The Adventures of Big Beery

Mr Litlove is a man who works in insidious ways, and so I can’t recall how he first brought up the topic of moving house. All I can remember is being in the middle of a discussion – well a fantasy session really – in which he was painting a picture of a wonderful house surrounded by land, in which he could have a bigger workshop with an apprentice and I could have a couple of artists’ studios and/or a writing retreat to hire out. Alongside our little artistic community there would be an orchard and a kitchen garden. I think Vaughn Williams may have been playing in the background. In any case, I was feeling enthusiastic and less mindful of the hellish process that is simultaneously buying and selling a house..

I last moved house twenty-one years ago and at the time I swore never again. There were very good reasons for this. I’m not sure what the situation is in other countries, but here in the UK, moving is something that only happens despite the caprice of the buyers and the best efforts of estate agents, house surveyors, land registry officials and conveyancing solicitors. It is wildly expensive and fraught at all stages with distrust and uncertainty. I had my eyes wide open and will no doubt come to regret it. But Mr Litlove reeled me in with a killer persuasive phrase. ‘We’re ready for a new chapter,’ he said. ‘We need one.’ And I knew what he meant.

Now I love my house and so I wasn’t quite ready to be fully on board until we’d found somewhere that was right. After six weeks of looking we did find somewhere that was pretty much right. That meant putting our own house on the market (whilst worrying that some other buyer would come along and snap up the one property we’d seen that we loved). And that meant removing 21 years’ worth of clutter and tidying places we hadn’t even looked at since we moved in. I have collecting genes in my family line, and Mr Litlove has hoarding genes in his; this was going to be a major operation.

Naturally the photographer was scheduled for the end of the hottest week of the hottest summer since records began. Mr Litlove and I toiled away, cleaning and scrubbing and throwing out, feeling boiled alive in our skins. Mr Litlove is so untidy that we have designated areas for him to inhabit in the house and most offered problems so complex and shaming that we simply closed the doors on them. Not an option for the utility room, however, whose counter tops I hadn’t seen in over a decade, thanks to Mr Litlove’s collection of tins containing useful half inches of leftover paint, the gardening equipment and woodworking tools that were vacationing in the house ‘en route’ to the workshop, and all the other bits and bobs he’d bought at Screwfix without yet using. But by the end of ‘Furnace Friday’ as the papers dubbed it, the utility room was so clear that it was almost aggressive in its nakedness. The whole house was unnatural in its tidiness. Then, when the photographer came. for the first time in more than six weeks it began to cloud over. A spattering of raindrops fell. The photographer dashed outside to shoot pictures of the garden and the front of the house and when I next looked out of the window it was on scenes that could have come from reportage of a typhoon in the West Indies. The village green was obscured by driving horizontal rain, the howling wind lashed the trees, and inside the house we ran around shutting all the windows and doors, forgetting alas, the skylight in the conservatory through which water poured. It was positively biblical.

Unsurprisingly, most of the photographs had to be done again. But it did give us a chance to see how the original set came out and to make some alterations. One obvious problem was in our son’s bedroom.  We have a photo of him, aged about eight, standing against his bed and hugging Goldie – his favourite bear – under his chin. Behind him towers a magnificent mountain of cuddly animals that dwarfs the two of them. He clearly inherited both the collecting and the hoarding genes as those cuddlies were still there, under his bed now rather than on it. I’d rather dreaded doing the cull as I feel tender about stuffed toys and don’t care to have their beady, accusatory eyes pinned upon me in silent reproach. Mr Litlove is ruthless, though, as I’d already witnessed from his own soft toys in his childhood bedroom, all individually bagged in plastic and stored in a cupboard like a furry kapok-stuffed version of the film Cocoon. We set about the holocaust using the movie principle: if they didn’t have a name or a back story, they were sent to the black bin bag. Our old cats liked to sleep under that bed and it became clear that coated in cat fur was also a criteria for disposal. Being lippy didn’t help. At one point Mr Litlove passed me a small, grubby chick which I binned. When he found what appeared to be the same chick a few minutes later he was completely nonplussed. ‘How did he escape out of the bag?’ he asked. I fished about in it and brought out an identical chick – evidently there were twins. Unfortunately one chick turned to the other at that moment and cheeped: ‘We’re surrounded by morons.’ Neither saw the light of day again.

