Fiction: A Long Weekend in September, 1939

Friday 1st September, 1939

We were all rushing around the cottage, trying hurriedly to pack our belongings into suitcases and load them into the car. All of us except Frank, that is. My younger brother was sitting on his bed, scowling at whichever of us he could make eye contact with.

“Why do we have to go home?” he demanded, “We weren’t supposed to go home for another week.”

Mother barely looked at him as she carried a pile of bed linen past the door to the boys’ room, and I was in the room across the corridor, busy trying to cram the contents of an entire chest of drawers into my holdall, but I heard William’s voice over the sound of the wireless he had been listening to so intently.

“Because there’s going to be a war,” he said, in that very matter of fact way that only an eldest sibling can have.

“Why does that mean we have to leave our holiday? Father said I could help milk a cow, and I wanted to go fishing!” Frank retorted

“There are more important things than holidays Frank. Get used to it. Lots of things are going to change.”

“But it’s not fair.” I heard the sound of Frank’s feet banging against his wooden bedframe, and shut the now full suitcase sitting on my bed. “Father fought in the last war. Anyway, he’s so old now that they’ll never make him be a soldier again. I don’t see why we can’t stay a few more days.”

This was straying into dangerous territory, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.  Before William lost his temper. “That’s enough,” I said, striding across the hallway to stand in the doorway to the boys’ bedroom. “Frank, why don’t you take William’s suitcase down to the car? Father should be starting to load it up.”

He glared at me sullenly, and didn’t move off the bed. “Now, Frank.” I said firmly, folding my arms and he jumped off the bed and picked up the suitcase, dragging it out of the bedroom.

“You’re going to make a good teacher,” William said as he turned the dial that shut off the sound of the wireless. “He always listens to you.”

“I actually think he’s more scared that I might tell Mother than he is of me,” I said with a smile. “Thank you anyway.”

He smiled back, and looked around the room. “Is there much else to pack?”

“Only what our darling baby brother has ignored.” I waved a hand at the floor, to the mess that Frank had left scattered around. “Really William, you could have at least tried to get him to tidy up.”

William shrugged as he knelt down on the floor and began to pick up a pile of discarded socks Frank had left at the foot of his bed. “I hope Father remembers to put the heaviest ones in the car. It’s all right for them driving all the way home, but I don’t fancy hauling two tonnes of luggage five miles to the station.” William said.

“Really,” I said over my shoulder as I went through to pick up my own suitcase. “It’s only two miles at most.”

Saturday 2nd September, 1939

Back home, William was already up and making breakfast when I awoke the following morning. The tinny sound of the wireless was audible over the noise of him clattering around in cupboards as I came down stairs. “Have they announced anything yet?” I asked as I walked into the kitchen.

“Not yet,” he said, not looking up from the pan of porridge he was stirring. “But it should be any time now.”

“You’ve been saying that for days.”

“You know I’m right though.”

I didn’t answer, but walked across to the window, and inspected our handiwork from the night before.  “They’ve held up well, considering we put them up in the dark,” I said, running my hands along one of the old curtains we had pinned to the window frames as  impromptu blackout blinds, and tugging experimentally. “Fairly well,” I amended as the curtain fell away in my hands, revealing that the thunderstorm which had followed us home last night was still persisting, though somewhat less malevolently.

I folded the curtain and left it on the counter as William placed two bowls of porridge on the table. “Mother and Father should be back soon.” He said as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “It’s not that far from Aunt Elizabeth’s, and they said they’d try and make an early start this morning.”

I nodded as I savoured the warmth of the first spoonful of porridge. The downside of going on holiday is that when you come home the house is always bitterly cold. We ate in silence, both of us listening intently for any news on the wireless.

I hadjust started to boil the kettle for washing up water when I was interrupted by the sound of someone hammering on the front door. I walked over and opened it to find an incredibly wet Frank standing panting on the step. “You have to come and help carry the plums!” he said excitedly, before turning tail and running off down the road again, going out of his way to jump in a puddle

I shot William a brief look of confusion, but in lieu of an adequate explanation, we set about finding our overcoats and wellingtons. By the time we made it out into the road, Frank was running back to find us. “Mother said you have to come quickly, I’ll show you the way!”

We turned the corner next to the church to find Mother and Father standing next to the car, which was full to the bursting with boxes upon boxes of plums. Without even a ‘Good morning’, or an explanation for the fruit, Father thrust a crate into William’s arms, saying: “Take this to the house, and come back with for the next one.” Frowning, William opened his mouth as if to protest, but then, thinking better of it turned and jogged back down the road. “And be careful!”  Father shouted after him, though his voice was almost drowned out by the sound of the rain.

