Packing Up


I enjoyed your latest letter, though it left me melancholy: as melancholy possibly as you were writing it? Which is surely a sign of an effective writer: using the medium to convey her own emotion. Most writers don’t I think, if it were, all we’d ever feel when reading would be a hankering for more coffee and a nagging worry about the latest bills…

I am going to surprise you now. I even surprise myself. You see, what with one thing and another, and me getting to be quite the cranky old lady, I have decided to give my neighbors some peace and myself some space, and go traveling. Whence, I do not know.

I have always dreamed of reading some important work of fiction in the place it is set: and that is what I will do. Only, I do not know where to start. I suppose Jules Verne would be a an easy option, not having to choose one place but always continue on. Or India, several good books are set there. Have you any ideas?

I have decided to leave at the end of the month, and am currently packing up my belongings, such as they are, and putting the house on the market. Quite tedious, as all preparations are once you’ve settled on a course of action and want only to get on with it.

Unfortunately, this means I might be an infrequent correspondent once I “hit the road” as the expression goes. But you can be sure I will write, and what with all the new vistas and so on that will open before me, I might even have something interesting to convey. The one time I ever attempted poetry, was after visiting the beaches of Normandy. Who knows, I might hit you with a sonnet when you least expect it!

But, I am not gone yet. I look forward to your input on where I should go – perhaps I should even leave the matter in your hands… Only please don’t send me to Italy – I feel that country had been done to death even before the twins were weaned…

Best love,


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Christmas away from st Anne’s

Sorry to keep you waiting, dear. Christmas occurred, and I’m also trying to straighten a few things out for the new year. I hope your solitude never deteriorated into loneliness, and that stupid reality kept from rearing it’s ugly face thus disrupting your much preferable fiction. I wouldn’t worry about it, by the way. Fiction is basically play, as that delightful sprite Brian Boyd made so beautifully clear in his ”On the origin of stories” last year, and play should be taken very seriously indeed. It is how we learn, and prepare. It offers the experiments it would be unwise, or unethical, to try out in real life. And yes, preparation for death might be one of the things it accomplishes, if done right.


My Christmas, alas, was not spent in solitary confinement, but with son and ex-husband. The miniscule family unit we once where and now can reminisce about, all of us sharing war-stories in a playful, semi-detached way. About how the unit messed us up, if that is what it did. It’s funny how three intelligent people each can have this constitutional sense of distance to their relational situation and its history. Thus begging the question who was actually in it to begin with.


We even attended church on st Stephen’s day, once the effects of the Port had subsided (Robert, the ex, having decided on Christmas Eve that what I had in store would have to do, considering the weather. ”Any Port in a storm”, you see).


Christmas is a time for, well, what? Reading books? Obviously, but we do that all year round (and little else) anyway so that’s no way of distinguishing christmas. No way of ”individuating it” as they say at my department, and it is apparently a big old problem about most everything. For those of us not comfortably isolated by snow, there is rather less reading going on than usual. Perhaps it is another type of reading that takes place. Reading in order to escape from dishes, boorish relatives, or even the Doctor Who Christmas Special.


Oddly, I have rather fond memories of Christmases spent with my family from my time as a student at St Anne’s, Oxford (this being the 60’s, it was after we’ve become a full college within the university, but well before men where allowed). I would try to stick around as long as I could after Michaelmas ended and return well in time before Hilary began, but still, the break seemed an endless and counterproductive disruption of the social and erotic project. Along comes Christmas, setting developments back a few weeks by reminding us all about our bagage, making us unfit for any successful experiments in living.


Those first Christmases as a budding independent were insufferable. Relatives where almost defined by their inability of getting whatever it was that you just discovered for yourself. And your place in this scheme were just as nearly defined by your reluctance to being understood by these people. Because if they understood, so went the argument, even if by your tutelage, this would somehow diminish your accomplishment and the fundamental change brought about by your development. Relatives, again, almost defined by their grasp on you being derived from outdated sources, such as anecdotes from your toddler-hood.


Just having learnt to speak properly, with interesting people, indeed: just having discovered the possibilities of speech, by Christmas one had to put up with the limping excuse for conversation offered by the family. And for those few critical years, the redeeming power of love and loyalty was forgotten, or deemed insufficient to make up for this abject failure to have a grown-up conversation. Oh, how one longed to return to university. And when back, the only way to get the project back on track as soon as possible, was to try out the language, theory and attitudes developed together on deconstructing the events that just occured in your family over Christmas.


It struck me that I might actually live to see the 50th anniversary reunion. I wonder who else is left alive? Wont it be ghastly? And is this horror of reunions (there really should be a latin phrase for it) just a reiteratation of our adolscent horror for Christmas gatherings? The common denominators being 1) our fear to encounter people who might carry an out of date conception of us 2) this conception being unflattering 3) our doubting our ability to bring it up to date or 4) our fear that an accurate update will be even less flattering than the outdated one.


I do go on, don’t I? I’ll leave it at that, I think, and keep my reflection on how our musings relate to the efforts of so-called ”literary theory” to my next letter. I also have some half-baked observation about sex in letters that will have to mature into the next year. Now, won’t that thought keep you company for the duration?


My very best wishes




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Grounded Turkey

Well, here we are, Dear,

And here we’ll remain: it seems, at least until the weather lets up some. I am quite enjoying the Disaster aspect of winter this year, especially since it has prompted my family to stay put and not come barging in expecting cheer, and food, and jollity. Which means Christmas will be spent in a tete-a-tete with the cat, and all the more leisure to bury myself in a book or two. But the question remains – which?

I am sorely tempted to go back to Buddenbrooks, since nothing better’s been written since.
But my conscience tells me I should be trying something new. Have you tried The Boat by Nam Le? It’s supposedly excellent. Or The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by the Barbery woman?  Or, God help me, The Help by some American or other? (The last one worries me a bit, according to reviews it is about women and coming to realisations, two of my pet peeves).

I was thinking about you the other day and wondering  if you might help me with a little problem of mine. You see, I am loosing touch with reality! It is quite terrible, really, or the terrible thing is, at least, that I don’t find it so.

I can focus on nothing for very long except the books, and lately, they seem to be sucking me in, a kind of vortex, where the characters and situations of my fictional friends seem much more interesting than my real ones. And I find myself not caring a bit.

For instance. I care very much whether my reading material is well written, and not a hoot for the dishes – even though dishes left out is a very real hazard to both health and the aesthetics of the home – whereas the stylistic failings of a book are really neither here nor there.

For instance number two: I find myself filled with emotion – a kind of emotion I haven’t experienced since reading Uncle Tom or the Wind on the Moon – at the death of this or that character. Whereas old friends in life may drop of without much more than a soft sigh from my part. I suppose it is: we know humans die, but there’s no reason for our fictional friends to do so, so it seems that much more of a waste.

Now I am wondering: should I embrace this slow fictionalization of life? Or should I struggle and take up tap-dancing or some such? Is it preparation for death – surely a fictional state – or is it just laziness? Or is it, having finally arrived at a stage in life where you cease to hope for perfection, you transfer your energies to fiction where perfection might still be achieved?

So sorry to hear about your lack of sleep. If you are looking for a fail-safe cure, I’d recommend the delightful Tristram Shandy, which I know you love, as night time reading. As you know, it is so well written it will keep you amused, but doesn’t it also moves at such a slow pace you won’t be able to keep your eyes open? I believe that is what is called a win-win?


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I have of late added to my list of peculiarities the habit of not sleeping very well. Possibly I’m responding to your hypothetical Vicar beckoning to come help bring order to the vestry or to ring the changes, and thus is kept awake by my lapsed conscience.

Speaking of change ringing: I do agree that The nine tailors ranks among the finest of new year tales. I met a man on a river boat once (yes, once upon a time I did those kinds of things. I didn’t stoop to solving crime, however) who told me all about the art and science of ringing the changes. The mathematics involved, and how it’s distinct from campanology “in that no attempt is made to produce a conventional melody”. Naturally, he told me, to truly appreciate Sayer’s book, one need to have experienced change ringing first hand. I declined the offer, as well as all subsequent offers of creating sounds by pulling on things. I pointed out that I was probably distinct from other girls he may have met in that In my case, no attempt should be made to produce the conventional malady.

Which, come to think of it, doesn’t quite make sense but it had the same intended devastating effect as a proper witticism would have. If challenged I would have (I really would, that’s the kind of girl I was) hidden behind Wilde’s dictum: to be intelligible is to be found out. (This being the most flagrant example of Lady Fandemere’s Wind, I think).

Where was I? Right. Not sleeping very well. The upside of this is that I’ve opened up a new time-slot for reading. I was taught, back when it was a word one could use without fear of ridicule, to compartmentalize. This I took to mean that it was okay, and not thoroughly confusing, to read any number of books at the same time, as long as you allotted a specific time to each. One book in the morning, one over lunch, one during the afternoon, one in bed and, the new one, one while up because sleeping has ceased to be an option.

The book that occupies this slot is “At Large and At Small” by the wonderful stylist ms Anne Fadiman. Yes I know she’s married but, and this may be very unenlightened by me, she writes like a spinster. This impression is probably due to her kind of essayist being all but extinct, and if she was a contemporary to her style, it’s unlikely that she would have been allowed to publish if married. The book was a gift from someone very dear to me, and I must remember to write her a letter to express my gratitude soon. Only I’m afraid of admitting that it took me this long to get around to reading it.

While cleaning the other day, I found a copy of the New York Review of Books, yellowed and brittle by the passing of some ten years, and in it a review of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the music of time”. There I found two passages that I want you to read, equipping you, as it were, for the inevitable holiday encounters.

“Charles uses gouache now,” said mrs Foxe, speaking with that bright firmness of manner people apply especially to close relations attempting to recover from more or less disastrous mismanagement of their lives.


He also lacked that subjective, ruthless love of presiding over other people’s affairs which often makes basically heartless people adept at offering effective consolation.

Writing like this, the elegant and comic depth of social perception expressed, makes me wonder why we spend time on contemporary fiction when clearly, there’s better things to do with our time.


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Swear Not By the Fickle Moon


A New Year’s Resolution, you suggest, with the spirit of (may I suggest) a woman half your age. A New Year’s resolution – as though it might be kept. A New Year’s Resolution – as though there was a chance. A New Year’s Resolution – as though there hadn’t been enough New Years, in our pasts, to promise heaven and earth…

Or to put it bluntly: I have never in my life kept to a New Year’s Resolution. Other Resolutions, for sure: daily Resolutions, even. But the Resolution made at the stroke of midnight belongs neither to the past (I did promise) or the future (I shall try). It exists only in a bubble of champagne, and is lost as quickly.

Speaking of which: have you ever read a better tale of the New Year than The Nine Tailors by our esteemed Ms. Sayers? It is jam-packed with snow-drifts, morals, and tolling bells. And there is a Vicar in it to be sure. If only live Vicars were half as pleasant as the Vicars of fiction, we’d still have a good chance of winning people over to the faith. You yourself are lapsed – but if I might ask a personal question: would you still be as lapsed if your local Vicar were a bibliophile, a keen gardener or had white tufts of hair blowing in the Fenland wind? Vicars should be old and lean and bent, they should look over their glasses, and be quietly moral.

The reason I rant is that my dear departed has been replaced. By a young man, who seems to have all sorts of ideas about people’s souls. He doesn’t understand that if he meddled less with those, and took a more serious interest in the Vicarage gardens, people would flock to him much more easily. There is nothing so off-putting as having someone peer at your intestines through a looking glass, be they spiritual or physical intestines.

On a strangely related note: I am also trying to push through Remarkable Creatures: a novel about historical women looking for fossil. It has one cardinal fault: the women are depicted as Women, you know, with their spiritual lives written out in bold so as no one should miss that they are multi-dimensional characters, even though they lived in times gone by. (The fossil are, blessedly, fossil).

I abhor that practice in novelists, same as in Vicars, of adding quirks or incongruence to personalities, just so as to be able to duck the criticism of banality. You know the type: they set their stories at the circus and then they point to the bearded lady and the clown and the elephant eating pop-corn and proclaim: hah! I have imagination! I am outside the realm of the mundane.

I believe the bearded lady must wash her socks same as everyone else, and would much rather read of that than of her fantastic adventures.

Then again, those who go to the other extreme are just as bad. The hyper realists who believe nothing is properly plausible unless it is coated in three day’s worth of grease from the fish and chip shop. This is the kind of Vicar who would go jogging.

No, give me a good and proper story of middle class behavior, preferably written between the lines rather than on my nose, and I am content. On this note, I will return to Fenchurch St Paul and help Mrs Venables with her daffs.

With much love,


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Hark, the Herald Angels sing. Or so I’m told.

‘This the season, and I won’t deny it. Have you seen this Sceptred Isle from above, when covered in snow like this? Quite, quite, forgiving. Snow like the cover you put over important furniture in rooms you don’t expect to be in for a while. Evoking not the memory itself, but the expectation of a memory. Look at me, all misty eyed. Continuing our theme of the uses of books: keeping silly old ninnies like us from all too serious bouts of nostalgia. Never entirely successfull, is it?

