rectifying symptomatic dis-ease – and this is of course a very useful and productive paradigm, but it is not the only useful and productive approach. Other medical systems such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine focus less on the symptomatic analysis of the specific ‘wrong’ and more on what is the whole pattern of imbalance that symptoms are only a reflection of. This does represent a different approach as the pattern indicates the direction of ‘wholeness’ which still exists. A movement away from balance still indicates that relationship with the balance point. In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) deficiency in flow of Qi has corresponding stagnation, excess, blockage.

In the field of Western psychology there are practitioners and theoreticians, and methods, where the emphasis is on understanding that the ‘lesion’, the wound, can be in fact the pointer to the direction in which health and wholeness lie, and that psychic wounds in fact show not only the potential for health and wholeness which is always present, but is the means by which healing manifests. This may sound barking, but, considered simply, it is the breaking of a bone, the wound to the skin, the being laid low by infection which galvanises the complex responses to repair and remodel tissue or to fight infection. Similarly those woundings to the psyche are also calls to where repair, remodelling and maintaining integrity will arise from. Unsurprisingly Mackey, an advocate of Positive psychology, explores the legacy of Jung, Maslow, Ken Wilbur and others, whose approaches have been around the psychology of health, individuation, peak experience and the like. Giving the psyche its weight and place.

Jung’s snappily titled (!) Synchronicity : An A-causal Connecting Principle, defined synchronicity as the connection of two or more, seemingly random occurrences, as not being ‘random’ or ‘chance’ but as meaningful, and common. These could vary from the experience many have, of having the thought of someone enter your head, someone you may not have thought about or had connection with, for some time, and an instant later, the phone rings, you pick up, and it is that person. Or it could be something more symbolic – Jung’s interest in the phenomenon initially being sparked from this direction – a patient told him about a dream in which she had been given a golden scarab (the dream was one which was a highly charged, meaningful one, full of symbols which were potent for the dreamer and the analyst) At the moment the analysand was describing her dream, came a tapping on the closed window in the room. Jung opened the window and an insect flew in – a scarab type of beetle, greeny gold in colour.

Cetonia-aurata” by I, Chrumps. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Jung’s developing idea about synchronicity, which is seen as something of a pointer, something encouraging us towards a noticing, a kind of indication that you are in-the-flow, which Mackay describes as ‘ticks from the universe’ were formed in part out of discussions he had had with Einstein, and had encouragement from another ‘father of quantum theory’, Wolfgang Pauli.

Mackey also explores these connections, and provides some welcome, unflaky breaking the phenomenon away from the ‘spooky-woo’ dismissable. It is specifically ‘entanglement’ which interests him – on a quantum level:

The term ‘entanglement’ describes a relationship between two or more particles, or other objects, that have interacted with each other and then been separated. Bell’s Theorem (physicist John Stewart Bell) hypothesized that two or more such objects would somehow remain connected with each other, functioning as a single system. This mean that any induced change in one twinned particle, such as an electron, would lead to an instantaneous and complementary change in the other, regardless of how vast the distance that separated them

Easy-peasy, eh!

Easy-peasy, eh!

These kinds of ideas and reflections, though echoing many writings found in the New Age section of bookstores – or in long ago written texts on Eastern mystical thinking – are coming from that strange place called quantum physics, and from quantum physicists, trying to find ways to understand some of the phenomena happening at this level

And I must say, that describing all this through the perspectives of rationalising, without the kind of ‘Wow! Awesome!!’ wide-eyedness which often permeates ‘New Age’ books and makes the sceptical, unsurprisingly, dismiss the whole idea as something arising from the relicts of old hippies who dropped too much suspect chemistry in their dim and distant, is very very welcome indeed.

But……….there is ‘stuff’ in this book which troubles, however much I admire Mackay’s honesty about his own experiences. Which are thus : Synchronicity has been something which he has been aware of, in his own life, and usefully stayed open to. He has also, inevitably, in his professional life, attracted patients who noticed synchronicity, or synchronicity became a kind of tool which could be helpfully used in sessions. So there are examples and underlinings which Mackey gives, in clear, and understandable fashion.

What there also is, which increasingly creeps in, is precisely that tone of ‘Wow! Awesome!’ which begins to seem a little off-kilter, a little out-of-balance. And Mackey himself has had experience of ‘breakdown’ – a diagnosis of a hypomanic episode. During this, he was dizzyingly ‘synchronicitous’, and it is the reading of the chapters where he honestly recounts his ‘Wow!’ ‘Awesome’ and the recounting voice (to my mind) has a kind of ferociously over-bright, over-loud ‘Wow!’ ‘Wow!’ ‘Wow!’ quality to it that makes it a little hard to read. He is honest enough to let us know that during this period some of his colleagues thought (and told him) that he was psychotic.

Later, Mackey analyses his own experiences, and concludes he may have fallen into a kind of enlightenment trap – that of ‘psychic inflation’ a sense of grandiosity, specialness (which of course also happens in the ‘manic’ stages of bipolar disorder)

A writer Mackey met on a retreat, very broadly in sympathy with what Mackey has really spent his professional life involved in – furthering Positive Psychology, working with that impulse to wholeness within living organisms, embracing what might be called our spiritual nature, rather than reducing everything about a person to ‘dysfunctional chemistry’ and medication – warned Mackey not to get so focused and caught up in synchronicity. He felt Mackey had become so over-excited by it that he might overlook the ‘fundamental spiritual principles’

Translating that to my experience reading this book, it seems to me that however laudable his honesty about his own experience has been, that it is precisely the over-emphasis on his personal story, told in such a different voice from the rest of the book, which may end up side-lining what is surely an important book which has much to say about the ‘fundamental principles’ of bringing Positive Psychology, humanity, and meaningful, unreductionist ways of treating mental illness, and, perhaps more importantly, fostering and growing human wellness, into wider use. I do feel that it is the over-emphasised weight of that personal story which may lose Mackey a far more useful audience – the unconverted, the sceptical, than this book really deserves. It may not travel much beyond those New Age Shelves. Which will be a shame.

