Saturday, 27 December 2014

Insight, Housework, and History: a pre-Christmas retreat at Gaia House, Devon

My first visit to Gaia House was in early summer. At the time, its tall many-windowed Georgian front evoked whispers of nineteenth-century institution - perhaps orphanage or boarding school; its sprawling wooded grounds with their ancient, thick-trunked trees and tiny closed-off graveyard clearly harboured secret histories. Unlike many old houses, there were no laminated signs with explanations or accounts of its lineage over the past few centuries - and there was no wifi to look it up, because it was a meditation retreat centre.

Gaia House
There have been buildings on the site amidst rolling green hills, just outside Newton Abbott, since Elizabethan times. An old foundation stone in one wing still bears the inscription 'Anno Domini 1588 T.R', for Thomas Reynell, patriarch of the local gentry family. Although much of the house now is Georgian, the tiny thirteenth century church which adjoins its grounds harks back to a sense of older history in which the silence and stillness of modern-day Gaia House are steeped. It has been a manor house, Christian retreat centre, an evacuated school during the Blitz, a convent, and - since 1996 - an insight meditation centre in the Buddhist tradition. Visitors arrive for a weekend, five days, a week, for teacher-led meditation retreats and study retreats, or to practise silently by themselves. Although the dining hall periodically fills with chatter at the beginning and end of retreats, it's a quiet place, where people come to filter down through the noise and vigilance of mind and life to find deeper stillness, and quieter truths.

Nuns at Gaia House, when it was West Ogwell House
With the sounds of owls calling at night, and star-filled skies, it couldn't be a more beautiful place in which to try. Yet the beauty is real and rough around the edges, and the house weaves its retreatants into its very fabric to keep it running. Along with a simple schedule of early morning meditation, breakfast, three hours' meditation before lunch, three hours' afterwards, and an early supper, every morning after breakfast each retreatant is assigned to a part of the house to work for an hour. On my first retreat I washed the dishes in the early summer morning, bleary-eyed, the sunlight pale and clean through the sloping glass ceiling. On my second, I chopped vegetables with increasingly blunt knives: onions and sweet potatoes, aubergines and kale, peppers and courgettes and squashes and potatoes, for the vegetarian dishes that appeared beautifully cooked and seasoned for lunch each day. This time round, I did housework as the anaemic winter sunlight struggled through the windows. I scrubbed toilets, sinks, and showers, refilled hand-wash bottles, wiped mirrors, vacuumed the winding corridors, dusted the skirting-boards, took down the bins to the silent laundry, mopped the linoleum floors.

Housework is just a chore for most of us. At Gaia House it is many things: it's an opportunity for mindfulness - to practise being fully with the task in the present moment, however seemingly mundane; it is also a way of contributing, of clearing up after oneself, for a centre that works hard to keep its costs to retreatants low and the old house ticking over. Yet there's a particular sense of discovery when these things come together, as they did for me this December, as in silence I cleaned, wiped, and dusted the intimate spaces of the old house. I noticed the window shutters, now painted over and pinned back, which used to close up the house in the wartime blackouts of the 1940s, and from which wisps of cavity wall insulation now poke; I spotted the hideyhole in the strangely-shaped tiny cleaning closet, where I could imagine evacuees hiding from their teachers. I found that what I'd taken to be a tiled floor was in fact a cunning linoleum. I discovered the old taps in incongruent places, where pipes had once led, and where now there were none; I noted the antique marble fireplaces, once expensive, now disused. I noticed the bumps and scrapes on the paintwork where previous retreatants had trailed their luggage, and witnessed myself adding to them involuntarily with Henry the Hoover as he took corners with a gallant thud. I was discovering a house that was made up of layers of history, some quieter and darker than others, and which continues to accrue its scrapes and stories as visitors come and go, however silently.

The spiral staircase, Denbury Wing
As with my previous tasks on previous occasions, I also sensed the ways in which this unsung community hour weaves together people and house in symbiosis. To take a dish and have seen the person who washed it for you, even if you don't know their name; to find that the sweet potato that you peeled and chopped with aching wrists has morphed into a delicious soup at the hands of the woman in the kitchen; even that the bathmat that you fetched from the laundry has been carefully hung up to dry - these things integrate retreatants, staff, and house far more than somewhere where it's all done for you. By drawing its visitors into the living heart of the house - its dusty cleaning closets and oniony kitchens - Gaia House turns meditation into a form of life, life into a form of meditation, individual visitors into companions, and each retreat into a homecoming. Meanwhile, amidst the simplicity of the present moment lurks the history - much lovelier when stumbled upon beneath a layer of paint, than laminated in plain sight.

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: The Attenborough Effect

It was all going really well - until David Attenborough came to call.

A few months ago I identified a book surplus issue in my life. The double-stacks were making my shelves dip ever so gently in the middle; books adorned my furniture and served as book-tables for more books. It was pleasant to be engulfed by my favourite form of material culture, but it was becoming problematic for the supporting walls, and quite demanding to navigate in the early morning. So I've been attempting with some success to go six months without buying any more books.

A funny thing started to happen at the beginning of November, two months into my challenge. I would wander through Waterstones and read the back of a lovely shiny paperback and not feel the visceral urge to buy it. I'd clock it and think vaguely 'Oh, I might get that once my six months are up,' and then as I stepped out into the damp Oxford air the thought would float away softly into the ether. Meanwhile, I was on a good reading roll at home. Donna Tartt's The Secret History was proving an addictive bedfellow; so well written that I'd pick it up to read a few pages at night, and find myself still there twenty minutes later. I was in a happy equilibrium with my books, satisfied not to be adding to their number, replete with the real joy of a good one on the go.

