Lately

img_3004This post has been – literally – long time coming. The first photo in this set is from January, and somehow I feel like nothing much has happened in the interim, even if in reality the past couple of months have been busy in many ways.
I went to London when the waters (and winds) were at their highest. My two back-to-back trips were to see two marvellous women, both times at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; first Dame Felicity Lott and then Dame Eileen Atkins. That the South Bank was putting up its finest (and that Penelope Wilton was there too) was simply a bonus.At the Blenheim Palace great park, on a fine January’s day, with an old friend. That’s her in the picture.
At the Malvern Hills. How fine, how very English, is this view?
In February, I turned 40, and the children of a friend sent me this little posy of snowdrops from their garden. I still don’t quite know how I feel about this age – or how I should feel about it. Have I done everything I would have wanted to do by now, achieved what I should have achieved? Probably not. My novel still only lives in hand-scribbled notes and few chapters on the computer. I don’t live in the Suffolk-almost-seaside-cottage I have always dreamed about. The choices I made in my thirties confirmed what I sort of knew all along – I probably will never have children, and I’m fine with that.

When I turned 30, I had no idea what in ten years’ time I’d be living in another country, or have a degree from Oxford, or that my mother would have Alzheimer’s disease, or even that I’d celebrate my 40th birthday with a completely new, different set of people from those I celebrated my 30th with. My life has changed, and I have probably changed, and who knows where I will be when I turn 50 – and that makes life interesting, right?
When in doubt, Shakespeare.
img_3435The spring is coming. I’m sure of it.

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Lately

October has brought a few spectacular mornings, none more so than this – there’s something magical about autumn fog, be it light mist on the fields in a cold, sunny morning, or thick blanket that covers the streets.
I saw the adaptation of South Riding on BBC few years ago, but didn’t pick up the book until now. It has instantly become one of my all time favourites. It’s funny, unsentimental and poignant, and has some wonderful characters in it, and Holtby’s style of prose is flowing and fresh.
Oxford. The autumn from the beginning of October to Christmas is the best season in the Covered Market; soon the butchers’ shops will hang game and birds, and the greengrocers will display pumpkins, and then there will be lights and real trees.
The crafting season is upon us.As is the candle-burning season.
And the concert season. My autumn season opener was Ariadne; followed by some divine Schubert by Sarah Connolly. Just because I haven’t finished the previous project, there’s no reason to not to start a new one…

Lately

Is it autumn yet? has been the question my friends and I have been asking a lot lately. Some cling to summer, while others, like me, rejoice in the autumn. Late summer – that brown, dull, lagging, almost-but-not-quite warm season of cobwebs and rain – is, together with late winter (also brown, dull, lagging and almost-but-not-quite warm) my least favourite season. Autumn promises new harvest, colour, gently darkening evenings. In the autumn the year begins anew – will we ever break that cycle of school year in our minds?
Hearty meals. Red wine. Candlelit dinners and asters.
And rain. Somehow autumn rain isn’t quite as disheartening as summer rain. It belongs. It brings mushrooms, and gives permission to stay indoors. To wear warm clothes and wellies. To feel a bit sad, but in a cosy, forgiving way.
There are also all the autumn walks in breezy, sunny days, the dramatic cloudy skies, and landscapes ripe and dry.
And all those autumn flowers – every seasons seems to have its colour, and the colour of autumn flowers is purple. Michaelmas daisies, asters, crocuses, morning glories, oh my.
I didn’t really mean to take this picture – my finger hit the button by accident when I was putting the phone away. A rather happy mistake.
Turner’s cows, Constable’s clouds. They both stood here, looked at this same view, and were inspired. How could one not be?
The peacock of The Trout. Every pub should have one.
Off the bucket list: walking home through Port Meadow at night. We had the perfect evening for it, even a nearly-full moon.
I love, love Victoria and Albert Museum. I’m a bad museum goer in that I never learn anything, I just admire the aesthetics of the displays. And I’m drawn to the same displays over and over again, like the Egyptian gallery in the Ashmolean and the performing arts gallery in V&A. The model of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach is new since my last visit.
I finally finished reading Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels last Saturday – I started this project at Christmas, so it has taken me rather embarrassingly long time. I think Jane Marple really would deserve her own post, but until then: Sleeping Murder is still my favourite. They do it with mirrors is the weakest of the 12 novels, even if I do love the adaptation, with Penelope Wilton and Joan Collins playing somewhat implausible sisters. I could remember most random details from The mirror crack’d from side to side, and after finishing that novel, went around for weeks ordering daiquiris in bars. Now I just need a new project…
When Instagram introduced this new feature, I resisted pretty hard. Guess what happened next? I call this photo hipster breakfast – the eggs are from organic chestnut maran chickens, the toast is NY sourdough, there’s coffee and Palomino Blackwing pencil and knitting, and all the colours match the plums. I’m morphing into one of them.
Carousel horses. St Giles fair is over and gone for another year, and the summer is over.

