No. 13: The Eve of St Agnes, John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness… 

So wrote Keats. And he was right. Autumn hails the harvest; apples and squash and pumpkins and blackberries – the last of which always transports me back to my childhood. 

London has been startlingly beautiful these past few weeks. Crisp, foggy mornings evaporate into beautiful days. We’ve had stretches of perfectly clear, perfectly blue skies. The sun radiating low in the sky, brown leaves strewn across the streets. 

As a bit of a country bumpkin I like to be outdoors as much as possible, revelling in the seasons. Bar in winter, which, by now, we all know I dislike. 

Similarly, you might now know I’m not a great poetry reader, and this is where Keats and I come to blows. 

The Romantics… Sigh… I’m not a fan. Never have been, and I’m not sure I ever will be. There are die-hard romantic poetry readers out there who have stared agog after I’ve delivered this conclusion. 

Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake… Sorry, gents. You’re just not my gig. I said as much to my Romantic poetry lecturer, a man with four names (Matthew Scott Lawrence Thomas) of which l still wasn’t clear what sequence these came in after three years at uni. 

I have sat down to read The Eve of St Agnes, this week’s Little Black Classic, so many times and each time I struggle.  I found a reading online, so I took to listening to this instead.

It is the Feast of St. Agnes, a cold winter’s night on 20 January. Madeline, the daughter of a lord, living in a great Medieval castle,  has performed various rituals that will ensure she sees her lover in her dreams.

Her nurse, Angels, tells Porphyro, a suitor, of Madeline’s superstitious beliefs and plan, and so he hides in Madeline’s closet to act as the heavenly vision.

Sure enough, Madeline does dream of Porphyro, and is less than impressed when the real, material Porphryo disturbs her slumber by strumming her lute. No euphemism intended.

This doesn’t stop her from running off into the night with Porphyro, leaving those at the feast to encounter terrible dreams that night and, in some instances, die.

This felt different to Keats’ other poems and Odes, which are filled with seasons and nature. It harks back to Medieval romance – chivalry, damsels in distress etc.

Aside from a man hiding in a woman’s wardrobe being exceptionally dubious (and I’m with Madeline on being annoyed at being woken, particularly with a musical instrument), I struggled with this narrative poem. It’s exceptionally long and Madeline and Porphyro seemed rather two-dimensional, despite the length of descriptions. The conclusion is also completely bizarre and jarring.

Give me Goblin Market instead, please! The teasing goblins and flawed women jump off the pages of Rossetti’s narrative poem in a way that Madeline and Porphyro don’t. Unlike Goblin Market, I also couldn’t find any metaphor hidden beneath the lyricism, meaning my aversion to Keats and romantic poetry still, sadly, stands.

And so, on a beautiful Autumnal day, I dragged my lovely friend Sophie around Southwark in search of the man himself. 

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Many don’t know that Keats was, in fact, an apothecary and worked at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. A man of many talents and disciplines.

Sophie and I met in Borough Market, very near a house Keats once occupied, before we embarked on a search for a statue of the poet in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital. 

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After a few laps around the grounds, both feeling like impostors, we headed for a cloistered area, confident we’d find Keats there. Sure enough, in the shadow of the Shard, there he was, peering out wistfully at the hospital he had worked at, as if on the brink of a wonderful, poetic idea. 

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I once more trespassed, clutching my Little Black Classic, a few onlookers looking on bemused (all very standard with this blog). Sophie was an excellent accomplice. I have such a great group of friends – the things I make them do!

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It is, however, a charming statue in a quiet, peaceful garden. Sophie and I could have happily sat with Keats for some time and mulled over the Romantics. But, alas, we decided the pub was calling. Priorities.

Thank you, Ella, for choosing this week’s Classic. Next week… Coleridge! More romantic poetry… Sigh… 

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No. 49: The Figure in the Carpet, Henry James

I’m back! Remember me?!

I know, I know. It’s been four months. A third of a year. Tail well and truly between my legs.

In my defence, the last four months have been completely manic and utterly spectacular. I’ve been to India, and then to Edinburgh, threw a hen do for my sister, watched her get married, took up some freelance writing, saw one housemate move out and another move in, and did the usual 9–5 of course. Plus, summer arrived so I’ve been out and about in the capital, which has chiefly entailed enjoying a number of drinks in the sunshine, gazing lovingly at London. Rightly so, I’d argue.

I have finally sat down to blog and, with typical luck, my laptop is seriously playing up. I’ve resorted to typing this on my phone, but, having just spent 20 minutes on said phone to my electricity provider, my phone is low on battery. I’ve got it plugged into a socket and, as the chord isn’t particularly long, I’m leaning awkwardly across the sofa arm, causing a slightly stiff neck. That’s how committed I am to publishing this post.

My Mum always says this blog should be fun, and not a chore to squeeze in, so I haven’t forced myself. But I’m here at last.

