[THE ASTERISK IN THE TITLE SHOULD BE PINK. BUT THE TITLE BOX APPARENTLY DOESN’T HAVE COLOURS.]
I’ve been having an unusually bad ME day. The ME has been surprisingly well-behaved the last six months*; not that I haven’t had ME days but they haven’t been as severe or as frequent as recent stress/despair/grief levels might predict. Today it decided to slug me with several at once.** Unnnnh. But I had tickets to the live-streaming LA TRAVIATA and Admetus to do the driving*** AND I WAS GOING ANYWAY.†
And we did. And this is a good one.†† If the Royal Opera House reruns it at a Theatre Near You and you have ANY finer musical feelings††† go. I didn’t know any of this cast—and the tenor took a little while to warm up—but they were splendid. Violetta is a gift of a role, if you are a supernaturally dazzling soprano with a timbre richer than 85% dark organic chocolate who can furthermore out-act Ellen Terry‡, because you get such a range with her, from the resplendent but cynical courtesan at the beginning to the fragilely joyous woman in love at the beginning of the second act, just before it all comes crashing down, which is when you see what a real heroine she is, to the final act of loss, resignation, despair and a tiny flame of reunited rejoicing to make it more tragic. But you have to respond to her as magnificent in the scene with the lumpen prig who is her (wet, puerile) lover’s dad or you’ll be frelling overcome by the blazing misogyny of the plot—I don’t mean that Verdi is the bad guy‡‡, but the story he’s telling‡‡‡ is major ARRRRRGH from start to finish.§ You need a Violetta that will make you love her anyway.
I could produce a few caveats about this production. But I won’t. Much. §§ One of the dangers of La Trav is that if the tenor and the baritone are too lifelike you’ll be so busy hating them you won’t thrill properly. In this production the guys are actually sympathetic which is a good trick in the circs but it’s what you want so you can revel. This is a very, very good show. Go see it if you can.
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* It’s February. I can no longer say ‘my husband died last month’. However ‘my husband died just before Christmas’ still presents some faintest echo of how I’m feeling.
** I broke another plate today. That makes five since Peter died, I who do not break things ( . . . very often). With thanks to Gomoto, however, who suggested it, I did manage to replace the irreplaceable one by risking life and sanity on eBay. The only drawback, that’s DRAWBACK, to this is that I had to join frelling eBay which I had thus far AVOIDED—yes, all these years, I have resisted eBay^ but apparently you can’t buy anything unless you join??? Big Brother isn’t just watching you, he has a slave torc around your neck. And I suppose if I ‘desubscribe’ from the welter of emails encouraging me to BUY MORE and to SET UP AS A SELLER I’ll just have to rejoin all over again if I ever break another irreplaceable plate, which on present form I probably will.
^ I hate auctions, for one thing. All that SUSPENSE.+ Just tell me the price and I’ll pay it or I won’t, okay? I also hate having to learn a whole new dadblatted system for some dadblatted web mogul. Blogmom could tell you I have a meltdown every time WordPress has an update and Yet More Weird New Things happen back in the admin when I’m just trying to hang a blog post, you hyperactive creeps, will you LEAVE ME ALONE.
+ I just read a really, really annoying thriller. If I’d realised it was a thriller I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but it got all these FABULOUS REVIEWS and I acknowledge that it is stylishly written, it doesn’t just rudely go for your throat and sink its teeth in, it nibbles tenderly on your ankles a bit first, leaving dainty little lacy patterns. But . . . SO ANNOYING. Nothing and no one is ever what it or he or she seems to be, and several times in succeeding chapters. Now, I hate suspense, all that waiting for which villain is going to leap out of which cupboard and in what order and bearing what weapons and what sordid tales of ancient wrongs or culpable desires, but in this particular case the agonisingly slow revelation of the true story through the endless lies, betrayals and labyrinthine motivations of all the characters stopped winding me up and just made me want it to be over with. I don’t think I followed the last sixty-seven monstrous discoveries anyway so when I finally got to the last shocking plot twist it was like, um, what? Can I go now?
*** Peter was supposed to come too. Whimper. That is, when I’d first brought it up when the tickets came available yonks ago, he’d rolled his eyes at the idea of another La Trav—I’ve told you before that he is not a natural opera lover—but I was planning to have a final assault on his artistic sensibilities/unreasonable obstinacy nearer time.
† Also despite the predictable waterworks at the end when she dies. But lots of people cry at the end of La Trav. Not so many for Beethoven’s Fifth.
†† I’ve seen this production at least twice before, both times live, really live, before cinema streaming. The first time when the production itself was new . . . with Peter. The second time when I went up to London alone on the train to see Renee Fleming . . . which I’m afraid was more notable for spectacularly doing my back in in my unaccustomed high heels than for Renee Fleming whom I found brilliant but cold.^ I’ve never worn high heels since.^^ Just by the way. And rarely have back trouble any more.^^^
^ She makes a great courtesan: not so much the dying heroine you’re going to cry over when she takes the final dive. Which, for me, brings the essential appallingness of the plot into snarling feminist focus and kind of wrecks the cathartic wallow aspect. You want the wallow. That smug middle-class boys are a right pain you can get elsewhere.
