The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers was an American novelist who was born in Georgia in 1917 and died in New York in 1967. Her work is often described as Southern Gothic and many of her stories have been adapted for stage and screen. She suffered ill health throughout her life, having contracted rheumatic fever at 15, which left her with heart disease. She died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 50.
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Ted:
I had previously read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter [ published 1940] by this American novelist which was a brilliant description of lonely outsiders in small town southern USA. 
The first time I read The Ballad of the Sad Café, which is a novella, I found the main characters weird and unlikable: from the mannish, monosyllabic Miss Amelia, the mysterious dwarfish hunchback Cousin Lymon to the repellent, criminal, ex-husband Marvin Marcy. In the second reading it was easier to suspend realism and see the story as a parable which examines the relationship between the lover and the beloved. There is the triangular relationship between the main protagonists where Miss Amelia loves cousin Lymon who loves Marvin Macy, who used to love [but now hates] Miss Amelia. The story moves towards a classic battle between Miss Amelia and Macy for the dwarf and just as Miss Amelia is about to triumph Cousin Lymon leaps on her back like a small animal turning the tide in Macy’s favour. There follows the sudden departure of the hunchback and Macey which leaves Amelia heartbroken and leads to a breakdown of community life in the town. The concluding event which takes place three miles from the desolate town is the sombre and joyful singing of a chain-gang [The Twelve Mortal Men]. This unified group appears to be a metaphor for hope in all the despair.
Mc Culler’s stories are layered and the ending can be left uncertain; A Domestic Dilemma is the devastating description of alcoholism in a young wife and the impact on her family. Her husband’s dilemma is between doing the best thing for his two children and his remaining love for his beautiful wife. Whilst she slept he watched his wife for the last time….!
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The Poetry of Amy Clampitt

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Amy Clampitt (1920 – 1994)

Amy Clampitt was brought up in New Providence, Iowa. She wrote poetry in high school, but then turned to writing fiction instead. She graduated from Grinnell College, and from that time on lived mainly in New York City. To support herself, she worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press, a reference librarian at the Audubon Society, and a freelance editor.

When she was in her forties, she returned to writing poetry. Her first poem was published by The New Yorker in 1978. In 1983, at the age of sixty-three, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher. She died in September 1994. Her obituary described her work as dense, ornate and allusive.

Ted

This is a flowing, visual, almost cinematic poem. The use of enjambment slowly moves the reader down to the next line, and the next, echoing the dancer’s movement which is compared to feathery floating snowflakes. The dancers appear to be a metaphor for the conversation between the two onlookers. It is an obscure poem where time and memory appear to be suspended by the movement [‘All process and no arrival’] which the poet feels is a happier state. 

Dancers Exercising.  By Amy Clampitt

Frame within frame, the evolving conversation   

is dancelike, as though two could play   

at improvising snowflakes’

six-feather-vaned evanescence,

no two ever alike. All process

and no arrival: the happier we are,

the less there is for memory to take hold of,   

or—memory being so largely a predilection   

for the exceptional—come to a halt   

in front of. But finding, one evening   

on a street not quite familiar,

inside a gated

November-sodden garden, a building   

of uncertain provenance,

peering into whose vestibule we were   

arrested—a frame within a frame,   

a lozenge of impeccable clarity—

by the reflection, no, not

of our two selves, but of

dancers exercising in a mirror,

at the center

of that clarity, what we saw

was not stillness

but movement: the perfection

of memory consisting, it would seem,   

in the never-to-be-completed.

We saw them mirroring themselves,   

never guessing the vestibule

that defined them, frame within frame,   

contained two other mirrors.

Christine A

Gerard Manley Hopkins is cited as a major influence. Clampitt can be over-elaborate in her choice of vocabulary leaving the reader reaching for their dictionary but that does not detract from the beauty of the poem which first attracted me to her work. “Syrinx”. The opening lines take us straight to the matter in hand – how birdsong is produced in a most memorable way.

Explanatory notes on the Poetry Foundation website define the word “syrinx” as not only  the mythical reed-pipes of Pan, but also the branched tubules in a bird’s throat with vibratory openings that create the possibility for birdsong. 

Syrinx. By Amy Clampitt

Like the foghorn that’s all lung,

the wind chime that’s all percussion,

like the wind itself, that’s merely air

in a terrible fret, without so much

as a finger to articulate

what ails it, the aeolian

syrinx, that reed

in the throat of a bird,

when it comes to the shaping of

what we call consonants, is

too imprecise for consensus

about what it even seems to

be saying: is it o-ka-lee

or con-ka-ree, is it really jug jug,

is it cuckoo for that matter?–

much less whether a bird’s call

means anything in

particular, or at all.