Surviving that original cull, however, was Big Beery.  My son in his youth was a very enthusiastic car boot and jumble sale attendee.  One year on holiday with his cousins, they had been taken on foot – and therefore unwillingly, bitching and moaning the whole way – to a nearby car boot sale.

Once there, our son homed in on a huge, ugly, disreputable looking brown bear and insisted on buying him. As unlikely as it seems, his cousins also found a huge teddy (in better nick) and all three returned home with the bears slung over their shoulders, skipping and singing as they walked.

Big Beery & Lustleigh

Heading home from the car boot sale

 

This was the arrival of Big Beery, a bear who looked like all he needed was a hand of poker in one paw and three fingers of whiskey in a cloudy glass by the other.

Although he was always very tight-lipped about it, one look told you that he had definitely had a past, and it hadn’t been kind to his fur. When we hauled him out from under the bed, Mr Litlove acquired an expression of distaste, but I rooted for Big Beery. After all, he definitely had a back story and apart from anything else, he was way too big to fit in the bag.

When those photographs came back, however, all you could see, despite our best efforts, was a still-huge collection of cuddlies. There was going to have to be a director’s cut, and it was fairly obvious that Big Beery wasn’t going to make it.

‘But what are we going to do with him?’ I wondered.  The rest of the toys had been taken to the charity shop where they had been warily accepted. But no one in their right minds would take on Big Beery.  I just couldn’t bring myself to throw him away and a car boot sale with him as our lone stock was out of the question. We could have stuck him up in the loft but a bear of that age has his dignity and – who knew? – maybe his underworld contacts to come and get him out. In the end, we put him in the spare bedroom while we thought it over, Big Beery propped up on one side of the bed, dropping ash on the nightstand and cracking his knuckles nonchalantly from time to time. ‘We’ll come up with something,’ Mr Litlove said.

Of course, by the time the photographer was due again, Big Beery was still there. We flew back and forth past him, scooting the rising tide of objects out of sight. In the end, he was our last outstanding problem. ‘I’ve got it!’ i finally said. ‘Put him in my car.’ This was a satisfying conclusion. I could picture him, a chunky silhouette in the back seat, waiting for darkness to fall and his driver to come and take him to the wharf.

So the photographer came and the photos were re-taken and after a bit more hassle our house was finally on the market. And it was…. August. The deadest month of the year apart from December for selling houses. So this is where you find us, scarcely begun on the process and already doubting its feasibility. I feel like a small miracle has to occur to create the extraordinary synergy required.

I forgot about Big Beery until a few days ago when I was considering taking the car into town. ‘Where did you put him?’ I asked Mr Litlove. ‘Not in the driver’s seat, I hope?’ I was imagining the journey into town with Big Beery hanging out the passenger window and declaring ‘Just off to get some bear necessities, mate!’ at passers-by. Mr Litlove looked a tad shamefaced. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘he’s in the boot.’ Big Beery was in the boot! I was shocked and a little apprehensive – what kind of state would he be in when we got him out? But then I thought about it, and in a strange way, the trunk of the car had a certain… appropriateness for him. But every time one of us drives out, I can’t help a scenario from forming in my mind in which we are pulled over by the police and invited to leave the vehicle while they search it.  ‘You appear to have the body of a bear from the criminal fraternity in your car, Madam,’ they will say. ‘Can you explain it?’ And as I look over their shoulders, Big Beery will catch my eye and send me a sly, disreputable wink.

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The Last Wilderness

Nature writing is such an intriguing genre. It’s so quiet and unassuming in its PR that you might not expect it to have such an honorable and long-standing history (Thoreau, Peter Matthiesson, Nan Shephard, Barry Lopez, J. A. Baker) or the capacity to produce extraordinary narratives like Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. To this day, it’s a powerful form of storytelling still, with contemporary superstars like Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. And yet unlike just about every other storytelling medium – film, television, news media and books – it eschews sensationalism and melodrama. Given that our environment is in the midst of one of the toughest of wars with mankind ever, it could be forgiven for ramping up the drama content, but no, the books I read continue to speak in the most serene of voices. Perhaps that’s precisely the charm.

