Monday, 21 March 2011

James Attlee's Nocturne and some writing about the moon

Here's a picture my son took on Saturday night of the 'supermoon', when the moon was closer to us than it's been in eighteen years, apparently. He's doing GCSE Astronomy and has become far more adept than I am at using my new Lumix camera!

On that evening, under that moon, I went off to Waterstone's to listen to James Attlee talk about his book Nocturne, which is subtitled 'A Journey in Search of Moonlight'. He was a fascinating speaker, with a magpie mind where everything interests him and anecdotes and snippets of facts spill out of him - like W.G. Sebald, he meanders through art, history, astronomy, ancient cultures - everything fascinates him and he makes striking observations and connections. His book explores our attitude to the moon and also seeks to rediscover our lost connection with it. He talks of how we 'simmer in our own electronic bouillabaisse' of streetlighting, how the 'celestial light show' is 'rendered spectrally pale today by the intensity of our self-regard'. After seeing the moon in its full unspoilt glory on a trip to Cornwall, he resolved to get into tune with the lunar cycle and seize every opportunity of getting out there to look at it - really look at it. I'm dying to read the rest of the book - he talked of how he visited such diverse places as Japan and the Arizona desert in pursuit of its 'alchemical light.'

Later, at the bus stop on St Aldates, I gazed at the full moon glowing just beside Christ Church's Tom Tower. So often we're huddled beside the flicker of the TV screen and we miss what's going on out there - and even if we do go outside, the orange glow of city lights, which James memorably described as like being inside a Lucozade bottle, stops us seeing the stars and planets in their full glory. Only the moon survives that blotting out - but the moon too benefits from being seen above a dusty desert or as it rises from the sea.

It was a coincidence that James mentioned that he rediscovered the moon, as it were, while in Cornwall. I've written a children's story, Argentail,  set there - and in it a city boy wrestling with trauma is also part-awed, part-scared, part-comforted by the moon and what the moon brings him:

'The iron latch clattered loudly, like striking a tinder-box. The door seemed to swell towards him. He slipped through into the great echoing blackness of the tower, deep and dark as a well without water.
   And if he had thought it cold back in the cottage, that was nothing compared to the paralysing, brain-aching cold that seized him now. His breath was a vapour, his own personal fog-bank, accompanying him as he climbed the stairs to the first floor, to the second. Stony echoes left him, bounced back to him, like auditory boomerangs.
   At no time could he have said why he was doing this, why he had left the safety of the cottage for this spooky place, where wedges of unearthly blue light from the high windows were laid like stepping-stones before his feet. Up and round, up and round, up and into the great circular room, where the wedges of blue light fused into a flood. He walked across the bare floor and gazed out.
   He'd never looked at the sea except in terms of buckets and spades, rock-pools and jellyfish, lilos and waterwings and splashing your sister in the face until she howls with rage. The sea meant holidays. The sea was warm. The sea was a pet.
   Not this sea. Not this ocean.
   He grasped the windowsill and held his breath, not wanting to fog the glass, not wanting to spoil the view. The sea stretched out, charcoal-dark and glittering, to lands beyond imagination. This was a sea for explorers and invaders. It beckoned and tempted: it said anything was possible.
   It also said it didn't care. It didn't care for lost boys with confused feelings, standing at the edge of the land.
   A panel of bluish-white was laid in a long triangle across the water. Kick looked up.
   The clouds had all gone and the moon was there, huge and pure and nearly full. He felt that the window-glass was acting like a telescope - surely he'd never seen the moon so large?
   As a tiny child, like every tiny child, he'd heard songs and rhymes about the moon. A cow jumped over it. A man came down from it.
   He gazed now at its strange shadows and hollows.
   Then he leapt back, heart racing, a sudden heat breaking out all over his body.'

