Alison Weir at Layer Marney

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!

Why I disagree with ‘getting women into science’

‘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.

Top 7: Poems from ‘The World’s Wife’

‘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:

  1. 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‘.
  2. Mrs Darwin – This poem somehow manages to be funny, clever and thought-provoking in just four lines.
  3. Pygmalion’s Bride – A witty take on the classic story of the sculptor who falls in love with his own masterpiece.
  4. 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…
  5. The Devil’s Wife – A disturbing but profound poem in five parts, based on the case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
  6. 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.’
  7. Demeter – A touching and understated celebration of a mother’s love, and a fitting way to end the collection.

 

Bookishly Roundup

In a previous post, I mentioned that for my birthday I got a 3-month subscription to Bookishly’s ‘Tea and Book Club’. This means that every month I received a parcel containing a surprise vintage paperback, a bookmark, some pretty stationery and some tea. Now that the subscription has finished, I thought I would share my winnings with you:

Month 1

month-1

‘Queer Street Vol 1’ by Edward Shanks, Lemon Ceylon Ginger tea, music note tree lined notebook and bookmark.

Month 2

month-2

‘Lifemanship’ by Stephen Potter, space lovehearts blank notebook and bookmark (NB: there was also some almond-flavoured ‘Winter Star’ tea but this was so delicious that I’ve already drunk it all).

Month 3

month-3

‘Out of the Silent Planet’ by C.S. Lewis, mocha chai tea, chevron bookmark, set of birthday/thank you cards.

In summary, I would highly recommend ‘Bookishly’ – it has encouraged me to pick up books I wouldn’t normally read and drink varieties of tea I would usually stare at in bewilderment! In fact, I have enjoyed the lovely old-fashioned thrill of receiving a parcel in the post each month so much that I have signed up for another 3-month subscription, so expect another roundup shortly…

BR: ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ by C.S. Lewis

I think I owe science fiction an apology. It’s never been a genre I naturally gravitate towards; in my mind I’ve never quite been able to separate it from images of trashy B movies and geeky conventions. However, this book has proved my prejudices wrong; it is  beautifully and intelligently written and throws up some very deep questions about the nature of the universe and the way in which we are destroying our planet.

The novel tells the story of Professor Ransom, who is kidnapped by some unscrupulous acquaintances and brought to the planet of Malacandra (otherwise known as Mars) as a hostage. After escaping his captors he fears death at the hands of the planet’s native inhabitants, yet he quickly comes to discover a peaceful and harmonious civilisation who face a far greater threat from humans than he does from them. The narrative unfolds in the charming style of an old-fashioned adventure story, and even though there are no battles or hectic action scenes like those in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, I was captivated throughout.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was its linguistic slant; Ransom is a professor of philology so takes a particular interest in the languages of the Malacandrians. I loved the alien-sounding words such as ‘hrossa’ and ‘pfifltriggi’ and appreciated the fact that the language of each species living there was different. There is also a very clever scene towards the end in which the evil scientist Weston explains his ambitions with pretentious jargon, but when Ransom comes to translate them for the benefit of the Malacandrians, his elementary knowledge of the language means that he must reduce them to their most basic meaning. For example, his glorification of the strength of human armies and weapons becomes ‘we have many ways for the hnau [sentient beings] of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it.’ I found that this exchange offered a clever and refreshing perspective on the things humanity is proud of.

My one complaint is that the ending was perhaps a little anticlimactic, but I did enjoy the epilogue with its promise of future adventures to come. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone thinking of testing the waters of the sci-fi genre, as it is well-written, accessible and – if, for whatever reason, you don’t like it – relatively short!

Best Bookshops in Cromer

To celebrate my 18th birthday, I went to Cromer for the weekend with my two best friends. I love Cromer because it has barely changed since the Victorian era: the same cobbled backstreets, extravagant pier and pastel-painted fisherman’s cottages are visible in all the old photographs. I must admit it wasn’t exactly a normal choice for a newly-turned-eighteen-year-old; some of the wild things we did included nosing around in the church, attending an art exhibition, walking along the coastal path and, of course, ferreting through old bookshops. Anyway, I thought I would share some of my favourite haunts with you:

  1. Much Binding

This shop is crammed from floor to ceiling with old books, which give off that lovely, musty vintage smell. The books are double and sometimes triple stacked, so there are always new treasures to find, such as a beautiful first edition of ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. My friend picked up one book with a plain dark blue cover and ‘Smegley’s Practical Hydropathy’ engraved on the spine, only to open it and discover that the words ‘Victorian Secret Diary’ were scrawled on the inside front cover in pencil and that all the pages were blank! We agreed that it was an ingenious idea. Perhaps the crowning glory of our visit to ‘Much Binding’, however, was the chest of drawers full of old photographs. We spent a good half hour examining photos of Edwardian seaside holidays and family wedding portraits of stern-faced Victorians. I felt that I couldn’t leave without at least one souvenir (‘Alice’, alas, was £35), so I chose this picture:

Marjorie and cat.png

On the back is written ‘Marjorie with Cailo + cat.’ I’m not sure why I went for this photo in particular; I just liked the animals and I thought Marjorie had a nice, interesting face. The blurriness in the background adds an intriguing element of mystery, too.

