Monday, 30 November 2009

It's Not (Quite) a Wrap

I’ve been lost down the rabbit hole of Christmas preparation these past few days . . . or should I say weeks. Yes, I know it’s not even December, but I belong to that set of crazed Christmas groupies who believe that the tree should go up the weekend after Thanksgiving. I’m not as organized as my friend who likes to get her shopping done in the January sales, (does that seem slightly not in the spirit of the thing?), but I do like to have my shopping done by the end of November . . . if at all possible. The less time I have to do a thing, the less pleasure I will take in it. (Christmas cards come to mind, for one example.) Sometimes, during this festive time of the year, a person does have to consciously work at the enjoyment part.

Do you love Christmas or loathe it?

The other week, as I was musing on simple pleasures, I happened to mention my delight in the steadily growing pile of wrapped presents . . . and it seemed to touch a nerve in certain people. Christmas should not feel like a competitive sport, but frankly, it can give a person the sense of being a pathetic straggler in an impossible race.

I openly confess to being a Christmas lover, but I have nothing but empathy for those who loathe it. What’s not to loathe, really? It’s expensive, stressful and emotionally loaded in all kinds of ways. It can also be the time-burning equivalent of a full-time job. The other day I was talking to a friend about various ideas and projects, and she kept repeating this refrain: It will have to wait until after Christmas. She would like to look for a part-time job, but in December she already has one.

I wonder how many people, particularly women, feel like they are the cruise directors on the Christmas Boat?   Here's hoping that we can bring that holiday in on time and on budget . . . and keep everyone (not least of all ourselves) happy.  At a certain point, does the pleasure in Christmas become mostly vicarious?

Monday, 23 November 2009


For many years, our family moved house on an annual basis. Although moving is an expensive, inconvenient and often distressing experience, it does have one silver lining: it forces a person to get rid of her rubbish.

Having to pack up one’s belongings sharpens the de-cluttering claws. If you have to carry it, or pay for its transportation, treasure really does turn to trash. A certain ruthlessness comes to the fore. I know that by the third day of packing for an international move, I am wresting beloved toys out of my children’s arms (do you really need 50 stuffed animals?) and begging friends and strangers both to help themselves from my pantry.

I love fresh starts, and actually take pleasure in setting up my kitchen or neatly organizing clothing drawers when I first move into a house. However, once a household has been established, I never am in the mood for seasonal cleaning – spring, or otherwise. Thus, even though the daily house maintenance falls to me, it is usually my husband that forces anything that might be described as “a project.”

Last night he said something along the lines of “we are drowning in clutter,” and although I chose to ignore that statement at the time, I started off the day by tackling some of the more annoying and obvious piles. This will be our fourth Christmas in The Barn – a personal best for our itinerant family -- and we are going to have a big crowd. I’m going to need all of the seats at the table, which means reclaiming at least half the space from the pile of newspapers, books, magazines and mail that has taken up semi-permanent residence there.

Although I can get rid of any piece of clothing that I haven’t worn in a year or two, when it comes to the written word, I suffer from a mental delusion. Despite all experience to the contrary, I still believe that someday I’m going to have the time to read this. I’m particularly prone to saving The Guardian Review, the RHS Garden magazine, and anything that has recipes. We have a kitchen chair stacked high with my favorites, in addition to the paper purgatory on the table. (I also have a stack of Reviews in my study, which I am guiltily gazing upon even as I write this.)

This morning I started out with firm resolve, and cleared the kitchen chair in one clean stroke. Then, I made a cup of tea and proceeded to flick through the large stack before it went to the recycling bin – just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything really important or interesting, you know. After an hour, and maybe three sections of Reviews that I never read during the summer, I realized that a more mindlessly efficient process was called for. Without even let myself look at the alluring titles, I started stuffing them into bags.

At that juncture, a friend called; and with the help of this distraction, I was able to completely empty a cabinet of dozens and dozens of cooking magazines – some of which I had been hoarding since the beginning of this decade. I immediately hauled them out to the car so I wouldn’t suffer from clearing remorse – and I’m proud to say that I only retrieved three of them from their shredding fate.

Flush with this success, (although not really flushed, because our house is freezing), I tackled the worst of the bookshelves. Even after careful review, I had to conclude that 99% of my books either (1) haven’t been read or (2) might want to be read again someday. After a great deal of internal debate, and some misgivings (it has to be said), I think that I managed to bag up about 10 books to go the charity shop.

Sadly, I still haven’t made much progress with the pile on the kitchen table. I had a quick look through it, and did throw away various bits of mail, but there are still so many newspapers and magazines of recent vintage there. I can’t quite let go of my belief that I am still going to read them. Someday.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Simple Things

the view from my bedroom window
rain and more rain

The lowering gray days of November have been getting me down.

Don't you think that certain words are best suited to an English accent?  Horrid, wretched and dismal, for example.