Friday, 18 March 2011

Shelley's not so blithe spirit

Here in Oxford there's an exhibition currently at the Bodleian devoted to Shelley and his circle, which I've visited twice and hope to visit again before it closes on the 27th March. It's called Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, it's free and it's certainly worth a look. The library has an excellent Shelley archive, so in the dimly-lit room you can see papers, pictures and 'relics' - because as you stroll round the most striking aspect of it all is that of the creation of literary myth. It's part poignant, part-irritating, to see how, in typical Romantic/Victorian fashion, Shelley's friends, relatives and wife set about the canonization of a writer famed for being an atheist.

I was touched by the doominess of it all: the sense of brief lives flaring in passion and self-destructiveness. There's not just Shelley himself, but his first wife who drowned herself, the suicide of Fanny Imlay, Mary Shelley's half-sister, Mary Shelley's mother Mary Wollstonecraft dying as a result of childbirth, Byron's daughter Allegra, taken from her mother Claire Clairmont, only to die at the age of four in the convent Byron consigned her to, Mary Shelley's son William ... a catalogue of morbid melodrama which you wouldn't dare to make up (rather like reading about the Brontes' brief lives).

Linked with it the self-obsession, arrogance and self-indulgence - the posturing opinions, the dwelling on loss which in Mary Shelley's case seems to have reached an almost psychopathic level. Necklaces and rings were woven with the hair of the deceased, a 'shrine' was set up in her house where she could worship the god of her heart. Mary Wollstonecraft writing notes to William Godwin when she was pregnant, telling him she had 'no doubt of seeing the animal today' when she was close to giving birth to Mary Shelley. Fanny Imlay's last letter, full of reproach, emotional blackmail and self-pity. I found myself thinking of one of my favourite scenes in the Blackadder series set in the Regency, when all the Romantic poets are gathered, moaning and groaning, at Mrs Miggins' Pie Shop, and she says 'Ooh Mr Byron, don't be such a big girl's blouse!'

Yet there is much that is inexpressibly moving. Who could fail to sympathise with Mary Shelley when, on her son's death, her father wrote to her like this? 'But you have lost a child and all the rest of the world, all that is beautiful and all that has a charm upon your kindness, is nothing, because a child of three years old is dead!'

I was particularly struck by Shelley's doodles on his various notebooks: faces, trees, and ironically, boats, all sketched with verve. I was moved by a letter from Allegra to her father, Lord Byron.There's Mary Shelley's sense of doom and dread in the last days by the lake in Italy, there's Shelley's last hasty note to her, and there are the books he had with him on his boat, washed up, pages and covers swollen, after he drowned. I was impressed by the pages from the original manuscript of Frankenstein, with Shelley's editorial changes.

However, the artifact I found most moving was a letter from Keats to Shelley, written on August 16 1820, some months before Keats' death in Rome from tuberculosis. Shelley's poetry has never appealed to me in the way Keats' does: ironically, the one poem on display that really spoke to me was 'Adonais', which is Shelley's lament for Keats. The grace of Keats' handwriting and the liveliness of his voice and his intelligence stayed with me longer than anything.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Well, the weather's been so grey and grim over the past few days, we could stand with cheering up, so here are the titles vying for your vote in this year's Diagram Prize, which is awarded by The Bookseller to the oddest title of the year. These are all genuine published books and you can vote for your favourite at Results are due on 25th March.

Here they are:
8th International Friction Stir Welding Symposium Proceedings
The Generosity of the Dead
The Italian's One-Night Love-Child
Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way
Myth of the Social Volcano
What Color is your Dog?

Current favourite is Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way, which I have to say I'm drawn to, especially after suffering years of dentist-phobia (result of cack-handed treatment when I was a child and when I lived in Aberdeen. I remember the lady upstairs from my flat recommending I just have all my teeth pulled - 'Ye'll nae be bothered again. Jist get it a' ower and deen wi'.' There were moments when I was tempted ... )

If you want to have a chuckle at the shortlists of previous years, here are the links to my earlier posts about the competition:
2010 and this - where by weird coincidence I was suffering dental woes -

Let me know what you think and whether, in your opinion, this year's list matches up to those of previous years.