Although I do have a confession…

This is not going to be the usual A Little Bit Bookish blog. There is so much to say, and I read this Little Black Classic back in May when I was India. I contemplated re-reading, but this post would have taken even longer to go live.

Rather than faffing further (I’m Queen of the Faff) I think I just need to WRITE SOMETHING. So that’s the plan. A little about the book and a lot about life.

Let’s do this…

Henry James travelled with me to Delhi in May this year, where I was lucky enough to spend a week working with my colleagues in our Indian office, before having a few days to explore. Prior to taking off from Heathrow, I had asked the Editorial Manager of the Travel team in Delhi (I work on Travel’s editorial team in London), Shikha, to choose a Classic for me, thinking I could then read and photograph the book during my trip.

India experienced a heatwave in May this year, and Rajasthan reached record-breaking temperatures. My lovely colleague Kathleen and I stepped onto Indian soil sometime around midnight, where we were enveloped by a 30°C+ heat. Imagine, 30°C at midnight! This was nothing – during our stay we reached a whopping 46°C (that’s 115°F to my transatlantic friends).

Take a moment to digest that.

During our working week in the Delhi office, we slithered between the hotel, the car and the office to make the most of the air con. And sightseeing required enough water to fill a bath.  

Rather like Indian roads, the week was jam-packed and manic – between meetings, catch-ups and lunches, there wasn’t time for much else, other than an obligatory cup of tea, of course. It wasn’t all business, however. There were some sightseeing opportunities.

My fellow Editors took us to Dilli Haat (‘Dilli’ meaning Delhi and ‘Haat’ meaning market in Hindi), where talented craftsmen sell their beautiful wares. It was completely overwhelming. Conclusion of the shopping trip: I have much to learn when it comes to bargaining.

Here some of my colleagues enter into negotiation on my behalf…

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With hindsight, this would have been the perfect place to take The Figure in the Carpet, which I was still reading at this point. Frantically rummaging through the dark corners of my memory, what I remember about the Little Black Classic is as follows…

The narrator of this short story, a newspaper journalist, is enamoured with a particular writer, Hugh Vereker, who he is fortunate enough to meet one day. Vereker hints that there is a subtext to his writing, referring to “my secret”. The narrator becomes strangely obsessed with uncovering the hidden, ambiguous message in the writer’s work. He tells his friend, Corvick, and Corvick’s partner, Gwendolen, about the riddle, but the three are unable to uncover the true meaning.

When travelling in India (yes, India!) Corvick believes he uncovers the meaning and telegrams his wife to tell her so. He promises to reveal the riddle’s answer to the narrator and Gwendolen when they are married, and not before. Alas Corvick passes away in a tragic accident and so his solution to the riddle is lost.

Gwendolen marries another, before she herself sadly passes away. The narrator asks her husband if she ever divulged the meaning, but he is none the wiser.

The narrator and Gwendolen’s widower continue to ponder over Vereker’s true meaning and the narrator never unearths the secret. 

This was a strange one. I struggled to concentrate and really get under the skin of the Classic – this could well have been because I was distracted by work and India, although by and large I’m not a huge Henry James fan.

It was when reading that Corvick travelled alone to India, where he found the meaning, that I thought I had hit the jackpot. Dilli Haat had a number of stalls packed to the rafters with exquisite carpets, which would have proffered a perfect photo opportunity. I also loved the idea of a message being hidden in a Persian carpet, and could appreciate this – we saw so many beautiful carpets that could have been mapping out exotic realms with their intricate patterns. 

Alas I was distracted by the constant commotion of India, and rather forgot about my Classic. It was like no other place I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. It made for a completely overwhelming trip.

Aside from Dilli Haat, our colleagues took us on a tour of Delhi, where we explored the Crafts Museum, saw India Gate and the Rajpath, the Presidential Palace, the outskirts of the Lodi Gardens and we visited the spectacular Qutb Minar. This minaret, the tallest in the world, was beautiful and a definite highlight, particularly as the sun set and the red sandstone bricks glowed amber.

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We also visited the Lotus Temple, which we could see from our hotel in Nehru Place. The Bahá’í House of Worship comprises 27 petals that form nine sides, reflected in nine surrounding pools, housing one single hall of worship. Here, all faiths are welcome – there are no religious icons, structures or furnishings inside.

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The following day we set off for Humayun’s Tomb, having heard from so many that it was a must-see. Sure enough, each step toward it was more thrilling than the last. It was so impressive, looming through the monumental gateways and pavilions that surround the mausoleum. At a whopping 46 degrees, however, I was struggling.

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As a result of the heat, we weren’t able to make it to the Red Fort or the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. Instead, Kathleen and I had a few cold beers and an early night, in preparation for our drive to Agra the following morning.

“An Indian driver needs three things,” Brij, our driver, said to us as we set off early the next day. “A good brake.” He put his foot down on the brake twice to demonstrate, lurching us forward in the process. “A good horn.” He stamped the heel of his hand onto the horn to emit a piercing toot. “And good luck.” He gestured to the figure of Ganesh, who sat on the dashboard.

