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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Recently I spent a few days in Cambridge, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I lived there while I was doing my degree, and I still feel more at home there than any other city.

I think it’s a combination of the beautiful green spaces, the many interesting little independent cafes and shops, and the huge skies and windswept flatness of the Fens that makes me love Cambridge. I especially love its remoteness and slightly austere atmosphere, the gothic architecture and the freezing winters, all of which prevent it from being just a pretty tourist town.

As I went there mainly just to relax, I spent quite a lot of time sitting in the sun in parks or cafes. The cafe highlights are Indigo’s (a tiny but lovely place with good coffee, hidden away down a side street opposite King’s), CB1’s (a cosy, relaxed internet cafe full of books to peruse), and the Rainbow Cafe (a warm and friendly vegetarian restaurant that serves truly delicious food). It was really nice to walk up to Mill Road (where CB1’s is to be found), an interesting street just a little beyond the city centre, with some of the more unusual shops and restaurants; in a way, it’s the equivalent of Cowley Road in Oxford.

I also sat by the river in my old college…

…looked up at the window of my old room…

…went for a gorgeous sunny morning walk along the Backs…

…and wandered round the Fitzwilliam Museum admiring its architecture, paintings and mummified Egyptian cats.

Now I just have to plan when my next visit to Cambridge will be.

 

Thousand Cranes is a Japanese novel from the 1950s. It begins when a young man, Kikuji, attends a tea ceremony at the invitation of Chikako, the former mistress of his father. While there, he meets Mrs Ota, another lover of his father, and her daughter, Fumiko. Kikuji is also embarrassed to realise that Chikako has arranged the ceremony in order for him to meet Miss Inamura, a beautiful girl whom Chikako hopes he will marry, and who is carrying a cloth decorated with the pattern of a thousand cranes. However, despite his attraction to Miss Inamura, Kikuji is equally fascinated with Mrs Ota and her daughter and, rather surprisingly, becomes involved in a relationship with Mrs Ota.

This opening scene at the tea ceremony is orchestrated by the manipulative Chikako (who I found a memorable and very unlikeable character, as she is so interfering and tactless). It brings all the characters together and sets in motion the story of destruction that follows. What then happens between Kikuji, Mrs Ota and Fumiko seems to be destined, the result of a family curse. Miss Inamura, the girl with the thousand crane handkerchief, is seen by Kikuji as pure and clean, untouched by the histories that affect Mrs Ota and Chikako. However, he resists Chikako’s attempts to arrange their marriage. I felt that Kikuji seemed to be drawn to the complexities of the past and the unresolved relationships of his father, rather than wishing to start again with his own life.

The idea of inheritance arises again and again in the novel, and I think this is symbolised in the tea bowls that used to belong to Kikuji’s father. At the end of the novel, two of the bowls seem to represent male and female, Kikuji’s father and Mrs Ota, or Kikuji himself and Fumiko. The book suggests how treasured objects can be handed down the generations and that passions can also be passed on from parent to child in a warped version which causes guilt and regret. It is noticeable that the generations keep blurring together; Kikuji feels similar to his father, while Fumiko often reminds him of her mother.

Thousand Cranes is sparsely written and understated but at the same time contains moments of strong emotion or violence. It is full of images that are at times ethereal and delicate, at times sinister. Although it evokes an ancient, traditional world, it also brings in aspects of contemporary 1950s life, and I found this an unusual combination. Yasunari Kawabata’s writing creates a melancholy, poetic feeling in its descriptions of memories of a lost love or moments of natural beauty. I’d certainly read other books by the same author.

(I read this for the Japanese Literature Book Group at In Spring it is the Dawn).

 

Going away is my only real talent. Betty’s right: I’m a reluctant performer…not a performer at all. I need to go away so the song can play itself.

Paradoxical Undressing is a memoir by Kristin Hersh, the lead singer and guitarist from Throwing Muses, based on a diary she kept at the age of eighteen. She was very bright as a teenager, forming a band at fourteen and going to university at fifteen. The book is about one year in her life, around the time her band started to become well-known and were offered a record deal, when she began to suffer from mental illness and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then bipolar. It is about her life as a musician, her creativity and the way she experiences the world, and explores in a very personal way the boundaries between mental illness and artistic talent.