I do recommend it. The fully converted are unlikely to find it controversial, but I hope Chris Mackeythose less convinced might read it for the well-argued stuff.

I received this as an ARC for review from the publishers, Watkins, via NetGalley. It will be published in the UK next month, and in the States also, though with a much expanded title, which rather suggests its self-help market – nothing wrong with that, I just think it might have had a more professionally influential appeal. And perhaps some of the earlier, cooler stuff might not be sufficiently grab-able for those wanting more instructional self-help ‘how to’

Synchronicity Amazon UK
Synchronicity: Empower Your Life With The Gift Of Coincidence Amazon USA

Alison Weir – The Lady In The Tower


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Keeping your head when all around are losing theirs : challenging in the court of the Tudor King

The Lady In The TowerAlison Weir’s deeply researched, thorough and unsensational examination of the last 4 dramatic months in Queen Anne Boleyn’s life is a page turning, illuminating and highly anxiety inducing read, even though we know the inevitable outcome.

There are 3 major players in this drama, and the innocence and guilt of all are under question by posterity – and two of them, at the time, were not being judged in a court of law.

Anne Boleyn, now Queen, was the woman Henry VIII had broken with the powerful Church of Rome for, in order to get his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled.

King Henry was an absolute monarch, and a million miles away from being any kind of benevolent dictator, though benevolence and dictatorship are an uneasy set of bedfellows anyway. Henry was far less dictator, in the end, than he was despot. At least, that is posterity’s verdict.

Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, rather than of noble birth, Henry’s `Master Secretary’ was at this point the second most powerful person in the Kingdom, at least in a shadowy, behind the scenes, pulling the threads kind of way. Even, perhaps as much the puppet master as the ostensible real holder of the reins of power. However, holding the reins of power when the real ruler is as terrifying and at times as wilful a figure as Henry, is not a secure position. He that elevates those to power – particularly when they are not with the force of a noble family behind them – can as easily remove them from that position. And indeed, that did happen for Cromwell a few short years later. Moreover, falling from Henry’s favour was a little different from finding an unexpected P45 in your pay-packet. Failing to get a good reference and another job would be the least of your worries

Anne Boleyn - possibly. As Weir points out, many of the pictures of Anne were not paintings she sat for
Anne Boleyn – possibly. As Weir points out, many of the pictures of Anne were not paintings she sat for, nor by artists alive in her time

In a totalitarian state – and this was, many will be jostling to get close to the supremely powerful figure, and in this particular version of totalitarianism, that of absolute monarchy, the King is not only monarch, but is also Divine – so there is an extra layer of fear and superstition, that of offending against God, the risking of the immortal soul, if the highest of all has his will and majesty flouted. For those who jostle to climb the slippery pole of preferment, mainly through kicking and clawing and stabbing in the back those beneath you, or greasing the palms of those above you, there must always be the knowledge that today’s friend may join forces with yesterday’s enemy and be the one who kicks, claws and stabs you, because new and better alliances will always present themselves. The fickle finger of fate creates new martyrs and new figures to embody power and prestige.

Much has been written of this horrific story. One of the many interesting facets of Weir’s book is her analysis of the changing viewpoints of culpability over the centuries. Anne, vilified as a combination of she-devil and whore at the time, later was seen as almost someone worthy of hagiography – a woman sinned against, not sinning, a woman who fell foul of a stitched -up court, a woman framed, and victim of injustice cynically carried out by the highest in the land. Later generations have seen her almost as a feminist martyr. She was, for sure, a powerful and intelligent woman, one outspoken, and by all accounts opinionated. She was certainly not content to play the role of passive, I-know-my-place-is-under-the-foot-of-my-lord-and-master wifey which society expected. Such independence of spirit alone would be dangerous, whether or not the infidelities she was accused of were true or false, when her husband bore a fairly strong resemblance to that ogre of fairy-tale – Bluebeard. In fact, I did find myself wondering when that compelling and terrifying story originated, and from where.

Bluebeard - also known as Henry VIII

Bluebeard – also known as Henry VIII

Anne was later seen as a kind of martyr for religious Reformism, as she was indeed, in the developing religious schisms between Rome and England, a Reformist, and championed the cause of reform.

Whether Anne was, or was not guilty of the crimes as charged she was certainly not an unspotted open-hearted innocent. She, along with her family, like her replacement, Jane Seymour, along with her family, appeared to have had an eye to the main chance. She showed little mercy to the rather more popular (with the people) Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, and perhaps should not have been surprised that her husband, who had demonstrated little loyalty to a previous wife, was once again making space for a new venture into matrimony with one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. Becoming a lady in waiting must almost have seemed like a sure route to becoming Queen, in Henry’s court – a kind of horizontal finishing school, perhaps! Jane Seymour, in her turn, played the main chance, though as she was fortunate enough to die in childbirth having given birth to a son she never had to face the possible demotion and vilification that might well have happened when Henry’s desires moved elsewhere. Hers was at least a natural death. Without the security of being from a powerful Royal family from another country (Katharine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves) life and keeping hold of it seemed remarkably insecure for those Henry wedded.

Anne was of course accused of adultery with 5 men and plotting the death of the king. Weir performs an elegant and persuasive analysis to show the charges were, at least in part, manufactured. The charges were very specific in terms of dates, places and times with the specific, named, individuals. Certainly some of the stated dates, places and partners were complete fabrications, as either Anne, or the accused lover, according to documentary evidence, were not at those places on those days, but documented as being elsewhere. She doesn’t say though that inappropriate behaviour and conversation by a Queen (according to the mores of the times) of some kind was definitely NOT occurring, but that evidence itself can show that some of the specified events could not have occurred as charged.

