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A bit of an epiphany

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In my spare time (what spare time, you might ask) when I’m not reading or wasting precious moments watching YouTube, I have an extreme fondness for BBC documentaries – BBC4 usually, but sometimes those on BBC2 and even BBC1 as well. And I have to say that I’ve been rather well-served over recent months.

Particular standouts were (and are – some are still ongoing) Richard Clay’s Utopia 3-part series on BBC4; the Alan Yentob BBC1 “Imagine” programme on Margaret Atwood; Simon Reeve’s “Russia” series; Suzy Klein’s BBC4 three-partner on classical music under totalitarian regimes; a sweet little half hour on the same channel covering Philip Larkin‘s sideline as photographer; and a veritable slew of fascinating programmes on poetry that hit the BBC at the beginning of the month.

The epiphany I refer to came during a fascinating look at W.H. Auden‘s work and its continuing resonances in our fractured times. I confess I’ve read very little Auden, so this was a real eye-opener featuring some amazing verse, some lovely comments from other writers (Alan Bennett was a treasure) and powerful reminders of just how relevant and immediate poetry can be.  I found myself responding quite emotionally to some of the work and it sent me off digging in the stacks, because I was sure I had an Auden book somewhere – and fortunately I do!

I think it arrived recently, and I can’t remember what prompted me to order it, but I’m very glad I did. I can see I shall be dipping into this volume and I thought I would share one particular verse that spoke to me (for obvious reasons, most likely…) and it’s called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’d recommend tracking down any of these which are still available on the BBC iPlayer, as they don’t stay there forever. Meanwhile, I’m off to check the TV listings pages; because I find if I’m too tired to read but still want intellectual stimulation, BBC documentaries are just the ticket! 🙂

(And memo to self – you need to read more poetry!!!)

 

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#1947 Club – A poet’s novel

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A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

One of the things that always surprises me when we do these weeks of reading from a particular year is the incredible variety of the books. It would be easy to assume that all the works produced in the same year would have strong similarities, but you certainly couldn’t get two more different books than those I’ve read so far – “The Plague” and “The Labours of Hercules”. And today’s book is yet another type of read, an evocative little novel by a man better known for his poetry – “A Girl in Winter” by Philip Larkin.

Yes - I have two copies of this book...

Yes – I have two copies of this book…

The book opens with a lyrical description of the English countryside in winter, then whisks us away to an unnamed town where we meet the girl of the title – Katherine Lind, working in a provincial library and suffering the cold and privations of wartime England. Divided into three parts, the first and last all take place on one day in winter where Katherine goes through a number of changes. A colleague is taken ill with toothache and Katherine accompanies her to the dentist and then home; she has a run in with her dreadful boss, Mr. Anstey, and then by a curious set of circumstances discovers things about his private life; and a friend from the past threatens to make a reappearance, disturbing the delicate balance she’s managed to construct to maintain her own life.

The central section is a flashback to a pre-war visit a teenage Katherine made to England to spend some weeks in the summer with the family of her penpal, Robin Fennel. For as we read, it becomes clear that Katherine is a refugee from an unnamed European country, and her presence in England is as a result of her fleeing the war. Katherine, of course, has a crush on Robin, but finds it impossible to completely understand the English and their way of life. Robin’s sister Jane is awkward and abrasive and hard to read, and Katherine spends most of the visit struggling to relate to her. And she thinks she has misjudged Robin’s feelings towards her too, until close to the end of the visit…

In the final section of the book, back in wartime winter, Katherine reaches a kind of crisis point with her job, her relationships with her co-workers and also with the Fennel family. The book ends on a note of ambiguity with Katherine unsure of her future – as were, no doubt, many of those stuck in the middle of World War 2.

The first thing that sprang to mind for me was that Larkin really could write beautiful prose – which I suppose for a poet is not entirely surprising. I’m surprised that he didn’t write more novels because this one is not only wonderfully written, it’s very evocative too. Larkin brilliantly brings out the stark contrast between the bleakness of a wartime British winter and the pre-war British summer, and the difference between the two is striking. The fog, the cold, the damp and the privation would probably seem alien to a young, modern reader but I’m old enough to remember pre-central heating days and what that was like. Larkin is just brilliant at capturing the atmosphere of his setting, whether the heat and stillness of an English country day by the Thames, or the nastiness of a city winter with its fogs and dirty snow.

Philip Larkin in a library. Photograph by Fay Godwin. © The British Library Board

Philip Larkin in a library. Photograph by Fay Godwin. © The British Library Board

The sections in the library are as good as you would expect from someone who worked in one for much of his life, but the strongest element for me was the sense of loneliness and alienation captured by the novel. We have no clear idea of where Katherine Lind comes from, but it’s obvious from some of the elliptical references that her past life has been completely wiped away and so it’s reasonable to assume that it might be somewhere very much affected by German invasion. In fact, I looked up the surname and it’s often a South German Jewish name which would certainly add another element to her story. Whatever happened to her, Katherine’s past life of home, school and school friends, and university life has been lost forever and she’s only survived by cutting herself off from it completely. When Robin reappears in her life, she has matured but it seems that he has not, and the gulf between them seems unbridgeable. Similarly, Katherine’s co-workers, from the troublesome Anstey through the other library ladies, Jane Fennel and Anstey’s lady friend, all seem stuck in isolation, trying to battle with their loneliness but not always succeeding. Whether this is a symptom of the War or not, Larkin seems to be saying that however much we try to reach out to other human beings, we are essentially alone in the world and it’s only those with inner strength who can deal with this.