Then I heard that David Attenborough was going to come and sign his new book at my college.

I've written about David Attenborough on this blog before, but suffice to say, most of my childhood was spent either reading, making dens, or watching David Attenborough. Not only does he feel like the nation's coral-reef-abseiling grandfather, he even looks a lot like mine. His documentaries instilled both love of nature and landscape in those who watched them as children, and also feelings subtler and intangible: curiosity about and affinity with the natural world, a sense that it is part of us and we are part of it, and that we would do well to know and look after our wild places. I've harboured a wish to meet him ever since I discovered two years ago - on the day, too late - that the great man did in fact take in Oxford on his book tours.

When I got the email, I was all over it like a chipmunk on a camper's granola bars. Without a twinge of book-buyer's guilt I went out and picked up his new one, the updated Life On Air, which I had listened to as an audiobook a couple of years earlier. This was a purchase with a purpose: I was going to meet David Attenborough, and he would probably just smile and sign my book, and that would be enough. The joy sustained me over three weeks of intense thesis-writing. As yet another weekend sailed by at my desk I would think about David Attenborough wafting eau d'Antarctique into the calm unknowing corridors of my college, and wonder yet again whether twenty-six was too late to throw in my lot as a wannabe natural history camerawoman.

Then, three days before he was due to visit, I got another email. David Attenborough's schedule had sadly become overcrowded, and he would be unable to meet us and sign our books. However, he would sign bookplates for us, and he'd be at Waterstones that day, if we wanted to go and queue there.

It had felt too good to be true - the mythical Attenborough, a rare and refined species, glimpsed repeatedly from televisual distance throughout my life, descending through the forests of Oxford to emerge in my college - and I could only smile with disappointment. I wondered vaguely about heading to Waterstones, book in hand. My sister was in town on the day and texted me six hours before he was due to make his appearance: the queues were already in place - and they were long. That settled it for me; it was my first day off in a month and I didn't have the energy to spend it in a queue, even for David Attenborough. Others were more determined. The Oxford Mail later reported that people queued for up to eight hours to meet him. My sister joined the line for a while and discovered that people had come from all over the country: he'd been at a bookshop in Basingstoke that morning, the queues were too long for everyone to be seen, and the un-quenched had jumped on trains to Oxford. One had flown down from Aberdeen, and others flown in from Ireland.

The scale of it took everyone by surprise. Strikingly, my sister noticed people heading to his enclave in the shop with not just one book to be signed, but piles of them - Life on Earth, The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, Life in Cold Blood. These were summarily unloaded onto the table for Sir Attenborough to put his pen across. It was a reminder of the peculiarity of celebrity, the discombobulating juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous. Over a sixty-year career, the broadcaster has been loved for being genuine, patient, and dignified; for bringing the world's jungles and mountains, deserts and deep oceans, ice flats and gardens into the nation's homes. Yet as we yearn to materialise the ineffable, he is maxed-out for his signature by some, while hundreds of others wait patiently to catch a glimpse.

So that was that. No sightings of the man himself, but instead one rather lovely bookplate-signed hardback copy of David Attenborough's Life on Air (2014). It was a tasteful fifth column within my six-month challenge. Something had ruptured; that month I also succumbed to a cookbook. Later, doing my Christmas shopping, I was hooked by Andrea Wulf's The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden. Soberly facing the New Year, buoyed up by a fortunate Christmas trilogy of Hilary Mantel, Henry Marsh, and Helen MacDonald, I'm back on track for my last two months of self-imposed restraint. Maybe Sir David will return to Oxford; maybe he won't. I'll just have to be patient, and wait.

Friday, 31 October 2014

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: October

I haven't read or bought a book all month.

My October was a book lover's desert. At the beginning of the month I read the first few pages of Howard Jacobson's J, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, and it's been sitting all sleek and beautiful in its monochrome cover by my bed ever since, untouched. I've been dipping in and out of my well-thumbed copy of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, because I am co-teaching a mindfulness course for university students that is based on this. But other than those, my recreational pursuit of the written word has taken a serious blow.

The first culprit for my October book desert was a language learning app. I arrived back from Japan feeling quite thankful that in the ordinary way of things I can communicate without every second phrase being 'thank you' or 'sorry', but also feeling suitably chastened about my foreign language skills. A friend recommended Duolingo, a free app with multiple European languages from Danish to Portuguese, and I took the plunge into brushing up French. I set a goal of twenty minutes a day and the little Duolingo owl sent me encouraging reminders every morning. I liked the app, too. It was cute and stretching without being impossible and it had a lovely graph of how much I was doing every day. Everyone has an extra twenty minutes in their day just waiting to be filled with French household items, right? Wrong.

Learning Spanish on Duolingo
One of the things that participants in the Frantic World mindfulness course discover early on is how bizarrely difficult it is to actually demarcate a separate twenty minutes every day for mindfulness practice. At the outset we assume with tremendous faith in ourselves that of course we can manage an extra twenty minutes of this or twenty minutes of that. What we invariably wind up doing, however, is either being twenty minutes late for something, and getting stressed about that - our appointment with our supervisor, friend, or sleep - or simply cutting something else out completely. Jon Kabat-Zinn, doyen of mindfulness-based approaches, makes the point that actually when you begin a mindfulness course, you are going to have to make a choice about what you are not doing to do for eight weeks in order to do your mindfulness practice. If you had a spare half hour in your lives every day, he says, you wouldn't be here.

What does this have to do with reading? In October, Duolingo became the thing that I did last thing at night when I got home from the office or from dinner with friends. The problem was that the thing I used to do last thing at night was read. I was disinclined to miss my appointment with sleep, so I stopped reading. My French was coming on nicely, and I had even flirted briefly with the idea of throwing in ten minutes of daily Italian (my poor brain could not be persuaded to shift into yet another language at ten o' clock at night), but the stack of books next to my bed remained untouched.

Then it was three weeks later and I was feeling distinctly out of sorts. I had this vague fuzzy itchy sense of lack. I felt surprisingly mournful as I dispatched yet another copy of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch - my book of the year - as a gift to a friend in Cambridge. Moreover, Oxford term-time had kicked in and I was really struggling to find the energy in the evenings to translate French sentences about electric wires and newspapers and cleaning products. I started skipping my Duolingo sessions, but I was still going to sleep feeling slightly unsettled. Then it hit me: I hadn't read a book since the end of September.

So last weekend I looked at the literarily challenged landscape of my evenings and decided that enough was enough. With some forceful time reallocation, I'm now a hundred pages into re-reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. In the same way that the literary world happily waits for a decade in-between the appearance of each novel by Donna Tartt, a hundred pages of the slightly creepy but fascinating Secret History has been almost worth my three weeks of imagination abstinence (just don't remind me how it ends - I last read it when I was thirteen). And now, having learned my lesson, I will pay much closer attention to what gets shelved whenever I try to do something extra - because something always gets shelved, and book abstinence is too high a price to pay.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: September

A month ago, serenaded by the creaking of my bookshelves, I vowed to abstain from buying books for six months and just read a few of the (many) hundreds I already had. This should have been made simpler by the fact that I spent three weeks of September in Japan, where English-language books are in short supply, and book-weighted additions to one's personal belongings rapidly make themselves felt in the strain of lugging a suitcase around the Shinkansen. But - I was in Japan, and I had a Kindle, and I suddenly wanted to read lots of books about Japan and novels set in Japan and, best of all, there are free Kindle titles from the nineteenth century like Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella L. Bird and the folkloric Tales of Old Japan by Baron Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford. Frankly, who could resist such gems? 

The free Kindle titles made their way into my virtual library - but I made it through the month without buying a single physical book. I managed to read a few, instead:

A Traveller's History of Japan by Richard Tames

I'd wanted to visit Japan ever since I was a child, when my grandmother took me to see Japanese art in the London museums and the Japanese garden at Kew. I was given this book for Christmas a few years ago and when I booked my plane ticket, out it came to be dusted-down. It's a good length and density for a curious but casual traveller; Tames follows a rough chronology of Japanese history and explores it against the country's own origin myths. From the pottery of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Edo plain, to the protracted building of Kyoto, the politics of shoguns and samurai and daimyo (feudal rulers), and the spread of Chinese Buddhism across Japan, Tames offers brief but engaging snapshots of much of Japanese culture and society across time. The second half of the book is a more in-depth account of Japan's twentieth century: its frosty relations with China, Korea, and Russia, all nations jostling for land and superiority in East Asia; back-room stalemate after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; the economic success story of the 1960s and '70s; later stagnation; and the creation of a pacifist country, only recently persuaded to re-engage in the international military sphere with the despatch of troops to major conflict zones. The book ends abruptly and chronologically, suffering from the lack of a conclusion to draw its themes together; an unfortunate shortcut to the ease of updating future editions.

The Temporary Bride: a memoir of love and food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec 

This sumptuously written memoir submerges its readers in a rosewater-drenched evocation of life - culinary, romantic, and political - for a Western woman in Iran. I reviewed it last month for the Irish Examiner. 

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Those who enjoyed the spectacularly successful The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared will find much that is delightful and familiar in Jonasson's follow-up novel. Our protagonist is a precocious South African girl called Nombeko, who is infinitely more gifted than any of the idiots hashing up her country, and who is trying to ensure the most effective political destiny for a black books atomic bomb. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, a pair of Swedish twins find themselves at loggerheads over whether or not the King of Sweden should be deposed and replaced with a modern progressive socialist liberalist republic. Jonasson delights in constructing plots in which literally everything goes wrong. Good intentions go awry, the bad guys find the good guys, there's a liberal sprinkling of spontaneous death, and yet, ultimately, with the neat simplicity of a Zen garden*, it all works out fine. 

*Characterised by immaculately raked gravel patterns with not a smudge in sight. 

A Room With a View by E. M. Forster

Like most classics, this is a book that bears repeated reading at different ages. When I was much younger I appreciated the Italian adventure, the love story, the fusty relatives and the evocation of early twentieth-century genteel semi-urban English society. Now, Forster's psychological insight captivates me. His complex characters, painted with the lightest of touches - Lucy, Cecil, Mr Emerson, the 'dour' George - make the reader half-laugh, half-cry. I re-read this in a guesthouse in Kyoto across a handful of evenings, and felt quite at home. 

With October and the autumn well underway, I steel myself for a month of resisting the call of luminous book covers in cosy Blackwells on a foggy afternoon...

