Significant Ending #blogjune

This weekend has mostly been listening to the ABC Classic 100 and trying to get my final assignment done. I’ve been doing an Advanced Diploma in Professional Writing at TAFE (which is also my employer) since the beginning of 2011. It was four years part-time (I’ve taken a little longer because I’ve had a few semesters where I’ve only done one subject (and one in which I did three).

I say ‘was’ because the longer course is being taught out (but there are still short courses on offer). One of the good things about it has been the variety. I’ve written short stories, short film scripts, poems, short biographies.  I’ve met some excellent writers, like Bill Marsh, Jude Aquilina, and Ashley Mallet (who also happens to be Australia’s best off-spinner since WW2). I’ve edited a couple of biographies. As a result, I’m researching two historical novels set in the later Roman Empire and turning my short biography (about cricketer Jim Kelly) into a book.

It’s been a fantastic experience, full of highs, and it’s coincided with some terrible lows. But yesterday I handed in my last assignment for my last module. So, assuming I pass, it’s all over. It’s not as big a moment as finishing uni, but it feels significant to me.

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#blogjune Scribble, scribble, scribble

My #blogjuninging has ground to a halt. I have two assignments – a book chapter and a short film script . I haven’t thought about much else. They’re both due tomorrow afternoon.

Whew!

Still – NSW *finally* won #stateoforigin – woohoo!

#blogjune – Goodreads Challenge 13/65 – Stephen King, ‘On Writing: a memoir of the craft’

I read this some months ago, but hey, I’m already way behind with my reviews. What really struck me was that:

1) he came across as a thoroughly decent human being

2) he was candid about his issues with alcohol and the effects it had on those around him

3) his dedication to his craft. The image of his rejection slips stuck on the nail, which became a spike because there were so many of them, is still very vivid for me.

If you’re even vaguely interested in writing, read it.

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On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, nor seen any of the movies based on his books. Not that I ever thought that there was necessarily anything wrong with his work. I’d simply not ever been interested in horror as a movie genre. I read it just fine, but on the screen, thank you but no. And that prejudice probably prompted me to not pick up one of his books. So when his On Writing was enthusiastically recommended to our writing class earlier this month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a fascinating story on the making of a writer.

On writing; a memoir of the craft is part biography and part ‘this is how I do it folks – maybe it’ll work for you’. He lets his life story do his work. His journey in perfecting his craft was not a smooth one. Maybe the best craftspeople are forged through adversity. King’s father left the family when King was two years old. His mother worked at a variety of jobs but financial hardship was an ever present reality. Leaving high school, he worked in a fabric mill, and after he qualified as a teacher spent time working as a laundry labourer while looking or teaching work. On the way he married Tabitha Spruce (who he met in the library stacks at the University of Maine). He wrote that, “[f]from a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts” (p. 71). His first two published novels were written in the laundry room of the large trailer that they were living in (p. 177). So when King talks about what’s necessary for a writer to become good at their craft, he talks with the authority of one who has had to do it tough himself.

On the way King deals with the questions all writers get asked at some point. Quite early on, he makes it clear that ‘there is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere… (p. 29)’. He then describes process of coming up with the central idea for one of his early short stories, which he got when his mother was licking the type of shop coupon stamps that disappeared by the 1970s. These turned her tongue green. He thought how nice it would be if you could make them yourself, and a story was born.

Writing was a passion for him from early on. He wrote for a mimeographed newspaper that older brother Dave produced in high school. When he produced his own newspaper (as it turned out it ran for one issue), he learned that you have to be careful when you write about real people. Lampooning an unpopular teacher landed him a couple of weeks’ suspension.

But out of that incident came his first paid writing job, as a sports writer with the local newspaper. Not that King knew much about sports, but being willing to learn to get the gig is something else that a good writer should cultivate. The editor “taught me more than any [English Literature class], and in no more than ten minutes (p. 54)”. His editor said that “when you write a story, you’re telling the story… [when] you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story (p. 56)”.

If there are two central issues that King returns to, the first is the need for persistence. When he received his first rejection notice, he stuck it on a nail stuck in his bedroom wall. But,

By the time I was fourteen… the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begin to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging… ‘This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.’ (p. 34).

The second central issue is that if you want to be any good you have to spend time at it. There are no short-cuts dangled in front of our eyes. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot (p. 164).” He goes on;

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on, Every book that you pick up has its own lesson or lesson, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”

Why so many books? ‘The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… [constant] reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness” (p. 171).

