On Trying To Keep Still by Jenny Diski

This book captivated me. I have read some good books this year, but this one outshines the rest. When I wasn’t reading it I was thinking and talking about it. It’s about experiencing an experience, becoming aware of experiencing the experience and so losing the experience.

I have had the experience of experiencing Jenny Diski’s travels during a year when she visited New Zealand, spent three months in a cottage in Somerset and went to sample the life of the Sami people of Swedish Lapland. No need to go those places myself now. Really, I could be tempted by a trip to New Zealand, but that is only a pipe dream. Now, a cottage in Somerset – that is a real possibility.

I can see myself living in that cottage, but I would not want to be there alone. Her description of her drive to Lilstock, in Somerset identifies the pleasure and gratitude of the present-moment experience of being in a beautiful place, even though this then conjures up the consciousness of

that terribly difficult business of experiencing experience. I am so conscious of me being here, of being me here, not somewhere else, having this experience, that I lose my awareness of what is pleasing me in order to think about the pleasure.

To me being in the right company as well as in the right place enhances rather than diminishes my pleasure.

I don’t need to visit the glow-worm caves or Doubtful Sound in New Zealand, now that Diski has described them to me; indeed she had to miss out on an actual visit to the caves but enjoyed a virtual trip courtesy of an imaginative reading of the brochure ‘what more could we want, particularly as the actual visit to Doubtful Sound was disappointing?‘ And I certainly don’t want to go to cold, dark Lapland even though the enchanting, mythical, magical forest ‘glittering fairyland labyrinth‘ lit up with frost ‘making an intricate latticework which sparkled, twinkled, actually dazzled the eyes, as if the forest had been sprinkled with a layer of diamond dust‘ is beguiling. This is counterbalanced by the difficulty in living in such a hostile environment. Intriguingly this visit was aimed at advertising tourism.

Of course this book is not only about travelling. It is also a personal memoir, and is about being still, being alone, wanting to be alone, phobias and the problems of coping with life and especially with ageing. There is so much in this book that I can empathise with that it is almost alarming. Jenny Diski wants to be alone to a greater extent than I do, but I still identify with feelings such as not wanting to make a noise in case people notice that I’m there, not wanting others to worry about me, and worrying that others are worrying about me; feeling the need to do something such as going out for a walk – not the desire to do it for itself but the feeling that I should want to. On a practical level I also have difficulty with ‘left’ and ‘right’. In my mind I see left and say right etc and like Diski I can only visualise a route for a short distance before it disappears in a grey fuzz in my mind.

There is so much more in this book; it describes adventures in places at the opposite ends of the earth intermingled with personal insights and meditations on solitude and stillness, consciousness and belief systems. I found it a moving, amusing, thought-provoking and original book.

Borrowed Books


These are some books that I have recently borrowed from the library, including Relics, which is Book Crossing book. I finished reading Death’s Jest-Book a few days ago and have today finished Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still, which I could hardly put down – I found it a compulsive read.

More in my next post on these two books.

I have yet to start the other books. I find it impossible not to borrow books even though I have plenty of my own that are unread.

I may read John Brewer’s Sentimental Murder next. I fancied reading something different and thought this sounded interesting when I read about on Of Books and Bicycles’ blog. The preface states that it is the investigation of an 18th century killing and attempted suicide. It explores “the relations between history and fiction, storytelling and fact, past and present.” So, Brewer examines the facts relating to the murder of Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, by James Hackman, a young clergyman. He also looks at how this killing has been retold by journalists, novelists, poets, doctors, biographers and historians over the last two centuries.

I’ve not got on too well with some of Anne Tyler’s books in the past,but maybe I’ll like The Amateur Marriage. The blurb says that it is an “achingly poignant and unforgettable novel”. I hope so.

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West looks like a complete contrast to the Tyler book, being set in fashionable Edwardian England.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a re-read, always satisfying. However, Joseph Roth is an unknown author to me. I think Susan Hill was recommending his books a while ago so I hope this one The Emperor’s Tomb about the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire will live up to its promise.

May – Books of the Month Part 2

Time to continue my thoughts on the books I finished reading in May. But first I thought I’d write about today’s Alphapuzzle. This is rated 5 (which is out of 10, so an easy one) and the target time for completing it is 18 minutes. The clue is ‘Sane wanderer’, which I didn’t get – so no extra letters to help with the puzzle, but I was really pleased (I’m easily pleased!) that I finished it in 20 minutes, still with no idea about the answer to the clue. It was only when I read all the words that I realised – it was so easy really. Can you guess?

