The Good Life – Dorian Amos

20200428 The Good Life

I have written about The Yukon sixteen months ago whilst reviewing some of the poetry of Robert Service and that also included some of my photographs of my time there in June 1995 with a friend paddling along the Yukon river from Whitehorse the same as Dorian and his wife Bridget would do four years later almost to the day. The difference is that Dave and I were doing it for fun and would leave Yukon by the end of the month, Dorian and Bridget were aiming to live there and had no idea how they were actually going to do this. It truly is wilderness, The Yukon Territory is 186,272 miles² (482,443 km²) which makes it big enough to fit in continental European countries Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark together with room to slot in Cyprus. In all that space only 35,874 people live there (2016 census) of which 25,085 live in the capital, Whitehorse. The next biggest place is Dawson (pop. 1.375) and that is where Dave and Bridget were heading.

The book starts in 1998 in Polperro, a pretty coastal town in Cornwall, England, which is heavily dependent on tourism and fishing for its local economy. Dorian had a shop selling his pictures called Amosart and Bridget was a newly qualified psychiatric nurse, life was finally becoming easier after years of study and hard work building up a viable business, but Dorian was becoming bored and longed for some adventure in his life. Then a few months later, over an evening meal of fish and chips.

I heard her sigh “I’m sick of this shit” and I sat up with heart pounding. “Are you?” I said. “We can make a change you know.” Bridge looked at me in away she had only started to do after qualifying as a psychiatric nurse. I took the plunge and told her about my now overwhelming urge for adventure.

When I’d finished and slumped back into my chair, she said “if you think about something too much, you just talk yourself out of it and never do it. We are only here once. Let’s go get some action! Can you pass the salt please?”

Six months later Dorian was on his way to Canada, chosen mainly as they had relatives there so could get help with choosing where they wanted to be. Bridget was to follow four months after when her contract finished. The one practical thing they had done in the meantime was take a week long course on woodlore and bushcraft with survival expert Ray Mears but as he says in his introduction to the book

If I’d known then what Dorian and Bridget had in mind. I would certainly have advised further tuition in bushcraft, pointed them at expert canoe coaches and a host of other instructors.

However ignorance is bliss.

Soon after arrival in Canada Dorian purchased a truck which he nicknamed Pricey, not because it cost a lot of money but the repair bills certainly did, and started to accumulate items needed to exist in the wilderness but on a very tight budget. This meant that as tents were expensive he bought canvas to make his own and soon discovered why tents were so expensive. He also bought a dog called Boris partly as a companion and partly to protect Bridget and himself from wild animals, something that Boris proved many times over the coming months and years that he was incapable of, being more likely to hide behind them if any animals approached, assuming that he woke up anyway. Dorian writes with self deprecating humour regarding their travails in the wild open Canadian countryside and their total lack of preparedness. The trip up the Yukon after Bridget had joined him showed just how wild the country was and how much they had to learn, for example to avoid having to live on soup they were carrying with them they really needed to go fishing but neither of them had ever fished and despite buying the equipment didn’t know how to go about catching anything. The passages describing their fishing attempts are really funny and you feel their elation when weeks later they finally catch something much to their own surprise.

After getting to Dawson they turned back and explored the possibilities of living by one of the thousands of lakes closer to civilisation but found that these were already inhabited or were the play areas of people from the nearby towns so eventually decided that Dawson was the place for them. This time Bridget would go on ahead and get settled and a job whilst Dorian would stay at Bridget’s relatives and get a job there to pay for much needed repairs to Pricey and get some more equipment.  Eventually the two are together in Dawson, or at least on either side of the river as they eventually found a plot to build a cabin on opposite the town so whilst Bridget stayed in Dawson working as a waitress then as a support person for pregnant women, Dorian tried to build a cabin.

I won’t say any more about how this goes except that as you can imagine building a home from scratch when you have never attempted anything like this before, in a freezing Yukon winter (minus 20 degrees is a warm day) , on your own, largely in the dark as days are short that time of year was not a simple task. The book is full of details as to how they get along and amazingly they not only survive but thrive and Dorian is good at describing a scene so that it is easy to visualise.

The book was published by Eye Books who seem to specialise in first time authors, especially with stories to tell like this one and whilst looking to see if this book was still available found that Dorian has written a follow up where he gets ‘gold fever’ and I’ve no doubt that it is a funny as his first.

Poirot and Me – David Suchet

20200414 Poirot and Me

A fascinating description of the years David Suchet took to film almost all the Hercule Poirot novels and short stories written by Agatha Christie over thirteen series comprising of seventy episodes. The first day of filming was the 1st July 1988 and the final one was on the 28th June 2013, so almost exactly twenty five years from start to finish. Right at the end of the book he admits that one very short story never got adapted which was The Lemesurier Inheritance, apart from that everything was either specifically filmed as an individual story or merged into another short tale.

But I feel I must get one major failing of the book over and done with right at the beginning of this review. Suchet is completely obsessed with his reviews, after each story about a series or sometimes even an episode you get two or three, or maybe five or six, newspaper reviews saying how wonderful it was. It’s not just a quick one line either some of them are longer and it really get tedious. It is also completely unnecessary, if the reader didn’t think that his performance as Poirot and indeed the series itself was good it is highly unlikely that they will have picked up the book in the first place. He also comes over as a terrible ‘luvvie’ every actor he refers to has done a magnificent performance in such and such, or was fabulous in the role of whoever, everybody is announced with gushing compliments. Having said that, you can just skip the reviews and the overblown introductions and in there is a very enjoyable book.

Suchet covers the entire story of the series from his first being offered the part and getting to meet Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks who controlled the rights to her mothers works. She wanted to be sure that he understood what she expected from his portrayal. The book though starts at Pinewood Studios with the death of Poirot in the filming of ‘Curtain’ as part of the thirteenth, and final, series. From having explained his sorrow and what it means to him and those who have worked with him over the years to film these scenes he sets the tone before we jump back to his first being offered the part. His descriptions at the beginning of the book of his struggles to find the voice for Poirot whilst filming another TV series set on the Isles of Scilly before starting filming at Twickenham studios and only then suddenly realising after seeing the first test shots that he simply had no idea how he should walk are interesting insights into how an actor approaches a role. What was really surprising was that despite the massive hit that the Poirot series became this first series was the only time that any of the TV companies involved actually had an option on Suchet doing another series, after that he went for months or sometimes years without knowing if he would ever play the character again.

What does become very clear is Suchet’s devotion to the Belgian detective, before starting to play him he read all the stories and made a list of ninety three characteristics that made him who he was so that he could play him as a real person rather than the caricatures that he feels have been Poirot’s fate with previous portrayals.

He was a character that demanded to be taken seriously. He wasn’t a funny little man with a silly accent any more than Sherlock Holmes was a morphine addict with a taste for playing the violin.

He carried this ‘Dossier of Characteristics’ with him throughout the twenty five years of playing the part and gave a copy to each director so that they could understand what he was trying to do, I love some of the examples he gives in the book, some of which are emphatic like number one

Belgian, not French

Others are more idiosyncratic, like number eight

Regards his moustache as a thing of perfect beauty, uses scented pomade.

And one that had only partly registered with me in reading the books, number ten

A man of faith and morals, regards himself as ‘Un bon Catholique’, reads his bible every night before he goes to sleep.

This was a side of Poirot that hadn’t been seen in previous screen representations of Poirot but Suchet shows him with his rosary several times during the films revealing a side to the man which helps flesh out his need to see justice be done. This was particularly a feature in ‘Curtain’ and the death scenes in that where Poirot is seen preparing himself for the end that he recognises is soon to come. Just as Agatha Christie wrote ‘Curtain’ many years before it was published, filming this episode was not the last that Suchet did, instead it was filmed first in that final series several months before the other four episodes that concludes the story arc, so allowing him to finish his portrayal of the Great Detective on a high rather than a low point. Fittingly the last part of filming was at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s own home and added an extra poignancy to Suchet’s final day as Poirot.