What constitutes ‘a lot’ of reading and writing? ‘The sort of strenuous reading writing program advocate – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.. (p. 171). That’s twenty eight to forty two hours a week, folks – about a full working week. Well, I don’t much like watching TV anyway. Helpfully, he gives aspirants hints on where to read (though you probably won’t need these). He takes books everywhere (a writer after my own heart). “The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows” (p. 168) So movie lounges, checkout lines, the toilet, on your way to work are all fair game. At the time of writing he listened to between six and a dozen audio titles each year.

As you’d expect from a successful writer taking about writing, there is a wealth of ideas to savour. He describes the sort of toolbox that a writer needs. Like a toolbox, the tools you use most are at the top. “The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary (p. 125).”Good rich vocabulary can produce a good heart prose, and he gives some fine examples from Lovecraft and Cormac McCarthy. But simplicity has its own virtues, and he gives us his favourite simple passages from Hemingway, Sturgeon and Steinbeck

Next is grammar. “Take a noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence (p. 134).” A writer needs to know why some things work and others don’t. But it’s not enough to simply say avoid the passive voice, because your writing will be the stronger for it. King re-writes some sentences from passive to active so that we see what he means. More helpfully, he gives us his opinion of why people use it anyway:

I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England… I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice also lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty (p. 136-137).

Other specific advice covers adverbs (hint – don’t trust them). This is especially so in dialogue, where the best form of dialogue attribution is said. All writers slip into it sometimes, either timidly, or because of the onrushing deadline, but he reminds us that if we’ve told our story well enough, the reader will know to read that dialogue exasperatingly (p. 143).

There is a core simplicity in the English language… but it’s a slippery core. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine (p. 144).

As we delve deeper into King’s toolbox, we come to the paragraph, which he argues is the basic unit of writing. It’s ‘the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (p. 152). The paragraph structure tells us something about a work;
You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs – including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long – and lots of white space… Hard books, full of ideas, narration, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent. (p. 145)

How those paragraphs come together depend the way you want to use narration, description and dialogue (the three parts of a story – p. 187) to bring it to life. Plot is by and large not part of King’s universe;

I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much write themselves (p. 188).

And more:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. (p. 190)

And to make sure that we get it;

Please remember… that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest. (p. 197)

I really recommend doing the exercise that he gives us soon after this passage.

King told us earlier how much reading and writing we should do each day. How much writing is that. He tells the (probably) apocryphal story of James Joyce. Joyce seemed to be struggling to get his words onto paper;

‘How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face down on his desk):

‘Seven.’

‘Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you!’

‘Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!’ (p. 172)

More helpfully, King tells us that he likes to get ten pages a day, which is about 2000 words, which is a good-ish length for a book in three months (p. 176). Sometimes those pages get done before lunch, sometimes in the afternoon, and occasionally around teatime (p. 176). To manage your goal (perhaps begin with 1000 words a day), you need one thing: a door that you are willing to shut (p. 178). By the time you get to your second draft, you should be looking at cutting your work by around 10% (p. 246). So if you’re looking at a 200 page work, your first draft needs to be around 220 pages.

This was simply a joy to read. The advice is invaluable, but it was told by someone who was, quite simply so very likeable. When he was writing this book, he struck by a truck while out walking, It made it a hard book to write. Perhaps his candid discussion of his struggle with alcohol did as well. His descriptions of family and friends are lovingly drawn. He comes across as a nice guy. Not because of how he describes himself, but because of the way he describes those around him.

Of course, being a successful writer, we learn about the path that led to the publication of Carrie, his first novel. His family were, if not on the streets, at least living close to Penury Road. I wanted him to get a big fat cheque, as much for Tabitha’s sake as his. The discussion of Carrie’s gestation is itself fascinating, and you should read it for yourselves.

You should borrow or buy a copy of this and read it. Right now. But before you do, I’ll leave you with Stephen finding out that his agent had sold the paperback rights. It was worth $400 000, of which Stephen would get half. In 1973, that was an enormous sum of money (and it’s still not a shabby sum today). He tried unsuccessfully to call his wife with the news. On his way home, he bought her a Mother’s Day present – a hair dryer.

“When I got back home she was in the kitchen, unpacking the baby bags and singing along with the radio. I gave her the hair dryer. She looked at it as if she’d never seen one before. ‘What’s this for?’ she asked.

I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.” (p. 95)

At that point, so did I.

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Goodreads Challenge 2014 8/65 – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Shelley and I had the good fortune to visit Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago, and naturally we saw All The Things. It’s still quiet and gorgeous it was all delightful.

This was where he spent his childhood - his father was a glove maker.

