Almost Beaten By Controversial Booker Winner "How Late It Was How Late"

I tried, I really tried to read all the way to the end of How Late It Was How Late. I made it, but it was incredibly hard going and several times I was ready to throw in the towel.

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

The issue wasn’t the rawness of the text. After a time I simply became immured to the frequency with which James Kelman used the F word. In case you’re interested, some columnists did a count and got to 4,000 instances. In my edition that equates to ten uses per page….

I even got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect used by his central character, a habitual drunk and petty criminal called Sammy Samuels. I kept imagining I was hearing Billy Connolly in one of his rants…

Here’s a typical passage that will give you a flavour of the style of this book. Any oddities are not of my making – it’s just the way the book is written. This snippet comes from early in the novel where Sammy, having woken up in an alley after a two-day drinking binge gets into a fight with some soldiers. Taken into police custody he’s so badly beaten he becomes blind.

He didnay even know what day it was. Jesus. The big mouth man he always had to blab. If that was him for another night

Jesus christ. She would be really worried now. He aye had to blab. How come he aye had to blab! Just stupit. Stupit. She would be worrying. Doesnay matter the situation, how it was, that was past tense, she would worry. Cause he had nay place to go and she knew it. Ye’re talking from whenever it was the now back to last Friday morning man that’s how long it was; four maybe five days, including the Saturday. Fucking Saturday! Saturday was a blank. A blank.

Confused? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The ‘she’ in the passage turns out to be a woman called Helen with whom he’s been living. But when he eventually gets back to the flat she’s disappeared. Where and why, we don’t know. Half the time even Sammy doesn’t really have a clue what’s going on.

Bleak and Bizarre

For a book that deals with someone already in the dregs of society whose life suddenly turns much worse when he is blinded, How Late It Was, How Late is understandably dark. But it can also be quite funny in a black comedy kind of way.

Sammy for example cobbles together a kind of walking stick so he can tap his way along the streets. Then he realises it needs to be painted white. No problem, he has plenty of paint in his flat. Just one issue remains – how will he know which can is white?

Sammy bizarrely doesn’t seem all that fazed by his blindness initially. He just thinks it’s weird, an ‘initial wee flurry of excitement but no what ye would call panic-stations.” He’s more concerned about the fact someone stole his new leather shoes while he was in his drunken stupor, leaving him with badly fitting cheap trainers.

He’s remarkably philosophical about his run ins with the police – he’s clearly been down that road before and knows the score. But when he tries to get some disability compensation for his blindness he enters an unknown world of absurdity and obfuscation in the form of the welfare system. All he wants to do is claim some money so he can buy food but instead he gets a lecture on ‘Dysfunctional Benefits’ and ‘Community Gratuity’. And ends up empty handed except for a warning about making false statements alleging police violence

Flashes of humour didn’t however provide enough compensation for the fact that for most of the time I found the book was a slog. Page after page of stream of consciousness, interrupted occasionally by a strange third person voice, but without the

Condemned By Critics

I didn’t dislike it as intensely however as some of the critics who castigated How Late It Was How Late when it was published and was named as the Booker Prize winner in 1994..

Simon Jenkins, The Times columnist, for example described Kelman as “illiterate savage” who had done no more than “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. One of the Booker Prize judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, declared that the book was unreadably bad and said that the awarding of the prize, Britain’s most important, was a “disgrace.”

Kelman hit back in his acceptance speech at the Booker awards ceremony. “… my culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that… A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”

He has a good point. No author should feel stifled because of an elitist view of what is ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ language. Kelman is writing from his own experience, of the people he saw around him while growing up on a housing estate in Glasgow. It’s a city notorious for straight talking, hard living and dark humour. Did the critics seriously expect Kelman to have a central figure who uses Queen’s English or received pronunciation?

I didn’t enjoy How Late It Was How Late, but neither did I feel it deserved the level of criticism levied at Kelman. It’s not a book to everyone’s taste but he has to be admired for his boldness and ingenuity.

3 Lessons From 8 Years Of Blogging

It’s celebration time here at BookerTalk headquarters as we mark another anniversary for the blog.

James Orr

Eight years ago I came up with the idea of starting a book blog. To be frank, I had only a very sketchy idea of why I wanted to do this. The ‘plan’ , such as it was, came down to this: I would read all the books that won the Booker Prize and would write about them.

It didn’t take very long before I got a big dose of reality.

  • Blogging was more time consuming than I expected and
  • I couldn’t read fast enough to create new content more than once a week. Even with my limited knowledge of blogging, I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to work! and
  • I’d been overly optimistic about the level of interest my blog would generate. The world, it was clear, was not waiting for my thoughts on book XYZ.

This was a project that looked like it wouldn’t even last six months. Fortunately there were plenty of people around who did know how to run a book blog. They were more than generous; sharing their advice and insights and giving me confidence.

So just over 1,100 posts later and amazingly I’m still here. Of course things have changed over the eight years.

The site has gone through more than one design update. I’ve moved away from the initial focus on the Booker Prize in favour of broader topics. And I’ve tried (though not always succeeded) to write in a more personal tone.

I’m still making tweaks however; adding more sub titles to posts for example to improve their readability or looking for more interesting graphics.

I know a lot more about blogging now than I did eight years ago, most of it learned the hard way through trial and error.

Lessons From The Front Line Of Book Blogging

Lesson 1: Blogging Takes Energy

I wasn’t completely naive when I started BookerTalk. I knew I’d have to put effort in to creating content, formatting pages and posts etc. But I never appreciated just how hard it is to come up with something to say every few days.

I also hadn’t figured in the amount of time required to respond to comments from readers and to read other people’s blogs.

Doing all this while working full time and having to travel for my job was exhausting. I’m not surprised that 90% of bloggers quit after a few months. Or that many bloggers that were very active when I started out, suffered burn out and lost their enthusiasm.

Two things have helped me keep going.

One has been to keep a note of possible blog topics.

I learned very early on that just posting reviews wasn’t going to work – I take too long to write them (the curse of perfection!) and I don’t read enough to do more than one review each week. Clearly that wasn’t enough to sustain a blog.

I knew I needed other material. But there’s nothing worse than just looking at a blank screen trying desperately to think of something to write. Now, when I’m struggling for inspiration I take a look at my blog topics list. Some topics are reminders of books I need to review. Some are ideas for list posts and discussion topics. Others might just prompts like “My favourite XXX”. You can find loads of ideas for blog topics online; most are not relevant but others you can easily adapt.

The other thing that’s helped in recent years is to be more disciplined with content creation. Most blogging experts I came across, advised me to have a blogging schedule. where I wrote a new post every day, or once a week or three times a week.

No way can I post every day. I try to have a new piece of content every couple of days. It doesn’t always work out that way because, as we all know, unexpected events in life can throw the best of plans out of the window. No way do I ever want to tell a friend “Sorry, I can’t meet you for lunch, got to write my blog post.”

You have to choose what works for you – only you know how much time you have available and how much you have to say. And – more crucially – how important blogging is to you. If it’s important, then you’ll put the effort into it, just like you would any other hobby or interest.

I don’t claim to have nailed this – but I’m working on it!

Lesson 2: Try, Fail, Try Again

I wish I’d kept a record of all the changes I’ve made to the blog since I started. It’s been a laboratory for experimentation. A place where I tried different approaches, some of which failed miserably, others that I maybe kept going longer than I should have.

But that’s the beauty of blogging. You can use it to test out an idea. It’s not like the traditional media world where everything you have ever written is captured for posterity. If you try something new and it doesn’t work on the blog, you can just delete it or make some upgrades.

Don’t like your post heading? Easy – just change it. Several times if you want to (just be careful not to change the slug or it will create a problem for search engine traffic).

Don’t like the navigation of your site? Easy again – create a new menu or move pages around within the existing menus.

I know my early attempts at reviews were pathetic. So I’ve deleted a lot of them. Others I have re-written so I don’t feel quite so embarrassed when I read them now. At one time I did a weekly post based on literary news/author news but I abandoned it because it was taking me far too long to do the research and I simply wasn’t enjoying it.

