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‘The Time by the Sea’ by Ronald Blythe

The gist of this formed my monthly post on the Association of Christian Writers website, More Than Writers, but it is essentially a book review of a very unusual author, writing about other authors, musicians and artists, and life in Suffolk (England).  shingle2_300

The Time by the Sea is an account of how, in the nineteen fifties, author, Ronald Blythe, holed himself up in a so-called winter cottage in Thorpeness, Suffolk.   By morning, he wrote his novel (which never saw the light of day) and, in the afternoons, he took bracing walks along the shingle, battling against blustery North Sea winds.  On the Suffolk Coast, he encountered Ben(jamin Britten), Imo(gen Holst), Morgan (E M Forster) and Mervyn Peake, plus many other writers, painters and musicians unknown to me.  His appetite for the arts was all-consuming.  Blythe’s idea of heaven was to sit beside the grave of Edward Fitzgerald who edited and translated the Rubaiyat of Umar Khayyam, and read it.

Would our friends and families permit us to live as impoverished-writers-in-garrets now?  Would we allow our sons and daughters to do it?  The pressure to get a proper job nowadays is overarching.  Yet, Ronald Blythe got by, with occasional articles and stories being published, and working alongside the administrator for the Aldborough Festival – a general Festival dogsbody.  Snape Maltings has been destroyed by fire, so we need an alternative concert venue, in three weeks’ time.  Blytheborough Church would do, but maybe the vicar wouldn’t like it.  Send Ronnie in to talk to him.  (Ronnie did and ended up joining Blytheborough PCCOn another occasion, he got roped into becoming a churchwarden, when begging favours for the Festival.)  Millet paintings acquired on loan for the Festival, on the proviso that someone was in the room with them constantly?  Ronnie will do it.  Ronnie slept in a campbed in the Moot Hall at Aldborough for several weeks.)  Much later, Blythe would get a proper job, when he became ordained as a priest in the Church of England.

shinglebeach300The Aldeborough Festival set were Labour, immersed in nature and East Anglia, many of them gay, and ardent Rationalists (for that, read devout atheists).  That Blythe was understatedly Anglican, bewildered them.  Later, he would write Akenfield, a description of a fictional Suffolk village, a synthesis of his experience of all Suffolk villages.  Akenfield would be adapted for television, by Peter Hall, in 1974.  Although he has published fifty-two other books, Akenfield remains Blythe’s only commercial success, although he was writing The Word from Wormingford, part-devotional, part nature and history, for The Church Times until quite recently.  (This has now been purchased by The Canterbury Press.  It has no reviews on Google Books website.)

I became interested in Ronald Blythe when he led Evensong, based on George Herbert’s hymns and poetry, in one of the churches in our team, and because he lives in Wormingford (two villages from us).  He’s on the electoral roll of the polling station where I’m poll clerk, but, although he’s seen around and about, he’s never been in to vote.  He is in his mid-nineties now.  A writer’s life well lived?  Or what a waste of a man?

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Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018!

Thank you, Bronte’s Page Turners, for pin-pointing such wonderful source material for us hopeful historical novelists.

Brontë's Page Turners

Following our posts to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2016 and 2017, we’re back again for #IWD2018 with a bounty of books to explore woman’s place in the world.

Set in Rosenau, an isolated alpine farming community in Austria, Homestead by Rosina Lippi begins with a mysterious love letter – its intended recipient potentially being any one of a number of local ladies – and proceeds to recount the life of several village women, through short stories set between 1909 and 1977. These h(er)stories of ordinary women and their relationships, passions, conflicts, aspirations, frustrations et al, powerfully demonstrate how much women’s lives changed during the 20th century and how the darker side of its history crept into the most remote of their communities and lives, in particular through the impact of war (the story of a betrayal that brings the horror of the Nazi extermination camps to Rosenau broke…

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‘The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum by Fiona Lloyd

Cover art for Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum

Attrib Instant Apostle

You wanted to do something big for God since you became a Christian, but it’s difficult when you have three primary aged children.  Your life tends to be taken up with toddler group, Mum’s group at church, potties, creche, taking children to school and parties.  Becky is married to teacher Dave and has three children, Jennifer (aged nine and already anticipating teenager-dom), Adam (six) and Ellie (two).  When she tries to take a quiet time in the bathroom, she is interrupted after five minutes, because her six year old needs the loo.  She notes that this never happened when Jesus in the Bible when he went up a mountain to pray.

