Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Novels we read as teenagers or young adults have the most incredible power to capture the flavour of those years. When I resort to nostalgia and run through those personal icons in the pub or at parties I'm delighted to stumble onto common ground - Camus, of course, Fournier, Plath, Hughes, Gunn - but one name is rarely recognised: Rumer Godden.

I read her novel Greengage Summer as a teenager and the emotional power of that story has stayed with me. I wanted to buy it for my daughter this Christmas. The copy I read was my mother's, so I don't have my own to lend her. But my local Waterstones doesn't stock it because apparently she doesn't sell. This is the writer of Black Narcissus.

It wasn't a day for ranting....I had a list as long as my arm to get through and it's hard enough, isn't it, wading through the mountains of rubbish in a bookshop nowadays. There was a time when I could engage. I remember once being in Waterstones in the King's Road and was shocked to discover there was nothing by Jorge Amado on the shelves, while Archer took up several feet of space. The conversation with a very snotty assistant began with the usual brush off, the same as I received for Godden - "oh, he probably doesn't sell...." So, having time on my hands, I asked if he'd search what was in print.

I watched his face change as he scrolled down the list of Amado's work. There was an "oh" moment. Yes, Brazil's leading writer (who was then alive)......whose work summed up a continent, the late 20th century, who examines religion, relationships, contemporary life with such humanity and humour......didn't even rate a single title in the As.

How can booksellers claim something doesn't sell when they don't even give us the chance of buying it? Of course, poets know all about this. How many times do we hear that lame excuse - poetry doesn't sell? As my kids might's not on the shelves, it's not promoted, it's not given that little handwritten tag saying buy this because our staff like it.

But, back to Godden. I pick up second hand copies of her books whenever I see them and have a couple of 1940s hardbacks - War Economy Standard - of The River, and A Fugue in Time, the story of a house. When I found them I felt as if I'd discovered a piece of fine porcelain. It reminded me of days when I used to visit a small secondhand shop in the village of Compton with my mother, turning stuff over for the marks underneath. Godden's name was there on the shelf!

This is how A Fugue in Time ends (like a poem, and I hope I'm not transgressing any copyright law here, but the passage is so beautiful it has to be read in its entirety because it leaves the reader with a true sense of our place in time, and gently, so you can imagine it being spoken, the voice quiet and measured. Is there something of Dylan Thomas in this?).....

"And the house continues in its tickings, its rustlings, its creakings; the ashes will fall in its grates, its door-bells ring; trains will pass under it and their sounds vibrate; footsteps will run up the stairs, along passages; dusters will be shaken; carpets beaten, beds turned down and dishes washed; windows will be opened and shut; blinds pulled up, pulled down; the tap will run and be silent; the lavatory will be flushed; the piano will be played and books taken down from the shelf; brushes will be lifted up and laid down again on the dressing-table; the medicine bottle will be shaken, and flowers arranged in a vase; children will perhaps play spillikins, and perhaps they will not; but mice, for mice will be mice and their fashions do not change, mice will run in the wainscot and the family will set traps for them. "In me you exist," says the house."

She is a star, an original. A website dedicated to her says 2007 is her Centenary Year "watch the press for new editions of the books." I guess, since I rarely do much except flick through the books sections of the papers because they're too jam-packed with celebrity nonsense, I might have missed something.

Godden wrote novels, biographies, children’s books and poetry. She was born at Eastbourne in 1907 and died in Dumfriesshire in 1998. Her last book, “Cromartie versus The God Shiva Acting through the Government of India” was published by Macmillan in November 1997.

The same website includes a quote by Godden from her autobiography A House with Four Rooms, which I am determined to get hold of and read..."everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person"."

One of the most brilliantly expressed thoughts on writing and living I've read. Oh, and apparently she loved dancing.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My bank account has been unhealthy to say the least, but it's even unhealthier now because someone has been buying stuff in the States using my money and a cobbled together imitation of my card. My bank's fraud department spotted it, but not before several hundred quid had already been spent. This is the second time it's happened. The first time I didn't get anything back, but I guess all the banks are being vigilant at the moment because of the child benefits and driver's license cock ups.

My address has been used twice, too, to my knowledge, maybe more, by different men - one for a Sky subscription and the other for a Virgin phone. Isn't it strange that these institutions can allow people to use an address without proof of residence? I found out about the Sky man because Sky magazines kept arriving in his name. Eventually I managed to talk to someone, who said there was nothing wrong with anyone using an address they didn't live at. Yes? Sorry? The magazines stopped, but who knows if this man is still passing my home off as his.

The second man's name appeared, too, on a Virgin magazine, I think. Anyway, no longer polite, I opened whatever came through the post and there were details of his new phone account. Virgin did eventually take it seriously. But it was an interesting experience because both times I rang my local police. Oh, madam, there's nothing wrong with that. There's no evidence of fraud, I was told, by various patronising and rather irritated individuals. Apparently fraud only counts if someone's taken money from you.

So do I conclude from this that I can pick and choose an address to use whenever I'm asked for one and there's no offence committed? And lying about your identity or where you live isn't a crime? Okay......just so we all know the rules.

With that in mind, I think it's about time to concoct another identity. I was, briefly, once someone else. I was lent a swipe card to get into a staff loo in a very secure building. It was all above board. But now I think I'd like to be another person, with another address, for a bit longer. Who needs Second Life or virtual avatars when I could pass myself off as a mountaineer from Nepal or a dressmaker in Paris?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I'd like to be a visiting lecturer, I think it would be fun. There was once a man who dropped in to sort out oil rigs. His name was Red something....he was American, a troubleshooter and he, obviously, arrived in a helicopter. I'm not suggesting in any way that I'd like to travel that way. Apart from the noise, environmental damage and the cost, it would be a little too ostentatious for me. I'd like to visit by train, ideally, and be put up in a small but comfortable hotel with a good view of sea, rolling hills, mountains, a French chateau or Georgian crescent.

I'd happily lecture on anything. I'm quite used to picking up information quickly. At one time in my life I was nearly an expert in equal opportunities employment legislation. I could even quote laws and dates. But that kind of expertise dates very quickly. I was briefly an expert on the history of seatbelts and retail design. I knew quite a lot about organic cotton and fairtrade in the 80s, even the kinds of pesticides use on cotton. Today, snippets from a report I proof-read about methane and landfill gas kept coming back to me.

Mostly, I think I'd like to lecture on daily life and how to spend time without sticking to routine or a ten point plan. I was once asked, by an inspiring maverick businessman, how to encourage his staff to waste time. He picked up quite quickly I was good at that. We used to spend hours talking about nothing in particular, never bored. My lectures would include quotes from my neighbours, maybe photos of people mending cars or fences, a list of jobs I start but don't finish and a long justification for why my hall and landing haven't been decorated 13 years after moving in.

Or perhaps a lecture could incorporate a really random element and everyone attending could put a subject in a hat. I would pick one at random and waffle. I have yet to work out a reason for anyone inviting me to be a visiting lecturer on this basis. I may need an impressive CV or a profile. I may need to persuade influential friends to organise a conference and invite me as a speaker. I'd like to be able to command a large fee. I wonder if I could pretend my poetry books were not poetry at all. One could be an expert analysis of coastal defences in Morocco, another a thesis on social interaction and body language. Then there's the north-south debate represented by the growing conditions of different tree species and the changing landscape of religious belief. That might do it.