Syntax comes last, there can be

no doubt of it: came last,

can be thought of (is

thought of by some) as a

higher form of expression:

is, in extremity, first to

be jettisoned: as the diva

onstage, all soaring

pectoral breathwork,

takes off, pure vowel

breaking free of the dry,

the merely fricative

husk of the particular, rises

past saying anything, any

more than the wind in

the trees, waves breaking,

or Homer’s gibbering

Thespesiae iache:

those last-chance vestiges

above the threshold, the all-

but dispossessed of breath.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon is a detective story by American writer Dashiell Hammett and was first published in 1930. This was Ted’s choice for our September novel.

Ted:

The author worked for a time as a private detective for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency and his experiences laid the foundation for his writing career. From the late 1920’s he became the master of detective fiction in America. This novel was adapted for film four times. The third and best-known version, The Maltese Falcon [1941] starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, is considered a film noir classic.

Private eye Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are approached by the beautiful Miss Wonderly to follow a man, Floyd Thursby, who allegedly ran off with her younger sister. The two accept the assignment because the money is good, but Spade suspects that her innocent demeanour is a façade and that she looks like trouble. That night detective Tom Polhaus informs Spade that Archer has been shot and killed whilst tailing Thursby. Later that night Thursby is also killed and Spade becomes a suspect. What follows is a complex plot involving several unsavoury characters like arch-villain Casper Gutman and creepy Joel Cairo, more murders, and all in the pursuit of a priceless statuette of a bird, the Maltese Falcon.

I liked the direct, understated, hardboiled writing style. The killer is finally revealed to be master liar and trickster Brigid O’Shaughnessy [ Miss Wonderly] who has been lying to Spade and everyone else to cover up her true scheme. Despite being lovers, Spade is quite ruthless about doing the right thing and hands her over to the police with all the incriminating evidence. There are some great one-liners: ‘I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.’ He slid his hands up to caress her throat. ‘If they hang you I will always remember you!’

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Christine A:

I’m glad I’ve read The Maltese Falcon having heard it so often referred to as a classic. (How much of its reputation is bound up with the John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart as the protagonist is difficult to say.) This is the first piece of Hardboiled fiction I have attempted and I found it heavy going. In 2021, it’s sobering to think that such a gratuitously violent, misogynistic book has a following. The blunt unvarnished style suits the content but makes for an effortful read. Maybe this is a case for watching a film of the book rather than reading the book itself (what a subversive thought!).

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The Short Stories of Somerset Maugham

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Somerset Maugham was an English writer who was born in Paris in 1874 and died in Nice in 1965. Tragedy struck at the early age of ten when both his parents died and he was taken in by an uncle who was cold towards the boy. He rejected the encouragement to follow the family tradition of going into the Law and studied to become a doctor instead. But after the success of his first novel, he gave medicine up and took to full-time writing and became one of the most popular and highest-paid authors in the 1930s.

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Kay:

Although listed as my choice in our plan, I can’t really claim the credit for revisiting this fine author. His name and short stories came up during a recent Zoom meeting and a number of people remembered reading his short stories – for which he is famous – including me, and thus I made a note for our next plan.

I bought one collection (the 4th) on Kindle but unfortunately haven’t had time to read more than one. However, one was enough to remind me of what an extraordinary and wonderful writer Maugham was.

It was my mother who introduced him to me in my teens. She admired his writing and there were lots of his books in our house. I remember only that I read many and became quite addicted but it was all a long time ago and I don’t remember any in name or detail.

Knowing I had little time to read them right now, I googled to find which were considered Maugham’s best short stories and one, The Letter, was in the collection I’d bought.  It may be short but is in fact 32pp so took a little time to read.

First published in 1926 and set in Singapore, it’s actually based on the true-life story of a headmaster’s wife – in Kuala Lumpur – who was convicted of murder for killing a male friend in 1911, but was eventually pardoned. The Letter opens in a Singapore on a busy road: ‘every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and panting coolies found breath to yell at one another’. Immediately, this fabulous writing takes us right into the heart of early 20th century Singapore.

A lawyer, Mr Joyce, is pondering the case of Leslie Crosbie, the wife of rubber planter Robert, who has been accused of murdering one of their friends, Geoff Hammond, in self-defence. One a night when Robert was away in Singapore, apparently Hammond turned up unexpectedly, came in for a drink and then declared his love for her and tried to rape her. Throughout Joyce and the police’s questioning, being held in gaol, Leslie remains her usual cool, calm self. She has a story she sticks to; the ‘facts’ never changing. Mr Joyce assures her husband that she is bound to be acquitted. But then his Chinese clerk, an ‘industrious, obliging and of exemplary character’ brings him a copy of a letter, in which Leslie begs Hammond to come to her while Robert is away. It is clear they are lovers.

Joyce confronts Leslie who at first denies she wrote it, but then ‘Was it his fancy that, as she made this remark, her black pupils were filled on a sudden, for the fraction of a second, with a dull red light?’ The plot twists and turns: the clerk implies his friend, who has the letter, will accept a payment – a large payment–  for it (and no doubt take a cut). Robert has to be told why he must find this large sum of money quickly, to save his wife from being hanged; Joyce changes the details, saying Leslie had only asked Hammond to come to help organise a gift for her husband (her initial ‘story’ to him). Robert seems at first taken in but then picks up on a small detail and ‘Then something seemed to dawn in that slow intelligence of his’ and he understands the truth. Robert pays the money and saves his wife but confronts her with what he knows, leaving her at the end to stay with the Joyces while he goes away.

Maugham’s writing is detailed in the most beautiful way, conveying with a mastery of words all the little moments that come together to make sense of the world, his characters, something that has happened. He shows how the smallest thing can change everything. I was reminded what a wonderful writer he is and it’s interesting that even with the passing of a few decades since I last read him, and the stories being almost a century old, his writing shows no sign of age (despite its settings) and I look forward to reading more of these stories.

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Ted:

Thank you Kay for introducing me to this great author who is a brilliant storyteller. It is amazing that his sad lonely childhood eventually translated into a life of such energy and creativity. I read stories from both his Best Short Stories and Collected Short Stories Volume 1. His work has a great sense of place and I loved some of the exotic tropical locations set in Samoa, Polynesia and Malaysia. His descriptions of different characters reveals such an acute power of observation and often his stories contain a deeper message.  Rain, set in Samoa, demonstrates the missionaries’ lack of respect for the culture and beliefs of the natives. The devastating ending also shows their hypocrisy towards prostitution. The Letter, set on a plantation in Malasia was about the uncovering of a brutal crime of passion. Totally gripping! The Book-Bag, the author is wandering about Malaya with his bag of books and equates his need for books on his travels to the addict’s need for drugs! He receives an invitation to attend a water festival and stays at the home of an Englishman he previously only knew by name. From the outset there is something odd and unsettled about his host who borrows a biography of Lord Byron [clue] from his book-bag. The next day they have a discussion about Byron’s relationship with his sister Aurora Leigh from which point unfolds the disturbing story of a local planter Tim Hardy and his sister Olive….so many wonderful stories.

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Margaret:

I consumed the writings of Somerset Maugham in my early teens, availing myself of my mother’s library card to gain access to  “grown up books”, having already devoured the contents of the children’s library. I still remember my keen pleasure in those well-crafted stories. I particularly loved the fact that he wrote so much – what a relief to know that there were so many novels and short stories still to come!

I can recommend “The Lotus Eater” as a wonderful picture of the way in which the pleasures of a lotus-eating life will eventually sap the character of a person originally possessed of resolution and vigour. The long enervating decline of the main character here was exactly what the ancients warned about with regard to the first Lotus Eaters. The original decision on the part of our hero, to retire early and enjoy South Sea island life, and, further, to commit suicide when his money ran out, was presented as perfectly rational originally. But as as the money ran out and his will proved to be unequal to his decision, his life spiralled miserably into the pathos of decline, poverty, ruin and a wretched death. Tragic inevitability is the very stuff of drama.

Possibly the most famous of Maugham’s stories is the tale of Sadie Thomson, in “Rain”. Filmed more than once, here again we have the element of inevitability. But this story looks at hypocrisy, misogyny, Freudian repression, English middle-class self-deception. The action takes place during an almost biblical rainstorm  – what a gift the filmmakers! When I read this as a callow teenager, I revelled in the horrible missionary couple who were ready to bring the louche Sadie Thomson to an understanding of the error of her immoral ways. I loved the repressed sexuality that infused the action, and the muddle-headed Christianity, combined with the unacknowledged lust that consumed the pastor. And again, as so often with Maugham, the English middle class was under a searching microscope.

Although there may be an old-fashioned air to these stories nowadays, and perhaps accusations of melodrama, his many fans will attest to the story-telling skills of Maugham, which covered areas of secret agents and spying, novels and plays, all focussing on the human condition. The titles alone are a come-on.

Thanks, Kay, for suggesting these stories, because, over the years, I have often returned to this master storyteller.

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Christine B:

I have taken my comments from W. Somerset Maugham’s Volume One, first published in 1951.

