A change of focus this quarter. Gentler reads after a bout of intensity; and a sort of clustering. A number of these books evoke very vivid personal memories.
Barbara Blackman’s “All my Januaries” is a collection of essays spanning her life: memories from her Brisbane childhood; living in Paris, Sydney, Melbourne and London; friendships; cohabiting with blindness. The richness of her life is generated by a determination to say “yes” and an immense capacity for playfulness and joie de vivre. She crafts essays around perfume, solitude, knees, drinking coffee, carrying the Olympic torch (which she did in her seventies), her love for Brisbane, letter writing, the pleasures of writing paper, her friendship with poet and environmentalist Judith Wright.
She offers a few priceless glimpses of familiar people from the Australian art world. Fred Williams punching a man sleazing women at a party, after taking off his coat and folding it neatly, and before suggesting the man leave. Arthur Boyd forgetting to give Sunday Reed a birthday present and missing out on the customary reward of a Christmas turkey. And a scurrilous singing of “Does Sunday sleep with her nipples / over or under the sheet?” at raucous parties.
“The button box: lifting the lid on women’s lives” by Lynn Knight charms me in many ways. My friend Kate lent it to me, for starters. It’s not on Kindle: it’s a long time since I’ve handled a real book. Not only a real book, but a hard-back, with beautiful end-papers featuring a diversity of colourful buttons in rows. And an inscription: the book was a gift from Kate’s cousin in England. So much more to a real book, I realise as I list.
The introduction offers biography and genealogy through buttons owned by her mother, grandmother and aunt. From there the book spreads into a social history, a history of fashion and the interweaving of the two. She introduces suffragettes, munitions workers (upper class volunteers apparently needed to be told ball gowns weren’t appropriate wear); flappers (with their stockings in bluebell, chrome, yellow, scarlet, cyclamen, and every shade of green); department stores, paper patterns, wartime rationing, and always class.
The most moving chapter is about the foundling hospitals of the nineteenth century. When desperate mothers left their babies, they also left scraps of material often beautifully embroidered with buttons attached, to match with a scrap they kept in case they could ever reclaim their babies.
“Lark rise to Candleford” is one of those books that has been on the periphery of my attention for many years. Someone referred to it in something I was reading, so I bought it for Kindle and forgot about it until my Polish daughter, privy to the intimate secrets of my Kindle library, read it and thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse of a world long gone.
When I was looking for gentler reading I remembered it, and I too enjoy the glimpse. It takes me to the 1880s and the cusp of immense changes which wipe out forever the village life it documents so lovingly: the games; the midwives; the songs; the distinctions between men’s work and women’s work; the role of children (girls sent out to work as young as 10); the good food; the shortage of money. The three volumes end when the protagonist leaves her job in a village post office and moves beyond village life.
Another treasure of times past and gone. Hudson’s childhood in Argentina is full of birds, dangerous adventures with his domineering older brother, characters both Argentinian and English, including a few tutors and a knife murderer, and a slow realisation that his love of nature is a legitimate guiding passion. He sees himself as a mystic, feeling “that perpetual rapturous delight in nature … sometimes so poignant as to be frightening.” He describes the “great bowl of the sky resting on the level green land”, mirages where “visible wavering flames change to .. lakelets and sheets of water”, streams “alive with herons and spoonbills, black-necked swans, ibises, glossy and blue”. He mourns the disappearance of the things he loves as land is taken over to grow corn for European markets.
This collection of four essays written by neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author of, among other things, “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”, are warm and charming and a pattern for thinking about one’s own aging and, if it becomes necessary, one’s own illness. As he ages he sees old age as a time of leisure and freedom, a time to deepen friendships, to live richly, deeply and productively , and to occasionally indulge in silliness. When he is diagnosed with cancer, he revisits in memory the pleasures, landmarks, and mistakes of his life, including celebrations from the Jewish calendar, although he wasn’t a believer. He decides not to pay attention to politics, acknowledges fear, but chooses to concentrate on the love he’s given and received, and the “enormous privilege” of having been “a sentient being on this beautiful planet.”
“Being mortal”, like “Lark rise to Candleford”, has been hovering in the wings on Kindle for a long time. It probably isn’t the best choice of reading material in a search for gentle books, but it raises many interesting end-of-life questions and offers vivid case studies, including stories from Gawande’s own family. “My grandfather finally died at the age of almost 110. It happened after he hit his head falling off a bus.” However, he points out that mostly the death-dealer is the accumulated crumbling of body systems, something he suggests we can accept with the help of doctors “dedicated to the art and science of managing old age”, not disease. He is not a fan of nursing homes as our last port of call: he sees them as generators of boredom, loneliness, and helplessness. He’s even less of a fan of prolonging life with technology “whatever the improbability, the misery, the cost.” But he’s a great fan of figuring out how to sustain connections and joys that matter most, and how to continue to shape lives in ways consistent with character and loyalties. This book is a good companion to Oliver Sacks’ “Gratitude.” I’ll keep them both beside me when I eventually find myself playing my “dying role”.
Oh, this man can write! And what I’m even more envious of, remember. He’s ruthless in the search for true memory and has a natural capacity: “The act of vividly recalling a patch of the past is something I seem to have been performing with the utmost zest all my life.” Each chapter is thematic. I particularly loved his accounts of two loves: for butterflies, and for a little girl he meets on holidays. His passion for writing chess problems does not charm me in the same way. He’s not at all daunted by the odd figure he cuts: “the older the man the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand.” There are many glimpses of his privileged life in Russia before the revolution and of his writing modus operandi: he writes his stuff “only in very sharp pencil and keeps a bouquet of B3s in vaselets around me.” At only one point do I feel personally connected with this man of genius: he deliberately slashed his leg with a razor to avoid a recitation in class he hadn’t prepared for: I, scrupulously honest teenager, banged my head on the end of the bed to give myself a headache so I wouldn’t have to debate the Continental System.
There the resemblance stops. I could never create images like these: “a limpid dawn had completely unsheathed one side of the empty street” or “pale blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline”.