Friday, 29 August 2014

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: a book lover's six-month challenge

As a child one of my favourite books was Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Penned about the childhood of her husband, Almanzo Wilder, it brims with detail about the farming and food of 1860s upstate New York. Nine-year-old Almanzo eats and eats, desperate to grow as fast as possible so that he will be big and strong enough to own his own calf; one meal-time, his mother looks perplexedly at his piled-high plate and says 'your eyes are bigger than your stomach!'

It's an idiom that's stuck with me because it perfectly describes my own particular consumerist weakness: books. It's always been books, and it always will be. My bookshelves are double-stacked. Books line the floor in front of my radiator. There are books on my chest of drawers. There are books on my desk. There are books under my desk. There are (work) books under my other desk in the office I share with postgraduate colleagues. There are more books in the hallway which have not joined, and spatially cannot join the permanent book flashmob that is my bedroom. And then there's my Kindle - it's nearly full.

Moving back home for the summer (with more books), I realised that something had to give, so I began a book purge. I had relatively fresh eyes for it as I had lived away from home for almost two years, and it took me down all the winding imaginary trails of my adolescence and early adulthood to date. With bookshelf space at a Malthusian premium, I told myself that each book had to be considered in the light of what I wanted to own now - but this proved surprisingly difficult with each tug on the heartstrings. Colditz by Henry Chancellor had sat on those shelves for fourteen years; I'd thought about reading it a couple of times but just never got round to it. I knew, secretly, that when sitting next to The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng or The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, it was going to lose out by a small margin every time, barring external intervention or inspiration. That small margin - endlessly repeated, and extrapolating from fourteen years of evidence against its favour - diminished to microscopic the possibility that I would ever read the poor thing. Coldly, mathematically, functionally, disregarding our fourteen-year material relationship, I put it on the Oxfam pile and willed for it a more attentive owner.*

It joined many books that I had read many times, and many books that I had never read once. The latter were what really bugged me. With each discarded book I sensed the closing of a tiny door of knowledge, a Dark Materials-esque parallel world of the imagination sealed off. Readers read because they want to explore new worlds; many of the books I own were tiny doors that I opened when I was twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one, and beyond. Purging my books en masse entailed acknowledging that actually, I was never going to enter the world of Max Arthur's Lost Voices of the Royal Navy, or Catherine Bailey's The Secret Rooms - because, tempting though they are, I don't have time to read them; and if I do have time, they will probably lose out to Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity or the journals of Sylvia Plath. As a teenager, and even as an undergraduate, I thought I had all the time in the world to read these books and all the carpet in the world to house them. In my mid-twenties, I am facing up to the fact that my eyes are bigger than my bookshelves.

Book hoarding does of course have its advantages. A decade after I took a year's Japanese lessons, I'm finally making a trip to the land of Murakami, Ishiguro, tonkatsu and Mount Fuji. My textbook and Japanese dictionary have sat quietly undisturbed on the penultimate shelf of my first bookcase since I was fifteen, and in September they will be pored over and flicked through at thirty thousand feet as they accompany me six thousand miles east. Sometimes there is a lapse of many years before the reader takes the plunge through the book-door, which is all well and good and, indeed, rather satisfying. But while I could hold onto the promise of a gazillion open doors in the form of piles and piles of books awaiting my retirement in 2065, it's quite freeing to let some of them go - although I do it wistfully. In the imminent future I am not going to learn Russian, nor I am going to be a historian of twentieth-century British aristocratic families. I don't have the space to collect beautiful old Penguins, even though they appeal achingly to my history degree and anthropological inclinations. Instead I have stacks of contemporary fiction, books about psychology and social science, histories of medical phenomena, volumes on mindfulness, biographies of nineteenth-century philanthropists, and, most importantly, shelf-loads of Bill Bryson. These are the ones I seem to read.

This all leads me to a challenging conclusion: maybe I should stop buying books. By definition, the books that remain on my shelves and under my desk, on my desk and in front of my radiator - these books are the portals that I'm still willing to enter. Maybe I have enough of them for now; maybe to keep buying books is to outpace, outface, and fib to myself.

Maybe I can make it six months without buying myself a single new book. This is going to be tough. I will have to withstand the promise of Waterstones on a winter's evening and, most challengingly, the Christmas shop, which shamefully most often takes the form of 'three for you, one for me'. I will have to resist Amazon marketplace with its books for a penny plus postage and packing. I will avoid, at all costs, the £3 bookshop on New Inn Hall St in Oxford. I will repress the itch that comes with a new interest or the review of a novel from a much-loved author in the weekend papers - and try not to sob as I do so. I will only be allowed to buy books that are (hand-on-heart) necessary for work.

Let's see how I get on, and what I read.

*My mother rescued it for her bookshelves. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Foodblog: La Paradeta, Barcelona

We wanted seafood on the last night of our holiday, preferably at student-friendly prices, and it had been favourably reviewed in Time Out: 'Superb seafood, served in a refectory-style fashion...A great - and cheap - experience for anyone who is not too grand to clear away their own plate.' La Paradeta opened at eight in the evening, perfect for a last languid evening on the beach after a day roaming Barcelona's searing July streets. Confident of being first through the door we strolled up off the Barceloneta and rounded the corner of the Antic Mercat del Born at six minutes past, to discover a queue that almost put the Picasso museum to shame. 'Oh, they've only just opened,' I said. 'We'll be through in no time.'

I had no idea what I was talking about. We joined the end of the queue and waited. It inched imperceptibly forward. There was about as much movement at the front as moss growing. Occasionally the door would open and a figure or two would get leached from the queue beyond the darkly reflecting windows of the exterior, like an amoeba sorrowfully splitting off from a tiny portion of itself. My sister and I exchanged nervous glances. Our prospects for an imminent dinner didn't look promising, but the golden rule of foreign dining - eat where the locals eat - was being followed to the letter: on either side of us in the queue stood Spanish families, whose members rotated between standing and perching on the concrete pavement, smoking and talking on their mobile phones. 

Time passed and we moved slowly, surely, towards the front. After an hour's solid reading, my sister's phone battery expired. 'This better be worth it,' she said darkly. The queue seamlessly amassed more members behind us, peaceably waiting in the warm, close evening air. We crunched our way through a bag of rice crackers with growing desperation. My blood sugar was about to drop through the floor when - miraculously - the queue shuffled forward and the seafood counter hove into view. The bodies ahead shifted and without warning we found ourselves pressed up against a seafood treasure trove, fruits de mer piled high along an eight-foot counter: clams and razor clams, a long dark hunk of tuna, something that looked suspiciously like the baby shark we'd seen earlier in the Boqueria food market, gleaming white uncut squid, piles of baby octopus, neat lanes of crab, langoustine the size of kittens - and behind in the kitchen, a frenetic bustle of activity and the passing to and fro of trays, plates and veritable vats of San Miguel.

Decisions had to be made rapidly. 'Habla ingles?' I tried, but the smilingly brusque woman with hair caught up behind a hairnet and tongs poised over seafood paradise did not really habla any ingles, so my sister pointed at the crab she wanted and, a bit overwhelmed, I spontaneously asked for atun - of which the woman hacked off an untidy chunk while gazing into the middle distance as if this was not the most exciting choice. She threw it unceremoniously onto a half-visible scale. 'Anything else?' she asked, and in an impulsive fit of genius, my sister pointed at the pile of baby octopuses that sat whitely glistening at the end of the counter. 

That was it. They didn't do fries and they didn't do potatoes. We ordered a plate of green salad and two bits of unremarkable bread with spicy romesco sauce and aioli, and moved round to the bar to get on board with the apparently mandatory consumption of barrel-sized glasses of San Miguel, slightly delirious from hunger and quaking in our flip-flops as we waited for the bill to ring through. 'How much will it be?' asked my sister anxiously. I shook my head. I had no idea. By this point my blood sugar and I were past caring. I saw €129 on the till and experienced a mildly hideous lurch somewhere behind my belly button - but it wasn't us, and the matriarch of a family of four elbowed me cheerfully out the way to settle up. 

Then it was us.


I repeat: thirty-one euros and nineteen cents. 

My sister's general demeanour instantly morphed from trembling to giddily incredulous, as if someone had just injected her with a litre of high fructose corn syrup. 'Seriously? Seriously?' Yes, seriously. Including salad, bottled waters and enough San Miguel to float a roomful of Brits, the bill for piled plates of the freshest seafood in town came to the cost of a couple of London cinema tickets. 

Moreover, after waiting for over an hour, our food began to emerge after ten minutes. They called our number each time a plate was ready, so there was some jostling with tables number twenty-eight and thirty-six in between picking up all the plates for thirty-one. After the meditative queue, this was action-stations. First came my sister's crab: it was a whopper and with its claws detached and nestled firmly alongside the shell, the plate must have been a good ten inches across. Em looked at it in consternation. She had in fact never eaten a proper crab before, and it did not come with instructions. After bashing it against the table a few times, the mystery was solved, just in time for a plate of tuna and baby octopuses to appear. The untidy chunk of atun that had been so casually thrown across to the kitchen had morphed, in the intervening fifteen minutes, into the best tuna I had ever eaten. It was sweetly seared on the outside. It was exquisitely medium-rare - all the way across. It was singing in a simple butter sauce. By the time it occurred to me to take a photo for this review, it had half gone, and my sister was too knuckle-deep in crab to oblige. 

And then there were the baby octopuses. Oh my, the baby octopuses. They were perfectly cooked and succulent. There was not a whisper of rubbery calamari or that horrible elastic-y squid lining stuff which can instantly ruin one's facial expression when caught lurking in a seafood risotto. These were just beautiful. They came in simple butter and pepper with half a ladleful of green herby sauce. I ate them as-was and dipped more in the romesco sauce and ate them too. Eventually my sister cottoned on to the fact that I was eating all the octopuses and made a fairly decent attempt to get her half, but she never stood a chance. 

Twenty minutes later, we were stuffed. We were happy. The cold beer really was wonderful. Looking around, I saw a refectory full of well-fed families and couples, their plates piled high with squid or crab-claws, and the punters still coming in, the lugubrious queue giving way with abandon to rapid and ecstatic consumption. We handed our trays in and headed for the door. Without our noticing, the sky had darkened, and as we left people were still queuing, waiting for their own precious forty-five minutes of culinary delight. 