So, “A Girl in Winter” was a surprisingly thought-provoking novel and I’m astonished not only that it’s not more widely known and read, but also that Larkin didn’t write more as this one is *so* good. Luckily, I do still have his first novel “Jill” waiting for me, as well as the collection of his slightly risqué girls’ school stories! But this book was a wonderful read; understated and not showy or shocking, but commenting discreetly on the effects of the War and loneliness – another highlight of the 1947 Club! 🙂

(Jacqui has already done a lovely review of the book here)

Larkin About – plus the books just keep on coming….

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I have been trying very, *very* hard to restrict the incoming books recently – and I’m still weeding out and donating – but alas there have been new arrivals recently…

The weekend before last I deliberately only went to the Oxfam bookshop, and thought I was going to get away safely until I spotted a collection of Philip Larkin’s prose tucked away on a lower shelf:

larkin 1

Needless to say, it was quite essential that this came home with me and got added to the nice little pile of Larkins you can see behind it. In fact, here is the pile with the new Larkin integrated. Well, let’s face it, you can never have too much Larkin, can you?

larkin 2

The week’s post brought some nice new arrivals, too, mostly in the form of a big parcel from Middle Child containing the following:

middle child

What a sweetie she is! I was particularly pleased with the “Pepita” as it’s not a Virago I have, and the West is an upgrade. The two Raving Beauties poem collections look fascinating and the final book sounds very intriguing. I’ve heard of Nicole Ward Jouve before, I think in connection with a book about Colette, so that bodes well.

The postie also brought these two lovelies via RISI:

jims end

I have a fairly gnarled copy of “Howard’s End” and so was happy to upgrade. As for “Lucky Jim” – well, as there’s such a big Larkin connection I do feel I should read it!

Finally post-wise is this:

mew

I read about Mew recently in a little book called “Bloomsbury and the Poets” (review to follow) and thought she sounded a fascinating author and that her work definitely warranted investigation, so I sent off for a copy. The Virago volume collects together all her poetry and prose and having dipped in I’m looking forward to it.

Finally, to the most recent weekend’s finds. Again, I went to donate at the Samaritans, and I came out with this:

chateau

I’ve read a *lot* about Maxwell but never seen one of his books turn up before, and this one does sound good. And on to the Oxfam, where again I thought I would get out unscathed, until I thought I’d see on the off-chance if there was any Brian Aldiss – which there was….

aldiss interpreter

I very rarely see his books in the charity shops so I snapped up this one, with its wonderfully dated cover!

Needless to say, I’m not reading any of these at the moment. I’ve just finished a re-read of “Dead Souls” (oh my! what an amazing book) and I have a massive book hangover….

A favourite Larkin to mark his birthday

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PhilipLarkin

Today is the birthday of the great poet Philip Larkin, who famously said “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any. After all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?”

Apart from being wonderfully lugubrious, Larkin wrote some amazing poetry, and here is a favourite – I studied it at Grammar School in the 1970s and I can still remember loving it and trying to write about it, but re-reading it now I don’t think I got half of it!

If, My Darling
– Philip Larkin

If my darling were once to decide
Not to stop at my eyes,
But to jump, like Alice, with floating skirt into my head,

She would find no table and chairs,
No mahogany claw-footed sideboards,
No undisturbed embers;

The tantalus would not be filled, nor the fender-seat cosy,
Nor the shelves stuffed with small-printed books for the Sabbath,
Nor the butler bibulous, the housemaids lazy:
She would find herself looped with the creep of varying light,
Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles
Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate;

Delusions that shrink to the size of a woman’s glove,
Then sicken inclusively outwards. She would also remark
The unwholesome floor, as it might be the skin of a grave,

From which ascends an adhesive sense of betrayal,
A Grecian statue kicked in the privates, money,
A swill-tub of finer feelings. But most of all

She’d be stopping her ears against the incessant recital
Intoned by reality, larded with technical terms,
Each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal:

For the skirl of that bulletin unpicks the world like a knot,
And to hear how the past is past and the future neuter
Might knock my darling off her unpriceable pivot.

Re-reading Larkin in more recent years, I’ve appreciated his talent as a poet more – the wonderful sweeping imagery and sense of movement in “The Whitsun Weddings”, for example, are quite stunning.

Happy birthday, Philip!

Incoming….

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So, I *have* been trying very hard not to buy any more books recently – Mount TBR is teetering and definitely doesn’t need anything else piled onto it. However, a few volumes have slipped through the next, mainly because they were just irresistable (although one was a gift, so I guess that’s ok!)

First up *is* the gift:

dean

OH and I were watching a fascinating documentary on “All the President’s Men” recently, revisiting the film and the book all these years later. I saw the film on its first release and love both it and Woodward/Bernstein’s books, so I was most impressed when OH presented me with the book of Watergate written by John Dean, the White House Lawyer who featured prominently in the scandal – what a treat!

The next couple of finds are from the lovely local shops – this Philip Larkin biog is something I’ve been after for a long time, so finding it as a £3 bargain was great! Looking forward to sinking my teeth into it….

larkin

The next two were impossible to resist:

ultram

I’ve never heard of The Vanguard Library but the cover of this copy of “Brave New World” is lovely – so I brought it home with me, despite already having a paperback copy…. And the “Ultramarine” is the only Lowry I don’t have so it was essential!

However, this last one was a bit of an indulgence:

new master

Yes, I know I already have several copies of “The Master and Margarita” and yes I *know* this is a translation I already have (Burgin/O’Connor) – but it comes with extensive annotations and an afterword by Ellendea Proffer and it was only £2, so there you go – basically I have no willpower! Time for a quick charity donation or two I think, to make a little space…..

 

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