Pull a pile of books off the shelf and open them on Christmas Eve, abandon Bleak House for the twentieth time (feel sure its moment will come when I least expect or plan it) rifle through the others and end up choosing something I hadn't even thought of.
So this year I thought I might start revving up the reading a little earlier, bit like warming up the car engine in the olden days, and to my surprise I might just have hit the road and be on my way.
I have succumbed to an unexpected but massive bout of Murdoch-itis...Iris, not Rupert or any other, and after all these years of trying and remaining steadfastly immune, suddenly I am awash with it. Expect Much More Murdoch in 2015, but meanwhile I have read The Italian Girl and Under the Net and wondered what on earth has been putting me off. In fact I think I know...might it be something about the academy seizing on Iris Murdoch, analysing her to the bone, and throwing around words like 'philosophical' and ' Nietzsche', and me thinking much as I enjoy a challenge, maybe I wouldn't enjoy that one.
I'd have done better to listen to Iris Murdoch herself and read her Paris Review interview sooner...
What effect would you like your books to have?
I’d like people to enjoy reading them. A readable novel is a gift to humanity. It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals. So I would like people to be able to read the stuff. I’d like it to be understood too; though some of the novels are not all that easy, I’d like them to be understood, and not grossly misunderstood. But literature is to be enjoyed, to be grasped by enjoyment.
How would you describe your ideal reader?
Those who like a jolly good yarn are welcome and worthy readers. I suppose the ideal reader is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues.
So I have thrown out all the commentaries and am indulging in the 'innocent occupation' of reading (though will not be dragged too far from the TV, there will be Downton after all) and these really are 'jolly good yarns'. I am ambushed by that thrill of anticipation at so many unread books waiting, have moved onto The Bell and then will be choosing between The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea ...which one do you reckon?
...and I know Father Christmas is bringing me some more Murdoch, in that way that you do when you order them yourself and hand over for wrapping...why mess about.
The next surprise was the arrival of a copy of The Flemish House by Georges Simenon. Inspector Maigret passed me by at the age of seven back in 1960 when the TV series began, and for some reason I have never read the books, but I started this one and realised I could suddenly and very happily read more. I've lost the press release, which isn't helpful, but I think Penguin might gradually be re-issuing all of these and it was obvious that, though the books are stand-alone, I really needed to start at the beginning with Pietr the Latvian. I need to sort out the mac and the pipe and the cool personality traits for msyelf from the off, so have bought a Kindle omnibus edition of the first four in the series to see if I enjoy them enough to think about reading the other seventy (!). There was also something interesting (in the now lost press release) about the cover photography for these new editions; a Magnum photographer whose work uncannily reflects the books and their themes, and The Flemish House certainly exudes the right atmosphere.
Finally, but not in any way lesser...a little wallow in Monica Edwards now that I have accumulated three of the Punchbowl Farm books from Girls Gone By,Black Hunting Whip, Frenchman's Secret and Spirit of Punchbowl Farm.
I can see that this is not going to be an easy return to old favourites just because of availability of the books...even the GGB editions are fetching £30-£40 each if out of print, luckily these three still available. I read some of Black Hunting Whip just to be sure Monica Edwards might work again after about fifty-four years or so and I wasn't disappointed.
So that's me sorted with Murdoch, Maigret and Monica...any thoughts on the three Ms??
And how about your Christmas reading. It's probably the ninth time I've asked you all, for the last nine Christmases I have been writing this, but we always love to know...
It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, thanks to some decorations and some music, and I hope, wherever you are, it might be feeling at least a little that way for you too. I know some of you have had real sadness and sorrow this year...so I would never underestimate what a challenge it all might be, and we are keeping you in our thoughts. As always I will keep posting as and when over Christmas and replying in comments, because I know not everyone is surrounded by friends and family and company...so if you are passing by please do stop and scribble something if you want to.
I always add some new music to my listening in the run up to Christmas, and this year it has been a bit of a splash out on a single boxed set, Love Has Many Faces by Joni Mitchell, a four CD collection of her songs, digitally remastered and reorganised with a connecting thread of a story running through them. This was a bit of a shall-I-shan't-I purchase because obviously, being a Joni Completist, I probably have all these tracks on other albums if I look closely, but it's the Completist bit that gives the game away. How could I not, and I am not disappointed. The box set includes a booklet by Joni Mitchell explaining the thinking behind the collection, interesting reading in itself.
I know the albums so well, Blue takes me back to the sixth form common room in a flash, but I know the order of the songs too... All I Want, My Old Man, Little Green, Carey, Blue... so it is quite refreshing to suddenly find River sandwiched between two different songs and not followed by A Case of You, in fact it changes the song completely, so this is like listening to a new and rather exciting set. And plenty of songs that I had almost forgotten too, tucked away on albums I don't listen to very often. Having ordered this weeks ago, one lost in the post and finally the replacement arrives, I really should have handed it over to the Christmas Present department for saving and wrapping, but sadly that was more than I could manage.
Likewise The Spy's Choirbook - Petrus Alamire and the Court of Henry VIII.
I read about Petrus Alamire on the BBC website, heaven knows how because it is not a regular haunt of mine, but I was intrigued, and with the serialisation of Wolf Hall to mentally prepare for, what better than some music from Henry's Court.
'Petrus Alamire, from Bavaria, was a man of many talents - a renowned merchant of manuscripts, a scribe, mining engineer, instrumentalist, composer and diplomat carrying letters between humanists of the time such as Erasmus.
The "gorgeous", illustrated choir books he created in his scriptorium were highly sought after by the wealthy while his work as a musician also gave him access to Europe's royal courts.
He was the ideal candidate to be tapped as a spy.'
The manuscripts are kept in the British Library, 'sumptuously illuminated choirbooks' and clever clogs Alamire had apparently changed his name from Peter Imhoff to Alamire as a marketing ploy, A-la-mi-re, referencing the pitch 'a' within the hexachord system (thank you CD notes). Well connected around the Royal courts of Europe, letters exist which reveal that Alamire acted as a spy for Henry VIII against Richard de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and 'the last member of the House of York who openly sought to claim the English throne.' Currying favour everywhere, it would seem his music manuscripts were bound to please... ...except there were suspicions of duplicity and double dealing too, and letters to Cardinal Wolsey suggest that, with trust lost, Alamire wan't even thanked for his gifts. The musical scribe never returned to England, which seems like a wise decision.
Presumably no one was cross enough to throw the choirbooks in the bin, for which we must be grateful, because to listen is to be transported. Thirty-four motets over two CDs, including some thought to have been collected together for Catherine of Aragon, whose symbol the pomegranate is included on Alamire's manuscript. Many hold particular poignancy given her attempts to produce a male heir for Henry. Particularly pertinent to Henry's Court perhaps Fama Malum, a setting by Josquin of text by Virgil...
Fama, malum quo no aliud velocius ullum; mobilitate viget virisque acquirit eundo, parva metu primo, mox sese attollit in auras ingrediturque solo et caput inter nubila condit.
Rumour, an evil than which no other is more swift; she thrives on movement and acquires strength by movement. Small at first, out of fear. soon she raises herself into the airs, steps on the earth and hides her head among the clouds.
Whilst complex and layered (just like rumour) the chant is doleful, with voices seeming to enter and depart before reappearing together and emphasising the theme, the final note left hanging in the air as if waiting for someone to hear it.
Oh yes, bring on Wolf Hall...I'm ever so tempted to read it again for a refresher course...
Meanwhile do you have any more good Christmas listening to recommend....
The opening lines of Nocturnal on St Lucy's Day by John Donne, actually celebrated on December 13th back in 1627 and until the calendar changed.
The shortest day for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere (we're there) the longest day to everyone else, and it is also St Thomas's Day, the day when those in need went Thomasing or 'gooding.' Not surprisingly the custom of 'gooding' would only work in small close-knit communities where the poor would tramp around the neighbourhood, calling at farms, and maybe to the Big House, with the expectation of receiving gifts of money or food in order to 'keep a good Christmas.' (Thank you Steve Roud The English Year ) Anyone who lived here, and I am sure, given that we live in two labourers' cottages, they might have been poor enough to have to do it, would have had to tramp a fair few miles in the hope.