We made our way up the alleyways into the old city. The night was warm and dark and the mopeds blared along the narrow streets, and people clustered around tables in every placa and smoked and drank wine and were merry. I was thinking about the octopuses...the baby octopuses in that buttery herby sauce. I wanted, I realised, to sing about the octopuses. Em was really rather rude about this desire and might have made some disparaging remarks about my capacity for alcohol. She didn't get it. On this marvellous Barcelona evening, I was simply full of the joys of La Paradeta - sun-warmed, transcendently octopus-fed, San Miguel-kissed. Happy as a clam. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Snake's Head Fritillaries at Magdalen College, Oxford

One of the main events in the British naturalist's calendar is the emergence of the snake's head fritillary in the spring. As the daffodils begin to fade, these once common wildflowers emerge in a few choice places in the damp Thames Valley. In Oxford they currently form a purplish sheen peppered with white across Magdalen College's water meadow, and can be seen up close at the far end beside the Fellows' Garden. Although the Wildlife Trusts has them blooming throughout April and May, in our warm and unexpectedly early spring the flowers are already on their way out. Grab an umbrella and catch these delicate, striking blooms this week before they fade.

Don't miss some confused early marsh marigolds on your wander round, and some exuberant forget-me-nots too...

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites: critical reception and the lyrical spirit

There are two stories to Burial Rites. The first is the tale of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty-four-year-old woman who in 1829 was condemned to death for her part in the murder of two men in northern Iceland. In Hannah Kent's retelling, based on extensive archival research, Agnes is placed with the resentful family of a district official as the bitter winter descends and she awaits her execution. The young reverend drafted in to guide her spiritual journey towards death begins to suspect that the official narrative of events is not what it seems; as Agnes begins to reveal what really happened at Illugastadir, the reader wonders whether the truth - ugly and imperfect as it is - can be enough to save her.

The second story is about the runaway success of a debut novel by an unknown Australian author studying for her PhD in creative writing, a seven-figure advance, a multi-national publicity campaign, a literary vogue for Scandinavia, and critical division. Released to popular acclaim, Burial Rites has been shortlisted for several 2014 literary prizes and its twenty-nine-year-old author has a packed schedule of events in the US and UK over the coming months. As Ben Etherington points out in the Sydney Review of Books, ambivalent reviews for the book are few and far between - but criticism mainly centres on Kent's lyrical use of language and the 'creative-writing-programme' feel of her work. Romanticisms such as 'smears of violet…swelled against darkness of the night' are 'a bit annoying', says Etherington, while Steven Heighton in the New York Times critiques the 'operatic pondering' of Agnes, whose bruises '[blossom] like star clusters under the skin'. The book-buying public, it seems, are not annoyed, while some commentators struggle to reconcile commercial success with purple prose.

Furor will always accompany a major advance for an unknown debut, and the literary world's fascination with the cultural economics of publishing is doubtless a symptom of the financial peril that is the creative writer's habitual subsistence. Several reviewers have situated Kent's popular success within the recent Scandi-vogue - with Burial Rites neatly pinning the relatively unknown Iceland (notwithstanding its Nobel-prize-winning Halldór Laxness) on the mainstream literary map. Beyond its locational innovation, Burial Rites is a smartly-executed and readable page-turner, and considering its multi-national publicity machine it would have had to go very wrong to crash and burn. A bemused Kent writes,

I've been asked why I've had such a good run as a debut author…and I understand why people want to know. However, the truth is that it is a question that troubles me, because I have no answer. Was it hard work?…Luck? Was it due to the skilful navigation of an agent familiar with the weird and troubled waters of publishing?…I'm not sure…All I know is that I am very grateful that it happened to me.

Perhaps it's more fruitful to ask whether critiques of Kent's literary style are justified within the context of the story than to get wistfully stuck on the fairytale of its public emergence. So what is Burial Rites like to read? The brutal beauty of the Icelandic winter landscape emerges from the page with the quiet authority of an author who has actually lived there. Heighton acknowledges, 'the landscape of Iceland’s surprisingly “lush north” is simply and lucidly painted', although Etherington aesthetically winces at how ‘the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky’, and wishes Kent would keep her penchant for similes and metaphors to herself ('the sea is a nag'). But in the main, reviewers agree that Kent evokes the stark geography of Iceland with aplomb - its valleys and passes, blizzard skies and rocky outcrops - and that her attention to the historical detail of daily life is bewitching and seamless with the narrative. Kent's tangible feel for landscape and living is not dissimilar from Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves, another prize-winning debut historical thriller whose bleak Canadian winter envelops its characters in an icy fist.

Hannah Kent's photographs of northern Iceland
So far, so well set. The critics struggle more with the portrayal of characters' interiority, particularly the first-person passages told from Agnes' point of view. Heighton says, 'It’s hard to imagine a brutalized convict - even one who has supposedly composed verse - prettifying her affliction so self-consciously.' In the Sydney Review, Etherington is not happy either. He quotes:

...they have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground … I am tied like a lamb for slaughter … I wonder where they will store me, cellar me like butter, like smoked meat. Like a corpse … like a cow I go where I am led … it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow … rotting slowly in a room like a body in a coffin … Like a woman, he said. The sea is a nag … The light had arrived like a hunted thing…

And comments:

It could well be that the density of simile reflects Agnes’s mental state as she is transported to the farm [at the beginning of the novel]. Although they do not again come as thickly, similes are a continual feature of her voice. We are to believe that Agnes has a strongly lyrical spirit, so this has grounds in the characterisation. It just makes her lyricism a bit annoying.

