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. 

img_7407

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. 

img_7403

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. 

img_7480

img_7413

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!

img_7424

img_7453

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… 

Advertisements

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.

IMG_5794

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.

IMG_5754

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.

IMG_5744

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.

IMG_5747

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.

IMG_5762

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.

IMG_5766

IMG_5765

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

IMG_5783

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

IMG_4662

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!

thumb_IMG_5470_1024

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):

thumb_IMG_5497_1024

thumb_IMG_5498_1024

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.

thumb_IMG_5450_1024

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).

thumb_IMG_5459_1024

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!

thumb_IMG_5480_1024

thumb_IMG_5492_1024

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.

thumb_IMG_5493_1024

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.

image4

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?

image4-2

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.

IMG_2992

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.

image2-2

image1

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.

image2

image3

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:

image3-2

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.

IMG_3043

No. 53: Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti

So, here it is! My first post of the year.

2016 threw its doors open. I ran in, grateful for the new start, and am now standing, slightly disillusioned, in it’s shabby blue hallway.

Thirteen Little Black Classics read, 67 to go. *Gulp. An overwhelming prospect.

The Classic to kick off 2016 is Goblin Market, chosen by my beloved Grandma (affectionately dubbed ‘Silver Spice’ since I was a sprog, as she was such a cool Grandma that she could be the sixth member of the Spice Girls). You might remember I visited her in Plymouth back when I read The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake.

IMG_2821

This is not my first time reading Goblin Market. In my second year of uni, I read the poem for a Womens Writing module, having first fallen in love with Rossetti’s poetry as a teen. Most probably feeling worse for wear from a devastating cold or self-inflicted misery, I just couldn’t fathom the narrative poem.

Two friends and I were late for the Goblin Market lecture, which was based in a  particularly poky classroom. We arrived two minutes after the lecturer, a dishevelled man in his late thirties. He had shoulder length hair, a beanie permanently pinned to his head, plaid shirts and cable knit cardigans galore. The girls on my course fancied him, alarmingly, as the one eligible male member of the English faculty.

We rushed into the room, where the front three desks directly under the lecturer’s nose were the only unoccupied seats. We shuffled in, plonking our bags on the desks and removing our coats while the lecturer fussed over the projector screen, flustered and fraught.

When ready, he patted down his body, unable to locate his lecture notes. It was the most disjointed lecture, the six slides on the projector screen failing to trigger his memory and offering no illumination to the thirty students.

If possible, the little I had garnered from reading the poem prior to the lecture trickled away as I sat there, listening to his confused ramblings.

“I just wish I had my notes!” he howled  every five minutes, apologising profusely.

As the lecture came to a close, I put my coat back on, exchanging raised eyebrows with my friends, and picked up my bag, under which I discovered HIS NOTES.

I felt so guilty. I ruined that entire room’s understanding of the poem, and made a brilliant literary man question his own mind.

I considered harbouring them all to myself for about 30 seconds, but the notes were a tangle of nonsense. Much like if you were to read my notebook for this blog – they make sense to no-one but me.

The guilty feeling soon returned and so I simply binned them, never choosing the text for any essay or exam as self-punishment.

As a result, I approached this Little Black Classic with some trepidation.

Goblin Market is reminiscent of a Grimm fairy tale. On the surface, it appears to be a fable-like story for children. But it’s riddled with dark complexities and tensions bubble beneath the surface. It’s a strange mix of being both sentimental and sweet, and slightly uncomfortable.

The poem opens

“Morning and evening / Maids heard the goblins cry: / Come buy our fruits, / Come buy, come buy”

These goblin men offer countless tempting fruits – from apples and oranges, peaches and raspberries, to mulberries and pomegranates, damsons and dewberries.

Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, enjoy the great outdoors and hear the goblins’ market call

Lizzie warns Laura “Their evil gifts would harm us.” She reminds Laura of a girl called Jeanie, who ate the goblin fruits. Jeanie sought the goblins out but could never find them again and was driven mad. She, “Who should have been a bride,” was driven to an early grave, so consumed with desire.

Laura doesn’t listen to her sensible sister, and pays for the goblin fruits with a precious golden curl from her head. She gorges on the treasure trove of fruits. She “never tasted tasted such before” and “sucked until her lips were sore.”

Saucy!

Like Jeanie, Laura can’t find the goblin men again, wanting to take Lizzie to experience their delicious fruits. So the two sisters go about their domestic lives.

“They lay down in their curtained bed: / Like two blossoms on one stem”

They milked the cows, baked, churned butter, sewed. But

“one content, one sick in part; / One Warbling for the mere bright day’s delight, / One longing for the night.”

Here we have one sister who is modest, well behaved, virginal. The other is rebellious, unsatisfied and corrupted. The descriptions of her eating the forbidden fruits are very erotic. She is that classic Victorian idea of a fallen woman.

Lizzie can’t bear to see her sister pine for the fruits, and watches her fade away, like an addict. Laura even stops carrying out her domestic duties, she’s so consumed with desire.

How atrocious.

Wanting to see her sister happy, Lizzie goes in search of the goblin men on Laura’s behalf. She soon finds them (or they find her) but they don’t allow her to take the fruits away. They insist she eats there with them but she is defiant.

What follows is an attack. They force their fruits on her. They elbow, jostle, bark, tear, soil, stamp, pinch, kick, maul and mock. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s rape-like.

“White and golden Lizzie stood”

She refuses to open her lips. She sacrifices herself and her own purity for her sister and, when the goblin men finally tire and abandon her, she loyally runs home to Laura.

“Come and kiss me. / Never mind my bruises, / Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices.”

And so, in a particularly homoerotic scene, Laura eats the fruits from Lizzie’s body. She passes out and her sister lovingly revives her back to health.

When they grow up and have children of their own, the both warn their daughters of the goblin men.

“For their is no friend like a sister”

I loved this poem. I can’t understand why I didn’t enjoy it at university. It has so much drama, and two different but flawed women at it’s core.

I couldn’t help but think of my own sister, who is my most loyal friend. You might remember her from The Beautifull Cassandra, when I wrote of our comparison to the Dashwood sisters.

This was made all the more real this week with Alan Rickman’s sad passing, which both Katy and I were devastated by. He was our Colonel Brandon! I’ve been in Sense and Sensibility mode ever since, and the devotion of the sisters in Goblin Market reminds me of the Dashwoods. Katy is the Lizzie to my Laura, the Elinor to my Marianne!

I can remember one slide from that disastrous lecture. It showed an artwork by Dante Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite artist and Christina’s brother, in which the two sisters lie  innocently together, sleeping, and was created for the poem’s original publication.

I set upon seeing this in the flesh, so to speak, which seemed even more appropriate as my sister is an art historian (see my Circles of Hell post).

I made my way to the British Library, my first trip to an academic setting setting since university. (Have no fear, library users, I frequent local libraries).

thumb_IMG_5433_1024

thumb_IMG_5437_1024

It was incredibly exciting. I love visiting the British Library for exhibitions anyway, but stepping into a reading room, lined with hard-working students, and great volumes of brilliance, was thrilling. I collected a small maroon box, and headed to my chosen seat.

IMG_2822

nside, a delicate book of leaves was tied with a bow, like an ageing gift. I carefully untied the ribbon, and opening the crackling cover to reveal this…

IMG_2795

It was beautiful, and utterly thrilling to hold a second edition of the poem. The artwork is abundantly pre-Raphaelite. Look at their hair, their fairy-tale serenity. Beautiful!

My friend Lois and I then headed to the Alice in Wonderland display, currently showing at the British Library, where the Rossettis were mentioned several times.  Did you know that Lewis Carroll was friends with the Rossettis, and mirrored Dante’s style when drawing his own Alice, or that Christina’s book ‘Speaking Likenesses’ is an imitation of Carroll’s Alice stories, in which little girls are rewarded and punished depending on their behaviour…?

I finally feel strangely rewarded after hiding those lecture notes!

IMG_2825

Thank you so much for choosing this poem, Silver Spice! I don’t think you could have picked a better Classic for your Granddaughter, and her sister.

Next time I will be blogging about H.G. Wells’ A Slip under the Microscope.

thumb_IMG_5424_1024

No. 54: Sinbad the Sailor

If you’re looking for pure escapism this Christmas, Sinbad the Sailor is an excellent choice.