What I particularly appreciated in this book is that she is very clear that to analyse the past by the ideas, mores and manners of the present is an activity which is fraught with danger. For example, some of the language used in some of Anne’s letters to those accused with her, and some of the language apparently used on the scaffold by her have been used to `prove’ her guilt – for example, the fact that in all her scaffold speeches the king is praised. There were courtly modes of address which would have been adhered to – and indeed, would have been recorded, whether or not they were uttered. And, as far as the speeches which any of the accused uttered before axes (in the case of the 5 men) or the sword (in Anne’s case) were wielded – it’s important to remember that totalitarian societies do not only punish those individuals it deems to have done wrong. You might know that whatever you say, you are about to face a brutal, painful death – there will be no reprieve from that – but what about those you leave behind, what about friends and family? Make too passionate a deathbed speech and you may very well be lining up those you love for savage punishment to come.

The major, culpable figures are of course the two men, Cromwell and Henry. Again, different historians (given the fact that much documentary evidence from the time no longer exists) draw different conjectures as to which of the two was MOST guilty. Weir certainly deduces Cromwell was absolutely the one who created and faked, or merely deduced and collated the evidence, but the fact remains that he was responding to the way the wind was blowing, as far as Henry’s desires went. Of course Cromwell and Anne had become bitter enemies, though once he was of her party and aided her rise, now he was shifting allegiance, and both he and Anne must have been mindful how each could use Henry to topple the other. However, Henry was by now clearly tired of his wife and her inability to give him the necessary male heir to secure his kingdom, and as Cromwell had been a major player in securing Henry’s desired release from his first wife, it’s not surprising to find Cromwell up to the neck (perhaps literally) in finding the means for Henry to gain freedom from wife number 2. No doubt Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace served both men well.

Cromwell by Holbein. It's amazing the career prospects which were open to Secretaries in Bluebeard's time!

Cromwell by Holbein. It’s amazing the career prospects which were open to Secretaries in Bluebeard’s time

We all see and hear what we want to hear and what we want to see. Neither Henry – nor any of the peers sitting in judgement on Anne and the men accused with her picked apart the holes in evidence. As one of those peers was Anne’s own father and another was her uncle, the dangers of coming to decisions which are not those the King desires, must be obvious. Particularly in the case of Anne’s father – he was condemning not only his daughter, but his son, as Anne’s brother Rochford was also one of those accused of adultery with her.

How far all this suited Henry was shown by the fact that a mere 10 days after Anne’s execution he had married Jane Seymour.

I have read some reviews where the reviewer feels that Weir castigates Cromwell for too much, and that she `whitewashes’ Henry. I must say I did not get any sense of a Henry `whitewash’ – Weir does however try to think herself into people in their time. In that Tudor court, the terrible events of The Wars Of The Roses and an insecure succession were not that long ago. Succession happened through sons, not daughters, so the importance of a male heir felt paramount. And this was also still a highly superstitious age. Credulity existed for sure, and could also be no doubt evoked to dupe oneself as well as others. Henry was out of love with a woman he had been mad for. She was getting older and other than her first born, seemed unable to carry a child to term. Rather than looking at your own libidinous, greedy and fickle nature to explain the dreadful mistake made in your marriage choices, `being bewitched’ might have seemed an explanation which had a logic which would not wash today, but probably did in those times.

Something I found absolutely fascinating in this book is that Weir lays out for us the enormously conflicting evidence which is available from eyewitnesses, over-hearers and those who were onlookers or participants. This really indicates the huge difficulties in historical research and deduction – which, the further back in time one travels, gets even harder.

Even something as theoretically simple as what Anne was wearing at her public execution is differently described by those who were there to see it all – sometimes, even disparities in the colour, never mind the fabric and decoration of her death dress.

And as for the very very different transcriptions of what she said in her `from the scaffold’ speech – extraordinary! Of course, in an age where not only were there no recording devices, but no microphones, and crucially, not even any system of shorthand notation, it would be nigh on impossible to note down verbatim what someone was saying. Not to mention the fact that the high emotional anxiety of Anne, not to mention any listeners close enough to properly hear what she was saying, would have rendered memory and observation extremely suspect. No doubt acceptable spin was as active in Tudor times as it is today.

Anne and Henry VIII's daughter. She did quite well for herself, and ended up being played by Dame Judi Dench, no less, in a film

Anne and Henry VIII’s daughter. She did quite well for herself, and ended up being played by Dame Judi Dench, no less, in a film

I recommend this book most highly. It combines obviously exhaustive research with clarity about rationale for interpretation, which has to be done as so little documentation actually exists about the lead up and the planning and what went on behind closed doors, obviously in secret. Weir is neither dry in her laying out of research, nor is she sensationalist – she leaves the truly sensationalist events themselves to create the jaw-dropping, gut-sickening responses which any reader of any kind of empathy and imagination will have. I was so, so pleased that her recording of what actually happened in those dreadful, savage executions was delivered sparely and un-emotively, without overblown descriptors designed to titivate a kind of delight-in-horror entertainment. The events themselves are far more horrific, and bring it all to enough life, without the cheapness of creating revved-up fiction

I’m left uneasily feeling that though on one level we are far far away from the Alison Weirsavagery and terror of that Tudor court, in some ways, it seems uncomfortably close, in a world where women can still be the recipients of savage double-standard sentences for transgressing the mores of their society, and where totalitarian states, whether espousing religious or political ideology despotism, dispense savage punishment against individuals and groups who dare to dissent.