Neil Ansell is the author who got me into nature writing, and so a new book of his is always an event. I know absolutely nothing about nature. I can identify a horse chestnut tree, a willow, a silver birch and probably an oak. I can point out a blackbird and a robin and a pigeon. I have a back garden with some plants in it. That’s it for me. So I never thought I would fall head over heels for the nature genre; but then I read Neil Ansell’s account of living alone in the Welsh countryside for five years, Deep Country, and was bowled over. This is what reading is all about: the invitation into an unknown world made real and vivid and inhabitable by the skill of the writing. When his second book came out, Deer Island, I made sure to secure a review copy and absorbed it in the same kind of trance as before. And now with his third, The Last Wilderness, I tried to hold back a little and understand what it is about his writing that is unique to him, and why I find it so affecting. It’s really hard to put my finger on, but over the course of this review, I’ll try.

The Last Wilderness concerns five visits taken over the course of a single year to the Rough Bounds in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, one of the few places in the British Isles to contain truly ancient wild land, almost untouched by human society.  Ansell travelled there first as a young man, just embarking on many years of rootless wandering, and he decided to revisit it now that those years may be coming to an end due to failing health. With each trip he explores a different part of the region, endures the changing seasons, battles his own body and allows the present moment to trigger a rich web of memories drawn from other travels in other times and places. What matters to him throughout his wanderings is the quality of experience.

I can see an animal in a zoo, up close and personal, and yet it feels as if it barely even counts, I can watch a television documentary, and gain an intimate insight into the private life of an animal, and yet it is no substitute for the real thing. Nothing can compare to the joy inspired by even a brief encounter with a scarce and beautiful wild animal in its natural element. It is not about what I have seen, it is about forging a momentary connection with the wild and finding a place in the world for my own wild heart.’

And forging a connection is something he continually does, often with unexpected results:

As I walked the path one scorching hot day, the air flexing in the rising heat, I saw a crow walking the path ahead of me. I kept expecting it to flush as I approached, but it never did; instead it hopped up and perched on top of my head. I felt strangely proud as I continued my way towards the harbour with my animated headdress. And then it drove its beak into the very top of my skull as if it was trying to crack a nut.’

There’s an exquisite attentiveness throughout the narrative , not just to animals but to landscape too:

An individual wood can have some intangible quality that makes it stand apart from all the other woods. This one somehow felt different from the other birch woods I had travelled through. The birch is part of a natural succession. It is quick to take hold, and it will usually be the first tree to grow on neglected land, before finally giving way to oak or whatever other tree forms the climax vegetation of the locality. Here, it was a permanent fixture. Nothing else would ever take its place; it was as though it had finally been able to step out of the shadows, out of its role as supporting act, and fulfil its true potential.’

And I also appreciated the attentiveness Ansell pays to his own authentic nature as it is shaped by his environment; the nomadic times in which ‘the shock of the new gives me an intensity of experience, a sudden depth of focus that will perhaps never be replicated’, and the settled times in which extended periods in one place allow him to ‘become gradually aware of how things are more subtle and complex than they first appeared, of how malleable and mutable is the world’. And as a person who can be entirely self-sufficient, there’s an insightful meditation on what it is to be solitary: ‘Empathy is not a zero sum game; caring about nature does not mean you care less about other people.’ The benefits of solitude are to be found in a kind of emptying out of the social ego, leading to a heightened state of sensory arousal, in which the relationship to the external world can strengthen and deepen.

If I quote extensively here, it’s because the voice feels so unusual to me in a clamouring, chattering world of rapid and mostly superficial thought. The Last Wilderness charts all manner of loss – loss of the virgin earth, untrodden and unspoiled by mankind, loss of so many species of animals, loss of Ansell’s hearing and loss of his confidence in his personal strength as he begins to suffer from an undiagnosed heart condition. But to my mind, the loss that is most striking, but which is noticeable in this book precisely because it contains so much of it, is loss of a certain state of mind. Ansell is an unusual man. He is solitary and contemplative, accepting and philosophical, non-competitive and non-materialistic, keen on simplicity but not on what is simplistic, and deeply respectful of the land and all it contains. He conjures up so much time in this book, slows down the reader’s mind, and shows us what can be accomplished with a mind that is wide open to everything in the vicinity. That state of mind is as much an endangered species as the mountain gorilla and the Siberian Tiger. Perhaps that’s why inhabiting it in a book feels very precious.