The point really is that the blog has evolved as I’ve tried to figure out what works best for me and my readers. It will likely evolve again in the future. The world of social media changes fast. What works today on a blog won’t necessarily work in the future. So I have to keep trying new approaches, failing and trying again. As Cristian Mihai says:

Effective bloggers never stop learning

Source: Cristian Mihail, The Art of Blogging

Lesson 3: Don’t Sweat The Figures

Trung Thanh

There were times early on when I posted what I thought was a great piece of content only to find it generated little reaction. Sure I got a few ‘likes’ but hardly any comments which is the kind of interaction I value most.

When that happens over and over again, it’s easy to get despondent. Why bother you think if no-one is paying any attention. I started to doubt myself, especially when I saw other bloggers get scores of comments on their posts.

The lesson I’ve learned is that it takes much longer than we expect to build up a following on a blog. You can do it more quickly if you write lots of click-bait type content but that’s not what interests me.

It’s not just a case of writing ace content. You have to engage with people on their blogs – read what they’re posting, comment on it and share it via social media. The more I did that, the more people paid attention to what I was doing and I started to get more comments.

But here’s the thing. While it’s gratifying to get loads of comments, if you put too much emphasis on the numbers, blogging can get depressing.

Like most new bloggers, I fell into that trap. I regularly checked the traffic to my site, looking at:

  • Number of visitors
  • Number of comments
  • Number of followers

If the visitor count was up, I walked around while a smile; but if it went down and stayed down, I went around with a scowl.

It took five years (I’m a slow learner!) and a health scare to put all this focus on numbers into perspective. I still look at the stats; but not every day.

I pay more attention to the level of interaction I see via comments. Why? Because ultimately what keeps me motivated to blog is the connection to people who share my love of books and reading.

Blogging is a social environment. It’s a platform for you and I to talk to each other even if we are thousands of miles and many time zones apart. We may never meet in person but we can become friends through our mutual love of reading. Without the social element, of blogging, I may as well just write journal entries into a notebook.

The Best Reward

That social interaction more than compensates for all the times I’ve struggled to write a post or had to wrestle with the technical side of WordPress.

So to everyone who has sent me a message or left a comment; given me suggestions for new authors or shared your experience ….

Thank You

You inspire me. Give me confidence. And make me feel alive.

Poison pens: When writers’ friendships turn sour

When writers’ friendships fall apart there is often acrimony and – being writers – details of their differences and bitterness are sometimes committed to print. How voraciously we gobble up these traded insults, verbal dust-ups and flurries of bitchiness!

It’s been going on for ages. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were great pals until the former insisted on getting solo billing on the collaboration that resulted in Lyrical Ballads.

Ernest Hemingway was notoriously unkind to former buddy F Scott Fitzgerald. After a toxic combination of jealousy, alcohol and money parted the pair, Hemingway spoke openly of Fitzgerald’s marital difficulties and artistic struggles – and publicly called Fitzgerald a “moaner and a sissy”. 

Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson feuded publicly after Wilson described the former’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as “uneven and banal.” Nabokov fired back that Wilson was a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say, 600 basic words.”

Sisters A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble have never really been friends. They haven’t seen eye to eye since childhood, the latter once saying: “It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair.” Sad indeed – the sisters are both in their 80s.

Paul Theroux’s long-term friendship with his mentor Vidia Naipaul ended with the American author being snubbed by Naipaul as they passed in a London street. Theroux paused to chat with his old buddy, Naipaul coldly mumbled a grudging response and moved on without stopping. This was in 1997, some 31 years after the pair met at an academic outpost in Uganda when Theroux was 26 and the Trinidad-born writer 34.

In the London street Theroux had asked the recently remarried Naipaul why he hadn’t responded to his last note to him. “Take it on the chin and move on,” said the departing Naipaul.

But Theroux didn’t follow that advice. He nursed the insult, brooded over it and, eventually, wrote a book because of it. Is ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ an account of true friendship won and lost? Or is it a literary exercise in revenge – an attempt to erase the humiliation he felt at Naipaul’s treatment of him?

shadow cover

In days of friendship – Paul Theroux, left, with his mentor V S Naipaul.

As San Diego Reader critic Judith Moore wrote: “I can’t help but believe that the Naipaul whom we meet in ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ is a creature born from Theroux’s wounded feelings.”

For the most part Theroux’s account casts his pal in a favourable light, only occasionally – and subtly – alluding to Naipaul’s legendary and undisputed nastiness. It is only towards the end of this fascinating account of an intense and complex relationship that mud-slinging, however disguised it might be, is evident.

