Monday, 18 June 2018

The Innocent by Ian McEwan - review

I was disappointed reading Amsterdam (reviewed in March), how the hell did that win the Booker Prize? I thought I'd better try a different Ian McEwan book, to see if he was still one of my favourite authors or if I should demote him. I went shopping, came home with The Innocent, written in 1990 but set in the mid 1950's.

The Innocent has been published with a number of different covers, trust me to buy the least interesting (the one on the right). Book covers are important but in this case had no influence on me, I was buying for the author.

It's sort of an espionage story, set in divided West Berlin during the 1950's. I was there as a teen-ager some time later so I decided I had to read this particular book. The setting is pretty real, a city still struggling to recover from the second world war, whilst suffering under the domination of the cold war. Although set before the Berlin wall was built, it felt familiar enough, I'd seen the check-points, the bomb sites. The main character is Leonard, a GPO technician seconded to work on a top secret project in the American sector of the city. I won't tell the story, impossible without spoilers.

The Innocent is very well written, as all McEwan's books are, he's a professional in every sense. The narrative is tense, a very good story. It does take a bit of digesting... hmm.  Maybe digesting is the wrong word. Is it a good read? Oh yes, definitely but maybe don't read the second half just after a large meal. 

Has it restored my faith in the author? Yes, it has. Although a very different story it takes me back to his first book, The Cement Garden which was also about innocence.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Danny Kirwan - Desert Island Discs

Fleetwood Mac's fantastic heavy rock number, 'Oh Well' was my previous desert Island choice a few days ago. Danny Kirwan, one of three guitarists in the band at the time the recording was made, has just died at the age of 68.

It's very sad, he was a talented musician and songwriter who never quite made his mark after he left the band in 1972. He was just 18 when he joined Fleetwood Mac, after his own band, Boilerhouse, had supported the Mac at several venues in London. Drummer Mick Fleetwood invited him to join the Mac, he then became Peter Green's protégé for a few gigs before as a fully fledged band member his passion for blues music combined with his creativity, he contributed his own compositions to their repertoire and their next five albums.

I saw him play with Fleetwood Mac twice, at the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone, in 1968/9 when the band were at their very best. I have his autograph.

Farewell Danny Kirwan, blues boy.

Triffids - The Fair Weather Gardener

Things that I don't recognise still come up in the garden. The latest, looking like triffids, appeared in April, pushing up through the undergrowth by the pergola. Several stiff stems with dark blueish green leaves arranged regularly up the stems. I believe the term for the leaf appearance is glaucous, good word! So, glaucous leaves, stiff straight stems and once three feet high, it produced thin branches with softer bright green leaves.

My triffids were interesting looking and quite architectural so I left them for quite a while as I didn't know what they were. The soft green leaves became bracts around tiny yellow flowers, which insects seemed to like, so I continued to leave the triffids alone. Hover flies seemed especially keen on the miniscule flowers and last weekend I saw my first wasp this year, also showing great interest in the triffids.

Then the flowers began to produce large, green berries, each with three lobes. At this stage I decided I really should take them more seriously, they were about to produce seed, did I want them to spread? I'm not in principle opposed to immigrants, but the garden's quite small so invaders are another matter, I have enough trouble with hops and ground elder.

I asked a few people, posted a pic on Facebook, but nobody seemed to know. So in depth research was in order. How did people ever do this type of thing before the internet? Google is an amazing research tool, almost everything you can think of is out there, somewhere in the aether!

After a few hours going through a range of search terms and looking at hundreds of photos of plants with green leaves, I came across the euphorbias. Now I've admired euphorbias in other people's gardens, but the triffids didn't much resemble any I could remember seeing, until I saw a photo  labelled Euphorbia Lathyris. So my triffid is Euphorbia Lathyris, otherwise known as caper spurge, also known as the mole plant because it's said to repel moles - old gardener's wives tale?

