“Poetry was coming true.”

This passage is Virginia Woolf writing about moments of intensity she experienced after her mother’s death:

“I remember going into Kensington Gardens about that time. It was a hot spring evening, and we lay down – Nessa and I – in the long grass behind the Flower Walk. I had taken The Golden Treasury with me. I opened it and began to read some poem (which it was I forget). It was as if it became altogether intelligible; I had a feeling of transparency in words when they cease to be words and become so intensified that one seems to experience them; to foretell them as if they developed what one is already feeling. I was so astonished that I tried to explain the feeling. “One seems to understand what it’s about”, I said awkwardly. I suppose Nessa has forgotten; no one could have understood from what I said the queer feeling I had in the hot grass, that poetry was coming true. Nor does that give the feeling. It matches what I have sometimes felt when I write. The pen gets on the scent.

My first memory of understanding a poem was a bit like this. It was either my first or second year of high school, so I would have been about 12 years old. The teacher read the poem aloud to the class; it was ambiguous and we couldn’t figure out the context. The classroom was a sea of mildly confused faces. Then she read it out a second time, and as she reached the end of the final line (I remember what it was: “I am first to go.”) the realisation hit me with an almost physical blow. I inhaled a little “oh!” of surprise and pressed a hand to my mouth and my eyes started watering.

The context was a hospital; the ‘I’ of the poem had finally decided to obey the wishes of their loved one, and leave them to die on their own and keep their memory intact.  I realised all of this in an instantaneous moment, like a magic-eye puzzle suddenly materialising in my brain. And yes, my reaction in the dead silent classroom and everyone’s baffled eyes swinging towards me were mildly embarrassing. But the teacher – I can’t even remember her name or what she looked like – as soon as I made a sound her eyes locked on to mine like bam, a shooting laser beam of empathy and connection. A wordless understanding forged through words.

Virginia Woolf speaks to me again:

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there  is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

… And now I have an inkling of where my love of semi-colons has come from.

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Katherine Mansfield: “O you who come after me…”

I have only ever read one of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories – The Garden Party – and I read it almost a decade ago. All this time later, I can still remember the closing lines word-for-word, and the indescribable emotion that it raised in me.

While reading her journal recently, I have experienced another moment of literary haunting, from a writer who seems to speak to you directly through the ages.

“O you who come after me…”

Hair raised on my arms and the back of my neck, as if I had been watching this long-dead woman in solitary work over her notebook, thinking myself an unseen observer, and she had suddenly lifted her head and looked me directly in the eye and somehow recognised me…

December 17th, 1919:

“I’d like to write my books and spend some happy time with J. … and see L. in a sunny place and pick violets – all kinds of flowers. I’d like to do heaps of things, really. But I don’t mind if I do not do them. … Honesty (why?) is the only thing one seems to prize beyond life, love, death, everything. It alone remaineth. O you who come after me, will you believe it? At the end truth is the only thing worth having: it’s more thrilling than love, more joyful and more passionate. It simply cannot fail. All else fails. I, at any rate, give the remainder of my life to it and it alone.”

February 1920:

“The waves, as I drove home this afternoon, and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell…. What is it that happens in that moment of suspension? It is timeless. In that moment (what do I mean?) the whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up – out of life – one is ‘held’, and then, – down, bright, broken, glittering on to the rocks, tossed back, part of the ebb and flow.

I don’t want to be sentimental. But while one hangs, suspended in the air, held – while I watched the spray, I was conscious for life of the white sky with a web of torn grey over it; of the slipping, sliding, slithering sea; of the dark woods blotted against the cape; of the flowers on the tree I was passing; and more – of a huge cavern where my selves (who were like ancient sea-weed gatherers) mumbled, indifferent and intimate… and this other self apart in the carriage, grasping the cold knob of her umbrella, thinking of a ship, of ropes stiffened with white paint and the wet, flapping oilskins of sailors…. Shall one ever be at peace with oneself? Ever quiet and uninterrupted – without pain – with the one whom one loves under the same roof? Is it too much to ask?”

October 10th, 1922:

“Now, Katherine, what do you mean by health? And what do you want it for?

Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love – the earth and the wonders thereof – the sea – the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. I want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good – there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun.

[…] Then I want to work. At what? I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing.

[…] But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life – to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for.”

 

Books, books, books!

(It’s a lovely word that is worth repeating three times.)

This gorgeous list of The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World has got me all hot and bothered. In a sexy way, because books are sexy. Yes. Be still, my beating heart!

Out of the 20 listed, I’ve only visited one, and that’s the Shakespeare & Co. book shop in Paris, where James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published. I visited quite a few grand old churches the last time I was in Europe, but (and this probably isn’t a surprise to the people who know me) the closest I came to religious experience happened in this bookstore.