Theroux admired Naipaul immensely, feeling gratitude for the encouragement he had given him in his early writing days. He recognised Naipaul as a brilliant writer who could also be an enthralling companion. Because of this, it seems he attempted to make himself blind to Naipaul’s many flaws – misogyny, racism, meanness and countless forms of rudeness, from the blatant to the subtle.

To put up with all that and, when in Naipaul’s company, to remain an uncomplaining, uncritical friend through three decades creepingly paints a picture of a rather pathetic and needy old dog who keeps coming back wagging his tail no matter what beating or scolding it has suffered.

Theroux is at pains to disguise this, but the evidence builds throughout the memoir. The American elevated Naipaul onto pedestal, took the kicks and was rewarded with a cold rebuff on a London pavement.

Apart from Naipaul’s parting words on that day there is nothing from him here to explain the reasons for that brush off or as to why he turned against his protege. It is clear that Theroux believes Naipaul’s haughty new wife bears much of the responsibility. He finds very little that is favourable to say about her.

The book, by design not accident, builds a picture of Naipaul as a deeply flawed individual notwithstanding his literary brilliance. But what of the book’s author? I’m a long-standing fan of Theroux’s work, greatly enjoying his reportorial travel writing and occasional brilliant novel (The Mosquito Coast for example).

But these days, the term ‘unreliable narrator’ has begun to creep into my assessment of Theroux, fuelled by observations of his behaviour in his travelogues: remaining wisely silent while others prattle out gauche comments; being non-judgemental while those around point fingers; not grumbling like the whining tourists he encounters, and so on. Can anyone be this benign and uncomplaining? Well, they can in print – it’s a kind of artistic licence I suppose. Few, after all, would paint themselves in a bad light.

All of which brings the reader to the question of balance in ’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’. It is, after all, written entirely from Theroux’s point of view; Naipaul is tantalisingly mute.

“He [Naipaul] was always the one who said you have to tell the truth [in writing],” Theroux once remarked. Later, after Naipaul’s death in 2018, he said that he believed his book to be “an unsparing and accurate portrait of the man, minus the instances of racism and physical abuse that I was forbidden by lawyers to publish.”

Responding to a critic’s referring to Naipaul’s “great modesty”, Theroux said: “In 30 years of knowing the man I was never privileged to observe this. I mainly saw his sadness, his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed, and his uncontrollable anger. But I never saw Naipaul attack anyone stronger than himself; he talked big and insultingly but when he lashed out it was always against the weak: people who couldn’t hit back, the true mark of the coward.”

The critic, Ian Buruma, countered: “If Naipaul was quite the monster he describes, why did Mr Theroux spend decades of his life fawning over him? But then the demolition of an idol by a disillusioned worshipper is never an edifying sight, and in the case of an ageing writer a trifle undignified too.”

theroux copy

Paul Theroux: Unreliable narrator or truth-teller?

’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ divided opinions but sold in great numbers nevertheless. The British writer Lynn Barber summed-up the to-ing and fro-ing in 2000: “I’ve never known a book to divide people so strongly, between the Naipaul-is-a-shit and the Theroux-is-a-shit camps. The American critics uniformly took the latter view and Theroux’s name in the States is now mud. Theroux believes there was an orchestrated campaign against him, but that’s probably his paranoia. Naipaul stoutly maintains he has never read the book. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book, a modern true version of the sorcerer’s apprentice.”

Just over a decade after this was written there was, it appears, some kind of reconciliation between the two writers. In 2011 the novelist Ian McEwan nudged Theroux and Naipaul, after 14 years of frostiness, to shake hands at the Hay literature festival. A partial thaw ensued and the pair appeared to be were reconciled in 2015 when they met at a literary festival in Jaipur. Theroux’s admiring speech about Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ (comparing the author to Dickens) brought tears to the eyes of his former nemesis.

10 Novels To Generate Hangovers

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is The Last Ten Books That Gave Me a Book Hangover .

Though its many, many years since I experienced a hangover, I can still remember the symptoms. The disturbed sleep; the thudding headache and the feeling of nausea.