This was where he spent his childhood – his father was a glove maker.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Holy Trinity Church

Holy Trinity Church

We had even more good fortune when we got to visit the Globe Theatre in London on our last trip. There was no play on at the time (boo! hiss!) but it was still a marvellous visit. We did get to see a RSC production of Richard II at the Barbican though, which was brilliantly produced (and had the wonderful David Tennant as the lead – woohoo!!!!!).

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So the book reviewed here was a natural to get while we were at the Globe. And it was an excellent read too, though I admit my attention wandered a little at the description of clothes. But, get it and read on, Macduff, and damned be he or she that finisheth it not!

Enjoy your reading, all. I may actually write about things library soon.

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The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThe Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabethan England is presented as a golden age. It was the period of Shakespeare, the Armada and the voyages of Drake, Frobisher and Raleigh. The music of William Byrd and John Dowland graced court and church. And at the apex, ‘Good Queen Bess’, defender of English freedoms.

Hindsight of course it a wonderful thing and Ian Mortimer tried to show us what it was like to live there. Would we, living at that time, view it through such rosy-hued glass?

The first chapter teases out the changes in landscape that were still underway. Medieval towns were slowly. Some of these are technological. Hall-hoses begin to make way for multi-storied houses because the chimney offers multi-floor heating.

England is still very much a landscape, as opposed to a cityscape. By 1600, only five of the top 20 towns in England have more than 10 000 residents. Of these, London has 200 000 and the remaining four (Norwich, York, Bristol and Newcastle) have 10-12 000 each. Oxford and Cambridge have but 5000 each.

Yet the urban centres were growing. It was a much younger population, with just over 7% of the population older than 60. Social hierarchies from the medieval period continue, though the independent power of the great families is now much less. Social status is shown outwardly through clothing. The Sumptuary laws rigidly defined what type of cloth, what colour and so forth a person might wear. One reason that some builders and masons were able to grow wealthy was that they could not spend their money on the luxuries of their ‘betters’.

Religion set out the parameters in which conflict with other powers took place. Elizabeth’s re-assertion of the monarch as head of the church in England gave Spain a cassus bellum – the re-imposition of the Holy Catholic church. Of course, English Catholics were thought therefore to be agents of Spain and the Pope. As indeed some were. But even for those loyal to the Crown, it wasn’t a good time to be Catholic. Once could choose to be Catholic. One simply had to pay a fine for each Sunday that they did not attend a Church of England service. That weekly fine was 20 pounds per month. A farm labourer might expect a bit over one pound per year.

Geniuses are not usually singular products but are created by their environments. One reason that Shakespeare was such a great talent was that he wrote in a milieu of great talent. He had to compete with the likes of Johnson and Marlowe. It was not a period. As Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own points out, it was impossible for a woman to attain such levels of genius because there was simply no opportunity. Woman by and large don’t own property and can be beaten by their husbands for ‘disobedience’. They were still legally not far removed from chattel. Yet many proved capable of running their households when their husbands we incapacitated (or dead).

We are products of our time, and so the things that we take for granted in the west are integral to our makeup. Access to clean water, decent health care and goodly quantities of nutritious food are things that many on the planet still have no access to. This is a wonderfully written examination of a fascinating period. If you have particular interests you can concentrate on some chapters and skip others. But it’s really worth reading all the way through. It is no doubt an era that I’d not want to live in permanently. But should The Doctor happen by with the TARDIS, I’ll make sure that I have this book with me.

I am aware, of course, that The Doctor would be wary of stepping foot here again, lest Elizabeth divorce him. With an axe.

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Goodreads Challenge 7/65 – C.J. Ransom’s ‘Revelation’

Historical fiction writers have a very difficult road it seems to me. On the one hand they need to be historically authentic. Dialogue that feels completely modern will feel out of place. On the other hand, the reader shouldn’t be overburdened with anachronism.

On the whole, C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series just about hits the sweet spot. This is my review of the third in the series. Each are stand-alone pieces but if you’ve not read anything in this series I’d still begin with Dissolution.

Fantasy writers have similar concerns. If you want to read an excellent discussion on style and fantasy, get your hands on a copy of Ursula le Guin’s From Elfenland to Poughkeepsie. I think a lot of her insights can also be applied to historical writing.

Speaking of fantasy literature, my only fantasy for the year seems to have been The Hobbit and a Terry Pratchett that I’ve yet to finish. Quelle horreur!

Happy reading, folks.