Now I’d love to design a travel itinerary that revolves around the other 19 places on that list.

What’s your favourite bookstore? If you could design your ultimate bookish experience, what would it look like?

An Ode to Translators

Let us take a moment to pause and give thanks for the humble translator, those secret poets who weigh and balance every word and perform the strange alchemy that allows us to drink in the stories of writers around the world and throughout history. They are the ones who open doors in the walls of language. (How do they manage it? I can so easily become tangled in the ropes and coils of language, and I only hold one of them in my head.)

Today I started reading Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest pieces of Western literature. Those words have passed through nearly three thousand years on their way to the page that’s ended up in front of my eyes. Three millenia. And along the way they’ve been handed down and translated by many a scholar, rubbed and polished like pebbles in a stream, in a constant search for the impossible – a perfect constellation of words.

Literary sculptures

These bits of papery wonderfulness have brightened my day, and I hope that they will brighten yours.

Adding to my tally of faith-restored-in-humanity points.

While I was overseas I visited the British Library in London, and had an almost religious experience with their collection of literary landmarks – a handwritten letter from Wordsworth, early folios of Shakespeare, an original King James Bible, the notebooks of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, the Magna Carta…

One thing’s for sure; I’m still as deeply in love with books now as I’ve ever been.

Harry Potter: Why it matters.

A confession: Before this, I’d never dressed up for a movie.

Last Tuesday night, I was decked out in full Ravenclaw regalia, complete with house crest, wand, and certified Luna Lovegood Raddish Earrings. (The blonde wasn’t part of the costume – I’m pleased to say that that’s a permanent feature.)

I know, I know. You’re all jealous of my stylin’ self.

Anyway, so there I was, standing on the upper level of my local cinema just before midnight and looking down on the crowds of pointy-hatted fans waiting to collect their tickets or standing around in groups with large buckets of popcorn. There were Harrys and Ginnys and Lunas and a phoenix and a hippogriff and Death Eaters and a couple of Voldemorts. And when it was time to go in and the barrier to the cinemas was removed, the crowd rushed forward with a roar worthy of any Gryffindor lion.

This was not just a movie – not even just THE EPIC FINALE OF THE WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON, as the trailers proclaimed.

This was An Event.

I’m a sentimental lass and endings have always meant a lot to me. Of course, I count myself as lucky to be a part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, which adds a great deal to the sentimentality of the occasion. This was a very different moment to when I finished reading book 7 for the first time (2:30 in the morning, in my grandmother’s house, clock ticking quietly, the book falling shut with a soft, reverent sort of thump into the silence).

The atmosphere inside the cinema as we were all waiting for the 12:01am session to begin was fizzing.

Overheard:

  • Two teenage boys sitting next to us, pouring cups from the bottle of vodka that they’d smuggled in, spoken matter-of-factly: “I seriously think I’m going to cry when this movie finishes.”
  • Girl (slightly worried): “No one’s minding my bag and wallet at the moment, do you think these people are trustworthy?”
    Guy: “Of course they are, they’re Harry Potter fans!”
  •  Boy 1 runs up to Boy 2, who is dressed as a house elf. Boy 1 throws a sock at him, yells “DOBBY! YOU’RE FREE!” and runs away again.

That got the first round of applause for the night, and not the last. I’ve never heard a cinema audience clap and cheer so enthusiastically – not just at the rolling of the credits, but at every significant event throughout the movie. (It didn’t take much to set us off.)

We sounded more like the crowd at a game of football than at the cinema, and I thought that was delightful. Let’s face it, no matter how much you love sport, kicking a ball through a couple of goal posts is never going to measure up to vanquishing the Forces of Evil Once And For All.

And this is why Harry Potter matters. From the robed group in the front row who stood in unison at the end of the credits to wave their wands and declare ‘Mischief Managed!’ with superb satisfaction, to the hysterically crying teenagers when it was over – the costumes, the anticipation, the excitement, the in-jokes, the palpable sense of solidarity. It was people brought together over a story. A simple story about good overcoming evil, about heroism and sacrifice and friendship. We weave our lives around stories and we always have done.

As a writer and a lover of stories myself, to see this fact demonstrated with such clarity gave me a great sense of hope. I thought it was bloody excellent.

Mischief managed, indeed.

Feminism in the literary world

Statistics can be so disheartening sometimes.

Sophie Cunningham writes about the plight of the female author in the literary world. Read the article here.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of quotas. Mainly because I know that it shouldn’t be necessary for equality to be enforced – it should come naturally. The current numbers indicate otherwise, though.

As a hopeful writer, how does one go about Changing The System? Where do we start?