December 2016: Two great novels

I have a friend who won’t read fiction.  ‘If it’s made up,’ he says, ‘it doesn’t count.’ I’ve just read two novels that might change his mind.

Ann Patchett’s first novel has echoes of her latest, Commonwealth, in that both have enigmatic characters. Her first, Patron Saint of Liars is about Rose, a kind and competent woman  who wreaks havoc on those who love her.

In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, the eponymous character is an unlikable and difficult woman for whom the reader comes to have great sympathy and affection.

What I should – shall – say to my friend is that good fiction gives one the chance to know people in a way that biographies and memoirs can rarely achieve. On a very basic level, good fiction makes one want to do better and be kinder. That’s not a bad resolution for 2017.

Have a very happy Christmas and a brilliant New Year!

November 2016: Getting On

One of the pleasures of a long marriage is being able to trade symptoms of physical and mental deterioration. I can recount an extraordinary memory lapse when I failed to recognise someone who, apparently, I knew pretty well; my husband can instantly trump it with an amnesiac episode of his own.

It must be difficult for those men with much younger wives. They must know that every time they wish to mention rheumatism or blood pressure or possible dementia, the air becomes febrile with panic and fear and possible regret.

Health conversations should be held only with long-term partners or very old friends. I would definitely not burden my children with them. You have to be at least 50 to find such things interesting. My mother – like my father-in-law – was a stoic. My father was a hypochondriac and also the most dynamic 66-year-old I’ve ever known. He never reached 67. He died after a car accident that was not his fault. My mother-in-law was a joyous spirit who more or less lost her mind after her husband’s death.

So, my husband and I continue with our latest updates on the ailment front while grateful that today at least we can still enjoy the music of Leonard Cohen. We will raise a glass to him tonight.

Jarvis Cocker and other heroes: September 2016

I’ve been musing on heroes lately. One of my greatest is Jarvis Cocker whose pop anthem, Common People, is one of the greatest songs ever written. Is it any wonder that any time Pulp played it at festivals, the audience reacted with such glorious enthusiasm and energy? There is no-one who hasn’t at some time felt an outsider in a world where so many others seem to be confident and glamorous, and rich. What Jarvis does so perfectly is to articulate the allure while showing the absurdity.

But now, here is Jarvis, hero of common people like us, and what is he doing? He is using his beautiful voice on ubiquitous TV adverts in which he describes recipes – Omelettes with goat’s cheese? Really? – made from luscious items, courtesy of Sainsbury’s.

I have struggled with this. Why did he accept the job? Surely he must know that every time people like me watch him describe in soft, seductive tones yet another dubious concoction of ingredients, our immediate reaction is one of disappointment and disillusion.

But now I see that I have been unfair. It is never wise to put individuals on pedestals. Charles Dickens wrote passionately about social injustice and yet he behaved with great cruelty to his middle-aged wife. Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote with searing wisdom about the follies of love and yet her private life was chaotic. There are charismatic actors who turn out to be husbands from Hell; there are likable politicians who prove to be ruthless in their pursuit of personal gain. It is unfair to expect Jarvis to be the ever-principled outsider. In the grand scale of things, providing the voice-over  to Sainsbury adverts is not such a great crime, however irritating the adverts are. (And they are SO irritating.)

 

Manners and Mobiles: August 2016

In town yesterday, I noticed a middle-aged couple sitting in the sun, eating lunch. Or rather, the woman was eating lunch – a rather nice-looking salad – while the man was scrolling down his phone.

Now I do understand that every relationship has its arid patches. It is not always easy to be passionately interested in everything one’s partner has to say. But- call me old-fashioned – and definitely call me parsimonious, if you are going to spend good money on eating out with a companion isn’t it worth making an effort to converse? Apart from enjoying a good meal, isn’t that the main reason for going out? I could almost have understood if both man and woman were on their mobiles – perhaps their reason for eating out was a mutual hatred of cooking – but, no, the woman, who looked very nice, also looked pretty unhappy while she munched her salad in silence.

