Fierce wistfulness

Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson:
A Winter Book: selected stories
Sort of Books 2006

It seems that everybody who’s heard of Tove Jansson knows her as the author of a series of illustrated books about some Finnish trolls. Though I’ve yet to fall under their particular spell — and heaven knows enough people have urged me to — I’ve instead been captivated by her writing for adults.

My admiration began with the collection of short stories published in English as Art in Nature and continued with The Summer Book. Now, with the selection of pieces known as A Winter Book, I revisit some of the sense of wistfulness I’ve noted before, coupled with a fierce independence of spirit that permeates virtually every story.

Though there are references to ice and snow in some of the offerings, this alluring ragbag of writings (selected and introduced by writer Ali Smith) doesn’t deal exclusively with winter, but in a series of vignettes it does perfectly sum up that end of year feeling when one looks back to review what one’s life has accomplished and what it might all signify.

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Life of Python

mpfoot

Graham Chapman (Estate), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam,
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Bob McCabe:
The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons
Orion Books 2005 (2003)

All the Pythons (one from his grave) give a collective account of the career of the owner of one Flying Circus, an account made up of extracts from interviews and extracts from diaries and published memoirs.

The late Graham Chapman is represented by his own surreal recollections and comments from family members and partner, while the rest discourse freely on their early lives, education, university experiences (principally Oxbridge) and occupations as comedy writers, actors and (in the case of Terry Gilliam) cartoonist, before fame, fortune, frustration and infamy beckoned.

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Literary influences

As some of you know, I don’t as a matter of principle get involved in blogging awards because, being a bit of a maverick, I’d much rather be composing an original post than feeling constrained by the questions that inevitably accompany these awards.

But a recent literature-based question posted by Ola on receiving a blogging award for the Re-enchantment of the World blog rather appealed to me and had me scurrying to my bookshelves. Here then is the question, followed by my answer — even if I have no intention of nominating anybody else as I’m invited to do by the rules of the award:

Name (and, if you wish, describe) up to 11 books which influenced you the most.

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Putting the kind in mankind

https://aboutartanddesign.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/graysonperry_2243662k.jpg
Grayson Perry and a tapestry he designed, The Upper Class at Bay

Grayson Perry: The Descent of Man
Penguin 2016

It takes a bit of nerve to use the same title for your book as Charles Darwin did for his 1871 study, but in a way Grayson Perry seems to be saying that modern men are fully capable of evolving, and for the better. It should be possible for them to transition from their traditional dinosaur-like sense of what it is to be a man towards something more fitting for the future, more so now that we are in the era of #MeToo and with urgent demands for well overdue gender parity.

Who is Grayson Perry? This is his official bio from the paperback:

Grayson Perry is a man. He is also an award-winning artist, a Bafta-winning TV presenter, a Reith Lecturer and a bestselling author with traditional masculine traits like a desire to always be right and to overtake all other cyclists when going up big hills.

He is also adept at self-deprecation and incisive insights, as well as being a flamboyant cross-dresser (it’s hard to miss him in this role for many of his public appearances). A three-episode TV documentary, All Man, went on to explore aspects of masculinity touched on here, but in the meantime this autobiographical memoir explores Perry’s boyhood experiences — he was born in 1960 — and his changing perceptions of what it means to be a male in a modern world. What he reflects on may be rooted in an English perspective, but much of his ruminations has ramifications in the rest of the western world, and of course elsewhere.

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A kind of joy

Icebreaker Akademik Sergey Vavilov (photo: http://www.cruisemapper.com/ships/Akademik-Sergey-Vavilov-icebreaker-1761)

Jenny Diski: Skating to Antarctica
Granta Books 1998 (1997)

The notion of skating al fresco always brings to my mind the worry of thin ice, and in some ways the feel of this memoir is of ice at times so thin that it might be possible to fall through. Skating to Antarctica therefore has a fragility to it, but it’s a fragility told by a writer who’s managed to weather many storms and isn’t going to give up just yet.

Superficially the memoir’s about the author taking a cruise in a converted icebreaker to the southern continent; but under the guise of a travelogue this account focuses on a journey of a different kind. Jenny Diski, as is well known by now,* had a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional and abusive family, becoming estranged from her parents to the extent of not even knowing whether her mother was alive or dead. It’s the questions over her mother’s life and death that forms a counterpoint to the physical trip and makes this piece of creative non-fiction so readable.

