Because you can never have too much of a good thing…
I had never read anything by Larkin before I picked this collection up, and I confess myself pleasantly surprised; though there was a thread of melancholy running throughout, it was never heavy-handed enough to become depressing. Each poem was deep and many-layered, yet extremely accessible. If you’re interested, here are my recommendations:
- MCMXIV – a very poignant portrayal of a blissfully innocent England on the eve of the First World War.
- The Whitsun Weddings – the titular poem captures one seemingly unimportant moment in time beautifully.
- Love Songs in Age – an understated yet pitch-perfect depiction of ageing and grief that uses the motif of old records.
- Mr Bleaney – I like the way this poem effortlessly depicts the characters of two men who inhabit one room at different times.
- First Sight – I appreciate the sentiment behind this poem, which implies that there is always something better, even if you can’t see it at first.
- Afternoons – a lovely but melancholy interpretation of the disillusionment felt by many young mothers of Larkin’s era.
- Take One Home for the Kiddies – this poem is grimly sassy and turns very dark, very quickly.
A summary of my second 3-month subscription to Bookishly:
‘Akenfield’ by Ronald Blythe, Alice in Wonderland birthday cards and bookmark. Also some Lapsang Souchong Butterfly tea, of which there is no longer any evidence!
‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus, blank travel notebook, Alice in Wonderland bookmark. Also some (again sadly vanished) Mint Chocolate Rooibos tea, which I must say is a particularly delicious variety.
‘This Side of Paradise’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Duchess Earl Grey tea, Shakespeare cards, floral bookmark.
Again I have been delighted with everything I’ve received from Bookishly, although I do resent being sent several tantalisingly beautiful cards which I will eventually have to give away when my friends have birthdays…
‘The Great Gatsby’ is narrated from the perspective of a fairly dull young man, Nick Carraway, who moves to an affluent suburb of New York and becomes drawn into a world of extravagance, wild parties and deceit. Most intriguing of all is his new next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby, whose glittering, fantastical world is about to come crashing down.
I feel as though I should have read this a long time ago, but am slightly ashamed to admit that I watched the film with Leonardo DiCaprio first and therefore felt as though I knew everything there was to know about it. However, I can say with confidence that already knowing the outcome did not spoil my enjoyment of the story; the novel’s best features are its beautiful atmospheric writing and insightful social criticism, rather than its plot, which is slightly thin on the ground.
I think one of the reasons why ‘Gatsby’ is so loved is because, even after all this time, it transports you straight into the seductive world of 1920s New York with evocative descriptions such as that of Daisy, ‘drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed.’ Yet alongside this beautiful imagery, there is also a sense of emptiness, of something off-kilter, which never quite goes away. This is particularly apparent in the pathetic pretensions of Myrtle, the poor lower-class mistress of a rich married man, who begs him to buy her a dress, then simpers to her friends, ‘I just slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like.’ There is even something unsettling in the understated mention of ‘children’ singing, ‘Your love belongs to me/ At night when you’re asleep/ Into your tent I’ll creep‘; to me this implied a corruption of innocence, a price paid for the pleasures of a hedonistic lifestyle. It is this dichotomy of beauty and emptiness, squeezed into every line, which makes ‘Gatsby’ such a memorable and enjoyable novella. I would certainly recommend it as a readable and deserving modern classic.
London has a well-deserved reputation for being an expensive place and, as an impoverished student, this can be offputting when planning a day out. However, as my friends and I discovered over the summer, it is still possible to do and see plenty without bankrupting yourself. Here is an account of how we spent – and how much we spent on – one packed day out:
We wandered around here first thing in the morning, when it was lively and bustling and everything was fresh. The food was fairly pricey but almost all the stalls offered free samples; consequently I tried a dazzling variety of mustard, bread and vinegar! Although we didn’t actually buy anything here, it was fun just to soak up the atmosphere and look at all the weird and wonderful food varieties. Of particular note was the fish stall (see above) where they seemed to be selling a giant starfish and the man behind the counter was holding the biggest swordfish I have ever seen in my life.
