JUDY KRAVIS

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Thursday, 23 July 2020

A friend was telling me he read one book with the first cup of coffee, another with breakfast, a third with the second cup of coffee, and the fourth book before he went to sleep, not much of the last one, he admitted. There were two John Pilger, an unfinished Camus, Le Premier Homme, and I can't remember the fourth.

Why not continue with the same book throughout? Because, the day does not proceed evenly, it is not a continuum of moments; the first coffee is different from the second; then during breakfast, everything changes; while the demands made on a book read before sleep are kin with the need for dreams. Only when you've read something, anything, when you've gone down sentences as tunnels, as undergrowth, ridden sentences as clouds, as paths through clouds, through hay; only when you've inhabited sentences as that afternoon you inhabited land and sea and the old aches, the timeless unresolvable, the western sky, can you go to sleep.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Our first canoe trip in many years, a short one, up the lake to the pigeon house, where we swam among small fry and picnicked and dozed and I read Elizabeth David, I'll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon, one of the Penguin 60 series from 1995, a small book perfect for the front pocket of a rucksack and the middle of the warmest afternoon in a while. She is very good on picnics, ending with Osbert Sitwell, who, she says, has described perhaps the perfect meal:
the fruits of the month, cheese with the goaty taste of mountains upon it, and if possible bilberries, apples, raw celery, a meal unsophisticated and pastoral.
On a docky stony beach — and the lake has hardly any beaches this year, the water level is so high, in keeping with the fear that has seized everyone — we had cheese, lettuce, butter, mayonnaise, brinjal pickle between slices of home bread, rye, wheat, seeds, molasses and long habit, with the year's first cucumber plus a flask of Bengal Spice tea with a little honey.

The docks came in handy for a horsefly bite; horseflies always find me; I kept the dock leaves on the spot behind my knee with the rubber band that had gone around the sandwiches. As the bite cooled and P was falling asleep I read out loud from the Normandy chapter of Elizabeth David an account of a feast written up in the mid-nineteenth century by one George Musgrave:
He watched a couple (on their honeymoon, he thought) on board the river steamer at Rouen consuming a midday meal of soup, fried mackerel, beefsteak, French beans and fried potatoes, an omelette fines herbes, a fricandeau of veal with sorrel, a roast chicken garnished with mushrooms, a hock of ham served upon spinach. There followed an apricot tart, three custards, and an endive salad, which were the precursors of a small roast leg of lamb, with chopped onion and nutmeg sprinkled upon it. Then came coffee and two glasses of absinthe and eau dorée, a Mignon cheese, pears, plums, grapes and cakes. Two bottles of Burgundy and one of Chablis were emptied between eleven and one o'clock.
I had to read it out loud again when P woke up.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

This is the second time I have read Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. An easy read in one way, for a native in summertime mode, but, out of the naïveté of the children's adventures — they are children, they are pretending in the early twentieth century when pretending was a way to pass a summer and try out a few practical skills — out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, questions flow: where are these adventures now and the places in which to have adventures, where is the trust, where is the groundedness?

The natives these days are wrecked with doing right by their children, which doesn't include sewing them a tent out of light canvas if they want to go camping on an island in a lake, if they could think of camping, or canvas, or a lake. Natives are not natives, they are consumers.

I didn't read Swallows and Amazons as a child. I was thrown by the middle child who was called Titty; she was the one who chose Robinson Crusoe for the ship's library, and who, with her creator, Arthur Ransome, thought the only thing wrong with Robinson Crusoe was the end.
But who would wave a flag to be rescued if they had a desert island of their own? That was the thing that spoilt Robinson Crusoe. In the end he came home. There never ought to be an end.
In the end it is Titty, whose name so embarrassed me when I was twelve that I couldn't read the book, who resonates now.  Chapter XX, 'Titty Alone' was the moment when I gathered myself as reader and participant. She begins by keeping a log. Robinson Crusoe kept a log. She wrote in the style of a native, her mother.
"Twenty-five years ago this day I was wrecked on this desolate place. Wind south-west. Sea slight. Fog at dawn. Met a polite bird. I saw him flying underwater. I found a native canoe on the shore. The native was friendly. Her name was Man Friday. In her country there are kangaroos. Also bears. It was a joy to me in my lonely state to hear a human voice, though savage. Man Friday cooked our dinner. Pemmican cakes with tea. She went away in her canoe to the mainland where the natives are. She ..."
Able-seaman Titty could think of no more say. She had caught up with herself.
As a diarist I understand this. There's only so much you can say. Events will overtake. The other Swallows will come back to the island, with the Amazons and maybe Captain Flint. The weather will change. A battle will be arranged. A storm will come up. Treasure will be found. This book will be written.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

How effortlessly you inhabit my life, said George Craig in a letter circa 1972. I didn't know quite what he meant but I was pleased and it was a model, a paradigm for much else, later. Writers inhabit my life effortlessly. As I came upstairs one evening, a few weeks ago, I had a Grace Paley moment. Whatever adjustments life was making just then, Grace Paley was the woman for them. I didn't need to read her; she was there.

And in July, a broody season, the field not yet cut, bird's foot trefoil showing up in new places, vetches and hawkbit moving down the slope, Virginia Woolf's Between the acts comes into focus. I read it, that is, technically that's what I'm doing. But it feels like setting a calque of an uneasy leisured england on the meadow I walk through and stare at every day, leisured and uneasy.

Reading, like walking, is associative. Pointz Hall, where Between the acts happens, in 1940, gave rise to a pseudonym I used once: Katherine Poyntz. The first novel I wrote, On foot the velvet odyssey, echoed the pageant of Between the acts as well as a performance I saw at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985, in which Europe shuffled west, puppets and humans alike.

So, when I say I have been reading Between the acts slowly for the past week or so, often at night, I am also adjusting my life to its past. Counting meadow brown butterflies and grasshoppers.
Suddenly the tune stopped. The tune changed. A waltz was it? Something half known, half not. The swallows danced it. Round and round, in and out they skimmed. Real swallows. Retreating and advancing. And the trees, O the trees, how gravely and sedately like senators in council, or the spaced pillars of some cathedral church....