2. Bookworms of Cromer

Another lovely second-hand bookshop, this one is more orderly and has a more up-to-date selection of books than ‘Much Binding’. It’s in a little house near the seafront, and as you browse through its various rooms you never quite lose the feeling that you’re in the living room of a very enthusiastic reader.

3. Jarrold

I realise that this shop is not unique to Cromer but it deserves a mention because in my opinion it contains everything you could ever wish to find in one shop: fridge magnets with life mottos on them, seaside-themed ornaments, jam, soap, toy animals, jigsaw puzzles, art supplies, stationery and of course a spectacular selection of books!

BR: ‘Into the Blue’ by Robert Goddard

I am very partial to a good thriller, and this is one of the best I have ever read. It tells the story of Harry Barnett, a shabby middle-aged failure, who leads an indifferent life as caretaker of a friend’s villa in Rhodes. However, he discovers a new sense of purpose when Heather, a guest at the villa, disappears, leaving behind only a few photographs. He resolves to track her down and, in doing so, must return to England to confront his past.

The novel was so exciting, with tension sustained expertly over more than 500 pages of twists and turns in the plot. It did take me a while to get into the story, but once it was over I felt something akin to grief at the loss of this fascinating cast of characters and the world in which I had become so invested. Goddard is great at creating atmosphere, slipping description into the story in such a subtle way that it is almost unnoticeable. I loved the idea that long-forgotten events in history can still impact the future, and I also loved the fact that, though the story started off being about Heather, in the end it was about Harry, who was a likeable character in spite of his many flaws.

Overall I would recommend this as a classy and clever thriller, and I will certainly be sampling more of Goddard’s work in future!

BR: ‘Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

This book is Bill Bryson’s account of his valedictory tour of Great Britain before he moves to start a new life in America. He travels from Calais to London, traversing the south coast before travelling up through the Midlands and finally Wales and Scotland. At times it made me laugh out loud; Bryson points out amusing quirks of the country which a Brit might overlook. It is also full of interesting facts about obscure towns and historical figures, which makes it perfect for lovers of trivia.

One of the most interesting things about the book is that it enables the reader to compare three different versions of Britain: the version Bryson remembers from his first visit in the 1970s, the one he sees on this trip in the 1990s, and Britain as the reader perceives it today. I’m not sure whether Britain has changed drastically over the past two decades, but I did think the places Bryson criticised for being ugly were odd – Oxford, Cambridge, Lulworth, Exeter – most of which are famed for being beautiful. His aversion to plate glass and chain restaurants did become tedious sometimes – I think we have to accept that, like them or not, these things are just part of the modern world.

However, all in all this book is a very entertaining and light-hearted read, and the enthusiasm with which Bryson enters into everything makes him an endearing companion for an armchair tour of Britain.

Poem: Midas

One look at your face and I was sold
I’m flying now on mended wings
All that you touch you turn to gold.

A January day in the dark and cold
Like a startled bird, you made me sing
One look at your face and I was sold.

Apollo, Adonis, you fit the mould
I am the queen, Midas my king –
All that you touch you turn to gold.

You give me courage, you make me bold
More than a lonely winter’s fling
One look at your face and I was sold.

Clasp me tight in a ballroom hold
For a music-hall melody, saxophone swing
All that you touch you turn to gold.

Stay with me until I grow old
Remain my foolish, greedy king –
One look at your face and I was sold
All that you touch you turn to gold.

BR: ‘The Smell of Apples’ by Mark Behr

This is an unusual novel as, despite being aimed at adults, it is told through the eyes of a young boy, eleven-year-old Marnus, who grows up in an Afrikaans family in 1970s South Africa. At first his life appears ordinary, but as the story progresses the reader becomes aware of the hypocrisy, secrets and lies of the adults he looks up to as role models. The main narrative is interspersed with flash-forwards into Marnus’ future as a disillusioned soldier in the South African army.

‘The Smell of Apples’ is a very understated, subtle novel, with many things implied but nothing ever spelled out. One of the most disconcerting things about it is the sweeping statements Marnus makes, such as ‘the Masai never wash […] and they drink real blood’. It is difficult to tell whether he comes up with these things himself or is quoting from the adults who have indoctrinated him with their beliefs. Also disconcerting is the idea that ‘in life there is no escape from history‘, which adds a melancholy overtone to the book, as the reader knows that this naive, innocent boy will be unable to escape from the actions of his forebears. I thought Behr depicted childhood well; Marnus’ narrative voice seemed disjointed and blithe like a child’s, and his obsessions with things such as whales and fishing rang true.

One thing that I would have liked to find out was what happened to Frikkie and Zelda in the future, as we learned about the fortunes of Marnus’ immediate family but not much more – and, even then, Ilse was brushed over. I think this would have added a greater sense of closure to the story. Perhaps, however, the unsettled feeling I was left with at the end of the novel was the author’s intention. It is certainly not an uplifting or jolly story, but I would recommend it as an interesting if disturbing insight into the Afrikaner mentality, while the beautiful setting and lyrical account of childhood are good for escapism.