The book appears to have been remaindered, judging by the sheer number of copies some secondhand book dealers have available even now. This does mean that it is easily available for very little money on either Biblio or Abebooks should you wish to obtain a copy.

Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher

Hi, I’m Carrie Fisher and I’m an alcoholic

And this is a true story.

The start of Carrie Fisher’s first memoir certainly sets out her stall all too well. This is going to be a roller coaster ride through the highs and lows of her life told with self deprecating humour honed by telling much of the material covered in the book in a hit one woman show which premiered in 2006. The copy of the book I have is the 2008 first edition published by Simon and Schuster.

20191029 Wishful Drinking 1

The daughter of film star Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, Carrie grew up in a far from normal household. Her father left when she was two when he started an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who was also married at the time. Reynolds married again a couple of years later to a millionaire business man (who later lost all his money along with Reynolds’ due to bad business decisions and gambling) but he was Carrie and her brother Todd’s step father through most of their childhood. The book is quite open about this time in her life, how they only saw their mother occasionally, her step father even less often and her biological father about once a year. From the descriptions of the two children spending time with Reynolds’s clothes as they smelt of her when they couldn’t be with her and the times she was around spending as much time as possible in her presence they clearly missed having her in their lives.

By her mid to late teens Carrie had discovered alcohol and drugs, mainly marijuana at this stage and was what would become her life long addictions to both had started. This could have been a really dark book but the humorous way she addresses this along with her later mental health problems (she was bipolar) makes you laugh along with her even when she is describing really low points.

Okay, have it your way. I’m a drug addict.

You know how they say religion is the opiate of the masses? Well I took masses of opiates religiously.

or talking about her committal to a mental hospital a couple of years after giving birth to her daughter.

I was invited to go to a mental hospital. And you know, you don’t want to be rude, so you go. Okay, I know what you must be thinking – but this is a very exclusive invitation.

I mean, hello – have you ever been invited to a mental hospital?

So you see, it’s exclusive. It’s sort of like an invitation to the White House – only you meet a better class of people in the mental hospital.

The reader is introduced to Fishers fragile mental state right at the beginning of the book as she discusses the electroconvulsive therapy she has undergone and the effects it has had on her, including sporadic memory loss but she has also gained a re-awakening of things she has done which had been lost in the fog of drugs, drink and mental imbalance. This enabled her to create the stage show which led to this book.

Yes there is a section about Star Wars, but it’s quite a short one, and surprisingly nothing about her later career as one of the top Hollywood script doctors where she fixed scripts for various TV shows and films, including working for George Lucas. She got the role as Princess Leia at just nineteen years old and you get the impression that she is slightly irked that Lucas owns the image rights to the character including a throw away wry comment that every time she looks in the mirror she owes him a dollar. All those t-shirts, posters, dolls, figurines (large small and Lego) earn money for Lucasfilms not Carrie Fisher and it still seems odd to her that Leia became a sex symbol ‘while being chained to a giant slug’.

One afternoon in Berkeley I found myself walking into a shop that sold rocks and gems.

“Oh my God aren’t you…” the salesman behind the counter exclaimed.

And before he could go any further. I modestly said “Yes, I am”

“Oh my God! I thought about you every day from when I was twelve to when I was twenty-two.”

And instead of asking what happened at twenty-two, I said “Every Day?”

He shrugged and said “Well four times a day.”

Welcome to the land of too much information.

In the book there is a lot of information and a lot of it is dark but there is never too much and it is a great read while she takes us through her fascinating life.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

20190917 The Pillow Book 1

This beautiful Folio Society edition was first published by them in 1979 and my copy is the 4th printing from 2015, it is bound in black artificial moire silk blocked in gold with the title in Japanese characters. The original book was written during the late Heian Period, between 900 and 1000AD, by one of the ladies at the Japanese emperors court and is a rather strange combination of observations, being whatever she felt like writing down at the time. The translation used is that of Ivan Morris from 1967 and he has numbered each of the entries unlike some other translators. It is literally a pillow book because it was a notebook kept by the bed for use when inspiration struck some of the entries are fascinating glimpses into life at court whilst others are just odd lists of objects or places for example entry 140:

Things That Give a Clean Feeling
An earthen cup. A new metal bowl. A rush mat. The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

Others really are simple lists as in section 108

Hot Springs
Nanakuri, Arima and Tamatsukuri

There are about 150 of these simple lists on subjects as varied as Peaks, Plains, Markets etc. spread through the text. Whether they were just particular favourites it is impossible to tell as very rarely is any context given. The third passage however lets us visit the court itself…

Especially delightful is the first day of the First Month, when the mists so often shroud the sky. Everyone pays great attention to his appearance and dresses with the utmost care. What a pleasure it is to see them all offer their congratulations to the Emperor and celebrate their own new year!

This is the day when members of the nobility who live outside the Palace arrive in their magnificently decorated carriages to admire the blue horses. As the carriages are drawn over the ground-beam of the Central Gate, there is always a tremendous bump, and the heads of the women passengers are knocked together; the combs fall out of their hair, and may be smashed to pieces if the owners are not careful. I enjoy the way everyone laughs when this happens.

I remember one occasion when I visited the Palace to see the procession of blue horses. Several senior courtiers were standing outside the guard-house of the Left Division; they had borrowed bows from the escorts, and, with much laughter, were twanging them to make the blue horses prance. Looking through one of the gates of the Palace enclosure, I could dimly make out a garden fence, near which a number of ladies, several of them from the Office of Grounds, went to and fro. What lucky women, I thought, who could walk about the Nine-Fold Enclosure as though they had lived there all their lives! Just then the escorts passed close to my carriage, remarkably close, in fact, considering the vastness of the Palace grounds, and I could actually see the texture of their faces. Some of them were not properly powdered; here and there their skin showed through unpleasantly like the dark patches of earth in a garden where the snow has begun to melt. When the horses in the procession reared wildly, I shrank into the back of my carriage and could no longer see what was happening.

It is fascinating to see what happens during the period of appointments. However snowy and icy it may be, candidates of the Fourth and Fifth Ranks come to the Palace with their official requests. Those who are still young and merry seem full of confidence. For the candidates who are old and white-haired things do not go so smoothly. Such men have to apply for help from people with influence at Court; some of them even visit ladies-in-waiting in their quarters and go to great lengths in pointing out their own merits. If young women happen to be present, they are greatly amused. As soon as the candidates have left, they mimic and deride them, something that the old men cannot possibly suspect as they scurry from one part of the Palace to another, begging everyone, “Please present my petition favourably to the Emperor” and “Pray inform Her Majesty about me.” It is not so bad if they finally succeed, but it really is rather pathetic when all their efforts prove in vain.

This passage is quite revealing about Sei, she is quite often arrogant and demeaning to others, she also finds it funny to cause problems for people she regards as her social inferiors. In this she is not alone at least according to her own accounts. Entry 292 describes an encounter with a man who has lost everything when his house burnt down following a fire in the Imperial haylofts…

We all burst out laughing at this, including the mistress of the robes; I took a sheet of paper and wrote

If the vernal sun burns strong enough
To sprout the young grass roots
Even a place like Yodo plain
Can ill survive its heat

‘Kindly give him this’ I told Mama throwing the paper to her. With loud laughter Mama handed the paper to the man.

They then instructed him to get somebody to read it to him and set off to the palace roaring with laughter as he set off believing that he had a record slip granting him money. She also claims that when the Empress was told about this she also found if funny.

But for all the casual cruelty of her interactions with others the book is still an important document into the lives of Japanese courtiers over 1000 years ago. She is free (and frequent) with her choice of lovers and this is also clearly normal as is the expectation that as soon as the gentleman has gone home in the morning that he would write a carefully considered letter to her using his finest calligraphy and choose a handsome page to deliver it. We are further told that he should not rush off on leaving in the morning but should linger a while, however if he is leaving during the night then spending time getting formally dressed is not acceptable as who would see him and he should just go when decent. What things look like or at least appear is everything to the ladies of the court, a deep knowledge of poetry and an ability to produce their own lines at a moments notice and of course write them with beautiful lettering is vital.

