Blue and Yellow

There’s an awful lot of blue and yellow out there these days. According to a few online ‘-edias’ and ‘-ictionaries’, the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag represent the sky and fields of wheat. This combination of colours comes from the flag of the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia, used in the 12th century for the lands that include modern-day Ukraine.

Even the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to unite people the way Putin’s attack on Ukraine has. The pandemic was beleaguered from the start with different theories on how it spreads and what strategies governments should take to protect people. And let’s not forget the covid-deniers and anti-vaxers. The war in Ukraine is more straightforward. Though the solutions and ways of taming Putin are complex, we have all witnessed this unprovoked attack on a liberal democracy and recognise propaganda when we hear it.

I suspect that we’re sporting the blue and yellow, not only because we’re humanitarians, but because we feel vulnerable. I sure do. The possibility of another world war, one that would be, unlike its predecessors, fuelled in part by cyber-attacks and nuclear arsenals leaves me edging towards panic, that sensation of falling from high without a net.

Everyone has their own means of dealing with this feeling of vulnerability. I find myself meditating longer and more often, trying to live in the moment as vulnerability entails some projection into the future. I’ve also tried to do something for the people of Ukraine in a couple of small ways – a donation to the Red Cross and participating in a march through the streets of Cambridge, UK. (I’m aware that by mentioning this I risk being accused of virtue signalling.)

March in Cambridge, 5 March 2022

Above all else, I’ve sought solace in the Ukrainian writings and artistic works that have been surfacing en masse in mainstream and social media. Before this war, I was only familiar with a handful of Ukrainian writers, including Natalka Bilotserkivets. I found one of her poems again and reread it, forced by the present to interpret it differently:

ROSE

It’s time to pack your bag and go.
You don’t know what to take – something easy
to carry; everything you’d possibly need,
instantly found.

Two or three brushes, soap and a towel.
Clean underwear, just in case your lover
meets you – or God. Either way,
you should have clean underwear.

In a secluded place, among weeds
of a dense, heavenly forest, I’ll meet a rose.
Like Blake’s symbol of delicate mysticism –
the rose who loves the worm.

Having allowed him into her alluring womb,
she trembles, hidden, to avoid me,
and all poetry – a shame, a bore,
oh, poor flower, lovely, dear . . .

© Translation: 2002, Dzvinia Orlowsky
First published on Poetry International, 2006

Now I imagine a yellow rose against a blue sky and people packing hurriedly as if leaving their lovers, but with the hope of meeting them again.

‘Support’ by Olga Shtonda

Everyone’s Talking Ulysses

As this month marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s impossible to avoid.

My confession: I’ve read it one and two thirds’ times. That is, I first tackled this 700+page tome as an undergraduate in Chicago and failed to finish it – this is what happens when you work fulltime and take on a full schedule of classes. Self-pity aside, I managed two thirds of the book and with fastidious notes from the prof’s lectures, I partly bluffed my way through an essay exam, emerging with a B+. Fast forward to some 25 years later, I was in my forties and decided it was time to read the book cover-to-cover, including the 200+ pages of annotations at the back.

Such a reading exercise is hard work, simply because so much is involved in following the wandering thoughts and observations of Leopold Bloom and in understanding the political and social references of the time (those annotations come in handy). Ezra Pound described Ulysses as an ‘encyclopedia in the form of farce,’ and it is encyclopedic in that it covers a mass of subjects and ideas. But I don’t think ‘farce’ does it justice – the humour in Ulysses is at times situational, but is more often subtle and satirical.

Even though getting through Ulysses is an undertaking, it is worth it, especially in middle age. My undergraduate self couldn’t have possibly appreciated the nuance of emotions and the reflections on life:

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’

The 25-year gap between my first and second readings was filled with, among other things, living in the UK and reading other modernist writers, such as Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. While I recall my younger self appreciating the turns of phrase and the love of language that trickles throughout the novel, I value it more from the vantage point of being a literary stylistician, noticing the occasional wink to the reader.

Would I read it again? People certainly do. I remember the poet Anthony Thwaite telling me that he read it about once every decade. For the true Ulysses aficionados, there’s the Twitter account UlyssesReader, which tweets out quotes from the book every ten minutes – it’s a corpus-fed bot. Serious fans make the pilgrimage to Dublin for the Bloomsday celebrations every 16th of June, the day the story takes place. It all sounds like good fun, but when it comes to rereading, I’d rather reread Joyce’s short story collection, The Dubliners, with one of my favourite stories, ‘Eveline.’ Or better still, read something for the first time. There’s Finnegan’s Wake, a Joyce book I found unreadable when I tried it some 30 years ago – it makes Ulysses read like a child’s nursey rhyme – and there it sits in my Kindle, waiting for me.

Problems and Praises for The Trauma Plot

In a recent New Yorker article, Parul Sehgal makes the case that the trauma plot can leave us with characters who are ‘flattened into a set of symptoms.’ The first example that came to my mind, and not included by Sehgal, was The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The main character without his combat encounters of deactivating bombs wasn’t much of a character. Yet, it is nevertheless a great film because for the most part it’s plot-driven, but in a good way, with precision editing giving the audience an intense visual experience.

Sehgal offers examples from television (including Clare Underwood and Ted Lasso) and modern fiction (Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) that have been reliant on the trauma narrative creating a character’s past and personality. For me, the most salient point comes from counter examples:

‘Trauma has become synonymous with backstory, but the tyranny of backstory is itself a relatively recent phenomenon—one that, like any successful convention, has a way of skirting our notice. Personality was not always rendered as the pencil-rubbing of personal history. Jane Austen’s characters are not pierced by sudden memories; they do not work to fill in the gaps of partial, haunting recollections.’

Sehgal is not a total polemicist, pointing out times when the traumatic backstory is only partly revealed and how it has contributed to some of our best works of fiction – Morrison’s Sula, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.

I can think of several novels that use the trauma plot to great effect without diminishing their characters. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (originally in French) have female protagonists whose traumatic pasts help to explain the defensive sharp wit and quirkiness of these rounded characters. Kazuo Ishiguro effectively deals with trauma in a few of his novels, and in An Artist of the Floating World, the denial of one character’s traumatic memories is used to symbolise the collective amnesia of post-war Japan.

Sehgal’s piece is also worth a read for what she has to say about the ubiquity of trauma in our present-day cultural scripts, offering studies and views counter to popular thought. Like Sehgal, I find it intriguing that our society seems to have a fascination with trauma. Is this part of a victim-centric wave of thought and policy (those much-debated ‘safe spaces’) or have we become more sympathetic and able to discuss traumatic experiences that our ancestors preferred to conceal?

Notes on Trauma

I keep on bumping into the topic of trauma. Our society, literature and art, at least in the West, are dealing with this topic more openly and more creatively than they did in the not too distant past. So far, I just have some disconnected notes.

  • In the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a woman and her eight-year-old child escape from the brutal massacre carried out by a Mexican cartel of sixteen members of her family– that’s the opening chapter, no spoilers here. As mother and son flee this tragedy, they carry their trauma with them. The narrator, at this point focalized on the mother notes: ‘Trauma waits for stillness. Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.’ 
  • A CfP (that’s ‘call for papers’ in academic speak) came up for an article collection on the theme of extremities, not to be confused with extremism, following on from the work of Catherine Malabou on neuro-literature and the recent wave of ‘extreme’ texts in literature. In brief neuro-literature is something of a template for literary and art criticism that is post-deconstructive (sorry Derrida) and post-sociocultural interpretations, drawing from the sciences, including neurobiology. ‘Extreme’ texts seem to have many definitions, but I divide them simply into structurally experimental and/or radical in theme. On the CfP’s list of potential topics within the idea of extremities is ‘post-trauma, witnessing, silencing and reorientation in literature.’ This makes me wonder if trauma reaches an extreme, an outer edge, of human experience.
  • Some excellent novels in recent years have dealt with the topic of rape, how it traumatises as it shames and alienates the victim and the victim’s family. A melange of emotions with an undercurrent of misogyny and patriarchy. I mentioned in a recent blog, Girl by Edna O’Brien, which is about the abducted girls in Burkina Faso. To this I add, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, which is set in the US and shows how the rape of one family member can over time change the lives of the entire family.
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk has been referred to as the ‘trauma bible.’ Van der Kolk, a trauma specialist, recounts his decades of work with trauma survivors, showing how this is not only a psychological condition and phenomenon, but also a physical one that can alter the body’s health. It was on the New York Times bestseller list. I think says something about the time we are living in.
  • A zoom talk by Women’s Human Rights Council featured Jeanne Sarson and Linda Macdonald, who were promoting their book Women Unsilenced. The book is about the male torture of women in domestic violence and in slave trafficking. The authors mentioned how they are not referring to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the usual way, for them it is PTSR. The R is for response – we respond, we naturally react to stress and trauma. To call it a ‘disorder’ further victimizes the victim. I agree with that.

It’s a humourless topic, which makes it hard to write about. It might take some journal entries and blogs to get to grips with this. But the topic is also ubiquitous, and writing about it is crucial.

Poetry Days

I don’t live with poetry the way some writers do. Poetry comes up on me in seasons, lasting a few months, and sometimes in comes along for a couple of weeks before fading away again.

I’m in one of those short spells of poetry, triggered by National Poetry Day producing a list of the nation’s top ten favourite poems as voted for by the British people. To no surprise, something by Shakespeare – the sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – was in the number one spot. Of the remaining nine, only two were by women – Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Maya Angelou. That shouldn’t be a surprise either as the list reflected works typically found on the school curriculum, until recent years teaching the predominately white male canon. Other worn favourites included Kipling’s over-simplistic ‘If’ and Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic ‘Jabberwocky.’ This makes me wonder if childhood is so influential that it shapes our tastes for the rest of our lives. Taking a more cynical view, it could be that institutions of formal education are among the few places where we get exposed to poetry, thus making these works more memorable. Having said that, performance poetry, poetry slams and YouTube are doing their bit to take poetry outside of the classroom. I would like to think that future surveys of the nation’s favourite poems will include works to emerge from these newer formats.

Nearly all my favourite poems come from twentieth century writers – e.e. cummings (‘love is thicker than forget’), Stevie Smith (‘Not Waving but Drowning’) and Fleur Adcock (‘Against Coupling’) come to mind. Many of these poems can be found in university textbooks and papers in literary stylistics, leading me to think that the study of certain poems makes them our favourites.

This spell of poetry continued along last weekend with a memorial service for Anthony Thwaite, one of my favourite poets and a personal acquaintance. Anthony passed away earlier this year and was given quite a send off by the British press (The Guardian and Times among them). For the writers of these obits, Anthony was a ‘mover and shaker’ of post-war poetry, a literary editor and close friend and literary executor to Philip Larkin. I met Anthony some 15 years ago at his Norfolk home that he shared with his wife, Anne, and which hosted many East Anglia Writers’ summer parties over the years. The Anthony that I knew, while still funny and forthright as in his younger days, displayed an easy-going cleverness – the sagacity of a life well-lived.

Indulge me with closing this blog entry and this poetry mini season with a poem printed in the order of service and one that coincidently puts a twist on my thoughts about the nation’s favourite poems:

Simple Poem

I shall make it simple so that you understand.

Making it simple will make it clear for me.

When you have read it, take me by the hand

As children do, loving simplicity.

This is the simple poem that I have made.

Tell me you understand. But when you do

Don’t ask me in return if I have said

All that I meant, or whether it is true.

Anthony Thwaite

Stories About Girls

Having recently written about Roald Dahl’s Matilda (the Literary Encyclopedia), I’ve become more aware of stories about girls. By ‘girls’, I mean under the age of eighteen. Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was not about a girl – it was about a young woman. 

So many stories about girlhood depict heroines battling against adversaries and situations that often stem from simply not being a boy. Matilda is a gifted child who can read and do maths well beyond her years. Yet, she has to fight the negative gender stereotypes  promoted by both of her parents, who blatantly favour Matilda’s little dimwitted brother. When Matilda displays a stronger ability in maths than her father, he calls his daughter a stupid liar. Her mother tries to dissuade her from being smart as it would make it harder for her to get a husband. These characters, referred to by one scholar as ‘.the most thoroughly unpleasant personalities in children’s fiction’ are seen by some as exaggerations for the amusement of children. But I would argue they are not too far off the mark in western societies even today and in some parts of the world, this hyper-sexism is spot on. What makes this a good story about girlhood is that Matilda triumphs using her brain and her telekinetic powers which come from her extraordinary powers of concentration – her brain again.

While working on this Matilda article, my pleasure read for part of that time was Edna O’Brien’s brillant novel Girl, based on the kidnapping of 276 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. Given the subject matter, it might not sound like a ‘pleasure read’ and I had hesitated to read it at all because I thought it might be too distressing. We all knew at the time that these girls were abducted in order to be raped or forced to be soldier’s brides – another form of rape. While, yes, the rapes occur, they happen early in the story and are described from one girl’s perspective with a focus on the emotional experience of confusion and disgust. Once the girl, Maryam,  is married off and gives birth – she is barely pubescent – she is able to escape. The story becomes one of survival in terrifying circumstances. Upon Maryam’s return to her family the story shifts to one of coping with trauma and rising above the superstitions and condemnation of her family and community. In its own, strange way, O’Brien’s retelling of this horrible crime against humanity is life-affirming.

I realise that this blog, thankfully not a book review article, makes an unlikely comparison between a children’s book known for its dark humour and a contemporary adult novel replete with uncomfortable naturalism.Both Dahl and O’Brien see the innate oppression in the lives of girls. 

Fence Painting in Durrell’s Cyprus and Our Afghanistan

As I don’t understand and can only feel rage over the crisis in Afghanistan – Biden’s long game, the shambolic withdrawal of troops and civilians, NATO’s apathy – I’ve escaped this past week to Cyprus. That is, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, written in 1957. To achieve total escape, I decided to experience this not as a written book, risking my thoughts drifting to Afghanistan, but as an audiobook – my first audiobook ever. This neatly coincided with the task of 18 meters of rickety old fence to paint.

A friend recommended Durrell’s autobiographical account of his three years in Cyprus. Strangely devoid of sex for a L. Durrell book, the narration is straightforward and the descriptions are rich with Mediterranean flora and the spirited people of the island. As I listened to amusing encounters between Durrell and the locals as he tries to buy a home, my paint brush slopped over old twigs stuck between panels of rotten wood. To dislodge the twigs would have caused the panels to pop out.

The book gradually introduces the political context through how it manifested itself in the daily lives of locals and expats. Cyprus was trying to gain independence from the British, who still controlled it as a Crown Colony.

A couple of days of rain meant I had to leave the fence about one-third painted. I watched Afghanis crowding into Kabul Airport, a few men jumping onto the underbelly of a US military plane as it taxis towards a runway. Feminist Current’s blog relayed a story about Taliban troops going door to door in search of ‘wives’ (translation – slaves). I followed the links to find that the story originated with Bloomberg, but I haven’t heard anything since.

The weather improved, and I returned to the garden with my bucket of cedar red. Durrell started his journey as a writer looking for a change of scenery, but ended up working as a press officer for the British foreign office.  One of Durrell’s neighbours talks about the need to fight for independence if independence is supposed to have any meaning at all. Does the Taliban feel the need to fight even though they’re being handed their independence on a platter? Durrell observes the British officials’ sense of entitlement to have a British Empire. One officer bemoans Britain leaving as ‘Cyprus is the backbone of the Empire.’  I’m living through the crumbling of the American Empire. Given the US government’s failures at nation-building through military means, this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps it’s time for America to exercise more soft power through its technology and medical science in parts of the world in need (for me, this includes America itself). By the time Durrell left the island, he had witnessed death and destruction, his lyrical travelogue turned into a treatise on human failings.

Unfortunately, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, beautifully read by actor Andrew Sachs, is only three hours long. My escape from the news in Afghanistan and my painting job had to be supplemented by a radio podcast about Nina Simone and the start of my second audiobook, Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (more on that another time).

With my work completed, the old wobbly fence is still an old wobbly fence, but now at least it’s of one colour. I have performed a cedar-red wash over chipped paint, rusty nails, decaying wood, empires, soldiers and refugees.

Getting Bees

Pardon the pun, but the English language makes it hard to talk about these apoidean insects without falling into word play (to bee or not…).

When it comes to bees, I have my own character arch. I grew up fearing them even though I didn’t see them often in my Chicago childhood. Some of this fear, like many fears, overlapped with hatred and ignorance. My mother was an insect hater, shooing away flies and ants, crushing the odd centipede and spider who dared to crawl around our apartment. My grandmother, who also raised me, was once stung by a bee in the supermarket, giving her a rounded bump on her otherwise flat bum. She was sure it was a bee. Reflecting  back, I’m not so sure. Bee stings on humans are in fact rare. Sure, beekeepers wear jumpsuits and netted hats, but they are after all trespassing and disrupting the bees’ homes.

If a bee were responsible for the bump on Grandma’s bum, it was because the old woman was asking for it. During summer months, she would wear white trousers and tops that were either all white, or white with some yellow print. She certainly dressed the part to attract pollinators. I suspect too that the allegedly aggressive bee sensed that Grandma lived on a diet of chocolate bars, coffee cake and Danish pastry, washed down many evenings with a vodka martini. The sweetness must have oozed from her skin.

Believing much of what I was told as a child, bees were to be feared and not swatted at as you would invariably miss, and the bee would come back around and sting you. You could end up in hospital! While there are people who have allergies to bee stings, they can be treated at home – but this rational couldn’t be accepted when I was growing up or even into early adulthood, where I would step nervously away from any bee I encountered.

I overcame my fear of bees in a single afternoon some dozen years after my grandmother’s purported incident. I was back in Edinburgh and took a day trip to the west coast of Scotland with my former landlady Erica, one of my surrogate mothers. We were in the gardens of some stately home having a picnic when a small bee came drifting over our food. Just when I was about to give Erica a warning, she noticed it and smiled, while luring the creature closer to her with a strawberry and directing it to a patch of heather. She made some comment about how ‘marvellous’ the creatures were.

In the time between my picnic with Erica and the bee and the present day, like any self-respecting environmental activist, I have learned about the value of bees. I’m thinking of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein, even if not completely accurate, it makes the point: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ In the popular press, I have also encountered some myths about bees. Not to detract from the dangers of pesticides and pollution, but the leading destroyers of bees are not manmade chemicals, but other insects, such as hornets and mites.

This brings me to one of the best books I’ve read recently, The Ardent Swarm, a novel by Tunisian writer Yamen Manai. A beekeeper in a village in Iraq loses thousands of his bees to an invasion of hornets. This is against the backdrop of Isis-like ‘holy men’ descending upon the village bringing gifts to influence the villagers to vote for them and join their militant cause.  The allegorical link between the destruction of the beehives and the lives of the villagers becomes apparent with the discovery that the hornets came over from East Asia in packages brought to the village by the ‘holy men.’

I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of books, fiction and non-fiction, about bees. This appears to be a topic full of aficionados and maybe even fetishists. While I do adore these creatures and worry about their survival, I don’t think I belong to either category. Having said that, I’ve recently purchased a Save the Bee packet from Friends of the Earth to do my bit. If Erica were around, I know she’d be proud of me.

(Whew, got through that without any more puns.)

Paul Theroux at 80

Time has folded up on me again with Paul Theroux celebrating his 80th birthday last weekend – surely, he can’t possibly be 80. The writer marked the occasion with an engaging essay in The New Yorker reflecting on his professional life, drawing on the personal and adding in a few points of literary criticism.  (Facing Ka‘ena Point: On Turning Eighty | The New Yorker). Theroux has long been a writer I can relate to as if we came from the same place and time – which his birthday and this current essay remind me we haven’t. Theroux grew up in a small town in Massachusetts in the 40s and 50s, a far cry from Chicago in the 60s and 70s. I probably share more experiences with Theroux’s sons, the documentary filmmakers Louis and Marcel in both life’s timelines and being more British than American.

We also couldn’t be more different when it comes to how we work as writers. In this New Yorker essay, he notes: ‘My method has not changed: still the first draft in longhand, to slow me down and make me concentrate, and then I copy it by hand, and finally I type it.’ Being a keyboard and screen aficionado, I can’t read this without feel bewildered and anxious.

