That Sugar Film


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Sweet and deadly

thatsugarfilm_pic1Now this is a film which is right up my street, as I am enormously interested in the politics of the food industry and how it deliberately dupes us and deceives us – and even more interested in matters related to health and wellbeing.

Damon Gameau, an Australian actor and film-maker did not really tell me anything I didn’t already know (because I read a lot of books about the subject) but, my did he tell it entertainingly!

It is because this film is not just talking heads stuff by the prophets of doom that I rate it so highly. Neither does it fall into the other side trap of being all pizazz and flashy dumbed down soundbites without any reference and substance.

Instead, there is a very assured tightrope walked between giving lots of facts, having various experts talk through the science of how the body metabolises sugar, in its different forms, all accompanied by `turns’ by various luminaries, including Stephen Fry, giving us some of the scientific information in a more engaging and witty way.

There is even, I kid you not, a star turn rock star number with Gameau as a kind of Presley/Alvin Stardust/Rocky Horror combo sugar devil in an outrageous pink jumpsuit leering seductively at a group of babes dunking themselves in chocolate mousse! This by the way is Gameau at the end of his 60 day 40 teaspoons of the stuff ‘normal Australian sugar consumption’.

Behind all the fun `sweeteners’ though, is a shocking story (one we DO know, though, it seems, ignore) Gameau engages in a particularly shocking experiment to show the devastating effects of sugar.

Gameau’s diet had been completely sugar free for three years, and he had not drunk alcohol for about ten years. He ate a particularly healthy, wholefood diet. At the start of the film he is clearly someone glowing with vitality and energy, and when tested by nutritionists and medics, was pronounced extremely healthy, with no markers for fatty liver, heart problems, or raised blood lipid levels and the like.

The `experiment’ was that for 60 days he would keep to the same calorific intake, – normally most of his calories came from healthy fats, protein and complex carbohydrates – but would consume the amount of sugar and hidden sugar (processed foods) eaten and drunk by the average Australian – 40 teaspoons a day. But he would not do this by consuming junk food, instead, it would be by the consumption of food wrongly supposed to be `healthy’ – for example, fruit juice, smoothies, `high energy’ muesli bars and the like.

Part of the lie we have been fed is that ‘calorie control’ is where it’s at – but calories from different food sources do not metabolise the same way – the calories in sugar behave differently in the body than the calories in fat and protein

By 18 days in, this vibrant trim man was looking more than a little pasty and jaded, puffy around the eyes, which had lost their sparkle. His skin and hair looked dull, he was visibly developing a paunch. He was also suffering mood swings. Part of the brief for the experiment was that he would keep up his normal good exercise patterns. The `normal sugar consumption of the average Australian’ diet was eating into his energy, creating those sugar rush manic surges followed quickly by listless slumps and the inevitable (cocaine like) cravings for more of that white death stuff. He was finding it hard to exercise, as he lacked the energy.


Even more alarmingly his liver was showing signs of damage after 18 days – liver cells dying, releasing their contents, becoming cirrhotic, the signs of fatty liver disease. Fortunately, at the end of the 60 days, and the resumption of his old, healthy diet, all the bad effects had gone after a couple of months, though Gameau did say that the first week of cutting out the addictive sugar (it affects brain chemistry and hits the `reward’ centre of the brain and its neurochemistry exactly like cocaine) was pretty tough, and he certainly had `cold turkey’ symptoms

If Gameau and the visible evidence of the shocking changes sugar produced on him are not enough to make spoon on its way to sugar dish pause, there is the heartbreaking 26 tooth extraction on a Kentucky boy, just shy of his 18th birthday, caused primarily by a variant of Pepsi called Mountain Dew, which he had imbibed since he was 3.

Also explored tellingly in this film are the obvious parallels between big tobacco and the sugar industry. Just as the tobacco companies leaned muscle and spurious science funding scientists to do research to deliver skewed results to disprove links between smoking and disease, so the sugar industry does exactly the same.

This is a wonderful, hard hitting film, delivering its punches of fact wrapped nicely in a ….lethal candy coating. `Sweet,’ being so much linked to pleasure and reward, is hard wired in our brains BECAUSE in nature readily available fructose , is RARE, so we are programmed to want it, and respond to it, as a useful source of energy which can be stored as a long term energy resource, as fat. The problem for us of course being that now, fructose is readily available and what was an evolutionary advantage is now the sweet kiss of death.

I have one disappointment – little mention is made about artificial sweeteners, which carry as many, and in some cases, MORE problems associated with their use. Sweeteners, and the perfidious ubiquitousness of THEIR presence, as food manufacturers respond to and create new possibilities for our desire for that sweet taste, are every bit as dangerous. Many, for reasons of weight control, have got as far as checking the labels and avoiding sugar in their processed food and drink, but are surrendering to the hugely profitable diet industry and ‘going diet food’. There have been plenty of studies about the artificials, but, again, these are not hugely funded because the funders are those big, powerful, vested interest concerns who of course are not going to be giving money to researchers to prove that their products are dangerous! A little mention is made of sweeteners in the Extras section of the DVD, but the lack of much information is likely to just see the sugarholics switch to sacchaholic behaviour, in the belief they might be sparing themselves from the dangers of fructose consumption. Not so

Bravo to Gameau, making such a brilliant documentary

He also authored a companion book, That Sugar Book, where a lot of the research Damon Gameaustudies are cited
That Sugar Book Amazon UK
That Sugar Book Amazon USA

I received the DVD as a review copy, from the Amazon Vine programme, UK. It will be released for sale on 27th July in the UK. A visit to Amazon USA site shows it is unavailable to view/buy. It probably just means that video rights have not yet been negotiated, but I smelt a conspiracy around the evil empire of sugar. Well, they suppressed studies showing the perfidious nature of the stuff, so surely, an indie film is small fry to them.

That Sugar Film DVD Amazon UK

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath


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A book to make the reader rage; a book to make the reader weep in shame and despair

John Steinbeck, Grapes

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel was both a colossus of a book, an infinitely worthy winner, and a far-from perfect book, a flawed book.

Reading it, with that mixture of complex, uncomfortable emotions plus a sense of, at times, a critical, not to mention slightly jaundiced eye, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, for the following eulogy, of the deeply flawed Antony, given by Cleopatra:

His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm
Crested the world. His voice was propertied
As all the tuned sphere, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder.

Of course this is hyperbole, but it also recognises ‘giants amongst men’

And this is such a flawed giant among novels. At a time where it is routine to praise the literary at-best-mediocre, as if it were exceptional, how can the shaken, uncomfortable, disturbed reader find words for a book such as this, written out of such a searing sense of a cruel and indifferent world, filled with a humankind sleepwalking towards its own destruction. This book is indeed gargantuan – in subject matter as well as number of pages.

On the front of the paperback version I started to read (before downloading from Kindle, as there was just too much I needed to underline) was the following quote from Steinbeck:

I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied

The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 when the machinery of war was providing a terrible solution to the stock market crash and depression of the 30s, which is the subject of this book. It is a book written out of white-hot, red-raw rage, disgust and righteous polemic against an indifferent, blinkered and self-obsessed capitalism.