I think the  stories have weathered well through seventy years, they have a wide range and variety from very short stories of three pages to Rain, the longest of forty pages.

Rain may be dated if read by young readers but I hope that it would be a good reminder about our Colonial past – my grandson in Australia is including History through the Twentieth Century for ‘A Level’. The story, written in 1920, opens with Dr. Macphail and his wife taking a journey by boat to Apia where he will work for a year, after two years at the Front in the First World War. Their fellow passengers are missionaries, the Davidsons. Neatly and seamlessly Maugham  explains their background,, drawing one into the story.  The quality and originality is superb, ‘When he came on deck next morning they were close to land. He looked at it with greedy eyes.’ The Davidson’s are Evangelists and and Mrs. Davidson, particularly, has ‘extreme alertness’ in condemning the lifestyle of the ‘natives’ – ‘The first thing to do was to put down the dancing’.  ‘I was not averse to it myself when I was a young man’. Dr. Macphail replied. The scene  changes when a very different kind of fellow lodger, Miss Thompson, joins them on the boat. Mr. Davidson is ‘a man of unflinching courage’ and, as the story develops the conflict between very different people is powerful and makes riveting and heart breaking reading.

Other stories are The Luncheon, one of the the funniest stories ever written, I always read it whenever I need cheering up. Home was a story set in a Somerset farm, with two brothers, both of whom had loved the same girl many years ago. The final line is ‘the fact is I was never quite sure that I’d married the right one’. The Three Fat Women of Antibes is also very funny, a lesson in friendship. The Happy Couple, yet again, has great originality, with a Judge who can’t stop judging.

How wonderful that there  are many more to look forward.

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Poems about Gardens

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Our theme for this month’s poetry is ‘gardens’, which might include ‘flowers’ and ‘gardening’.

Kay:

I suggested this theme for our poetry choice this month because during the 16 months of Covid lockdowns and restrictions, those of us lucky enough to have gardens have found them particularly valuable. Not only are they places to meet ‘outside’ but gardening can be therapeutic, healing, soothing, and it can also bring joy and hope as we watch our plantings and efforts come to life and thrive. I thought of gardens in a positive and happy way. However, I first came across some rather melancholy poems, such as my first two, but then sought out something a bit more joyful to end with!

 

New Feet Within My Garden Go by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

New feet within my garden go –
New fingers stir the sod –
A Troubadour upon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.

New children play upon the green –
New Weary sleep below –
And still the pensive Spring returns –
And still the punctual snow
!

Emily Dickinson was apparently better known as a gardener than a poet when she was alive, which I felt made her an essential choice for this poetry theme. This poem explores the idea of one’s garden – my garden – going beyond our own lives and being enjoyed by future generations. Yet while there is at first something joyful in thinking of one’s garden living beyond us, there is a melancholy in this poem too: the Troubadour (a bird) ‘betrays the solitude’, disrupting the peace in the garden; and the Spring is ‘pensive’, as we often witness, coming slowly, then retreating again into winter before emerging again; the ‘New Weary’ are the recently dead who ‘sleep below’.

Lodged by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The rain to the wind said,
‘You push and I’ll pelt.’
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged – though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.

In this poem Frost is linking the flowers bending and lying low to survive to his own method of survival: ‘I know how the flowers felt.’ Although not ‘joyful’, I think it does convey the idea that gardening can be therapeutic; Frost is able to identify with the garden’s struggles and perhaps feel less alone with his own experiences. And I did feel that last line could be read with a touch of humour.

Garden Magic by Marie Nettleton Carroll
This is the garden’s magic,
That through the sunny hours
The gardener who tends it,
Himself outgrows his flowers.

He grows by gift of patience,
Since he who sows must know
That only in the Lord’s good time
Does any seedling grow.

He learns from buds unfolding,
From each tight leaf unfurled,
That his own heart, expanding,
Is one with all the world.

He bares his head to sunshine,
His bending back a sign
Of grace, and ev’ry shower becomes
His sacramental wine.

And when at last his labors
Bring forth the very stuff
And substance of all beauty
This is reward enough.

I came across this in my search for ‘joyful garden poems’ though couldn’t find out much about the poet, other than she appears to have been American and living in the early 20th century (a paper cutting records her marriage in 1924). There are distinct religious overtones to this, which I have to confess might have put me off, but I think it captures the way gardening is about more than planting things and keeping the garden tidy. For me personally, gardening is a kind of mindfulness meditation: it slows me down, it takes me into the moment as I look at my plants – how are they doing? Do they need pruning, dead-heading, more water? I think the poem conveys the joyous satisfaction we gain when our garden thrives; it does indeed require at times ‘the gift of patience’ but when the tended and loved garden comes to life then any ‘labors’ are nothing to ‘all the beauty’ which ‘is reward enough’.