But light for our hypothalamuses (maybe hypothalami...someone will know) is what we all really need, so it's our day to light the candles, and do so until Candlemas, because it feels like a nice way to illuminate our way ahead into the longer days, and by February 2nd we will certainly be aware of the evenings drawing out and maybe not having to walk the dogs by 4pm at the latest.
Every year I hope we might have a sunset like this one of many years ago, but until we do apologies I have to use the same picture year on year... The woodland that we look across to from all our windows, with the sun setting right behind it. That is the furthest the setting sun will reach and now will slowly makes its way back way beyond the right of that picture as we head towards the Longest Day. It's a wonderful natural marker of the passing year which happily seems to carve itself up into the seasonal quarter days now that I have time to notice them.
And one glorious sunrise earlier this week which quite took my breath away, the village church in the distance rising up through the mist...the special light gone in an instant but wonderful while it lasted. If you are north of the equator I hope you are finding plenty of light and bright somehow...for the rest of you basking in it, please take the hit for the team and enjoy for the rest of us.
The Tinker has been to a ceremony organised by the Russian Government, who have been assiduous in ensuring that all the Arctic Convoy veterans around the country are receiving their Ushakov Medal in an atmosphere of ceremony and respect...
The medal is awarded to sailors who have displayed courage in the course of defending Russia or its interests.
Created by the Allied Powers, the Arctic Convoys sailed through blinding snow storms and darkness under a barrage of attack from German U-boats and fighter planes to deliver vital supplies to the Soviet Union in Northern Russia.
More than 3,000 men died during the maritime campaign that Winston Churchill was said to have called the “worst journey in the world”, and by May 1945, the Arctic route had claimed 104 merchant and 16 military vessels.
The Foreign Office initially did not allow Russia to honour the veterans as it broke their rules which do not allow British soldiers to receive a foreign medal if the act happened more than five years ago.
Following a concerted campaign in 2013, they allowed an exception to the rule and President Putin presented the first medals during his visit to London on June 16 2013.
This unlike the British medal which arrived in the post...and when I shared this comparison with local MP Ben Bradshaw, who was there, he was visibly shocked.
We had a really wonderful morning at County Hall in Exeter, a truly memorable moment for Bookhound, the Kayaker and me, and for the whole family, as we looked on with pride, and for the Tinker who felt that someone had truly appreciated what they had achieved. The Russian attache was superb, speaking properly and at length to each veteran in turn and thanking them...it was all very moving.
We brought it in on Advent Sunday and the bough is slowly filling up with all those odd little things that have adorned it for years, since I first saw this decorated Christmas bough idea in a friend's house. The Tinker loved his bough so much last year that he undecorated it on Twelfth Night, but for the lights, and has been enjoying it all year. I have added the Advent idea only recently, quite liking the slow build-up towards Christmas, and so the things sit in a basket and we add them daily, or if visitors come they choose something. One of the Big Events of 2014 has been Offspringette heading off to a new life in New Zealand and, knowing that she wouldn't be with us at Christmas, perhaps for quite a while, and that she has helped decorate this for years, I thought long and hard about what to do. We are well-used to them being in remote and distant places at Christmas, some years we haven't even had an address to post to if they have been travelling, though they always phone home, but this is a little bit different.
So do I encourage the continuation of this family tradition with her in New Zealand...
Or might that make her homesick...
Or might she think 'Oh God I've come here to do new things...'
It's not easy and I feel sure many of you will know this dilemma, as well as knowing all those feelings about far-flung family
Of course we miss Offspringette...let me count the ways etc, but we have always subscribed to the 'If they are happy and healthy we don't mind where they are,' philosophy, and thankfully she is all of those things and loving her new job as co-ordinator for the Youth Council. So anyway back in August I thought... oh hang it all, I'm going to secretly make twenty four little things, wrap each one up and number it and they can get their own Advent bough in and decorate it if they want, and so I made a start. Slowly the box filled up...
and it became the loveliest project.
