Thursday, January 30, 2014


- what's that? asked Underground Man, as he came across the dead, spiky banksia leaf in our bed (our bed in a rented holiday cottage in Blackheath, which turned out not to be as good as the reviews on the cottages' own website (well, der!) made out. For a start, the unappealing-looking kitchen smelt odd, and its only window opened onto a very dodgy 'sunroom' extension at the back, so no fresh air. At the back of the kitchen a door led to a decrepit, mouldy laundry. To be fair, the washer and dryer looked decent enough, from my fleeting glimpse of them, but who would dare enter?

- It's my bookmark, I said, retrieving the banksia leaf. I had jauntily thrown Stevie Smith's novel The Holiday into the top of my basket as I went away on holiday, and began reading it the first afternoon, lying on a tarpaulin on the ground at Mayall Lakes, where we camped the first night. Hence the banksia leaf bookmark, which I'll keep as a memento. It will forever belong to Stevie Smith.

And then when we arrived home, UG man was thinking of reading Kangaroo, by DHL, and flicking through found an old bookmark (see above, next to the iconically Australian banksia leaf). This one opens up to reveal that it is from a book chain called Van Gelderen, in Amsterdam, Holland, and I'd guess that it's at least 30 years old, if not more.

He didn't read Kangaroo, choosing instead to read An Autobiographical Novel, by the American poet Kenneth Rexroth, and the bookmark ended up marking his place in that.  This is a book I'd just  brought home from Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains, from a rather wonderful second-hand bookshop. (We stayed at another cottage there first, which was indeed all it was cracked up to be, a lovely clean, sunny, well-furnished late 1950s place with a beautiful garden. Crabapple Cottage. Do go there, and it's 'dog-friendly'. We stayed with our son and his partner and their two large dogs.)

And so bookmarks move from book to book. I especially like bookmarks that were never intended for that use. I have variously used bus tickets, airline boarding passes, the little brown pleated paper cups from chocolates, flattened out (and you can smell the chocolate on them for a long time afterwards), the paper strips surrounding a certain type of soap I buy from our heath-food shop (ditto for the smell), post-it notes, corners torn from newspapers, and the wrappers from 'feminine hygiene' products.

In used books I have bought, I've found among other things a Tokyo subway ticket (fittingly in a book by Haruki Murakami, in English but priced in yen), a business card for a Paris atelier, and what was once a perfume-sample impregnated piece of card, now with only a musty smell, in an ancient, falling-apart copy of Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  I don't know where any of these have ended up - in one of our books, somewhere, or lost. Bookmarks are ephemera, to be used, discarded or left behind, or kept for their associations and memories.  They remind me of the vast networks of readers, sharing books, recommending them (or not), discarding them, handing them on.

They remind me that reading a book is more than about just the book. They are about where you read them, what you were doing, and how you were feeling. And so books enter your life and become part of it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Shabby old Viragos...

... and David Herbert

From the Lifeline op shop in South Lismore (an excellent source of books, housed in a charming little former church) :  Four old Viragos and a bloke.

From the Macquarie Dictionary:

virago  [I'll leave out the pronunciation] n., pl. -goes, gos.  1. a turbulent, violent, or ill-tempered scolding woman; a shrew. 2. a woman of masculine strength or spirit. [ME and OE, from L: manlike woman]

So now tell me feminists have no sense of humour. Good name for a publisher of (mostly) neglected classics by women.

They are:

1. Tell me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen

A new writer for me. Short stories (the title one, published in 1961, being 'one of the most famous stories in modern American fiction.)

2. Stevie Smith, The Holiday, first published 1949

Love her Novel on Yellow Paper.

Random quotation from new book:

So with these happy thoughts in my mind, I go down to our butcher, with whom my aunt has dealt for forty years, and Mr. Montgomery the butcher gives me six ounces more than the ration books says. He is a tall thin man, looking like Charles II, he smiles as he wraps the parcel. There you are, my dear. How's mother? (for he is convinced that my aunt is my mother).

My mother died when I was a child, my aunt has always lived with us, she has never wished to marry, she has 'no patience' with men (she also has 'no patience' with Hitler).  She thinks men are soppy, she says: He is a very soppy man, a most soppy individual.

Stevie Smith, The Holiday

3. Emma Goldman, An Intimate Life, by Alice Wexler

Late last year I re-read Goldman's excellent 2 volume autobiography, Living My Life (which should be brought into the attic at some stage - I've had it over 30 years, a wonderful strong old Dover publication), so I think I should let the effect of that settle before I read this. But why not have it there, just waiting to be read?

4. Such Devoted Sisters: An anthology of Stories, edited by Shena MacKay (1993)

How to resist this subject matter? One I've mined many times in my own novels.

And the bloke, not a Virago of course, but one of those lovely old orange Penguins, is Kangaroo, by D. H. Lawrence.

I hated him when I was a student - all that overblown stuff about men and women. But he lived in Australia for a time, in a cottage called 'Wywork' (a delightfully Australian sentiment) on the South Coast of NSW. Thirroul, if I'm not mistaken.

So here is is writing about Oz. Has to be worth a read.