Barbara Pym, Barbara's aunt and me October 2013



Barbara Pym’s commentary on the undetected lives of women creates a kind of sub-text for the female experience of mid twentieth century England. In each room we enter with her we notice that something is different; the light does not shine on the actions of a central male character. It shines on a woman, a woman who is completely unaware of its beam.

On the end of a bookshelf in my office there is a yellowing paperback. Sitting there, as if still waiting to be wrapped up and posted. For four years it caused a queasy spasm of guilt to pass over me every time I caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye. This usually happened when I looked up from my computer, pleased with something I had just thought, some words I had just found. The pleasure, that little moment of chest thumping, was immediately dispatched by the sight of that yellowing paperback.  I would quickly turn away, but not before the Guilt of The Unreturned Book overwhelmed me.

You know how it is. Somebody kindly lends you a book of which they are fond. Not necessarily an expensive book, but the unwritten rule of readers is, if somebody lends you a book they really like – It Has To be Returned.

In this case the book was an old paperback bought secondhand from a pile of unwanted texts which were quietly lingering in the back of some Oxfam shop.  
I first met the book’s owner at the business end of a plume of smoke which was issuing from her rollie as she hid behind a huge camellia bush. We were in the conservatory of a large country house in Wales where we had gathered to entertain the festival audience with poetry readings and stories. Barbara, Jones not Pym, owned the house and her aunt was staying over. She was one of those women that you just keep looking at. Eighty three years old, slender and dark, with a glossy assymetric bob, sorry, I have an eye for the superficial, she was sitting cross legged on a Lloyd Loom chair, no mean feat in itself, wearing a tunic, leggings and glittery flats. On her knee was an open  paperback. I was entranced. I wanted to be her when I was eighty years old.
As we talked, I understood that the book on her knee had taken a deal of searching out. For the paperback was An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym, and Barbara’s aunt had been on a quest for many years during the time when nobody read Barbara Pym. She had been determined to collect every one of the Barbara Pym novels in their earliest paperback format. She told me that she loved to sniff them. To take in the aroma of times past, with a mustiness undercut by powder from somebody’s dressing table or a scrap of paper, a bill, forgotten by the original owner. An Unsuitable Attachment was the last one on her list.

So when Barbara’s aunt offered to let me borrow this book, I accepted the gift with the full realization that It Had To be Returned. And, reader, I didn’t return it. In fact, I never actually met Barbara’s aunt again. She died four years after I borrowed her book. I had gone abroad and she had died elegantly, of cancer, in the arms of her surgeon lover with a candle on her bedroom table and a bottle of good red wine by the bedside.  With perfect timing, the night of her death, with his collusion, she had signed herself out of her hospice in York and taken a taxi to his flat. 

As he said at her funeral, she was remarkable. And it was after that windswept funeral day that my guilt took on a new form. Less urgent but somehow deeper, requiring absolution.
You see, I met Barbara’s aunt once, I borrowed a secondhand book from her and since her death, to in some way absolve myself, I have collected all of Barbara Pym’s novels  - in, of course, their earliest paperback format. Prising them out from  under heaps of Wilbur Smith in church fairs. Or rooting for them in cardboard boxes at jumble sales. Since reading that first yellowing paperback, I have read every single novel written by Barbara Pym. Sometimes in paperbacks whose dry glueless pages fall apart as I read.

So Barbara’s aunt gave me much more than a book. She gave me Barbara Pym. And what a gift.

Barbara Pym’s commentary on the undetected lives of women creates a kind of sub-text for the female experience of mid twentieth century England. In each room we enter with her we notice that something is different; the light does not shine on the actions of a central male character. Although he seems to exist, he is gently superceded in our interest by … a woman.  A woman who is unaware of the authorial spotlight upon her. In that way, Barbara Pym challenged the centrality of the male experience and allowed women to take a deep breath in the open air of fiction.  On Monday night,  7th October, at the Portico Library, perhaps  Manchester Literature Festival will introduce some new readers to the delights of Barbara Pym, and there will be glossy new paperbacks for the work of a woman who now has her rightful place in the canon of English literature.

Outside, leaning against the wall having a drag on her rollie, will be the shade of Barbara’s aunt. She will be smiling.

Sept 20th Herts Jazz Festival

Herts Jazz Festival is at Welwyn Garden City and here we are.  Me and Pete and Ian and Charmie. Welwyn Garden City is truly green. It is, em, a garden. I'm thinking...we could do this in Salford. Have we missed a trick up in Manchester? More trees, please. Charmie is going to tell me all about the jazz later...then I'll tell you. Ah, nice biscuits in the hotel room.  Why does that make me so happy.

To Cambridge and Back Again

June 2013

The title above might look as if it stating the bleedin' obvious. If you go to Cambridge by train, you expect to come back again. East Midland trains wouldn't agree with you. They might think that you were being a tad, well, presumptive. On Monday afternoon on Ely station, after a really good day interviewing at Lucy Cavendish College,  as my eyes roamed over the colourful advert saying 'Improving our punctuality, improving your experience of our service' I heard a voice say, 'We are sorry to inform you that East Midland Train Services have cancelled the 5.38 to Nottingham.'
To Nottingham.
Just like that.
For some time there was no alternative offered to the now cancelled train. Just a kind of a silence, a kind of muffled snuffling and rustling came from the tannoy. I looked around. no-one seemed to be panicking. perhaps this happened all the time around here.
Not like this round Notts and Derby. We take our train trips seriously.
We expect to get back.
Eventually we were told that we could take the 8.44 to Birmingham instead. The voice implied that it was optional. If we liked. We didn't have to.
Birmingham is nowhere near Nottingham.
Maybe no-one down here knows this, I thought. Maybe they think it is all one big splodge of decaying industrialisation called 'oopnorth' beyond, say, Leicester. And you can arrive home in anyone's house. They are all the same and the people are interchangeable. 'Oh, I'll go home somewhere in Birmingham tonight. Same stuff on telly. Same chips for tea. Same demographic on street.'