First, I have to tell you that this book is very funny. Despite what you may expect given the subject matter, it’s not miserable or self-pitying in any way; it’s above all an amusing read written in an idiosyncratic and passionate voice. From her time living in an empty apartment along with constantly arguing tribes of painters and musicians and a mysterious Animal none of them have ever seen, to an art therapy class full of hippies she attends at university, this book is full of entertaining scenes. Her observations and her turn of phrase really made me laugh.

It is also quite inspiring because, even as a teenager, Kristin Hersh was so dedicated to her work and sure of her own vision. I have actually never heard any of her music and just thought the book seemed interesting from what I read about it – both because of the story of her recovery from mental illness, and because of the title’s meaning and its relation to performing as a very shy person:

There is a phenomenon known as ‘paradoxical undressing’ that affects those dying of hypothermia. Freezing to death, people tear off their clothes as they’re overcome by imaginary heat. Lost in blizzards, on snowy mountains, in frozen forests, their bodies become convinced that they’re burning, not freezing.

Honestly, I’m so shy that I find most contact with people deeply unsettling, but songs – the kind alive in the air, injected with evil from the Doghouse – mean that I’m burning with sound, not frozen with fear. ‘Cause they’re my way down to where we all are.

I didn’t ask to go down to where we all are, but as it turns out I’m a member of a deeply social species in which the only truths worth speaking are the most naked. In other words, I had planned on wearing all my clothes into those freezing woods – songs ask me to wear none.

As I’m quite shy myself, I found it really interesting to read about how a person who already often feels uncomfortable with others would choose to perform in such an emotional and intense way on stage. Of course, some shy and reserved people may have a conflicting desire for attention or be happier performing in certain, very specific circumstances than they are socialising, and some apparently extrovert perfomers are probably privately quite shy. However, it seems as if, in Kristin Hersh’s case, the expression of the song itself is what matters to her, not that she (as a person) is communicating with the audience. If she manages to lose herself, the song is expressed through her, whether the audience is there or not. In fact, she finds it easier to pretend the audience is not there, and, just to make this easier, both she and the drummer take out their contact lenses so they can’t see clearly while they’re performing.

Not seeing is a very important part of playing music for me. I stare into space and get lost in a warm, fuzzy sensory deprivation tank of sound. No audience, no club, just my best friend: noise.

Around this time, Kristin begins to experience frightening hallucinations and becomes isolated and out of touch with the world. She describes how she heard music constantly and couldn’t escape from it, suffered from terrible insomnia, and saw snakes and bees which she later describes as sound-images, suggesting that her illness is linked to her creativity. The music in her head seems to have been caused by an accident some time previously in which she was knocked off her bike by a woman in a car (who she sees as either a good or a bad witch), experienced concussion and was given the gift or curse of hearing songs. During her breakdown the music seems to become more intrusive and unbearable. She also sees these songs as evil or coming from an evil part of her, which she doesn’t control. However (and this is where the book is interesting about the madness/creativity boundary), once she has recovered from this extended manic episode, she is able to stop taking her medication and her symptoms seem to become less threatening, even though they are still there to some extent. She begins to see them as part of her as a musician rather than something that threatens to ruin her life.

One scene from the book I liked was when she went to see a psychiatrist who was very perceptive and was the first person who thought her explanation of the ‘snake’ in her bag as a ‘sound-image’ made sense. I liked what he said to her: ‘Art and dreams are very closely related and they’re worth listening to, as long as your hold on reality remains intact.’ It’s also interesting that she finds the sympathy and attention of the doctors to be a more important contribution than medication to her recovery:

This may be the real medicine they offer and it’s powerful. I watch them administer both their drugs and their kindness and the kindness seems just as effective to me, if not more so. Chemicals in the form of medication are interesting, ham-fisted tools, but humans themselves engage in myriad processes we haven’t yet measured. We really are a deeply social species.

On Thursday, I went to London to see a singer I love, Mark Kozelek, play at the Union Chapel in Islington. Whenever I walk down Upper Street, I always remember back to when I lived in London and it was one of my favourite places to wander on my lunch break. It was perhaps a little quieter than usual but there were no signs of any rioting, only groups of policemen every few yards and outside every pub.

The Union Chapel is a beautiful and cavernous building, with very high ceilings and stained glass windows up in the darkness. I had been there once before, to see Wildbirds and Peacedrums perform with a choir, which was also a very exciting experience for me. Mark Kozelek was perhaps even more of an event, because I have been a fan for several years but had never been to one of his gigs before. The chapel was lit only with candles and some low lighting on the stage, but quite early on, Mark asked for the lights to be turned down even further, which definitely added to the atmosphere. There was no support, so he came on stage early and played for about two hours. I was so happy to be in the same room as one of my favourite singers, hearing his incredibly emotional and moving voice.

