Sunday, 24 February 2013

Fun books

Rara avis
I confess I had not heard of Jasper Fforde until Marilyn picked one of his books The Eyre Affair for our application to the organisers to take part in World Book Night on Tues April 23 this year. Now that I have heard of him, I am absolutely delighted that we are going to promote one his funny, imaginative books and with any luck some of his merchandise - see for more details. Fforde appears to be a one-man whirlwind of off-the-wall ideas, including a range of T-shirts bearing the legend 'Don't mess with me: I'm a librarian'. Perfect gifts for our Russian visitors from the All-Union State Library of Foreign Literature (VGBIL) in Moscow next week.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Old French poets

Horse and rider by Jack B Yeats
Chimney smoke rising, early morning, Moffat
A perfect winter's morning in Moffat: frost on the ground, a bright clear sky as the sun comes up behind the hills to the southeast, one crow sitting in the still-leafless birch trees on the mill leat.

Smoke curls lazily up from the houses by the Birnock Water, echoing lines in the poem by Joachim du Bellay engraved on the sculpture in my garden:

Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m'est une province, et beaucoup davantage ?

Speaking of old French poets, today in The Writer's Almanac I read the famous poem by W B  Yeats whose brother Jack was an equally gifted painter:
When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Yeats' poem, being a more or less direct translation - with deviations of genius -  from a famous French original written 300 years earlier by Ronsard (below) will serve as one starting point for our discussions at our upcoming conference on translation Sept 20-22 2013:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, a la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant...etc

Both poems are exquisite and worth memorising for those difficult moments in life when only poetry will do.

Thursday, 7 February 2013


Hut in snow by Philip Solovjov
(more of his work on, meet him at the gallery Sunday Feb 10 2-3pm )
What to read when it is snowing: Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak; The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (who came to launch her best-selling book in Moffat last year); Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson; Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg;The Snowman by Raymond Briggs; The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol - well, you get the idea. Stories set in the northern hemisphere or by eg Scandanavian, Russian, Scots, German, French, Alaskan, Mongolian, Chinese, Tibetan authors, have a high probability of a dramatic snow scene. Snow eliminates tracks, allows sledges drawn by horses or dogs. Shiver with Captain Oates and Napoleon's army in retreat; harken to The Call of the Wild (Jack London).

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Lost kings

Richard III
Where will the remains of Richard III be buried? There is a strong case for him to be laid to rest in York minster, where, in 1482 he made plans for a chantry, a place where masses could be sung for his soul, unfulfilled at the time of his death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. He was the last Plantagent king of England. The Plantagenet kings used common broom (known as "planta genista" in Latin) as an emblem and took their name from it. It was originally the emblem of Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II of England.  Crosby Hall, the town house of Richard II was moved from its original site in the city of London to Chelsea when it was threatened with demolion in the 1920's. For many years it was part of an ugly modern building occupied by the British Association of University Women and is now incorporated in a modern pastiche of a Tudor mansion - including a great hall containing the coat of arms of Richard III see

Another 'lost king' is Tsar Alexander I, elder brother of the grand duke who visited Moffat on Dec 28 1816. It is now widely believed that, far from dying from typhus in 1825, he slipped away to live a quiet life as a monk in Siberia, assisted by his Scottish doctor who connived in a false death certificate.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Reading Clinic

Happy Birthday, James Joyce b. Feb 2 1882
A reader has consulted Moffat Book Events about what to read after finishing James Joyce's Ulysses. A change of pace and mood is clearly indicated after such a marathon. Ulysses is also, the reader reports 'incredibly filthy'. So: something lighter in every sense might bridge the gap. Authors such as Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh wrote short, witty books in classic, clear English. George Orwell  also scores highly on purity of English, and length ie did not go in for blockbusters. I suggest diaries from Roger Lewis's Seasonal Suicide Notes to James Lees Milne's epic series, or letters such as the Lyttleton-Hart Davies series between a retired school master and a publisher, for literary gossip, opinions and fun.  The inquirer is a fan of American crime fiction, a genre I usually enjoy in TV versions (Columbo; Murder, She Wrote). The reader might try the shocking The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester? A short book (the reader's arms must need a rest from lugging Ulysses around) I can  recommend, which explores another sort of night town is the memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe: Just Kids by poet, artist and rock star Patti Smith. With reading, one thing often leads to another. The author of Ulysses was wont to invite the waiter to join him at his table. Why not explore the theme of hospitality via a range of reading matter: the memoirs of great hostesses of the past; Jacques Derrida's exploration of the stranger in Of Hospitality; pilgrimage might lead to William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain and so on. Moffat sometimes laments that it is 'only' a place that people pass through on their way somewhere else. But what better characterises the human condition?

Friday, 1 February 2013

Power of poetry

Heureux qui comme Ulysse
Yesterday, in my excitement, I forgot to explain my own personal reason for celebrating the poem 'Heureux qui comme Ulysse' in my garden - pictured above. I learned the poem at school from a much loved teacher of French, Madame Quinche who had been an undergraduate at Cambridge with Georgette (Regency romances) Heyer. Madame Quinche was married to a Swiss (it was a school in Switzerland) and she had the gift of passing on memorable things. One was the story of an Englishwoman in Paris trying to hire a hansom cab : 'Cochon! Cochon! Etes-vous fiance? Si non, prenez-moi'. Anyway, we learned 'Heureux' by heart. Forty years later, I was walking in the company of the homeless and others from St Martin in the Fields in London to Canterbury, covering a distance of 17 or 18 miles a day. My feet were very blistered and painful but I wanted to finish the pilgrimage not surrender and complete the journey in the van. I found myself reciting the first verse of the du Bellay poem over and over to help me, which it did. The meaning of the poem is particularly apt because of my circumstances, having come after wanderings to join my family in Moffat, whose emblem is the ram - hence the golden fleece motif picked out in the pavement in my garden at the centre, and repeated in the visitors book in the gallery: