Google Analytics

Friday 27 March 2020

Review - Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time

Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time
Penelope Lively: 
Treasures of Time (4*)

Sometimes, it can be difficult writing these occasional book reviews, but it helps in reflecting upon what I have just read and what I understand of it. This elaborate tale was harder than most.

Treasures of Time is about the truth of our perceptions and memories. Do we live the lives we think we live? Are things as they seem? Penelope Lively deftly handles multiple points of view and multiple time frames to show how different people can experience and remember the same places and events differently – edifying stuff for a memoir writer.

Laura Paxton is approached by a BBC documentary film maker planning to make a programme about her late husband, the acclaimed archaeologist Hugh Paxton. She still lives in their idyllic Wiltshire cottage close to the site of the excavation that made her husband famous, and remains stunningly beautiful. But she is no intellectual. She is one of those classic comic creations, like a Jane Austen character, who seeks social and cultural approval and belittles those beneath her standards. She accepts the BBC’s approach with alacrity, unaware of the misgivings of her historian daughter, Kate, and her invalid sister, Nellie.

I’ve come across too many people like Laura. They want to take over and organise your social life and cannot understand why you might not want to comply. They disapprove of your sense of humour and take offence when your opinions differ from theirs. When the television crew arrives, she engages them in genteel sherry parties with her society friends, although they would much prefer a pint at the local pub and being left to get on with their work. “Ma has always found people’s tendency to work a nuisance,” her daughter Kate explains. “It stops them doing other things she might be wanting them to do.”

I identify with Kate’s boyfriend, Tom, who is just about to complete a Ph.D. thesis on William Stukeley, the eighteenth century investigator of Stonehenge. Tom has climbed to Oxford from an ordinary upbringing and observes things most clearly. He wonders how Laura has “so extraordinary a knack of instantly putting everyone else at a disadvantage … You could go far, with a talent like that.” And, as one does when you find yourself unexpectedly in the company of those of more advantageous background, Tom says and does the wrong things, such as outspokenly criticising one of Laura’s friends for selling off a historically significant family heirloom. I’ve been similarly tactless, it has given me sleepless nights, but what I like about Tom is that he is not troubled by imposter syndrome or self-doubt.

So, we have archaeology, academic research, history, social mobility, the impact of the past upon the present and an almost farcical mesh of contradictory perceptions. Laura, Kate and Nellie look at a scene and see or remember it differently. From these differences we learn that Laura’s marriage was far from perfect. She had no interest in archaeology. It was her sister Nellie who was Hugh Paxton’s soul mate. She worked with him all his life, accompanied him on digs and co-authored academic papers. Kate has vague flashbacks of their intimacy, and of her mother’s indiscretions too. Hugh Paxton had been bedazzled by Laura’s beauty, and married the wrong sister.

The novel, originally published in 1979, is now in the Penguin Decades series, considered landmarks of their time. At under 200 pages it is relatively short. Written more recently it might be three times as long with extensive period detail and sumptuous descriptions of archaeological artefacts. It keeps to what it is, essentially a miniaturist tale in which nothing much happens, or as the blurb says, “an acutely observed story of marriage and manipulation.”

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Sunday 22 March 2020

Ready Steady Go

Click through images to BBC iPlayer

What a super two hours on BBC4 on Friday: Ready Steady Go, the music show that ran at 6 p.m. on Fridays on ITV from August 1963 to December 1966: The Weekend Starts Here.

There was an hour of documentary clips and memories from director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, producer Vicki Wickham, and the likes of Paul Jones of Manfred Mann, Gerry The Pacemakers Marsden, Martha Reeves and Georgie Fame (whose music I always rated for its sophistication). Then a further hour of archive performances.

Many of the original videotapes were wiped, popular music being thought ephemeral, but enough survives along with colour film footage shot for a documentary. As you might expect, there was a bit too much emphasis on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – it would have been nice to see more of the less well remembered acts – but we did get to see Dusty Springfield singing Dancing In The Street with Martha and the Vandellas (way better than the Supremes any day) and Otis Redding performing with Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe. Absolute magic. Some bits did look very dated, though, especially the mime competition.

