Death of a Naturalist
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber 1999 (1966)
It’s fascinating to read this collection of nearly three dozen short poems, individually each a gem, collectively a story of childhood and young adulthood leading to marriage. It very much reminds me of an album of photographs, or even those selections of instrumental miniatures called Albumblätter or Feuilles d’Album.
What do we observe? Scenes of countryside activities from the author’s childhood in County Derry, glimpses of individual lives in Belfast, reminiscences of a honeymoon taken, a sojourn on the islands of Aran. Vignettes they may be but they’re vivid and intense, self-contained and demanding to be savoured.
I’ve met one or two of these before, for example Blackberry-picking, which inspired me to write ‘I Hunted Dragons Once’, but to encounter them in their entirety is a very different experience. Too many to comment here on each individually, it’s also hard to make a selection of favourites because each one has its own merits; but try I must.
As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.
As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.
The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.
“The wolfe also shall dwell with the lambe, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and the calfe and the yong lion, and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
— Isaiah 11:6 (King James translation 1611)
Note that in this biblical quote there’s nowt about lions lying down with lambs, but the traditional paraphrase has a pleasing alliteration to it, does it not? And the proverb, In like a lion, out like a lamb, is even more euphonious, do you not agree?
Some speculate that both proverb and paraphrase are something to do with changing seasons. As it happens, when astrologically speaking Leo approaches Aries at the spring equinox I hope to be smack bang in the midst of several reading prompts, with a selection of book reviews to celebrate the themes which other book bloggers have concocted.
Today, on the eve of the halfway mark for the twenty-eight days of February, I’m already getting excited about March. As well as planning on reading books for the Wales Readathon and Reading Ireland Month I’m hoping to revisit titles by the late Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, both of whom left us in this month.
I’m glad to see that Kristen at https://WeBeReading.com is again running March Magics, the annual celebration of these two fantasy writers (who were both West Country authors by adoption, with connections to my hometown Bristol).
Kristen’s introductory post gives an outline plan of the focus of this year’s event, and I’d like to share with you her principal aims and how my response may shape up.
Oscar Wilde: Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast
Penguin Little Black Classics, No 119, 2016
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
This volume’s selection of sayings was taken from Nothing . . . Except My Genius: the Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde (2010), itself a collection of the man’s pithy witticisms and epigrams. Being only some fifty-odd pages long any review of this mini-treasury will of necessity not be very long but I can’t resist adding a somewhat spurious commentary.
There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit
It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.
But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.
However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.
But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.
It’s coming up to that time of year when the door to one season starts shutting while another slowly swings ajar.
Following my New Year commitment not to commit to specifics concerning my 2020 reading I’m not therefore going to detail what exactly I intend to read for March — mainly because I have no idea at the moment!
Nevertheless, vague possibilities are coalescing around upcoming events in the reading calendar.
Jonathan Swift: A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works Edited by Candace Ward
Dover Thrift Editions 1996
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
With this paragraph, around a quarter of the way through a 1729 text, Swift (originally writing anonymously) detonates the bomb that is at the core of A Modest PROPOSAL For preventing the CHILDREN of POOR PEOPLE From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the PUBLICK.
But this, of course, is Swift, and we must never take his writings at their word. When he discusses the main advantages of such a policy for Ireland (such as fewer Catholics, the introduction of a new dish for gentlemen with refined tastes, an added draw for taverns, an income for the ‘breeders’ and an economic policy to encourage marriage) his purpose is to criticise social attitudes, but as with all satire, outward appearances are outrageous–but also deceptive.
Swift was Anglo-Irish Anglican clergyman, and his position was to be a signpost always to a via media (as characterises the Church of England itself, being somewhere in the middle of a Christian continuum stretching from Dissenter to Roman Catholic). By taking arguments to extremes, as with A Modest Proposal, he exposed what he saw as inherent ridiculousness, but with such po-faced earnestness that it was sometimes hard to know when he was being serious without close reading of the text.
I’ve never consciously sought out novels related to Ireland, whether set in that country and/or written by native-born Irish writers. But then I’d never consciously not sought them out. So, bearing in mind that I’ve committed to reading at least a couple of pieces of Irish fiction this March for Reading Ireland Month I wondered what books I’d already read (and, crucially, reviewed) and which could comfortably fit into this category.
What follows, in no particular order, is a not at all exhaustive list of what I could identify as Irish, according to the previous criteria, in reviews posted to this blog. I know some writers could be seen as second generation Irish writers (eg the Brontë siblings, whose Irish father changed his surname from Brunty and who all reportedly retained a distinctively Irish inflection throughout their lives) but I’ve excluded these from my very short list.
It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.
Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.
Tomorrow sees the meteorological first day of spring with the arrival of March, a month which itself begins with St David’s Day.
For the next 31 days I shall be joining in the Wales Readathon (akaDewithon19) by reading and reviewing books with a Welsh slant, right through to the end of the month; and you can do so too by going to Paula Bardell-Hedley’s Dewithon HQ page at Book Jotter, where you will find many bookish hints relating to Welsh literature.
This blog’s post will also focus on two great fantasy writers who left us in past March months, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, in the event now known as March Magics.
This was inaugurated by Kristen Meston at WeBeReading back in 2012 as DWJ March, to celebrate Diana’s legacy the year after her death, before morphing to include Sir Terry’s work after he died in March 2015.
As Kristen writes, it gives us an excuse to read our favourite DWJ and STP titles, “to pick up the books from these authors that never get old, the ones that we’ve read dozens of times already but plan to read at least a dozen more times.”
Kristen’s outline schedule is:
Saturday, 9th March — Discussion for Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men
Saturday, 23rd March — Discussion for Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle
Finally, Cathy Brown of 746books, co-host with The Fluff is Raging‘s Niall, has been successfully running Reading Ireland Month (St Patrick’s Day is March 17th) for some years now: it’s also known as Begorrathon. I hadn’t got round to joining in before but this year I hope to start in a small way.
The schedule runs thusly:
25th February–3rd March – Contemporary Irish Novels
4th–10th March – Classic Irish Novels
11th–17th March – Irish Short Story Collections
18th–24th March – Irish Non-Fiction
25th–31st March – Miscellaneous (Drama, Poetry, Film etc)
If you’re joining in on social media with any or all of these events don’t forget to use the following hashtags:
#dewithon19 (or #WalesReadathon)
#MarchMagics (or #DWJMarch)
and #Begorrathon19 (or #readingirelandmonth19)
to share how you’re participating.
As I shall too!
“In like a lion, out like a lamb.”
— Proverb about the weather for March. Or it may be about astrology. Or possibly something else. Maybe reading? Yes, it’s about reading!
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.