One of the best things about London is that all the art galleries and museums are completely free to visit. We chose to go to the Tate Modern because it is always entertaining. Reading the captions is just as much as fun as looking at the art: take, for example, the sign beside ‘Yellow Curve’, which read, ‘Can a yellow triangle be just a yellow triangle?‘ Or that for ‘Monochrome Till Receipt (White) 1999’: ‘A shopping receipt may seem like a strange thing to put on an art gallery wall. How can this be art?‘ – a sentiment which I rather agreed with.
We spent no money at all on our meal at Pizza Express! No, I am not confessing to a minor crime; we simply used Tesco vouchers we had saved up to pay for the meals and we all drank tap water. Not only this, but we went to the branch on the South Bank (one of my favourite places ever because it always feels so vibrant and lively) and had a view out over the River Thames and Southwark Bridge.
I always feel that the Monument is very underrated. For only £3.00 (student price) you can climb right up to the top and spend as long as you want on the viewing platform, looking out over London (see above for some of the views). Then, at the end, you get a certificate for your trouble!
Here we took a bit of a detour out to Greenwich, which is one of the joys of having a day travelcard; you can go anywhere you like in London spontaneously and at no extra cost. We rested our tired legs in the park, then walked up the hill to the Royal Observatory. There was a beautiful view out over London and, though we did not go inside to see the Prime Meridian line, it was perfectly visible through the gate so we thought that was as good as anything.
This was probably the highlight of the day. For a mere £3.40, we sailed over the Thames in a cable car. We picked a good time of day as it was the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky, so the sunlight sparkled beautifully off the water. It provided us with a unique perspective of London and the chance to view many familiar landmarks from a different angle.
We ended the day in Oxford Street. It was just as busy in the evening as in the day, and the flickering lights, crowds of people and darkening sky created a very exciting atmosphere. We sniffed various different bath bombs in Lush before heading to H & M, where I bought a big floppy sunhat at the bargain price of £3.00.
So, travelcard aside, the grand total spent on that amazing day out was £9.40! Not only that, but I have a certificate, floppy sunhat and several panoramic photos of London to show for my efforts. Next time I will see if I can do even better…
Blossoms unfurl where snowflakes trembled once
James Taylor singing on the radio
An Easter egg firm in my curled hand
Hidden but there like the promise of you.
A moorhen skitters across the lake
The sky blooms pink like an early rose
The road is a ribbon of golden sun
Flushed green, the trees drip with hazy dew.
And April, April, April Rise
Everything tinted with beautiful you.
At this year’s Essex Book Festival, one of the events which caught my eye was Alison Weir, the noted historian, giving a talk on Katherine of Aragon at Layer Marney Tower near Tiptree. I was immediately drawn to this not only because I have a long-standing interest in the Tudors, but also because Layer Marney Tower is itself a beautiful Tudor building, where Elizabeth I was once a guest.
When the evening for the talk came, I was not disappointed. We arrived after darkness had fallen, and the setting was beautifully rural: when we got out of the car I could hear the bleating of sheep and see the pinpricks of stars through the naked tree branches. Then I almost fell into a cattle grid, which made me feel less favourably inclined towards the countryside.
Inside the venue there was a lively atmosphere; a buzzing bar was stocked with drinks and there was a table stacked with the author’s latest books. We made our way into a great hall with oak panelling, rich red curtains and a magnificent Tudor fireplace. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the place was almost full and I was forced to squeeze into a seat right at the back; I had no idea there were so many fellow history nerds willing to give up their Thursday nights for a talk like this!
The talk certainly deserved the high turnout: Alison Weir was an engaging and eloquent speaker. She spoke primarily about her latest book, ‘Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen’, the first in a series of six novels told from the perspectives of Henry VIII’s wives and based strongly on historical evidence. Weir explained the history and thought process behind the novel, occasionally interspersing this with dramatic readings. This was followed by questions, one of the most inventive being, ‘Where do you think Katherine’s favourite place to visit in England would have been?’ It was lovely to see how excited and interested everyone was by the book, and it was certainly a wonderful experience to learn about Tudor history in a room where Tudor people had once eaten, danced and laughed. As the floorboards creaked, I almost expected to see a lady in a long gown and hood appearing in the doorway.