The story opens on Becky’s thirty-ninth birthday, feeling that she’s never going to have the opportunity to do anything significant.  For the first part of the book, which is written as a diary, there is an air of resignation in her entries, as household crisis follows household crisis.  She makes new year resolutions which fall flat.  Becky compares herself unfavourably with other members of her circle of friends, especially Helen, who is a perfect housewife and mother and a perfect Christian too.  When Becky looks after missionaries, Rupert and Liz, as a favour for the minister, she is impressed by their commitment to their project in Guatemala, and feels she herself could never do anything like that.  When she’s asked to stand at the front in church and talk about it, she nearly dies of fright.  As a reader, I’m starting to believe that Becky’s mission is to the world around her, to her family and friends, especially Annie with the non-sleeping baby, to whom Becky is extremely kind, but, suddenly, two-thirds into the story, we lurch forward.

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum concerns a largish group of ordinary people who attend one church, plus Becky’s unhelpful in-laws.  The same characters, well drawn and realistic, appear consistently, so we get to know them all well.  Fiona is, I know, drawing hugely from her own experience, of church and of motherhood.   Having been part of the toddler-group scene myself once, I know that there’s a whole soap opera going on there, but Fiona is the only writer I’m aware of who has written it.

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum is Fiona Lloyd’s first book.  I happen to know that its title was going to be ‘The Jesus on the Bus’.  If you want to know why, read it.  Instant Apostle is, of course, a Christian publishing group, and the Christian theme in this book is more overt than in any other Instant Apostle book I’ve read, but other people should be charmed by this honest attempt ‘to be a pilgrim’ (part-quote from John Donne).

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum is available from Instant Apostle.

‘Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife’ by Anne Boileau

nun_300At nine years old, Katharina Von Bora was in the way.  A tomboy, and not prepared to flatter her new stepmother, she is sent away to the school attached to the Marienthron Convent at Nimbschen.  From that point onwards, she was being shoehorned into joining the order as a nun and, accordingly, she becomes a novice at the age of fifteen.  What a convenient way to get rid of a troublesome child.

However, by 1523, when she is in her early twenties, Katharina, and several other younger nuns, are restless.  They’ve heard about Martin Luther’s revolutionary preaching in Wittenberg and they’re fascinated by their – illegal – copy of the Bible in German.  More than anything else, though, they want out.  They can’t bear the thought of being stuck in the convent for the rest of their lives.  So, they write to Luther himself and he replies, concocting a plan for them to be smuggled from the Marienthron Convent in empty herring barrels.  They arrive in his house in Wittenberg and then they have to reconnect with the real world.  Luther doesn’t know what to do with them.  He expects the girls to return to their families, but for Katharina, and her friend, Ave, there’s no chance of that.  Eventually, Luther and Katharina marry.. and I’m not giving away a spoiler as the book starts with Katharina married and pregnant.

The book is written as Katharina’s diary during the last weeks of her pregnancy.   It’s not just ‘based on a true story’.  It’s a biography, faultlessly researched .  Anne truly got into the hearts and minds of the people living in that part of Germany during the first part of the sixteenth century, their fears of disorder and chaos, that sometimes only Latin prayers would do and the very real social disorder caused by Luther’s preaching.

Katharina herself was an interesting main character, plucky, resourceful, resilient, yet consistent with her time.  Luther himself is also well-drawn, earthy, a man who makes jokes about farts and bowel movements, yet whose thunderous voice can fill a church and the hearts of those waiting outside.

Anne Boileau lives in Essex.  I know her under her real name, although I haven’t met her recently and she has no idea that I’m reviewing her book.  The last time I saw her she was delivering staff development on lesson planning.  A month ago, however, Anne came to talk to the St Andrew’s Church Book Club about Katharina Luther, although unfortunately I was too snowed under with work to attend.  Really sorry to have missed her.  An unputdownable book, about one of my favourite periods in history.