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Christine A:

The first poem is from Ten Poems about Gardens in Candlestick Press Ten Poems series (highly recommended).  This particular poem is about the heritage industry milking Vita and Virginia’s legacy for all it’s worth but somehow, with the offbeat descriptions (bulging veins of clematis) the garden wins out.

Sub Rosa by Maura Dooley

At Sissinghurst we are meant to gasp at
the borders. No one could fail to notice the
bulging veins of clematis shinning up and over
so much powdery red brick. Who could be
unimpressed by the swags of roses, carpets of camomile,
the best Sunday manners of it all? But we came
with our vague ideas of Vita, Virginia, a friendship
under trees. Little of that left here, between
the roped-off library books, a shop exhaling pot-pourri,
scones leaning patiently on loaded plates.

We let ourselves out by the back gate, follow
the Lakeside Walk, till it collapses into nettles,
then fall down too, stretched out beneath
the cleanliness of trees, beside a scummy pool.
Water like pea soup, bright and green, on which
a single grebe is turning, leaving no wake.
Water where, weighed down with sorrows or stones,
the weed might part for you, close over your head silently.
Back in the garden the borders are busy with bees,
the air is humming with autorewinds, china and small change
chatter cosily, passion rots quietly under the rose.

The second poem is from a blog written in response to the theme “about a garden”. The blog’s author spent a year as Leverhulme Poet in Residence at Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden and again I recommend this online anthology for anyone looking for good unusual poems on this topic. The link is here : Anthology | In the poet’s garden (wordpress.com)

Mother’s Hydrangea by Marlynn Rosario

Others flounce in blossom petticoats,

promise ripening flesh.

This one is green,

broad-veined, shear-edged, sappy;

taken from southern clay, holds steady

in the shift of northern sand.

Their fallen petals, pulled

wings, lie in sherbet drifts

while its slow blush spreads,

tinge to tint to blaze.

Hidden iron nails the colour.

Each bloom becomes a bouquet,

housing a kiss of ladybirds,

a throatiness of frogs.

Deepening the length of Autumn, preserved,

its scabbed parchment stays ornamental.

Cut to twiggy bone, it will return,

heads rearing beyond the wall;

casting a dewdropped web,

netting close its shadows.

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Ted:

Digging by Edward Thomas

I have had an allotment for many years and find this poem so evocative of the scents, smells and feelings associated with gardening. I showed this poem to my lovely neighbour who helped me with the analysis.

The abcb rhyme and slow rhythm provides a subtle musical background to this poem.

The poet achieves many of his effects through the use of sound;

Monosyllabic words that slow the rhythm down … ’scents dead leaves yield’ … ‘When the spade wounds the roots of tree’

The use of consonance, particularly on the ’s’ sound, links certain words throughout the poem … ’scents’, ‘seed’, ‘celery’, ‘smoke’s smell’,  ‘sweetness turns’, ‘sings’, ‘sad songs’.  This has the effect of unifying the poet’s sensory and emotional experience which leads to ‘Sad songs of Autumn mirth’.

A beautiful, simple poem that works on several levels!

Today I think
Only with scents – scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;

Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the roots of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;

The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.

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Christine B:

My Garden by Thomas Edward Brown (1830-1897)

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot?

Rose plot,

Fringed pool,

Fern’d and grot –

The veriest school

Of peace; and yet the fool

Contends, that God is not –

Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?

Nay, but I have a sign;

‘Tis very sure God walks  in mine.

My mother quoted that poem frequently and at last, after having now read it a few times, I think I understand it and I know I like it. The punctuation, jerkiness and variation of the length of lines are strange but I think it works.

Garden Love by Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841-1885)

Every child who has gardening tools, 

Should learn by heart these gardening rules:

He who owns a gardening spade,

Should be able to dig the depth of its blade.

He who owns a gardening rake,

Should know what to leave and what to take.

He who owns a gardening hoe,

Must be sure how he means his strokes to go.

But he who owns a gardening fork,

May make it do all the other tools’ work

Though to shift, or to pot, or annexe what you can,

A trowel’s the  tool for child, woman, or man.

‘‘Twas the bird that sits in the medlar-tree,

Who sang these gardening saws to me.

I love this woman’s poems ,  I’ve read two more garden ones – The Burial of the Linnet and A Friend in the Garden.  Also The Willow-Man and The Dolls’ Wash which makes us realise how similar ordinary lives run along very much in the same way year on year.