The setlist consisted mainly of his more recent music, from Admiral Fell Promises, along with some songs by a band called Desert Shore, with which Mark has been singing. He also played some quite funny songs he’d written while on tour. This was definitely the most unexpected part of the evening, as I wouldn’t usually associate Mark Kozelek with comedy. Considering the songs were quite disparaging about various English cities and MK fans, they received a good response from the audience. Mark was fairly chatty and I felt as if he really wanted to create a connection with the audience, asking questions and trying to start a conversation, which was quite difficult at times considering everyone was fairly quiet and ‘polite’. For better or worse, the Union Chapel isn’t the kind of venue where drunken exchanges with the musicians tend to happen, but I thought the atmosphere was nice, very attentive and absorbed in the music.

Mark’s guitar playing is very expressive and works perfectly with his voice. The best moments for me were the songs I already knew well and loved: Heron Blue, Katy Song and Mistress. Actually, my one small complaint about the gig is that (even though I understand why this doesn’t happen) I would have liked it if Mark had played some more older songs, the ones I’d liked since way back.

I first heard Red House Painters (Mark Kozelek’s band in the 90s) in the summer after my second year at university. I was teaching English at summer schools in Italy, and had just got together with my ex-boyfriend, who was also teaching there. My boyfriend had to go home a week earlier than me, since his contract had ended, and so he left me with some CDs he’d brought, one of which was Down Colorful Hill. When I felt lonely, I listened to the CDs at night with headphones, in the room I shared with the other English teachers in an old house in the countryside, and that was how I began to fall in love with Red House Painters. When, later on, I heard all RHP’s other records, Rollercoaster became my favourite album and maybe still is. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve rediscovered Down Colorful Hill. To me, the songs 24, Medicine Bottle, and the title track are all incredibly sad and beautiful.

So I would have liked to hear these old songs played live, even though maybe that time has passed for Mark Kozelek. Despite this, I really loved the gig as it was and feel lucky to have been there.

 

Picture: Brassai, ‘Chat au rideau de dentelle’ (1937)

Over the past couple of days I’ve re-read L.M. Montgomery’s Emily trilogy, some of my favourite childhood reading. Unfortunately I had to read them online as I didn’t have my ancient Puffin copies to hand – the dark-haired girl in the photographs on the Puffin covers was definitely Emily to me, gradually growing older and more elegant (or maybe just changing her hairstyle) from Emily of New Moon (with the pink cover), Emily Climbs (yellow) to Emily’s Quest (blue – yes, I can still remember after about twenty years!).

It’s difficult to convey how much I loved L.M. Montgomery as a child, to the extent that I even occasionally dreamed about her books. I particularly loved The Story Girl and its sequel, The Golden Road, but the Emily books were my favourites. Reading the series again didn’t disappoint me. I think it’s because the reader enters such a vividly atmospheric, detailed and fascinating world, with a surprisingly gothic element. This world is always seen from the imaginative viewpoint of Emily, conveyed through her journals or just in the way her experiences are related. She is able to see intense wonder in the world around her, and I used to love the references to ‘the flash’, a kind of visionary experience Emily has, which happens very suddenly at moments of beauty and mystery.

Emily of New Moon opens dramatically with the death of Emily’s father from consumption, and her move to New Moon where she is brought up rather begrudgingly (at least at first) by Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy. Emily wants to be an author, and her determination to write and struggles to develop her talent are a major part of the books. Her friends Ilse, Perry and Teddy are also very talented in their different ways – Teddy is an aspring artist, Perry a lawyer and Ilse an actress. L.M. Montgomery definitely chooses to write about characters who are unusually brilliant and undoubtedly idealised, but they are always flawed and interesting at the same time. The life of Blair Water, the town where Emily lives, is also full of various eccentric people, who seem to have lives filled with drama and romance. The characters all have their own complexities, passions and secrets, making them much more intriguing and adult than characters in other children’s fiction.

