My beautiful ex-racing greyhound, Katy, came to live with us on 4th July 2009. It had been a difficult spring. First my great friend, Claire Glaskin, was killed in a road accident. Two months later, our little dog, Kim – adopted after the sudden death of another friend – died unexpectedly in her sleep.
I’ve always loved greyhounds, their gentle faces, and beautiful muscular frame, and felt for the appalling way they’re treated after their racing days are over. So, three months after Kim’s death we found our way to Crossing Cottage, the Retired Greyhound Trust’s Kennels near Newark-on-Trent. Katy was the last dog we saw as we walked by the kennels – a tall white dog with odd patches of black over her shoulder, rump and face, and a little scar on her long snout – she looked straight at us and wagged her tail. There seemed to be a flare of recognition between us, and we both knew instantly that she was ours.
We spent the next weeks making the garden dog-proof with a six foot high fence, and waiting to be checked before we could bring her home. The irony was that Katy, despite being a retired athlete who’d won seven races, behaved as if she had a physical disability when faced with anything higher than a foot.
I remember the day we went to collect her, waking early, so excited, the journey home, with Katy in the back, and the way she ran all round the house wagging her tail with delight, and then settled down to sleep for the next twenty four hours. Her response to any emotion was always to sleep.
We had eight happy years with her. She was the greediest animal, and her nose was conveniently table-height. She’s stolen a round of brie, a frozen pizza, and a whole box of chocolates – wrapped and ready to give as a present – amongst many other things. But other than that she was a perfect dog with not an aggressive bone in her body. She loved greeting people, went soft with little children, and allowed a rescued cat into the family with no more than over-excitement. To watch her running in circles in the fields was one of the greatest joys, the power in her sleek body, and the way she’d gather speed even as she ran, and then fling herself down panting in the grass.
Two years ago we discovered she had a heart complaint, and I searched out the best vets for her, Adam from Blenheim Vets, and Peter, her homeopathic vet in Dorset. She lived happily for longer than we hoped, still enjoying her walks, though slowly with much sniffing, and loving her visits to friends. Her collapse was sudden, and the decision I had so long dreaded became clear. As we lay on the floor of the surgery with her, stroking her and telling her how wonderful she’d been, she seemed to know it was the end, and when Adam slipped in the needle, she drifted away as if truly asleep.
I walked in the mist the next day. The sorrow was sharp and profound, as if returning to all the grief ever known, and the next breath, the next step seemed insurmountable. But blessedly those moments don’t last, and now sadness comes in waves as I find myself going to fill her water bowl, smooth the blanket in her bed, or anticipate her greeting when arriving home.
How short the duration of a dog’s life, and how completely it frames a particular time in our own. Over the eight years Katy lived with us my father, mother-in-law and aunt have died, my son left to live the other side of the world, and then returned, and five little cousins were born. And for the moment Katy seems to be with me, not as she was, but something half-seen, sensed – the memory of a dearest presence, and something more than that too – the gentle, redeeming, eternally creative nature of love.
I’ve always loved reading, but a few weeks ago I realised that I’m reading less often, and taking far too long to finish a book. I’d had the notion – odd it seems now – that I shouldn’t be indulging in books during the day. This meant I read for fifteen minutes before falling asleep at night, and by the next night I’d lost the thread, and had no sense of continuity or satisfaction. It occurred to me then, that it’s really okay to read in snatched moments during the day, besides which, if I want to write well, I need to read every good writer I can find. So that’s what I’ve been doing over the last month, and it’s been richly rewarding.
At an independent publishers’ fair in Sheffield I came across Tilted Axis Press, and bought One Hundred Shadows, by Korean writer, Hwang Jungeun. It’s a short novel, bleak, spare, strangely beautiful. Set in an industrial landscape on the verge of demolition and disintegration, two young people, barely surviving, begin to know each other and to love. Nothing much happens – they eat, walk, talk, work in an electrical shop – and at times their shadows rise – harbingers of death or madness, and they care for each other. Yet the novel is far from gloomy. It’s subtle, delicate and richly nuanced, and I was reminded of the powerful atmosphere created by Philip Larkin in his novel ‘A Girl in Winter,’ one of my favourite books. This short novel is beautiful and deeply satisfying, like the best poetry.