We were soon speeding along the Yamuna Expressway in the direction of Agra – a positively smooth and relaxed journey in comparison to some of the roads we encountered in Delhi. Along with the road surfaces, the landscape changed; the buzzing, built-up city gradually transcended into tranquil green plains, with more and more bustle again creeping onto the roads as we approached Agra.

Upon arrival, we stopped at Agra Fort. As with all of the sights that we visited in Uttar Pradesh, pedlars congregated at the sight’s gates, showing their wares to sightseers, tour guides (some reputable, others not) loitered and children darted about; the historic walls acting as a backdrop to this bustling scene. This would form one of my most distinct memories of sightseeing in India.

Agra Fort was once the imperial residence of the Mughal Dynasty, and was certainly very imposing. In particular, I fell in love with the arches of the Diwan-i-Am, or the Hall of Audience, where the Mughal Emperor would have received visitors . They were beautiful, and offered a slightly shaded spot (much to my relief).

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Having left the Fort, we had a couple of hours rest in preparation for the Mother of all sights – the Taj. We picked up several bottles of water, our cameras, a guide and a rickshaw en route; all that we would need to take in the Taj.

Words can’t do the Taj Mahal justice; anything I write is futile. All I will say is, it was magnetic – I couldn’t tear my eyes from it. We had dithered between visiting at sunrise or sunset, having received mixed advice from our colleagues. We settled upon sunset, as the light was meant to be particularly flattering. Sure enough, the Taj glimmered in the evening sun as we circled the monument to love.

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Finally, early on the Monday morning, when it was cooler and the roads were relatively quiet, we drove to Fatehpur Sikri, which was my favourite sight of the entire trip. Set on a hill, we took a tuk tuk up to the imposing Buland Darwaza, the entrance to Fatehpur Sikri.

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We had what was once the capital of the Mughal Empire (for just 14 years) pretty much to ourselves. The Imperial complex was wonderful to explore, with so many buildings to duck in and out of. 

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I returned to the UK, guilty that I hadn’t completed by bookish mission in India, but buzzing with my trip. I resolved to do something in London and so, on a particularly drizzly Saturday in June, I took a stroll to Kensington, where Henry James lived. I meandered around Kensington Gardens, watching passers by huddle under umbrellas and run for shelter, before going in search of Wells’ home.

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It was the absolute antithesis of sightseeing in India. It was dark and pretty dismal, and I wasn’t approached or talked to. 

I really appreciated the solitude of the walk – time alone with my thoughts, to reflect on our trip. And yet part of me did yearn for the chaos and colour of India.

Thank you to Shikha for choosing this Little Black Classic, for taking me under your wing while I was with you (and feeding me VERY well), and your patience with this post! I love this picture of us…

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Also thank you to Kathleen for being the best travelling companion. What a trip! See you soon for that Tooting curry 😉

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Next time (which hopefully won’t be in another four months) I will be reading John Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes.

No. 47: The Great Fire of London, Samuel Pepys

This week’s Little Black Classic makes me think of a little boy called Gabriel.

Last summer, my friend Katy, who chose The Tell-Tale Heart, and I volunteered as mentors for the Summer Reading Challenge, a scheme established by the Reading Agency to encourage children to utilise their local library and continue reading over the six week summer holiday.

We spent an hour a week at a library in Pimlico, listening to children talk about the books they had read over the break. They received a small reward for each book – a sticker, a keyring etc.

I took part when I was a kid, and I can remember walking through my hometown to our local library, excited to hand in my recent adventures in exchange for new ones.

On my last day as a mentor, an eight year old boy called Gabriel came into the library with his Mum. He clutched a large hardback book all about The Great Fire of London.

“He’s obsessed with it,” his Mum told me. I nodded and smiled, indulgently. “No, really. Ask him any question about the Fire of London.”

She wasn’t wrong. I quizzed him, and he knew everything there was to know about the Great Fire of London. His two greatest facts were:

  1. Only six people officially died in the fire. More obviously perished, but records were not established at the time so these deaths weren’t verified.
  2. Although it was devastating, it rid the city of a huge rat population and, along with this, purged London of the plague.

Best of all, I asked him on what date the fire started. 2nd September 1666.

I blinked. It was 2nd September 2015, exactly 349 years after the fire started. We were both very excited.

So 2016 sees the 350th anniversary!

Any Brit worth their salt knows that the fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane. There is even a nursery rhyme, ‘London’s burning,’ which we all grew up singing. The fire raged for four days and destroyed the Medieval city of London.

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Much of our understanding of the Great Fire of London is garnered from the diary of Samuel Pepys’, a Member of Parliament and prolific diarist.