^^ I wore my fabulously floral Docs to the funeral and memorial service.
^^^ She says nervously. Since there’s a lot of Hauling of Boxes of Books during a house move.
††† !!!!!! NOT THAT I’M PREJUDICED ABOUT THE ESSENTIAL SUPREMACY OF OPERA OVER ALL OTHER MUSICAL ART FORMS OR ANYTHING.
‡ Or possibly Tessa Gratton. Any of you who don’t follow me on Twitter
Or, since I’m having my usual trouble with links, the original Twitter one opens but this one seems to open better:
‡‡ I very much doubt Verdi was a modern feminist. Ha ha. But he did live with and eventually marry a woman with a background a bit similar to Violetta’s but much better health. And they took stick for it from the lumpen prigs.
‡‡‡ And for anyone who isn’t a regular Days in the Life reader or opera goer^, La Trav tells the story of a high-end Parisian courtesan who is dying of consumption, and knows it. She lets herself fall in love with a callow young twerp who adores her and they retire to the country where they’re busy burning through all her money when his dad shows up to dispose of this trollop who is not merely ruining his son’s life but preventing his virginal daughter from marrying her fiancé because the fiance’s parents will call it off if the son doesn’t throw the whore back in the ditch where he found her and return to polite society. Well, she gives him up, but doesn’t tell him why, and he has a meltdown and insults her publicly at a demi-monde party back in Paris where they met. Last act is her dying, broke^^^ and lonely, rereading the letter from the prig saying that he and his disgusting son, whom he has told the true story of her leaving, are going to come see her now that she’s dying and won’t embarrass them much longer, presumably they aren’t going to tell the sister’s husband’s family about this little departure from the straight and narrow?, although the letter says, oh, take care of yourself, you wonderful woman, you should have a happier future ARRRRRRRRRRGH.# And then she dies in the wet twit’s arms, and the curtain comes down. Before dad and son exchange the look of relief and the ‘well that’s that then. I wonder what’s for supper back home?’
If you’ve got a Violetta worth the diamonds she sold to keep her country villa## you won’t care. You’ll be slurping up all the melodrama with a large shiny spoon. It’s only later when you’re stuffing the wet tissues in your pocket to leave the theatre tidy that your intellect catches up with events and starts wrecking your fun.
^ Do we want to know each other?
^^ Note: ARRRRRRGH.
^^^ It also makes me crazy, every time+, when she tells her faithful maid to divide up her tiny remaining store of money and give half of it to the poor. WHAT IS THE MAID GOING TO LIVE ON AFTER VIOLETTA GOES? I don’t think a glowing rec from a dying penniless prostitute is going to get her a good place right away.
+ Also the doctor saying authoritatively that Violetta only has ‘hours’ to live. Unless of course modern medicine has lost the amazing predictive powers of Italian docs of Verdi’s day.
# That’s an editorial ARRRRRRRRRGH, you understand.
## If they were so enamoured of the rural life why didn’t they just buy a COTTAGE?
§ Although if you’re a modern humour-challenged feminist cow like me, you couldn’t enjoy La Trav nearly so much if you didn’t know it was all going to go horribly wrong. If Violetta had a sudden deathbed recovery and she and the wet went back to their villa^ and the prig and the rest of their family, including the sister’s in-laws, realised that Violetta had a Beautiful Soul whatever her background, and had them over to tea on high days and holidays . . . nooooooo. Ewwwwwwww.
^ or cottage
§§ The last act is a particular ratbag to stage. She’s dying of consumption so she shouldn’t be flitting lightly around the stage, which Violettas usually are. There’s a famous, or possibly infamous, staging where she spends the entire act in bed, which is more realistic, and which makes the last moments of her sudden sense of joy and strength much more dramatic, when she finally does stand up and walk—just before she falls over for the last time—but it also makes the act static and (apparently) directors shy away from this. This particular staging has gruesome blood spatters on her pillows and the maid’s apron—but not on Violetta’s snowy white nightgown—which doesn’t make me think ‘ah yes consumption’ it makes me think ‘the devoted maid wouldn’t allow this NOR would Violetta be carelessly dragging her snowy white nightgown or her long luxuriant locks^ across these besmirched pillows.’ Personally I think they’re missing a trick during the orchestral doodah by not having her notice the stains and react. But hey.
^ Also unlikely in a woman dying of consumption. And while opera companies are getting better about remembering the effects of close-up cameras for cinema transmissions YOU COULD SEE THE JOINS where Violetta’s hair extensions were attached to her real hair which is the sort of thing I find distracting.