It’s taken from One Thousand and One Nights and is jam-packed with adventure in exotic lands – there are barbaric creatures, rich jewels, great ships and cunning escapes. Everything you can expect from an adventure story.

thumb_IMG_5395_1024

We’re introduced to Sinbad the Porter, a poor but pious man who is seduced by the bustle of a great household in Baghdad. The master of this household, an older and handsome man, welcomes the Porter and feeds him.

This man of the household is Sinbad the Sailor, who tells his visitor, court and us the readers stories from his travels.

In his first story, Sinbad finds himself abandoned on a strange, desolate and foreign shore, where he stumbles across an enormous egg belonging to a rukh – an enormous mythical bird of prey. He unties his turban and manages to lasso this to the foot of the bird, in the hope that it flies to civilisation and carries Sinbad with it.

Instead he is dropped by the rukh in a vast pit of vicious snakes, with carcasses all around him.

With plenty of cunning, some physical strength and a good dollop of luck (as is standard with the hero of any epic) Sinbad manages to make his way home to Baghdad.

He’s a devout Muslim, and while he is the master of a great household, with countless slaves and great riches, he is a humble man. Take his line

“We belong to God and to him do we return.”

Despite the horrors he experienced, Sinbad was consumed by wanderlust and set sail from Baghdad for great adventure once more.

In his second tale, he and his crew encounter a great brute of a creature – part man, part beast – who holds the men captive and eats them carelessly for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As their numbers dwindle, and in a turn of events remarkably similarly to Odysseus and the Cyclops (which, I note, is a Little Black Classic), Sinbad and his men heat up two spits in a fire and burn through his eyes, therefore blinding him and enabling their escape.

After returning home, Sinbad again craved to sail the seas and experience the world.

On an exploration he met a tribe who infamously fed wanderers to fatten them up and drug them before eating them, sometimes without cooking them first.

Sinbad can see through the cannibals’ act and so refuses to eat, making him gaunt and very unappetising. They essentially forget about him and he is able to once more escape.

He finds civilisation and sets up business as a saddle maker, gaining the custom and respect of the King, who gives him a beautiful bride.

Sinbad and his wife live happily, until Sinbad learns a local custom; upon the death of one partner, the other will be buried with their betrothed’s corpse, the sentiment being that husband and wife should not be separated in life or in death.

When Sinbad’s wife dies, he is lowered into the tomb with her, accompanied by just a chunk of bread and a flask of water, protesting he is a foreigner and should therefore be exempt from this local custom.

He strolls around the tomb to find countless pairs of corpses. When new corpses and their living companions are lowered in, Sinbad brutally kills the living and eats their provisions.

Eventually he escapes and is collected by a ship of passing tradesmen.

As we the readers, and Sinbad the Porter, listen aghast and horrified at these confessions, Sinbad the Sailor insists he has even better stories to tell tomorrow.

I admit Sinbad’s stories are not in the least bit festive and in many ways are utterly horrifying. The last in particular was truly terrible, and is easily one of the most barbaric things I have ever read (barbaric but brilliant!).

But they are entirely engrossing and action-packed, as myths and stories from ancient lands are intended. Bards were required to spin a long and excellent yarn to keep households entertained and I was similarly completely enthralled, which made for a brilliant diversion.

The past month has been a bit of a weird one.

My social life has been in full swing in the build up to Christmas and I’ve been trying to keep busy. Life has gone a bit skewwhiff for me.

When I feel low, the things that I love often lose their gloss; I’ve been putting off writing, my knitting is collecting dust. Sometimes my nails haven’t even been painted ­– it got that bad.

You don’t need me to tell you that every story – including our own – has ups and downs. But as my Mum says, ‘this too shall pass’. Personal loss, health issues, heartbreak, work troubles, fallouts with friends, family feuds. Like in any story, they might stay with us forever, but the pain does lessen with time. I’m massively generalising and trivialising here but hopefully you get my sentiment – an emotion is most probably at its most concentrated at the time of an experience.

I think we can all agree that the world has seen a lot of tragedy in 2015. Too much tragedy. I’m hoping for a more peaceful year, a fresh start, although we all I know I loathe winter and as a general optimist am not myself in January and February – good luck to my housmates, Poppy and Daisy (if only my name was Lily).

