‘Walking over eggshells’ – book review

By R J Askew

ST ALBANS, March 23 – Mother to daughter – ‘How I wish you’d never been born, you’ve caused us all so much grief and pain’.

Lucinda E Clarke’s ‘Walking over eggshells’ is a tale of survival in the face of excoriating maternal rejection.

Some mothers, it seems, are not naturally inclined to be the carriers and guardians of life; where they should comfort they reject, where they should encourage they damn, where they should love they revile.

Mother to daughter – ‘If I’d known how you were going to turn out, I’d never have had you. You are such a disappointment to me, I’m ashamed of you.’

Just typing such razor words is an unsettling experience. I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of them. Nor can I imagine what it takes to utter them.

Personally, I hope I would have walked and carried on walking and never turned back. But this may be easier said than done. Perhaps staying is even harder, however. No, there is no winning for the daughter of such a cruel mother.

Mother to daughter – ‘You’re just an ungrateful child. I told you you’d always be bad, you always have been. You never deserved a mother like me.’

Year after year, decade on decade.

I confess the mother makes an interesting study. Most monsters do. We wonder why and how she is as she is, all sorts of things. And, of course, how we might respond to such systemic and routine belittlement.

The author – who was still getting physically slippered when she was twenty – simply gets on with things as best she can. Her resilience as extreme as the attacks she endures.

We are brutal animals at times. And all this behind a seemingly nice middle-class facade. It was ever thus.

Amazingly, the author doesn’t become an urban terrorist or even a junkie. She goes off to teacher training college. All very normal. Childline had not been dreamed up then. Things were hushed up.

Yet, it was the late 1960s,  and things they were a-changing – the music, hair, hemlines, the pill. To many of the mother’s generation, it was a time of shocking degeneracy, the end of everything.

INTO AFRICA

Inter-familial wars were commonplace, as the new youth pushed and pushed, and the last of the old school tried to keep their ‘children’ in their place.

Mother to daughter – ‘Oh yes, it’s all about the young now, isn’t it? Everything’s for them, nothing for normal  (reviewer’s italics) people.’

So ‘Walking over eggshells’ in some way reflects the wider pain of a new generation, struggling to find its way in a world that was lost and found in a tumult of war and revolt: Vietnam, civil rights, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), Led Zeppelin, purple flares. The author even owned the sixty-fifth Mini to roll off the production lines. Now how cool was that?

Yet she still displayed strong traits of the old school. She dates a young Tory and seems set to marry into the burbs. But – what’s this? – a powerful counter-weight to her mother enters the story. Jeremy the job-getter. Alas, Jeremy loses jobs as rapidly as he gets them. That said, he shows off-the-scale initiative, marries the author and whisks her off on a succession of adventures from Scotland to Joburg, via Libya, Kenya, and Botswana.

For this reader, the best part of the book was the time spent in Libya. If you have to escape a cruel mother, Libya is as good a place as any. But in all seriousness, the insights into what seemed like a last hurrah for the buccaneering colonial approach to go-getting was both entertaining and enlightening.

The author was kept very busy in every outpost and became progressively busier when she herself had children and Jeremy-the-job-loser becomes increasingly unreliable, as his drinking and business mishaps mount until he and the author finally drift apart. This part of the story is profoundly sad, reflecting and compounding earlier hurts.

The questions mount along with the debts. I was moved that the author was still struggling to come to terms with her mother in her mid forties.

Both she and her mother remarry, adding further players to their lifelong battle. It makes no sense to an outsider. But this seems to be the essential nature of family warfare – senselessness.

That said, the author was not wont to dwell on her own misfortunes. She was too busy. A surprising new career in radio springs up for her. She gets even busier. She has to be.

Meanwhile, there is her mother, always her mother, unrelenting to the end – apart, perhaps, from when she is medicated.

But by the very end, the author has worked it all out.

Daughter on narcissistic mothers – ‘There is nothing, absolutely nothing you can ever, ever, do to change things. Yes, we can distance ourselves in order to protect ourselves, but we cannot change our mothers’ behaviour, no matter what we do or say.’

I am sure that ‘Walking over eggshells’ is a must read for any woman with an extremely domineering mother.

‘Billy and the Devil’ – book review

By R J Askew

ST ALBANS, March 20 – I made a lot of notes as I read ‘Billy and the Devil.’ Reading over them, I see I wrote ