Friday 28 July 2023

Circus Train by Joan Selby-Lowndes

Gertie gave me Circus Train by Joan Selby-Lowndes for Christmas, 1958. I wrote my name on the flyleaf. I was impressed someone had thought about me enough to choose this, and read with respect and eagerness the story of running away to sea and then travelling with the circus, being chinese and having acrobatics bred into you, the fluidity and the stillness. From very young they can all hold and then flip their bodies with grace, it's natural, it's a way of dealing with world wars and starvation. Balance and interdependence. Onwardness and otherness. Encountering that at age eleven was electric.

Joan Selby-Lowndes has little online life except for several portraits in the National Portrait Gallery. Her writing too, is pre-motor car. She could have trusted more the tale recounted live to her. Kai Yong from China, who went to sea, then learned how to spin plates, entered the circus life, married Joanna from Germany, and had children who later formed a troupe of artistes, the Yong Sisters and Brothers, spanning China, Germany, France, England, America. There were long separations, deep privations. Joan Selby-Lowndes filled in the history around the tale of Kai Yong and his family like blue poster paint for the sky and black for world wars. 


Tuesday 25 July 2023

The Greek Sources

My friend Noreen back in the day liked to get up at six, have a glass of grape juice and check the Greek sources. She said it with intensity and conviction. I felt excluded but pleased. That anyone should do this, say this.

Reading bits of Plutarch in the early evening recalls Noreen. I start to know what a source might be. The speech of a society two thousand years ago. In the infancy of looking at yourself. Plutarch's Lives are Parallel Lives. Greece and Rome. The glory that was Greece, the splendour that was Rome. I read all of the life of Lycurgus and the beginning of Demetrius. Simple moral certitudes which don't follow through any more. 

I read the beginning of the life of Demetrius, only because my boyfriend was Demetrius in the school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (I was Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, my brother was Puck). The art of medicine, the art of music, must consider disease and noise. 

These arts below no praise on that innocence which boasts an entire ignorance of vice. In their reckoning, it is rather an absurd simplicity to be ignorant of these things, which every man that is disposed to live virtuously should make it his particular care to know.

I get up at eight, after mint tea, and check the Inniscarra sources. 

One of the big aspens fell up at the pond though there was little wind, knocking into a myrtle and a smaller aspen, happily missing the eucryphia and the snowdrop tree. The builders, Finbarr, Mick, Will and Nathan from Normandy, plus Ambrose, heritage joiner, occasionally, are renewing the new room twenty-seven years on. And the greenhouse. Talk runs around lead troughs and glazing bars. I spray the dust off the tomatoes after they've gone. 

Sunday 23 July 2023

Plutarch's Lives — Lycurgus

'Of Lycurgus, the lawgiver, we have nothing to relate that is certain and uncontroverted', wrote Plutarch two thousand years ago. My edition of Plutarch, marbled and leather-bound, translated by the Langhorne brothers in England in the eighteenth century, has a simplicity, a clarity born, perhaps of something similar to a novelist's wishful thinking. Lycurgus was a designer of ancient Sparta. The education of youth was the greatest and most glorious work of a lawgiver, he said. He went to strenuous lengths.

A second and bolder political enterprise of Lycurgus was a new division of the lands. For he found a prodigious inequality, the city overcharged with many indigent persons who had no land, and the wealth centred in the hands of the few. Determined, therefore, to root out the evils of insolence, envy, avarice, and luxury, and those distempers of a state still more inveterate and fatal—I mean poverty and riches—he persuaded them to cancel all former divisions of land and to make new ones, in such manner that they might be perfectly equal in their possessions and way of living. 

In the late nineteenth century, William Morris read Plutarch. News From Nowhere is saturated with  ancient greece. In the early twenty-first century, where News From Nowhere was set, where we now are, stressing and steaming in late capitalism when William Morris had us bucolic along the river by now, gathering for haymaking with comely folk in well-wrought clothes, having done away with money and politics.

Lycurgus minted iron money and luxury died away of itself, replaced by simple food and lots of exercise. No unnecessary production. Joy in workmanship. Les arts décoratifs. Healthy activity in leisure time. Reading and conversation. Common sense in 1930s Europe. Lycurgus as written by Plutarch, translated in the late eighteenth century, read by William Morris in the late nineteenth century, feeds into my history. As well as a child of Hitler I am a child of common sense. 

It was not, however, the principal design of Lycurgus that this city should govern others, but he considered its happiness, like that of a private man, as flowing from virtue and self-consistency; he therefore so ordered and disposed it, that by the freedom and sobriety of its inhabitants, and their having a sufficiency within themselves, its continuance might be the more secure.

Saturday 15 July 2023

Agua Viva: Taylor Swift, Natalia Ginzburg, Clarice Lispector

This week I read a piece in the New Yorker about a Taylor Swift concert in a football stadium and how each of the audience felt she was personally in touch with their lives, each with her twinkling bracelet, her individual sparkle that came with the entrance ticket. 

I started Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. The Brazilian singer Cazuza read Agua Viva as Bob Dylan read Rimbaud's Illuminations. One hundred and eleven times. Though Bob Dylan probably wasn't counting.

Agua Viva sounds like lively water, living water, water of life. In Brazil agua viva first of all means jellyfish. Jelly is the living agua in the water, less a fish than a shape to catch the light. And this is what Clarice Lispector wanted to capture. Her word, I think. To capture the present. She worked on Agua Viva for several years, under different titles (Beyond Thought: Monologue with Life and Loud Object) trying to get her writing in step with her life. Proceeding by accretion, boredom, urgency. breathing. 

Jellyfish are one of the fastest-growing species left to us, multiplied by our pillage and pollution of the waters around us, from which we once crawled. Jellyfish have few predators left. We have eaten them all.

Monday 10 July 2023

Inside Outside

On Sunday morning, at the little church in Sneem, the day after the launch of our video, five people came into the church, a husband and wife, her brother and a small woman. The funeral of a son had been held there some years before. He was twenty-nine. One or two of them were bikers. There was conversation around Royal Enfield Bullets and Interceptors. We encouraged them to sit down and watch Inside  Outside, with music from La Traviata. They sat quiet, absorbing the filling and pausing of the purple net curtain, the doom and despair of Alfredo and Violetta. It's peaceful, said the small woman. Purple is a good colour for communication. Soul to soul, she meant. All of them.

Monday 3 July 2023

A pile of books

I dreamed someone gave me a pile of books I would want to read but would not find so easily, he said, he knew how to choose for me because he had read my books, this forceful spectral reader I know so well. I looked at the pile of books and they were so right. He was right, I would not find these books otherwise. The books were right. How did I know, looking up and down the spines? Like going to a discerning bookshop every five years, lustral, you read the bookshop as you go, pausing with certitude on some half-familiar writer, moving on, kneeling down, climbing the bookshop ladder, leaving your bag on the armchair. 

All this was at my elbow without leaving my room. Suddenly the other night.

Saturday 1 July 2023

Valentino, 62 pages by Natalia Ginzburg

Up at the pond I read the whole of Valentino, by Natalia Ginzburg, 62 pages of bare story on the edge of an Italian city in the middle of the twentieth century. The story feels bare, in the sense of relentless yet gentle. People are evenly presented, in a narrative without judgement but not without feeling. At the end you feel as much for all of them, even the feckless eponymous Valentino, who was meant, his parents thought, to become a man of consequence, a doctor who would discover things and be remembered. As it was, after a flurry of schoolgirls, he marries a rich unattractive woman and has three children with her. 

His sister Caterina, our narrator, goes to live in this ménage. Her room has a pale blue carpet. She is even-handed, a schoolteacher, modest, going along with love and death enacted by others, liking the idea of sharing in the lives of others, patient as regards her own, accepting of what happens. She might marry her sister-in-law's cousin, they have an agreeable day out in the country, he drove, he wore Valentino's gloves, a woman threw a shoe at them, they ate tiny pears. A few weeks later he says he can't marry her after all, and within the year he has killed himself. His room is filled with pictures of Valentino.

Like the films of same era, it only takes a pair of gloves and a few small pears. Drawers full of letters. Walls full of pictures.