20190917 The Pillow Book 2

I was simultaneously fascinated by and surprised by the details in this book, admittedly as Sei herself says at the end this was not intended for publication, it was her notes for her own pleasure, but it has gone on to be one of the classics of Japanese literature. We do not even know her real name, Sei is either a pseudonym or possibly a family name and Shōnagon is actually her title (a minor counsellor of the fifth rank). She was however of the class that would place her in the court as a daughter of a provincial governor and a long distant descendant of the former Emperor Temmo (630 to 686AD). She was a part of the Yokihito, literally ‘The Good People’. who comprised the aristocracy, and they preserved a complete lack of knowledge and indeed interest of the Tadahito, ‘Mere People’, which comprised the vast majority of the Japanese population. As such she can tell us nothing regarding the life of most Japanese at the time but the rarefied existence at the very top that she enjoyed is fascinating. In fact the Emperor whilst running the country at least in name was for centuries merely a puppet of the Fujiwaras family who were careful to never actually become Emperor but were always the power behind the throne and ensured that the cultivated art inspired court remained completely distant from the people so they could get on with actually controlling the country.

It was an interesting time, the Heian period lasted well over three centuries and there are few other records for us to see what was happening during that period. Sei Shōnagon has left us this record and it is well worth finding a copy and reading.

Note: I have now seen the Penguin Classics version of Ivan Morris’s translation, first published in 1971, and in that he edited it to remove the simple lists so that instead of 326 sections there are only 185. This means that the section numbers above don’t work with this edition. I have therefore given below a cross-reference for passages quoted above:

  • 140 – Things that give a clean feeling becomes 97
  • 108 – Hot Springs is omitted
  • 3 – Especially delightful is the first day becomes 2
  • 292 – We all burst out laughing becomes 168

Summoned by Bells – John Betjeman

20190514 Summoned by Bells 1

This autobiography in verse covers Betjeman’s early life from his Edwardian childhood (he was born in 1906) to his university days at Magdalen College in Oxford where he was taught by C.S. Lewis. The book was first printed in 1960 just as Betjeman was getting serious recognition as a poet with a dozen volumes published before this and it is also the year he received The Queen’s Medal for Poetry and was made a CBE. The verse has his characteristic humour but also darker times like describing being bullied at school. It is uncharacteristic also in being, for the most part, blank verse, though he can’t stop himself at times, from adding in some parts in rhymes. The book is split into nine chapters as we follow him growing up.

We start in Highgate where the family had moved when he was three years old, they were clearly relatively well to do as they owned a four wheeled carriage and regularly holidayed in Cornwall. Apart from Maud, his overbearing nurse, who seemed to delight in punishing him for slight misdemeanors he appears to have had a happy childhood up until he went to school. Apart from one traumatic incident that clearly haunted him right up to his fifties when he wrote the lines on just the second page of Summoned by Bells.

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond deep, like never ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down,
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe. One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

His father was the third generation owner of a silversmith and cabinet making business and was very disappointed in John because he refused to carry on the firm and all this is covered in the second chapter of the book. In this edition each of the chapters has a small line drawing by Michael Tree and a brief summary of what will be covered. The description of the workshops for the business in this section and the hours that John spent clearly enjoying himself with the craftsmen employed there made it all the more galling for his father when he later expressed no interest in continuing it

To all my father’s hopes. In later years,
Now old and ill, he asked me once again
To carry on the firm, I still refused.
And now when I behold, fresh-published, new,
A further volume of my verse, I see
His kind grey eyes look woundedly at mine,
I see his workmen seeking other jobs,
And that red granite obelisk that marks
The family grave in Highgate cemetery
Points an accusing finger to the sky.

