Tag Archives: literature

Second Sight

My mother used to spend much of her time visiting the old people in our village, the ones no one else seemed to bother with. She’d pack a basketful of baking, wait for us to get in from school, then off we’d go to visit Grandma This or Grandad That.

Grandad Greaves was our favourite. He lived on the edge of the village, next to the farm where a turkey, feathered like an African chief, seemed to spend all its time doing a war-dance in the farmyard.

Grandad Greaves would be waiting for us in his kitchen, the white-washed stone walls like a lot of banked-up floury loaves and the black range reaching almost to the ceiling. The table would be laid for tea with (if they were in season) a plate of home-grown raspberries at each setting, smothered in sterilized milk, which our mother had insisted beforehand we drink without complaint. Outside the hens stepped as cautiously on the cobbles as if they were hot coals and watched us warily through the open doorway with their head on one side.

Then, while my mother cleaned the kitchen and my sisters explored the old-fashioned garden, I’d read Grandad Greaves’ books. Here I first set eyes on The Complete Works of Shakespeare, scrutinising The Tempest with as much urgency as if I had to perform it, though that was two decades away, and I’d only just learned to read.

There was also the works of Byron, illustrated. One picture, Manfred on The Jungfrau, filled me with dread. I’d look at it again and again, not from schadenfreude but to try to discover why it affected me so much. I think it was because even then I knew what falling would come to mean for me.

Years later, two weeks before it happened, I dreamt in almost complete detail of the fall which would kill my mother. But I thought it was just a dream. As on previous occasions, it was only with hindsight, when it was too late, that I realised I’d seen the future.

But this implies that life is pre-ordained; that certain things are destined to happen. And I cannot believe it. I believe existence to be random to the point of pointlessness. Still, I’ve pondered often on the premonition of my mother’s death and the particular dream-smile she gave me, which it took me months to interpret as the smile of goodbye.


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Have you ever read Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’? It’s one of the most frightening vampire books I’ve ever come across. I first read it several years ago when I was an actress. The company was touring with ‘Wuthering Heights’, spending a week in almost every town in Britain.

For the week in Malvern I was sharing digs with an actress called Helen Dorwood, who was playing Nelly Dean. It was the ground-floor flat of a sizeable Edwardian house, where the landlady, when she didn’t have guests, lived alone.

On the second night Helen had to drive to London after the perfomance to attend an audition the following morning. She came back to the digs to collect a few things and, the landlady being in bed, I locked up after she’d left. It was well after midnight but actors take a long time to wind down after a performance and I was intending to read ‘Carmilla’ till the small hours.

My ground-floor bedroom was over a basement and roughly ten feet above the front garden. The night was so quiet, the house might have been in the middle of nowhere rather than a country town. I’d just got to the bit in the book where the narrator senses something in her room, creeping towards the foot of the
bed, when there was a scratching on the window.

In my experience, when you’re terrified you don’t go cold but hot. I remember the blood pounding in my ears as the scratching came again. What was it that could reach my window by standing ten feet below in the garden? For the life of me, I couldn’t open the curtains to look. In horror I ran to my landlady and woke her up. We could hear that scratching as we approached my room.

I’ve forgotten her name, but she was made of sterner stuff than I was. She dragged back the curtains to reveal Helen Dorwood standing on the front steps, leaning over the parapet and scratching on the window with a stick – the only way she could reach it. She’d forgotten her phone, and not wanting to awaken the landlady by ringing the doorbell, had lighted on this brilliant alternative for getting my attention.

They both poured scorn on me, of course, for my cowardice and I had to apologize to the landlady profusely. But when that infernal nuisance Helen Dorwood had finally gone and the landlady was back in bed, I put out Le Fanu’s masterpiece the way one puts out a cat, and left it on the doorstep till morning. I kept my light on, too, though I’ve a feeling I didn’t sleep till sunrise.


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It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em

I used to be a terrible maudlin romantic. I was thirteen when I discovered Far From The Madding Crowd, and since then I must have read it twenty times. As for Jude The Obscure, I’ve lost count. Was there ever such a tragedy? – children being hanged, heroines going mad in graveyards – I thought all my Christmasses had come at once. Whoever said ”Nothing is so sweet as lovely melancholy” was speaking my language.

I still think they’re two of the greatest books ever written, yet I can no longer bear to read them. In fact, that goes for all the classics. Is it age? As we get nearer death do we become more superficial? Or is our understanding too close for comfort? I now realize what Hardy wrote was true, and I don’t want to know.

But for all you romantics out there, here’s an eighth century Chinese poem from Li Po:

”I had gone aboard and was minded to depart,
When I heard from the shore your song with tap of foot.
The pool of peach blossom is a thousand feet deep
But not so deep as the love in your farewell to me.”

‘Farewell’ – the most terrifying word in the English language. The time comes when you don’t want to be reminded of it. I’m afraid the following is about my level now:

Little Boy: ”Mummy, Mummy, Daddy’s been run over by a steamroller!”

Mother: ”Oh, don’t make me laugh, you know my lips are chapped!”

(It’s the way I tell ’em.)


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A Month in the Country

The hay has been cut and lies in a green stripe next to the yellow stripe of stubble, so that the field looks like a fairground awning stretched out to dry.

From a distance the hedgerows seem covered in snow but it’s the may blossom, sometimes pink  – brides and bridesmaids of the Green Man, who makes his home in the hawthorn.

Today I passed the white horse on the hill at Kilburn – one of those chalk cut-outs beloved of the English. As usual, it reminded me of J.L. Carr’s ‘A Month in the Country’. His publisher once asked him if he knew that there was already a book of that name (meaning Turgenev’s play). Carr replied, ”Oh, yes, but mine’s better.” He was right.


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