To get back to my other obsession – books – still to write about are The Woodlanders and Body Surfing. In what follows I do indicate what happens at the end of The Woodlanders, so if you don’t want to know, be wary.

I started reading The Woodlanders (a library book) a few weeks ago and at first I only read it in small chunks and it was only when I was well into it that I read it at more length. It certainly grew on me; so much so that I’ve now bought my own copy. The library book is a Penguin Classic publication (1981) with an introduction by Ian Gregor, a professor in English Literature. I’ve found before that it’s not a good idea to read an introduction before reading a book, as it often gives the plot away, which spoils it for me. So I don’t read it until I’ve finished the book itself. I think this intro is really good, I suppose because I agree with his analysis. My copy is an Oxford World’s Classic (2005 edition) with an introduction by Penny Boumelha, from the University of Adelaide, who has written widely on nineteenth century fiction. I look forward to reading her introduction to see how it compares.

What I particularly like about The Woodlanders is the way Hardy describes the landscape (the whole book is full of trees!) of Little Hintock in his fictional county of Wessex and integrates them with the characters. An example is his description of Giles Winterbourne as:

He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmospheres of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.

There are so many beautiful descriptions of the woods I could quote them all day. Here are some extracts:

… trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss … At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots … Next were more trees close together struggling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings and blows … Beneath them were the rotting stumps of those of the group that had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums.

And:

It was an exceptionally soft, balmy evening for the time of year, which was just that transient period in the May month when beech trees have suddenly unfolded large limp young leaves of the softness of butterflies’ wings. Boughs bearing such leaves hung low around and completely inclosed them, so that it was if they were in a great green vase, which had moss for its bottom and leaf sides. Here they sat down.

At the heart of the book is the story of Grace, who has been educated out of her social class, returning to the woodlands and the interaction between her, her family and the two male characters, Giles, the woodman and Fitzpiers, the doctor, from an aristocratic background. Also interesting, are the details of the matrimonial law of the time and the portrayal of Victorian conventions of emotional and sexual relationships, so different from today. As Ian Gregor writes, ‘Grace’s concern for her reputation as a married woman, Giles’s self-effacing loyalty, literally to the point of death, strains credulity to the point of irritation.’ I didn’t find it irritating but I did find myself thinking during the section where Grace and Giles keep apart that this was not realistic – but maybe it was.

In complete contrast I was also reading Anita Shreve’s Body Surfing. I like Shreve’s books, but I didn’t think this was one of her best books. Interspersed with my reading of The Woodlanders, it provided a good illustration of how society has changed, both in attitudes to women and to social conventions. Sydney is a 29-year-old woman, who has been once widowed and once divorced. She spends a summer tutoring Julie, a teenage girl, in an ocean front cottage in New Hampshire. This location is the same setting as other Shreve novels – I feel now as though I know this house and its previous owners.

This is a book full of emotion as Julie’s brothers compete for Sydney’s affections and the tangle that follows, eventually unravels. Part of the reason I found this less satisfying than other books by Shreve is that it is written in the present tense, which I assume is supposed to make it more immediate and stream-of-consciousness stuff, as though you’re inside Julie’s thoughts maybe, but it just doesn’t work for me. Still, I do like the descriptions of the landscape in this book, so different from the Hardy landscape, for example:

On the porch, red geraniums are artfully arranged against the lime-green of the dune grass, the blue of the water. Not quite primary colours, hues only seen in nature.

Knife blades of grass pierce the wooden slats of the boardwalk. Sweet pea overtakes the thatch. Unwanted fists of thistle push upward from the sand. On the small deck at the end of the boardwalk are two white Adirondack chairs, difficult to get out of, and a faded umbrella lying behind them.

And finally, this is a book that kept my interest to the end and like The Woodlanders is a book that I’ll re-read one day.

May – Books of the Month

I’ve slowed down in my reading this month, partly because I’ve been blogging more, but also because some of the books have been long and detailed. So, I’ve read 6 books. The first one to be finished was The Giant’s House, which I’ve already written about. I read two non-fiction books – a biography Daphne by Margaret Forster and Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkin’s Delusion? which is a critique of Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion.

Daphne is an extremely well researched and informative account of Daphne Du Maurier’s life, taken from her letters and private papers, with personal memories of her from her children, grandchildren and friends. I didn’t realise until I started this that this year is the 100th anniversary of Daphne Du Maurier’s birth and my reading was enhanced by several broadcasts on the radio and television of dramatisations of her books, plus the excellent programme made by Rick Stein “In Du Maurier Country”, filming the locations of her books and interviews with her family. I’m also enthusiastic about Rick Stein’s books and programmes, (cookery for those who don’t know) – but I digress.