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* This should have gone up last night, of course, but the ME got me before I could proofread, especially since that involves, as it so often does, sorting out the footnotes. Which I’m not always successful at even when the ME isn’t eating my brain. Which it still is today although not as badly.
But this gives me the opportunity for a GARDEN UPDATE! I had TWO robins in my garden this morning [sic]!!^ Maybe they’ll finally forgive me the Epic of the Falling-Down Wall and nest in my greenhouse again??! There’s been a determinedly kept-clear nook^^ just waiting for a nest, the last what’s it been, two years? Three? Since the Epic of the Wall.
^ Anyone not acquainted with British robins, they’re very territorial and the only time you see more than one—unless they’re fighting+—is when they’re breeding and raising the next generation.
+ And they aren’t kidding: they’re exacto knives with little round feathered handles
^^ And that’s not easy in my greenhouse
When I started writing this Radio 3 was playing Beethoven’s Fifth. About a week ago a bunch of us handbell ringers sloped off after practise to go hear some fire-breathing orchestra detonate Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. They played some other stuff first—very well too—and I noticed that two of the six double bass players were small, slight women* but mostly I had my head down over my knitting. Knitting is my default these days.** And it was (mostly) okay. Change of air. Change of scenery. Change of people. All good things (mostly). My three companions were chatting away cheerfully about music during the pauses while I went loop-wrap-pull, loop-wrap-pull.***
And then the orchestra went dah dah dah DAAAAAAAH and I . . . lost it. WHAM. Small intimate train wreck. Wept copiously all over my knitting. Swallowed one hand and half a box of tissues in an attempt not to sob cacophonously . Wanted a bag to put over my head so as not to blind everybody else in the theatre with the dazzling redness of my eyes.
I don’t even know why Beethoven’s Fifth. It wasn’t Peter’s favourite or anything. But (several of) Beethoven’s symphonies have been somewhat guilty pleasures for me for most of my life. Beethoven’s symphonies—maybe especially the Fifth—are so . . . obvious. I love, oh, say, Messiaen, but I have to be feeling like a grown-up to listen to him. Small children and dogs like Beethoven’s Fifth.† I first fell under its spell when I was a small child†† And I think what happened is that I found myself staring down the long††† unravelling skein of years during which I have listened many, many times to Beethoven’s Fifth and . . .
I know this is a Stage of Grief. I hope it will be over soon. The grief won’t be over soon—you don’t get over the loss of someone you loved, that’s a no-brainer—but this not being able to go out in public without being frelling likely to make a scene is a colossal bore as well as a vicious circle since the more you don’t go out the more likely you are to melt down when you do . . . and the more likely the depths you will plumb while you’re sitting at home staring at the walls will get depthier.‡
So I do go out. I’m going to see a live-streaming LA TRAVIATA this Thursday. It’ll be great. I can cry when she dies . . . .
This is a Stage of Grief. I know this.
* * *
* I assume they have finger, and possibly arm, extensions to get around the half a mile of those strings.
** It’s certainly my default in public.^ My default at home is mostly a milling hellmob wanting to know when something interesting is going to happen. Now that we’re spending all our time at the cottage^^ which has very limited floor space due both to original square footage and the whole Things in Corners When There Are No Corners and the Rooms Are a Lot Smaller Than They Were Before There Were Bookshelves on All the Walls etc, this question is more urgent than it used to be.
^ WHAT AM I GOING TO DO about that frelling frelling FRELLING Jesus is my totally creepy boyfriend Modern Christian Worship NOISE? I got through church this past Sunday for the first time without suffering comprehensive disintegration followed by bolting for the door and sitting in Wolfgang in the dark till I could frelling drive.+ But it wasn’t a good or a holy uplifting time. GAAAAAAAH. Sermons about the glory and beauty of life are bad enough but the singing . . . . The long view is that I want to get back on the singing rota—St Margaret’s have no standards, fortunately and would be happy to have me back—because even before 16 December++ I’ve found the power ballad to God thing a trifle testing, and up on stage ‘leading’ cough cough cough turns it into a performance and I can flip the ‘performance’ switch+++ and the emotional manipulation factor is thereby dimmed. BUT I need to reach a tipping point of self-control before I risk it. The performance apparatus will stretch, gouge and support only so far. It’s maybe like a hammer to thud a few nails further in. But it won’t abracadabra a frame to clamp you together. ++++
+ I can’t remember now if it was last week or the week before that it was helpfully raining so I could sit in Wolfgang with the wipers going and nobody could see me chewing on the steering wheel.
++ Although I effectively stopped going to church after 7 September. I was at Rivendell on Sunday evenings, like every other evening, and I still can’t get out of bed in the mornings when most people go to church. Well, I can get up, but I can’t get sane and plugged together enough to drive a car, even a very well-mannered# car like Wolfgang before noon. Two or three in the afternoon is preferable.
