In Books – But Also In Real Life

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SISTER PUMPKINHEAD FAILS THE INTERVIEW (by Valerie Sinason)

The words in the corner of the playground
with no-one to play with
the words not picked for the
hockey team, the netball team,
the words not invited to the party

‘We are sorry to have to tell you,’
intones the letter.

‘Not for you! not for you!’
screeches the parrot
in the golden brain-cell

It is midnight and pumpkin-time

and down fall the words
down the shining palace of brain
down the libraries of bone

Down fall the words
through the graduation ceremonies
of blood cells

The words,
still in their state robes
their ballgowns and tiaras
their ‘We are pleased’s
clenched in their jewelled evening bags

The words in their best school uniform
scrubbed and plaited
with their daffodil-growing certificates
and monitor’s badge

How to pick up pick up

The words in the corner of the playground
with no-one to play with
the words not picked for the
hockey team, the netball team,
the words not invited to the party,
given the bit-part in the end of term play

The words with their anguish and anger
searching for the right face
the right way to face to fall
how to miss the knife in the funeral
under it all.

Cinderella is not going to the ball.

How to see the missing shoe,
the tear in the gown
the straw castle falling down

How to understand the words’ sad mime
It is always midnight and pumpkin time.

BEACHCOMBER (by George MacKay Brown)

Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.

If you have ever been to Stromness you will recognise this scene instantly. And if you were there before 1996, you might well have passed George (that’s him) as you walked along that little road. He was a novelist as well as a poet (you can find my reviews of two of his novels  VINLAND and MAGNUS on this site) but his masterpieces, at least in my opinion, are his short stories. I’ll do a review of one of the collections sometime soon.

THE LAWS OF GOD, THE LAWS OF MAN (by A. E. Housman)

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I.

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I. Let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.

But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.

And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.

THE CLERKENWELL TALES by Peter Ackroyd (Review)

Medieval Outsiders

>  Sister Clarice, a nun who prophesies: is she possessed, is she a witch, is she a heretic – or are the prophecies genuine?

>  William Exemewe, friar and conspirator

>  Hamo Fulberd, “simple’ or “silent” Hamo, abandoned as a child, brought up in the priory; attaches himself to Exemewe

>  Richard II, deposed king; has lost his wits 

1399 is the year in which Richard II of England was deposed and murdered, and the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John o’ Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne as Henry IV – an act which led directly to the Wars of the Roses the following century.

In this fascinating novel, we follow a plot by a group called “Dominus”, whose aim is to stir up unrest in the City of London by means of a series of murders and explosions in churches (things don’t change) and so make it unlikely that the people of London will rise in support of Richard.

The author’s arrangement of chapters, his way of telling the story, is strange and was – to me – a little off-putting, at least at first. Each chapter focuses on a different character – and the characters are nominally those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though they are not to be identified with them (as for instance the characters in Doherty’s An Ancient Evil are intended to be). For these are “The Clerkenwell Tales”, not “The Canterbury Tales”, and all the characters are linked by their association with the nunnery known as The House of Mary, in Clerkenwell.

So, each chapter is like a short story, the tale of that character (not, be in noted, a tale told by that character). But it works. The characters interact and chapter by chapter we become familiar with them all. Not only do we see the plot unfold and witness Richard’s downfall, but we are told so much about the lives of the many different people that we come to feel completely at home in the London of the turn of the century.

The main character, though, is the nun, Sister Clarice: Brank Mongorray opened the window of the nun’s chamber to enjoy the air of May. He was on the first floor, above a lead cistern of water which the birds used for their refreshment. John Duckling was crouched silently against it, so that he might hear any words that were spoken.

‘Did you hear the thrush this morning, Brank?’ It was the nun’s clear voice, known now by so many. ‘They say that if a man is sick of the jaundice and sees a yellow thrush, the man shall be cured and the bird shall die. Is that not too cruel?’

‘A man has an immortal soul. A bird does not.’

‘Who can be sure of that? Dieu est nostre chef, il nous garde et guye.’

Duckling had never heard her speak Anglo-Norman before; for some reason this seemed to him to be evidence of her duplicity. There was more conversation but the monk and nun had moved away from the window; Duckling could make out only occasional words until he heard her cry, ‘When will come the day of the Seven Sleepers?’ Then she called out, ‘Deus! cum Merlin dist sovent veritez en ses propheciez!’ These were marvellous strange words from a young nun: Merlin was no more than a devil worshipped by the little folk who lived in the moors and marshes. He could hear Brank Mongorray talking quietly to her. Could they be in league against the world of holiness?

If you enjoy good writing and a wealth of detail, read it.

DOSTOEVSKY (by Charles Bukowski)

suppose they had shot Dostoevsky
before he wrote all that?

against the wall, the firing squad ready.
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn’t have
mattered
not directly.
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
will.
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
place.
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
derelicts,
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
reprieve,
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
rancid faces
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with
my
brothers.

BURNING BRIGHT by Tracy Chevalier (Book Review)

If, like me, you have always been fascinated and thrilled by the poems and pictures of William Blake, you will be delighted with this book, for it is set in his London and he plays quite a major role in it. His London, yes.

(This and several other poems crop up quite naturally in the course of the story.)

I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man
In every infant’s cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

And what is more, he is credibly depicted – an outspoken radical (he was a friend of Tom Paine’s) at a time when a breath of socialism or support for the revolution in France could cost one one’s life; eccentric to the point of “madness” – in constant communication with his dead brother, and living in fact on two levels, in two worlds, simultaneously; and very, very kind in a society where kindness seems to have been in extremely short supply.

A poor family emigrate from a Devonshire village to London, and the story is of the two village children, Jem and his beautiful but totally naive and innocent sister, Maisie (a source of inspiration to Blake!) and her adorable streetwise counterpart, Maggie, the local London girl who befriends Jem and tries to protect Maisie.

It is perfectly written, as one would expect of the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and succeeds on every level. I will never be able to read William Blake again without thinking of him facing a mob who are demanding that he sign an oath of allegiance to the king, and refusing outright; and Jem and Maisie’s father, the local from the Devonshire village, following suit, not because he knows or cares anything about politics but because he objects to being forced to do something by a violent mob.

And the depiction of the two girls, Maisie and Maggie, as they grow up, become women, is completely unforgettable.

A must for all Blake-lovers as well, of course, as all lovers of top quality Historical Fiction.