The first of a series of Balkan vignettes: full story later – postcards aren’t for long stories. Here we are beside Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia, staying in a former monastery. In a modern take on Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, this working monastery, dedicated to Saint Naum, was seized during the communist era, and transformed into a hotel. Yugoslavia and the Communist period are long gone, but the hotel remains. God’s loss is Mammon’s gain.
On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.
I fully intended to read the book beginning this month’s chain, Peter Carey’sThe True History of the Kelly Gang. It had been sitting unread on my shelves for years. It still is. Oh dear. I gather it’s an exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.
So for my first link, I’ll stay in Australia, in a similar period of history: Hannah Kent’s Devotion. It started so well – Hannah Kent can write. A simple, isolated Lutheran community in Prussia is the setting, and the plan for it to move wholesale to Australia in a six month voyage is mooted and executed during the first half of the book. This early part of the story also details the deep friendship developing between the narrator Hanne, and Thea, a relative newcomer to the village. So far so good, so evocative and well told. In the second half, the book relies on magical realism, and I’ll avoid spoilers, and simply say – it wasn’t for me.
Migrants looking for a better life? A very different story is told in Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country. This story is about one family’s struggle as illegal immigrants from Colombia to America. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a web of different stories, different experiences, as the family struggles with their unsatisfactory status, aiming to secure jobs, accommodation, peace of mind, It’s evocatively told, painting a picture of the discomfort and deprivation that accompanies this family, whether in urban-warfare torn Colombia, or at the margins of American society. A damning indictment of the way in which migrants, more or less wherever they end up, are often treated.
Sadly, the life of a migrant is frequently one of poverty. Life sentences, by Billy O’Callaghan, details three such impoverished lives. This is an involving, compassionate and evocative story set in Ireland at various points in the twentieth century. It’s the story of Nancy, born into extreme poverty: her son Jer, born in the workhouse, and Nellie, his daughter, also raised in straitened circumstances. It tells of Nancy, who fell in love with a man who avoided his responsibilities when she fell pregnant – twice – by him. Well, she was the one who got pregnant, wasn’t she? Jer was a soldier who found civilian life more difficult than his war-time experiences, while Nellie had to cope with the death of her first-born. There IS a lot of death in this book . This book piercingly shows what unenviable choices real poverty thrusts upon those who survive it. And yet this book is lyrical, tender, and immersive, conjuring up lives and times none of us would wish to share.
Sue Gee’s Earth and Heaven also details the life of a family battling not the extreme poverty of O’Callaghan;s book, but severe money problems all the same. This is a book which will stay with me. Walter Cox, brought up in Kent in the early years of the 20the century, is – against the odds – a painter. We follow him from his home in Kent to the Slade School of Art and back to Kent with new wife Sarah, a wood engraver, and their friend, sculptor Euan as they struggle to make names for themselves. This beautifully observed book gravely details their lives, loves, losses and longings in a slow-moving story which beautifully conjures up the lives and landscape of the main protagonists. A book to savour.
I’m going to slam straight into a contrasting world where money shortages are really not a problem. Read this book, and you will enter a privileged fifteenth century world. One in which bloodline counts. One in which it matters what alliances you make, which families you choose to link with yours as you marry off your sons and daughters. You will enter the world inhabited by Cecily, wife of Richard Duke of York. Annie Garthwaite‘s book will dispel any notion you might have had that a high-born woman’s lot was to spend the day at her needlework. On the contrary, women like Cecily were politically engaged, working with their husbands to secure status and power, both for themselves and their children. Women like Cecily inevitably bore many children: twelve in her case, of whom five died in infancy: while husbands inevitably went off in battle, changing alliances and allegiances as the political wind changed. This absorbing book, given immediacy by its use of the present tense shows us Cecily fiercely promoting her family’s interests, while she brings child after child into the world. We are present in 15th Century England.
From one woman with her finger on the pulse of power to another: the autobiography of Harriet Harman MP: A Woman’s Work. This is a compelling account of the women’s movement, of life in parliament over the last 40 years, and of Harriet Harman’s struggle to use her role as MP to change the lives of women and families: in many ways successfully while her party was in power, but frustratingly and impotently slowly when they were not. Harriet Harman kept no diaries, so this book is free of obsessive day-to-day minutiae. But it’s a lively and compelling account of a woman struggling to prosper professionally, and to change the lives of women in that most macho of environments, the House of Commons. Even if you don’t share her political views, read this book for an overview of social reform campaigning over the last half century. You may even find yourself grateful to her, and to women like her, for taking on the battles she has fought and often won.