No-one really goes out drinking with the intention of getting a hangover do they? No more than I ever deliberately choose books that I think will give me a hangover feeling. But some of them do provoke those unwelcome reactions.

Headache Generators

I’m thinking here of books that have complex plots or complicated structures or are written in a very dense style.

How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman

Appropriately this Booker Prize winner begins with the protagonist Sammy waking up in a lane after a two-day drinking binge. It would have been challenging enough to understand because everything that happens to this guy is told in stream of consciousness style. But its made even more challenging because the story is rendered in a working class Scottish dialect. (Imagine a drunken rant by Billy Connolly and you might get the picture). I struggled my way through just over 100 pages but then decided I’d had enough.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

This was a clever novel of two characters and three versions of their lives. The chapters switch between the different versions of the couple but at the exact same point in time. It was a fascinating approach to narration but I did find it confusing initially and had to take notes to keep each couple and each version clear in my head.  

Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s much-lauded novel falls into the category for me of “impressive rather than enjoyable.” It had such a dazzling array of allusion and digressions plus political references I didn’t understand that reading it felt like wading through mud. I could read only a couple of pages a night.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A beautifully contrived novel with two time zones and two settings that incorporates several themes. One of them considers the elusive nature of time:

In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then. Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.

Maybe not the best thing to read late at night when the brain wants to shut down. But worse was to come – a section that baffled me was an explanation of a thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat which tries to explain how a being may be simultaneously both alive and dead.

Sleep Disturbers

The books in this group are all books that were so engrossing I had to keep reading, even though it was far beyond lights out time.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Boy am I glad I’m not reading this right now. It’s premise of a flu virus that is so virulent it wipes out 99% of the world’s population would be rather too close for comfort to the current Coronovirus outbreak. It does make you worry about how you’d cope in a world where everything you know no longer exists.

The North Water by McGuire, Ian

Long listed for the  Man Booker 2016, this is a fast-paced novel that pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s. It leaves no doubt that this is a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless men will survive.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

I imagine there are English lit students beavering away even now on comparative essays involving The Hours and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. That wasn’t what kept me awake however. The Hours is simply a brilliant novel of three generations of women who all, in different ways, suffer issues of mental health and alienation.

Nausea Inducers

Horror stories or tales with graphic violence are absolutely not to my taste. Sometimes however you can’t avoid an element of violence or passages which are not for the faint-hearted.

Alex by Pierre LeMaitre

The opening chapters of Alex are gruesome; definitely not for the squeamish. But just when you think you can’t bear to read any more, Lemaitre masterfully brings us some relief in the form of the police hunt for a girl who’s been abducted. If it hadn’t switched gear I couldn’t have continued reading.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

The beauty of Lullaby is that it contains the suspense of violence without forcing us to confront its reality. We know right from the beginning that a nanny kills two children in her care. The interest isn’t what she did but why.

Pure by Andrew Miller

 The smell of stench and decay is impossible to avoid when you read this book. Set in Paris the book introduces us to an engineer charged with removing the graves from a cemetery in the city. But the stench of corruption and evil presages what happens a few years later when the Revolution is in full flood (or should that be full blood?)

Dark Tales of Strangeness in Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is the darkest, strangest book I’ve read in a very long time.

I found it in the library when I was scouting around for Japanese authors I could read for Japanese Literature Challenge #13. I’d read one book by Yoko Ogawa previously (The Housekeeper and the Professor) and thoroughly enjoyed it so this seemed a good bet. But I didn’t realise that Revenge isn’t a novel but a collection of eleven tales featuring characters who are seemingly disconnected.

As you read on, you realise that the lives of these hospital workers, schoolchildren, writers, hairdressers and bakers are linked by recurring images and motifs. Each story follows on from the previous one, becoming increasingly unsettling and rather macabre.

You wouldn’t know that from the first story “Afternoon at the Bakery” which is about a woman who goes to a bakery one sunny Sunday afternoon to buy two strawberry cakes. One for her and one for her son. While waiting to be served she gets into a conversation with another customer, a trader in spices, who is a regular at the bakery:

“I can guarantee they’re good. The best thing in the shop. The base is made with our special vanilla.”

“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”

“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”

This innocent chit chat suddenly turns darker with the first customer’s response:

Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.