# which is to say lacking in youthful pizzazz and top end precipitancy
+++ Just so long as there’s at least one guitarist to hide behind
++++ MIXED METAPHOR ALERT. And now I’m going make it worse by telling you how the necessary planks are still holding up bird’s nests back in the forest somewhere. I am trying to tell you I am nowhere near the tipping-back-into-prudence-and-rationality# point.
# Not perhaps that prudence or rationality were strong points before.
^^ Oh, and?, she tosses off lightly, have I mentioned that I’ve bought another house? A . . . you should forgive the term . . . third house? I have spectacular cash flow problems that may result in a failure to buy dog food soon+ BUT I OWN THREE HOUSES.++ Briefly. Poor Third House goes on the market as soon as I can finish getting it cleared out. New House needs a name. Second Third House? Fourth House Minus Two? Daughter of Third House? Seventh Cousin Twice Removed of Third House House? Numerical Confusion I Never Could Count House? Gwendolyn?
+ This will delight the hellhounds of course. The hellterror, not so much.
++ It’s a long story. Next blog post.
*** I’m not going to say clickety-clack because I don’t clickety-clack. I use wooden needles, not metal, and I’m slow so I might as well be silent too.
^ Not that this saves me from, for example, the stitch I dropped and then picked up again incompetently when I was knitting in bed one night and heard . . . the unmistakable sounds of a member of the hellmob downstairs throwing up. There is now a HOLE.+ I will sew it up during the seaming stage which, as we all know with McKinley knitting productions, never happens.++
+ In the knitting. Not the hellmob. Or the kitchen floor. The hellmob are all remarkably resistant to being left in a box by the side of the road. They tend to climb out and follow me home again.
++ Which will be embarrassing in this case because it’s the latest in my attempts at a baby blanket. ONE OF THESE DAYS I’LL ACTUALLY FINISH ONE. Before the kid goes off to uni.#
# All right. Before the kid goes off to uni may be too much to ask. By the time its first baby is born perhaps.~
~ But I still won’t have seamed it up and woven the ends in.
† The hellmob prefer LA TRAVIATA. But they’re okay with Beethoven’s symphonies.
†† And doubtless I was a dog in a previous life.^
^ I know Christianity doesn’t do reincarnation. WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING.
††† Long long long. One of the tangential horrors of the current presidential-election follies is that these bozos are my age.^ These scary creeps are my generation. Forty years ago my generation were going to SAVE THE WORLD, especially from the politicians—and the politicians’ policies—of our parents’ generation. Same old same old same old I DON’T NEED ANY ADDITIONAL REASONS TO BE UTTERLY DEPRESSED.
^ Ted Cruz is an infant.
‡ Also you are so unlike the self you used to be or thought you knew, blither blither quackety quack quack, and this current self is so exasperating and unseemly and difficult to manage^ that you, or anyway I, do find myself trying to ‘manage’ it/me like you might manage any other intractable problem. What frelling works? Avoidance? Confrontation? Drugs? Handcuffs and a soundproof dungeon? Chocolate? I haven’t found what works yet.
^ And liable to mood changes so supersonically fast, as you might say breakneck, you give yourself whiplash.+
+ It’s not that there aren’t good minutes#. There are just so many more bad ones.
# Getting sworn in as an ornamental laic doohickey by my monks was a good minute. Actually it was several good minutes in a row. Even if they did occur at EIGHT FORTY FIVE FRELLING O’CLOCK IN THE SUPER-FRELLING MORNING.
That’s the end of the memoir bits. You had mine first, which came last on the day, followed by some of his poetry, and the grandson with the amazing voice sang Linden Lea* and then it was over except for the champagne and fireworks.**
And then all of us left behind stumbled back to our lives. It’s funny what catches you out.*** Up till this week when it turned suddenly cold at last† it’s been insanely, unseasonably warm†† and all kinds of plantlife has been shooting out—my snowdrops are going to be over before they usually start—we had purple sprouting broccoli in November instead of February, and I’ve just been shelling my first broad beans of the year . . . broad beans? That should be like . . . May.†††
Broad beans were one of my early revelations about life in England. The only big fat round green bean I knew were frozen limas—preferably as succotash—and while they were fine the earth did not move and rainbows did not explode behind my eyes when I ate them. But broad beans . . . yowzah. YOWZAH yowzah. They are so spectacularly awesome they are worth the incredible faff of shelling the beggars. Those of you accustomed to this task will know whereof I speak. They grow in these massive great pillowy pods and you pick one up and think, YES! Big fat broad beans! And then you grapple your way into the thick uncooperative husk‡ and discover it’s mostly the plant version of bubblewrap and you have to lever out the few beans embedded therein. ARRRRRGH. Only the fact of the essential divinity of broad beans keeps any rational person at this desperate activity.