Weir gave me pause to think about much more than the last four months of Anne Boleyn’s life

The Lady In The Tower Amazon UK
The Lady In The Tower Amazon USA

John Fordham – The Knowledge: Jazz


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I say I don’t like the genre called jazz….and yet,…..and still…..

The Knowledge JazzThese sorts of statements are fatal as of course I have jazz music in my collection (mainly Jan Garbarek) and there are pieces of music which are definitely jazz embracing which I adore (Rhapsody In Blue), not to mention singers and musicians who bring their jazz roots into other areas (Ella Fitzgerald, Wynton Marsalis) and demonstrate – as jazz aficionados delight in reminding me – their extreme musicality and sophistication. AND I have been known to go to jazz concerts!

So it would be true, in my case, to say that I could appreciate a helpful and kindly guide to identify what it is that I do like in jazz music, and open this out for me, offering other little staging posts along the way, and possibly introducing me to unexplored new directions, highways and byways.

Now I do believe John Fordham may be that helpful and kindly guide. Fordham writes beautifully, and is erudite, engaging and clear about his passion for Jazz. Currently jazz critic for The Guardian, he rather got me in the introduction, explaining his own early revelation of being grabbed by jazz…

I can hear a surging rhythm, powered by the hiss of a drumbeat flickering on a cymbal and the heartbeat of a deep and steady bassline, that made me want to dance for the first time in my life. I can hear a trumpet being played as if it were a seductively cajoling tone. I can hear a piano played with a strange, jarring clang, as if the notes of the chords are being clashed too close together. And I hear the entwining melodies of several musicians merging into one voice, even though there are ragged edges to the music that suggest they just thought it up as they went along. I think I fell in love with jazz because it sounded just like life, as it’s lived and improvised from moment to moment: imperfect declarations of wonderment or love, fevers of anguish or anger, cool confidence in a sauntering walk, despondency in the purple tones of a slow blues

Jan Garbarek

Jan Garbarek

Okay, okay, I have rolled over and surrendered – it’s as if Fordham has opened a door.Especially when he reminds me that what I often DON’T like in some of the `live jazz’ concerts I’ve been to – the improvisation (it often seems, to my untutored ear to be indulgent and meandering) exists within the genre which always spoke to me, from childhood – classical music. Those consummate musical geniuses, Bach and Mozart, to name but two, were not only improvisers themselves – but left space for live musicians, playing their works, to `deviate’ and introduce their own cadenzas! So, perhaps, when I say `I don’t like jazz and the boring improvisations, I should really say that the particular musician, on a particular night, isn’t really saying anything which connects to my ears, heart, mind and guts.

Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet

Yet here I am, now listening to Sidney Bechet, riffing away and improvising over a New Orleans jazz version of Summertime. And, hey I have suddenly discovered that I seem to like New Orleans jazz and am delighted by Bechet. And how did I get to Bechet…….why Fordham reminded me how that cool, spacious and Garbarek melancholy Norwegian sax (it’s the sax, the gorgeous, dirty, blue, longing filled sax) takes American free-form jazz and links it with his own traditions. Or, to quote Louis Armstrong ‘Jazz is what you are’ And Garbarek was inspired by Coltrane, so another journey beckons. (Bechet, as I discovered, was also a master of the clarinet)

Fordham’s slim, jammed full of goodies book is excellently structured. He gives the reader a breathlessly fast whistle stop jazz history tour, from origins to now, and then backtracks by breaking down each genre/movement in jazz, introducing us chronologically to the visionary innovators. He looks ahead to jazz’s future journey, provides a glossary to those confusing terms, and even a listening guide, which thanks to YouTube, streaming and all means that it gets possible, in the comfort of home to dip and pick and shimmy and mix hearing a track here and a track there – hence the Bechet.

This is a brilliant book!

John Fordham

John Fordham

I do have one serious (makes frowning face) criticism of this book, but it can’t prevent recommendation. Some daftie (all style over content) has decided it would be no doubt a cool and groovy idea to have a few pages which are coloured pale grey, rather than white…and to text them with white, rather than black, type. I almost flung the book, hard across the room. The only way to render this readable was to raise the book to eyelevel and hold it horizontal to my eyeline rather than the normal vertical reading of a text. Klutz! Idiot! Did they think this was `jazzy?!!. (Curiously this is LESS problematic on Kindle’s ‘Look Inside’ version. Occasional typos also litter the text – Jan Gararabek at one point! Fortunately there are not TOO many of those wretched white on pale grey pages, but each is an aberration to the idea that form and function should together be a thing of beauty.

‘The Knowledge’ is a series of slim, short books on various topics written by specific experts in their fields, eg ‘Red Wine’ I would like to offer myself as an author of a forthcoming book which they could publish, called, simply, The Knowledge: Liqueur Filled Dark Chocolates. I do hope the commissioning editor of the series is reading this, so that we can discuss how much and precisely which chocolates I am going to suggest they send me for my research………….

I received this for review from Amazon Vine, UK. Any chocolates consumed in the writing of this review were my own

The Knowledge: Jazz Amazon UK
The Knowledge: Jazz Amazon USA

Bill Clegg – Did You Ever Have A Family


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The web that has no single weaver

Did You Ever Have A FanilyI read Bill Clegg’s Connecticut set, Booker longlisted, novel of love, life and loss, slowly and carefully , in bite sized chunks, stopping often to unexpectedly find tears flowing, but without having any of that annoying feeling of being crassly manipulated by the author by Hollywoodesque swelling chords of literary candyfloss.

As can be discovered in the blurb/back jacket synopsis, the subject of the book is small town, small lives ordinary people and their histories. What Clegg manages beautifully, by concentrating on making these small lives individual and authentic, is to open the particular so that it becomes universal.