My final choice is Thomas Hardy’s poem The Lodging-House Fuchsias. As Clare  Tomalin said ‘he put a human story into a few lines, he was also a novelist with an eye for a plot.’

Mrs. Masters’s fuchsias hung

Higher and broader, and brightly swung,

Bell-like, more and more

Over the narrow garden-path,

Giving the passer a sprinkle-bath

In the morning.

She put up with their pushful ways

And made us tenderly lift their sprays,

Going to her door:

 But when her funeral had to pass

They cut back all the flowery mass

In the morning.

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The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

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Our choice of novel this month is The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood.

 

Kay:

This book was my suggestion and thus I’m particularly sorry to say it didn’t live up to the promise it held. I’d read some excellent reviews and bought the book on the back of those but also the appeal of its background – the famous Bauhaus art school and the lead up to WWII in Germany. I read a chapter or two when it arrived but then got distracted by work and put it aside. Every time I heard or read about the Bauhaus, I thought, I must go back to that book!

The story follows six friends who arrive as new students at the Bauhaus in 1922. The Bauhaus was founded in 1913 and existed until 1933. It promoted an art and craft movement that featured little emotion or historical background. Near the beginning, the young students are asked to draw a lemon. They all follow a traditional route but the Master Itten is dismissive: ‘How can you draw a lemon without first tasting its flesh? Your whole body is involved in drawing. Your mouth, your gut, your lungs.’

Into this picture of what it means to draw Bauhaus style, we are thrown the tantalising titbits of famous artists of the time, many teaching at the Bauhaus: Klee, Kandinsky, etc. Traditional painting was deemed old fashioned and uninteresting. Paul, the story’s narrator, is a good painter and his ego is hurt by the Master’s dismal of his talent. Thus he is easily seduced to work at night painting kitsch works for extra money by Ernst Steiner who has a team of artists turning out paintings for Americans and others with money, and who praises him. In the background we see the astronomical rise in the prices of everything, even daily bread, as the value of the German money crashes. The other friends criticise Paul for doing this work but then Walter wants to join him, needing extra cash too. Throughout Paul is falling in love with Charlotte and Walter with Jeno and an incident makes him think Jeno too is homosexual. When Charlotte and Jeno go off together, Paul and Walter are distraught, but Walter particularly feels betrayed and his hurt becomes dangerous.

While the book does indeed show us some background to the Bauhaus movement as well as giving witness to the increasing terror inside Germany at this time, the story was fixated on a rather unsatisfactory love story – well two really – and for me became increasingly tedious. I struggled on for a while but eventually gave up.

 

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Ted:

I had high hopes for this book which was a reflection by Paul recalling his time as a member of a group of six student friends at Bauhaus in the 1920s during the rise of National Socialism in Germany. It was more about the love lives of the main characters and less about the artists and the movement. I found it difficult to engage with this slow moving story. For example I found the in’s and out’s of what happened at the bath house quite tedious. I reached page 135 and then gave up. Disappointing!

 

 

 

The Poetry of A.S.J. Tessimond

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Our thoughts on the poetry of ASJ Tessimond (1902-1962), chosen by Tim for our June poetry week.

Tim:

NOT LOVE PERHAPS 

This is not Love perhaps –Love that lays down

Its life, that many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown –

But something written in a lighter ink, said in a lower tone:

Something perhaps especially our own:

A need at times to be together and talk –

And then finding we can walk 

More firmly through dark narrow places

And meet more easily nightmare faces:

A need to reach out sometimes hand to hand –

And then find Earth less like an alien land:

A need for alliance to defeat

The whisperers at the corner of the street ;

A need for inns on roads, islands in seas, halts for discoveries to be shared ,

Maps checked and notes compared:

A need at times of each for each

Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech .

I am sorry I did not suggest in advance ASJ Tessimond – Not Love perhaps – Selected poems  (Faber). Or ASJ Tessimond – Collected Poems – Blood Axe. When we were looking at funny poems I referred to his “The Psycho-analyst “…….”The Analyst is always right”.

In a sense, A.J.S. Tessimond was born and died before his time. The longing he so constantly expressed in his poems for “an unperplexed, unvexed time“ for a “one day” when “people will touch and talk perhaps easily” and will “unfurl, uncurl like seaweed returned to the sea” chimes prophetically with the hopes and desires of a younger generation today.

In another way he was very much of his time. After his death in 1962 from a sudden brain haemorrhage his books went out of print until 1978 when he came to my notice and that of others with “Not love perhaps“. Some feel it is a negative poem but I consider it beautifully expresses the value of friendship, perhaps after initial passion – an alliance against a hostile world out there.