Peter derived some amusement out of my naïve horror at the process. And I did get used to it. Greed helps. But the thing is . . . it’s something we did together. We certainly did it literally together back at the old house, podding our very own broad beans out of our very own sweat-of-our-brows garden‡‡ And even since we moved into town and our broad beans come by organic-grocer delivery we at least had each other to moan at, whoever did the actual shelling that meal or that week or that season. Hey! the one would say to the other, shaking a pot with a modest layer of broad beans spread across the bottom. It took me forty five minutes to shuck that many!
Not this year. And telling the hellmob just isn’t the same.
* * *
* Peter had eccentric tastes in music as in most things. He would tell you he ‘wasn’t musical at all’ and didn’t care for music, or didn’t care one way or another about it.^ But if you put the wrong CD on you would hear about it and there were certain things he did really love, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for example.^^ I still wasted quite a bit of time believing that he didn’t care for music and, for example, originally assumed that the mum in SEVENTH RAVEN was a cellist because he needed her to be something, not because he was susceptible to a well-played cello. Oh. Anyway. He was sufficiently unmusical to like listening to me sing, and I’d been learning Linden Lea shortly before one of Percival’s visits. Peter certainly knew Linden Lea; I don’t think you can live on these islands without having some vague idea about King Arthur, Stonehenge and Linden Lea, but I don’t think the last had particularly registered with him before I started doing my dying-pig routine with it. Percival is always happy to take requests and he knew Linden Lea. Golly. So while Linden Lea was introduced at the memorial service as one of Peter’s favourites it might be more accurate to say it was one of his favourites for about the last year of his life.
^ And long-term blog readers will recall that he did the loyal-husband thing and accompanied me to many operas although this was not his idea of a fabulous night out and he usually complained about the libretto. Well I complain about most librettos. Any story-teller who doesn’t complain about opera librettos is an alien from the Crab Nebula only pretending to be a human story-teller. Well, a human story-teller with any pride.
^^ Which I learnt to pay attention to and then to love because Peter thought so highly of it. I wasn’t a Britten person when I moved over here; I knew his operas a little because I know most standard-rep operas at least a little, but their emotional reality is mostly too real for me. There’s no dazzling melodramatic catharsis at the end of Britten’s tragedies the way there is at the end of Verdi’s. And, just by the way, if I never hear the four sea interludes from Peter Grimes again, my life will be a little brighter. I should think Mr B would be rolling in his grave at the idea that something he wrote has been essentially turned into a frelling lollipop. Although I think he was the one who turned them into a concert piece in the first place. We all make mistakes.
** Well, prosecco. But definitely fizz.^ And yes, fireworks. Advantages of having a memorial service in January, generally speaking a quite depressing enough month in the northern hemisphere without any help: It gets dark early for fireworks. I’ve been saying that we blued the estate on the send-off. It was worth it.
^ I had two glasses and could barely walk. Maybe I should have eaten something. They even had a plate of gluten-free and I saw it like once before it ran away and hid in the shrubbery or under the piano or something.
*** No it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all.
† And I found out again how many frelling gazillion geraniums I have when I had to bring the suckers indoors to save them freezing. I had visitors coming and the sitting room floor was suddenly wall to wall to bookshelves to sofabed with geraniums. I spent a day that might have been better spent cleaning the house^ hacking and repotting and wedging, got the floor clear enough to open the sofabed and the windowsills JAAAAAAAAAMMED . . . and then there was a family crisis and I have a nice clean sitting room floor and no one to admire it but me.
^ I lost the will to live on the subject of the kitchen floor of the cottage several muddy months ago. Now I know the hellmob do walk into the little garden courtyard to pee and so it is not surprising they come back in again mired to the elbows but I SWEAR the flaming mud can jump. I’m standing in the doorway just making sure that no one with a high-angle aim pees on a rosebush and the mud makes a sudden lightning raid and gets all over the bottoms of my house slippers. Arrrrrrgh.
†† AND WET. AND MUDDY.
††† Not that I wouldn’t be glad to have May’s daylight. This time of year, bad weeks the hellmob and I barely see the sun.
‡ The how-tos tell you blithely to run your fingernail down the seam and split it open. LIKE HELL. The how-tos, which have obviously never podded a broad bean in their lives, neglect to tell you that you have a better chance of seaming one open if you start at the rear end rather than the stem end, but even so, at least one pod in three disintegrates in nasty messy little spiral flakes as you claw at it. Think about running your fingernail down a line of bubble wrap and expecting it to pop open. Ha ha frelling ha.
‡‡ Note however that I personally did almost nothing in the vegetable garden. I was flowers^ all the way. Our broad beans were the sweat of Peter’s brow. I admit however that I’ve started surreptitiously growing a few broad bean plants in pots in my little garden. I get about one good plateful from them, but they’re not fussy as plants, it’s only when you’re trying to extract the frelling beans that their depravity manifests.