I would sit at my table listening to the radio and piece little tiny quilts and then raid the button box for embellishments, or stencil something and then quilt it... this one maybe 3" x 2"... ...or stitch some nice plump stars, or knit something. Sometimes what I was making told a story that I knew Offspringette would recognise...
...and occasionally I would see something special and buy it, or someone who knew I was doing it sent me something to include in the box, until eventually I had twenty four 'things...and some unwrapped extras and then I added in a twenty-fifth for Christmas Day. One of the things Offspringette loves (she now tells me) is the smell of home on any parcels we send, so I added some of our lavender to the box as I was making things for the aroma to infuse as I went along.
It was a good thing I started early enough because in the end it took me over two months to finish everything, and by the time I arrived at the post office with the parcel back in November I was feeling quite wobbly and emotional at parting with it. There was so much love and care invested in it, supposing it got lost.
The counter clerk in the Post Office must have seen me biting my lip because she couldn't have been nicer and understood immediately. The joy of a small town is that people know you, and we have done a lot of posting to New Zealand this year, so the counter staff always ask...'How's it going ?' We sorted out tracked and signed for airmail so this priceless parcel wouldn't get lost and we had an interesting conversation about the value...really only a few £s, but much more in the bigger scheme of things. And then eschewing the pre-printed label the counter clerk proceeded to carefully adorn the box with £18.60's worth of Christmas stamps while the queue behind me snaked out of the door. We had a lovely chat, and the whole thing was a work of art by the time she placed the parcel carefully in a sack of its own and promised to look after it. I'll confess I wandered out of the Post Office feeling a bit bereft and had to go for a pot of hot chocolate in the Bedford Hotel to sort myself out (any excuse)
I was mightily relieved to get these pictures... Can you believe it the parcel left Devon on a Monday and arrived in New Zealand on the Friday morning??
And the latest I hear is that there was much delight, half a tree came indoors, the opening has become a daily ritual and the whole thing might already have achieved annual heirloom status.
And how exciting it is, through the dark-grey days of mid-winter here, to see all those very same things made through the balmy days of August and September now hanging up in the light, bright sparkling summer days of the Southern Hemisphere.. and perhaps my favourite, the chickens, with their house and a little clutch of eggs and the bees buzzing around the veg garden, hopefully all a good likeness to the real thing.
From being a couple who could usually say 'We really don't watch a lot of television,' and mean it, we've turned into a pair of 9pm pot-of-tea sofa sloths this autumn, and I blame the TV companies entirely for a rather gripping season of drama serials, with the promise of more to come in the New Year. When this happens my usual line is 'Worth every penny of the licence fee,' but we don't even pay that now that the Tinker lives under our roof, so it's all a bit of a bonanza of a treat right now. Should the day dawn when we have reliably mastered the new Freeview recording set-up, then life really will be a bowl of cherries and not a sea of disappointment when, on those rare occasions we might be out or busy, the programme decides not to record despite my best efforts at setting it up.
We probably need a four year old to show us what to do.
Anyway, I'll start with Mondays.. and with apologies because beyond these shores much of this might make little sense, though perhaps make a note to watch in case the series head your way.
Tatler is the oldest magazine in the world and has been reporting on the lives of Britain’s most privileged and powerful for 300 years. Tatler not only documents, but also dictates the social calendar of Britain’s elite. With an archive full of society’s movers and shakers being pictured in its pages it has long been a rite of passage for Britain’s ruling classes.
Lives so far removed from ours that we can only gaze on in amazement at what the upper crust get up to whilst the rest of us are trying to earn one. But I am impressed at the way the magazine staff seem...well...quite sensible and how they pitch the whole thing...it's not quite poking fun but it is most certainly flagging up the eccentricities laced with a good old-fashioned sense of fair play. I of course couldn't go and work for Tatler because I haven't been to boarding school which seems to be a pre-requisite to understanding the system, but I am hankering after a copy of the Debrett's book of Etiquette (always playfully called etty-kew-etty in our family vocab) which is given to each member of staff on joining. And can you believe it, having never picked up a copy in my life, there was the September 2014 Tatler nestled in amongst The Caravan Club monthly from two years ago at the doctor's surgery last week. I was straight to the Bystander pages, where the upper crust flaunt at the parties, in the hope that I could say in a loud voice with very clipped vowels 'Oh I know them, they came to ours for a shooting party last year,' but sadly 'twas not to be.