       EDITH PIAF

Voice of one whose heart 

  Has mended with the years,

One who can stand apart 

   And laugh at life through tears.

Voice of one who has long 

   Outlived regret, outgrown

Hope, and at last is strong 

   Enough to stand alone.

Try reading more if you do not know him

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Christine A:

Tessimond is a mid-twentieth century poet highly rated by as diverse people as Bel Mooney, Brian Patten and possibly Bernard Levin (Maggie Smith read Tessimond’s Heaven at Levin’s funeral). I have done a trawl of the internet for examples of Tessimond’s work and the anthology which appears to be his finest is called after the first poem in the collection Not love, perhaps. Here is that poem

This is not Love perhaps – Love that lays down

Its life, that many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown –

But something written in lighter ink, said in a lower tone:

Something perhaps especially our own:

A need at time to be together and talk –

And then the finding we can walk

More firmly through dark narrow places

And meet more easily nightmare faces:

A need to reach out sometimes hand to hand

And then find Earth less like an alien land:

A need for alliance to defeat

The whisperers at the corner of the street:

A need for inns on roads, islands in seas, halts for discoveries

to be shared,

Maps checked and notes compared:

A need at times of each for each

Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.

When Bel Mooney was the Daily Mail’s Agony Aunt she used this poem in her reply to a divorced father of two who was worried that he had found contentment but not quite love. A splendid use of poetry I feel, and the interpretation that the obsessive search for romantic love can obscure a quieter emotion of more enduring value, does chime with the poem.

The second poem I have chosen is Popular Press from a collection entitled Voices in a Giant City published in 1947

I am the echoing rock that sends you back

Your own voice grown so bold that with surprise

You murmur, ‘Ah, how sensible I am –

The plain bluff man, the enemy of sham –

How sane, how wise!’

I am the mirror where your image moves,

Neat and obedient twin, until one day

It moves before you move, and it is you

Who have to ape its moods and motions, who

Must now obey

Despite the formality of the language the sentiments seem as relevant today as they were in 1947

For me, Tessimond’s poetry has to include the first two lines of his poem Cats

 

Cats no less liquid than their shadows

Offer no angles to the wind

Perfect imagery to sum up the lithe elusive nature of cats in an unsentimental way. When you watch a cat move it does so with such grace. I love the economy of words.

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Christine B:

I know very little about ASJ Tessimond, apart from his sad end, and look forward to learning more.

For a long time I have loved his poem – ‘Not Love Perhaps’

This is not Love perhaps – Love that lays down

Its life, that many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown –

But something written in lighter ink, said in a lighter tone;

Something perhaps essentially our own:

A need at times to be together and to talk –

And then the finding we can walk

More firmly through dark narrow places 

And meet more easily nightmare places:

A need to reach out sometimes hand to hand –

And then find Earth less like an alien land:

A need for alliance to defeat

The whisperers at the corner of the street:

A need for inns on roads, islands in seas, halts for discoveries to be shared,

Maps checked and notes compared:

A need at times of each for each

Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.

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Planning: July – October 2021

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We had a good Zoom meeting to plan our reading for the next three months and this is what we came up with:

July 2021

6th (Novel) – The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood (Kay)

13th (Poetry) – Poems about gardens (Kay)

20th (Short stories) – The short stories of Somerset Maugham (Kay)

27th (Theme) – Writing about Summer in the City (New York, London, anywhere) (Louise)

August – no meetings 

September  2021

7th (Novel) – The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (Ted)

14th (Poetry) – Amy Clampitt (Christine A)

21st (Short stories) – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers (Ted)

28th – Planning

October 2021

5th (Novel) – Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal (Louise)

12th (Poetry) – Twickenham Poets, e.g. Tennyson, Pope, Walter de la Mare (Kay)

19th (Short stories) – The sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jerome Ferrari (Christine B)

26th (Theme) – Why do some books/writers stand the test of time and some quickly seem dated?

Happy reading!

Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess

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Our novel for June is Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess, a fictional biography of William Shakespeare, first published in 1964. It was chosen by Margaret and here’s her review:

 

This book is only suited to those who have some knowledge of Shakespeare’s work and his background. It isn’t a primer. This is because there are so many allusions, hints and knowing references to the plays and the sonnets, that the inexperienced reader would quickly flounder – but it is not a test. I was constantly aware that I was missing references, but it did not deter me.