To be fair to the man, there might have been good reasons for his behaviour. Perhaps his partner had just told him she was having an affair with his best friend and he looked at his phone in an effort to manage his rage. Perhaps their son had fallen from a cliff and was sending him desperate texts. The man did not have the look of a cuckolded husband or a desperate father. I suppose he might have recently given his wife a phone and was busy arranging her contacts for her which could be considered as caring by some, and controlling by the rest of us. To be honest, I’m not convinced by these explanations. I think he was just rude, and if I were the nice woman, I wouldn’t eat out with him again.

Charles Dickens and guess who.

On holiday in Scotland last month, I read Claire Tomalin’s superb biography of Charles Dickens. Tomalin is sympathetic, empathetic and gloriously readable. She shows how extraordinary Dickens was: a brilliant novelist, journalist, actor and social reformer who performed countless acts of individual kindness.

And yet even Tomalin can’t explain his outrageously cruel behaviour to his wife. He met Catherine when she was nineteen and married her shortly afterwards. Twenty years and ten children later, he fell in love with an eighteen-year-old actress and told Catherine they must separate. He told his children to stay away from her. He forbade his friends to see her and if any of them did so, he cut them out of his life. Years later, his daughter Katey said, “My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion – never allowed to say what she felt.”

Does this sound familiar? Those of you who follow The Archers will of course shout out two words:ROB TITCHENER. For those of you who don’t know The Archers, all you need to know is that if you have a partner who makes it clear, however sweetly, that your looks/clothes/conversation/ambitions/friendships etcetera all merit constant re-evaluation, there is only important response. Run. Even if he’s as brilliant and charismatic as Charles Dickens. Especially if he’s as brilliant and charismatic as Charles Dickens.

 

 

April 2016: Johnny Depp and Getting Old.

I was watching Breakfast TV yesterday morning. Breakfast TV is one of the few pleasures of going to the gym three mornings a week. The partnership of Piers and Susanna is a novel waiting to be written, hopefully by Jonathan Coe.

Yesterday there was a clip of the now infamous apology video of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, part of the punishment meted out to Amber for illegally bringing into Australia their two dogs, Boo and Pistol.

The two of them sat, like victims in a pillory, mouthing pre-written expressions of contrition along with praise of Australia. I have never seen such awkwardness and misery since President Clinton denied having sexual intercourse with Monica Lewinsky.

How did the wild and beautiful Johnny Depp get to the point where he became an over-weight middle-aged man with improbable hair, a too-young wife, and the co-owner of dogs called Pistol and Boo?

Ageing is a cruel process. Lady Diana Cooper, the celebrated twentieth-century beauty, could not bear to look in a mirror as she grew older. It is easier for those of us who were never stunning in the first place. Humour and self-awareness are probably the best weapons to carry. Step forward my great hero, Cary Grant. When told by an interviewer that everybody would like to be Cary Grant, he apparently replied, “So would I.”

2016: In Praise of Independent Bookshops

In the last few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to promote my new novel in three of the best bookshops in the country. First, there was Toppings in Bath, stuffed with beautiful handmade bookcases and run by Saber and his team with calm enthusiasm. The evening before my talk, Julian Barnes had been in, and so, for possibly the only time ever, his latest work sat side by side on the counter with The Soulmate by Debby Holt.

Two days later, I was in East Sussex at Much Ado Books in Alfriston. For those of you lucky enough to live nearby, do make your way here. Cate and Nash are warm and wonderful proprietors, true bibliophiles. It is a place where one feels instantly at home.

Finally, I went to The Hunting Raven in Frome, bang in the centre of one of the few wholly medieval shopping streets in Europe. Writer Crysse Morrison describes it in her blog as a jewel of the South West, and she does not exaggerate.

What do these three shops share? They have staff who are enthusiastic and informative without being pushy. They provide a space in which one can peruse and ruminate and be calm. And they always have time for their customers. Long may they flourish!