Supernatural and Normal Lie Together

And with that one line, Yoko Ogawa turns the whole story on its head. It’s no longer a feel-good tale of an adoring mother wanting to buy just the perfect cake for her son, but one of tragedy and inconsolable grief.

This tale is the jumping off point for our immersion into a world in which eeriness and normality live side by side. The shock of the grotesque and unnerving is evident in all these tales.

In “Old Mrs J” for example an elderly woman digs up a carrot in the shape of a human hand: “It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed with a thick thumb and a longer finger in the middle.” Reading it you know this isn’t just one of those odd vegetables newspapers love to report on slow news days. But the significance doesn’t become apparent until right at the end when a body is discovered.

“Welcome to The Museum of Torture” introduces us to an ex butler who has become the self appointed curator of a collection of torture instruments. As he takes his latest visitor around, detailing the ways in which each instrument is used, she begins to imagine – with glee – using the them upon the boyfriend who’s just dumped her.

In the tale which I found the most unsettling, “Sewing For The Heart“; the narrator is a maker of bags and purses. He lives a simple life above his shop, spending his evenings sat at the window looking down on the passers-by. But his life changes when a customer, a night club singer, arrives asking him to make a pouch to hold the heart that lies outside her body.

And so begins an obsession; an overwhelming desire “to run my fingertips over each tiny bump and furrow, touch my lips to the veins, soft tissue on soft tissue ….” The pride he takes in his craftsmanship is destroyed however when the customer learns she can have surgery that will mean she no longer needs the leather bag; a development that propels him to seek revenge.

Dark Slice of Life

These stories have a cumulative effect as a detail from one carries over into the next. A dead hamster in one story turns up in the rubbish bin in the next tale and the abandoned fridge in which the child mentioned in “Afternoon at the Bakery” met his death, makes an appearance on the final page of he collection.

Sometimes the connection is hinted at rather than made explicit. “Lab Coats” for example ends with a hospital worker confessing how she killed her boyfriend, a respiratory medicine doctor, because he wouldn’t divorce his wife. The next tale, “Sewing For The Heart” begins with repeated pager messages for a respiratory doctor who is meant to be on duty but can’t be found. Two stories later and a different narrator learns that the doctor upstairs has been been killed.

The overall effect is chilling. In one line from the story called “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” the narrator, after reading “Afternoon at the Bakery,” remarks: “there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.”

Interest Wanes

Except that I didn’t feel I did want to plunge into these tales. I admit I am not the target audience for Revenge since I’m not a fan of short stories generally nor am I a fan of creepy, macabre kind of tales. I wouldn’t honestly have read this if I’d paid more attention to the description on the back cover.

I admired the way Yoko Ogawa wove these stories together, joining all the details seamlessly. I admired too, the precision of her language, which evokes atmosphere with just slight touches. But I didn’t enjoy the book. I kept wondering what point Ogawa was trying to make. That we’re all capable of revenge? That appearances can be deceptive? I got to the end and I was no clearer on the message. Without a driving theme, the book just seemed to rely on spookiness and oddities. After a while this became repetitive and I found myself just wanting to get to the end quickly.

Authors At Home: William Wordsworth And Dove Cottage

You don’t need to have detailed knowledge about William Wordsworth to know about his close association with the Lake District in north west England.

Grasmere Lake, beloved by William Wordsworth
Grasmere Lake, Lake District, England
Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons Licence

He and his sister Dorothy were born there but left when their mother died and their father sent them to different parts of the country. William to be educated in Lancashire, then Cambridge; and Dorothy to live with relatives in Yorkshire.

But the countryside of Cumberland and the lakes was a constant draw for William. In 1779, while on a walking tour of the Lake District he found a cottage for rent in the south east of the district, near the village and lake of of Grasmere. He and Dorothy settled there in December that year.

The cottage became their home for more than eight years. William Wordsworth described his new home and the garden surrounding it as “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”.

He arrived having already published a collection of poems now recognised as a landmark in the Romantic movement: Lyrical Ballads. At Grasmere his work flourished, inspired by his proximity to the ever-changing landscape of the valleys and hills surrounding the cottage.

It was here that he he produced some of the most famous and best-loved of his poems: his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality“, “Ode to Duty“, “My Heart Leaps Up” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud“. He also wrote a new Prelude to Lyrical Ballads together with parts of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude.