^ Hey. Only about 85% roses. Okay maybe 90%.
Writer and Seer: Peter’s literary works*
Now, for this next piece I need you to imagine that I’m voicing over the sound of a typewriter. It’s coming from up a stairway or behind a study door, and it sounds like this:
Chack-chack-chack-chak. (Pause for thought.) Chackchackchackchackchackchack…
Peter did not have typist’s hands. He said his fingers were like a sculptor’s, thick and stubby**. He typed from the elbow, two fingers, hitting the keys so hard that he could break them in ways that the repair people had never seen before.
He wrote books, but not only books. He wrote scripts for plays: amateur productions that we performed with our friends the Stuart-Smiths at their house at Serge Hill***; and for the highly-talented children’s opera group who performed in St James’ Church in London W11†. He wrote a screenplay for a TV series called Mandog, and drove our little Morris Minor as an extra in one of the chase scenes.
And he wrote poems. When he was re-roofing our large and leaky house at Bramdean††, he wrote poems about it on slates and hid them under the tiles for future generations to find. He wrote a clutch of painful little poems after the tragic death of Mary Rose in 1988, and more when Robin crossed the Atlantic to join her life with his. Many of these are in his collection The Weir.
But his books were the main thing. He would write two a year, one adult mystery, one children’s fiction, like a farmer rotating the crops in his field. Often he’d start with just an idea, and no notion of where it would take him. He said he could write a third of a murder novel without knowing who had killed whom or why.†††
His imagination was bold, far-reaching and quirky. He would follow a story set in a Scottish Loch with one in sixth century Byzantium. He wrote about the near future and also about the dawn of humanity. He did light romance in the General Strike and science fiction in an apartheid Britain where some skins were green. He loved to set his stories in country houses like this one.‡ And if when you’re looking around you see a drop of fresh oil on a weapon in a display case – that’s the clue!
His characters were complex, his prose rhythmic, his ideas tantalising. He would do nothing obvious or cheap. For him, all worthwhile moral questions were complicated and ambivalent. But he did not want to lecture his readers. He took them round the byways, through the wild woods of imagination, and if they came to ask themselves the sort of questions that he was asking – as it were, by accident – that was all he could hope for.
He kept it up, for over sixty novels. That’s a gravity-defying career by all standards. They’re all still available – just go to Open Road Media – Peter Dickinson or find his website Peter Dickinson . [Fixed – Blogmom] (Here we (*&^%$£”!!!! go again: I can’t make the suckers live. Time to call in Blogmom. Apologies.] Some of them won prizes. Tulku and City of Gold won the Carnegie in consecutive years. Others did not, but his quality was always high. Have you tried The Last Houseparty? Ah, you should.
Phil and Polly remember accompanying him to Crime Writers’ Association dinners and rubbing shoulders with the greats like Harry Keating and Dick Francis.‡‡ James and I remember our excitement when he fell into a correspondence with Richard Adams (I think Peter was less than excited about this, actually). He served as Chair of the Society of Authors. He went on lecture tours, he was awarded the OBE for services to literature. But he was no highbrow.
He won prizes, he said, because his books were the sort that adults thought children ought to read.‡‡‡ He was ambivalent about that. He told an Exeter conference in 1970 that the danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature was that “not enough rubbish is being produced.”
And he added:
“Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.”
Back then that was fighting talk, and he had to defend it. Which he did. It wasn’t in his commercial interest, but it was what he believed.
So we thought we’d give you a bit of Peter’ essay “A Defence of Rubbish”. Here he is, the writer’s writer, the librarian’s favourite, up and fighting for children to be allowed what the hell they liked, even if, to the adult eye, it contained no value either aesthetic or educational.
…Third, I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things for themselves. However tactfully an adult may push them towards discoveries in literature, these do not have quite the treasure trove value of the books picked up wholly by accident. This can only be done by random sampling on the part of the children, and it is inevitable that a high proportion of what they read will be rubbish, by any standard. But in the process they will learn the art of comparison.
Fourth comes a psychological point. Children have a very varying need of security, but almost all children feel the need of security and reassurance some time. One can often tell how happy or insecure a child is feeling simply by what she is reading. And sometimes she may need to reread something well known but which makes absolutely no intellectual or emotional demand. Rubbish has this negative virtue, and I would be very chary of interfering with a child who felt an obvious need of rubbish.
My fifth point is more nebulous. There is no proof, or even arguing about it. But I am fairly sure in my own mind that a diet of plums is bad for you, and that any rational reading system needs to include a considerable amount of pap or roughage—call it what you will. I know very few adults who do not have some secret cultural vice, and they are all the better for it. I would instantly suspect an adult all of whose cultural activities were high, remote and perfect.
I have to take the podium again to make my confession here. I spent a fair amount of my childhood re-reading football comics. I was probably aware that I was being allowed to get away with it. I had no idea at all that I owed it to his faith in intellectual freedom.
Books, Peter said, are like leaves. They fall from the tree that made them and for a little while they lie golden on the ground. But very soon they are buried by the next layer of books, which of course are doomed to be buried in their turn. It’s a melancholy but realistic reflection on how much of a monument a writer can expect from his own works.
But of course, the monument is not really in the book at all. It’s in the readers who found that treasure trove and were touched by what was in it. Even if they can no longer remember the title or the author’s name. And sometimes they do. A few years ago I met a young writer who said: ‘Peter Dickinson? We had one of his books in the school library when I was twelve. It was called The Gift. I loved it.’
The Gift. Ah yes. Thank you, Peter. For that one too.
* * *
* by Peter’s son John, yes, that John Dickinson: Books by John Dickinson
He has a blog and a website, but they have been a trifle neglected: he says himself that do something about this has been top of the list for . . . er . . . quite some time.
And here is a BBC interview John did about Peter right after he died: Peter Dickinson OBE
The bit about Peter starts eleven minutes in. Several people have told me it’s good. I haven’t listened to it—I can’t bear to—so don’t talk to me about it.
** Peter had gigantic hands. My hands are big enough I can only get into size large dishwashing gloves but he could swallow one of my hands in one of his. Walking down the street holding hands we had to do it palm to palm like you do with a kiddie: if we tried to lace our fingers together I’d dislocate my knuckles. I’m wearing his wedding ring on a chain around my neck.^^ I could almost wear it as a coronet.
^ Trying to find dishwashing gloves that would fit him was epic. The holy grail was nothing on trying to find dishwashing gloves for Peter.
^^ Sigh. . . .
*** Hertfordshire. North of London.^
† Notting Hill. Next to Holland Park, as previous.^
^ . . . apologies to my English readers. But the majority of this blog’s readers are American and I’m making the assumption that they don’t know any more about English geographic niceties than I did thirty years ago. About the Europeans, Australians, Asians, Africans, Antarcticans and Martians who read this blog I will not hazard a guess.
†† And he did a VERY GOOD JOB. It DID NOT LEAK in my era.
††† I’m pretty sure I’ve told the blog this story: Peter lived with me in Maine for a couple of months while I finished DEERSKIN before packing up to move to England (eeeeeeeeeep). He borrowed my old manual typewriter [sic] and started typing (as above: CHACK CHACK). After a few days he gave me the first chapter of what would become THE YELLOW ROOM CONSPIRACY. Since it’s the first chapter it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that it ends with the two main characters saying calmly to each other ‘I thought you murdered so and so.’ I looked at Peter with very large eyes: Wow! What happens? Who did it? —I have no idea, replied Peter.
‡ Avington Park, where the memorial service was held, and which is so much more fabulous than its web site makes out. Some day when I’m feeling jolly and expansive I’ll tell you about finding it.
‡‡ I met Harold Pinter at one of these things. I didn’t take to him. But then he didn’t take to me. Harry Keating was a sweetie.
‡‡‡ Ahem. He also won prizes for his murder mysteries. Ahem.
Dad–Punch, Mary-Rose and family: *
So there was Peter at Cambridge. Dad, typically, said that he felt he wasted his time there, worked ineffectually and took little part in the many extra-curricular activities on offer. He didn’t get the hoped-for first in his finals, but even so, the college gave him a bursary to study for a PhD. Half way through this he walked into the Dean’s room and the Dean looked up from the letter he was reading and said “Would you like a job on Punch?”
The background to that story was that when the youngest member of the five-strong editorial staff of the satirical magazine Punch turned 40, they decided that they were getting too old and needed to get some younger blood in to keep them relevant. The editor wrote to a don he knew at Cambridge to ask him to find someone to train up. Allegedly someone else also wrote to a don at Oxford who never replied. So Peter was the only candidate. On his way to the interview for the job he was knocked down by a tram and arrived covered with blood and dirt, but they gave him the job anyway. It makes a great first job story and eventually made its way into his novel Death of a Unicorn.
Around this time, Peter went to a party in a friend’s rooms at Kings and met my mother, Mary-Rose. A pretty girl, standing by the fireplace laughing delightedly because she had just managed to break an unbreakable glass in the grate. Family legend then goes that soon after they met, she was whisked away to India (allegedly because my grandparents did not approve) and he thought he’d lost her forever. Almost a year passed—and Dad was at another party when she came up behind him and rapped him on the shoulder with her fan—he turned around and there was the girl of his dreams.
They were married at Bramdean, Hampshire, on April 26th 1953. They set up house in a flat in Pimlico, he continuing at Punch; Mary-Rose working in the display department of Heal’s furniture store. A couple of years later, I came along, followed by Polly the following year.
They then moved to a seedy area of West London called Holland Park** and set about converting a tall, thin terraced house into a single family home (in common with all the other houses in that street, it had been let as single rooms with coin-operated gas fires***). The pub over the road was a favourite haunt for local workers and Friday nights were frequently enlivened by fights in the street. Occasionally accompanied by a drunken fiddler.
They did as much of the conversion of the house as they could themselves. Dad made cupboards and shelves and created ingeniously designed tables and benches to fit small spaces. Many of our childhood memories include laying slabs, bricklaying, painting and decorating in every house we occupied.
Meanwhile at Punch, Dad was progressing through a number of editorial upheavals and jobs. At various points he was Art Editor (despite only being able to draw dragons and trains sideways), resident poet, Literary Editor and eventually Deputy Editor. It was clearly an extraordinary place to work (occasionally the editorial team played cricket in the corridors) and brought him into contact with some of the great humorists and cartoonists of the time.
At home, the family was growing, with the arrival of John and James. My parents bought a couple of small ramshackle cottages in Hampshire and set about converting them into a single dwelling. With a well, a chalk heap, a growing vegetable garden and wonderful views, this was a great weekend and holiday home—and also eventually became the setting for The Devils’ Children.
Some of the most abiding memories I have of my father from this time are the stories. He would read to us every night without fail and every car journey there would be a new episode of a story to listen to. As I think back, I realise how extraordinary this was but at the time, we just took it as normal. Sometimes they were re-tellings of great legends –with a twist, perhaps. More often they would be completely new. The boys always wanted a battle, so there were lots of those. It was a brilliant way to keep four lively kids quiet on long car journeys. He was our in-car entertainment.
Around this time Peter started tinkering with what he believed to be an original idea for a crime novel, working on the kitchen table after supper.
In 1965 Peter and Mary-Rose moved from their cottage to take over half her parents’ house at Bramdean, which must have been a huge stretch on a journalist’s wages. It was a wonderful place in summer—though freezing cold with a leaky roof in the winter. They developed a large vegetable garden and Dad started brewing beer (more successful than his efforts at wine making!).
By 1966-7ish Dad realised that the crime novel he was writing was completely stuck. That must have been a bad time. But it also brought him the cold-sweat nightmare which became the first scene of The Weathermonger. The following evening, he put the crime novel aside and poured his heart into writing his first children’s novel. Once that was done and on the way to his publisher, he returned to the crime novel, saw pretty much instantly what he needed to do with it and finished The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest (published as Skin Deep in the UK allegedly because someone at the publisher declared that no woman would ever buy a book with an insect in the title).
In 1968 both The Weathermonger and The Glass-sided Ants’ Nest were published to great reviews. By that time he had completed two more novels and was starting on a fifth. With these successes under his belt, he had what my maternal grandfather described in his diary as ‘a sudden rush of blood to the head’, left his job at Punch to become a full-time author – and also bought the other half of the house at Bramdean.
* * *
* by Philippa^ Dickinson, who, when she retired a year ago, was Managing Director of Random House Children’s Books UK, and is now in training to become ruler of the universe because the universe so badly needs ruling. Peter and I used to listen with rapt fascination to Philippa’s tales of taking on various corporate miscreants^^—the kind of miscreants who are used to ploughing ordinary members of the public under, and probably still don’t know what hit them. The trains/transporters/teleportation booths will run on time in Philippa’s universe. Also, the reason Peter’s memorial service went as brilliantly as it did is largely down to Phil. It’s end of year holidays and everyone is closed for business? Well they’re just going to have to open up again. It’s beginning of year holidays and everyone is on a beach in Barbados? Well they’re just going to have to come back again. We all^^^ pitched in at our various levels of competence—that would be me blubbing along at the bottom—and the Dickinson Managerial Gene in its rich panoply of manifestations was much in evidence# but the honours go to Phil.##
^ I had a brain failure last night—they’re a bit endemic at present—and forgot that I hadn’t already posted Phil’s and was queueing up to post John’s. Fortunately he didn’t answer by return electron.
^^ As if running a large wodge of frelling Random House wasn’t enough. I’m talking about corporate miscreants outside publishing, where no one would know that this woman with the pleasant smile and mild manner is dangerous.
^^^ chiefly Peter’s four kids and I, with crucial input from various spouses, cousins, and Peter’s brothers
# None of Peter’s kids is a wallflower. They had an excellent role model. I remember, early on, once complaining, after a Dickinson family dinner party, that I hadn’t been able to get a word in edgewise. Peter looked at me in surprise. Shout louder, he said.
## This includes a lot of kind and patient support of the blubbing widow.
** For anyone who doesn’t get this joke, Holland Park is like the place to live. Buckingham Palace? Don’t be silly. Notting Hill? So last century. Holland Park is the place to be. But sixty years ago it was urban blight. Peter and Mary-Rose were in the first wave of gentrifiers.
*** And, according to Peter, electricity that consisted of a single naked light bulb on the landing of each floor, and a loo at the bottom of the garden.