Why “Call the midwife” is awesome

photo

Warning, if anyone is reading: I live in the UK, where the 2nd series already finished few weeks ago, and refers to events happening right at the end. And yes, this is my copy of Call the Midwife companion book on a blanket I have made myself. One blanket square at the time.

I confess I’m obsessed with the BBC drama Call the Midwife. I have both series on DVD, and just bought the companion book (I know, I know). I have also read the original books by Jennifer Worth, and enjoyed particularly the first one in the series. Screenwriter and show runner Heidi Thomas also wrote my favourite movie, I capture the castle, and her work has a distinct style and quality – great attention to little telling details, and characters who are never flawless and often quite annoying but always likeable.

It took me a moment to realise that I actually have a personal connection of sorts to the world depicted in both the show and the books. My mother, born in 1933, was much like Jenny Lee – she came from a modestly wealthy upper-middle class family (one of her maternal uncles was a Senior Consultant of a private hospital in Helsinki, the other was a department store owner), and worked as nurse in the 1950s. She trained in a disabled children’s care home – not unlike the one visited by Jenny and Ruby and Doug Roberts, parents of a baby born with spina bifida,  in the show – and then worked in a private hospital for elderly patients. She had a job as a ward sister in a London hospital all lined up in the early 1960s, but after her mother suffered a heart attack, she chose to stay in Finland and eventually moved on to work as a banker before marrying. My mother always had a great respect for nursing as profession, but she had no trouble admitting that it wasn’t her vocation; some of the stories she told of her time in the hospital were harrowing. She frequently witnessed her patients dying, and not all of them went peacefully – a woman she had grown very fond of over few months died bolted upright on her bed, screaming with horror, with only my mother in attendance. She was 24, completely unprepared, and that moment left a wound I think never quite healed.

Her photo albums from that period were one my favourite things growing up. The uniforms she and her fellow nurses wore were not dissimilar to the one Jenny wears while working in the London Hospital – complete with puffed sleeves and a little white headpiece. She and her friends were all rather glamorous; the photos from 1950s show them wearing full skirts with little cardigans on their shoulders, and once they moved to the 1960s, it was all boxy Chanel-style jackets, pencil skirts and Russian fur hats in the winter. My mother “walked out” with both a doctor and an airline pilot. With her friends, she travelled, or spend weekends in the countryside, or went to dances or to the cinema – not much has changed, but they sure had much better clothes we do today! At least one her friends had an MG (like the one Dr Turner drives), and often they would all pack themselves in the car and off they would go, to have an adventure: visit places they had never been to, packing a grill and having a barbeque somewhere, sleeping in a barn, swimming in the sea. I think my mother even did some water-skiing.

Her experiences as a nurse were still probably a light year away from those Jennifer Worth describes in her books; 1950s Finland was a prosperous country that had put the difficult times between the wars behind it, was building up its industry and economy, arts and education were thriving. For women like my mother (from “good”, well-to-do families) it was possible to get jobs and live on their own – respectably – for the first time. There certainly was poverty and many people had big families, but cities were small, most people lived in the country, and deprived urban areas like Poplar, and the problems special to them simply didn’t exist. Tenement housing was rarer and generally in much better condition, the war hadn’t devastated the infrastructure in the same way it had in the east of London, demands of weather required housing to be better, fuel in the form of wood was cheap and readily available. Pubs didn’t exist, there was no street prostitution and very little in terms of organised crime. There was near full employment, and youth culture hadn’t quite arrived yet. Unwed mothers were rare, and the shame almost impossible to overcome.

I love the portrayal of women in this show. I cannot remember any other show with similarly large cast of characters I love all equally. None of these characters are stereotypes – the blonde bombshell Trixie is also a very capable nurse and midwife with a brilliantly no-nonsense attitude and great humility; posh, clumsy Chummy has a great compassion for all her patients and a wonderful, natural bedside manner. Sister Julienne is similarly compassionate and forgiving, but also tells without hesitation Jenny, squeamish and often repulsed by what she encounters during her early days in the East End, to get over herself and get on with the work. These are women not defined by men, and their relationships with each others are not defined by men –they have a vocation, a passion for what they do, a sense of purpose that comes from within and willingness to learn. And that is still incredibly rare on TV. There is romance (I cried my eyes out during the scene in which Dr Turner listens to Sister Bernadette’s lungs for signs of TB, my heart breaking for both of them), but it’s not the main offering. Also, it’s Chummy and the frightfully shy, timid Jane who get all the action and not the sparkling pretty-girl Trixie.