The book follows the fortunes of one small family, the Joads, Oklahoma small farmers, homesteaders, as the move from small family farming to larger and larger conglomerates, changes and destroys our connections to the land itself, and to each other.

nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates, and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself

The Joads stand for the thousands of others, unnamed, the small men and women.

The crash of 29 had (as do more recent depressions and recessions today) ripple-down effects on all, and, as ever, the disadvantaged, those without much financial leeway, those whose belts are already notched tightly, have fewer places to go, fewest savings which can be made, the closer to the breadline they were, before fall.

Like thousands of other homesteaders, losing their land and their livelihood in the face of conglomerate rapacity, the Joads follow the lure of jobs to be had, fruit-picking (for virtually starvation wages) in California

Steinbeck for sure uses and manipulates his readers, hectors them, lectures them, throws the red book at them, shoves our faces up against our own indifference, our sentimentality, our complicity. Having lacerated us with bruising accounts of our hard-heartedness, of our denial of the beggars in our neighbourhood, he cunningly and deliberately rubs salt in our wounds by exploiting our sentimentality.

The deaths of many, through starvation and illness because of starvation, and the deaths and the suffering of some of the individuals whose journeys we follow, in the book are intercut with the casual death and suffering of animals, whether by our carelessness, or the carelessness of a red in tooth and claw natural world.

Where are we most hurt, where do we weep most – is it for the suffering of our own kind, or is it for the suffering of another species. I knew my tears and my grief for the death of an animal were manipulated by the writer. But I also knew why, and I knew what he was showing me about myself, and could not, in any way, fault his manipulation here.

Steinbeck shows how nature itself is struggle, a survivalist struggle – but draws a very different conclusion about the rightness of ‘survival of the fittest’ from that drawn by right-wingers; he does not take the slightly later Randian view of the triumph of individual struggle, rather, sees collectivism as the only solution, the choice which must be made.

He punches the reader, again and again, with the righteousness of left wing politics, the infamy of capital. Yes, we live in a world where it is now easy to see that communism and socialism (not to mention other isms) can be as self-serving of its own ideology, as much inclined to sacrifice the individual on the alter of its own drive to ‘progress’ and ‘the ends justify the means’ – but I don’t personally have any problem with his polemic, placed in its own time.

Artworks by Thomas Hart Benton in the Kindle download version of the book are stunning accompaniments to the text

Artworks by Thomas Hart Benton in the Kindle download version of the book are stunning accompaniments to the text

Yes, for sure there are long sections which are boring, where, for example, pages and pages are devoted to the hard graft of repairing cars – but, again, I don’t mind, because he is wanting to make the reader realise the skill and the dignity of manual work. And yes, there are also at times problems with trying to give a flavour of the speech of the common man – at times the setting down of dialect gets wearing, and makes characters sound a bit simple or idiotic (my prejudices showing, clearly) , whereas this is not what is intended, and I think, again, Steinbeck is trying to offset a literature which is written by, and for, the ruling classes and the intelligentsia.

I have to forgive all these ‘flaws’, these niceties, about what literature should be, how it should NOT be polemic, how we should NOT be so at times crassly manipulated, because this is a book whose power, whose beauty, whose hugeness overrides its imperfections.

My nerves are indeed ragged, I am sick and sore, hurt and confused. I feel as if I have been run over by a proverbial ten ton truck, repeatedly, and then, offered exquisite flowers, delicate, fragile moments, writing of transcendent glory, before, again Steinbeck punches me in the gut and delivers yet another knock-out blow, of polemic, putting me through the emotional wringer, or boring me with the innards of motors.

But I don’t care. This is a book which seethes with enormous power, and the roughness of its sometime edges are part of that power. ‘Perfection’ would be, in this case, something to inhibit the power.

I’m grateful, very grateful, to  my fellow blogger and friend FictionFan whose own superb review kicked me into reading this. Even if it may well be to the detriment of whatever-I’m-reading-next as I can’t NOT read, but what do you turn to after reading amongst giants?

Finally, this particular Kindle download version is brilliant, interlaced as it is with wonderful reproductions of paintings and drawings and stills from the movie which was made of this book. Thanks, again, to FictionFan for persuading me to this version .

The book of course was filmed, powerfully, by John Ford. starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, with Jane Darwell as the towering, dignified figure of the matriarch of the family, Ma Joad. The reach of the film, like the reach of the book, was long.

Here  is a rather wonderful collage of edited sections of the film cut and accompanied by a Judy Collins version of the song ‘Brother, Can you spare a dime?’

I discovered that Woody Guthrie had composed and performed folk songs to Tom Joad, narrating his story (not included here, as they are spoilers). Not to mention, much later, Bruce Springsteen produced his own tribute to the power of Steinbeck’s book, reaching deep beyond its time : The Ghost of Tom Joad

Steinbeck’s book was both lauded, hence, that Pulitzer prize, and his later winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, – and banned in its year of publication from the public libraries and schools of parts of California, as the second part of the book is a searing indictment of the greed of Californian agribusiness. The Associated Farmers, opposed to the organisation of labour, were one of the groupings instrumental in that ban, which was in place for 18 months. They for sure understood the power of this particular pen.

The Grapes Of Wrath, Kindle Illustrated Edition Amazon UK
The Grapes Of Wrath, Kindle Illustrated Edition Amazon USA

Jane Casey – The Last Girl


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A hotbed of rivalries

The Last Girl

Jane Casey’s The Last Girl is book 3 in a series written around the Met murder squad. Casey follows, particularly, the fortunes of her central character, Maeve Kerrigan, who in this book is a DC. Without having read any of the others I don’t know whether she moves up the ranks in later books!

I came to this after being worn down by my dear blogging friend FictionFan, whose ceaseless championing of Jane Casey meant I thought I’d give her a try! Can YOU resist FictionFan on full author championing mode? Here is her review of this title

What I particularly liked in this is the edgy, irritable relationship between Kerrigan, a thoughtful, intelligent young woman, and her immediate superior, DI Josh Derwent. Whereas Kerrigan has definite people skills and an understanding of psychology Derwent is a bull in the china shop, abrasive, intimidating, and an unremittingly sexist old dinosaur (like some of his fellow colleagues) Nevertheless, Kerrigan and Derwent have a curious kind of respect for each other, and are a good foil, in some ways. Most gloriously, Derwent is definitely in the Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes Gene Hunt mode. A man so crass, so eye-wateringly rude, that his dreadful ‘you can’t say that… can’t even THINK that’ pronouncements are darkly hilarious – because Maeve Kerrigan lets Derwent’s crassness just roll off her like water off a duck’s bag – she recognises he is a bit of a pathetic puppy under the bluster, and he is certainly no predator.

Crime scene

I would like to give a sample of their verbal exchanges but in order to do so, I might have to change the general suitability rating of material on this site. Derwent’s mouth needs scrubbing at times, with lysol and bleach! And a mere sample would probably be more offensive than it actually is, because the reader rather absorbs Kerrigan’s strength and perspicacity, as a point of view

The particular crime under investigation in this one, is the murder of the wife and daughter of an unlikeable defence barrister, Philip Kennford, who is indeed a sexual predator, a serial philanderer. And moreover someone who has a bad history as far as the police are concerned, getting vicious criminals who are definitely guilty, off, due to his brilliance at the bar. And he has made a lot of enemies.

Simultanously, along with the investigation of the domestic crime, is an ongoing enquiry into continuing gangland violence which is being overseen by Superintendant Godley, and this particular investigation will overlap the Kennford murder case. Not to mention begin to uncover some crossing the line activity within the Met itself.

The tight knit, incestuous jockeying for promotion and advantage within the police team, echoes nicely with the more brutal attempts to become top dog in the drugs related battles for who controls the street supply, with traditional South London godfathers facing new rivals moving in on the turf from Eastern Europe.

And it turns out that the Kennford family is itself a remarkably complicated one, as Kennford is on to his second marriage and has a string of discarded partners, some of whom may have been intimidated into having sex, by virtue of his professional power over them.

With several tribes snapping at each others heels like hyenas, jockeying for pole position, whether as alpha females within the confused collection of past and present women around Kennford, the rivalries around seniority and promotion in the police teams, and the most deadly playing out of the battle for control of London’s underworld, there is a lot of plot happening.

Casey creates interesting characters with believeable relationships, and I particularly enjoyed the police procedural – there’s not too much interminable detail around computers, it’s mainly unravelling what is going on between people.

The final denouement of the main murder, when it came, the unwinding, I have to say Jane CaseyI wasn’t completely enamoured of, not finding it fully credible.

Nonetheless, an enjoyable read.

The Last Girl Amazon UK
The Last Girl Amazon USA

Sean Michaels – Us Conductors


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Strange, ethereal music : Russia and America, between the wars;  the darkness of espionage and the gulag, leavened by love

Us ConductorsSean Michaels is a Canadian author, though born in Scotland, so maybe he can be claimed North of the Border!. He is known as the founder of a long-standing music blog, Said The Gramophone, and is also North American music correspondent for The Guardian.

Us Conductors, astonishingly, is his first novel, and won Canada’s version of the Man Booker, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Without having read the other nominations, perhaps I can’t comment : but this is an wonderful book, and I had completely surrendered to it by a handful of pages in, because, however the story was going to unfold, and whoever the characters were going to be, it was blazingly clear that here was a writer using language and imagery with beauty, conveying a lot with economy and precision. It made sense that this is a book about music (among other subjects). I think of notes, and the harmonics which arise from them, and I felt that quality in Michael’s use of language, realising  he was taking about more than one subject at a time :

Lev Sergeyvich Termen is not the voice of the ether. He is not the principle that turned glass into firefly. I am an instrument. I am a sound , being sounded, music being made, blood, salt and water manipulated inair. I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15th, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you.

Michaels teases the reader with the following statement, before the book begins

This book is mostly inventions

Having finished the book, I smiled even more broadly at the clever double meanings in his disclaimer, which is followed by a quote from Tennessee Williams

In memory, everything seems to happen to music

Leon/Lev Termen was a scientist and inventor, whose initial fame came through his invention of the theremin:  ‘ an electronic musical instrument in which the tone is generated by two high-frequency oscillators and the pitch controlled by the movement of the performer’s hand towards and away from the circuit’

Here is Termen demonstrating his invention

Termen was a believer in the Russian Revolution, and in his country. He travelled to America as part of a trade initiative for Russia, between the wars. The theremin, and his other electronic inventions  presented opportunities to demonstrate the dynamism of Russia, the brilliance of its scientists, and to generate capital. Also, it appears that under the aegis of trade, espionage possibilities were possible.

In America, which Termen found an exciting country, and one which welcomed his brilliance, both as someone who was an artist, and as someone who was a scientist, he met a woman who was to completely obsess him – a Lithuanian born violinist, Clara Reisenberg, (later Clara Rockmore).  Clara, in her teens, developed bone problems which cut short her burgeoning career as a violin virtuoso. However her musicality, and her meeting with Termen and the theremin, meant she studied how to play this, not as some kind of gimmick, but as an instrument in its own right.

Clara Rockmore and Leon Termen. Wiki Commons

Clara Rockmore and Leon Termen. Wiki Commons

And I must admit, whilst sourcing media for this review, I listened to many Youtube videos of people playing the theremin, and thought ‘well it’s a bit of a gimmick, really’, until finding some recordings of Clara. Here she is playing Saint Saens’ The Swan.

Although Termen by all accounts proposed to Clara several times, she married another.

Meanwhile, Termen was inventing various security devices as well as refining musical ones, but was probably involved in darker matters. His loyalty to his mother country and those who were ‘minding’ him in his sojourn in America, led to his involvement as an industrial spy for Russia.

And then, in 1938 he was suddenly recalled to Russia, where he found himself regarded as a class enemy, was imprisoned and sent to the gulag.

None of these pieces of information are really spoilers, as they were rather what I gleaned the book was about from the publisher blurb

I decided not to investigate the finer points of biographical truth in Michaels’ astonishing novel, ‘this book is mostly inventions’, till I had finished. And indeed at the end of the book the author does reveal what is true, and what might not strictly be true, but may have been pieced together from research and also from creative imagination

Because it trusts the worker’s own senses, not the knowledge locked  away in the lessons and textbooks of the elites, the theremin becomes a revolutionary device – a levelling of the means of musical production

These are the bare bones of the book, a story of a man with a rather remarkable life, but this is far more than a biography, it is of course a work of literary fiction, a gorgeous thing, a meditation on the power of music and art, on politics, on Russia, on love as a compass needle for a life.

I was, often, breathless reading this, particularly those sections set in the gulag

The winter came quickly, in place of fall. I lived only barely, by coincidence. At the end of every workday, wrecked, ruined, we trudged back into the camp. We queued for our evening mean: a morsel of herring, a spoonful of pea soup, bread. Someone might steal the soup or fish, but never the scrap of limp brown bread. The prisoners had made this rule themselves. This is humanity, at the end of the world: the refusal to tear away a piece of bread

I was delighted to be offered this as an ARC from the publishers, via Netgalley. It is already published in the States, but UK publication is not till 16th of July

My digital ARC was a little littered with formatting signs and instructions such as Sean Michaelsphysical page numbers mid text. But the formats included one, strangely apposite one. In place of symbols which might indicate a change of scene or subject matter, a shift of emphasis within a chapter or to indicate page and chapter breaks, was the use of the letter A

A is of course the note the orchestra tunes to, taken from the oboe. This typo sent a shiver up and down my spine, as it rather echoed the ‘true North, or the true note, of Clara, which Termin, in this novel, pitched to, over that complex life

I know i have failed to do justice to this book. It is, sure, a gripping and immersive story. The central character is wonderfully expressed, and the reader rather wants to stay with him, and listen to the narrative and the meaning of his life, as he tries, in various ways, to make sense of himself to himself, and his sense of the world he lives in, both its geography, its politics and culture, and the times themselves. What I found here is what I always yearn for – a kind of beauty. That doesn’t mean ‘pretty’ – beauty, in Yeats’ marvellous phrase, can also be ‘a terrible beauty’ But it will always mean what Keats said

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Us Conductors Amazon UK
Us Conductors Amazon USA

And finally, nothing at all to do with this thoroughly wonderful book, but I found ithis curious, weird, irresistible Youtube theremin extravaganza It’s certainly not beautiful, and you do have to sit through a speaker addressing the world’s largest theremin orchestra event in Japanese, and break through the boredom of ‘Is anything going to happen?’, but for your unbelieving delectation and delight :

Norman Collins – London Belongs To Me


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A kind of minor Dickensian-rich London: warmth, humour, seediness and pathos 23rd December 1938 – 25th December 1940

The girls had most of them already exchanged Christmas cards, There was no obvious reason why they should have done so. They had spent the whole of the previous twelve months sharing the same office, and drinking tea together at eleven o’clock every morning and 3.30 every afternoon, and giving each other pieces of chocolate and aspirins. But for the past two or three days they had been behaving as though they had been parted for years. They had been distributing views of snow-bound coaches and lighted taverns and children tobogganing, and robins and boys bearing holly and old bellmen crying ‘Oyez’, as though Noel and the 18th century were the same thing, and life depended on celebrating both.

London Belongs To MeNorman Collins, was a writer, a sometime publisher with Gollancz, creator of the Left Book Club series of books, and was later in charge of BBC Radio’s Light Programme. Later still, he was controller of television, when we only had the BBC. A single television channel. And even later, he helped form the Independent Television Authority.

In other words, this was a rather busy man, who nevertheless wrote 16 novels and 2 plays.

This particular novel, published in 1945, and starting during the phony peace, but with the potential for war as an undercurrent, and ending during the Blitz, is a veritable house brick at well over 700 pages, and in fairly small print too. Though it fairly whirls absorbingly along, with a terrific mix of memorable, believable ‘characters’ – all pretty well ordinary working class Londoners. There is crime, – a central crime, and we know who did it, – there are romances, some of which are doomed to fail, others of which are more hopeful – there is seediness, there is deception, class-consciousness, socialism and fascism on the streets, penury, near-penury, greed, spiritualism, fake and possibly not quite  – and oodles of affection for London itself, for ordinary people living ordinary lives, and displaying all the wonderful combination of nobility, generosity and mean-mindedness which we all do, all-mashed up together.

Collins takes a Kennington house, 10 Dulcimer Street, whose widowed owner lets out rooms. Under the one roof are the Jossers – a clerk on the verge of retirement, his wife and Doris, their office worker daughter. There is Connie, an ageing ex-‘actress’ now a cloakroom attendant at a seedy club, there is a devout widow Mrs Boon and her grown-up motor mechanic son, Percy, with impossible aspirational dreams. There is an overweight man, Mr Puddy, moving from unskilled job to unskilled job, with adenoids and an obsession with food. There is the money counting, terrified of poverty landlady, Mrs Vizzard, inhabiting the meanest room in the house so she can let the rest And there is also another room to let, waiting on a new tenant ………….

Out of this motley crew of characters and their own close friends and families, Collins weaves a satisfying, well crafted, most enjoyable tale.

Mrs Josser roused herself. She looked meaningly at Doris
It’s time that somebody got some tea’ she said
She didn’t really expect Doris to get tea…..But what she did want was to have her offer
As it turned out, however, it was Cynthia, silly fragile little Cynthia, who volunteered
Let me get it’ she said, with a giggle as she got up………….
But Mrs Josser had risen too. She had no intention whatever of allowing an ex-usherette to go chipping bits off her tea service………………..
Mind Baby’ she said warningly. ‘She’s going over to my work-box again.’
Pins were exactly what Baby wanted, She was a substantial and determined sort of child. Taken over all, she had the appearance of a small but thick-set police-woman: if crossed, it seemed that she might start blowing a whistle or applying a half-Nelson. At this moment she was stretching both hands grimly towards the work-box and pushing out her nether lip to indicate her feelings in the matter.

I love the economical way all the undercurrents of family life, not to mention the little subterfuges, deep waters and thunderstorms of normal day to day human relationships are deftly and lightly sketched in by Collins. His humour is in no way…..there’s a joke coming..JOKE IS ON THE WAY, just rapid, incisive images, reflections, which are funny – but often, also full of a kind of pathos

The book was turned into a film directed by Sidney Gilliat, with Richard Attenborough playing Percy Boon, a young man who seems destined for a sticky end, a less knowingly vicious character but in some ways with some similarities to Pinkie in Brighton Rock. From this little snippet, it is clear that the film, called 10 Dulcimer Street, lays on Collins’ deft, subtler humour with a bit of a hefty trowel! Collins did not write the screenplay, and indeed, looking at the cast list on Wiki, there are a whole tranche of characters who do not exist in the book, not to mention characters missing.

This is my version of a cracking good read. Lots of wonderful humour, sharp observation – the reader rather knows from the off that there is a warmth and kindness, a wit and tenderness, – ‘a right rollicking good read’

I’ve come to this reasonably hot on the heels of reading or re-reading Patrick Hamilton, another writer with left sympathies who focuses on the small communities of ordinary London, as war approaches. Both Hamilton and Collins are celebrating the humanity of the small people.

This is another of the titles which Penguin re-released in their ‘Modern Classics’ within the last decade, many of them, like this, wonderfully well written ‘minor classics’ which sounds derogatory, but is kind of accurate. Collins is certainly not an Orwell, not a Graham Greene – but this is also miles away from disposable, forgettable, fictionNorman Collins

It’s interesting, there was certainly no consideration of this as ‘literary fiction’ by all accounts at its publication time, but this is a much more well-crafted page turner of good narrative, evocative of a place and time, than might have been thought of at the time, hence that ‘Modern Classics’ appellation, for its re-publication by Penguin. Sometimes it takes the distance of time, not to mention, the changing of tastes, to re-appreciate something. Sometimes, that ‘simple’ ability to tell a story, to tell it believably – indeed, to tell many stories within the one main narrative thrust – to create unique individuals who are nevertheless ‘ordinary’ enough to also be examples of a type, and to write all this with precision, without employing overworked cliches of style or language, seems incredibly rare!

London Belongs To Me Amazon UK
London Belongs To Me Amazon USA


It’s Publication Day : Katarina Bivald – The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend


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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

It’s publication day for Swedish author Katarina Bivald’s charming, romantic, quirky bookie inspired comedy (Scandi Rom-Com!)- though it is set in Iowa – The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. The link is to my original review

With definite debts to 84 Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and Armistead Maupin’s books.  this is a light-hearted, feel-good read, and its author’s (and central character’s) love of reading, lift it above JUST a light hearted romp. It’s a delight

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend Amazon UK
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend Amazon USA


It’s Publication Day : Rebecca Mascull – Song of the Sea Maid


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Song-of-the-sea-maidToday sees the publication of Rebecca Mascull’s intriguing, enthralling story of a (fictional) female scientist in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Song of The Sea Maid is both a cracking good read, and provokes a lot of thought and useful questions. The link is to my original review and also to a Q + A I did with the author as part of a blog tour this week What is fascinating is that though Mascull’s central character, Dawnay Price, is ‘invention’, there were more women who served as her model, at that time, than one would suppose.

A book ‘about stuff’ which is also a compulsive page turner

Not a Q + A with Rebecca, but still part of the blog tour for the book, is a fascinating post which Books By Women, a site devoted to women writers asked her to write about prehistoric woman.