If you ever get the chance to attend a talk by Alison Weir or fancy a trip to Layer Marney Tower, I would strongly recommend both!
‘Getting women into science’ is a phrase I have heard bandied about a lot lately, and it is really starting to irritate me. As an arts student, I find it patronising and degrading; the idea of nudging women away from the arts and towards the sciences is one that suggests that the choices we have made already are not good enough, that somehow if more STEM were thrust in our faces we would wake up and realise that we were being silly, that sciences are obviously the better subjects.
First of all I should say that I understand why the initiative is in place. It is true that there are disproportionate numbers of boys taking science subjects as opposed to girls, and that many of these girls may be put off by the gender imbalance if they choose to study science subjects beyond GCSE level. I completely support the idea that women should be able to study whatever they want without feeling threatened or intimidated.
The word ‘want’ is the operative word here, because in my personal experience, the idea of ‘getting women into science’ has gone so far that it has swung the other way and now girls are being pressured into studying subjects they don’t enjoy. Two of my close friends who had always shown a leaning towards the arts decided to take science and maths based subjects for A-level, only to struggle, lose all their enthusiasm for the topics and decide that they wanted to do an essay subject at university. Unfortunately, they are now not up to the same standard as their peers who have taken arts subjects all along. When I decided that I wanted to take four essay subjects for A-level (English, History, Latin and German), reactions were mixed, ranging from the mild ‘that’s a lot of writing’ to a slightly sneering comment by a friend’s father: ‘Aren’t you doing maths?’ My teachers also tried to steer me towards science subjects, with such pathetic remarks as, ‘It would be a shame if one day you decided to edit a science journal and your science wasn’t up to scratch,’ after I mentioned that I was vaguely interested in publishing. My reluctance to study science subjects was not due to lack of exposure, nor to a fear that I would be outnumbered by -gasp!- boys, but simply because I was naturally worse at them, I didn’t have the same level of interest, and I didn’t enjoy them as much.
To me, this all seems to come down to snobbery, to the societal notion that science is more useful than, or superior to, the arts. There is a massive difference in the number of men and women studying for degrees in English literature (27% to 73%) but when do we ever hear of schemes encouraging men into English? The statistics are the same even for French, a subject which few people would disagree is useful. Of course science is important – developments in engineering, medicine, physics and technology are all vital to our lives in the modern world. But we need a mixture. What does a doctor do after a long day at work? She watches her favourite programme on TV, or listens to some music, or reads a book. Science helps us to live, but arts give us a reason to be alive.
Yet sometimes even I catch myself poking fun at my choices and laughing at my own hypothetical unemployability. When the school offers another opportunity for women who want to ‘get into science’, I feel like I’m somehow betraying the sisterhood by choosing to stay in a traditionally female-dominated sphere.
Now I’ve decided this has to stop. One piece of advice I’ve heard from many ex-students across the years is simply to ‘do what you love’, and though I may be inexperienced, I agree with the principle. Whether your passion is theoretical physics or translating Tacitus’ annals, you, male or female, should be able to do what you want without being coerced into something which you don’t enjoy. And I hope that in this country we can reach a happy medium of encouragement for women who want to study science, and equal encouragement for those who do not.
‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite volumes of poetry. It invents the untold stories of the women behind the great men of history in an accessible way, while still having plenty of depth. If you’re interested, here are my recommendations:
- Little Red-Cap – Here Duffy recalls a past love affair, using the allegory of Little Red Riding Hood. There is some beautiful gothic imagery and several memorable lines, such as ‘allotments/kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men‘.
- Mrs Darwin – This poem somehow manages to be funny, clever and thought-provoking in just four lines.
- Pygmalion’s Bride – A witty take on the classic story of the sculptor who falls in love with his own masterpiece.
- Anne Hathaway – A romantic interpretation of what Shakespeare meant when he wrote in his will, ‘Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed…‘
- The Devil’s Wife – A disturbing but profound poem in five parts, based on the case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
- Mrs Quasimodo – This longer poem is tragic but refreshing in that it deals with two ugly people falling in love, and I like the motif of the bells and their ‘murdered music.’
- Demeter – A touching and understated celebration of a mother’s love, and a fitting way to end the collection.