Rating:  4/5

Buy Katharine Luther:  Nun. Rebel. Wife. here.

‘Portrait of a Marriage’ by Nigel Nicolson

Nigel Nicolson paints an endearing portrait of the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  His viewpoint is that, despite many – mostly homosexual – affairs on both sides, and, after the first few years following their wedding, no action in the marital bed, the two were devoted, missing each other during their times apart, and valuing their love and union as the pivot in their lives.  All the time I was reading this book, I was wondering how much of a gloss this loyal son was applying, but he quotes from letters over decades and at length.  And the two remained together from 1911 to Vita’s death in 1962, which left Harold devastated, until his own death in 1968.  I’m persuaded that, despite everything – a lot of portrait is accurate.

Vita Sackville-West was born into the aristocratic Sackville family of Knole, Kent. Following her grandfather’s death, her (nuclear) family returned to Knole via a circuitous route.  Her mother was her grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, from a liaison with a Spanish dancer, Pepita, but her father inherited the very grand stately home through being the son of one of her grandfather’s brothers.  There was a court case – of course – and, this being the Sackville-Wests, a very colourful one.  Despite living in many other properties with Harold, including no Sissinghurst, where she built her amazing garden, Vita loved Knole with a passion.  In fact, on her wedding day, she almost didn’t get married because she couldn’t bear to leave Knole.

Vita Sackville-West wrote numerous novels and earns her living as a writer.  Harold also wrote, mostly factual books, fitting in how writing in between his high-profile career as a diplomat, which included being a secretary for the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War.  However what she is known for is her affairs with Violet Keppel and then Virginia Woolf.  The Violet affair is described in painstaking details, partly from Vita’s own diaries.  In the detail, we know and feel the pain and the conflict.  When Portrait of a Marriage was adapted for television, by  Penelope Mortimer, whom Nigel Nicolson describes as ‘somebody’s mother-in-law’, someone who had no time for ‘posh people’.  It is tempting to go for the juicy bit.  After all, sex is supposed to sell, isn’t it?  But this book is far deeper and more thoughtful than just sex.

I’m writing this on a train and Virgin Trains are letting me have only 15 minutes internet, so I’d better finish.  I’m stalling about the way I recommend books, so I’m changing the way I do it.  In future, I’m going to award stars, five being wonderful, one being awful.  For Portrait of a Marriage, I’m awarding FOUR.  It misses out on five because the end of the book, as Vita and Harold go into middle-age, drifts off a bit.   A very good read.

 

 

 

Book Reviews, Lack of

I try hSamuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_150ard to make my posts interesting, relevant, witty, topical and otherwise SEOgenic, but this one is going to be boring.  Writers spend so much time writing to please… no, charm… editors etc that we have sometimes to allow ourselves some space to be ourselves and let go.  Dr Johnson wrote that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money ‘  (Wikiquotes) but the truth is we don’t always.  To be spare you, however, this post will be short.

Back to the topic promised in the heading:  why no book reviews recently?  I can assure you that I haven’t stopped reading, nor have I spent over two weeks reading the last book posted up here.  I feel I’m writing too many book reviews and that, if I’m not careful, this will cease to be writing blog.  The other issue is that I haven’t read anything recently which I can give a positive review.  I wrote some time ago that I would be unstintingly honest in what I said about each book, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to pan another writer’s work – even the work of an established author.  I am just a scribbler (hardly a successful one), not an academic literary critic, who has spent years studying literature.  So my silence must speak for itself.

No, Dear Reader, I did not like what I saw:  involved and convoluted sentences (containing brackets) – and em dashes;  spelling and grammar mistakes; and words omitted.   Aren’t books proofread anymore?  Characters lacked… er… character, or were wooden caricatures.  Often none of the  characters in a whole novel were likeable, although every one contained some interesting insights.  Plots were muddled and unconvincing, ending far too quickly – suddenly, everything was all right again – although descriptive passages in all of them were well-written.   Next Tuesday, I’m going to see ‘The History Boys’ at The Mercury Theatre in Colchester, so I’m going to read the play first.   I may – or may not – write a review.