Song of the Sea Maid Amazon UK
Song of the Sea Maid Amazon USA

Author Interview – Rebecca Mascull : Song of the Sea Maid


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Song-of-the-sea-maidI was delighted to get the chance to put various questions to Rebecca Mascull, sparked by her second novel, out this week – Song of The Sea Maid. Astute, long time readers of this blog may note I have only ever done one author interview Q+A before, with Rebecca, about her first book, The Visitors

And as you can see, a couple of her answers drew further comments from me

Keep an eye out – this Q + A is part of  the ‘Song of the Sea Maid Blog Tour, 15th-21st June’  I’ll be adding any WordPress ones I find onto my ‘Posts I Like’ sidebar widget

 I would classify both your books as literary fiction with historical settings. Is this your own perception of your writing, as far as you can tell at this time? – it’s a bit of a sneaky question as of course it asks questions about future books which maybe are only nebulous floating ideas at this stage.

I suppose I find it quite difficult to classify my own writing. It does have an historical Rebecca-Mascullsetting, but that’s largely because I live in the past in my head! I’m obsessed with the past and fascinated by it. When I read books set in the past I’m immediately at home there, whereas I find novels set in present day (and certainly the future) very hard to warm to, however brilliant the writing. So, for me, the historical setting is just a place in which I feel comfortable and also totally engages me. But I don’t have a particular period I’m taken with, or a type of story. I have a few ideas for future books and they’re all quite different from each other in terms of setting and narrative. I think this reflects my butterfly mind, which likes to swoop and dip from one thing to the next. As for whether it’s literary or not, I’ll leave that up to the readers and the critics. For myself, I like to read novels that make me think and I like to write such novels too. But never at the expense of a good storyline and interesting characters, at least that’s what I try to do. Again, I leave it to the reader to decide if I’ve succeeded – or not.

Do you see any kind of cultural parallels between the tail end of the nineteenth century setting of The Visitors, and the Enlightenment Age setting of Song of the Sea Maid?

In terms of researching the C18th, it felt quite different from the late Victorian setting of The Visitors. There were aspects of the late C19th that felt particularly modern, from everyday events like train travel to the idea of our boys going overseas to hot places to fight wars we don’t understand. It appeared to me as if the modern age seemed less distant from the world of The Visitors. But my first readings about the C18th made it feel as if it were a different planet. The texture of everyday life seemed quite alien – it was little things, like all the men sweating under wigs and women wearing no knickers and having to wipe their menstrual blood on their shifts! And the widespread belief in mermaids still permeating institutions like the Gentleman’s Magazine. Yet, once I’d become more accustomed to it, I realised that the seeds of modern life as we know it now seem to be sown in the C18th, such as journalism, coffee houses, Johnson’s English dictionary etc. Of course, when you look at Charles Darwin’s critics and how his theories were received, it feels that science and society hadn’t moved on much, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards women as being a lesser form of human. But what I love about both periods is that they were both tremendously forward-thinking at the same time as battling old prejudices – so the C18th Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution are both fascinating times to get to grips with, and look at the rate of social change. And great fun to place characters within that and see how they get on.

(And yes, the comparisons between the Enlightenment Age and the end of the nineteenth, that you drew at the end of that question, are rather what made me feel a kind of similarity – I suppose, I go back to a kind of optimism, too, which I suspect got irretrievably lost after the First War, and, if not then, after Second – something about what mankind was able to do with ‘progress’ and a feeling it was all going to be good)

Whilst I was reading Song of the Sea Maid, and particularly as I deeply thought about it, I was getting strange reminders of George Eliot! What I mean by this, is that she was a writer with a strong moral sense – her characters are people for whom a broad, not a narrow morality is important. A moral humanist view, I suppose. Is she a writer you have a sense of connection with? And/or which writers (modern day or classical) do you feel have had an influence on you – both in terms of what they are writing about, and how they are writing?

Gosh, that’s a massive question and a delightful one. I rate George Eliot very highly as a writer and thinker. A tremendous intellect, to which I aspire as a mouse to a lion. And I love her stories and characters, but to be brutally honest I find her fiction quite dense and not very easy to read. Her style can be absolutely charming and brilliant, like the beginning of Adam Bede where she invites us to see the scene reflected in a drop of ink from her pen – that’s beautiful and brilliant. Yet for me she does wander off in too many asides at times, and I itch to get back to her characters and what they’re doing. It may be sacrilege to say so, but I actually prefer the TV drama versions of her novels in some cases, as they preserve the brilliant wealth of characters and fascinating plots in something like Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda, whereas the novel can be quite hard-going, for me anyway. I really liked Silas Marner the book in that way, as it’s quite short! And sticks more to the narrative than some of the longer works.

The opposite of that for me is Charles Dickens. He is my literary hero in every sense. I know his faults and I don’t mind them, so it is true love in that sense! What I adore in Dickens is that he’s a consummate storyteller. His range of characters is breathtaking, whilst the twists and turns of his plots are so clever. Just think of the moment we discover Magwitch is Pip’s benefactor in Great Expectations or we discover Steerforth has run off with Emily in David Copperfield. Just awesome plot moments that I’d write my whole life to get anywhere near. Yet, he’s also hilariously funny as well as having this profound sense of injustice and a social conscience to be reckoned with.

I think Eliot had the mightier brain than Dickens, but I feel the latter was the better storyteller. In my wildest moments, I’d like to aspire to a bit of both, in trying to tell stories that keep you turning the pages and make you think. That’s what I’m struggling to do, anyway.

(I absolutely agree about Eliot / Dickens – Eliot’s brain, Dickens’ ability to tell a story and I’m reminded of both his journalistic and theatrical background in with this – it was the sense of humanist morality that I was getting the reminders from rather than style)

I’ve been really struck, in both books, but perhaps even more so in this, that whilst you are writing strong female characters, strong female role models, who have had ‘real’ women giving a springboard to your imagination, you aren’t creating women who are opposed in their struggles by individual reactionary men. This kind of comes back to the previous convoluted question – I feel an optimism about humanity in your writing – a kind of inclusive, not a separatist, feminism. Does this analysis ring true?

That is a fascinating analysis. I’ve heard it once before from a friend of mine who read the first draft of this and she said the men were all really nice and if she’d written it, they certainly wouldn’t be! Well, I think I probably am an optimist at heart. I do like to think the best of people. I’m not naturally suspicious. I grew up with three wonderful brothers who I love very much. I’ve also had many close friendships with women over the years, that I value extremely highly. So, when it comes to the males and females within my peers, I’ve known lovely people of both sexes – but don’t get me wrong, I’ve been around long enough to have come across some real rotters too, male and female.

In this story, Dawnay’s benefactor –Markham Woods – is a kind man, but he is quite reactionary too. It is Dawnay who educates him a bit. But remember that he is widely travelled and that has broadened his horizons. Her mentor – Stephen Applebee – is a very kind man, yet again he has shadows in his life we discover later.

And the most reactionary of all is the sea captain, who starts out quite infuriating, yet he changes too.