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“Rook, read from your book”

Bodleian crow
Crow, from an illuminated manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Mark Cocker Crow Country:
a Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature

Vintage 2016 (2007)

A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually — a vague blur slowly taking shape — they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me …

A short paragraph from near the beginning of this ‘meditation’ includes much of what I loved about this book: the prose poetry in the language, the evocation of a moment in time and the willingness to share a worthy obsession. Mark Cocker describes himself as author, naturalist and environmental activist (in that order) but I liked the way he melded all those roles into a seamless whole in producing the eighteen chapters of this book. There’s some autobiography here, there’s also travel writing, science, historical perspective, literary allusions, potted biographies of contemporaries and predecessors who have laboured in this field. And yet he wears much of this learning and experience lightly, inviting the reader into the warm glow of campfire anecdotes mingling with facts and figures.

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To savour, not hurry

Uttley garden
Alison Uttley photographed in her Buckinghamshire garden in the 1960s (www.alisonuttley.co.uk)

Alison Uttley
The Country Child
Illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe
Puffin Books 1981 (1931)

Alison Uttley, author of the Little Grey Rabbit picture books, was more than just a writer of sweet (some might say ‘twee’) tales of anthropomorphised animals for children. As well as a celebrated novel for older children A Traveller in Time she wrote a prolific number of non-fiction titles, as a glance at a list of her publications shows. Halfway between fiction and autobiography is The Country Child, which is in effect a true depiction of the author’s childhood but with the names changed. Continue reading “To savour, not hurry”

The shock-haired comic and the shock of recognition

MMFB

Michael McIntyre Life and Laughing: My Story
Michael Joseph / Penguin 2010

With the notable exception so far of North America, there seem to be few parts of the English-speaking world that haven’t heard of Michael McIntyre: Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, even Dubai, Norway and Singapore seemed to have lapped him up. He has broken records for sell-out tours and venues in the UK, and the DVDs of his arena shows do well. He seemed, as is the nature of things, to have suddenly emerged as a fully-fledged and confident comic into public consciousness in the first decade of this century, but of course success is rarely an instant rags-to-riches story. In McIntyre’s case not at all — if anything, it was a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale, as this autobiography outlines.

McIntyre is first and foremost Continue reading “The shock-haired comic and the shock of recognition”

Enthusiasm, experience and expertise

keys

Charles Rosen Piano Notes:
the World of the Pianist 
Penguin 2004

The late Charles Rosen, who died in 2012 aged 85, is remembered as both pianist and writer, and Piano Notes is in large part a personal response to the art and pleasure of keyboard playing. I found this a wonderful book, full of enthusiasm, experience, expertise, knowledge and humour, and it helps that this reviewer largely shares the writer’s philosophy (though, sadly, not the experience, expertise and knowledge). Continue reading “Enthusiasm, experience and expertise”

The last visions

San Marino flag
The flag of San Marino showing the three towers of Monte Titano

Antal Szerb The Third Tower: journeys in Italy
(A harmadik torony)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Pushkin Press 2014 (1936)

I felt bereft when Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy stopped mid-sentence only in sight of Lyon. Mr Yorick was due to travel down western Italy via Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome as far as Naples but, unhappily for all, the full account was cut short by the small matter of the writer’s death. Fortunately there was Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower recently published in English to console me, though the Hungarian’s travels were essentially down the east coast of Italy only as far south as San Marino. But, just as with Sterne’s writings, this was as much — if not more — about the person than the places visited.

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The sweet white flowers of memory

Nesbit

E Nesbit Long Ago When I Was Young
Ronald Whiting & Wheaton 1966

If, as Wordsworth proposed, “the Child is father of the Man,” then reading someone’s childhood memoirs may help hold up a mirror to the adult mindset. If that someone is a noted author such as Edith Nesbit, then it’s hard not to see in the accounts of youthful escapades a key not just to understanding their motivations as a grownup but also for revealing the inspirations for their writings. And so it is with the reminiscences in Long Ago When I Was Young, written for publication when Nesbit was nearly forty but just before she embarked on The Treasure Seekers, the first of her many books aimed specifically for children. Continue reading “The sweet white flowers of memory”

Humoresque and the picturesque

Pyrenees

Tony Hawks A Piano in the Pyrenees:
the Ups and Downs of an Englishman in the French Mountains
Ebury Press 2006

How can this book fail for me? I’m a pianist, I’ve walked in the French Pyrenees and skied on the Spanish side, plus I passed a crew about to shoot location sequences for the film of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge (in West Wales — where else?). So I couldn’t pass up on reading this humorous account of the comedian/musician/writer buying a house near the border with Spain and building a swimming pool, honing his pianistic skills and performing music, making new friends and seeking true love.

Hawks’ story starts a little slowly but settles, literally, once he is living in his new Pyrenean home and interacting with the locals. Continue reading “Humoresque and the picturesque”