The first half of this Little Black Classic takes place from May 1st – June 30th 1665, and offers a wonderful variety of topics. This is perfectly summarised in an entry in which Pepys writes that a poor Aunt, presumably suffering from cancer, has had a breast removed, and in the very next sentence relays that he has decided to cut his hair short and wear a wig.

He also describes the potent presence of the plague in the city:

“I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.”

The plague collects pace as his diary progresses, and within a short space of time it’s rife in the city.

The second half of this book is based from September 2nd – 15th 1666 and documents the main event; the Great Fire.

He relays that he and his wife were awoken by their maid with the news that London was burning. The fire begun “this morning in the King’s bakers house in Pudding Lane.”

It was clearly utterly devastating. Pepys describes people desperately throwing their possessions into the Thames in the hope that this would preserve them better than being consumed by flames. The poor stayed in their houses for as long as possible.

Even London’s resident pigeons were affected:

“the poor pigeons I perceive were loathe to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”

The chaos of the city is palpable. No emergency service, or means of collecting enough water to quell the flames. The city was doomed.

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In a particularly powerful description, he conveys the savagery of the fire:

“as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire … It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of the houses at their ruin.”

After burning for several days, the bloody flames finally reached Pepys, who buried his possessions in the earth in an attempt to save them. “I never did observe so much of myself in my life.”

When the fire finally stopped, Pepys was relieved to return to normality, and to his beloved bed.

As someone who values the familiarity and comfort of home hugely, I can entirely understand that he must have savoured lying in his bed once more.

I decided to take in the key landmarks of the Great Fire of London and so, on a particularly fine day, when London basked in Springtime sunshine, I headed into central London with my friend Poppy.

London is a wonderful city, but it is glorious in sunshine. Tourists and locals alike flock to waterside drinking holes, to be serenaded by the motion of the Thames with a refreshing drink in hand.

I live in East London, near Canary Wharf and not far from the Olympic Park. Travelling into Central, Poppy and I disembarked at Monument station, and crossed London Bridge, heading into Southwark.

We skirted around Borough Market, which was heaving with those enjoying its delicacies. We were delighted to see Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London, being interviewed outside Southwark Cathedral, having been sworn in not half an hour before.

We continued onwards, aiming for the river. We stopped at The Old Thameside Inn, found right next to the Golden Hind, the copy of the boat the Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe on (and which I blogged about last year). Here we basked in the sunshine and enjoyed a drink, toasting the new Mayor of London and our city in general.

After a bite to eat, we crossed over Millennium Bridge to greet St Paul’s, perhaps one of London’s most recognised buildings.

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Gutted by the Great Fire, Old St Paul’s was replaced by the building we know and love today – the mother church of London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It survived the Blitz, and has seen countless famous weddings and funerals.

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We circled the impressive Cathedral, and enjoyed a ten minute break on its lawn, before heading back to the Monument, also designed by Christopher Wren.

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This 62m Doric column was constructed in commemoration of the Great Fire of London, and stands 62m from the spot on Pudding Lane where the fire began. We paused to admire the Monument properly, having walked past it countless times. Its crown of golden flames sits atop the column, where visitors can look out at our modern city, which one day burned.

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Finally, we concluded our pilgrimage on Pudding Lane, where it all began.

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Thank you very much, Daisy, for choosing this week’s Classic. Next time I will be reading Henry James’ The Figure in the Carpet.

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No. 69: I Hate and I Love, Catullus

WARNING:

The following post contains erotic content!

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(Photo credit: My friend Poppy. Cheek in the ruins of Carmo Convent, Lisbon. See last week’s post for more of our Lisbon-based literary antics). 

Catullus is a naughty man. You have been warned.

BACK TO THE NORMAL SCHEDULE

This week’s post is awash with provocative sex scenes, a tremendous coincidence and tales form foreign shores. So please stick with me for this one – you won’t regret it. Let your hair down, nestle back in your chair, take a sip of your cup of tea (some might prefer something a little stronger), and let me and Catullus entertain you.

March was a revelrous month, what with a trip to Lisbon and the extended Easter weekend. It was restorative to have a quiet weekend in my flat at the beginning of April, the perfect environment to familiarise myself with Catullus.

I had not heard of Catullus prior to reading this Little Black Classic. A quick flick through revealed this is a collection of poetry, the perfect reading to dip in to.

The main focus of this poetry collection is Catullus’s infatuation with a woman called Lesbia, who he addresses directly in a number of his poems. Take his preoccupation with kissing her in the second poem:

“Kiss me now a / thousand times & / now a hundred / more & then a / hundred & a / thousand more again / til with so many / hundred thousand / kisses you & I / shall both lose count”

Sweet love!

Two poems later, and Catullus is back in the same frame of mind:

“as many as / the sky has stars / at night shining / in quiet upon / the furtive loves / of mortal men, / as many kiss- / es of you lips / as they might slake / your own obsessed / Catullus”

True romance!