Ready Steady Go was innovative and influential in the acts it booked – one of the first showcases for Tamla Motown on British television – and in the way it blended together with camera, audience, dancers and acts all mingling together. Many in the audience were Mods down from Sheffield’s King Mojo club.

I remember watching some of the programmes at the time: many at school thought it unmissable. For me it spanned those years from stamp collecting and trains to what was happening in the wider world.

I had to look up what happened to main presenters. The lovely and iconic Cathy McGowan is now around 77 but did not appear in the programmes. She was originally recruited to set off the smooth professional Keith Fordyce who died in 2011, aged 82.

The programmes are on BBC iPlayer until around 18th April, but knowing BBC4 they will probably be repeated ad infinitum.

Thursday 19 March 2020


I like this photograph. It was taken in the late nineteen-twenties at the Yorkshire seaside resort of Bridlington. The location appears to be beside the harbour wall looking up to Garrison Street.

Bridlington Harbour: c1929

There is something about the figures, their clothes and expressions, the composition, the depth of focus and the greyscale tones that reminds me of photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, the celebrated Whitby photographer. They all look very serious, as if about to emigrate to the New World perhaps, whereas, actually, they are on board for a short trip around Flamborough Head.

My dad, aged about 7, is to the right with his Jackie Coogan cap tight on his head, and my grandfather, in front of him, looks very smart in a suit and flat cap. They seem to be the only ones without raincoats or waterproofs, unless those loose ones are for their use. None appear to have life jackets. One wonders who the others in the picture were: are they three couples or is one of the women the daughter of the older man: Somerset Maugham with a pipe? Who could now know? My dad could easily be assumed to be with the couple behind him.

We have lots of other family pictures at Bridlington in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties: in deck chairs, on the beach by the sea wall, digging in the sand, paddling in the sea, walking around town. One, some two decades later, shows my pregnant mum with my dad and others on the sands. Nanna is gazing down at her bump with me inside as if for a caption competition.

On Bridlington beach

Later, when I was little, we continued to go to Bridlington. Here I am in front of the Spa buildings, digging on the beach near the breakwater in my baggy white underpants. They look as if they would still fit me. I bet they made wonderful car polishing cloths. We went on the same trip around Flamborough, and when the sea was calm Dad would hire a rowing boat and row us out beyond the harbour mouth. I also remember visiting the Flamborough headland and being frightened by the fog-horn.

I haven’t been back much since. It seems to have a lot of noisy rides and fast food smells now. But, hoping to repeat history, I went with my young family one day in 2004. The cold wind and rough sea were too daunting for a sea trip, so we drove to Flamborough instead and climbed the 119 internal steps to the top of the lighthouse, terrified of the drop down the middle. Scary place, Flamborough.

Lamp room: Flamborough lighthouse

For the nerds amongst us, Flamborough Head is a promontory to the north of Bridlington, the northern end of a band of cretaceous chalk that stretches through Eastern England down to the South Coast. A  27-metre lighthouse sits on top of 30-metre cliffs, giving a range of 28 miles to the horizon, high enough on a clear day to be able to see the Humber Bridge to the south near Hull. Inside the lamp room, a four-panel catadioptric lens revolves around an enormous light bulb (in the top central  square in the picture) to create a signature code of four flashes every fifteen seconds. It continues to revolve even when the bulb is off so as not to concentrate the sun’s rays and start fires. The light was automated in 1996 but when we visited there were still reserved parking places for the non-existent staff.

Flamborough Head from the air (looking South)

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Fish Finger Sandwiches (with Piccalilli)

In response to a comment about fish fingers I made recently on his post about home-made oven chips, the usually infallible Mr. YP said he thought only small children ate fish fingers. Well, wrong! Those of us who remain eternally young at heart still do, a favourite from my teenage years, staple Friday night fare ready on returning home for the weekend from my digs in Leeds after leaving school.