June Reid, a woman in her 50s is cultured, artistic and independent. She is one of the New York state weekend retreat holiday homers who are attracted to buying property in small town, or rural areas, and, as their numbers grow, end up changing the nature of those attractive suburbs and regions, in ways which can be both destructive and regenerative. In the end, June becomes a permanent resident of Wells, the small town in Litchfield County, Connecticut where the major events of this novel take place.


The novel opens early in the morning on her daughter, Lolly’s wedding day. And opens to a terrible tragedy. A mysterious and violent fire, cause and perpetrator (if any) unknown, has utterly destroyed June’s house, and all who were sleeping within it – Lolly, her prospective husband Will, Lolly’s father – June and he had separated years earlier – and Luke, June’s much younger lover. So, all those whom June loved, her past, all of her present, and all of her future have vanished in flame and smoke.

Clegg unfolds his story not through the form of a linear narrative. Instead, each individual, whether peripheral to the story, for example, the son of the local woman who made Lolly and Will’s wedding cake, or more central, like Will’s father, have chapters within which their own past and present stories of relationship to June and her dead are laid out for us. The terrible events are seen through the filters of these characters, their natures, and sometimes their own histories.


The pleasing, initially separated into strands, structure is like the dynamic weaving of a web, more than it is `putting pieces together in a jigsaw’. Every strand of the web will be, in the end, woven into a central hub. The book is expressing the `six degrees of separation’ effect – any life can and will intersect, through connections, with millions of others. And, as Clegg unobtrusively reminds us, all have their own, rich, stories to tell. Some stories are shot through with dramatic tragedy – murder, rape, misogynistic violence, deep racism; others are quieter, smaller, the everyday occurrences of getting by, raising children, caring for parents, looking out for a neighbour – but all stories are given their value. In fact, in `Did You Ever Have A Family’ it is often the small moments of kindness which have to glimmer out as being of much greater endurance and persistence than the mindless – or, worse, the conscious, chosen acts of violence, cruelty and destruction. This is without a doubt a deeply tragic book – but also, one which is full of the small perennial shoots of empathy, compassion and affirmation which do insist on growing, even when all around, devastation and destruction are all which can be initially felt and seen. Perhaps those green shoots happen because of the devastation.

No one ever accused me of being a soft touch, but when something like what happened at June Reid’s that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters. Which is why, when you stumble upon something you can do, you do it. So that’s what I did

The `who did it, who was responsible, and why’ – in other words, the thriller aspect to the story, is not the important focus of the book. Bill Clegg has not written a page turner in that way. Rather than the story of `find the perp’, it is the weaving of the interconnecting web which matters. The connections make everything possible, we all become responsible for everything, both the green growing and the smoking wasteland.

It’s a beautifully written book, a quiet book, whispering rather than shouting showily at Bill Cleggthe reader. I suspect that though a rightful long list, it probably lacks the daring, stylistic innovation or size of subject matter to go shortlist. Watch me be proved wrong!

I received this as an advanced review copy from Amazon Vine UK. It will published on 25th August.

Did You Ever Have A Family Amazon UK
Did You Ever Have A Family Amazon UK

Patricia Highsmith – Strangers On A Train


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How to plan the Perfect Murder

Strangers On A TrainStrangers On A Train, is, as is usual with a Highsmith novel, intriguing.

Two men meet by chance on a long, overnight, train journey.

Wealthy, dissolute, needy, alcoholic Charles Bruno is classically and dysfunctionally Oedipal. He hates his father, and is unusually close to his mother who is doting and overindulgent. Bruno has achieved nothing in his life, and is progressively wasting it, surrendering to infantile ragings and sulkings, unable to take responsibility for himself. He is nevertheless a man of high intelligence, possessed of a curious puppydoggish charm, with an odd sort of compulsive charisma which can overpower seemingly stronger characters.

Guy Haines is his (seemingly) polar opposite. He is a rising star in the world of architecture. A man of vision in his field, he is creative, dynamic, self-motivated, hard-working, innovative and highly ambitious. He is clarity and light to Bruno’s muddy, confused formlessness. However, Guy does have one seemingly fatal mistake in his past – an early marriage to a chaotic, feckless and unsuitable woman. The reason for Guy’s presence on the train is he is travelling to Metcalf in order to insist that Miriam gives him the divorce he has been after for so long, and which she is withholding. And this despite the fact that the marriage ended due to her infidelities. Guy is intending to marry his true soulmate, Anne, a woman who is his own source of lightness – self-motivated, warm, creative, balanced and intelligent. She embodies the clarity, reason and intelligence he aspires to develop still further in himself.

So what could two such dissimilar men find to connect them together, following a passing-the-time conversation on a long journey?

Bruno unveils a fantasy, a seemingly offensive and ridiculous idea – the two men, who are thrown together by chance, unknown to each other, unlikely to ever meet again, should commit the perfect, because motiveless, murder for each other. Bruno will kill Miriam; Guy, Bruno’s father. Now of course upright, cerebral, reasoning, Plato-reading Guy recognises that Bruno is a little deranged, and quite pathetic………….

Farley Granger (Guy) and Robert Walker (Bruno) in the Hitchcock film

Farley Granger (Guy) and Robert Walker (Bruno) in the Hitchcock film

Clearly things are going to happen, and the central relationship in the book will be that between the two diametrically opposed men, one `good’ one `bad’, one strong and one weak. And it is the subtly insidious changeover between the two, how the weak becomes strong, and the strong weakened. Highsmith is always fascinatingly deeply delving into dark psychology, into the shadow self, and is terrific on sabotaged lives, particularly where the sabotage is self administered.

She sets up from the start the reader to be on the side of the upright Guy, who is always referred to in narration by his first name, just as in the third person narration sociopath Bruno is distanced from us, the reader, by using his surname.