Caper spurge facts - it grows over much of Europe and Asia but has probably been introduced to the UK. It's now widespread and often comes up in abandoned ground. It's a biannual so that makes sense, it like to be undisturbed. I remember seeing the stems and glaucous leaves last year, but the bed was overgrown and anyway they weren't nearly so tall, so I didn't register that they were something unusual.

The other important facts about caper spurge: when ripe the seed heads expel seeds quite explosively, scattering them far and wide. Also the berries, which are said to look like capers although I can't really see it, are very poisonous and the milky sap is also poisonous and corrosive, causing skin irritation and serious harm if it gets in your eyes. In days of yore, beggars were said to have rubbed the sap into their skin to cause sores and so get more sympathy - another old gardeners tale? 

Anyway the caper spurge is now in the bottom of a garden bin, waiting to go to the dump. I compost a lot of things but decided this toxic plant might be unsuitable. I did enjoy watching it grow and I've no doubt that there are more triffids seeds lurking in the soil, just waiting to spring up. I might once again let them grow for a couple of years before they seed, because they're interesting plants.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Bedside Reading - American Teenagers

Reading in bed is serious reading, not just for putting me to sleep.  There's a small pile of paperbacks on a precarious triangular shelf by the bed, and three of them have bookmarks a few pages in, meaning I have actually started them.

With one the bookmark is at page 32, that's as far as I've got in three weeks and I'm not likely to get any further. In one of Waterstones' three for two deals, I picked it up in the shop because I quite liked the cover but mainly the title intrigued me - Paper Towns - by John Green. Shows how important titles are!  I read the blurb on the back and a couple of the reviews, but I should have read them all. It's not a badly written book, in fact the use of the language and structure is fine, but it hasn't really engaged me. It's my problem, do I really need to read yet another coming of age story set in small-town America? 

It's not as if there's been a shortage of them over the years. I've read some of the best - Catcher in the Rye when I was an actual teenager and To Kill a Mockingbird which made an impression as it's actually in the POV of a girl - very unusual at the time. My favourite is Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees - a strange, beautiful, dramatic story of a lost girl being cared for by three beekeeping ladies.

Anyway, American teens are always all over the TV/cinema; I've enjoyed Buffie the Vampire Slayer, The Breakfast Club, The Lost Boys and even Heathers. But now I've been there, a very long time ago and I have far too many tee-shirts to really care about the self-obsession of American teenagers!

I should have read all the reviews of Paper Towns, it's described as, "A coming of age American road trip that is at once a satire of and tribute to its many celebrated predecessors."  OK. For me there's only one road-trip book - Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  And so the answer is I probably don't need Paper Towns - by John Green, so it's likely to find it's way to the Oxfam shop. I'm sure it's a perfectly good story and I don't suppose the author will really mind that it's not for me, I hope not as my lack of interest isn't a judgement on his book. I have paid for it, so he gets his probably miniscule royalty, and it will be passed on to benefit charity and for others to read. I hope they do enjoy it.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Mini Beasties in May - the Fair Weather Gardener

Plenty of bees around now which is good, my foxgloves are just flowering and the bees love them. Also hover flies around, which are not only good pollinators but have nice fierce larvae, which the same as ladybird larvae will happily munch through loads of aphids. I like hover flies.

Male orange tip feeding on cranesbill flowers

Early in the month the butterflies began to appear, the first one I saw was an orange tip, flew up from the geraniums and away over the wall. They're quite unmistakeable, or the males are, the females are more discreet and have no orange tips, so they look more or less like another white butterfly.

Next, there were a few nests of untidy silk with small caterpillars in them. The first one I found was on the car, which was a bit weird. Then one or two appeared in the garden on the apple tree and I started finding small brown hairy caterpillars in random places. I wasn't worried until the cat sitting on my lap suddenly stood up and stated intently at my shoulder. I found a caterpillar on my collar, I just brushed it off, but too late. I came up in a horribly itchy rash all round my neck! Online I found a few hysterical headlines about toxic caterpillars. I took a closer look at mine, they're brown tail moth caterpillars, not toxic, they just have irritating hairs. So I kept away from the apple tree until they had dispersed.