I have never blogged a recipe (unless you count Dill in Mustard Sauce), but if Debra Who Seeks can do it for the first time in twelve years then so can I for the first time in six, as we would appear to share similar gastronomic preferences. So here is: Fish Finger Sandwiches (with Piccalilli).

Fish Fingers

Put the fish fingers straight from the packet on to a tray and grill for about 15 minutes, turning once or twice. In the meantime, cut and butter the bread.

Sliced Bread

Buttered Bread

When the fish fingers are done, put them on to the bread. As it is important to have a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, spread with piccalilli. Assemble the sandwiches. Don’t worry if it looks a bit messy, it will get much worse once you begin to eat them, and so will you. It might help to have a couple of tissues handy. Those plastic bib-trays that toddlers and geriatrics hang round their necks are also useful.

Fish Finger Sandwiches with Piccalilli

Fish Finger Sandwiches with Piccalilli

If you are one of those obsessives who consumes excess vegetables with every meal then you could try Mrs. D’s less messy variation in which the fish fingers are placed on a bed of sliced radishes with mayonnaise. Keep one fish finger spare so you can cut a square for the cat (who, preferably, will have its own plate).

Fish Finger Sandwiches with Vegetables and Mayonnaise

For pudding (no, not him again), three satsuma oranges are a perfect complement, although the more discerning might wish to try Newcastle Brown 99, another of my original Leeds-era recipes (bite a chunk of Cadburys Flake, take a swig of Newcastle Brown straight from the bottle and mix in the mouth).

Monday 9 March 2020

On Visiting A Daughter At University

How we walked
When legs were strong
And lungs were full
From Jesmond to Gosforth for tea.
Then back in the dark
Across the park
To terraced streets
With pavement flags
And drainage runnels
Where Victorians and Edwardians
With large families
Have been replaced
By students.

Sunday 1 March 2020

New Month Old Post: Blessed By Snowdrops

(first posted 6th March, 2018)

Snowdrops on grave

When my dad could no longer manage his three-bedroomed house, he moved, as many do, to a modest bungalow. At the back was a postage stamp of a lawn bounded by an ancient high wall that sheltered masses of snowdrops. For thirteen Februaries, he delighted in the sweeping drifts of brilliant white flowers that danced defiantly in the winter winds as they lived into yet another year.

But he was also troubled by them. Come summer, when the leaves had died down, hundreds of tiny bulbs heaved themselves out of the ground and rolled across the lawn, trying to put down roots, as if to migrate away from the darkness of the wall towards the light and warmth of the house. At every visit I was asked to “go push those snowdrops back in”, and had to spend half an hour or so collecting them up and poking holes to replant them. By the next visit there would always be more trying to escape. When we finally sold the bungalow, I gathered a couple of pots full and took them home. We still call them Grandpa’s snowdrops.

In the cemetery where he now lies, planting on the graves is against the rules. It is pointless to try; the grass between the rows of headstones is mown at regular intervals, and any permanent flowers would be brutally hacked down. Even snowdrops, despite flowering well before the first mowing, would never store up future reserves, and weaken, and disappear. So I took a chance and planted a clump close to the headstone, too near for the mower to catch, in deep so they couldn’t get out. 

I went early the next year to check on their luck, but it was seemingly too early. I went again the following year, but it was too late for any leaves to be left. Around every headstone, an ugly margin of dark bare earth hinted at how they dealt with the places the mower could not reach. A later visit confirmed it as I caught the chemical smell of weedkiller drifting in the breeze from an operative with a tank on his back and a long wand. I made irregular visits over the years, but never saw any sign of snowdrops.

This year I happened to make the long drive in mid-February. There, to my surprise, still defiant against the headstone ten years after I planted them, was a triumphant line of delicate milk-white petals heralding hope for the coming spring, …

… along with an inquisitive squirrel who wanted to be in the picture (a transmigrated soul perhaps).

Snowdrops and squirrel on grave