We’ve visited three continents and four different centuries, and explored both extreme poverty and great wealth. I wonder where your chain would take you?
This post is scheduled to appear today, but, away from home just now, I will neither respond to your comments, nor read everyone’s chains. But I will – before too long.
As you wander down the hill to Fountains Abbey, and arrive at West Green, you’ll spot a tree, a sweet chestnut tree with – how odd! – a girdle of headphones hanging from its branches.
This information board explains all: these headphones enable you to listen in, via highly sensitive microphones, to the hidden sounds of the tree.
Truly – it’s astonishing, mesmerising. Just as our blood courses round our body, day in, day out, so water and air courses constantly through the tree. Through headphones, it sounds something like the tinkling of a mountain stream as it tumbles over pebbles. And behind it, as your ears adjust, there’s a low, more intermittent soft rumbling sound. This is the tree moving. Saturday was a still day, but we could hear that rumbling as we listened closely. On a windy day, I wonder what we’d have heard?
This next photo is the last I took, and the last one of all for April, so one for Brian Bushboy’s Last on the Card
During May, I’m taking a break. I probably won’t even have a chance to read the posts of those of you I follow. When I get the chance though, I’ll try to send a virtual postcard or two.
When I was a child, I’m sure you couldn’t have a library ticket until you were five. There would have been no point anyway. The great age of the pre-school picture book illustrated by the likes of Quentin Blake, Chris Riddell and Emily Gravett hadn’t yet arrived. Until we were old enough to enjoy hearing about Winnie the Poo and Milly Molly Mandy there was nothing for very small children on the shelves.
These days, pre-schoolers are welcome. Parents are urged to enroll their babies. There are story times and sing-along sessions, jigsaws, bright paper, coloured pencils – and cheerful rugs to sit on. So one very rainy day while fourteen month old Anaïs was staying, off to the library we went.
Saint George is patron saint of England, Catalonia, Portugal, Ethiopia, and probably a few others besides. And today is Saint George’s Day. We tend not to celebrate him much here in England, perhaps partly because the flag of Saint George has largely been appropriated by the EDL and similar extremist political groups, and drunken football fans.
That’s not the case in Catalonia though. No! It’s a national holiday (Catalonia clings fiercely to its independence). Men will give a single red rose to the women they love – not just sweethearts and wives, but their sister, their aunt or their friend and colleague at work. Women will respond by offering a book. That’s because in 1995, UNESCO declared 23rd April as a world-wide day to celebrate books and reading, choosing this day because it’s the one on which both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died in 1616. England has to be different, and celebrate the day in March.
Here’s a short video catching something of the party atmosphere in Barcelona, in happier times before That Pandemic. I’ll bet it’s a bit quieter this year.
And why offer a red rose? Well, that’s all down to the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. Here’s an explanation in Spanish. You don’t speak Spanish? Don’t worry. I think you’ll understand almost every word.
Back in March, I brought a daily diary, by Yevgenia Belorusets from Kyiv to your attention. It went silent nearly two weeks ago. But news from Ukraine is unremitting, and none of it good.
I thought it would be good to remember that Ukrainians are so much more than victims, and fighters for their country. They have towns, cities and countryside that are important to them. They have a cultural life that mustn’t be extinguished. Here are two stories to remind us of that. The first is from the Guardian’s Country Diary last week. Here, Olexandr Ruchko describes the annual arrival of the storks to his homeland.
The next is about a children’s choir, the Shchedryk Children’s Choir, Kyiv.
Many of you, by ‘liking’ a previous post, enabled me to give a donation to World Central Kitchens, which works in Ukraine and disaster zones throughout the world. Here‘s a link, in case you too are interested in donating.
My header image recalls the Ukrainian flag. Though this image was taken in North Yorkshire, it reminds us that Ukraine is, in normal times, the Breadbasket of Europe.
As it happens, Brian Butler, in his engaging Travel Between the Pages blog, features today a short video of Kyiv, as it experienced a normal day, only last summer. You can view it here.
Monday portraits tend to showcase subjects from the animal kingdom. But we have just said ‘Goodbye’ to my daughter and granddaughter: a week together in which blogging played no part. Anaïs delighted in wandering among the daffodils: she’d never seen any in sunny Spain. Here’s a snapshot of one of those moments.