Still, rains happen; there are slow roots that make
progress; something has a hand in the earth
and turns it. Clouds unknot the wind. Bulbs blow.
Their threadbare minds gust outward, turn yellow
eyes to heaven. It answers with the sun.
And the sun is a bulb, a mutual bomb.
The daffodils crack. ‘Oh heavens!’ they fret,
‘Where’s your terminus?’ The flowers are wan
travellers. They unpack their cases. All
they know, they are. Renewal, rest. Renewal.
from “The Striped World” collection by Emma Jones
It is Spring here in the Southern Hemisphere and I am really enjoying discovering new poets this year through my Faber Diary. Emma Jones is a young Australian, whose first poetry collection ” The Striped World” was published by Faber. She was poet-in-residence from 2009 – 2010 at the Worsdworth Trust in Cambria. Is is just me, or are there echoes of Sylvia Plath in this beautiful poem about Spring and renewal? Love the lines “the flowers are wan/travellers. They unpack their cases.” And the sun being described as a bulb, such evocative imagery! Hope you’re enjoying Spring or Fall/Autumn depending where you are.
Above: Front and back cover of my ‘1984’ edition, published by Text Publishing Company, Australia, 2016
By George Orwell
“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same.”
Doublethink, thought crime, Ministry of Truth and Big Brother have entered the English language and people’s psyche in the modern world. This is a frightening book and of course was meant to be. It was a re-read for me, even though reading it plunges one into despair. The message of the book is chilling, because it seems that humanity and its leaders have learned nothing from the past. In a world where “alternative facts” and resentment of, and contempt for intellectuals, or indeed any individual thinking is becoming the norm, this book gives us a glimpse of a possible grim future that may not be that far off.
The book is centered on Winston Smith, who is haunted by images of a pre- totalitarian world, and Julia, the woman who becomes his lover and fellow rebel in a world where it is a crime to love. They both pay a high price for their defiance, and the ending is ambiguous. Has Winston been finally brain washed or not?
Orwellian is described in Wikipedia as “an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.” This included control by propaganda, misinformation, denial of truth and manipulation of the past. Sounds familiar to the present day?
The only hope I can see is to resist as much as possible the current trend towards simplification and prejudice. As Winston Smith muses “ He knew better than before that he was not mad. Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad .”
A classic, this book deserves to be read, re-read and debated, especially in the current political climate. Would love to read your thoughts.
“Much has been said about Robert, and more will be added. He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticized. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away.”
I read “Just Kids” while on holiday in New York City recently.
The book was a promise to her sometime lover Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith had an intense relationship as a young girl, which continued in a different form as he became aware of and confident in his homosexuality.
Above: Robert Mapplethorpe
Both Smith and Mapplethorpe came to New York in 1967 as teenagers where they met and became part of the avant garde in that city. They both came from Roman Catholic families, the beliefs of which they would both renounce, and yet incorporate into their work. They were both incurable romantics, and as time went on and their career paths and life choices became clear and separate, they still remained great friends. Smith became famous for her blending of rock music and poetry, while Mapplethorpe became a photographer, at times controversial for his graphic homosexual images. He was part of the generation greatly affected by AIDS and died of the disease in 1989. Smith fell in love with a Detroit musician, married him and had children, but never abandoned her belief in Mapplethorpe’s genius. I enjoyed reading about a world that is both fascinating and foreign, with various cameo appearances by people like the playwright, Sam Shepard and other people in the punk rock and art scenes.
The book really is an elegy to youth, young love and New York the city, and its bohemian elements and quirky elements in the 1960’s and 70’s.
This second book, only written by Smith two years ago is about the other end of the spectrum; it’s about old age, the need to keep creating to keep death at bay, and about loss of a life partner.
The book takes the reader on an odyssey, as Smith travels to different parts of the world, yet always comes back to the same Greenwich Village cafe. In some ways the book is about nothing, something Smith acknowledges:
“It’s not easy to write about nothing. That’s what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream. ____ But we keep going, he continued, fostering all kinds of crazy hopes. To redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation. It’s an addiction, like playing the slots, or a game of golf.”