There is too much I could say about Daphne, not least that it is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life. She doesn’t sound an easy person to live with or be related to, but that doesn’t detract from her passion for writing and Cornwall. Of course there is Menabilly and the biography gives so much detail of her love for the house and how she renovated and restored it that made me realise all the more how poignant it was when she had to give it up. What makes this book unforgettable for me is Forster’s eloquent way of writing, including so much detail, but never being boring or stilted, leaving me wanting to read on and on. And the book is illustrated with lots of photos.

In complete contrast to this is the Dawkin’s Delusion, which I borrowed from the library. I read Dawkin’s book earlier this year and didn’t have it to hand when I read this one (I’ve lent it to my son), so I had to rely on my memory of The God Delusion. I was interested to read what an Evangelical Christian had made of Dawkin’s book and wasn’t surprised – he didn’t agree with Dawkins! For an excellent review of Dawkin’s book have a look at Bill Hanage’s article “Them’s fightin’ words” on LabLit’s blog . I think I got more out of this article than from McGrath’s book.

Turning to the fiction, I read Blessings, by Anna Quindlen, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Body Surfing by Anita Shreve and finally Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders.

Anna Quindlen is a new author to me. I came across her whilst reading Danielle’s blog. Blessings is a satisfying read about a baby abandoned outside “Blessings”, a large house owned by Lydia Blessing. The baby is taken in by Skip, the caretaker cum handyman-gardener, who looks after her at first in secret. The past of all the characters is slowly revealed and the effect that the baby has on them all. It’s a sad book over all, with regrets for what has happened in the past. I shall look out for more books by her.

As for The Thirteenth Tale, I have resisted buying this book, after reading either how fantastic people have found it, or how disappointing it is. The copy I read is a BookCrossing book I found in our local coffee shop. It took me some time to get into this book and I found myself being both reluctant to read it and yet unable to stop. It was only with the appearance of the governess that I found myself actually enjoying the book – and that is the second section. I usually give up on a book before then. Part of the problem I have with this book is that I couldn’t really like the characters, even Margaret, the narrator irritated me somewhat, even though she loves books. Another problem is the ending, which I found to be contrived. All in all, it is not a book I’ll read again and I’m going to release it back to its travels.

Which brings me to The Woodlanders. I borrowed this book from the library to read before continuing with Tomalin’s The Time-Torn Man. I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought a copy for myself. I’ll post my thoughts in another post. This one has gone on long enough and the sun is shining!

Me thinks she doth yammer too much!

I’ve just been reading about the letter on the Persephone website that describes blogging as “yammering”.

It seems to me that it’s Persephone that’s doing the yammering – what a silly thing to write. They obviously are oblivious to how pompous and condescending their attitude is. But then, I’ve found this is so in many areas of life. There are always “us” and “them”, whether it’s in a professional situation at work, or socially. That’s just human nature, sadly.

As for me I thought a long time before stating my blog. I’d read others’ and enjoyed them, but hesitated to join in as I thought that I can’t write as well as, say, Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room or Dovegreyreader. But then I love books, libraries, book shops and am always reading and having written factual reports for work for several years that had to be in a certain style and format I wanted to experiment and have a go myself. So BooksPlease it is, because they do please and if you’d asked me when I was a child what I’d like for Christmas or my birthday I’d reply “Books, please”. Still do.

Daisy Lupin’s Poetry Fest

Daisy Lupin has started a new blog devoted to poetry and the theme for June is Poetry we loved as Children.

The poems I loved as a child were by Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses. My Great Aunty Sally, who was my mother’s aunt, gave me this book for my birthday one year. I was reminded of it when I read Pinkerton’s Sister (wonderful book, full of allusions that brought back so many memories including this book of verses). Unfortunately I can no longer find the original book she gave me and so last year I bought this edition.

There are so many poems in here that I liked that it’s hard to choose just one. So, I ‘ve picked three.

This one I learnt and used to recite as fast as I could, trying to imitate the speed of a train:

From a Railway Carriage

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!

Another favourite was:

Windy Nights

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at se,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he;
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

I could go on and on, but I’ll finish with this, which was so true for me as a child. Other children would be playing in the road, but I had to go to bed (well they were a bit older than me) and I would look out of the window and wish I was outside with them. This brings it all back!

Bed in Summer

In winter I get up at night
And dress in yellow candlelight.
In summer quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’™s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?