Mata Hari, We Hardly Knew You

Mata Hari must be one of the very few women in history whose name has turned into common terminology, as the spy who seduces to gain knowledge. Though as usual, for every feminist cheer, there’s an eye roll for the patriarchy, as the story surrounding this woman who found transcendent fame remains inseparable from the usual fascination with female sexuality. That Mata Hari was a prostitute with a cause, doesn’t really strike much of a blow for women’s empowerment and emancipation. How then, to tell her story in a 21st century way that honors the complexity of the woman without resorting to the creation of a false archetype of strength and agency as so many historical novels do? How to show both the force of the myth that surrounds her and the genuine desperation that created her? Richard Skinner’s novel, The Red Dancer, offers an intriguing strategy by presenting the reader with a mosaic of fictional witness accounts that all have a perspective on Mata Hari without ever solving her enigma.

The novel begins with the placement of a lonely hearts ad in an Amsterdam paper, purporting to come from one MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch army and a notorious womanizer, but really put there as a joke by his mate. The joke, typically, backfires. MacLeod finds himself taking the responses he receives seriously, especially one from a Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (whom he calls Gerda), a pretty, dark-haired woman of great charm and appeal. Macleod knows he’ll be sent out to Indonesia soon and that having a wife would be a good thing. And so they get engaged within six days of meeting, and marry within four months. Then things go horribly wrong. MacLeod is keen on drink and violence, Gerda is a flirt who wants to spend all his money on dresses. They have two children, move to the Dutch East Indies, and drive each other a little bit insane. On their return to Europe, MacLeod deserts Gerda, who heads to Paris and then to Pigalle, the red-light district, recommended to her as a woman with no money and no choices. She finds work as an artist’s model and then as an exotic dancer, a move that will make her name.

From this point on, Mata Hari – self-christened, meaning ‘Eye of the Dawn’ – is in this account as complicit in the myth-making as the journalists and writers who spread over-excited reports of her. Basically, Mata Hari made her name by dancing naked, but coupling it with the notion that her movements were sacred Brahman dances lent a veneer of, well, not respectability exactly, but something more poetic and pure. Colette (who had herself danced strip-teases of a kind on the Parisian stage) watched her with clear, cold eyes, and produced this account:

She hardly danced in the real sense at all. She arrived fairly naked at her recitals, and with graceful movements and downcast eyes shed her clothes, and would then disappear enveloped in her veils… Her skin amber by night, seemed mauve by daylight, but patchy from artificial dyeing. She moved her long, thin and proud body as Paris has never seen one moved before. Paris swallowed her, and raved about her chaste nudity, retelling anecdotes that Mata Hari had uttered about her hot Asiatic past. She was invited everywhere, men fought to pay her way.’

She claimed to have been born in India, to be related to royalty (both Indian and British), to have studied her dances by way of cults and sacred ritual, to have performed before rajahs, all of which was so much nonsense. But her position, both financially and within society, was a precarious one. Her dancing began to receive poor reviews and, as the First World War loomed, Mata Hari was taken on by the Berlin police intelligence services and used her talents the way she always had. It was, in short, another rackety career, with even less security than she had achieved before, and it ended the way these things inevitably will – in front of a firing squad for treason.

It’s a story that changes with the light. In one direction, you can read the masterful ascent of a woman out of poverty and into the annals of history. In another direction you can read the doomed descent of a woman used and abused by men who cared not a jot for her happiness, her health, or her safety. In the middle there’s Gerda herself, whose consciousness we rarely enter in this novel, and who accounts for her actions with only one justification: ‘once she had an impulse, she acted on it quickly.’ Was she a woman of loose morals who believed her own lies? Or a gutsy survivor using the only resource that society cared to place at her disposal – the uncontrollable lust of men? The beautifully written narrative passes through numerous viewpoints, including her bitter husband, the impresario who made her, the journalist who interviews her, her loyal maid, the Russian officer who fell in love with her, the prison doctor, the youngest member of the firing squad. Each account tantalises but cannot solve the mystery.

Interspersed with these fictional accounts are the most divisive feature of the narrative: brief non-fiction chapters that explain and describe an extraordinary hotch-potch of cultural artefacts, including the gamelan (a Javanese musical instrument), lithography, absinthe, the Orient Express and the start of the First World War. It’s an audacious strategy that I think is intended to remind the reader of the inescapable history behind the story, and to anchor the fictional accounts in the relics of the times. They add a real taste of the cultural era to the narrative, and accent the dizzying perspective that moves us rapidly between the carapace of Mata Hari’s myth and the reality of the Belle Epoque. But some readers are going to find themselves uncomfortably jarred out of the story when they appear.