Brown tail moth nest with caterpillars hatching -
photo from the Forestry Commission

Loads of ants, there are some tiny ones living under the patio by the house, which is fine, they excavate little piles of sand and I don't mind, I just sweep it away from their holes and down between some other stones. But I do have to discourage them from coming into the conservatory, found several in the cat's food bowl. Am keeping the floor cleaner and have blocked a couple of small holes from the outside. It's working so far.

Lily beetles mating on the stem of my fritillaries -
blooming cheek!
My current garden infestation is spiders - tiny ones just hatched out and clustering in small mobs in unexpected corners. Slightly larger, more independent minded ones are hanging out all over the clothes lines. My laundry will soon be covered in silk or, more problematically, the remains of dead flies etc. I do have a bit of a spider phobia, but can live alongside them most of the time without freaking out.

Every time I move a flowerpot the woodlice hurtle around in panic and sometimes a few springtails too. I just let them disperse, they're quite harmless. Wish I could say the same about the snails. There are hundreds, I sometimes gather them in handfuls and lob them into the vacant, nettle filled lot behind the house, but I know its a waste of time.

None of the creatures in my garden are going to be fed or sprayed with anything toxic, not even the pretty scarlet lily beetles which have devastated my poor fritillaries this year.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

World Turtle Day 23 May

To celebrate World Turtle Day, make sure you know the difference between a Turtle and a Tortoise - they are not the same creature.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Fleetwood Mac, 'Oh Well' - My Desert Island Discs - 2

I loved Fleetwood Mac as a blues band, long before they became a pop group. I saw them live more often than any other band apart from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, where three of the band originated anyway. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were Mayall's rhythm section when Eric Clapton left and Peter Green stepped in. It was an improvement! Clapton is technically brilliant but his guitar playing has no soul. Peter Green has a true bluesman's soul, his voice and songs are from that soul and his guitar is sublime.

All three musicians - Greeny, McVie and Fleetwood - subsequently left The Bluesbreakers and became Fleetwood Mac.  Mayall didn't miss them, that band has always been about him anyway, I don't think he ever really liked others in the limelight. He frequently changed his line-up and he's still touring today.

The last time I saw Fleetwood Mac live, at the Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone in 1969, they played 'Oh Well', written by Peter Green, which was on its way to becoming a hit record - it reached no.2 in the UK charts. For the live version they were loud, though not as loud as Led Zepplin who I'd go to see a month or two later. However by this stage Fleetwood Mac had three lead guitarists - Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. As a live band they were unsurpassed and though the opening riff and the major part was played by Greeny, the others joined in - the intensity of the sound was incredible. As far as I remember, they didn't play the eight minute full length version.

As the rules don't allow me to take my copy of Fleetwood Mac's first album (known as the dog & dustbin album) to the desert island, I chose  'Oh Well', because of that live performance and for the defiant lyrics -

"...don't ask me what I think of you,
I might not give the answer that you want me to!"

I didn't love Fleetwood Mac after the three guitarists had left and the Mac became just another pop group.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Shape of the Beast

grass is bad now
smells not sweet
grass is dry now
taste of dust
sticks to tongue 
Not filling hunger

smell of Acacia tree 
tree here good 
makes shade from hottest sun
between nights.
Tree makes food shade 
Smells of gerenuk
so no leaves to reach up
in the sand 
fallen leaves fallen fruit
good good fruit sweet chewy 
plenty fruit fill hunger…

itch on shoulder
no tick birds here
Acacia tree here
good for scratching…
gooood for scratching...