Burgess, an experienced Shakespeare scholar, worked on his ideas about Shakespeare and his love life for years, combining his actual knowledge with his fictional ambitions to produce this work. In an attempt to avoid obvious artifice, in regard to his rendering of contemporary Elizabethan speech, and in the language employed in his plays and sonnets, Burgess invented a story framing the real one, which suggested a slightly raffish scholar, occasionally the worse for drink, attempting to tell his own story of Shakespeare’s love life. This allowed the reader to blame this fictional narrator for inconsistencies or mistakes and blunders whilst maintaining his belief in the actual love story within. All this is explained by the author in some editions of the book.

This fictional biography, published in 1964, is heavily centred around an affair Shakespeare had with a black prostitute, named Fatimah, who in spired the Dark Lady of the sonnets. The title refers to the first line of Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. Burgess accelerated the writing of the book to coincide with the five-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth on 23 April 1964. Burgess claimed that Shakespeare contracted syphilis from Fatimah, describing his love for her as a “fever” and at the same time stressing the pain that accompanies syphilis. He also claimed that Dark Lady’s name is spelt in acrostic across the poem, the letters FTM and H, being a latinization of the Arabic name “Fatjamah”, meaning destiny. The main narrative tells Shakespeare’s life up to the writing of the sonnets. The plot also includes the cuckolding of Shakespeare by his younger brother, Richard, with his wife, Anne Hathaway. Throughout the novel, there is a fusion of Joycean sensibility and Elizabethan English, which placed Burgess among the first rank of novelists of his generation. He himself saw it as one of his proudest achievements.       

This is not an easy read, mostly due to the reader having to become accustomed Burgess’s style – see above – but it is worth persevering, for the beauty and subtlety of the language, the way in which Burgess brings the young Shakespeare to life, and the immense compassion and tenderness he shows as the affair with Fatimah coming to its inevitable end. He sees youth vanishing… the toll of the years…  But the experience of that grand passion will mark these lovers forever.

 

 

Theme: Five books that shaped you; books you love so much they’re well worn and tattered

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Our theme for the month of May was a combination of similar suggestions from Margaret and Kay. Which books have been influential in our lives; what books have changed us or made us think differently? We had a wonderful, lively meeting on Zoom and such great suggestions came up we decided to list them on the blog as reference – and there may be a lot of reading ahead given all the enthusiasm generated on Tuesday night!

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Margaret:

  1. The “Jane” books by Evadne Price, written in the late 30s, now vintage-level prices
  2. John le Carre Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who came in from the Cold
  3. John Cheever and Raymond Carver, American short story writers, particularly Carver’s What We Talk about when We Talk about Love                                                   
  4. Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café (novella), and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (novel), written in the 1940s
  5. Jack Kerouac, On the Road, written in 1957, quintessential rendition of the Beat and Counterculture Generation

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Kay:

Well having made the ‘5 books’ suggestion, I struggled to think of 5 significant books in my life. Not just books I loved, but 5 that had made a true difference. But, here goes:

  1. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist: perhaps a cliché in the genre of ‘books that change your life’ but I was actually reading it at a time of great change and it helped me.
  2. Middle Eastern Cookery by Robin Howe: the first cookery book I commissioned as a young editor back in the 70s.
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne: I was an early reader and I can still picture opening this – aged 6, 7 or 8? – a birthday present from one of my mother’s best friends. Pooh has held significance throughout my life as a ‘friend’ and offers such a wonderful view of life and friendship whether you’re 8 or in your 60s.
  4. OK … I had to search my mind a bit beyond the first 3 but AS Byatt’s Possession, which remains one of the most exciting books I’ve read; so instantly caught up in the excitement of academic discovery.
  5. Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel: a memory of my first trip to Venice on my own and lent to me by one of my dearest friends, Jane, who said I should read it there.

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Louise:

  1. Young Bess by Margaret Irwin – with Jane Eyre… both shaping my independence as a woman.
  2. Sailing Alone around the World by Joshua Slocum … leading to a passion for solo adventures, particularly on board a boat.
  3. Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene … travel is not just for the young but can be enjoyed at any age, even discovering the joys of different rooms round the house when confined.
  4. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl … resilience in the worst of situations and how one’s life’s meaning emerges from that. (Learned at a particularly challenging time of my own life). 
  5. Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler… about the author uncovering his own origin story in the Middle East. Has led to a complete change in my travel adventures and have now been walking in the ME for 11 years.

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Ted:

  1. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
  2. Rabbit Redrux, Rabbit is Richand The Afterlife by John Updike  
  3. Lady with Lapdog [and other short stories] by Anton Chekhov
  4. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  5. Don’t Die in the Bundu by Col. D. H. Grainger

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Christine A:

  1. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  2. The Plague – Albert Camus
  3. Middlemarch – George Eliot

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Do please let us know which are the important books in your life in Comments!