But relations turn sour; it’s clear that Lesbia and Catullus quarrel. His tone changes – his writing is abrupt and disjointed. He tries to convince Lesbia that he doesn’t miss her:

“Not again, Lesbia. / No more. / Catullus is clear. / He won’t miss you.”

Methinks he doth protest too much. Surely this heartache and denial is familiar to all of us.

His misery evolves into anger. In a particularly violent poem, Catullus says that, while he casts off his grief and travels the world, he hopes the “tart” Lesbia is enjoying new relationships. He’s sarcastic and cutting, imagining her in brutal and rape-like sex orgies, “dragging the guts out.”

It’s seriously graphic. I won’t include it here (my Grandma reads this) but this is, essentially, 2,000 year old revenge porn.

Ancient art and literature show that civilisations were openly experimental sexually, but I’ve not yet come across any ancient text that’s quite so violent or venomous. I felt completely awful for Lesbia. A past lover publicising sexual scenarios is a terrifying, haunting prospect.

Later, Catullus implies Lesbia is a prostitute, as she “loiters at the cross roads / and in the backstreets”. He’s clearly obssesed with her but moves on, distracting himself with Ipsíthilla. He requests she “Call me to you / at siesta / we’ll make love” and “stay at home / & in your room / … I’ll come at once.”

Ahem.

Despite Ipsíthilla’s appeal, Catullus can’t shake off Lesbia. He’s conflicted – his hatred transcends into love and vice versa.

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Half of his references to Lesbia are degrading, as described above; the other half are ardent. Toward the end of the poetry collection, for example, he says “Lesbia is loveliness indeed” and compares her to the goddess Venus.

The final poem concludes with Catullus finding love with another, although insecurities bubble beneath, as he hopes

“God let her mean what she says, /  from a candid heart, / that our two lives may be linked in their length / day to day, / each to each, / in a bond of sacred fidelity.”

This is a wonderful collection of poems. It might be 2,000 years old, but it perfectly displays the contradictions of love – how it can be both profound and beautiful, painful and ugly. It makes both poets and monsters of us all.

One of my greatest loves is Italy. It’s my favourite country – the cities, the countryside, the art, the food, the drinks, the gelato. *Sigh.

Two weeks ago, my friend Thom and I returned from a short break in Italy, where we first spent a couple of days in Sirmione on Lake Garda, before we moved on to Milan. It was idyllic – we scaled cathedrals and castles, swooned at godly statues and consumed numerous Aperol spritz. We also decided that a boat trip was essential – a few hours on the lake, basking in sunshine, with a picnic and poetry. Perfect.

At university, where we met, Thom and I read from two breeze-block books – the Norton Anthologies of English Literature. Through our three years at uni we studied a huge number of erotically charged texts (there’s no escaping them) and joked that, one day, we could collate all those erotic writings and publish an anthology of our own for future students. We dubbed it the Naughty Norton.

As I read Catullus, a week prior to our trip, I decided I had to take him with me with Italy. He was an excellent candidate for the Naughty Norton.

I researched him a bit more to garner more about this Italian heritage. In a weird twist of fate that I’m crediting to the Roman Gods, Catullus is rumoured to have come from Sirmione, where Thom and I had booked to stay.

No, I am serious.

Spooky.

I was thrilled to find a bust of the poet standing not fifteen paces from the door of our B&B.

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There is a villa, called the Grotto of Catullus, jutting out onto Lake Garda at the very tip of Sirmione, where Catullus is rumoured to have lived. This has since been disproved, but it is understood that his parents did own a villa in Sirmione and so Catullus inevitably visited. Unsurprisingly, the local scenery inspired much of his poetry…

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We rented a boat in the morning (an experience that was completely brilliant but not the calm idyll I had evisaged. No poetry was read, rather camp 80s music videos re-created) and visited the ruins of the villa in the afternoon.

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We could hear the waters of the lake lapping as we strolled around the ruins. The sun spilled out overhead. Italian conversation lingered. It was compeltely idyllic.

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A big thank you to Gemma the Gem for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic, and thank you to Thom for letting me march him around Sirmione in search of Catullus!

Next time I will be reading Samuel Pepys’ The Great Fire of London.

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No. 31: The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe

So Spring has finally sprung, HOORAY!

I type this from my sofa, bare feet up on the coffee table, toenails painted, balcony doors flung open, football cries and birdsong mingling. An ice cream van wails its tune as it winds the streets. The scent of a BBQ lingers. Perfect.

This past Winter has been particularly bleak. Poppy (who joined me for The Communist Manifesto) and I decided to embrace Spring  with a mini break in Lisbon. This, combined with the extended Easter weekend, has meant I haven’t posted this as quickly as I would have liked, so I’m pleased to be hitting ‘Publish’ at last.

I read The Tell-Tale Heart on board our flight to Lisbon, in mid-March. Neither my friend Katy, who chose this Little Black Classic, or I have never read any Poe before so we looked forward to the introduction.

It comprises three short stories and The Tell-Tale Heart is the first.