And this morning I finished reading a book I discovered on a recent visit to the delightful Malvern Book Co-op. On a shelf of new novels I caught sight of Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and, scanning the first page, I had to buy it, knowing I’d enjoy the quality of her writing if nothing else. There’s much fine attention to detail in this densely written novel – the Australian landscape, insects, animals, plants, weather, the way people move, speak, and feel. But the detail enhances, rather than clutters her work. Evie Wyld gets right into the skin of her two main characters, Leon and Frank. At the same time as experiencing the world through their eyes, I knew how they looked, moved, spoke. She writes with great maturity and insight about the horror of war, its effect on the mind and spirit, the shadow it casts over a family. It’s a brilliant debut novel, beautifully structured and deeply moving. Finishing it I feel I’ve experienced and understood something about human nature, about the loneliness and isolation of trauma.
I found this beautiful short dance film, Miniatuur, through Facebook last week. Created by Jellie Dekker and choregraphed and danced by Jaap Flier, it’s a tribute to Jaap Flier, now in his 80s. I loved the simplicity of it – Jaap dancing on the Turkish carpet rolled out in the middle of the railway station, or on the edge of the docks, and the flashbacks to the young man dancing in the theatre – the power, poignancy, and beauty of old age.
I knew Jaap Flier over thirty five years ago. He was the head of the Theater School where I was a dance student for a year. I turned up at the dance school in early September 1980 as a ‘hospitante’ – a visitor, and as such I could join any classes for twenty five guilders a month – the equivalent then of five pounds. I was the first English student to take advantage of such generosity – a marvellous training with some of the best chorographers from Europe and America. But in those days Europe was much farther away from home – it took a day, or night to reach by ship and train, three days for post to arrive, and a lot of money to telephone. I was lonely and isolated, and by the end of the first term, rarely speaking my language, I was near breaking point. ‘How are you?’ Jaap asked one snowy morning, when I went into the office before class. Then, taking one look at me, he saw the answer. ‘You need to join a particular year group, you can’t be so alone.’ And he went on to sort out a timetable that fully integrated me into the school. It was a small thing perhaps, but it changed everything for me. I remember Jaap Flier as a kind man, pragmatic, insightful, wise. Seeing this short film brings it all back – that difficult and yet amazing time. That I stayed on and completed the year, I owe to him. And without that training my lifelong involvement with dance and movement could never have happened.
I recently bought Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories, Dear Life, in my favourite second hand bookshop in Wirksworth. I’ve long been an admirer of Alice Munro – those characters so sparingly, but brilliantly created, the seemingly inconsequential moments that add up to something far more significant and life-changing, the land and townscapes that evoke such powerful atmospheres. We have a sense that she knows her characters and their setting inside out, and she chooses to give us but a few moments, a few scenes, until a whole world is revealed to us at precisely the right time. In this way her stories are as broad and deep as the best novels – in miniature.
Amundsen is the second story in this collection, and the most brilliant of Alice Munro’s I’ve yet read. It’s set in a bleak settlement near Toronto, in a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis. A young woman arrives there by train and electric car. She notices how beautiful the birches are in the winter sun. She’s going to be the teacher, though there are no guidelines as to what she should teach, and her pupils are frequently absent through acute illness or death. She arrives to scant welcome except from a needy and rather desperate child. She meets the doctor, who is a strange, rather distant character. What unfolds is a love story, in the most unconventional sense. Alice Munro not only enables us to feel the emotions and inhabit the mind of her main character, but also to see with absolute objective clarity, the awfulness of the situation she finds herself in. Yet so much is withheld.
I read it over two nights because I couldn’t bear to finish it in one. Two days later, I’m left with a sense of being haunted –I’m still thinking about the narrative and its shocking conclusion, and the characters still resound in my imagination, as if they’re real. And I think this will go. It’s a story I’ll return to and remember. For me there’s something so uplifting about reading really great literature – encountering in the deepest sense the mystery of life and creativity.