20190514 Summoned by Bells 3

Chapter three has him at school and being bullied at both his junior schools, he seems unclear why at the first one but at the second his apparently German surname in 1913/4, spelt then Betjemann, led to him being picked on by gangs and having to come up with various routes home to avoid them. Ironically the family was actually originally Dutch and the additional ‘n’ was added when they came to the UK over a century earlier but soon Britain was at war with the Netherlands, so they wanted to appear German. During WWI the second ‘n’ was quietly dropped again. Chapter four and the family is on holiday in Cornwall leading to the start of the young Betjeman’s love affair with railways and the English countryside.

20190514 Summoned by Bells 2

Chapters five and seven describe his private education, first at Dragon preparatory school in Oxfordshire and then Marlborough college in Wiltshire. His time at Dragon appears to have been pretty happy and exploring by bicycle leads him to churches and that other great love of his throughout his life, architecture. Marlborough however was a more difficult time, there are stories of beatings and the prefects birching the boys and terrorising them as a group known to the younger boys as “Big Fire” because of where they sat in the evenings. A boy who had transgressed would be called to “Big Fire” for a beating or sometimes worse. I skipped chapter six which covers being back in London during holidays exploring the London Underground and buying books, the family had moved to Chelsea and the bookshops abounded

Untidy bookshops gave me such delight,
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire

I’m with Betjeman all the way with those sentiments.

20190514 Summoned by Bells 4

The summary above of chapter eight pretty well covers it, his father is even more dominating than before but now John is big enough to escape and does so on long cycle rides round the area discovering yet more churches.

The final section deals with his years at Oxford, a place he freely admits to doing little or no work at and certainly not studying for his degree. Instead he builds a wide social network which become extremely useful to him in later years

No wonder, looking back, I never worked.
Too pleased with life, swept in the social round,
I soon left Old Marlburians behind.
(As one more solemn of our number said:
“Spiritually I was at Eton, John”)
I cut tutorials with wild excuse,
For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way-
And evening dining with the Georgeoisie

How much of this lack of drive towards his degree was down to the mutual dislike between himself and C S Lewis it is difficult to tell, it’s quite possible that even with a more sympathetic tutor who may have got more out of him he would still have left without a degree. In the poem he blames a failure of the compulsory divinity course but in reality he really put so little effort into his studies that he was never going to pass.

The book is a fun read and so unusual in the use of verse throughout. I first read it many years ago and had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

 

The Book of Margery Kempe

The earliest autobiography in English and by that most marginalised section of the population in historical texts (especially medieval history) a woman.  The book is a remarkable document all the more so from the fact that it was ‘lost’ for many centuries. It was known to have existed because of a seven page extract published by Wynkyn de Worde circa 1501 but the original manuscript which dates back to the 1430’s was believed to no longer exist. However in 1934 a copy was found in the collection of an old Catholic family the Butler-Bowdens, it is not the original dictated by Margery (as she could neither read nor write) but certainly a very early copy and a remarkable survivor. The book was first published in 1936 and the manuscript was acquired by the British Library in 1980. It is split into two books, the first has eighty nine chapters but it turns out that the person she dictated that to had such terrible handwriting that nobody could read it. In the four years it took to find somebody to rewrite this main section she dictated another ten chapters that were added as book two.

My copy is the first Folio Society edition of 2004 and uses the edited, and updated from medieval English, version by professor Windeatt, which was first published by Penguin Books in 1980, it has a lovely cover by Chris Daunt who also provided a dozen engravings included within the text.

20190430 Margery Kempe 1

In the medieval period a woman was effectively the property of her husband and this is illustrated many times in the book such as within chapter 51 when Margery is in York

Then the worthy doctor said to her “Woman, what are you doing here in this part of the country?”
“Sir, I come on pilgrimage to offer here at St William’s shrine”
Then he went on “Do you have a husband?”
She said “Yes”
“Do you have a letter recording his permission?”
“Sir” she said “my husband gave me permission with his own mouth”

As well as the need to have permission we see here Margery’s habit of referring to herself in the third person, when she is not doing so then she uses ‘this creature’ as the usual term regarding herself. Margery had by this time travelled to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago (Spain) on a couple of trips all without her husband. In fact he was probably enjoying the breaks from her presence as she has to be the most annoying person I have ever read about and frankly like a lot of her travelling companions I would also have spent a lot of time trying to get away from her.  On her way to Jerusalem from England her companions had abandoned her several times or insisted that she ate separately from them when she was present and in Italy they went so far as to book a ship across the Mediterranean and leave their lodgings without telling her in a desperate attempt to get away.