The narrator is evidently insane from the outset – his writing is disjointed and contradictory, and he admits in the second paragraph of page one

‘I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture … I made up my mind to take the life of the old man’.

I was in the company of a madman, although he tried to convince me otherwise. Who this man is, or who is companion is, we don’t know, as we slip into the action almost immediately.

The narrator confesses that he studied his companion’s sleep pattern, to perfect the best means and timings for the killing.

On the eighth evening of observation, the stalker’s hand slips on the hatch of his lantern and awakens the sleeping man, who sits up up and questions the sound. The two men are frozen in their positions for an hour, both listening for the other’s reaction.

The deranged narrator becomes aware of a low pounding.

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‘I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of the drum stimulates the soldier into courage.’

The pounding grows louder and the deafened madman fears it will wake the neighbour. ‘The old man’s hour had come!’

He drags the man to the floor and heaves the bed on top of him, either crushing or suffocating him.

‘If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.’

These ‘wise precautions’ consist of dismembering the old man’s body, and using a large tub underneath the floorboards to catch the blood and store the body parts. The description is gloriously macabre.

Three policemen come knocking, claiming a neighbour heard a shriek. The madman assures them he was just sleeping fitfully and tours them around the house to highlight all is well.

He invites them to rest, drawing up chairs above the very spot where his dead companion’s body parts lie, and revels in his hubris.

As he makes small talk with the three policemen, the narrator suddenly feels unwell – a ringing in his ears, his head aches, and he hears a low, quick thudding. The policemen seem unaware and chat normally.

The madman paces the floor, the noise increasing in volume.

‘I foamed – I raved – I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose’

Yet the policemen continue to chat pleasantly and the madman assumes they are mocking him.

The short story ends ‘I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!’

I was utterly gripped by this short story, the clanging and chatter of the plane dissolving. I loved how the narrator talks directly to the reader and cuts straight to the heart of the story (pardon the pun!), avoiding any unnecessary description. Anything and everything around the narrator is white noise – the companion, the policemen, the location, the surroundings are all irrelevant. The narrator’s mental deterioration is the subject alone, and his unravelling is completely compelling, his paranoia turning into tangible symptoms.

Is it the heart of the dead man that betrays him, or his own anxious beating heart?

The Tell-Tale Heart was my favourite story in this small collection. I enjoyed  The Fall of the House of Usher, which similarly portrays ideas of mental illness in a Gothic setting (reminiscent of the house in The Old Nurse’s Story). In this instance, however, the narrator describes his friend’s mental state to the reader.

But I couldn’t resist the spell cast by the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, and Poe’s direct language and candid descriptions.

I chewed over the short story as we climbed Lisbon’s hilly streets in the Spring sunshine, stopping for coffee and a glass of something red at regular intervals.

It was on a walking tour that we stepped into Igreja de São Domingos, having been warned that the church’s interior is seriously macabre.

Sure enough, Poppy and I stood at the back, frozen in its eeriness, the hairs on the backs of our necks standing. I asked that we return with Edgar Allan Poe and properly drink the church in.

And so, on our last day in the city, we trailed down Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s main thoroughfare, which is very similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris in both appearance and ambience. We came to the top of Rossio Square where, just off to the left, stands São Domingos.

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The church, once the largest in Lisbon, hosting royal weddings, has witnessed countless horrors. Like nearby Rossio Square, it saw public executions during the infamous Inquisition. It was later damaged by the 1531 earthquake, then the 1755 earthquake (which famously devastated much of Lisbon), and finally a fire which broke out in the church in 1959.

This last event gutted the already ramshackle church, which today acts as a monument to Lisbon’s tragic history.

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I thought Poe would approve of it’s nightmarish interiors. It’s painted a rusty orange, a reminder of it’s fiery past, with sections of fire-damaged parts remaining.

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Idols of suffering saints line the walls alongside scorched pillars. The Holy Trinity above the altar is unrecognisable today, damaged and ghoulish.

As Poppy and I slowly wandered around she pointed out long, engraved lines on one of the pillars. “They’re like scratch marks,” she whispered.

I shivered.

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It is the creepiest building I have stepped into. Even the air is musty, as if it has absorbed the church’s decay.

Katy, thank you so much for choosing this Little Black Classic (and for pointing out my unBEARable typos) – it was excellent. I think both you and Edgar Allan Poe would have really liked the church, and I hope you enjoyed The Tell-Tale Heart.

Next time I will be reading I Hate and I Love.

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No. 20: The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

So… The Communist Manifesto…

It must be said, I was nervous about reading and discussing this heavyweight.

My friend Thom chose it. We studied Joyce, Conrad and other intimidating (in my mind) literary giants together at uni. It’s accurate to say that Thom carried me through that particular module.

Today he’s my bohemian friend, living and freelancing n Barcelona, speaking umpteen languages (predominantly self-taught) and is constantly popping over to another European city to take the waters (/ local booze) and see the sights.