What I particularly like about Patricia Highsmith’s take on characters who are dysfunctional, or journeying to become so, is that not only is she excellent in winding up the tension higher and higher, but she makes the reader collude in deviant and aberrant behaviour. Even in Strangers on a Train the reader may find that they want one of the murderers to get away with their horrible crime. In some ways `Strangers’ almost acts as a precursor to her later series with a wonderfully charming plausible villain – Tom Ripley, in the Ripley series of books. What is dreadful is that we want Ripley to succeed, she makes us party to events, and makes us identify with Ripley. In `Strangers’, Bruno, the sociopath, is too much of a loser for that to happen, we sit inside Guy’s head as he steadily departs from his upright path and comes closer and closer to inhabiting `Bruno world’

It took me some time to finish this book – my hands were sweating too much, and I was feeling too nauseous and anxious. As this was a re-read, I knew what was going to happen. It’s Highsmith’s skill that it is the why and the how of the story which work so well , not only the `what happens next and in the end’ .

Though I must admit that the mechanics of the final scene in the book failed to be Patricia-Highsmithquite plausible to me (can’t say more, spoilers – though telephones play a part)

And I had at some point seen the loosely related Hitchcock film – much was changed – starring Farley Granger as Guy – turned into a tennis player – and Robert Walker as Bruno. And Hitch’s ending had nothing to do with Highsmith’s! Hitch, unusually, made a much more saccharine film than Highsmith’s uncomfortably disturbing walk in the shadows

Strangers On A Train Amazon UK
Strangers On A Train Amazon USA

Arvo Part – Tintinnabuli – The Tallis Scholars


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Happy Birthday, Arvo Pärt, from The Tallis Scholars

TintinnabuliThe Tallis Scholars’ tribute to one of my favourite composers, Arvo Pärt, in his 80th year, is a beautifully executed performance of some of Pärt’s shorter choral works

Pärt is a deeply reflective composer. Many of his compositions are intensely transcendent, mystical, numinous. He is unostentatious, there is little flamboyant, bravura, glamorous expression, and perhaps because of that ability to strip to a sparse and sometimes simple core his works are profoundly intense.

The Tallis Scholars, under the direction of Peter Phillips, like Pärt himself, get their individual personality vocals out of the way, and let the music itself sing, apparently effortlessly.

My only cavil is a curious one, to do with programming and the generous length of the CD itself.


Because most of Pärt’s works, even the lightest, have such a powerful intensity it became (for this listener) too overwhelming to listen straight through to 8 works, as most of them left me rather reeling in an altered state.

Back in the old days of vinyl records, the limits of equipment and disc meant that a record was around 20 minutes maximum per side, and listening rather became structured into a roughly 40 minute whole, with a half way break to turn over. But because CDs can be far longer, the buyer can have a feeling of being cheated at paying the same price for a 40 minute CD as for a far longer one, so there is a subtle push coming from the buyer wanting more for their buck, and producers, compilers and the like stuff the package more fully. And sometimes pieces, however well written or performed, do feel like ‘fillers’

This was certainly the case for me here. There are some standout pieces, and a more modest CD length might have lost 2 or 3 of the works, and kept every piece as a stunning, shining jewel. It isn’t that any of the works are poor, it is that some of them are exceptional and I rather wanted all of them to be so. I would have lost Which Was The Son Of, The Woman With The Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar.

The opening 7 movement Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen is surely one of the jewels. Tallis use 2 voices to each of the vocal lines. This particular piece effortlessly rings with Pärt’s trademark ‘tintinnabuli’, those bell like overtones, the close, beautifully on the edge of discordance, edgy close harmonies. There is something about this kind of harmonic work which, every time, tugs the heart, and causes tears to flow. Some kind of impossible longing for musical resolution, whilst also staying within what is unresolved.

The bookend piece which closes the CD, Triodion (the opening and the closing pieces are the longest by far, each about 13 minutes) is another, different, stunner. The text of this piece is in English. Most of the pieces – all sacred texts, or extracts from the Bible, are in Latin, and the CD comes with a good liner, giving the texts in several translations

In Triodion, which must surely have been fiendish to perform, though Tallis do it Arvoseemingly without strain and effort, Pärt overlaps and opposes rhythms and sung lines in the same way that he usually does with the harmonics. He creates a dynamic with those tight, unusual harmonies which are more familiar in some of the Eastern European countries than in Western European music, and here the addition of the pleasing and diverging entry points to the sung lines is delicious, a kind of tease and tickle to the eardrum which made me shiver with delight

These two pieces in particular are the ones which draw me in, to listen and experience most closely.

I hope Arvo appreciated his tribute from Tallis!

Arvo Pärt – Tintinnabuli – The Tallis Scholars Amazon UK
Arvo Pärt – Tintinnabuli – The Tallis Scholars Amazon USA

Neil Gaiman – The Sleeper and The Spindle. Illustrated by Chris Riddell


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Fairy-tale mash-up bon-bon

The Sleeper and The SpindleI hesitated a lot about reviewing this here, as it only just makes my 4 star minimum, rounded up from 3 1/2 for the real book only (and a generous 1 star for the Kindle or ebook version). Do NOT get this as an download for a dedicated ereader

Chris Riddell’s illustrations are at least 50% of the delight of this, you will rue the day if you do eread. (I did, and I do) Secondly, this is not really for children – at least not very young ones, its a little too sophisticated and unsettling. I think a child should probably have a 2 digit birthday before embarking. And it may be particularly welcomed by girls due to the strong central character, who is a queen, not a princess and boldly goes where princes fear to tread!

Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and The Spindle, is a kind of mash-up hybrid of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves (except that austerity has obviously hit fairy-land too, as we are down to only 3) and The Sleeping Beauty – though there are sly little nods to several other fairy tales which creep in as well – it’s a bit like `spot the fairy celebrity!’ and I won’t reveal them because it would spoil a reader’s enjoyment and `aha’! moments

Queen and Dress

Part of the delight of an earlier Gaiman novel, The Graveyard Book (which I have in paper version) was Riddell’s illustrations, so I was expecting good things with this one. Sometimes illustrations fare reasonably well in the ereader format, but this is not the case here, as Riddell’s style is so full of fine details, which can’t really be seen properly, as if you try to zoom in, to get detail, you then lose the whole. This story (it is a mere 72 pages long, with several pages of illustrations) though full of some lovely little twists and spooky strangenesses, not to mention redundancies of princes, who needs them! – is a moderately long short story, a mere mouthful of a read. It seems overpriced on eReader, purely because those lovely illustrations, black, white, gold, which you can see on the Look Inside, don’t translate into the dedicated eRead format.

Chris Riddell

Chris Riddell

Those who are happy to read on other devices, to get colour, and are not bothered by reading on traditional screens, could try a download sample and see if it works for you

The story on its own is probably a little slight; unillustrated, I’d probably have felt a little cheated and wished that Gaiman had published several different shortish fairy tale mash-ups in one volume.

It’s not in the same league, illustration or story-wise with Gaiman’s The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains which was beautifully illustrated by Eddie Campbell, and won a ringing 5 star from me (in real book version) but that was because the illustrations were in full and luscious colour, and far more comprehensively integrated with the text.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

This story has a more technical mix of horror and humour, but is inventive, as Gaiman reliably is

I believe it may ONLY be available on eRead in the States at the moment, with wood book becoming available in September. Wait, Wait, WAIT!

The Sleeper and The Spindle Amazon UK
The Sleeper and The Spindle Amazon USA

Paula McLain – Circling the Sun


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Beryl Markham : The Splendid Outcast

Circling the SunPaula McLain’’s well- written second book, Circling The Sun, a biography-as-fiction of Beryl Markham, aviator, horse-trainer, free woman, adventurer, leaves me with the same kind of uneasy questions as did her first novel, The Paris Wife, another biography-as-fiction about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Those questions are about the ethics of biography-as-fiction, particularly with those who may have still living children.

Biography itself may of course be flawed, even ‘facts’ are subject to interpretation, but the general tenet of a good biography is not to assume the fictional mantle of identifying what the subject was thinking and feeling – unless of course they left evidence of this, or perhaps there was a third party who reported conversations and recollections (those these of course may be subjectively and selectively filtered by that third party)

The problem (and of course the beauty) of biography as fiction is that the fiction writer deals in what a character feels and thinks, not merely what they do, or have done to them by others. The adding of the fiction writer’s inventive, empathetic, imaginative skills to ‘real’ people, makes the fiction biography SEEM more real than the objectively researched biography, merely reporting verifiable facts. This is precisely because we are taken into the added dimension of understanding and thinking and feeling what a person is like, which the fiction writer has imagined, invented, supposed, and which has been filtered through their own sensibilities.

Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham was an unusually bold, free-spirited woman, even amongst the adventurous time and place which was the British ex-pat community of British East Africa between the wars. Born Beryl Clutterbuck, the daughter of a racehorse trainer, the family emigrated from England when she was 4. At a remarkably young age, barely out of her teens, she was forcing her way into the world of racehorse training under her own steam. This was a male-only commercial activity, and Beryl was the first woman in Kenya to gain a license to train horses – something she continued to do until her 80s. In 1936 she achieved another first, after discovering another passion – flying. She was the first woman to make the solo Atlantic flight from East to West – that is, against the prevailing winds. The first solo Atlantic crossing by a female, Amelia Earhart, from West to East, WITH the winds, had happened 4 years earlier. Earhart of course became a symbol and a figurehead. She mysteriously died young, when, on another flight, her plane disappeared. She was also a woman who undoubtedly did good works, and channelled her adventurous, free-spirit into activities which were of use to society at large – promoting both flying itself and training and championing other female aviators. Markham’s rackety personal life was probably in part responsible for her fall into obscurity

Beryl Markham, triumphant after completing her Transatlantic flight, complete with landing injury

Beryl Markham, triumphant after completing her Transatlantic flight, complete with landing injury

My unease with McLain’s book is this : had this been a fiction about invented people ‘like’ Beryl Markham, Denys Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen and the rest – using different names, with an explanation that it was closely modelled on known events of their lives, I would absolutely, unreservedly, have five starred this. But the presentation is that this is true, because the events are true – it is an ‘as if’ biography. I was really interested to find out more about Markham, and what I found seemed to make her an even more interesting and far more complicated – and – perhaps, a less admirable (according to our morality) character than McLain makes her. For example, she seems to have been a woman who bestowed her sexual favours much more widely than McLain suggests. There is a kind of noble sanitising going on. And in a strange way, this kind of dishonours the reality of who someone was, as if their reality is not acceptable.. Of course, it’s made more difficult by the fact that by all accounts neither Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) or Markham herself, in their own writings about Africa and their lives, are showers and tellers of the stuff we are always so fascinated by – what goes on beneath the sheets.

A biography of Markham was written, by Mary S. Lovell, who interviewed Markham in her 80s, and the biography was authorised by Markham. It also suggests that ‘the love of her life’ was not the one which is the central one in this book. So, again, I was left very uneasy that this woman’s ‘truth’ had been manipulated because it made a better story. I suspect this was because the Out of Africa film familiarised us with Blixen and Finch-Hatton, whereas some other real people are less well known, and have not been the subject of posthumous interest and speculation

By then we’d climbed above the coffee plants and thorn thickets and a narrow, twisting riverbed winking with quartz. The hill flattened out into a kind of plateau, and from there we could see straight down into the Rift Valley, its crags and ridges like pieces of a broken bowl. The rain had finally cleared, but a billowy ring of clouds rested over Kilimanjaro to the south, its flat top painted with snow and shadows.