So why was she so irritating? Well Margery started having visions after her first child was born and would very loudly express them, calling out to all the members of the Holy Trinity and speaking to them as well as quite a few saints in churches dedicated to them. That she clearly believed that she was having these conversations is beyond doubt and she was no longer interested in anything else but aspects of her faith.

And those who knew of her behaviour previously and now heard her talk so much of the bliss of heaven said to her. “Why do you talk so of the joy that is in heaven? You don’t know it, and you haven’t been there any more than we have.” And they were angry with her because she would not hear or talk of worldly things as they did, and as she did previously.
And after this time she never had any desire to have sexual intercourse with her husband, for paying the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, have eaten and drunk the ooze and muck in the gutter than consent to intercourse, except out of obedience.
And so she said to her husband; “I may not deny you my body, but all the love and affection of my heart is withdrawn from all earthly creatures and set on God alone.

Alongside the visions she also took to weeping and crying whenever she was in a holy place or with a religious person regardless of rank and this would also be loud often involving throwing herself to the ground to bawl like a toddler. This naturally made her a difficult person to be around especially if you are trying to observe the peace of a holy site. When she got back from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome she would cry around fourteen times a day as she ‘remembered the passion’ as during a vision there she had seen herself with the body of Christ on the cross as though she had actually been present at the crucifixion.

For me, one of her most irritating features though is the total fixation on herself during the book. She travelled across Europe to Rome and onto Jerusalem taking well over eighteen months from late 1413 to Easter 1415 yet she records nothing of the places she went to or the trip itself. This journey alone would have made a fascinating book, she would certainly had a vast number of interesting experiences and a first hand record of Europe and the Holy Land from six centuries ago by an ‘ordinary’ woman as opposed to nobles and royalty would be invaluable to historians. She mentions that she spent twelve weeks in Venice before taking the boat to Jerusalem but that is it, who she met, where she went and what she saw during that time we learn nothing.

But that is not to say that book does not have a lot to recommend it, Margery’s responses to being challenged, even by the highest authority show a quick wit and can be quite funny and despite being frustrating at times to a modern reader, especially the passages where she is conversing with God I’m glad I read it. I’ll finish with a passage from chapter sixty which shows her at her feisty best…

There was a lady who wanted to have the said creature to a meal. And therefore, as decency required, she went to the church where this lady heard her service and where this creature saw a beautiful image of our lady called a pieta. And through looking at that pieta her mind was wholly occupied with the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the compassion of our Lady, St. Mary, by which she was compelled to cry out very loudly and weep very bitterly, as though she would have died.
Then the lady’s priest came to her, saying “Woman, Jesus is long since dead.”
When her crying had ceased, she said to the priest, “Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died this same day, and so, I think, it ought to be to you and all Christian people, We ought always to remember his kindness, and always to think of the doleful death that he died for us.”

and that told him.

The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer

20190219 Art of Asking 1

So begins Amanda Palmer’s autobiographical self help book, but lets think about that statement. Is it an autobiography? Well sort of, it certainly tells you a lot about her life so far from childhood, to performance art (a lot of time as a living statue and what happened next) to having her own band(s) and marriage to the best selling author Neil Gaiman. So is it a self help book? It starts out like that certainly, but drifts somewhat from the premise of the title as the book progresses, so what is it? A cracking good read that is what it is… You will laugh, you will cry; boy will you cry; there are heart wrenching passages that make you wonder where the tissues are and then sections that make you laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation she finds herself in. Please also be aware there is strong language in the extracts selected from this book. Well actually there is strong language throughout the book which is why I couldn’t avoid it.