(To be said in best Mitford tones):  The horrid weather we've been having is unrelentingly dismal . . . and it's making me feel perfectly wretched.

I thought that I was feeling too glum to rejoice in simple things, but a visit to Christina was a good restorative.
There are always some bright spots, really; even if the lamps do come on by mid-afternoon these days.

My list:

a cup of tea in bed

my winter-weight goosedown duvet

homemade minestrone soup for lunch today

tickets for Jane Campion's latest film Bright Star

half of my Christmas list, already wrapped

a new purple cashmere scarf

narcissus in a teacup

Visit Soul Aperture for more simple things to take pleasure in this November.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

For my brother

November 8 is my brother’s birthday, and this year, it falls on Remembrance Sunday. Because my brother is currently deployed to Afghanistan, it is particularly poignant that those dates should coincide.

All week long, it seems like Afghanistan has been in the news for tragic reasons – and there have been particularly personal betrayals. I don’t know how distant the war seems to others, but it is never far from my thoughts – although I have never before written about it here. Even the recent horrific events in Fort Hood, Texas are uncomfortably close to home for me; my parents live very near there, and my brother has been stationed there several times.

My brother is a Lt. Colonel, in charge of a large battalion of soldiers. I know his responsibility weighs heavily on him, but he refers, only obliquely, to the terrible mental and emotional stresses of his daily life. I don’t know if his reticence is due to necessities of confidentiality, or the desire to protect his family, or just weariness; perhaps it is a bit of all those things.

Our lives have so little in common now, but we share the same liking for books and games that goes back to earliest childhood. I cannot think of my brother without remembering the marathon games of Monopoly that we played as a child. We would get up early on Sunday mornings to play – always hoping that my parents would oversleep and that we wouldn’t have to go to church. (It rarely happened, but we lived in optimistic expectation.) These days, we play Facebook Scrabble – in the odd moments, once or twice a week, when he can visit an Internet café. He always wins; he always did win.

He likes to read; everyone in our family does. When he was a little boy, he loved the Curious George books by H.A. Rey, and he had a good bit of that curious monkey in him. Like so many young boys, he would pore over the Guinness Book of World Records. I also particularly remember a series of nonfiction books called Tell Me Why that he would read and reread. As he got older, he started to prefer histories – particularly military history. These days, he tells me that he reads lots of thrillers and other “escapist trash.”

As children, we used to construct “ships” by enclosing the sides of the bunk beds with blankets. It was so wonderfully cozy to feel concealed in that space – to lie back on pillows, and read by the light of a lamp. It felt so safe. I doubt that any adult ever feels that safe again, but books can still provide those feelings of an enclosed, complete world far from present realities. As Emily Dickinson wrote: There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away . . .

After much pondering, I decided to send my brother a birthday package of books. What better escape than humor, I thought? When I googled “funniest ever books” the same titles kept recurring, and these are the three I ended up sending to Afghanistan: Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome; Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, and a P.G. Wodehouse Omnibus. They are all English classics, and although I’ve read them, I don’t think that my brother has done. Although women may read and even like these books, they describe a completely male world. They have some odd similarities, actually: particularly that of the hapless male protagonist who keeps stumbling into scrapes of his own making. There are lots of cups of tea, although it is true that some of them are spilled. Nothing really bad happens, though; foolishness reigns here, never violence or evil.

They make me think of the letter* that Winston Churchill wrote during World War II, when he was confined to bed with illness. He asked for Pride and Prejudice to be read to him, and later commented: What calm lives they had . . . No worries about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars. Only manners controlling natural passions as far as they could . . .

I would remind Churchill of this: perhaps Jane Austen knew more about gardens than battlefields, but she also had two brothers in the Navy, and I doubt that the pitched battles between England and France were ever as far out of her mind as her novels might imply.

Happy Birthday, dearest little brother!

* A copy of this letter is in Jane Austen's bedroom at the Jane Austen House in Chawton, Hampshire.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Rupert Brooke: The Great Lover

Last week I was in Cambridge, and a friend took me to The Orchard in Grantchester – self-described as “a corner of England where time stands still as the outside world rushes by.” It is not so much, perhaps: a collection of tables and chairs under fruit trees; a small café where a person might order tea and scones, or sandwiches, or cake. But if you believe in enduring spirits, The Orchard is surely one of the headiest, most glamorous places to take tea in the world. For more than 100 years, poets, intellectuals, princes and wits have sat under those trees and shared the particularly English ritual of breaking bread together.