Kent's style, probably influenced by her reading of the Icelandic sagas, is occasionally poetic to a fault. Yet her language in the mouth of the brutalised and trampled Agnes makes too much psychological sense to be written off as floridity, or the product of generally lyrical characterisation. Kent does not shy away from letting us know that life in nineteenth-century rural Iceland is a world of ice, blood, mucus, bruises, shit, and beatings - quite disgusting and unromantic - which creates the possibility that the lyricism, when it appears, serves a purpose. Mankind has always sought to understand and transcend suffering through art, and Etherington should have paused at the notion that Kent's lyrical inclination has something to do with Agnes' mental state. As the latter is dragged, bound, pushed and pulled from servanthood to prison to farm to execution, her mind butterflies from the harsh reality of her experience - strapped to a saddle, iron-locked at the wrists, silent as her lover betrays her in the next bed - to a poetic analogy that might in the micro-moment transcend it. If she is stored like butter or smoked meat, she is no longer Agnes; the simile's purpose is to make her disappear from her hideous existence. Kent's language repeatedly shows Agnes trying to make her spiritual world bigger than her material one: even the reverend she chooses for counsel, she does so because she met him in a dream. In the secret, transcendent worlds of the simile, the metaphor, and the spirit, Agnes finds a place to hide.

We know this, too, because she tells us as much early on:

I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt...They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass...They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.

Burial Rites is not just historical tourism, and it's not only the story of an enigma, a woman enwrapped in narratives all purporting to truth. It's also a story about spiritual survival, and as such it fascinates its readers. In nineteenth-century Iceland, when all is said and done, the truth sets no-one free.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Rachel Joyce's Perfect

Rachel Joyce won hearts and minds with her 2012 beautifully-written bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, about an elderly man who sets out to post a letter to a dying friend and just keeps walking. Joyce follows that tale, in which an unlikely choice liberated its pensioner protagonist from sedate decline, with a novel in which the walls close in on her characters with menacing inevitability. Perfect tackles greed, class, childhood, obsession, loneliness, and mental illness against the backdrop of a brooding summer in the '70s; it's not for the faint-hearted.

Two seconds are added in 1972. When Diana Hemmings takes a shortcut down dodgy Digby Road in their gleaming new Jaguar, eleven-year-old Byron catches sight of the second hand on his watch moving backwards - two seconds in which a small girl on a red bicycle disappears under the wheels, and his mother fails to notice. When the accident eventually bubbles to the surface, and lonely Diana befriends the little girl's deprived and covetous mother, Byron and his besotted friend James must uncover the truth behind the injury and its peculiar consequences, and contain Diana's emerging secrets. Meanwhile, in the present day, a middle-aged man called Jim battles with the obsessions and compulsions that enthral him in order to keep himself safe. Who is Jim, and how will this sorry swirling of summer thunderclouds resolve?

Perfect, like its characters, is imperfect but magnetic. The two seconds, despite their magical-realist anti-clockwise foray on Byron's watch, are not in the end a literary trope that will wind up saving the day à la Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Instead they give us the first hint of the fragmentation to come: Byron sees the second-hand move and the child disappear beneath the hubcap; Diana sees nothing and no-one. The disconnect between the son's imagination, unfolding reality and the mother's apparent mental absence is disconcerting and portentous. As the story develops, James and Byron manipulate events with childish good intentions that make the reader break out in a cold sweat. We can see that awfulness is descending, even if we can't make out for some time whether it will come in the form of Byron's controlling father Seymour, the grasping Beverley, the obsessional James or the unspooling Diana. When we finally understand Jim's place in the story, the poignancy of his ritualising - his attempts to keep everyone safe, long after it's any use - hits us hard.

The emotional complexity of Perfect creeps up on the reader like a thief in the night. Joyce's sympathetic ability to conjure up the mind states of both the damaged and the naive is impressive, from the extreme obsessive compulsions of Jim to the delicate disintegration of Diana. We want to shake her characters into their senses as they weave their untidy destinies like ricocheting spiders, even as we hope against hope for a beneficent deus ex machina; but, as we found in Harold Fry, an ending is never perfect.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Maria Semple worked for fifteen years as a screenwriter for Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development before she turned her hand to novels. If you ever wanted to read an epistolary comic novel about mothers, daughters, architecture, Microsoft, adultery, and Antarctica, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is the book for you. The brilliant, obsessive, and under-occupied Bernadette Fox spends her days in rainy Seattle skulking in a gigantic moulding house and antagonising the local helicopter parents. She'd probably have continued being a moderate-level nuisance wife and mother in perpetuity if her precocious daughter Bee hadn't asked for a trip to Antarctica to celebrate straight A-grades. The upcoming trip precipitates a perfect storm of misunderstanding, resentment, and psychotropic medication, and in the ensuing denouement Bernadette disappears, cleanly and completely, into thin air.

But Bee is not about to let her mother vanish off the face of the earth, and a mother-finding mission commences over the virtual and Antarctic geographies of Semple's glorious tragicomic domain. Along the way, the FBI join the chase, Bernadette's past architectural genius comes to light, Russian email scammers come undone, fifty schoolchildren narrowly escape PTSD, the self-help industry gets a spit-roasting, vegetable-wash will never look the same again - and we really, really want to know: where'd you go, Bernadette?

There's much to love in this deliriously imaginative book, but in the character of Bernadette, Semple scores a post-feminist triumph. We get to know Bee's mother as a quixotic creature who obsesses over the number of five-way intersections in Seattle and orders humungous angry billboards to keep her nosy neighbour off her land. Her predilection for antipsychotics, all-consuming fear of sea-sickness, inability to make friends and online gullibility incline us to side with her husband, Microsoft megastar Elgin Branch: maybe Bernadette is simply bonkers.

