Treating ourselves, in troubled times

I can still remember how disappointed I was to miss the National Theatre production of Twelfth Night, back in early 2017. No, I wasn’t planning to head up to London, it was to be a live broadcast in cinemas and theatres across the country.

I’ve mentioned these productions before. They’re popular. This one was drawing a lot of media interest thanks to casting Tamsin Grieg as Malvolio, and Doon Mackichan as Feste.

There was only one problem, I’d let my ‘friend’ status lapse, so was denied access to the first wave of booking. Seats were snapped up almost as soon as they went on sale. I kicked myself. It was far from the first show I’d missed that way.

However, soon after the ‘lock-down’ started, National Theatre announced that they would re-release some of their catalogue on YouTube, on a weekly basis. They started with, One Man, Two Guvnors, another show I’d failed to book for.

The night before my surgery, we pulled the curtains, turned the lights down, and joined James Corden, in Brighton. Oh how I laughed.

I’ve missed a couple of weeks. Last Saturday afternoon, though, I settled down Madam Recaimier style, with a cooling drink to hand, and let myself get washed up on the shore of Illyria alongside Viola and Sebastian.

I hear your concern: ‘Did it live up to expectations?’

Oh, yes, and more. Even watching on our large household sized screen, on a sunny afternoon, it was a smooth transition.

The stage design alone was stunning. Add to that some brilliant casting, exciting costumes, lovely musical interludes and witty modern references, and I was hooked.

If you’ve somehow missed hearing about these shows, up to now, let me recommend you drop in at the National Theatre website. The programme changes weekly, on a Thursday, at 7pm GMT, so there are still a few days to catch up with Olivia, Orsino, Antonio and friends. After that, I’m looking forward to Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Frankenstein.

Reading styles

I do like the idea I’m multi-tasking, and lately, the closest I’ve managed has been in terms of reading materials. I’ve been recuperating, in a not very interesting way, for about two weeks.

When I first returned home, I binged on a collection of Brother Cadfael mysteries I was gifted last year. Ellis Peters, whose real name was Edith Mary Pargeter, wrote lovely, reassuring pictures of 12th century England.

These novels are set in a time of political upheaval and uncertainty, but within the confines of Shrewsbury Abbey, even murderous threats are unraveled, and set in order with calm good humour. No matter how brutal an attack has been made, how misguided the accusations against the primary suspect, Brother Cadfael can be relied upon to view it with generosity, and usually, play cupid to a romance that seems fated to failure.

In the middle of September of that year of Our Lord, 1140, two lords of Shropshire manors, one north of the town of Shrewsbury, the other south, sent envoys to the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on the same day, desiring the entry of younger sons of their houses to the Order.

One was accepted, the other rejected. For which different treatment there were weighty reasons.

So begins, The Devil’s Novice. How effortlessly I slip through the doors of the cloisters, to find out who, and which, and why.

These mysteries make soothing nightcaps, and I’ve worked my way through six of them. I had expected this would feel like too much of a good thing, but here I am, preparing to set out on a new adventure with trusty Cadfael.

Meanwhile, progress on my literary read, Snow, by Orhan Pamuk, is slow. After two weeks, I’m halfway through. I’m intrigued, even curious, but it’s a book that I can only take in one chapter at a time.

The first one begins:

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him ‘the silence of snow’.

He’d boarded the bus from Erzurum to Kars with only seconds to spare. He’d just come into the station on a bus from Istanbul – a snowy, stormy, two-day journey – and was rushing up and down the wet, dirty corridors with his bag in tow, looking for his connection, when someone told him that there was a bus for Kars leaving immediately.

My questions, this time, are all ‘who’? It’s not just the (so far) nameless character I wonder about, at first, I can’t figure out the narrator. He’s sidled up to me, getting increasingly close. ‘Our traveller‘, he says, and ‘So let us take advantage of this lull to whisper a few biographical details’.

Whoa, I try to tell him, haven’t you heard of social distancing? I’m not sure we know each other well enough to be so close. I don’t know that we share a common view of this world. But this narrator is pushy, doesn’t allow me to back away. Three pages in and he offers me some reassurance.

…I’m an old friend of Ka’s and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars.

Ka, then, that’s the name of the central character. Something to hold onto, at last.

Ka enters the bus, and the story is properly started. I can ignore the intrusive narrator and focus on Ka, the poet. Something will be happening soon, that’s clear. What it might be is not predictable. Even the weather isn’t.

The road signs caked with snow were impossible to read. Once the snowstorm began to rage in earnest, the driver turned off his full beam and dimmed the lights inside the bus, hoping to conjure the road out of the semi-darkness.

This scene feels like a metaphor for the story. Ka is asked by one of his fellow travellers why he’s travelling to Kars.

‘I’m a journalist,’ Ka whispered in reply. This was a lie. ‘I’m interested in the municipal elections – and also the women who’ve been committing suicide.’ This was true.

