Some reading


Okay, well, we’re in – hurrah! New home, where to put Granny’s vase, the plant stand, the carpets… It still needs a bit of work on the wiring, but we can certainly spend our time here I reckon.

I had this idea of writing little reviews of all the books I’m reading. I mean, I have a massive backlog of things I’ve been wanting to tell everyone about, and (hypothetically of course) time on my hands, and no one about to distract me… and promises made, and review copies received, and Horizon Review business not dealt with… Everywhere I look, tantalising piles of printed matter. The editor in me doesn’t read them but only sizes them up for possible review commissions, and then something falls back and I don’t do it.

But what I’ve been reading is mainly a little book called (in a ‘does what it says on the tin’ way) Elizabeth and Leicester, by one Milton Waldman (intriguingly dedicated ‘to Alan McGlashan, friend and healer’), in 1946. Ex of the library of my significant other’s late father, slightly damp-warped – read on a beach? in the bath? – and rescued from a pile destined for the charity shop. It’s a slim volume, slightly arch in tone (which is a very good thing), and told in the gripping manner of a cracking story, with lots of period colour. It contains wonderful passages like this, about the end of the Lady Jane Grey plot (which saw Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower along with her future lover and most of his family):

By the time Elizabeth departed for Woodstock the country had shaken down to a state of sullen resignation and Mary was able to put away her gallows in favour of other decorations more appropriate to the arrival of a bridegroom. The Dudleys, now fairly certain of their lives unless something turned up, settled back to calculate the chances of an act of royal grace that should throw them out into the world to begin life again on practically nothing.

Nice, you see? Later there’s a wonderful few paragraphs about their mother, Jane Dudley, “floating on the fringes of the Court like some tenacious ghost,”  trying to get someone to take up the case of her sons… a heroic woman, who had lost everything; she died not long after, “and was buried in the parish church of Chelsea, with ‘little solemnity’, as she had directed, ‘for I had liefer a thousandfold my debts to be paid and the poor to be given unto than any pompe to be showed upon my wretched carcass, that hath had at times too much in this world’.”

I don’t know why, but I’ve got a bit of a thing on: I’m also dipping in and out of Alison Weir’s Elizabeth I, and – bizarre overload – a book called Death and the Virgin, by Chris Skidmore, about the death of Amy Robsart. Dudley’s wife. This is where internet shopping will get you. The latter has bigger print, and horrible clunkers after Milt’s gorgeous prose.

I went on a solitary junket to Brighton last week, which yielded a £1 copy of Michael Hofmann’s second poetry collection, Acrimony. Wow. Try reading that book when you’re a bit low, and perhaps overly receptive to atmosphere: it’s like watching a European movie. The jaded twenty-something takes his rose-tinted spectacles off, lays them aside, and writes the first part of the book about his old relationships – I hope they were old – and other people, and the later section about his father. Take this, from ‘My Father at Fifty’:

Wherever you are, there is a barrage of noise:
your difficult breathing or the blaring radio –
as thoughtless and necessary as breathing.

You have gone to seed like Third World dictators,
fat heads of state suffering horribly
from Western diseases whose name is Legion…

There is some light relief though. In an earlier one called ‘And the Teeth of the Children are Set on Edge’, the poet says: ‘It’s the twenty-fifth and I’m twenty-five. Already,/ I’ve spent a half-life cornered, listening to you.’ Bless… He spares himself not very much, as it happens: “Most evenings, I was aphasic, incapable of speech,/ worn down by tolerance and inclusion…”

When my friend showed up for dinner, I was telling him about it, and he immediately began reciting lines from it. Like meeting two old friends at once!

From the dazzling ‘Epithalamion’:

Were we the Princes in the tower? The whole edifice
rested on us, on her stiff dress and my tie pin.

No one could help us. With his shock of white hair
and his mangy dog-collar, the minister arraigned us…

The friend I met for sushi was John McCullough, whose first collection from Salt, The Frost Fairs, is also rather dazzling – shot through with Thom Gunn and also a discernable hint of Hofmann – and I was reading it again on the way to meet him. The wonderfully named ‘Georgie, Belladonna, Sid’ with its three wartime drag queens and their lovingly described blackout beauty rituals, struck me afresh, but it’s hard to quote from here because it has a glossary – lots of words are from the underworld slang, Polari:

… We’re the bang they want
to go out with, the omi-palones who fall
when we stroke the Polish navy’s smooth serges.


The horrors of peace are many. Street lamps slam on
beside snapping bunting, thrashed Union flags.
What’s wrong with your eyebrows? my brother says.

Otherwise? On Monday I walked down to the Rio Cinema (cheap Monday, and saving on bus tickets) and saw Sarah’s Key, the new film with Kristin Scott-Thomas. Horrendous holocaust story, only bearable because framed in the present, as flashbacks to history. Scott-Thomas is very good. The little girl is outstanding. Walked back and barely slept all night, what with one thing and another. And the radio on.

I have a proof copy of AS Byatt’s dreamlike retelling of the Icelandic world-end story, Ragnarok, also set in wartime. Interesting to read about someone’s fascination with a book, as she describes this little girl’s obsession… The depth and capaciousness of children.

Waiting to be read: Graham Greene’s essay ‘The Lost Childhood.” I want to buy his Penguin collected.

Oh and I also got a wonderful, elegant 1964 paperback, with a gold Art Nouveau cover, of a one-man show woven from the words of Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Oscar, by the Irish actor Michael MacLiammóir. Radical stuff for the era, from the look of the picture above. (There is no extant picture of Jane Dudley, Countess of Northumberland.)

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