20190219 Art of Asking 2

The single flower she is holding in the cover photo harks back to her time as the ‘eight foot bride’ actually she only stood 7½ feet on top of the milk crates but why ruin a good title. This was her first venture into public performance art and as a living statue she earned more than the job in the ice-cream parlour could ever pay, simply for standing still and when somebody gave her money she would give them a flower. The gift of the flower was vital, this she saw as a transaction, yes she was asking (albeit silently) for people to give her money but they did get a physical product in return, it was not a simple one way process.

20190219 Art of Asking 3

Through the book Amanda explores not just the idea of ‘asking’ but also the basis of relationships both personal and public. The relationship that she has with the fans of her band is clearly key to her existence and it is also obviously two way. There is a definite element of family, especially amongst the long standing fans, they know one another and look after one another and this is incredibly important and not only do the fans support one another but they support her and she supports them. It was one of the things that her one time label really didn’t understand. Outreach was for promotion of specific marketable products not for touchy feely bonding, but it was just this sort of direct contact that had built the band up n the first place. The email lists that she had built up over years became a not just a contact point but a meeting place for like minded souls.

20190219 Art of Asking 5

One thing explored at length in the book is how they came to be the first band to raise $1 million through crowd-sourcing to fund an album after they split with their existing label. The story of how they managed to get out of a notoriously complex and exploitative contact is also a tale of joy. She asked for money to record the album and the fans responded and then she hit a major personal problem which impacted her ability to fulfil the obligations of the money raised. A lifelong friend and confidant was unexpectedly very ill and she felt she couldn’t do what she needed to do for kickstarter and still be around for Anthony. This is where the book really gets hold of you and won’t let go, you become so involved in the drama of Anthony’s story which is just so unexpected from the book up to that point. But mixed up in this was her relationship with her husband Neil Gaiman and her inability to ask HIM for help.

20190219 Art of Asking 4

The amount of money involved whilst significant was not a major issue for a writer with the earning capacity of Neil Gaiman, but that was not the point for Amanda. As somebody who had valued her independence since a child this was just one step too far, or so it seemed at the time. There is then a long section where she comes to terms with the issue and whilst not resolving it comes to realise that there is only one logical way to progress, to get commitments not just to the crowd funded record but to the fans and to Anthony and to Neil sorted out. She has to ask, even though it is the most difficult (yet paradoxically the easiest because she knows the answer will be yes) for the money to cover her gap in finances. It should be explained here that that Neil and Amanda run completely separate financial positions, although married they have separate accounts, their own homes (in the case of Neil Gaiman several) and this independence is essential at least for Amanda, we cannot tell Neil’s position from the book.

20190219 Art of Asking 6

That last line in the image above reflects back to a passage early on in the book from a conversation between Anthony and Amanda. In an allegorical statement there is a dog howling outside and Amanda asks what the problem is. Anthony explains that the dog is sitting on a nail and whilst uncomfortable is still not driven to over-ride a natural laziness to move because it doesn’t hurt enough yet.

There is one section of the book that felt personally relevant to me and that was a short part dealing with an aspect of Amanda’s relationship with her mother. She was a top computer programmer, technical and systems analyst and that was also my background. Nobody outside my circle understood that this is an art and what’s more in can be a beautiful art, you can approach it as a technical problem and come up with a working methodology but treating it as an art you will produce a beautiful and probably more resilient and better result. You are composing a solution but nobody can see it or even if they could most would not appreciate the beauty of the resolution that you craft. This was something that Amanda had also not appreciated as teenager

20190219 Art of Asking 7

But to return to Anthony as the book repeatedly does, she needed money so that she could stay with Anthony as he continued his ever more debilitating medical treatments and this time she went straight to Neil

20190219 Art of Asking 8

Epilogue

The book ends with Anthony sort of recovering and sort of not, the book was published in 2014, I wanted to know more and found the following, don’t read it until you have read the book.

http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2015/06/existing-in-pause.html