Overall this is a fascinating account of a historical figure whom we all know without knowing about in the least. The Red Dancer refuses to resolve this problem, preferring to magnify it instead, which is perhaps the truest way of approaching the story of woman who worked myth for all it was worth, until it finally destroyed her.

 

Teenage Kicks

The Baltimore Boys by Joel Dicker is a novel in which The Sorrows of Young Werther meets Sidney Sheldon, a sentence I’ve been looking forward to writing ever since I read this book, way back in May. A story of family rivalry, young love, exceptional achievement, loyalty, idealism and tragedy it’s a sort of male coming-of-age saga set in Baltimore, Florida, New Jersey and New York. It reminded me of the big, chunky novels I used to hoover up as a teenager, all angst and money and fame, but it has a bit more literary panache. Not a great deal more, but definitely a bit. I enjoyed it very much and am typing this feeling guilty, as I really should have reviewed it a lot sooner.

If you’ve seen it around you’ll know it’s a real doorstep of a novel, clocking in at 450 pages plus in hardback. It took me a little over three weeks due to my grumpy dry eyes and this was so depressing at the time that I put the book in my to-review pile and didn’t manage to get around to writing about it all summer. I read Joel Dicker’s first novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebec Affair (which was a monster hit) in about three days a few years back, and this is, I think, a better book. It’s a lot less reliant on showy tricks and devices and uses its preoccupations in a more coherent way. Intriguingly, though, it focuses on the same male narrator – bestselling author Marcus Goldman – and digs deeper into his family history, gradually revealing the details of a tragedy in his youth that rocked his extended family.

So, when the story begins, we’re the present day in Florida, with Goldman coming to his second home in Florida suffering from writers’ block. Imagine his surprise when he finds that living nearby is his first love, Alexandra Neville, who is now an international pop superstar. Seeing Alexandra again awakens painful memories in Goldman concerning a tragedy (that will be much trailered, have patience) and we return with him to the past and his late childhood. Marcus’s youth was defined by a rivalrous split in his family between his father and his uncle. The Baltimore Goldmans, headed up by the patriarch Saul Goldman, a rich and successful lawyer, live a life of big houses, fancy vacations and preferential treatment by Marcus’s grandparents. His own Montclair-based family seems humiliatingly ordinary by comparison and at any opportunity Marcus jumps ship to spend time with the high achievers. He longs to be a part of their gilded tribe and to leave his own, lowlier, background behind.

But all is not as perfect with the Baltimore Goldmans as it may first appear. Marcus’s cousin, Hillel is an annoying smartie-pants, a perilous combination of precocious intellect and weedy body, who is constantly bullied at school. His parents despair of finding him an education that he’ll survive, until that is, Woody joins the family. Woody is a young offender who’s received help and guidance from Uncle Saul, and who can’t really find a place to live contentedly either. He and Hillel become firm friends, and Woody uses his superior muscle power to protect him in the playground. This dynamic changes everything, and Uncle Saul and his family pretty much adopt Woody from then on. Marcus loves them both, and visits whenever he can, subsuming himself into their friendship and, with his usual self-conscious awareness of moments when life and art coincide, naming them The Goldman Gang.

Woody’s going to be a sports star, Hillel some kind of genius and Marcus doesn’t know yet what he’ll do but it’s going to be impressive, he’s determined about that. So what ruins this perfect state of affairs? A girl, of course. Alexandra moves in next door to Hillel and Woody and all three fall for her. Cue angst, betrayal and disaster.

The novel takes a long time and drives you round the houses a lot, through numerous time zones, until the denouement is finally reached. But I really like Dicker’s writing style, which is easy and unpretentious, heart-felt without being sentimental. I get very impatient with stories that take a long time to go anywhere, it’s a critical weakness of mine, but I was never impatient with this. He is an author who’s good at creating a world, and what works especially well in this novel is the way that Marcus’s perspective – agog all the time at his amazing relatives and obsessed with achievement – becomes in some ways what this novel is about. Youthful idealisation is the key to the story and the reason why Marcus is the last person to understand what’s happening around him.

There’s something about this novel that gives it an odd throwback feel to me, though the books it reminds me of almost all used to be written by women (Sidney Sheldon being the exception that sprang to mind). I saw a very interesting article by Siri Hustvedt the other day in which she suggests that Knausgaard writes like a woman. Is this the new 21st century literary transgender? Men writing in ways that used to be considered female?