And yet - and yet: we discover that back in the day, Bernadette Fox was an architectural superstar who specialised in eco-friendly, paradigm-quaking designs that earned her a MacArthur 'genius' award. The book is as much about what happened to that Bernadette - how the genius became a frustrated suburban mom - as about where Bernadette is, geographically-speaking, now. As each layer of her complex history and personality is revealed, we realise the poignancy in Semple's darkly comic critique of psychiatry, its drugs, and psychobabble. Bernadette is either unhinged, or she's an extraordinarily gifted, thwarted, and disappointed woman, captured in the boredom of underachieving midlife by Semple's wily pen. She won't take the shrink's salvation; will her Houdini act make her find her own? And can Bee track her down in time - just in case?

The vibrant energy of Semple's novel carries the reader along on a penguin-crested wave. Put away the Ritalin, it clamours, and find something you love.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How To Be A Bad Runner

It's February. How are those new year's resolutions doing? Apparently, back on January 1st, 51% of people decided to do more exercise. Unhappily for us, such resolutions are all too often destined to crash, burn, and undergo conceptual pillory in the national press. 'We have an exquisite ability to imagine a fitter, smarter, more virtuous version of ourselves and can see the path we ought to take to become that person,' wrote Hannah Devlin in The Times last month. 'But we struggle with the execution.'

She's dead right. Especially when it comes to serious exercise for normal people (I'm not talking about natural athletes, I'm talking about those of us who found ourselves on the wrong side of PE teachers at school). Running, for example, is deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant for beginners. 'I hated every single one of those early runs,' writes Ruth Field, author of the best-selling, not-exactly-cuddly Run Fat B!tch Run. 'I was shocked at how hard it was.' Serious exercise is hard because our lives and activity levels are dictated by labour-saving devices, and we ain't used to it - it's as simple as that. Welcome to the shuffle-jog...

I got a head-start by taking up my new year's resolution in August last year. August was a much better month than January to start running. August was warm and sunny and light in the evenings; January was about flu, flooding, lethargy, depression about 2013's achievements, and eating. If February finds you flagging in the face of meteorological vileness, this is how to power through the next few months until the sun weakly starts to glimmer again in, I don't know, May.

1) Just Do It

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But this is where it usually starts to go wrong. The actual doing it. The actual throwing of oneself through damp cold air down a dingy grey street or in a miserable leafless puddly park, for minute after torturous minute, through exquisitely varied levels of boredom and mind-squeezingly hideous permutations of discomfort. The idea of 'going for a run' rapidly assumes gargantuan proportions. It's an unwieldy ugly giant of an edifice which you simply don't feel like climbing today, right now, at this moment at which it's demanded of you.

So instead, do this: put on your running clothes. Put on your trainers. Unhook the door-key from your keychain. Open the door. Shut it behind you. Start putting one foot in front of the other. Carry on putting one foot in front of the other. Pick up the pace a bit. Carry on doing that for a while. And a while longer. And just a bit longer than that. And now stretch out a bit. There. Ta-da! You have Done A Run.

2) Embrace Technology

If you are capable of performing the above behavioural heroics, read no further. If you weren't exactly born to run, bring in the technological cavalry. Technology helps us do the things that we want and simultaneously don't want to do. It's supposed to give us the edge we need when, at run-o'clock, we typically hover near the front door with the facial expressions of a dog in a thunderstorm, pre-emptively hunched over our protesting bodies as we vacillate between braving the frost and going back to bed. Just me? Ok.

a) Use a running app. Nothing like quantifying the results of your efforts, week-in, week-out, to lift the spirits. Map My Run is free, simple, and does the job.

b) Use playlists. Make a couple, experiment with their contents, and chop and change them regularly to avoid boredom. For all of the Eye of the Tiger testosterone-blazing, marathon-training, 0% body-fat runners, there are plenty more trotting along peacefully to Norah Jones after a day's work. 'Elf an' safety often advises one not to listen to music while running - to which I say, pick a sensible and safe route, stay alert, don't do daft things like wandering diagonally across the towpath without checking behind you for bikes (ouch), and you'll be fine.

c) Wear decent kit. After years of trainers, tank tops, cotton jogging pants and hoodies in winter, in 2013 I discovered running shoes, baselayers, water-belts, sweat-wicking fabrics, and wind-breakers with reflective edges. This stuff is the business. Ladies, be warned, it will mostly be pink. But a few sessions kicking up mud will age it nicely.

3) Run With Someone Who Knows What They're Doing

A running buddy provides two main opportunities:

a) Knowledge filching. I started training with someone who used to run cross-country for his university. He had me running every other day, no more than two days off at a time, increasing my mileage by 10% per week, and doing a 'long run' - about twice the length of the week-day runs - once a week. The long run is the key for boosting cardiovascular fitness. It should be fairly knackering, and followed by inappropriate levels of sugar-intake and a couple of catatonic hours on the couch.

b) Motivation/verbal punchbag. It's easier to let ourselves down than other people. If you're slacking one week, your running buddy will make you feel guilty. Moreover, as you hit that excruciating last kilometre on your muddy Sunday afternoon run, you will each need someone to swear at.

Have fun, stick at it, and leave the noise-cancelling headphones at home!