People are changed by their experiences – they learn from them – so I hope the best of my characters do that. Those that won’t are the voices we hear around the dinner table on board ship, who feel the poor are another species. Those minds will never be changed. Even Dawnay’s early mother-figure, Matron at the orphanage, is set in her ways and unlikely to ever alter her course. But she’s human and she cares for Dawnay too, and that softens her.

For me, this story is about someone with no advantages who fights her way through the restrictions of her time. One of those obstacles is being female in a world ruled by males, but to me that doesn’t mean that men are the enemy there. They are all victims of their age in that sense. Her other problem is her poverty and that was just as difficult to overcome in that age. So the antagonist for me was always her society, her culture, and not one person or thing. And God too, and Nature. She battles with these concepts as well. People are small fry compared to the forces she’s squaring up to!

As I noted in my review, I had a question mark about how safe, as a lone female, Dawnay might be on her various travels. I was a bit ambivalent about this, because of course, as readers, we do care about Dawnay and want to keep her safe – but I did wonder, whether you as a writer had felt a strong urge that you wanted to keep her safe?

Blimey, another corker of a question. Let me think. Well, I think I’ve probably changed a lot as a writer since I became a mother. Before my daughter was born, I was writing a novel set during World War II (as yet unpublished) and I remember bumping off characters left, right and centre with no qualms whatsoever. I finished that novel after I had my daughter and mysteriously people who died in the first draft were resurrected and their lot generally made much easier all round! So, yes, I am a bit of a softie about my characters these days. I can’t bear novels where characters are punished horribly in scene after scene. I just don’t want to read about that any more. I know that some people have the most horrific experiences in life and these should be told. But I also feel that some people go through their lives generally surrounded by some nice people, having quiet, reasonably happy lives with only the ordinary, everyday tragedies that we all are familiar with. To me, that doesn’t make great fiction necessarily, but conversely I don’t think you need to haul your characters over the coals repeatedly to make a good story. Dawnay does suffer throughout the story and goes through some difficult times, and that was enough for me. Yes, women were more at risk in many ways in the C18th than they are now, but I would say the same was true for everyone living in that time: life was cheap, there was no organised police force, the penal system was extremely harsh, some children were whipped and beaten, and some people in pillories were stoned to death. Yet, there were plenty of other folk, including women, who went through their lives without being assaulted or attacked or molested in any way, just like people today. So, I maintain that if I want my character to escape such horrors, then I have the vagaries of history to back me up. And as I said, I certainly don’t think she escapes unharmed or untouched by the things she sees and suffers.

I was very aware, at the start of this novel (as I was with The Visitors) that you are a mother – there’s a close observation/inhabitation of a child’s perception of the world, and we make that journey, with both Adeliza and Dawnay – who they are as adults is very clearly linked to them as children. I know we talk of books and the writing of books being ‘like the author’s child/baby’ but I wonder, with starting your central characters from very young childhood, how much they, not just the book itself, feel like additional children, growing up remarkably fast!

That’s a superb observation. I certainly think that an important similarity between being a mother and creating my characters has been this sense that they are connected to me in a profound way and yet very definitely separate and with their own identities and lives to lead. I felt that from the earliest flutterings of my baby in the womb, that this was a whole other being with inclinations all her own. As parents, her father and I are there to guide her and love her and all that, but she belongs to herself. I absolutely feel that about the characters I create too. They may spring from my subconscious but they have their own internal logic that I feel I have little control over. As a novelist, I have a similar obsession with childhood as Dickens, who is of course brilliant at inhabiting the child’s point of view, as George Orwell noticed. I do believe in the power of formative experiences – as a parent, this is terrifying as we consider the mistakes we make and the effect this might have one day on our children! But as a novelist, it’s a state ripe for exploration and one I find endlessly interesting.

I’m also very aware, as I was with The Visitors, that you have had a background in teaching – there is a real passion about both teaching and learning, in both books – there are inspiring teachers in both, and the central characters are inspiring learners. Did/do you write that exciting, heady, greedy desire to learn out of your own experience of learning, and your own (perhaps idealised, given current educational strictures!) teaching experience?

Yes, education is definitely a theme of mine. I have personal experience of different types of teaching in varying setups with varied success. When I was a full-time schoolteacher, I certainly had a lot of big ideas about the ideal teacher and the problems inherent in the school system. But I’m also a voracious learner, as you guessed. I can’t help myself! I just want to know everything about everything, all of the time! Sylvia Plath once said something about wanting to speak to every person in the world and I know exactly how she felt. The world is endlessly interesting to me and I believe to all children. If the teacher can tap into that wonder all children have, that’s half the battle. And you probably shouldn’t get me started on all the issues I feel there are in the current school system that actively work against encouraging that sense of wonder. Yet I don’t think the education we see in either of my novels is necessarily ideal – both characters are very isolated and find it quite hard to go out into the world and form relationships, possibly partly for that reason. I imagine that the ideal would be a mixture of both i.e. the best of schools and the best of one-to-one mentors. If only!

Both Adeliza and Dawnay are definitely exceptional, heroic, out of the ordinary, inspirational characters – to those around them, as well as to their readers. Do you as a writer find that it is the idea of some kind of ‘heroic’ which inspires you?

I actually think it’s difficult to be exceptional. The very nature of someone who is out of the ordinary means that they are likely to find life tough. It can be much easier to fit in than it is to stand out. Some people thrive on that and want to be the centre of attention. Others are comfortable being invisible. Quite a few writers I’ve spoken to about this have always felt themselves to be on the edge of things, not quite in the club, in the team. On the outside looking in. That may well be a good place for a writer to be – observing, considering – but it can be more fun to be in the thick of it! The people I admire in real life are not necessarily heroic in any traditional sense of the word, but quite often they are those people who quietly revolutionise things without making much fuss about it. I love the idea of great thinkers squirrelling away for years in obscurity, doing necessary and ground-breaking work for the love of it and not the glory. I also think it’s pretty heroic to stick around and make life better for the people around you, rather than going off on adventures like the traditional hero does. In my life, my heroes are people who manage to be kind, caring and generous despite the busy, chaotic nature of modern life. I also think in that way that everybody has the capacity to be a hero to someone else. Both of my heroines so far are very determined, which I admire. They are also very gobby and hot-headed! And a bit impetuous, which can get them into trouble. Interestingly, my current work in progress (which I can’t really say much about – I’m superstitious that way!) has a much quieter heroine and I’m really enjoying her watchfulness and silence, and the contrast between that and what’s really going on inside her head. But, as with all works-in-progress, that may well change!

Are you at all drawn to the idea of making a male character your central one, and the challenge of writing a male sensibility?

Yes, I would like the challenge of that one day. I have written from the male point of view in the past, in novels (unpublished) I completed before The Visitors. I will admit that I don’t find it as easy to write as a man and so it would be slightly nerve-wracking for me to have a go at it. At the moment I am interested in the theme of a woman in a man’s world, yet I have an idea for book 4 that has nothing to do with this, so perhaps my protagonist in that novel – or at least one of them – may well be male, who knows! I try so very hard to be authentic in everything I write – whether it’s the historical details or the sensibilities of a character, so being a woman and writing from the male viewpoint always feels a bit risky or even presumptuous. But I know that’s probably nonsense, as some of my favourite male characters have been written by women and very much vice versa. After all, we are engaged in the act of writing fiction, and thus we use the only tool that really matters: the imagination. I probably ought to trust in mine more than I do.