As stated earlier, this fiction is a beautifully written, captivating one, but it is probably more of a fiction than a biography, and it is a shame that that is not made clear in the afterword

One of the real strengths of McLain’s writing is the evocation of place, the longing for, and meaning of place. I underlined many passages which rather stopped the breath, painting a vision of landscape which was both intensely itself and ‘more than’, both real and metaphor. She is excellent at describing that yearning for ‘more’ – not more goods, but more meaning. And a life as large, wayward and brave (not to mention, wilful) as Markham’s undoubtedly was, rather suggest a person whose drive was to be unconfined.

There are things we find only at our lowest depths. The idea of wings and then wings themselves. An ocean worth crossing one dark mile at a time. The whole of the sky. And whatever suffering has come is the necessary cost of such wonders….the beautiful thrashing we do when we live

I certainly recommend this as a piece of fiction, but not as a truthful biographical fiction.

I’m really pleased to have been offered this as an ARC, for review purposes, by the publishers, and am now hot on the trail to read Lovell’s biography, Straight on Till Morning: The Life of Beryl Markham , Markham’s own autobiographical book West With The Night, and Karen Blixen’s (Isak Dinesen’s) far better known account of the time and the place, Out of Africa. Not to mention finding and dusting off my CD of Sidney Pollacks’ 1985 film of this last book, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Complete with John Barry’s marvellous soundtrack

I do love it when a book sends me so clearly off in a direction to various others!Paula McLain

The book is released in the States, but according to Amazon, will not be published in the UK as a hardback until the end of August, though it is available now on Kindle

Circling The Sun Amazon UK
Circling The Sun Amazon USA

Nancy Mitford – The Pursuit of Love


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“My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle”

The Pursuit of LoveRe-reading Nancy Mitford’s stylish, witty tale of an eccentric, aristocratic family fiddling whilst Rome burns (or, as the 1930s advances towards war) was the perfect weaning/antidote to my recent immersion in a couple of major, towering, American novels (Steinbeck, Yates)

The problem with reading enormous, wonderful, meaningful writing, is that it becomes impossible to follow. Writers of brilliance only mean that more mundane writers are met with an expression of distaste, by this unforgiving reader. My normal ‘weaning’ is to read a non-fiction book, but I’m afraid that Yates left me with absolutely no time for a non-fiction writer who was not also a writer, a fine writer. I abandoned with irritation a non-fiction which was a crass combination in style of dry academia and Reader’s Digest overblown.

And then, oh joy, I came across The Pursuit of Love in a second hand shop. A well written re-read, a world away from the towering ones, is of course, the answer.

The Mitford Family

The Mitford Family

Nancy Mitford was of course, one of the Mitford Sisters : Mitford’s own background as the daughter of Baron Redesdale with her 6 siblings, clearly provided the imaginative springboard for the eccentric Radlett family of this book.

The Radletts are a remarkably opinionated and individual family. Paterfamilias Matthew is an irascible high Tory, his wife Sadie is permanently surprised that she seems to have produced a large brood of children. The central story of The Pursuit of Love is that of the second daughter, beautiful, sentimental, romantic, wilful Linda, and it is told by her cousin Fanny, who is a much more sober, grounded character. No doubt in response to the fact that her mother, known to all as ‘The Bolter’ abandoned her at an early age to ‘bolt’ in rackety fashion, with a succession of unsuitably lovers. Linda shows some worrying signs of being drawn to overwhelming love affairs, from an early age, emulating Fanny’s mother.

The joy of the book is that the voices of the characters are wonderfully drawn, succinctly observed, and there is a sure narrative drive, and a kind of snapshot of a class and a time, of course cranked up into ‘types’ which could be clichés if they were not written with such sparkle and sharp observation.

What really struck me in reading the book is that although the manner is frothy, there are some quite painful events within the pages – abandoned and unloved children, war, death. But the manner in which tragedies are experienced is pragmatic and rather ‘not talked about’ It’s a world away from our emoting culture. Some of the characters certainly appear to behave extremely shallowly, and have shallow concerns, but it would be a mistake to believe they ARE shallow. It’s more that the approved manner of being is to make light of misery, to get on with things, not to indulge emotions

Here is a typical little gem. Linda has given birth and Fanny (who is pregnant) is visiting her in hospital

At this point the Sister came in and Linda introduced us……She went away and presently returned carrying a Moses basket full of wails

‘Poor thing,’ said Linda indifferently. ‘It’s really kinder not to look’

‘Don’t pay any attention to her’, said the Sister. ‘She pretends to be a wicked woman, but it’s all put on’

I did look, and, deep down among the frills and the lace, there was the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.

‘Isn’t she sweet,’ said the Sister. ‘Look at her little hands.’

I shuddered slightly, and said:
‘Well, I know it’s dreadful of me, but I don’t much like them as small as that; I’m sure she’ll be divine in a year or two.’

The walls now entered on a crescendo, and the whole room was fulfilled with hideous noise.

‘Poor soul.’ Said Linda. ‘I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister’

This is (to my mind) wonderfully funny, plus saying stuff which is/was probably Nancy Mitford Head and shouldersunthinkable – a lack of maternal feeling – but exploding the received ‘normal’ idea of mother and child instantaneous bonding with a feather light, nonetheless razor sharp barb

Mitford is frothy, light-touch, sharp and elegantly understated in her humour. ‘Pursuit’ is at its best, for me, in the early stages of the book, where the central characters are in their early teens, on the verge of no longer being children, but young girls who will soon ‘come out’ and enter the marriage market.

The Pursuit of Love Amazon UK
The Pursuit of Love Amazon USA


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