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Revelation (Matthew Shardlake, #4)Revelation by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is the spring of 1543. Henry VI seeks Catherine Parr as his sixth wife. Matthew Shardlake is promoted to Serjeant at the Court of Requests thanks to Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer and the reformist faction at court meanwhile follow Henry’s pursuit of Catherine with interest as she is known to have reformist sympathies. Radical lay preachers prophecy the coming of the Apocalypse, and Bishop Bonnor in London seeks to rid England of them with a new round of heresy trials.

A serial killer’s victims are murdered to fulfil the vision of Revelation 16, in which angels pour onto earth the seven vials of God’s wrath. Each killing is more gruesome than the last. Meanwhile, a young man incarcerated in the Bedlam Asylum will be burned as a heretic unless Shardlake can uncover what has unhinged his mind.

This is the darkest of the Shardlake novels so far. As fear casts its shadow across England, so too shadows fall across friendships. Matthew and Guy, Barak and Tamasin are estranged as trust fails and tragedy strikes. But author C. J. Sansom is increasingly comfortable in his chosen milieu. In general, he conveys the flavour of Tudor England without resorting to anachronism. Occasionally a piece of dialogue feels out of place, such as Matthew’s ‘Back to square one’ when his investigation runs up a blind alley. The notion of a serial killer in Tudor England may sound unconvincing but the unfolding sequence is handled skilfully.

The plot perhaps rambles along rather too much for some tastes, but for me it it’s an important part of the immersion. It’s a mild antidote to the prevailing gloom that stops Revelation from becoming a piece of Tudor noir. It’s perfect reading wither you’re on the train to work or curled up on a comfy couch with a fine wine. I’m looking forward to Heartstone very much indeed.

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Goodreads Challenge 5/65 – Barbarians

Another Goodreads review – this time Terry Jones and Alan Ereira’s Barbarians. I’m planning a novel set in the late Roman Empire, so this year’s challenge will have a lot of Roman stuff. Apologies for those of you uninterested in things Roman. Blame Goscinny and Uderzo. It’s all their fault. Also, while I seem to be crawling along with my reading, it’s the reviewing that’s taking the time. I will try to speed up, or at least not go on so much.

Enjoy your reading, folks!

Terry Jones' BarbariansTerry Jones’ Barbarians by Terry Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Barbarians is a revisionist retelling of Rome’s relationship with the peoples it came into contact with, that the Romans called ‘barbarians’. It seeks to show that these peoples were not ‘barbaric’ in the way that we understand the term today.

Jones and Ereira have not so much written a history as a sustained polemic. It begins by listing the things that we associate with Roman greatness: roads, laws, the Julian calendar. Also listed is the chariot. Unfortunately, I never got to study Latin at school, but no-one that I know with an interest in the period would consider the chariot as something peculiarly Roman. They going on to (correctly) talk about Caesar’s encounter with chariots during his two invasions of Britain. He noted that they were sturdy and aggressively driven. But here they are almost elevated to the status of a wonder weapon. This is ironic because the Romans were unfamiliar with the chariot as a weapon of war because they went out of use as a weapon of war elsewhere hundreds of years earlier. They were good for moving men swiftly to battle, but an effective weapon of war they were not.

This is doubly ironic because the information about their use comes to us from Caesar. Yet Caesar is derided as an unreliable chronicler of the Gauls because he described the elk as a creature that slept standing because their legs have no joints (a story he got from the Germans). It’s true that Caesar is not someone to take at his word. Why do so here?

There is lots of distinctly wobbly interpretations. They describe the quite sophisticated laws of the Celts, and note that Roman and Celtic law served different societies. No argument there. But Roman law was not based around paterfamilias, though it was an important component of it. It was largely to regulate property relations, though, like the Celts, there were also many laws that regulated socio-political functions. It’s doubtful that Archimedes’s mirror that could burn ships was actually deployed. The issue is not so much that the mirror couldn’t be built, but that it would likely be ineffective against a target that moves.

It’s also unlikely that Rome set back civilisation hundreds and hundreds of years because of the inventions that it effectively quashed. It’s true that the Romans did not make use of the many inventions that came out of the Greek world in the second and first centuries BC (and they list some of these). But the rulers of Rome, like the rulers of societies around then, made their wealth from exploiting slave labour. At the height of its power, some historians estimate that for every Athenian citizen there were three slaves (of course this doesn’t count women and foreigners). The inventions that they laud might have taken off at some point, but it’s likely that there would need to have been social upheaval within those societies for those devices to replace slave labour, rather than being a supplement.