Thank you Rebecca

Now I enjoyed all that enormously, especially trying to frame some of the burning questions I had without revealing any spoilers, and Rebecca was being equally careful in giving me answers whilst choosing non-spoiler illustrations too. Not to mention the fact that Rebecca’s answers made me think even more enjoyably about other ideas and reflections related to the book.

And now I’m intrigued by the watchful, quieter heroine who (at the moment) is expressing herself a little differently in Rebecca’s book-in-process.

Here are links which will take you to look insides, and you can see if that intriguing young child on the streets catches you as expertly as she caught me…..

Song of the Sea Maid Amazon UK
Song of the Sea Maid Amazon USA

And if you are keen to see other Q + A’s with Rebecca Mascull on Song of The Sea Maid, I found the Monday one, on As this isn’t a WordPress blog, I couldn’t ‘like’ it and have it automatically appear as a link in the widgets, hence including here

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune


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Poem, Music and Ballet

I have a strange relationship with the French Classical composers (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Gounod) I find I can only take short, intense bursts of them. Sorry French composers, but an evening of French composition leaves me quickly sat(i)ed.

They serve me, perhaps, as a kind of divertissement between the more extreme fare of German, Slavonic, Russian and Nordic composers which the bulk of my preferred dead composers seem to be. You understand, I hope, I do not prefer my composers to be dead; it just so happens many of them are, but I wish longevity to the American trio of Glass, Adams and Reich (who are all ‘preferred’ in my book), and of course to the Estonian, Arvo Part.

However, every now and again I am reminded of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune and then have an extreme need to hear it.

So here is Bernstein a year before his death


Claude Debussy

The piece was originally composed by Debussy almost as a musical Impressionist painting version of a poem, with the same name, by Stéphane Mallarmé. It doesn’t follow the poem (which is a long one) line by line, but is an encapsulation of it – a faun/satyr awakes in a glade, pursues nymphs, has a pretty ravishing afternoon, and then sinks into post-coital exhaustion.

Unfortunately, though I have a book of Mallarmé poems in French, which I bought hoping to be able to simultaneously read the original from/with the translation, the version I have only has an extremely ugly, literal, prose translation which neither makes linguistic, nor impressionistic/kinaesthetic, sense


Stéphane Mallarmé

Even I know, and can hear the sonorous, languorous, exotic quality of :

                                            Si clair,
Leur incarnat léger qu’il voltige dans l’air
Assoupi de sommeils touffus.

                               Aimai-je un rêve ?
Mon doute, amas de nuit ancienne,

In fact, I think reading something in another language where you don’t know the precise meaning can often make you more aware of the music of poetry, the rhythms and percussions of consonants and the different qualities of open and closed vowel sounds.

I’m sure there has to be a better translation of ‘amas de nuit ancienne’ than the nonsensical ‘heap of old night’ which the translator of my version gives!

Come on, all you WordPressers who are bilingual French and English poets, do Mallarme justice!

Set design by Bakst

Set design by Bakst

The poem and of course Debussy’s music, then found another outing as a ballet piece, choreographed, and danced by Nijinsky, with designs by Bakst

Here is Nureyev, dancing Nijinsky’s choreography. Amazingly graphic, that choreography, I would have thought, for 1912!

Indeed a review of Nijinsky’s choreography and performance in Le Figaro clearly reflected outrage : Wikipedia article, Gaston Calmette editorial, Le Figaro 1912

Anyone who mentions the words ‘art’ and ‘imagination’ in the same breath as this production must be laughing at us. This is neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent. That is all. And the over explicit miming of this mis-shapen beast, loathsome when seen full on, but even more loathsome in profile, was greeted with the booing it deserved

I believe the – ahem – loathsome profile had some kind of nod towards what is implied in the wonderful line in the Cole Porter song, bewitched, bothered and bewildered which occurs at 3 : 50 in this gorgeously torchy Ella version

And here,  (back to Debussy) hopefully not overkill, is a third musical version conducted by Claudio Abbado

I find the shorter, clearly studio recording, conducted by Abbado is my preference. This may be partly to do with better acoustics in the studio, but the opening flute makes me picture and smell the dappled green forest glade, the damp aroma of earth, the juiciness of the leaves, as that faun, rippling through light and shade, delicately steps into the clearing. Not to mention the swells and subsidences of the full orchestral passages, seem both more erotic and more satiated and exhausted.

Vaslav Nijinsky : l'Après-midi d'un faune 1912 Jean-Pierre Dalbéra Photstream Flicr, Commons

Vaslav Nijinsky : l’Après-midi d’un faune 1912
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra Photostream Flicr, Commons

This is a marvellously erotic, filled with yearning desire piece of music. One that properly belongs to the heat of summer

I’m all afternooned out now, with three versions of this swoony music, the gorgeous images of Bakst’s designs, and of course, Rudi being really, remarkably rude!

As it is clearly art, it escapes a ‘For Adults Only’ rating. Though had I watched this at an impressionable age I’m sure it would have sent me quickly on my way to wait in the nearest forest in the hope that high cheekboned Russians, muscular and graceful, accompanied by flautists, harpists and oboists, not to mention a scrumptious picnic hamper, would arrive some time soon.

And finally…..the astute may notice there are no links to a particular recording, CD or mp3. This is because the version I had (shows how long ago) was cassette! And the equipment for playing, with reasonable sound, in a ‘music centre’ (remember those?) has long departed. Along with everything on cassette.

I wouldn’t normally be reviewing music except music from my collection, specific version. And then….I stumbled across a wonderful blog, The Classical Novice, which I immediately started following, excited to find the posts in my reader. Classical Novice may be ‘a novice’ about classical music, but explains, demystifies, educates, celebrates and enthuses about one of my life passions (classical music) with a generous, open and curious pair of ears (!)This is musical analysis I understand and engage with. As I’m NOT a musician, some of the very erudite music analysis in sleeve notes leaves me with a puckered brow and a quivering lip, taken far away from the music I love. I don’t particularly want to deconstruct it, I do want to engage with it more, through being guided into increased understanding. Classical Novice does this, and is worth many visits!

Rebecca Mascull – Song of the Sea Maid


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‘they have slackened my rope and given me a taste of the world beyond my fence. And I will have more of it, mark my words’

Song-of-the-sea-maidSo states the female central character of the eighteenth century set Song of the Sea Maid.

I have been eagerly and anxiously waiting for Rebecca Mascull’s second novel, as her first, The Visitors, was one of my stand-out novels of 2014

I did indeed enjoy, enormously, this second novel by Mascull, even though I was not as completely bowled over, entranced, blown away as by that first novel.

And the reason for this is in part the huge challenge for an author when they create a character (particularly in a first novel) who is unusually memorable and richly complex, whose story is fascinating and believable, and where everything about the writing and structure of the novel, including subsidiary relationships, just works. And Adeliza in The Visitors, was that character. I could still feel her, metaphorically, over my shoulder, grabbing my attention and memory as I read this, very different book, though one also with a heroine of similarly feisty nature, in advance of her time, and challenged by the lack of opportunities afforded to her gender and class, in that time.