Today, the home he occupied with first his sister, and then with his wife and three children, is open to the public, visited by more than 70,000 people each year.

Dove Cottage, home to William Wordsworth
Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Source: personal collection

I turned up one summer day in 2015, only to be disappointed because there were no admission tickets left that day. The cottage is tiny and such is the level of demand, that numbers have to be strictly controlled by the Wordsworth Trust that manages the building. Fortunately I was more successful on my second attempt.

“Dove Cottage” as it’s now called (it didn’t take that name until after Wordsworth’s time) is a solid looking two storey building with lime-washed walls and a slate roof. Inside there are four rooms on each floor, showing many of the original features and items owned by the Wordsworths. The collection of wooden sticks used by Dorothy to clean her teeth were an oddity. I was more taken with a beautiful wooden chest which contained a precious store of expensive tea leaves.

William Wordsworth’s Tea Caddy:
Source: personal collection

On the ground floor there are four rooms, with oak panels and slate floors typical of Lakeland buildings from the eighteenth century. One room next to the main door was a room which had multiple functions: it was used as a parlour or reception room but also had a cooking range. The main kitchen, was in a smaller space with an attached buttery or larder.

A smaller room next to the parlour was initially used as Dorothy’s bedroom. Such was her devotion to her brother, that when he married in 1802, she relinquished this room to the married couple because the ceiling of their own bedroom was leaking.

Upstairs were the bedrooms and a second parlour used for entertaining and light meals. Right at the front of the house is the room used by William Wordsworth as his study, with views over the meadows to Grasmere Lake. It was fun to imagine him in this chair watching the clouds rolling in over the hills or the light flickering in the fireplace.

William Wordsworth's study

It would be easy to romanticise the cottage. But it can’t have been easy to manage the domestic arrangements; there was no running water inside the house for one thing. It would have been quite crowded at times with three adults, three children and the numerous visitors that came to stay.

The Wordsworths employed a local girl as a maid to take care of their cooking and washing but Dorothy’s journal also makes it clear that she was not averse to rolling up her sleeves to get domestic chores done. In their first summer in the cottage, she records one Monday that she:

 bound carpets, mended old clothes, read Timon of Athens, dried linen…

There were compensations however.

The house had a tiered garden and orchard at the rear that the Wordsworths set about arranging as a semi wild space. into a “little nook of mountain-ground” (The Farewell). Dorothy’s journal gives us a glimpse of the hours they devoted to the project.

In May 1800 she notes:

I brought home lemon-thyme, and several other plants, and planted them by moonlight.

Then the following month comes this entry:

In the morning W. cut down the winter cherry tree. I sowed French beans and weeded. …  In the evening I stuck peas, watered the garden, and planted brocoli. (sic)

Dove Cottage, home to William Wordsworth
Garden at rear of Dove Cottage
Source: personal collection

When they weren’t working or sitting in the garden, brother and sister spent their time walking or on the lake; all the time observing and reflecting on what lay around them. The results were captured in Dorothy’s Journal and in William’s poems. In one unpublished poem (later titled Home at Grasmere)  he meditated on what it meant to make this environment his home.

Embrace me then, ye Hills, and close me in;
Now in the clear and open day I feel
Your guardianship; I take it to my heart;
‘Tis like the solemn shelter of the night.
But I would call thee beautiful, for mild,
And soft, and gay, and beautiful thou art
Dear Valley, having in thy face a smile
Though peaceful, full of gladness. Thou art pleased,
Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,
Its one green island and its winding shores;
The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing at each other cheerful looks
Like separated stars with clouds between.

 The family abandoned Dove Cottage in May 1808 to find more spacious accommodation. It was then occupied by one of their friends Thomas de Quincey who lived there for several years.

 The cottage was acquired by the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 and opened to the public as a writer’s home museum in 1891. Its status and importance is preserved for the nation through its designation as a Grade 1 listed building,

If you’re ever in the vicinity of Grasmere, do make a point of visiting the cottage. I’d recommend you go as late in the afternoon as possible when the bulk of visitors will have left and you can sit in the arbour at the top of the garden, and enjoy the peace and solitude that William would have known.

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