Much of it however is an ode to the irreparable loss of her husband, musician Fred Sonic Smith, who died only in his forties from heart failure. His image and memories of him crop up constantly in whatever Smith is writing about. Parts of this book are very sad, but ultimately art and its making is her saviour and what enables her to keep going.
She writes of crying during a plane trip:
“I watched the movie Master and Commander. Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Midflight I began to weep. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes. Mercifully, I fell asleep, and when I woke snow was falling over Tokyo.”
Smith travels to many unusual places, and in all of them she writes of cafes visited, in Mexico, Berlin and Japan, as well as graves she visits of writers that have been an influence on her. Her travels seem to be treks or pilgrimages to express gratitude to such creatives that have influenced her -Plath, Genet, Kahlo.
With certain passages Smith hits the nail on the head with her writing, in others she goes off on esoteric tangents. But at her best, her writing is very powerful and poignant.
” We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Pease stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”
After her husband’s death, she writes of “performing small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.”
Later she writes of what she believes in:
” I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. When I was child, I thought I would never grow up, that I would will it so. And then I realised, quite recently that I had crossed some line. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron coloured hair.”
I enjoyed this book, but it’s probably not for everyone, as it’s slow paced and often sad.
“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
I had a wonderful fortnight in New York. I packed a lot into that time and saw lots of art museums as well as tourist sites.
Some thoughts on the city:
The traffic is insane, so busy and frantic. The people move fast, but are very friendly if you’re lost and need a quick help with directions. I was struck by how polite New Yorkers are, and even formal. Every time you said thank you, the response was “You’re welcome!”. We are a lot more casual in Australia, so that really made an impression on me.
And did I mention noise? There seemed to be a siren going off every few minutes, day and night. Somehow though that just adds to the pumping energy of the place.
Security? Oh my Lord! Everywhere you went there were police officers, and in places like Grand Central Station there were army officers with machine guns. That took a little bit of getting used to, as we don’t have that kind of police/army presence in Australia. In the second week I was there, the UN General Assembly was in session, and there were road closures at certain times for heads of state to pass through, and even Secret Service operatives roaming around. It was certainly an interesting experience.
The city really is a hymn to Art Deco architecture, and other than the ultra modern skyscrapers, Art Deco is the city’s defining symbol in my opinion.
I adored New York, the energy and diversity of the city was phenomenal. If I could, I would go back every year and see more museums and areas of the city in greater depth.
Above from left clockwise: One World Trade Centre, Empire State Building, Flatiron Building, view from my hotel, Chrysler Building, New York Public Library.
Below are some of the favourite places I visited.
Art Museum Favourites:
The Met – probably the best museum I saw. 5,000 years of art, and all of it impressive. if you’re into art, it’s definitely a place to experience. I spent an entire day there, with breaks to eat and it wasn’t enough of course. Highlights were the Greek and Roman sculptures, the Egyptian section which includes a temple that has been rebuilt onsite, the Armour Hall, and the galleries of European and American painting.
Above, left to right: Temple of Dendur, Greek sculpture fragment, Armour Hall, Renaissance portrait. All at The Met.
Guggenheim – incredible building, the only New York structure designed by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Worth seeing just for the building, although the art is also amazing.
Above, left to right: The Guggenheim, Gauguin, Picasso
MoMa – for Modern art, this is the place to go! So many famous and iconic paintings live here, from Picasso to Pollock, from Cézanne to Chagall.
Above, left to right: Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso
Morgan Library & Museum – this was an unexpected delight. It’s housed in J P Morgan’s former mansion on Madison Avenue, and it’s breathtaking in the scope and richness of the collection. Morgan was a banker and one of the richest people in America in the late nineteenth century. He had a library built to house his collection of manuscripts, such as a jewelled copy of the Lindau Gospel, and copies of the first Gutenberg Bible, as well as many other priceless items. For bibliophiles it’s a treasure, and Morgan’s library is almost as he left it when he died in 1913. There are rotating exhibitions and a lovely cafe.