I wasn’t particularly surprised when he chose The Communist Manifesto. He read it just a couple of months ago, and so it seemed appropriate.

The Communist Manifesto comprises four parts. Bear with me here…

The first outlines Communist theory, and how the working classes are historically oppressed by the upper classes, referred to throughout as the Bourgeoisie. The second looks at how Communism would better benefit the working classes, or Proletarians. The third (which is where I lost the plot) seems to offer a critique of alternative Socialist writings. And the fourth looks as Communism in relation to other socialist parties.

Phew!

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I found the first section of particular interest. It really sets the scene, carefully explaining how and why the working classes suffer, and outlining why socialism is essential as a result. It argues that class systems mean that one class, the Proletariat, will inevitably endure hardship, and this is the case worldwide. This suffering is obviously economical ,and less tangible, as core family values are in danger as well as personal finances.

It’s a big and relevant topic.

Labourers are essentially described as commodities, like goods on the stock market – they can be valuable one day and worthless the next, depending on the development of the world around them.

“The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.”

This industrial threat often drives labourers to joining Trade Unions, which organises strikes, and “Here and there the contest breaks out into riots.” You only need to read Victorian literature by writers such as Gaskell to appreciate this.

The revolution that Marx and Engels hope to trigger here would remove all ownership of private property, destroy all notions of class and effectively level the playing field.

The result = a Communist society.

There are some brilliant lines here. In particular, “every class struggle is a political struggle” struck me.

The Manifesto also points out that “every form of society has been based … on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes.”

This is, of course, entirely accurate.

Importantly, the writers’ representation of the working classes is regardless of nationality – they state that they are a worldwide movement, representing all. Their 10 point plan lays out the foundations of this “tribe” (I’ve made the images extra big in the hope that you can read them – best done on a desktop):

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It must be said, I did not find this Little Black Classic the easiest, particularly the second half, when I was distracted by the scent of a Sunday roast my housemate, Daisy, was preparing.

Elements were enthralling, others a little dry. It’s a tangle of emotive rhetoric, a trusted tool for enticing a revolution, and specific political comments relevant to that time, which I couldn’t help but glaze over when reading.

Oops.

But it is articulate, intelligent, researched and convincing in its presentation. It holds a mirror up to world, and it’s not just the past looking back at us, but the modern world too.

All in all I didn’t not enjoy this read, but it took a certain frame of mind and level of brain power to read. Its political edge reminded my of Henry Mayhew’s Of Street Piemen back in week one of my blog, which I thoroughly enjoyed, possibly because it was specifically set in London, which I could relate to. (I enjoyed that book FAR more than the pie I made in its honour, which was genuinely vile).

As Marx and Engels were united in their politics, I grabbed my partner in crime – Poppy, my housemate and friend of some twelve years. She chose Hardy, back in April 2015.

We set out on a brisk but sunny Sunday, much to my relief (my last blog having taken place on an utterly miserable day) and headed for Soho.

Disembarking at Tottenham Court Road, we wound through the alleys of Soho, stopping to read many a plaque commemorating individuals, locations and events that those streets have witnessed.

Our destination was an establishment on a corner of Great Windmill Street, once the Red Lion Pub, where the Communist League met in London.

It was upstairs here that Marx and Engels were asked to write an ‘action programme’ that outlined the League’s arguments and proposals – a meeting that is outlined in the opening of the Classic. In other words, it was in this room that Marx and Engels were commissioned to write The Communist Manifesto. Written in their native German, it went on to be translated into English, Danish, Italian and so on.

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It was pretty exciting to find the building, which today houses an underwhelming Be At One bar. It being a Sunday, it was closed – shame, as I was hoping to head upstairs and snoop around (poor planning on my part).

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We stopped to stare at the first floor windows (see above), where the Communist League would no doubt have looked out at the hubbub of Soho and, after snapping some photos, headed back into the thick of Soho for a drink and a toast to the revolution.

Working men (*ahem* and women) of all countries, unite!

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Thank you so much, Thom, for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic. We can discuss in more depth when we’re supping prosecco in Milan!

Next time I will be reading Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

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No. 77: A Slip Under the Microscope, H.G. Wells

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read The War of the Worlds, or any of H.G. Wells’ work in fact. Not intentionally, of course, there are just so many books to read and, if I’m honest, science fiction isn’t really my gig (although conversely I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan).

This meant I approached A Slip Under the Microscope with really little or no knowledge of the author.

My friend Lois chose this week’s Little Black Classic. She read Wells’ The Truth About Pyecraft for her book group, and her Dad is an advocate of the writer.

I read the book a couple of weeks ago, buried under a blanket on my sofa, on a nippy Sunday morning. Coffee, toast, jammies. Bliss.

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I chose to read A Slip Under the Microscope first, despite it being the second short story in this edition.

It opens in a laboratory within The College of Science, with dissections in glass jars and anatomical drawings lining the walls. Wells paints a wonderful image of the space, paying heed to very specific, chaotic details of a classroom.