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In the early seventies, when my father taught at Ellesmere Port Grammar School, we sometimes went as a family to see his school productions. Although Dad taught history, he was passionate about theatre, and for a time he directed all the school plays. It was always an event – early tea and the bus to Ellesmere Port, and arrival at a school that seemed so big to us primary school children. I remember the excitement I felt, drawn into the world of theatre and the anticipation of seeing Dad’s pupils who seemed so grown-up. I remember a haunting play called The Fire Raisers, by Max Frisch, about two sinister men who go around setting fire to people’s homes. I didn’t understand then that it was a parable about the rise of Nazism, about complacency and collusion. To me it was a strange unsettling world, where a chorus of firemen chanted warnings, and Fritz Beidermann joked about helping to lay the fuse wire to his attic of petrol drums. And I recall the words ‘the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone,’ from Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People. The standard of acting was excellent and I particularly remember Dad’s star pupils Peter Cann, with his long chestnut hair and beard, and Mark Dornford- May, whose father was drama advisor for Cheshire for many years. They seemed to me to be very grown-up and talented, and the aura of glamour remained even when later I worked alongside Mark in Hammond School and Chester Theatre Club productions, and realised there wasn’t such a gap in our ages.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the day my father was moved from hospital to the care home, where he spent the last four months of his life. He was misinformed by staff that he was going home. He had his bag packed and would have anticipated the peace of his own room after weeks of a noisy ward. Then he was driven to a strange building, and taken in a lift to a bleak room only just vacated by the last resident. I was told by phone of his despair and rage. The thought of it disturbs me still.
And yesterday too, I met Mark Dornford-May for the first time in forty years, at the Young Vic Theatre, where his company, Isango Ensemble previewed A Man of Good Hope. I’m certain this story of Asad Abdullahi, of hope and love in the face of the most harrowing events, will receive great reviews in the weeks to come, so I won’t add my own. Just to say the energy, skill, musicality and physicality of each performer was astounding and uplifting – and the production full of the joy and magic of theatre. We were engrossed. But most heart-warming was hearing Mark talk about my father in the bar beforehand – of how he’d been inspired by him in so many ways, not least his love of theatre, and how rare inspirational teaching is. I am touched both by the play and the encounter. It seemed a fitting way to celebrate my father.
This morning, as I walked past the field gate on my dog walk I came across a distressing scene. The bullocks are now grown big enough to go to market. The gate was open, the cattle truck was waiting, ramp erected, and the animals had been herded into an enclosure. Some of the beasts were already loaded, and fidgeted, cramped in the front of the truck, but those still in the field were clearly frightened. I saw the farmer beating one with a stick. It twisted and lunged in an attempt to escape, but he drove it on towards the ramp where it stumbled up into the truck. I couldn’t watch any more. The rest of the day has been clouded with sadness for all helpless creatures.
I’ve known people say we should have compassion for humans above animals, as if there’s a kind of hierarchy. But kindness is kindness, whether towards animal or human. It makes this troubled world more tolerable. I remember a vet telling me about the lonely men he sometimes met as he worked, who felt kindness and affection only for their dog. Better to feel it for something than not at all, he said.
I know farming is essential. What could be more important to us than the production of our food? We keep our animals safe from harm, we feed them, and they in turn provide us with food and wool and skin. They also maintain our English landscape, keeping it from becoming wasteland. It seems a fair enough exchange if the animals are treated properly. I come from a family of farmers; a grandfather who farmed in the old way, planting by the moon, an uncle who dismissed the old ways for the use of chemicals. But despite their disagreements they both had huge respect for their animals. Animals are not prisoners, or freight. They shouldn’t be force fed in cages or pens and never see the light of day. They shouldn’t be put into containers and shipped across the ocean for days before meeting a terrifying end – whatever the trade deal. They deserve to be treated with kindness, even as they go to slaughter – there must be ways of making the whole process as stress free as possible? If we eat meat (and it would be better in so many ways if we ate less of it), we should pay a good price for it, knowing the animal has been well cared for. We are a rich country and we can’t make poverty an excuse for lack of compassion or cruelty. We can’t do without our animals. Their lives are a great gift to us.
This is the title of a wonderful blog I've recently discovered. Experiencing the divisive aftermath of the recent Big Ref, with all the judgments, opinions, and tensions swirling around, I read Stephen Pentz's recent post, Humanity, with a deep sense of relief. A kind of refuge, and truth, to be found in poetry.
I had it in mind to send a card today to my one time agent, Pam Royds. I searched
through last year’s diary to find her new address, and then went online to confirm it was
correct. It was then that I discovered, to my sorrow, her obituary. She died on May 31st,
Pam was a wonderful champion of children’s literature, and children’s editor with Andre
Deutsch for many years. You can read about her here – Pam Royds obituary.
I met her some time after she’d retired. She was already in her mid-eighties, but not yet
ready to stop working, and she offered to be my mentor and agent for the two novels
I’d written for children – The Green Table and Walking Backwards. Walking Backwards
she said was great, but just wouldn’t sell to a wide enough group – after all not many
children would be interested in a boy who wants to be a poet! But she thought The
Green Table stood a good chance with some work. We arranged to meet one
afternoon at John Murray publishers on Albemarle St.