Christmases still serve that function of the memory magnet: Christmases are made for memories in a way not even (other) birthdays are. They evoke other christmases, mostly. No matter how determined we are that it’s just another random period of time, not special in any way. Well, it does matter. Because we treat it like it matters, no matter what we believe. Not celebrating (and oh yes, I’ve tried a few of those) becomes a statement, confirming that it matters in a much stronger fashion than celebrating as usual would have.

I used to be this way with churches. Being a non-believer, I was still forced by relatives, and then by common courtesy, to attend mind numbingly dull services. I used to sit there refusing to let anything sink in. Mentally challenging every statement made from the pulpit, deconstructing the psalms and pointing out their absurdity and regret that this quite beauful music had to be put to such vapid use. And then I realised that I didn’t have to. That the best thing was to treat church as a novel, and to suspend disbelief, to let it sink in and be carried away. I guess one could say that this became possible only when I became confident in my disbelief. I don’t see organized religion as the enemy any longer. There are much worse things, and even the evil committed in the name of religion would probably have been committed in the name by whatever would have replaced religion in history. It might have been better, and it might have been worse, depending on what replaced it. So many of the louder, more obnoxious, atheists today seem to me to suffer from an inability to think counterfactually.

Books for Christmas! I ought to have a whole list of recommendations, but your standards are so exacting. Long and (potentially) a classic, you say. Fiction, I presume. And I seem to recall you being no friend of Dickens? And the post-modern is all very fine, but not really for Christmas, is it? How about Doris Lessing? I’ve yet to read her Golden Notebook but most definitelly intend to, maybe you would like to beat me to it? I think she is one of our greatest writers, in fact, and she thinks very well to.

I promised to deliver a verdict on ”the Finkler question”. It’s alright. It’s mildly amusing and quite perceptive. It reads like sections from a Bellow or Roth novel, only those (much superior) authors never left it at that, and usually provides more than just this monomaniacal rant on aspects of being jewish.

I’ll leave you with these further news from my reading front. The Son ill-advisedly (believing that I’m Meryl Streep) gave me a novel by an actor, would you believe it? And a comedian at that. Steve Martin, you may remember him from the old Saturday Night Live crowd. He has recently taken to wearing glasses and being unfunny in interviews. But the New York Times (yes, they have one of those as well) seemed to like it, and my son thought I would to. It’s called ”an Object of Beauty” and it’s abut the Manhattan art-trading scene of the 1990. Mr Martin did his research and he want us to know that he did. The plot is thinner than the macbook air on which I write you this letter, and the rest is filled with names and undergraduate-level essays. The protagonists is more or less precisely the type you critized in an earlier letter: a young, female go-getter who use her sexuality to get ahead but ”not in a bad way, you see, she’s in control, honestly.” Beautiful, crafty and greedy, she starts at Sootheby’s and then work (i.e. Sleep and bargain) her way around the artscene, developing a taste and being somehow both obessed and laconic about it. I’m reading it so I can build up the rage required to throw it at my son’s head the next time he dares to show it.

I think I’ll stick mostly to non-fiction for the holidays. The occasional slim novel, perhaps, something that fits in a pocket and can be devoured during a train ride or two. And the New York and London Reviews, to decide what to read next year.

Should we make it a New Years resolution to finish at least the first volume in the Parade during 2011?

Expanded Holiday Greetings Debbie

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Let It Snow


December is upon us. At times I wake to a light frost and those times I feel young again. You may think me creaky and cranky as an old door badly oiled – but Christmas is coming and that is the one time of year I like to shed my crotchety ways for good cheer and warmth.

The reason is simple, I think. Christmas is the one time of year when the world colludes in my illusions of better times. Christmas is a time for old, tried and true stories. A time for movies we’ve seen before. A time to revisit favorites: the basted goose of Dickens and the bravery of King Arthur and his knights. There is nothing new-fangled about it: we are allowed to rest in the memories of childhood and other childhoods before that.

In fact – there is only one new thing about Christmas, and even that is the same every year. The Christmas gift of a heavy book, pristine, to be unwrapped with reverence and devoured before the fire. When I was a child, this book would be a gift from my mother – now it is my gift to myself. I haven’t yet decided on what it is to be this year: the requirements are very specific.

– it needs to be a proper novel, and long, too
– it needs to be a classic, or a classic to be

Last year it was Wolf Hall. Any suggestions?

From the comfort of my oldest cardigan,


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