Margaret Bryan, born circa 1760, British Natural Philosopher and Educator, with her children (Wiki Commons)

Margaret Bryan, born circa 1760, British Natural Philosopher and Educator, with her children (Wiki Commons)

Starting towards the tail end of the 1730s, the book follows the story of a young girl, initially unnamed; one with a ferocious intelligence, a watchful observance, even at aged 4, as a young vagrant, living through stealing what she can in the company of her older brother. I was immediately captivated by this child, and Mascull took me inside her head, I could hear her voice, the excitement, the undisciplined, dynamic, finely assessing intelligence of the child.

Little Dawnay Price is arbitrarily named by and for the ‘benefactor’ who captures her on the street and takes her to a place for destitute, impoverished children. The place is presided over by a man who sees nothing wrong in the society which gave rise to that destitution, which is certainly not the children’s fault, and neither may it be the fault of the parents, but rather of the structure of a society which gives to the haves and castigates the have-nots. Little Dawnay – whose voice is utterly believeable, whose intelligence, originality and burning desire for learning captivates – is of course doubly disenfranchised, by being a girl, and a powerless poor girl at that.

By a series of fortuitous encounters with people of unusual benevolence and open-mindedness, and ability to stand against a morality which defended the status quo, Dawnay begins to transcend her bleak beginnings, and gets an education. This is, after all, The Enlightenment. Dawnay’s observant mind and ability to grasp complex practical and philosophical concepts mark her out as a ‘natural philosopher’ – in other words, a scientist.

She has an independent nature, an independent mind, and through those lucky encounters, becomes a person of some independent means.

Ribeira Palace, Lisbon, mid eighteenth century, Wiki Commons

Ribeira Palace, Lisbon, mid eighteenth century, Wiki Commons – Portugal is a central setting

Eventually her travels – both in the world of books, of knowledge, and out in the real world, lead her to begin to formulate some very advanced conclusions – questioning the existence of a Deity, and making suppositions about evolution – a good century in advance of Darwin

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, born 1718, Italian mathematician and professor of mathematics, Bologna University. Wiki Commons

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, born 1718, Italian mathematician and professor of mathematics, Bologna University. Wiki Commons

Now, Mascull is a meticulous researcher, as was clear in The Visitors, and also in this book. She is one who also manages to wear her research lightly, in that the reader does not feel lectured by the author, but her wealth of background reading is woven into the novel. However, with a novel which has a female scientist, and moreover one coming out with some very advanced theories a century early, the reader might find themselves frowning and thinking too much licence is being taken by the author. Mascull clearly anticipates this, as at the end of the novel she explains what her researches threw up. Firstly, there WERE a few female ‘natural philosophers’ at this time. In the main, we do not widely know of them, because history is written by the winners, the rulers, the elite. And because of this, the farther we go back in time, the less likely it is that history will feature herstory. There were also ‘proto-evolutionary theories’ bobbing around, there were fossils, and fossil hunters, even though it wasn’t till a little later that Cuvier began to bring this discipline into mainstream.

The challenge I found, however, – and it’s one which Mascull admits – is that all those female ‘natural philosophers’ were wealthy, daughters of the ruling classes. She did not want to write a kind of fictionalised biography of one of them, and was interested instead in writing the fiction of someone who had more struggles to engage with than purely that of her gender.

As reader, I wasn’t altogether believing of all the good fortune Dawnay experienced, and perhaps particularly, the fact that she did not suffer the violence which a young woman, alone in a man’s world, breaking the codes, living solitary, would be most likely to encounter. Maybe this is twentieth century cynicism. My criticism, or question, is that whilst I certainly would not have wanted the kind of gratuitous violence and almost salacious enjoyment which some writers seem to visit on their female characters in dubious environments, I did wonder if Mascull’s clear kindness and desire for her characters to overcome challenges was glossing over potential dangers and keeping them well out of Dawnay’s way. It struck me that almost all the characters in the book have a kind of nobility of nature – certainly all the characters we really get to know well. The adversities Dawnay meets are those of broad attitudes and beliefs held in society, rather than individual people with malevolent intent.

So this was an interesting realisation – challenge and struggle and overcoming odds is the stuff of both life itself and literature. Mascull does not have Dawnay particularly engaged in struggle with an individual ‘predator’, rather, the struggle is that of cultural and, indeed physical environment (very long term view Darwinian!) . Various historical events, whether created by mankind or by natural disaster also become the field of struggle and adversity which must be survived.

Steller's Sea Cow, discovered 1740s, hunted to extinction by 1768. Wiki Commons

Steller’s Sea Cow, discovered 1740s, hunted to extinction by 1768. Wiki Commons

In the central swathe of this book, Mascull’s wonderful ability to capture individual emotional tone, the voice in the head, of the central character was not quite present for me. What was happening instead, was considered observation, analysis of theory. It wasn’t the sense of an author being determined to use her research material. Dawnay herself is doing the puzzling out and the analysis. Mascull’s writing continued precise, careful, avoiding cliché, but I missed the emotional quality taking me into feeling the heart of the character.

And I believe in part this is because, during the central core of the book, what drives Dawnay Price is her scientific interest. Actually, Mascull was succeeding rather too well. Dawnay is always observing, reflecting, analysing – and doing that scientific thing of standing at remove. I absolutely believed Dawnay, but I could not quite get close to her.

And then in the latter part of the book Dawnay makes some significant journeys in her own emotional development, as well as the journey in scientific understanding and analysis, and at this point, with a rush, I was back with the same kind of engagement and freshness that Mascull created and crafted in the voice of the young Dawnay.

Rebecca Mascull is a fascinating writer. Old fashioned, in many ways – she’s not doing edgy, flamboyant pyrotechnics in structure. There are interesting characters, particularly of course her central character. There is a narrative, things happen, people change. And her writing is excellent. Her books don’t end when you close the last page, but continue to provoke reflection.

This came so close to 5 star for me (4 ½, rounded up). Strongly recommended – this is one which can provoke good and fruitful discussion. And the more I reflected on the book, the closer I have grown to love, rather than to strongly like it. ( 4  ¾, rounded up!)

Terrific. A vindication of the pleasures of reading………..a book which draws the reader Rebecca-Mascullin, deceptively making it an easy, page turning journey, and then pounces on the complacent, relaxed reader and swallows them up!

I was delighted, not to mention impatient, to receive this hot off the advanced press as an ARC, as I had been sending many emails plainting ‘when, when, when!’ Publication date is 18th of June, on both sides of the pond, so not too long to wait

Song of the Sea Maid Amazon UK
Song of the Sea Maid Amazon USA

And incidentally, Wiki has a page listing the names of known female scientists from antiquity, well before education became widely available. We WERE there, though our schools rarely taught about us!

Almost stop press! :

watch this space (or at least, another post on another day, in this place) I had SO many questions Rebecca’s book fruitfully raised for me that I wanted to put them to her. and will be doing a Q + A on 16th, as part of a week-long blog tour all around the blogosphere, to coincide with publication. Not only am I enthusiastically looking forward to the answers for my own Qs, but also to everyone else’s

(5 –  no rounding up – any book which kept making me think think think for days after finishing, getting more and more interested in the questions it was posing ………..)


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