When I arrived, very nervous and feeling rather provincial, she took me straightaway
down the street to choose a sandwich, before we settled in her circular room with its
wonderful domed ceiling in the heart of the elegant building.
Pam reminded me in the best possible way of a grammar school English mistress –
discerning, wise, sensible, exacting and encouraging. She was very direct with her
comments. The main problem with The Green Table was that my heroine, Katje, just
wasn’t likeable enough. She needed to be more heroic, not flawed and impetuous, as I
had drawn her. By the end of the afternoon, despite the fact that I had to undertake a
complete reworking of the novel, I left feeling buoyant, and practically danced my way back to
the tube stop.
Sometime later Pam attempted to sell my novel, newly titled Dance for Your Life. We
were both sorry we never quite made it. Puffin books were interested, as was a smaller
publishing company, but in the end the publicity departments weren’t convinced.
I was really happy last autumn to be able to send her a copy of The Green Table,
once more rewritten, this time for adults. ‘You’ve done a splendid job,’ she said, when
she’d read it. ‘I’m so delighted.’
I am grateful to her. She gave me a glimpse into the world of publishing as it once was,
full of people dedicated to helping the writer make the best of his or her work – the
days when a writer had an editor for a lifetime. I felt she believed in me, and her belief
kept me going at a time when it might have been all too easy to give up.
At last I’ve started writing after a long empty stretch of time when I wondered if I’d ever manage anything again. It feels great – like regaining my mental balance and a connection with something central, that makes life wholesome. I’m working on two projects. The first is a memoir of my father. The notes for this are almost complete and have been put away to brew for a while. It’s far too soon after his death to try to make anything with them. The second is a new novel – a sequel to The Green Table.
Writing fiction, especially at the start, is an odd process. For me it involves long stretches of time doing very little. I begin with paper and pencil, a few scattered words, scribbles, or the transcribing of notes from my notebook to the computer. A word, or image might be the start of a scene or chapter. I make lists – of characters, of events, of subjects that require research. I get distracted by research, and open the computer to look up post war Essen. Then I realise it would be helpful if I understood German, and wonder whether I should contact an acquaintance who lives in Frankfurt to ask his advice. Then it’s time to make tea, to stroke the cat on the way back upstairs. A brief scene is written with much staring into space between sentences. Then I decide I’m hungry, so time to make lunch. And so it goes on, until for a while I’m captivated, I’m in flow, the words tumble onto the screen, and something resembling an opening chapter is sketched out. I love the sense that I’m researching – not only in the usual sense of the word, but also that each new work is a journey into the dark, and I will discover and bring to light my players who will speak to me, or through me. I will learn something from them, I’ll perhaps discover my own preoccupations. Never was this mysterious exchange more powerful than when I wrote my first novel for adults – and appallingly bad though it was, there was something wonderfully enriching in the creation of one of my main characters – how he took on a life that seemed separate from me – how at times I wondered if I were part of his imagination rather than he of mine. Strange – but the imagination is strange, and mysterious, and at times frightening. Where does any of it come from? Out of the blue.
I get up and walk, and at once they are all crowding in, speaking, living their lives, leading me a merry dance. And the day feels complete, and the end of the day peaceful – as if something has been accomplished.
My father died five weeks ago. In the last hours my sister and I sat with him. We closed the door on the noisy corridor of the care home where he’d lived since October. I watched the rise and fall of the folds of sheet as his breathing grew shallower. Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus played on the radio. He took his last breath as the music came to an end.
Hours later we emerged into the night, under the full moon. We sat under the trees in the car and listened to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Music has become intrinsically linked with his last days, and will always bring back the thoughts, sensations of our waiting, his struggle.
I haven’t been able to write for a long time – through the long months leading to his death, and it’s impossible still to express with any clarity the changing states of mind – challenging, illuminating, confusing, dream-like.
In a half dream I saw my father existing in an infinite empty space, and felt the coldness of that, and how he might be desperate to be born into another life – remnants maybe from my reading of Buddhist texts. I woke shaken, and the disturbance bled into days that followed. There is no comfort in the notion of continual rebirth, a partial truth, religion’s petty, if valiant, attempt to perceive, understand and map the unknowable. Then a friend sent me this poem, A Noiseless Patient Spider, by Walt Whitman. I write it down for my father.
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.