Small roar not of lions
lions are beyond the hill
small rumble
not of elephants…
rumble bigger…
not stampede of wildebeest 
no wildebeest when ground is driest…

turn from tree
face ears to sound…
listen more...
smell more...
taste the air...
Rumble not of rhino
no smell of rhino…
rumble and chatter clatter…
not monkeys…
not porcupine…
not wind, no wind, much heat
chatter of hyena...

smell of…
smell of… 
smell of the long black track beyond the lion hill
The beasts of the black track are here 
beasts that roar and sting
beasts that kill lions
kill elephants


face them 
Face Them 
Rumble not of thunder,
smell of the long black track
shape of the rumbling beast  chatter clatter

flashes not of lightening
Face the beast 
Horn down…

Friday, 20 April 2018

New Header Picture - Every Picture Tells a Story

Another picture to tell another story.

A forest, looks almost familiar, we've all walked through a bit of woodland, haven't we?

I did in past times write a short story about dinosaurs... it needs re-writing.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Fair Weather Gardener - Springtime in an Inherited Garden

Magnolia flowers
Springtime is exciting! There are at least 16 varieties of flower in my garden at the moment and I've done nothing to encourage any of them since last year.   As I've lived here less than three years I'm still discovering things as I get more on top of the place, which was hugely overgrown when we arrived.

These are all native - I mean as opposed to being introduced to the garden by me :-

Heather, a largish (for heather) bush of dark pink flowers has been in flower since early December. It's nearly over now and going brown, I may need to prune it.

Camellia, covered in vivid rich pink flowers has been flowering since the end of the cold spell in March, the flowers are browning now and starting to fall, but still lovely. I thought I didn't like pink ...

Forsythia is a glorious blaze of rich yellow spires up to eight feet high, after having not a single

flower last year - I had pruned it heavily so probably my fault, never had Forsythia before so I didn't know.

Kerria Japonica Pleniflora - is covered in pretty yellow multi-petalled flowers and I didn't even know I had this shrub! Last year I cut down a load of winter Jasmine in the corner where this has appeared.

Snowflake - white flowers like tall snowdrops on very long stems, these have been in bloom since January, almost over now.  The problem is they produce huge amounts of tall, densely packed leaves which swamp smaller plants, so I'm cutting them back as they finish flowering.  I will dig quite a lot of them out as they're spreading, unbidden.  There was a small clump of proper snowdrops too, much prettier but they didn't flower for so long - I still prefer them and will transplant some more.

Hyacinths in white and pink have been planted (not by me) in random parts of the garden - they keep falling over but do smell nice. I'd guess they were originally gifts, in pots, planted out after flowering.

Bluebells, the gorgeous little cousin of the hyacinths, are just coming out - a few of them are white and some are even pink - don't as me why! Pink is just wrong.

Tall Daffodils are just finishing and being eaten by snails.

Primroses, the pure yellow variety, very pretty rosettes of leaves too, but I need to control where these appear they can cause allergies.

Tulips in yellow and red - some even striped - are dotted around, I may try to move them into clumps for better effect - or just plant lots more.

Grape Hyacinths - or muscari to you!  Delightful little purple/blue flowers beside the path and also
  popping up in unexpected places. And the bees like them too.

And the following I have planted in containers and pots:-

Rosemary - there are two small bushes in separate pots just starting to flower, I've also planted one in the ground as I want a decent size shrub by the lawn - this one not flowering yet.

Miniature daffodils (Tete a tete) are still doing quite well in their pots, away from the snails. I'll put them in the ground later.

Magnolia 'Susan' - a shrubby variety with long slender purple flowers - it has survived in a pot for 8 years in the cold north, is now burgeoning in the south, though still in its pot. Should I liberate it? I'm tempted but not sure where to plant it.

Fritilleries - I planted these as bulbs early last year in pots and tubs, they've come up for the second year running and were looking wonderful until the sun came out. Then I saw a few holes in the blooms and thought damned snails. Today I saw the beautiful scarlet of several lily beetles... two of them were mating. Oh well, the fritillaries were fun while they lasted. I refuse to use insecticides.
Fritillaries and viola

Viola - super little variegated purple and white ones which I planted in springtime last year, in the same tub as some of the fritillaries, and they haven't stopped flowering ever since!