The village of Grantchester lies just outside of Cambridge, and you can reach The Orchard by punting down the river or walking through the fields. A herd of brown cows stands just outside the clustered fruit trees, and you can imagine that the scene hasn’t changed much since poet Rupert Brooke wrote of dodging frightened cows on his way to bathe in the river at night. Brooke described the place as an “Arcadia” – and reinforced the image of a rustic Eden in poems and letters. “I live on honey, eggs and milk, prepared for me by an old lady like an apple (especially in the face) and sit all day in a rose garden to work.” (letter to Noel Olivier, 1909). Although this idyll only lasted for a few years, for Brooke at least, there is the sense of an eternal summer there. And even though we visited on an autumnal day, the air was unseasonably warm – warm enough to shed jackets and sit outside. I would like to report that I communed with literary ghosts, but lunching with five children tends to keep conversation on an earthly plane. (As far as I can remember, we mostly discussed whether Ben could have cake despite not eating his ham sandwich.)

Brooke died at the age of 27, in the second year of World War I. Although he didn’t die on the battlefield, he has been forever associated with all of the young Apollos, all of the golden young men who died before they were able to fulfill their promise. If I should die, think only this of me: /That there’s some corner of a foreign field /That is forever England.” (The Soldier.) With these famous lines, Brooke became a symbol of the age: forever young, beautiful, noble and patriotic. Winston Churchill eulogized him when he died. He was the ultimate English public school boy: good at sport, gifted with words, charming in manners, attractive to women and men both. Rupert Brooke was in some sense the prototype for the Hugh Grant type familiar to us now – the same charisma and careless beauty, even the same floppy hair – but with more purpose, more idealism to him.

(Virginia Stephen and Rupert Brooke on the right-hand side)

Before I visited The Orchard, I knew these few things about Rupert Brooke. He interested me, vaguely, because of his friendship with Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and the Bloomsbury Group. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Great Lover, by Jill Dawson – in which Brooke featured. I was intrigued enough to buy it, but not inclined to rush into reading it. Who knows how long it might have sat in my to-read stack if I haven’t visited The Orchard; but I am an incurable student, and a bit of browsing through the Rupert Brooke Museum whetted my appetite for more. There were newspaper articles suggesting that Brooke was a lot more complicated than the fair-haired boy myth. One article even focused on the daughter that he may have fathered when he visited Tahiti the year before his death. Although Brooke is the very symbol of English youth, he spent most of his last years travelling to get away from it. Although he loved England, the things that defined him (education, class, his famous looks) trapped him, too.

Interestingly enough, Dawson begins her fictional narrative with a letter from this daughter. The daughter has a request: to “hear (her father’s) living voice; to know what he smelled like and sounded like.” Surely every biographer has the same goal: to flesh out the evidence and to make a living, breathing person out of it. Dawson isn’t writing biography, though; she is writing fiction. And because fiction is always more elastic than non-fiction, she gets inside of Brooke in a way that may not be entirely accurate – but is entirely compelling.

Dawson tells her story through two alternating voices: that of Brooke’s, and then a fictional character called Nellie Golightly. Nellie is maid at The Orchard – and also a bee-keeper. She is uniquely placed to observe Brooke, and he lets his guard down in front of her – not only because there is an attraction between them, but also because she is in a lower class. She is there to be invisible; to serve him and his friends. Although Nellie is a fictional device, almost every other character in the story is real – and it is obvious that Dawson has supported her creative musings with careful research. Whenever possible, she uses Brooke’s own writing (letters and poems) and others’ recorded observations of him. It is a bit extraordinary to discover so many famous people in this book’s pages, but Brooke’s life was really like that. One day he is punting down the river with Augustus John; on another day, he is having a mental break-down at Lytton Strachey’s house.

This blending of fiction and non-fiction is very fashionable at the moment, but it works well in this story – partly because Dawson is herself a poet, I think. Her fine sense of language allows her to inhabit these two different characters. She gets into Brooke’s tortured head – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was tortured –and she creates a really rich and textured voice. Brooke’s insecurities, obsessions, fears and joys are persuasively described.

W.B. Yeats described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England,” and the description dogged him ever after. He was confused and guilty about his sexuality, worried that his talent was inadequate, and haunted by the familial strain of mental instability. Although Brooke is always described as a golden boy living in a lost golden age, one of the things that most fascinated me about this novel were the dark undercurrents – not just in Brooke’s own life, but in the society around him. The Edwardian age that Dawson describes is already being shaken up by gender and class wars – long before the upheavals of World War I. Brooke is a member of the Fabian Society, and plays at being a socialist, but Nellie is an effective foil because she fills in the gap between the real and the ideal.

The Great Lover, by the way, is not just Brooke’s mocking estimation of himself; it is also the title of one of best-known poems. In it, Brooke names all of the beautiful things in the world: from “white places and cups, clean-gleaming” to “the strong crust of friendly bread” and the “cool kindliness of sheets.” An eagerness for life, and all of the lovely things in it, counteracts the

perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

Each time I’ve read those lines, I’ve gotten more out of them. In some ways, I feel the same about this book. It is dense and beautiful enough to read again.

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@Barrie Summy