Above: Morgan’s study and library.
Below, left to right: Front cover of the Lindau Gospel, 9th century, the Gutenberg Bible, 1455.
Favourite Areas of the city:
I stayed in the Midtown area, and my hotel was just one block away from the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station, and while I really enjoyed it, it did get a bit too frenetic at times.
I loved Greenwich Village and Brooklyn. Much more bohemian and relaxing. The brownstone buildings with their cute stoops were so beautiful. Having read a lot of literature based in New York it was great to just wander the streets and soak up the history.
Below is a selection of Brooklyn and Greenwich Village dwellings:
I saw a jazz show at the Village Vanguard. It’s such an iconic venue for anyone into jazz, so many greats have played there such as Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. You go down a very narrow stairway and hold on tight, not for anyone disabled or otherwise infirm! to arrive at a cave like interior with little tables and everywhere photos of jazz royalty. I had a great night there that I will always cherish. The venue has been running since 1935, and the wife of the original owner, Lorraine Gordon is now in her 90s. She is an icon herself, I have seen her in jazz documentaries and it was enough for me to see her there, listening to the music. I was too embarrassed to interrupt her evening!
The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side was a great education in how so many generations of immigrants started their lives in America. The Museum is housed in a former tenement building, and various rooms have been set up in great detail according to the oral histories of families that lived in that street. Apparently “in 1903 the square block on which the museum sits was the most crowded block in the most densely populated place on earth”, from “A Tenement Story: A History of 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side Museum”. I found the tour a deeply moving experience.
I had an absolute blast in New York. So much to see and do, I would definitely go again, but next time it would be great if I could afford business class. Two flights adding up to 21 hours is no fun in cattle/sorry economy class, and the jet lag is a killer.
Finally I can’t finish this post without putting in a plug for my hotel. I stayed at the Library Hotel on Madison Avenue and it was a book lover’s paradise. Each room is set up according to the Dewey system with books on a particular subject. I asked for and got the Poetry Room, which was filled with poetry books. As well as this, the breakfast room had a vast library which guests were welcome to peruse and borrow, and there was a lovely space on the 14th Floor set up as a rooftop garden which became a bar in the evenings. Heaven! Would recommend this hotel to any book lover visiting New York.
Below: Images of The Library Hotel: the exterior, the entrance, the Rooftop Garden/Bar, a selection of books in the Poetry Room.
If anyone is planning a trip to New York, I would be glad to answer any questions. To look at more NY photos you can scroll through my Instagram page. Now that I am back home, I hope to get back to checking out blogs and posting more regularly.
All photos in this post are mine, taken on my recent holiday either on the i-phone or i-pad.
“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”
This would have to be one of the most enjoyable and beautiful books I have read in some time. It is primarily the story of Francie Nolan, who grows up in pre-World War I Brooklyn, in extreme material poverty, but never a poverty of spirit.
She is 11 years old when the book begins, living with her hardworking and steely mother, and her handsome and charming, well-meaning but addicted to drink father. Katie and Johnny, Francie’s mother and father married early at 18 and suffered the consequences. Having two children just one year apart, Katie is terrified of what their future will be. Her mother’s advice, who was an uneducated German immigrant: get two books, one of Shakespeare, another the Bible, and read a page to the children every night. Once they have learned to read, get the children to read it themselves.
Betty Smith wrote this book in 1943, and it is remarkable in its honesty about grinding poverty, and its liberal views about sexuality and women’s rights. It doesn’t even gloss over the fact that Katie, the mother loves her younger boy child Neely more than Francie, something she acknowledges, but can’t help and is always at pains to atone.
“Katie lost all of her tenderness although she gained in what people called character. She loved her little girl because she felt sorry for her. It was pity and obligation towards her she felt rather than love. Francie felt the way her mother thought about her. She grew an answering hardness against her mother and this hardness, paradoxically enough, brought them a little closer together because it made them more alike.”