The series also frequently speaks of reproductive rights – the pill would come available through the NHS in only couple years’ time, and in the East End it had an immediate, dramatic effect. Given the choice, women embraced it. Abortion was legalised in the UK in 1967, and is available – no questions asked – to all. An episode in the second series shows the options available for women before that: pregnant with the 9th child, living in a one bedroom flat in a house already condemned, Nora Harding desperately tries to induce miscarriage with herbal remedies, Epsom salts, scalding hot baths and by throwing herself down the stairs, before paying for a backstreet abortionist – nearly dying from the operation, carried out with knitting needles and crocheting hooks. Sister Julienne never passes judgement; she has seen women go through it countless times before and understands why they would choose to do it.

My mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and so I have found the struggle of Sister Monica Joan personally poignant. Here is a woman who had in her prime undoubtedly an absolutely brilliant mind, a woman who had a vocation – both religious and professional – and who chose that vocation over the expectations of her upper-class family and all that they could have materially or socially offered to her, effectively cutting ties with them. Her cry, “I used to know so much”, her fear and confusion, broke my heart, because that is my mother – a strong, clever, extremely capable woman who has slowly lost her agency, and with that, her person.

I love the sincerity of Call the midwife – it is another rare quality in these days of constant, willful irony. It is all about what some people will dismiss as small or trivial or sentimental, yet these are the very things that define our humanity. Birth. Death. Fear of loss, or of pain, or of rejection. Friendship, love, family, home. Faith, shown in deeds more than words. In the final episode of the second series, Chummy comes near to death because of massive hemorrhage she suffers early in her labour. The nurses and Sisters, suddenly in a position where there is nothing they can do put hope, sit together in silence and put their anguish in work, making the blanket they later give to Chummy, symbolically wrapping her in their love. This scene of women together is incredibly powerful and true.

Favourite book list and some ponderings about cultural differences

Since I work as a librarian (by accident rather than by intent, but that’s a story for another time), I’m a bit of a sucker for book lists. Not the least because they invariably make me yell “really!?!” because I disagree with both what is included and what is excluded – but then, we all do that. Right?