This light relief is really just bracing us for 9pm on Tuesday when, for the last heaven-knows how many weeks we have settled down to then be completely unsettled by The Missing...
Exploring the emotional fallout of a child's abduction not only on the family but on the wider community, this gripping relationship thriller is told over two time frames and two countries.
Utterly impossible to watch without thinking of that most recent of high-profile child abductions, as young Oliver Hughes is abducted from his father's side whilst the family are on holiday in France. If you did nothing but stare at James Nesbit's face you'd know something of the torture that the family of Madeleine McCann must have suffered, and as the action flips to and fro, from present to past and back again, we still await the final episode with bated breath and no sense of certainty about what may have happened.
Washed out and wasted, by Wednesday it is time for another laugh and we look no further than The Apprentice for some cringeworthy television as the young hopefuls, pitching for a business partnership with Lord Sugar, are put through their paces. Slowly, week by week, another one or two are fired until we reach the zenith, which is not actually the final...no it is Interview Week and it is tonight.
Let nothing get in the way of me and the sofa at 9pm because it is wonderful television as the, by now, reasonably confident applicants are subjected to interrogation by some of the most fearsome interviewers on the planet. I'm sure Claude Littner is an absolute pussy cat really, but heck, when he stares at you with that practised look of shock, contempt and disdain...and then delivers his killer blows with the quietest of voices, well it's way worse than the Train Inspector, trust me. Our money is still on Mark the Aussie to win, but who knows what Claude might do to him in the interim.
Right, onto Thursday, the dent in the sofa is becoming a permanent feature, and now we really do need full emotional armour in place because it is Gillian Anderson in Series Two of The Fall.
Now I know this one has been a bit controversial. Plenty of people suggesting it is far too near the mark, too violent and too suggestive, as serial killer Paul Spector wreaks havoc amongst the dark-haired business women of Belfast, but there is so much more going on here. This is about obsession and control and emotional turmoil for all concerned, as well as highlighting the risks that the police have to take, both personal and professional, in order to trap their perpetrator, and Gillian Anderson is just superb....not a mumbled line in it, an incredibly powerful and often harrowing performance. Of course this is Series Two, and having missed Series One we quite thought we'd get the gist. Well we did, but only enough to make us realise that we needed and wanted to watch Series One, cue about two days of intermittent day time sofa-slothing (the sheer decadence of it) as we caught up.
By Friday we are done in and quite relieved that there doesn't seem to be anything else that we want to watch.
And I haven't even started on what we have to look forward to in 2015...Broadchurch (January 5th) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and wait for it...
Kosminsky said directing Wolf Hall had been one his most daunting projects. “What was so wonderful and liberating was when I met Hilary and she said, ‘If I can give you one piece of advice it’s to remember that these characters do not know that they are in history,’” he recalled. “For them, this is real life. Henry doesn’t know he is going to have six wives, Anne doesn’t know her end. As far as they are concerned, if they make one decision their life goes that way and if they make another decision their life goes in a completely different direction, as it is for us. And that was what we all tried to do, get that feeling – in the shooting style, in the way the costumes worked – that we were making this exactly as if we were shooting a drama today.”
With The Mirror and the Light also due for publication (hopefully) I think we can truly declare 2015 The Year of Our 'ilary and the dent in our sofa likely to remain for some time.
Meanwhile, we can't have been the only people in the country watching these latest autumn series... what's your verdict...
Team Tolstoy A year-long shared read of War & Peace through the centenary year of Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's death, starting on his birthday, September 9th 2010.
Everyone is welcome to board the troika and read along, meeting here on the 9th of every month to chat in comments about the book.
Team Tolstoy Bookmark Don't know your Bolkonskys from your Rostovs?
An aide memoire that can be niftily printed and laminated into a double-sided bookmark.
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If you think I have breached copyright rules in any way please let me know.