Fortunately, reading never loses its appeal. In fact reading has been my saviour of late. The highlight has been The Penguin Lessons (ironically given to me by my lovely friend Claire – who chose this week’s Little Black Classic – after a group of us knitted scarves for a set of display penguins. I’m serious).

Due to Christmas festivities and some upset I am pretty knackered and very much looking forward to being back in my family home for a festive fortnight.

I couldn’t be more different to Sinbad, who was restless to leave his home and explore the world, encountering all manner of people and creatures and adventures.

I’ve been puzzling over how to celebrate Sinbad for a couple of weeks. Monsters are rare in London (if you discount commuters), exotic lands non-existent and alas my bank balance simply wouldn’t allow a voyage to foreign shores, sadly.

But then I did have Sinbad to transport me away from my humdrum life. So I decided I would celebrate by letting him do his thing while I did mine. I have decided to wave to Sinbad from afar, like a loyal friend holding their mate’s bag while they board the big roller coaster. Plus, I need a quiet night in. I have made the most of living in London these past couple of weeks – I’ve wined, dined, danced and sung to the max. The result is a tighter pair of jeans and scratchy throat. I need to hibernate for a good few days.

So I am writing this from this scene

thumb_IMG_5365_1024

My glorious bed. My throne! My friend Lois kitted me out with writing materials for Christmas, including a fountain pen because, in her words, every writer needs a good pen. We agreed a desk would be ideal, somewhere I can sit and think properly, ideally with an awe inspiring view of undulating countryside, though it must be said I’m very fond of my view of Tower Hamlets.

So here I am, mulling over Sinbad the Sailor with a glass of mulled wine, looking forward to a decent night’s sleep; a contrast to Sinbad in that great cavernous tomb where he struggled to get any shuteye. I’m fantasising about returning home, much as Sinbad did after his own adventures, both exhausted and nostalgic. But I’m happy to stay in a similar state of relaxation for the next couple of weeks. I’m leaving the adventures to Sinbad.

thumb_IMG_5380_1024

thumb_IMG_5394_1024

Thank you Claire for choosing Sinbad and taking me on your own adventures – penguins and spectacles (you’ll get the reference)!

And I would like to say a wider thank you to all of my nearest and dearest – for all of your support and kindness in all capacities, and for indulging me when I harp on about books and all manner of nonsense. I’m raising my mulled wine to you.

Next year (eek!) I will be blogging about Goblin Market.

thumb_IMG_5374_1024

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and all good things in 2016. And I mean all of you – including YOU!

No. 11: A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, Kenko

IMG_4488

This is undoubtedly my favourite opening quote from the Little Black Classics series thus far.

During these sticky summer months, however, it’s arguably more wonderful to lie in a hammock in shorts and a T-shirt, with a book and a glass of fruity Pimm’s to hand, as was my situation when reading this Little Black Classic. It was genuinely idyllic.

Nestled in this situation, I soon become absorbed in Kenko’s social commentary, punctuated with anecdotes and observations.

Kenko takes readers through life’s experience – friendships, relationships, death, and more specific events and factors, like inheritance, the weather, annual festivals.

These are, at times, rather disjointed – rather like Hebel’s fables last week they vary in length and don’t have much continuity or flow.

Fortunately, I enjoyed this classic so much more than last week’s.

These musings are beautifully translated. Take the line: “there is something dreadfully lacking in a man who does not pursue the art of love.” Pure poetry.

This once more made me think of my friend Hafez. Like The nightingales are drunk, the writer’s life dances across the pages in A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees. He’s full of opinion and humour and honesty and is forever contradicting himself.

One of my favourite sections begins “The changing seasons are moving in every way.”

I relish the changing seasons and we are lucky to have such distinct seasons here in the UK.

As much as I love Christmas, the long months of winter we suffer throws a constant black cloud over me, which my friends and colleagues can confirm. It’s winter blues with an attitude problem.

Similarly, summer leaves me somewhat disenchanted. I like the BBQs, and lighter evenings and aforementioned Pimm’s, but we all seem to forget the hay fever, heat rash, bug bites and sweaty train journeys until the day of arrival.

Like Kenko, it’s Autumn and Spring that I really relish. Autumn for it warm hues and crisp decay and family traditions. And Spring for new it’s new life and bursting green. It’s a charming reward after the bleak British winter.