What am I to make of this, that Ka is unreliable too?

Perhaps, he is more realistically human than the infallible Cadfael, though it’s hardly fair to draw comparisons. Both fictions do their job, in transporting me to other times and places. The conclusion I’ve reached is that, odd as it may seem, my daytime and nighttime reads compliment each other.

I wonder what other odd partnerships are waiting to be discovered.

Multi-tasking, Elizabeth Taylor style

Okay, best case scenario , at this moment, is that we’re trapped, for our own good, in our homes. Am I the only one who spent the first couple of days hoovering out-of-sight places that generally remain untouched for months, and dusting?

William McGregor Paxton 

Maybe that was because the first week coincided with clear skies, and the bright sunshine was revealing. Maybe, because usually when I’m home in daylight hours I’m focused on paperwork of one kind or another. My gran had an expression that may have helped influence this lackadaisical attitude, though it doesn’t do credit to the degree of pride she took in her approach to housework: ‘I’m giving it a lick and a promise,’ she liked to say, if ever I asked what she was doing.

Now that I’m beginning to embrace on-line teaching I’ve got unused travel-time to factor into my schedule. Some days, there’s quite a lot of it, enough that I don’t begrudge using it for the chores I had been avoiding.

The upside of cleaning jobs, done in my fashion, is that they don’t require much concentration. Maybe, more diligent housekeepers focus on the task. My aim, is to fall into a rhythm of movement that allows me to daydream.

It’s a tip backed up by one of my favourite twentieth century writers, Elizabeth Taylor. She claimed to work out most of her stories while ironing.

Elizabeth Taylor is, perhaps, one of the most under-rated authors I’ve come across. Her short stories are subtle, often needing two or more readings to see how the layers of symbol and detail redirect meaning. She had a keen eye for humour (dark and light), which, in my opinion, made her delicately subversive.

So often story writers are advised to use ‘telling details’. What many of Taylor’s stories demonstrate is how much also depends upon the delivery.

I doubt whether I will ever forget these three teenage girls, of the 1950s, getting ready to go to a dance. The first paragraph is admirably economical yet telling, but look at how the second paragraph leads us neatly to that simile in the third.

Natalie, Frances and Katie had been in the bathroom for nearly an hour and could hardly see one another across the room. Bath-salts, hoarded from Christmas, scented the steam and now, still wearing their shower-caps, they were standing on damp towels and shaking their Christmas talcum powder over their stomachs and shoulders.

‘Will you do my back and under my arms?’ asked Katie, handing to Frances the tin of Rose Geranium. ‘And then I will do yours.’

‘What a lovely smell. It’s so much nicer than mine,’ said Frances, dredging Katie as thoroughly as if she were a fillet of fish being prepared for the frying pan.

This story, The Rose, The Mauve, The White takes place over one day. It is delivered in glimpsed scenes. All the characters will attend a dance, which is a big landmark for the teenagers. In the process of moving towards it, the contrasting hopes and insecurities of three generations are exposed.

Taylor has often been described as wielding a scalpel-like pen. It’s a useful idea to hold onto, when entering one of her stories. The unwary reader could easily be lulled into assuming they were entering a place of safe, middle-class comfort.

Except, Taylor’s narrators are always precise. Charles, the seventeen year-old who opens the story goes out in the morning to practice calling for three cheers, which he must do at the end of the dance, that evening.

His voice had broken years before, but was still uncertain in volume; sometimes it wavered, and lost its way and he could never predict if it would follow his intention or not.

Practicing seems a safe, and even sensible thing to do, but such moments are always rife with possible humiliation. If we’re noticing juxtapositions, then the fact that he chooses a spot next to a patch of rhubarb and lawn-clippings might seem significant.

…he put on what he hoped was an expression of exultant gaiety, snatched off his spectacles and, waving them in the air, cried out: ‘And now three cheers for Mrs Fresham-Bowater.’ …a bush nearby was filled with laughter; all the branches were disturbed with mirth.

Katie’s mother, Mrs Pollard, sharing tea with her teenage children and their friends, tells herself that, ‘tea was such fun… though one minute she felt rejuvenated; the next minute as old as the world.’

In the next breath, the narrator moves us on again:

To them, though they were polite, she was of no account, the tea pourer-out, the starch-provider, simply. It was people of her own generation who said that Charles and she were like brother and sister – not those of Charles’s generation, to whom the idea would have seemed absurd.

The dynamics of the family, the insecurities of each age range, and the moments of self-revelation, are offered for us, like fillets of fish with the flour wiped off. We see them, perhaps we see ourselves, as we are, and maybe, as we have been…

‘The one who was wearing a kilt?’ Natalie asked, with more composure. She wondered if Charles was thinking that she must be older than the other girls and indeed she was, by two and a half months.