Realising what was expected of me; I bent down and tried to pick up a crate. “Don’t be absurd darling,” I heard mother say as she leant into the car and pulled out a roll of material. “I’ve got some old curtains Aunt Elizabeth gave me for blinds. You take these.” Dutifully I took the curtains, which were almost as heavy as the plums I had tried to lift. “Try not to get them wet, and when you get back to the house, put the kettle on.” I nodded, screwing up my face as the water dislodged from my hair by the movement flowed into my eyes. “Really, don’t be so childish. We all have to do our part. Put the kettle on, and set the sewing machine up. You and I have got a long day ahead of us making blinds.”

“William and I…” I began, but was interrupted again. “And see if you can find Grandma’s big copper pan. We have to stew all the plums today or they’ll start to go mouldy.” I nodded again, ignoring the water this time, and turned to go back to the house.

“Oh, and make sure Frank stays in the house,” Mother’s voice was barely audible as I hurried past William, who was already on his way back, “I don’t want him to catch a cold!”

Sunday 3rd September, 1939

It was always noisy when we arrived at church on Sunday; with the men discussing the cricket scores, and the ladies catching up on the week’s gossip. Every few weeks there was a scream of panic when a foolish girl caught sight of white a mouse, escaped from a boy’s pocket (often Frank’s), or a spider that had found its way out of its matchbox prison.

Today was different. It was still far from silent, but the noise had a panicked edge to it, almost of hysteria. Whenever a new family arrived, everyone asked what the latest news was, in case the extra few minutes had made the difference. People kept shooting furtive glances at the young men, afraid to enter into conversation with them, though I did find it comforting to notice that William was not the only man his age to look anxious.

As I followed my brothers into our pew, I made eye contact with Frank, trying to tell him to behave today, but he just smiled back, far too angelically. It was a guarantee that at least once a week I would hear the sound of whispers from the end of our pew as William tried to chastise Frank for being a pest. It had been strange not to hear it while William was at Cambridge. It was not two minutes after we sat down that I caught sight of something moving at the edge of my vision. It was Frank, of course. He had taken a toy soldier out of his pocket, who was, as far as I could tell, attempting to valiantly assault the castle walls, a role here played by William’s leg, though our older brother barely seemed to notice.

The sound of voices stopped as the organ groaned into life and we all stood up expectantly, waiting for the usual Sunday morning procession of Vicar, Rector, and Choir. Even Frank was standing quietly, though it seemed likely that this was because William wasn’t rising to his bait. No more than half a minute after the music had started, the tune suddenly tailed off into silence.

There was a moment’s silence, before the church erupted with the sound of voices again. What was going on? Where was the vicar? Nobody could ever remember the Sunday service starting late before, what could possibly have happened?

It seemed fairly obvious to me what had happened, though I hoped I was wrong. I could tell by the faint tinge of grey on William’s face that he was thinking the same, and when I saw my father silently clasp my mother’s hand, it was clear they did too. I had never seen them hold hands in public before and certainly never in church.

I overheard two particularly highly strung old dears claim in a shrill voice that the vicar must have broken his leg to have missed church. No, he had, caught scarlet fever. No, the roof of the vicarage had collapsed during the storm and crushed Father Thomas in his bed. I found myself wondering, rather cruelly I think, if everyone else had realised the truth as well, and they were just being too blind, or scared, to put voice to the idea.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the organ once more, and by the time I’d got to my feet I was relieved to see the Vicar leading the way into the chancel.

“I’m afraid I have to apologise for my lateness,” he said, his voice sounding strained, and oddly quiet. “I was listening to Mr Chamberlain on the wireless. I’m sorry to say that we are at war.”

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Year of a Hundred books – #2 Siddhartha

I used to volunteer at the Oxfam Bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow.  Being one of the busiest in the country, there was  quite a high turnover of classic literature (in addition to the hundreds of Dan Brown and the like). As they rely on donations, the consistency of the stock would vary quite a bit, and predictably, would tend towards the famous. For a time, there was a list of Nobel Laureates for Literature taped to the shelf, so that people sorting through the donations could keep an eye out for them. Around the same time, I found  a copy of Haldor Laxness’s Independent People, which I liked the sound of. Somewhat rashly, I decided that I would embark on a quest to read at least one work by every Laureate. Somewhat unsurprisingly, my resolve weakened fairly quickly. I hated Independent People, and as soon as it came to exam season that year, I promptly forgot my pledge.

Fast forward about three years, and when I looking over the list of book’s I’d read this year, there was quite a high proportion of Sci-fi/Fantasy titles. Which is fine, it is the genre(s) I prefer, but it gets a bit dull just reading the same style of book. So, logically, the solution to that is Nobel Laureates… Right? I’m not going to aim to exhaust the list during this year, but it’ll be there to add some variety to my reading.

SiddharthaSiddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

3/5

Siddhartha is probably better than I give it credit for, and this rating reflects quite a bit on the  quality of the version I was reading. Being an impoverished graduate, I turned to the Gutenberg Project for the text, which I think was a mistake. I’ve never had a problem with Gutenberg before, but this text was rife with typographical errors that made it quite difficult to really get into it. Coupled with a particularly verbose 1950’s translation from the German, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience to read.

That said, the actual book wasn’t bad. I’m well familiar with the Buddha legend, and (thanks to a first year course in Eastern Religion), have a passable understanding of Buddhism. I had assumed, knowing the subject matter of the book, that the Buddha was the eponymous Siddhartha. However, while the Buddha does appear, he is referred to only by his family name, Gotama. Instead Siddhartha is essentially a Bildungsroman for a young Nepali man with a sort of parallel understanding of early Buddhism. Siddhartha  rejects his heritage first to become an ascetic along with his friend Govinda, then upon meeting the Buddha and being unimpressed, has a crisis of faith and returns to the world, before eventually achieving Enlightenment as a ferryman over a river.

I did find myself wondering, because of the way Hesse refers to the Buddha and to his title character, if the book was intended to be a sort of “parallel origin legend” of Buddhism, in the same way that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was for Christianity. If this is the case, it was certainly done a lot more subtly than Pullman’s effort, although maybe that’s just because I’m less familiar with the topic at hand.

Either way, and interesting as it was, some of the philosophical discussion did get  a little repetitive. On top of this, almost all of the dialogues would take the form of “Quoth Siddhartha…”, “Quoth Govinda…”, “Quoth Siddhartha…” and so on. I don’t know if that’s an artefact of translation or if that’s how the original reads, but it got tedious after a while.

That said, as a fictional demonstration of basic Buddhist theology, Siddhartha is as good as any, and it’s worth reading for that alone. As I said above, I’d recommend to steer clear of the Gutenberg version and try for one of the newer translations.

Year of a Hundred books – #1 Radio Free Albemuth

Starting 1st of January this year, I began keeping track of all the books I read. By mid May, when thesis-writing consumed my life (and my ability to type things into a spreadsheet), I’d read 33 books. Now that I’ve graduated and have time to read books that aren’t (necessarily) about Early-Modern university education, I’ve decided to set myself a challenge:

By the 24th of September 2013, I aim to have read 100 books. Yes, that’s right, a hundred.

Is this insane? Probably, but go big or go home, right?

So, without further ado, onto Number 1!

Radio Free AlbemuthRadio Free Albemuth – Philip K. Dick

2/5

I’ve only read one of Dick’s other works, The Man in the High Castle (which I didn’t really like), although I’ve seen several film adaptations of his works. One of my friends has recently been pressuring me to read more, so when I saw Radio Free Albemuth in the library, I decided to take the plunge. This was probably a mistake.

For one thing, I later found out that Albemuth,  is essentially the first draft of one of Dick’s other books and published posthumously. For another, it takes place in an alternate universe where the US is under fascist regime, and features Dick as a narrator and a whole slew of references to his other works. Not really the best place for the uninitiated to jump in! Compound this with the off-puttingly cynical nature of Dick’s narratives and the pulp-ish flavour to his prose, it was hard work getting through it.

Part of the problem is that I couldn’t tell if the novel knew what it was trying to be. It was either a counter-cultural criticism of Nixon era Republicanism (which I’d have difficulty relating to either way!), or a rather poorly written philosophical exploration of rather esoteric theological themes.

I’d say that I disliked Albemuth even more that High Castle, and while, as I’ve said, it’s perhaps not representative of the wider body of Dick’s fiction, I’ll probably steer clear in future, unless someone can convince me otherwise.

Poetry: All Rights Reserved

It does hurt.
Some fires are great.
But it is not necessary,
Is it possible?

I have almost
Followed the instructions of the
Dream

What,
And who,
Killed and captured Warsaw’s Romany
A universal type.

Tell us
Now is the time.

There is anger,
When a court decides that persons notorious,
Sharing in implication.
Publically cleared.
Foolishness as coat of arms

Tell us.
Now is the time

And mark the shift,
A hundred and forty one lives were stolen.
Is it not persecution?

A half rotten pig,
Looking forward to
Scent of Freedom
In the blink of an eye?

Joined and accustomed
Nationally bound
The tears flow in the second half of your life,
Guess this possibility,
Style and grace.

Tell us
Now is the time

The Decemberists’ Shiny, put through a journey of the world’s languages on Bing Translate, edited slightly using MS Word’s synonym tool. Only word endings/plurals changed manually. Original Lyrics here.

Fiction: Pen and Paper

“I’m tired.” I said
“You always look tired.” She said

The door swings shut behind me and I walk a little way out onto the dusty forecourt. There are a few rusty oil drums sitting alongside a chain link fence. I find one that isn’t collecting water and sit on it, staring up at the sky. It’s unusually clear tonight, the wind has died down, and there is very little haze. There aren’t even any clouds and I can see the moon.
Every so often a car will speed past and send a flurry of dust up into the air, clouding my vision. It always settles eventually. A few minutes pass, and I take the letter out of my pocket and turn it over in my fingers a few times. I read the address aloud, my voice sounding strangely quiet, despite the silence around me.
I take a cigarette lighter out of my pocket, and try to light it. There’s not much fuel left and the flint is almost gone, but finally I manage it.
The flame lasts just long enough for the dry paper envelope to catch before it dies out. The letter flares for a moment in my hand. I contemplate throwing it to the ground. I think about stamping on the flames, trying to save the words I’ve written to her. But no. I just let it go.
From seemingly nowhere, a small breath of wind comes trailing its way across the forecourt. I see the clouds of dust it blows up, and think for a moment that it the flames engulfing the paper will be extinguished and leave the letter untouched.
It doesn’t.
The envelope slides lethargically across the ground, all the while burning. It’s taking a while, but slowly the fire is consuming the paper.
At last it goes out, and once again I am left, alone, in silent glow of the motel’s floodlights.

Essay: Authorial Intent and Political Beliefs in Literature

Authorial intent is a large part of literary criticism. Even in a post-Barthes world, it is impossible to completely separate the creator of a work from the work itself, and sometimes deeper knowledge of the author can affect a reader’s perception of their art.

A good few years ago, during my first forays into the internet, I tended to frequent forums devoted to books, generally of the Young Adult Fantasy variety. I once spent a few days lurking around the official forum attached to the website of William Nicholson (co-writer of Gladiator, author of The Wind on Fire trilogy). I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in his series, and was awaiting the publication of the third, and I imagine that was how I ended up on his forum. What I saw there, I didn’t really like. Unlike most places where people congregate to discuss works of fiction, Nicholson himself sometimes frequented the message board. Whether it was his intention or not, in most of the posts of his that I read he came across as an arrogant man full of disdain for his target audience who had come together to express appreciation for his work. When the final book came out, I found I enjoyed it significantly less than I had hoped, and unlike many of the books I read at that time of my life, I’ve never felt a desire to reread them. Nicholson had, by allowing me to learn a little of his personality, coloured my view of his work.

That said, I still really appreciate and enjoy the works of Philip Larkin and Neil Gaiman, despite discovering the former’s racism and misogyny and being all but ignored by the latter at a signing at the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago. Yes I know how childish that last part sounds. In part, I suppose it depends on the level of my appreciation for the works initially. While Larkin and Gaiman rank among my favourite authors, Nicholson was overshadowed at the time by Philip Pullman, Garth Nix and Philip Reeves.

This phenomenon is not always limited to written works. The Guardian recently “outed” punk-folk-singer/songwriter Frank Turner as a right-wing, libertarian, Europhobe. In retrospect, as the article says, we should have seen it coming; you only need to look at the track-listing for his latest album, England Keep My Bones, to see a level of patriotism uncommon in UK music. Somehow I had deluded myself into thinking that an Eton boy would have written songs in favour of social revolution from a leftist perspective. Instead, lines such as “If you steal the land of an Englishman/then you will know this curse/your first-born son’s warm blood will run/upon English earth” from English Curse are no longer declarations of socialist support against the wealthy/corporations, but nationalist declarations against the encroaching European Union.

In a way, it doesn’t matter in the slightest, and this is just sour grapes because he doesn’t share my political beliefs. Turner has plenty of non-political songs which as still just as moving as they were before this revelation. But somehow it makes it much harder to appreciate songs like the aforementioned English Curse while knowing the author has commented on the Lisbon Treaty being the end of 800 years of parliamentary democracy, something I disagree with fundamentally.

Am I just bitter at being “tricked” and making a fuss about nothing, or have other people had their appreciation of an artist/author sullied by knowing too much about them? 

Idea for a conceptual work of poetry entitled ‘Day’

ALL REAL CULTURE IS FREE

The poet rises at 08:00 one morning.
The poet sits down at a computer.
The poet commences automatic writing for 16 solid hours.
Toilet visits of up to 5 minutes are permitted on the hour.
Additionally, 15 minute breaks are set at 08:30, 13:30 and 18:30, so
that the poet may eat.
At all other times the poet must be typing. If a minute elapses without
a key being struck, the work is void.
At 00:00, the poet goes to bed.

The results are published unedited as a book entitled ‘Day’.

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