I don’t normally read a lot of non-fiction, though I find a lot of it looks interesting and then never really get round to it. But this month I seem to have read more non-fiction than fiction and really enjoyed it. More evidence of my changing reading habits – created by either lockdown or age – or possibly just evidence that there’s a lot of innovative and interesting writing out there and I’ve just never noticed it.
Negative Capability – Michele Roberts
“Yesterday ended in disaster. Very late at night I decided to write down everything that had happened; the only way I could think of coping. So here goes.”
Here opens Negative Capability, a memoir from Anglo-French novelist Michele Roberts. I’m fairly certain I’ve read one of her novels but cannot for the life of me think which. Anyway, this is her diary, written over the course of a year, after her novel is rejected and a number of other things happen. In it, she charts her thoughts about literature, walking, living partly in France and partly in London, relationships, friendship, sex and all manner of things in between. I found myself drawn in by her lifestyle which is delightfully stereotypically writer-y, all glamourous poverty, cheery local neighbourhoods and eccentric friends, with a whiff of high culture and really good food. The title comes from a state described by Keats, about trying to exist and accept uncertainty, and realising that this state can help rebuild after uncertainty or change. This book is the year Roberts spent in trying to achieve it. Strange and good-quirky, and a helpful idea to have in your arsenal in these strange times.
At the Pond: Hampstead Ladies Pond – various
What a sweet little book this is! It’s a series of essays written for each season of the year, about women who have swum in Hampstead Ladies Pond. I’m not at all sure about swimming in a pond with creatures and weeds (it feels less fresh than the sea) but there is something beguiling about this space that I’m really intrigued about what it’s like there and have been Googling pictures. It helped to have this to read in between chapters of the Lemm Sissay book (see below).
Everybody Died so I Got a Dog – Emily Dean
I bought this on the basis of its title alone, it seemed so very me. I had never heard of Emily Dean before – apparently she presents things – but very much enjoyed this story of her upbringing, politely described as bohemian but essentially closer to child neglect and general awfulness by her parents. However, that is all background to the main part of the story – her beloved sister gets an aggressive form of cancer and dies very quickly, and then as Emily tries to deal with this, her mother and later her father both die. These are not likeable people but it all felt very human, the messes we make and the ways we can only rely on dogs to save us from ourselves.
Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me – Kate Clanchy
Oh this book. I read it the week of the exams fiasco. Many people have described it as ‘uplifting’ but I cannot fathom why. It is one teacher’s story of working with vulnerable children, children who have been dumped on by the system, and while you might find it uplifting to see how she gets them to describe how they feel, and how they can write poems that help describe their experiences, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly angry. We are broken. We are letting them and ourselves down. Loads of teachers are doing excellent unsung work, like this but without a book deal, but they are not receiving the wider support and resources they and the children need. I don’t know why we accept this, why we aren’t pouring cash into making sure we educate people and help look after them. Read this. It’s excellent. Then for god’s sake vote for someone who will resource education the way it needs to be resourced.
Vita and Virginia – Sarah Gristwood
I bought this on our first visit back to a National Trust property, along with jam and scones. Obligatory. It’s a basic intro to the friendship between Vita and Virginia, how their story started as a love affair and settled into a deep friendship. As I read so much Woolf last year, I knew most of it but this is a lovely book and I enjoyed the focus on the two of them and also the pictures.
Gears For Queers – Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper
I like a good travel book and have read a number of cycle touring books over the years but it never really occurred to me that the writers/ cyclists were all fit, able bodied folk pedalling miles without a care. This changes all that. Abi and Lilith are partners who have a range of health problems, mental and physical, and who decide to go on a cycle tour across Europe. They are unfit, very poor and in some ways quite badly equipped. But this of course adds to the experience and this diary is told in alternate chapters by each, often giving you both sides of the story. I enjoyed this and it’s good once in a while to be reminded that you need to look at things from another point of view.
My Name is Why – Lemn Sissay
I read an excerpt of this when it was first published and wept all over the newspaper. The book is perhaps a little better – no less awful in terms of what happens – but you get a sense of how he became the man he is, how he found the necessary resilience to manage. Lemn was born to an unmarried single mother who had to go back to Ethiopia after he was born, and after he had been taken from her. She would not sign the adoption papers but having had to leave, lost what little claim she had. He was raised by foster parents for a number of years and was given another name. Then his foster parents, almost on a whim, it seemed, rejected him and sent him away from the main home he had known. He spent a year in a children’s home. I won’t tell you more, but this is all described through the documents kept at the time and which he had to request as an adult in order to find out the truth about his childhood. It is incomprehensible to me that people can treat children with such casual attitudes, such banal cruelty. Again, an essential read.
Middle England – Jonathan Coe
Just the two fiction titles this month and to be honest, at times this felt like reading a newspaper. This is the third in Coe’s Rotters Club trilogy, and examines the years leading up to and including the Brexit referendum. Coe is excellent when considering the personal impact of Brexit, and he does try to put across some idea of why people may have voted to Leave, even if his sympathies are very firmly on the Remain camp. His strengths lie in his characters and he writes with fondness for many of them.
Dissolution – CS Sansom
This is the first in the Matthew Shardlake series and is set in Tudor times. Shardlake, an associate of Thomas Cromwell, goes to investigate the violent killing of another associate, at a monastery. At the time of the Dissolution, the monks are obviously shifty and on edge, unwilling to accept that change must come to them and there are lots of secrets buried in the monastery. I really enjoyed this, it’s good to remember other interpretations of Cromwell besides Mantel and, like the best crime fiction, this gives you real insight into the troubles in society at the time of such change in the kingdom.