This should be such a sad heart wrenching story: Katie, the mother, a pretty and slight woman is reduced to the hard backbreaking work of a janitor in various buildings to keep the family afloat. The father, Johnny, a charming Irishman is a dreamer, a wonderful singer who is reduced to occasional work as a singing waiter, in between drinking. But he adores his children, and they adore him, specially Francie, his favourite. The children are often hungry, and every penny counts against starvation.
The novel spans a number of years, and goes back in time to explore Katie and Johnny’s beginnings as well as extended family, but the heart of it is Francie’s story. She is an intelligent, alert, compassionate and imaginative child. She sees everything and questions it, including a belief in God. It is heartbreaking when her teacher gives her a C in an essay composition because her subject matter of alcoholism and despair is ‘sordid’.
“Sordid, filthy. Filthy? She thought of her father wearing a fresh collar every day of his life and shining his worn shoes as often as twice a day. … She remembered a hundred and one little tendernesses and acts of thoughtfulness on the part of her father. She remembered how everyone had loved him so. Her face got hot. She turned on Miss Garnder, her face twisted with fury. ‘Don’t you ever dare use that word about us!'”
There’s much cruelty in the story. At one stage, a rapist is on the loose in the neighbourhood, at another time a young mother with a baby born out-of-wedlock is abused and even physically attacked by other women for breaking the rules, that is daring to show the child in public without shame. Francie’s father is sacked and goes on a drinking bender which eventually leads to his death. Francie sees everything, and grows with it.
This book would be immensely sad and depressing, were it not for the knowledge imparted by the narrator, who shows us repeatedly the strength of Francie and her mother, specially after the death, only at thirty-four, of the father from pneumonia.
“She (Katie) had taken on an extra job in this week before Christmas. She got up earlier and worked faster at her flat cleaning. She rushed down to Gorling’s, the department store at the Polish end of Grand Street, where she worked from four to seven serving coffee and sandwiches to the salesgirls. Her family desperately needed that seventy-five cents that she earned each day.”
The reader knows that Francie, like the hardy Brooklyn tree, growing out of cement, will survive and and she will leave for college at the novel’s end.
Below: Betty Smith
Betty Smith, the author, lived the life of Francie in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn in the early twentieth century, and like Francie escaped to Michigan to attend college, studying journalism, literature and drama, and then going on to study a three year course at Yale Drama School. This bestselling novel was a huge hit with the public in ther midst of World War II, so much so that an Armed Forces edition came out almost immediately that would fit in soldiers’ rucksacks. Smith received many letters specially from young girls and soldiers, and invariably they would address her as Francie.
This was a profound book, so true in its laying bare the privations of poverty and what it means to be human. The New York Public Library rightly selected it as one of the Books of the Century. I would give it 4.5⭐️. As the foreword by Anne Quindlen says “It is not a showy book from a literary point of view. Its pages are not larded with metaphor. Its glory is in the clear-eyed descriptions of its scenes and people:
“When money gave out and food ran low, Katie and the children pretended they were explorers discovering the North Pole and had been trapped by a blizzard in a cave with just a little food. They had to make it last till help came. Mama divided up what food there was in the cupboard and called it rations and when the children were still hungry after a meal, she’d say, ‘Courage, my men, help will come soon.’ When some money came in and Mama bought a lot of groceries, she bought a little cake as celebration, and she’d stick a penny flag in it and say, ‘We made it, men. We got to the North Pole.’ One day after one of the ‘rescues’ Francie asked Mama: ‘When explorers get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason . Something big comes out of it. They discover the North Pole. But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?’ Katie looked tired all of a sudden. She said something Francie didn’t understand at the time. She said, ‘You found the catch in it.”
“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”
“Autumn” is set in the Autumn of 2016 as the United Kingdom is in pieces about to decide on the Brexit vote. The novel is centred on two characters, Elisabeth, a 32 year old university student and tutor, and Daniel, her great friend and mentor who is nearing 100 and in a coma, near death in a nursing home.