Death by Motorcar... Avoided

Dec 2nd 2012 

Yes, long time no see... but I have been traumatised by being 2 centimetres from death on a tiny pedestrian pathway on The Mancunian way can you jump off this walkway to get round the huge brambles which block your path.  BMWs and trucks  come round the corner at an amazing speed, and the tips of your trainers quiver on the kerb as they roar by.  Never try this, children. No matter how late you are and how far away is the big pedestrian flyover. Enough.... I want to share with you the best afternoon ever, which I had at Webster Primary School 
Go here to read all about it: 

October 5th 2012

First today it's Manchester Literature Festival again! This time at  The People's History Museum  to hear Alex Scarrow read from his work... the last few moments of the life of a waiter on the Titanic, the making of Bob.   Before that he gave us the most bizarre image of the festival - for me anyway - Hitler as Yoda. 'Invade Russia why don't I...'  think about it... it only takes your Hitler accent to slip a little and you are there... But there, through those big plate glass windows that I'd like to have in my house, well, a very big house that I haven't got yet,  is the River Irwell.
A bit brown, a bit litter laden but definitely got potential. Manchester's rival to the Venice canal system and not in immediate danger of sinking into the landscape.

Later had a birthday dinner with Di - did I swear too much in Da Carlo's? I can't gauge it, sometimes you think you are whispering but the wine tells different! Nice fireworky candle, though.  Amanda is delightedly pregnant, completely round tum and a big smile on top.  Next, a taxi to Derby Jazz
( again, I know) at Deda to listen to Cloudmakers Trio and relaxxx and .... mull over the aphorism on a stupid cup for sale in the museum shop at the People's History Museum. There were lots and I read every one, can't help it, just like I look for all our family names on the stands of personalised cards, but this one stuck in my head.  'What would you do if you weren't afraid of failure' it said. Well, what? I asked around me...some people apparently aren't afraid of anything and some think fear is a useful tool to stop us making mistakes - particularly life threatening ones like walking down the Mancunian Way. Enough of that. I'll tell you about me and the Mancunian Way later.

October 2nd 2012 

Manchester Literature festival, Ulf and the kids!!

September 23rd 2012

Sunday at the jazz cafe. 

If you happen to sit at the front table during  a 3 hour jazz cafe session - you might, say, be happily drinking your red wine and tapping your foot in a kind of knowledgeable syncopated way... just to show that you have some musical leanings....when you sneakily cast your eyes downwards to see if your foot tapping is successful...and you realise that your shoes were reduced to £29.99 from £100 because they have a turny up point that makes feet look very big. Other women have tried them on and seen this fatal flaw before parting with their £29.99.
You sip your wine and look around but then you cannot resist looking sideyways back at your feet. 
Not big. Enormous.  
You have enormous feet tapping away at the front of the cool crowd at the jazz cafe. Possibly your feet are obscuring  the view of some customers. Maybe someone from behind the bar will come out and ask you to move, or, at least tuck your feet under the table.
You reflect sadly on how often you have been mislead by price reductions in shoe shops. Those  turquoise 4 inch heels with cork platforms - they look amazing but require the wearer to hold on to an obliging friend  at all times. Not everyone has an obliging friend. Not at all times.
Those gold flatties which are like fairy shoes but which are obviously a size too small. Why did the woman in the shoe shop sell them to me. Hard faced bitch - was she on commission? Did she have a 4 children or a drug habit that had to be supported? How could she do it? More importantly why, when the evidence of the four little gold lumps of my squashed toes told another story, was I prepared to suspend all reason and agree with her?

September 7th 2012 Exciting!!

Signed an options contract today (Lordy, now I know what a quit claim is) with Katya Jezzard, a scriptwriter currently living in Paris who is really keen to turn Impostor into a TV or film script. She got the book, sat up all night to finish it, put it down, and immediately saw a film/TV plot with Ann at the centre.   Her agents Creative Media Management will be handling the acquisition (now I know what 'production values' mean). This will be great...  when I read Katya's work Mademoiselle London   I  fleetingly thought,  'hmm,  that main character is like Ann Dance would be, had she benefited from good health care, a new set of moral values, an education, lived in Paris and in this century, seriously, because, even although Katya and I were writing in different centuries and different formats these women smell the same... they have the same hunted look in their eyes and maybe the same nervous jumpy walk.  But I had no idea then that we would be working together...wonder what Katya will do to Ann...oho...can't wait to see. 

August 8th 2012 

Performed a poetry reading at Tregwynt Mansion. Wild Welsh venue for art, poetry and good conversation. Nrext day climbed an enormous hill, at the top , you look down on toy farms as the wind roars through your hair... suddenly felt like a cigarette... now, where did that come form?The scent of tobacco on the wind.  Ah, lost pleasures.
next day visited mills weaving all the colours of the land and always serving Lemon Drizzle cake - that happens everywhere. There is a vast cultural store of Lemon Drizzle cake baking knowledge, scribed on centuries old sheets of laverbread,  which is probably housed in caves under Cardiff.

July 22nd 2012

Did a reading of Impostor in a women's prison this weekend. Felt very strange, reading the chapter on Ann's escape from Markeaton Gaol. I was conscious of the irony and thought that maybe this was an inappropriate thing to be doing until someone said,'that's good. I like it. Read some more.' Felt relieved and a bit pleased with myself. Told a warder on my way out, and she said,'look, they'd say anything was good just to keep you going. Relieves the boredom, see.' 
Fair enough, I thought.