Book Review: Slipstream by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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Slipstream is the candid and revealing memoir of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard was born in 1923, into privileged society. There were servants, different houses and all that was afforded in a comfortable Edwardian-influenced upbringing.

My sister said that I should read Slipstream, so I did. It didn’t make sense to me why she had been so insistent until later in the book. The early part of the book was like a condensed version of the Cazalet Chronicles – a saga that I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I rather wanted something more from Slipstream. As an avid reader of the Cazalet Chronicles, there were several ‘ah ha’ moments in the stories of her characters in those chronicles, which made for interesting reflection without seeming to add anything new. In Howard’s defence, in her introduction she described writing as a ‘way of communication with myself,’ and therefore one must assume that in writing both the Chronicles and Slipstream, she was making sense of her own experiences. For me, it was as she departed from the shadows of her childhood and first marriage (to Peter Scott) that the book became more enticing.

I was hungry for her own reflections on writing, and being a writer. She seemed to tease by dropping in odd lines like “I hadn’t learned discipline,” and “there’s a great difference between being a writer and wanting to write”. It was her marriage to Kingsley Amis that gave her the discipline and the distinction. However, this wasn’t the aim of Howard’s book, to write a book about writing. Her interest was on people and their relationships rather than her work.

In that, I believe we can learn a lot from Howard. She was brutally honest, and often not kind to herself, and I admire her honesty. Here is a woman that was unloved by her mother, groped by her father, married too young and neglectful of her daughter. Howard had three unhappy marriages and a string of lovers. Sadly, she never seemed to me to be happy.

Perhaps she did find a kind of contentment in later life when she was single. There was one episode with a con-man, which she did not really elaborate on, saying it was the subject of a novel (perhaps Fallen?). The latter years were a series of house moves and house guests, where her narrative faded out.

Overall Slipstream was an enchanting read, and I admire Elizabeth Jane Howard even more. Goodness only knows why she was pilloried in life for her writing, in which she gave so much of herself.

Book review: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a collection of eleven short stories, most of which were published previously. They were all new to this reader – a novice at reviewing a collection of short stories (sorry). In the collection there is a range of narrative voices, styles and time periods. All the stories are set in contemporary times, but with notable differences in the eras. The whole collection shows off Mantel’s genius as a writer and a storyteller. It is, on the whole, a dark collection, telling stories at the edges of humanity in many ways, but that made them gripping as well as gritty.

Mantel has a true gift for sharp observation, and you have the feeling that characters are offered up in the science lab for dissection and assimilation. It is the essence of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (oh when will the last in Cromwell’s saga be released?), and the reader will not be disappointed in the painstaking attention to detail in each of the short stories.

I appreciated each story, but my stand out is The Long QT, the shortest, and the one that had me re-read it immediately. The dysfunction of the marriage and the tragedy that befalls it, and the microscopic detail of lives shattering in a single moment, was so well captured. There are, I understand, memoir elements of her Give Up The Ghost, in Sorry To Disturb – if it is true, then there is immediately another book to be added to the long list of “to be read”.

In this collection, Mantel does not shy away from the dark side of humanity tackling themes of adultery, anorexia, isolation, loneliness, conformity, infidelity, and rape. It does not sound like a recipe for rewarding reading, but it truly is. It is a wholly absorbing collection, and if you don’t think you like short stories, you should try this smorgasbord by one of the finest writers of our time.

Hello Autumn!

Meteorological autumn may have started a week ago, but for me, it began yesterday… for three reasons. I moved the winter clothes from storage and into the cupboards (creating two bagfuls of clothes for the charity shop in the process), I had to light a fire last night… and it was the launch show of Strictly!

I fall in love with each season as it arrives, although I know that I’ll soon be mourning the loss of the long hours of daylight, autumn is no different. There is something of the order of nature in watching the leaves losing their vibrancy, as they singe and crisp over the coming weeks. Our lawn is already scattered with the first offerings, the runner beans are becoming tougher, and there was a sniff of a chill first thing this morning (we are in Cornwall, so frost is unlikely for a while yet). September is the new January, or so I read a couple of years back, and it’s become a tradition of mine to sharpen up on some of the excesses that crept in over the summer months and the endless feeling of being on holiday. Eating a little leaner, exercising a little harder… although I think that three sessions of gig rowing yesterday might have been a bit overkill. It was pilates over running this morning, as I think that the latter would have overstressed my body.

And how ‘gorgeous darling’ (in CRH voice) was it to welcome back Strictly onto my TV last night. It’s the first thing I’ve watched since Poldark exited earlier this summer! I was annoyed to hear The Mirror had leaked the pairings in their paper (what’s the point?), but that’s a paper that’s easy to avoid! The whole enjoyment is the drama, even though it’s a bit like a cross between watching school teams being picked, and a school disco (both of which I have memories of being left ’til last for), and therefore almost painful. I will forgive Claudia Winkleman anything, for she makes the whole process a delight. Mrs Glossy Hair and Smouldering Eyes. I definitely have a girl crush on her. I don’t really care who has who in the pairings, because when it all gets going, I’ll be lost in the glitter and the stories.

After last year’s experience, my friend Barbara and I have decided not to apply for tickets. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and I don’t want to cloud it. Speaking of which, I’ve had a spike in traffic to my website, it turns out courtesy of The Telegraph (another paper I don’t read), who attribute my blog an “excellent report” (can this go in my writer’s CV, I wonder? Haha!). Well that explains the numbers. Good luck to anyone opting for tickets, it will be amazing, provided you’ve queued in time, and you’re wearing clothes appropriate to the season… Autumn, yes, hello to autumn.