Above: Ali Smith
This book was published in October 2016, following the Brexit vote, and it’s a deeply original and philosophical work, meditating on the fluidity of time, history and art. It constantly flits between past and present, and nothing much actually happens in it, except life which in fact is everything. Much of the drama happens in people’s minds, and some of it is actually quite funny, as is the bureaucracy involved when Elisabeth goes to the post office to renew her passport.
The friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel is beautiful and very moving. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 years old, a precocious misfit, and Daniel is already an old man, the queer arty neighbour.
“The lifelong friends, he said, sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”
Even though the England portrayed appears grim and devoid of hope, the close friendship of these two disparate people is a hopeful thing.
“We have to hope that the people who love us and know us a little bit, in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters.”
The narrative changes back and forth between Elisabeth’s concerns for herself and her country and Daniel’s flashbacks to the past and all he has endured, being a refugee and seeing the horrors of World War II.
In the midst of her post Brexit anxieties, Elisabeth is confronted with the prospect of Daniel’s death. She comes to talk to him every day, regardless of his unconscious state.
“I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”
There are many subtle references to great literature of the past, Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and the importance of ‘reading’ both at a literal and figurative level is highlighted.
“Hello, he said. What are you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.
Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”
Smith writes in a very dense manner, and part of the book is in a stream of consciousness style, but it very quickly starts to make sense. Her language is so inventive as when Daniel talks about words:
“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth up around them, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting come up.”
Parts of this novel filled me with great sadness. It was both funny and very sad, and it was about our crazy world and its borders which are growing ever more exclusive and anti-other.
But it’s also about the power of art and stories. And the seasons go on, despite what humans do. Loved this book. 5 ⭐️
Apologies for being absent on the blog this week. I am going through a lot of changes in my life at the moment.
My partner is in Europe on a cycling tour for five weeks (not the Tour de France, ha ha), so my days are even busier with the children, being totally on my own to look after them. I am also undertaking an online course which runs all year called “Year of You: Creative Rehab”.
Having been a stay at home mum for some years I am trying to work out what I should do next, i.e: what do I really deeply desire to do?
For a year or so I regularly posted on Instagram about books and art, but started to find that very restrictive, as my photography skills aren’t that brilliant, and to me the caption was always more important. ‘Bookstagram’, as that niche of Instagram is known, after a while just became boring really, everyone congratulating each other’s choice of book, with posts mainly all about beautiful images of books staged with flowers, coffee or on location such as the seaside. Don’t get me wrong, I played the game too for a while and enjoyed it, but as my life got ever busier, I started asking why am I doing this? I realised it wasn’t working for me, so disabled my account.
For the moment, the blog and my on-line course is enough for me. I love writing about books and art still, but I want to try more creative writing too, so I will start doing some on the blog soon.
The on-line course I am doing is very confronting and intense, but in a good way. It asks basic questions that are quite fundamental like:
What do you want?
What do you need?
What is keeping you suspended over the void of what you no longer are, and what you need to become?
If you knew you would die tonight, what would you regret the most?
These are questions I am on my way to answering this year. I am considering doing a course on visual arts next year. I have read widely about all sorts of artists, and am constantly amazed at how many women artists there have been throughout history, yet totally underrated or unknown. I would like to highlight some of these in my blog over the coming months.
A genre that has always helped me as a form of bibliotherapy is poetry. One poet that is still immensely relevant today is Rumi, a Persian mystic born in the 13th century. But even though the word mystic might imply “weirdo” these days, his work is strongly grounded in the here and now: it’s direct, powerful and abundant in tolerance and compassion.
“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian,
stone, ground, mountain, river,
each has a secret way of being with the mystery,
unique and not to be judged”
He had so much to say, on everything from love, to religion, to life and death, and everything in between, and he sounds startlingly modern.
Live where you fear to live
Destroy your reputation
“Don’t be satisfied with stories,
how things have gone with others,
Unfold your own myth.”
He speaks to us unhindered by time and cultural difference, and his words have an elemental force that remains undiminished across centuries. He certainly speaks to me as I journey through a year of great change.
All quotations from “Rumi, Selected Poems” published by Penguin, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne.
A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.