Hydrangea - a deep pink one which starts as variegated buds, very pretty, bought in Morrison's. Deserves to be planted somewhere...

Oxalis - pink flowers just beginning to come out. But it's very invasive, I keep trying to pull it out... oxalis you have been warned!

French Lavender which I was given and will plant somewhere, at the moment it resides in a small ornamental watering can.

White Heather is lucky. It's in a pot and I will plant it once I've decided where...

... and then around the lawn there are glorious golden dandelions which the bees are very keen on, and lovely little white daisies with yellow centres and deep pink rims to their petals. You might call them weeds, I just weed around them.


Sunday, 25 March 2018

...if nobody speaks of remarkable things...

... is a 2002 novel by Jon Mcgregor.

I picked it up because I'd heard his name and heard of his 2017 prizewinner, 'Reservoir 17'.  I'll read that next, just ordered a copy,

but back to ...remarkable things... 
“This is ecstatic writing..” said the TLS reviewer of this book and they are exactly right.

This is a Breughel painting of a story, set in a street in a Northern English university town. The writing seems straight from the mind in free flow, freefall even, it reads as uncensored, unedited, unaltered and I hope this is so. When the ideas, the words just pour from the mind and onto the page and keep coming and keep coming it is a kind of ecstasy. Most writers will then take it apart, edit, adjust, re-arrange into something more conventional, more deliberately structured. More ordinary. This book is extraordinary. It’s not perfect, it is remarkable. I will read it again once I’ve got my breath back.

That's how I feel about the quality of the writing, as a writer myself. I'd like to think non-writers can enjoy the book just as much, it isn't a difficult book. I'm sure I would have loved it 30 years ago before I considered myself a writer. It's a rolling wave of a book, carrying you along for almost it's whole length with the anticipation, then breaking suddenly and shockingly, even though you were expecting a shock, before dumping you on the beach, feeling forlorn that the ride is over.

The storyline holds so many characters, few with names, but their lives on a street during one summer day are so empathetically detailed that you feel you know them all: 

The little boy with a red scooter who travels joyfully and up and down the pavement of the short street. The graduate student slowly and methodically packing his somewhat bizarre collection of possessions before moving to another student house. The married woman whose resident in-laws have gone out for the day and who goes to bed with her husband for a short joyful interlude  while their children play cricket in the street. The mischievous twins who spy on a neighbour doing his exercises in the nude... There are students, young couples, families, old couples... all play a role in the narrative. 

If I mentioned all the characters I would write another book. One girl student's narrative weaves through the others in first person and leaves the short, one day timeline, although all the observations are not hers. This was the one part of the book which I found slightly less satisfactory, her story was perfectly good, I just found it distracted from the ride. However it tied in with the ending. 

I won't say more, no spoilers. I love this book! Do read it if you haven't.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan - review

This story begins at a woman's funeral and I soon wished it had begun 20 or so years earlier when that entertaining sounding lady was very much alive and bounding around between all her lovers. She was probably engaging which is more than you can say for the lovers, and the husband, who congregate at the funeral.

Coincidentally another novel, also by an Ian, although with an extra i (Iain) also begins at a funeral. Here is the first sentence of both novels:-
"It was the day my grandmother exploded."
"Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel ..."

The first is the opening of Iain Banks' delightful mystery "the Crow Road," Banks remains one of my favourite Authors. The second is, obviously, from Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and the entire book is not up to the author's best standards. The writing is probably clever, his writing usually is, but the characters are so unlikeable that one doesn't give a damn, I had to make myself go on reading.
The portrayal of composer Clive Linley shows a convincingly vain and self-centered man convincing himself of his own genius (even while acknowledging that
the term is over-used) and blithely disregarding his responsibilities to his friends and to a stranger who he witnesses being attacked. He is only obsessed with completing his masterpiece, his millennium symphony which will premiere in a few day's time. There are some good descriptive passages on his surroundings in his chaotic home and when he goes hiking up towards Scafell Pike.