I confess, I’ve only read one of Paul Theroux’s novels, The Mosquito Coast, and a few of his short stories. My secret friendship with Theroux comes from reading his essays about his travels and his family, revealing how he has developed psychologically over the years. In Granta 48, he wrote wryly about his time in Malawi working for the Peace Corps and living in a leper colony. I read it in the early 90s and still remember details from it today. Although my experiences as a traveller and someone who has lived in different countries isn’t as dramatic as that, thankfully, there is camaraderie in being the outsider, bringing humour to the most stressful of situations and reinventing yourself along the way.

Years later, Theroux again writing in Granta described large families: ‘The words “big family” have the same ring for me as “savage tribe”, and I now know that every big family is savage in its own way.’ This rings true with my own experience, and I still have a few scars. We both are one of seven children, Theroux in the middle and I the runt of the litter. In the current New Yorker piece, looking over his 80 years, he brings this up again, but from a different angle. Theroux and I escaped our large families by leaving home early, fending for ourselves, ‘living by my [or our] wits.’ I know exactly what he means when he writes about moving far away from family and saying, ‘I didn’t know the word “individuation,” the process of separation by which one gains a sense of self.’ If my life had a title or heading (I still don’t know what it would be), the sub-header would include this idea of individuation.

Many happy returns, PT, from another PT. 

Middlebrow reading and moving house

Just before moving house a few of weeks ago, I had started doing the keyboard equivalent of jotting down ideas about ‘middlebrow’ reading for this blog. I was going to recommend a few books that I’ve recently read but realised that middlebrow is a highly subjective term. That was around the time we had thought contracts had been exchanged on the buying of one property and the sale of  another, but they had not and we hadn’t heard from our solicitor in days. It looked like everything was going to fall through.

Back to the blog. What is meant by middlebrow has changed in connotation over the years. For modernists like Virginia Woolf, middlebrow was pejorative, reserved for aspiring intellectuals and cultural poseurs. The post-modernists, I guess I fit in best with that grouping if it doesn’t get me trolled, give middlebrow a more neutralised power as part of the general culture, accessible and culturally significant as an art form.

Moving house is stressful and all encompassing. It permeates all thoughts. While I was reading Little Fires Everywhere, a social satire by Celeste Ng, the subplot about a mother and daughter living a nomadic existence, going from one town to the next, became the main plot because it involved moving. The real main plot for those of you not moving home revolves around the Richardsons, a suburban American family run by a stereotypical 50’s era mother (though the story is set in the 90s). Their lives, brimming with secrets and intrigue, are rocked by the arrival of an artist, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl and a court case involving the adoption of a child abandoned by its mother. The different threads come together in this study of identity and motherhood.

Contracts were finally exchanged and moving day was just a few days away when I found a quote to use in my blog. Ezra Pound once said: ‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’ I’m assuming ‘great literature’ refers to highbrow, keeping with the literary banter of the day. Interesting, but ‘charged with meaning’ could mean many things, such as colourful metaphors or turns of phrase or it could signify language that is meaningful in the context that it has created and described. The house we’re moving to does not have a functioning kitchen. Cooking food and eating are meaningful. My mind drifted around design plans and buying a stove and hob, avoiding the meaning of meaning.

Moving day went smoothly despite Covid restrictions – everyone wearing masks, doors and windows open, social distancing with the broadband installer and movers. That is, everything went smoothly until we closed the windows and turned on the heat. Nothing – no heat in a house that had been empty for six months. To make matters worse, that February afternoon it was 7C, and it would be five days before we would have a working boiler.

During these chilly days huddled around a portable electric heater, I thought about the other middlebrow read that I was going to recommend, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, much of which takes place in the cold.  Lacroix, a wounded British officer, has returned from the Napoleonic Wars haunted by an atrocity that occurred in a Spanish village. Once he has recovered, he is ordered to return to fighting, but instead flees to Scotland. His travels include arriving in Glasgow, where he is mugged on the street and his boots are stolen. All I could think about is feet numb with cold. In the meantime, a kangaroo military tribunal decides that Lacroix is to blame for the killings in the Spanish village, and soon he is being chased by two comically inept officials. The story develops along the lines of thriller and romance, peppered with comic moments and Lacroix’s sagacious reflections.

Three weeks on from our move, the new kitchen has been installed and David has laid down wood floors in two of the rooms, including my office. With books on the shelves and boxes unpacked, I continue to read good fiction, middlebrow and highbrow, I suppose.