Emily of New Moon also introduces Dean Priest, a mysteriously damaged and compelling character who will play a major part in the heroine’s future; in fact he claims ownership over her life, after saving her from falling over a cliff whilst out walking one day (this episode gives you something of the flavour of the books…). Dean and Emily have a very intense friendship. He seems to fall in love with her when she is only twelve and waits for her to grow up so that he can marry her. I found Dean one of the most interesting characters in the series; he is cynical and intelligent, and somehow has more reality than Teddy, his rival for Emily’s love. I can see why it would be bad for Emily to marry Dean; he is very possessive, and he unfairly criticises Emily’s literary work because he fears it will take her away from him (tragically leading Emily to burn The Seller of Dreams!). And yet there is something in the novels that draws the reader (or just me!) to hope that Emily and Dean will be together. He is a romantic and I can’t help feeling sorry for his sadness and bitter disappointment in life. I wonder what will happen to him at the end of Emily’s Quest, but can’t believe he could find any happiness in life after losing Emily.

Emily Climbs, which follows Emily throughout her teenage years and high school days, has a similar charm and atmosphere to Emily of New Moon. However, I found Emily’s Quest, which takes her from seventeen into her 20s, to be darker and more melancholy. In this book, Emily experiences years of unhappiness and failure. She suffers illness which robs her of her desire to write. At certain points, her journals refer to depression and the desire for suicide. Although there is a happy ending for Emily, she has to wait a long time for it, and she is no longer the romantic idealist she was as a young girl. I read in one of Montgomery’s letters that she enjoyed writing the first two books, but didn’t feel the same about Emily’s Quest and felt it would not be a success. I think this final book does have a different atmosphere and is less joyful, but I think it is just as interesting as the earlier two. I don’t know if it’s really a children’s book; the age range the books are aimed at is difficult to identify, as they are both whimsical and quite dark and adult at times. I enjoyed the series as a child and I enjoyed them at 29, so maybe it doesn’t matter too much. In the end, the allure of the Emily books comes from their unusual and talented heroine, one who I’d find happiness in reading about at any age.

 

The past month has been busy, and full of endings of one kind and another, including the last day of my job as my contract came to an end. Some good things too: performing in a concert on a beautiful summer evening, and going away with my choir for a weekend, which is one of my favourite things to do: days full of singing, escaping my familiar surroundings and spending time exploring another city.

I read a couple of very different memoirs, which reminded me how much I enjoy autobiographies and that I want to seek out more, especially as I am thinking about my own life rather a lot (being unemployed and directionless tends to have that effect). One of these memoirs was An Education by the journalist Lynne Barber. I’d already seen and liked the film adaptation, but was interested to find out that the episode focused on by the film (Lynne Barber’s teenage affair with a middle-aged con man and the weird way her parents encouraged the relationship) was only one chapter of the book. Her childhood, her career as a writer, her time at Oxford University and her relationship with her husband were also covered, all in a very witty style. What made the book so entertaining to me is Lynne Barber’s personality, her writing voice, and the insight into people that made her such a successful interviewer. One thing I found interesting is that she dislikes her speaking voice, the elocution-lesson accent she acquired in childhood and her tendency to waffle, and feels that her writing expresses her true self far better. She is definitely very honest, both about herself and about her opinions of other people. If an author is completely candid, it makes an autobiography much more compelling, and An Education is definitely the kind of page-turner you can read in one long train journey.

I also read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami, a memoir about his passion for marathon running. Despite having no interest in running whatsoever and viewing the joggers who regularly speed past me on the streets with complete incomprehension, I find whatever Murakami writes interesting, and the book doesn’t focus exclusively on marathons (thankfully for me), instead using the topic as inspiration for digressions about the author’s life, personality and his writing career. I found Murakami’s writing quite funny and also surprisingly honest in this book – it felt a little like reading his diary. There are stories of running the original marathon route in Greece, followed by magazine reporters, and a ‘super-marathon’ of over 60 miles (which I found interesting to read about because it seems such an extreme thing to do). The subject of running became of more interest to me, mainly because of the discipline and self-control involved in training. I liked the part when Murakami brought up the popular image of a writer (such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of his favourite authors) as self-destructive and dissolute, leading a very undisciplined life, and how this is related to genius and to burn-out. Murakami’s life is the opposite and people apparently often wonder how he can continue to write novels leading such a controlled and healthy existence! But Murakami seems to believe that the healthier the author’s body is, the greater his ability to venture into dangerous territory in his writing and to go on exploring it without destroying himself. It was definitely interesting to learn more about the real life and character of an author who always seems quite mysterious to me from his novels.