I liked the description of a classically cold and poor student in his digs

“he would sit on the bed of his room in Chelsea with his coat and a muffler, and write out the lecture notes”

I’ve been there.

Here we meet Hill, the son of a humble cobbler.  He is shabbily dressed, opinionated and clearly intelligent.

His rival is Wedderburn (great name), another intelligent student and the son of a respected optician. Both boys, of different social classes, are vying for the attention of a Miss Haysman.

Hill is besotted. His ambition fades as his love for Miss Haysman deepens. But he manages top marks in the class, along with Wedderburn.

The two young men fight to be top dog in both the classroom and in Miss Haysman’s affections.

“she was the Queen of Beauty in a tournament of scalpels and stumpy pencils”

The main action takes place in the laboratory. A mystery specimen is placed on a slip under a microscope. Each student in turn studies the specimen and has to return to their desk to identify it with a sketch.

There is an implicit instruction to not move the slip, its precise positioning purposely blurring the identity and ensuring a more challenging examination.

Alas, on his turn, Hill moves it, purely out of habit when studying a specimen under a microscope. We’re privy to his internal debate – does he confess, does he lie? He wants to beat Wedderburn. He chooses to remain silent and return to his desk.

He gets the highest score in class, closely followed by arch enemy Wedderburn. Hill is racked with guilt and so goes to his lecturer to confess. He is punished as a cheat, fails the course and so loses his scholarship.

Wedderburn and Miss Haysman learn of Hill’s action, and his confession. The tell-tale says “what can you expect? His father is a cobbler.”

And that’s it. I wasn’t really sure what to make of this short story. It presents a moral dilemma, loaded with anguish and regret, but didn’t toy with my emotions or present an irresistible plot as much as I had hoped for.

I enjoyed the first short story, The Door in the Wall, far more.

A boy discovers a lone green door in Kensington, behind which lies a fantastical land, an escape from the streets of London. Here he strokes the ears of two tame panthers, makes friends with a beautiful girl, and admires expansive gardens with trickling fountains. The world is all his own.

“the Door in the Wall was a real door, leading through a real wall to immortal realities.”

The door and its hidden garden haunts him. He tells his Father and Aunt who don’t believe him, scolding him for his lies.

Years later, he finds it on Campden Hill, realising it wasn’t a dream! He confides in a friend, who tells their schoolmates and they accuse him of a being a liar.

Then, when he was 17 and in a cab in Earl’s Court, he saw the door once more!

“Who wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and distinguished men?”

After his death, his friend reflects on his friend’s stories of the Door in the Wall – was he mad and hallucinating, or did the door and its enchanted land exist?

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I set out into London’s own enchanted lands in search of adventures new, inspired by Wells.

I want to tell you that I left on a crisp winter day, with blue skies overhead and frost glazing the pavements, my face numb with the freshness of the season.

I didn’t, and it wasn’t.

I skipped out to be greeted by a bitingly cold wind and that sideways rain that cuts into you. Every fibre of my being shivered. I should be in bed writing, I thought. But I persevered and caught the tube to Marylebone for Hanover Terrace, where Wells lived.

It was even wetter when I disembarked at Baker Street. I fought against the blustering wind as I walked along a beautiful stretch of road – even through the haze of weather it was impressive.

Firstly, facing Regents Park, was the London Business School, an expansive corridor of Regency architecture, with a colonnaded facade and manicured gardens.

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Shortly after, I arrived at Hanover Terrace, which is of a similar appearance to the previous, but clearly residential, with cars dotting the front drive.

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These houses are magnificent, if rather intimidating, and clearly have residents of worth.

I trotted along (the feeling in my toes waning by this point) until I reached No. 13 – Wells’ house, where the writer lived and passed away.

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I wanted to really drink it in, but there was a security officer patrolling. No genuinely, there was.

I made awkward small talk with the official, who wore a bullet proof vest. He had clearly clocked and followed me. He kept close to me while I snapped these few photographs.

I left, concerned he would wrestle me to the ground if I stayed much longer, and he followed, presumably to be sure of my exit, six steps behind at all times.

Who knew little 5″2″ me could be quite so threatening.

Disgruntled and slightly threatened by this, I made my way back through the elements to meet Lois and regale the story of this week’s classic.

It was cold. It was wet. It was miserable. See exhibit A:

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This was taken shortly before I slipped on a particularly wet pavement. As I peeled myself off the ground, using an obliging railing as leverage, I concluded that this summarises winter for me. Sitting on a wet pavement, feeling strangely intimidated.

I looked around for a door in a wall, to transport me to away from the cold and the rain to worlds new and mystical. But, on this occasion, my search was in vain.

I settled for a reviving cup of a tea and a catch up with my friend.

Thank you Lois for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic, and for comforting me in my chilly condition!

 

Next time I will be blogging about The Communist Manifesto.

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