I’ve taken a bit of a break from my blog for various reasons, one being that I’ve always been a bit iffy about social media, not only the public nature of it, but the busy-ness and noisiness of it, the fact it never sleeps but churns on and on keeping us in thinking and doing mode, and over-stimulated. Not to mention fake news, ‘deepfake’ videos, trolling, interference in elections and data mining. I tune out of the whole circus more often than not, leaving those pages to scroll on without me.
Given my ambivalence around 24/7 digital connectedness I was interested to read that author Patrick deWitt screens out the world while writing: “Wi-Fi feels like the death of solitude, of solitary thought. It feels like you’re in a room with people all the time. And I think if you’re going to write, you should have some quality time to yourself, daily.”
So the return to my blog is on my terms – I may not get round to reading many other blogs and posting likes and comments. And for now, my aim is not to boost my ‘traffic’ or attempt to generate income. I invite those that enjoy it to read it at their leisure. And I will write it as and when, perhaps in a more flow-y way.
One consistent anchor and pleasure throughout 2019 – when I took a chunk of time out from career and work to spend extended time with my family, particularly my elderly mother, and friends in the UK – was the luxury of having more time to read. Reading is a gentle, quiet pleasure that engages our heart, mind and imagination in a way no other medium does. Even if we choose to listen to an audio book, it’s less demanding than a Podcast or other streaming service.
I enjoyed resisting the pull of FOMO-tinged new releases and got down to some classics. As a German language graduate, I was thrilled to finally read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks – albeit in translation. Written in 1901 but set in the mid to late 1800s, it’s about four generations of a wealthy north German merchant family, and their eventual decline amid a changing world. It explores tensions between head and heart, business versus the arts, old and new, with exquisitely drawn characters reminding me of Dickens. When it came to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, described by Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as ‘the greatest novel in the English language, I cheated and listened to a wonderful dramatized adaption on BBC Radio 4. It proved the perfect bedtime accompaniment when I returned from my second UK trip at the end of the year when I was still suspended between worlds, half of me still in Mum’s kitchen, and half of me back here in Melbourne. What a relief when the caustic Reverend Edward Casaubon dies!
A few literary memoirs provided fascinating insights into how writers choose their subjects and the kind of world they inhabit. The best was Claire Tomalin’s A life of My Own. She has written outstanding biographies of subjects as varied as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy but is very sparing in the details of her own day to day life, exercises self-restraint around her emotional life and lacks self-pity. I found that so refreshing in the me-me-me era. The daughter of a French intellectual and a musical mother, her first husband, a journalist, is killed by a Syrian missile in Israel, one of her daughters, Susanna, a brilliantly gifted girl, commits suicide, and her son, Tom, is born with spina bifida. What she does describe are her dealings with the literary great and the good – including an affair with Martin Amis – and her work as literary editor of the New Statesman and The Sunday Times.
Another non-fiction highlight was historian Annabel Venning’s At War with the Walkers, an enthralling account of her family’s experience of World War II. Meticulously researched, it’s the saga of her grandfather Walter and his five siblings: Harold was a surgeon in London and his sister Ruth a nurse when the Blitz started; Peter is captured in the fall of Singapore, Edward fights the Germans in Italy, Bee marries an American airman and Walter battles the Japanese in Burma. I learnt so much, not just about the war (particularly in the Far East) but the rich social detail from the escalating price of horses in 1939 due to petrol rationing to the extraordinarily rigid social hierarchy in the Indian Army: “Even if only one officer was dining in the mess at night, the regimental brass band had to turn out and play while the solitary diner had to wear full military regalia and observe all the mess customs…”
It’s many years since I read a Daphne du Maurier. The Parasites written in 1949 about three half siblings and their theatrical parents is as relevant as a study of human nature as it was then. Julie Myerson, in her 2005 introduction, sums it up brilliantly as: “a strange ambiguous love story set in a world of dark, Lutyens house, Morny soap (I remember that brand so well, French Fern and Lavender etc!) and brittle, fading theatrical glamour.”
My most recent read was SNAP by crime fiction author Belinda Bauer, a Christmas present from my dear friend Monica. Not my usual choice of genre, I loved this romp of a thriller set in Devon. It starts on the M5 when a mother of three children leaves them in the car on the hard shoulder while she goes to the emergency phone to report a breakdown. She never returns… Curmudgeonly detectives, eccentric neighbours and characters living in the shadows made this a perfect bit of escapism.
I can’t finish without including another treasured Christmas present: The Artful Dog – Canines from the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and one of my favourite quotes: Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx.