from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Books that sustain us OR keep us exploring.

Richard Flanagan’s lastest novel

December 14. The year is almost past. We have survived so far. For those who love books, the reading life has been an activity that has helped us get through the worst times. The Economist magazine agrees. In their business section of the edition, ‘The World in 2021’ I was pleased to see an article, ‘Books bounce Back’. Book buying – print and digital has increased. We cannot be sure that books have been read, but they have been bought!

‘The year 2020 is on track to be one of the best for print books in America since 2004.’

eBooks and audio book sales have recorded double digit growth and print books sales increased by 7%. 2021 is also forecast to be another positive year for book sellers. And it’s not just Amazon that has benefitted: a newish online bookseller which routes sales to independent bookstores is doing well.

I often wish I had kept a running list of the books that I read each year. Because I forget. Maybe that is why I don’t like to give away the books that fill our bookcases.

I usually have at least a couple of books on the go. The mind can do that! At the moment I am reading The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, (due out in the UK in January 2021) a fascinating, dark, imaginative novel by Richard Flanagan, (he of the Booker Prize, Winner 2014 with the Narrow Road to the Deep North).

Interesting title. Some of you, unlike me, will be ultra-aware and recognise it as a quote from a poem by English poet, John Clare (1793-1864). Ignorant, that I am, I did not know about John Clare until David Vincent (also a writer in this group of bloggers) introduced me to him. It’s a very sad, very beautiful poem written when Clare was bereft of love and hope (as some are during these times).

‘Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is a strange novel for strange times. It is set in Tasmania during the 2019 summer where 3 siblings gather around the bedside of their dying mother while Australia burns. Ignore the darkness and read it. It will take you away to wonder at many things: of hope in the face of disaster, of our threatened natural world, of vanishing wildlife, of the nature of kindness and of family dynamics around a dying parent.

‘Is translating experience into words any achievement at all? Or is it just the cause of all our unhappiness?’ (Flanagan) All writers might ask this. What is there left to write in this new world?

I too am a writer: attempting through imagination translated into words to create a believable story. I feel what Flanagan has done is to take us into the Covid-19 future of an unravelling world. He uses magical realism and the disturbing ‘vanishings’ of The Living Sea to place us in that world.

It is worth listening to the excellent podcast of Richard Flanagan talking to Richard Fiedler (another author and an excellent interviewer) on ABC’s Conversations. Even if you don’t see yourself getting this book, do listen to this podcast. Amongst other things, It will take you away to a distant lighthouse island; to the idea of Tasmania being a Jewish safe zone during the 2nd WW; to the dying rainforest of the SW of Tasmania, to the politics of denial.

How lucky we are as readers to have such resources at our fingertips.

This part-poem from Mervyn Peake comes from one of his Gormenghast books (Titus Groan). The poem may not be about books, instead it is about loneliness, imagination and exploring ideas. And, of course, it keeps us exploring and paying attention to things that are vanishing.

Will thou come with me, and linger?
And discourse with me of those
Secret things the mystic finger
Points to, but will not disclose?
When I’m all alone, my glory
Always fades, because I find
Being lonely drives the splendour
Of my vision from my mind.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Better Known.

John Clare

June 19.  I have just recorded a contribution to ‘Better Known’, a podcast series in which the speaker recommends six people, places, objects, stories, experiences and ideas that should be better known.*

It was a challenging task.  Most of us carry in our heads our eight Desert Island Disks, revising them from time to time in the hope that one day we will be asked to make them public.  The brief for ‘Better Known’ was much wider, and coming in the middle of an avalanche of work, there was little time to ponder upon it.  I came up with five entries, and spent three quarters of an hour talking about them. 

For places:

  • Montaigne’s Tower, in south-west France.  The man himself, the first modern explorer of how an individual should live, is well enough known, but his tower, which we visit whenever we are in the Dordogne, is largely neglected by French visitors.  Montaigne spent his days in one tower at the corner of a large courtyard, his wife in another (now demolished), and his mother in the main house (now rebuilt), a perfect arrangement for any family.
  • St Peter’s Church Melverley.  A rare, perfectly preserved timber-frame church, constructed out of local oak in around 1405, every beam pegged to another without any fixtures, standing on a bluff with the River Vyrnwy swirling around it.
  • The Stiperstones.  A long rocky ridge, in sight of my house, with the remains of Britain’s largest lead mine at its base, and long views across the Welsh Marches.

For objects:

  • Caroline Testout climbing rose.  Names for a late-nineteenth-century French couturier, a splendidly blousy pink rose, with a faint scent.  I have one growing over my front door, and any house would be improved by it.

For writings:

  • Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, sometimes cited in these diaries
  • The poetry of John Clare, the great peasant poet of the first half of the nineteenth century, the finest observer of the natural world this country has ever produced.

It is in some ways a counterproductive undertaking.  The last thing I want is coach loads of tourists at Melverley, or Everest-like queues to ascend the Stiperstones.  The writings are more secure.  There will be a limit to the number willing to tackle the two million words in Mayhew’s volumes, and Clare, quite simply, really should be better known, although his reputation is building, not least thanks to a recent biography by Jonathan Bate.  Here is an evocative poem written in his asylum years on the topic of solitude, to which he returned frequently over his life:

There is a charm in Solitude that cheers
A feeling that the world knows nothing of
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off
Whose whole delight was crime at good to scoff
Green solitude his prison pleasure yields
The bitch fox heeds him not – birds seem to laugh
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely fields

*To be broadcast on July 6