It might seem from the above that this book isn’t worth reading, but this isn’t the case. I would say that the faults that they ascribe to the Romans are true. But they weren’t exclusive to the Romans. The Romans succeeded, and the others did not. Because there is much that they get right that often isn’t told. The dynamism of the middle-late Republic and early Empire was based on its success. Economic growth in the ancient world tended to be extrinsic rather than intrinsic. That is, your economy grew fastest by nick stuff from someone else. For Rome, military triumphs brought treasure and slaves into the economy. Once the Empire stopped expanding, inflation took hold. By the fifth century the city stopped being the administrative and economic focus for the elites, which doomed the state as the burden of tax shifted downwards.

This is not so much a history as a sustained polemic. Rome is cudgelled for killing cultural diversity, yet the end of the West is surely at least in part the result of different socio-cultural milieus going their own way? This book may annoy, but it remains thought provoking, and that surely was its purpose. In one sense, it’s a survey of all the peoples of the Mediterranean and Near East. No, the Romans were not universally good guys. But other peoples were not either. Some of Rome’s heritage is surely worthwhile. I am still in awe when I visit Bath or the Pantheon.

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2014 Reading Challenge 2/65 – My Life in France (Julia Child)

The first two books for the year are both re-reads. Both well worth multiple reads, as it happens. I first read this twelve months ago and was captivated. We bought a second copy while on holidays (I must check when we get home to see whether we indeed already own a copy). No matter. It was worth the read. We got this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, a place that you must visit if you like second-hand books. It’s on the left bank, close to good food and the Notre Dame cathedral. They are also very hospitable and helpful.

Below is the original Goodreads review with a second reading postscript.

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having seen Julie and Julia, this was bound to end up on the reading pile sooner or later. Happily, it was sooner, for this cleverly crafted biography was worth every minute that was spent reading it.

Though really focusing on one slice of Paul and Julia Child’s life, it is soon apparent that the slice devoted to France was considerable indeed. From her first sole meunière at Rouen in 1948, Paul child and France remained her lifelong loves.

Though this book will appeal to the culinary set, it is a wide-ranging snap-shot of post-war France. The parade of characters include chefs such as Bugnard, and gourmands such as the eccentric Curnonsky. The Prince des Gastronomes adopted his pseudonym having covered a feast for the Russian royal family in Paris in the mid-1890s. Though a brilliant article, the author was unknown. His solution was the Russian-sounding pen-name. His reputation remained undimmed until his death in Paris in 1956.

Child is refreshingly forthright in her opinions, and doesn’t shrink from self-praise. Her indignation at failing at her first attempt to gain her certificate from Le Cordon Bleu almost makes the book shake in one’s hands as she lists her accomplishments. But it is deserving. Her optimism despite the stumbling blocks thrown across her husband’s career and the difficulties in publishing what would become Mastering the art of French cooking are simply so many obstacles to overcome.

Her love for Paul Child is manifest, and softens the few hard edges that that Julia shows. A talented artist, Paul joined the OSS during the Second World War (he met Julia working in Sri Lanka). Both Democrats, Paul was viewed with suspicion and, during the McCarthy witch-hunts was recalled to Washington and questioned about his political beliefs. His support for her projects was invaluable, and it was he who suggested that she should work in television (a remarkable observation as they hadn’t seen one at the time).

Enthusiasm for life and all that it offers, for good and ill, is the thread that holds this book together. Published posthumously in 2006, this is simply a wonderful piece of biographical writing.

Postscript – we picked up a second copy of this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris. If you get to Paris, visit them. They are very hospitable.

On thing that struck me again is how important a part of culture food is. I love visiting France because eating good food (and making the time to do so) is still seen as important (I love Italy for the same reason). This is not to say that all the food that you buy in France is great. But I suspect (but cannot prove) that it’s generally better that that consumed in the Anglo-Saxon world.

As I write this we are in Bayeux and most businesses are closed from 12:00-14:00. Perfectly civilsed. I have nothing against sandwiches (I love a good sandwich), but I dislike our modern preoccupation with food as something to get through. At work, we often feel that we have no choice (and many don’t). We are the poorer for it.

The other thing that came through the book is that the French, their reputation notwithstanding, are very polite and usually friendly. My wife saw a staff member at the Bayeux tourism office being extremely patient with an elderly Canadian gentlemen. The French also value politeness highly. It’s important to say ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ when you enter a business. Politeness to people who serve us our food or our services is also something of an anachronism in the Anglo-Saxon world, and again we are the poorer for it.

Not that France or the French are perfect. Julia’s description of the drawn out bureaucratic nightmare that constituted their efforts to get a telephone are still a feature of modern French life. If you have to encounter the French bureaucracy, roll with the punches. And be polite. You may be the better for it.

At one point, Julia exclaims that she must be French and no one had previously informed her of this fact. I concur wholeheartedly.

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