Kenko perfectly describes my emotion after enduring winter and seeing spring: “Until the leaves appear on the boughs, the heart is endlessly perturbed.”

In February 2016, when a colleague comments on my slumped shoulders and cranky attitude I will quote this. No doubt giving more reason to call me a grumpy and protentious git.

Kenko’s musings aren’t all so profound and evocative.

Take his advice to readers on choosing friends:

“There are seven types of people one should not have as a friend. The first is an exalted and high-ranking person, The second, somebody young. The third, anyone strong and in perfect health. The fourth, a man who loves drink. The fifth, a brave and daring warrior. The sixth, a liar. The seventh, an avaricious man. The three to choose as friends are – one who gives gifts, a doctor and a wise man.”

Alas I have many friends that fit into the first category of seven, excluding one or two that I leave you to identify. I am lucky enough to have many wise friends and a doctor friend is moving into my flat in just a couple of weeks. Kenko would approve.

This is not to say that everything Kenko writes strikes home or is, at the very least, amusing.

His description of death left me cold and lonely – surprising for a buddist monk. They’re too chilling to record here – if you’re intrigued, please read yourself.

Similarly, there are various sections which have a definite underlying misogyny.

Early on he says man:

“shouldn’t lose himself to love too thoroughly, or gain the reputation of being putty in women’s hands.”

Not a great start but I was willing to give Kenko the benefit of the doubt.

Sadly, Kenko continued:

“It is depressing to watch her bear children and fuss over them, and things don’t end with his death, for them you have the shameful sight of her growing old and decrepit as a nun.”

Where to start?! Aside from the heinous remark about her appearance as an old woman (how did Kenko look in his old age, I wonder?) and the fact that I’m sure if she didn’t run the house well it would be cause for complaint, why is it depressing to “watch her bear children” when Spring is so celebrated?

Despite this misogyny, I really enjoyed this Classic, particularly Kenko’s view on friendships.

He celebrates the surprise of a letter from a friend and recalls specific relationships with friends that he mourns for. He articulately writes:

“What happiness to sit intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of this world. But such a friend is hard to find, and instead you sit there doing your best to fit in with whatever the other is saying, feeling deeply alone”

With this in mind, I texted my dear friend Naina, who chose this week’s Classic, and asked if she would join me in a cup of sake.

Naina grew up in Hong Kong, and first tried sake on a trip to China. We met on a library tour at uni (yes, we were those people) and it was instant love.

She recommended we head to Hare & Tortoise, a short walk from the British Library, for a bottle of sake and some sushi.

My friends told me a bit about what to expect beforehand, and kindly corrected my pronunciation (I showed my naivety here).

As previously discussed, it’s rather warm and muggy in the UK and so Naina and I decided upon a cold bottle of the Japanese rice wine as opposed to hot.

It was served with tiny glasses that you essentially shot and it was delicious – perfectly cooling and sweet, and without the acidity of a grape wine. I’m smacking my lips at the memory.

This was accompanied with some delicious sushi and a hearty catch up, which Kenko would probably have approved of to a point, before making a generalisation about women gossiping.

IMG_4445

We walked off our sushi, strolling toward Naina’s bedsit, which is the epitomy of how I imagined London life as an adolescent.

Hidden behind a Leaky Cauldron-esque door, a winding staircase lined with botanical prints, hanging crookedly, leads the way to Naina’s front door. Every time I mount those stairs I am reminded of the staircase landlady Mrs Crupp leads David Copperfield up to his first rented London accommodation.

Naina’s home overlooks a small public garden, which is conveniently lined with cherry trees. She sung of their blossom, which sadly fell a month or so ago.

Some cherries still cling to the branches, thus far undiscovered by peckish birds.

IMG_4468

IMG_4474

After looking for the last clinging fruits, we settled under a horse chestnut tree, which had a low hanging canopy, making the perfect shelter for a light rain shower. Typically unpredictable British weather.

IMG_4489

Here I told Naina of Kenko and she read a few extracts, agreeing the opening quote it perfection.

In the words of Kenko, I so enjoyed sitting with this book spread before me, communing with someone from the past.

IMG_4484

Thank you so much, Naina, for choosing A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, and for letting me mercilessly point my camera at you.

Next week I will be reading My Dearest Father by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

IMG_0764