Anyway, this is a list Britain’s favourite books, ten years ago – it would be interesting to see an updated list. How would 50 shades of Grey (never have, never will) or Twilight saga fare? Would LotR, back in the day boosted by the movies, still cling to no. 1 slot? Here are the top 200 – I have scratched over those I have read.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien — I have sort of read this? I mean, starting it three times must count for something?
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks — I have read Charlotte Grey, does that count?
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy — no one has read War and Peace; if they claim they have, they are lying, I’m pretty sure.
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll Alice is called “Liisa” in the Finnish edition, so this is a book that featured a lot in my childhood.
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen*
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton — I probably have, Blyton was still big when I was a kid.
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding ???
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett — awfully lot of Pratchett on this list, non?
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith*
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson — lot of Wilson too; I’m just too old to never have read her.
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot — Love the movies *blushes*
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
101. Three Men In A Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
102. Small Gods, Terry Pratchett
103. The Beach, Alex Garland
104. Dracula, Bram Stoker
105. Point Blanc, Anthony Horowitz
106. The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
107. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
108. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks
109. The Day Of The Jackal, Frederick Forsyth
110. The Illustrated Mum, Jacqueline Wilson
111. Jude The Obscure, Thomas Hardy
112. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, Sue Townsend
113. The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat
114. Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
115. The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy
116. The Dare Game, Jacqueline Wilson
117. Bad Girls, Jacqueline Wilson
118. The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
119. Shogun, James Clavell
120. The Day Of The Triffids, John Wyndham
121. Lola Rose, Jacqueline Wilson
122. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
123. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
124. House Of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
125. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
126. Reaper Man, Terry Pratchett
127. Angus, Thongs And Full-Frontal Snogging, Louise Rennison
128. The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
129. Possession, A. S. Byatt
130. The Master And Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
131. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
132. Danny The Champion Of The World, Roald Dahl
133. East Of Eden, John Steinbeck
134. George’s Marvellous Medicine, Roald Dahl
135. Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett
136. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
137. Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
138. The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
139. Girls In Tears, Jacqueline Wilson
140. Sleepovers, Jacqueline Wilson
141. All Quiet On The Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
142. Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Kate Atkinson
143. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
144. It, Stephen King
145. James And The Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
146. The Green Mile, Stephen King
147. Papillon, Henri Charriere
148. Men At Arms, Terry Pratchett
149. Master And Commander, Patrick O’Brian
150. Skeleton Key, Anthony Horowitz
151. Soul Music, Terry Pratchett
152. Thief Of Time, Terry Pratchett
153. The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett  — seriously, just say “all of Terry Pratchett” as one entry and be done with it.
154. Atonement, Ian McEwan
155. Secrets, Jacqueline Wilson
156. The Silver Sword, Ian Serraillier
157. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
158. Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
159. Kim, Rudyard Kipling
160. Cross Stitch, Diana Gabaldon
161. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
162. River God, Wilbur Smith
163. Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon
164. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
165. The World According To Garp, John Irving
166. Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmore
167. Girls Out Late, Jacqueline Wilson
168. The Far Pavilions, M. M. Kaye
169. The Witches, Roald Dahl
170. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
171. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
172. They Used To Play On Grass, Terry Venables and Gordon Williams
173. The Old Man And The Sea, Ernest Hemingway
174. The Name Of The Rose, Umberto Eco
175. Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder
176. Dustbin Baby, Jacqueline Wilson
177. Fantastic Mr Fox, Roald Dahl
178. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
179. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, Richard Bach
180. The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery
181. The Suitcase Kid, Jacqueline Wilson
182. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
183. The Power Of One, Bryce Courtenay
184. Silas Marner, George Eliot
185. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
186. The Diary Of A Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith
187. Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
188. Goosebumps, R. L. Stine
189. Heidi, Johanna Spyri
190. Sons And Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
191. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
192. Man And Boy, Tony Parsons
193. The Truth, Terry Pratchett
194. The War Of The Worlds, H. G. Wells
195. The Horse Whisperer, Nicholas Evans
196. A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
197. Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett
198. The Once And Future King, T. H. White
199. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle
200. Flowers In The Attic, Virginia Andrews

* these two, Persuasion and I capture the castle, are my all time favourite books.

What this list reveals is how generational some books are, and also how specific to one culture they can be. I’m just a bit too old to have read Jaqueline Wilson or Horowitz (I remember loving Lois Lowry’s Anastasia series, KM Peyton’s books – in fact, any pony books – and preferring Emily Byrd Starr to Anne Shirley), and think Pratchett didn’t really make it big in Finland until I was in my 20s and irrevocably past the point where I would connect with fantasy in any significant way. Ransome was never translated. Many Victorian authors like Hardy and Dickens are not part of the canon in Finland the same way they are in the English-speaking world, which calls for the question what really makes a world classic? Is there something more universal about Tolstoy or even Kundera (two authors who would rank high on the Finnish list as well)?

What is this list lacking? I’m surprised not to see any Agatha Christie, or indeed other big names of classic British crime fiction to be listed. Also, no Catherine Cookson? In England? Really?

I’ll probably one day make a whole series of my own favourites, I guess this is as good a moment as any to list some of the books most important for me.

Galina: A Russian story, Galina Vishnevskaya

This is the memoir of the great Russian opera singer, who died last December, a book that affected me deeply as teenager. Vishnevskaya lived through the siege of Leningrad, rose to fame during Stalin’s regime, and was named an enemy of the state with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten composed his War Requiem for her. This remarkable story plays out against the backdrop of the USSR, a country as essentially part of the Finnish psyche as the Great War is part of the British and as hard to explain.

Death in the holy orders, PD James

I studied theology in the university, and in a sense this book is seminal reading against that background. The murder mystery frames a story that discusses faith, justification, judgement, church and its position in a modern, secular world. It’s all very Gothic, but an element of Gothic seems to belong to the CoE. Something about James’ talent as an author tells the fact that the main antagonist of the story, the Archdeacon, is right about almost everything and yet as a reader I find myself opposing him as passionately as the characters in the story do.

Gaudy night, DL Sayers

If Death in the holy orders is the seminal Church of England book, Gaudy night is for me the seminal Oxford book (yes, forget Brideshead, it was never about Oxford). Sayer’s discussion about women’s place in academia and academia’s place in the world, and about personal gain against objective principles is timeless, despite the fact that this novel was published in 1935.