Meanwhile Vernon Halliday, insecure editor of upmarket newspaper 'The Judge', is less rounded as a character. His surroundings are hard to visualise, although an office is an office is an office - maybe that's the author's point - and his motivation is muddled. One thing he is clear about is his desire to bring down Julian Garonwy, the Foreign Secretary. Garonwy is equally unlikeable though even less detailed.

The end is surprising unless you're paying attention early on, which I admit I wasn't really, but it's not a shocking finale unless you cared. I didn't. Oh yes, Amsterdam is the location of the story's denouement, otherwise it's totally unimportant.
Ian McEwan's position as one of my favourite authors is in danger of slipping. This is actually my second attempt at getting through this story of arrogant men, being arrogant. There's meant to be some humour here, but it's hard to spot, there is room for so much more. 


That's my review published on GoodReads - for some reason I can't get this blog to link directly to the review, so I've copied.

Friend Reviews

the ter

Friday, 23 March 2018

Black, Brown and White by Big Bill Broonzy - My Desert Island Discs - the first

There should be eight tracks (not Albums) chosen to accompany you, if you have the misfortune to be cast away on a desert island (and just happen to have with you a wind up gramophone). It’s a barmy premise, but so are many methods of selection and this one was invented for a radio show which began on the BBC Forces Programme on 29 January 1942 and has been running ever since.

When I was a young child there was always music on the radio, including Desert Island Discs. There were, always LP’s around, some with fascinating, brightly coloured covers. We had a big radiogram in England, a smaller more portable record player when we moved to Aden. The records came with us and we accumulated more, from the Naafi, from Bhicajee Cowasgee which was the biggest department store in town and from passing ships, which included American warships.
Some of the records were by smooth solo singers such as Sinatra and Nat King Cole, which bored me.  Also there were soundtracks from musicals, ranging from obscure ones like ‘Kismet’, based on the music of Russian Composer Borodin and ‘Irma la Douce’ (a French stage musical which my parents must have seen when it was on at the Lyric Theatre in London) to Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘South Pacific’. I could probably sing along reasonably accurately to one or two of those soundtracks if they were played today.

But then one day in Aden my dad brought home ‘Big Bill’s Blues’, a compilation album of Big Bill Broonzy’s songs. One song stood out and I was old enough to understand. It was the beginning of my awareness of what was happening in the world, not only immediately in my surroundings in Aden, but also in America and around the world. ‘Black, Brown and White’ is Big Bill Broonzy singing, in a very deliberately calm, laid back way, about his experience of racism;
"They says if you was white, should be all right,
If you was brown, stick around,
But as you's black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back."
I've never forgotten those lyrics or the impact they had on me. So this song is my first choice for my desert island sojourn, just to remind me about the reality that I was missing, full of irrational prejudices and abuses.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Reading Habits Regained

My reading habits have changed drastically over the past ten/fifteen years or so and I 'm trying to put my finger on exactly why. I used to live for books, I could read novels at the rate of ten or a dozen every month - as a teenager it was probably double that, I read my way through the entire science-fiction sections of two public libraries before I found real boys were more engaging than robots and dystopias...but what teenagers do is a different story.

Over the past five-seven years my novel reading fell to about zero. I'm trying to rectify this. January  illnesses (mine and another's) kept me largely indoors, so I've begun to make a conscious effort to get off facebook, get off the news sites, get off-screen entirely (if briefly) and to read fiction - read actual books made of paper. I've got enough of them, what's the point of keeping them if I don't read?

Found I still like Barbara Vine, The House of Stairs was completely compelling, finished it at three in the morning then couldn't sleep. Come February I had to travel north, a long train journey there and back to see how far it is - just as far as I remembered but I can read on trains.

I actually bought a new novel, Gail Honeyman's prizewinning Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, expecting a Bridget Jones type scenario and finding something better, darker and much more unexpected. If I get around to putting it into my Goodreads listings it will go onto my 'might-read-again' shelf. It's currently sitting on a bedside table in a place too far away to care.

So back to the south, back to Barbara Vine.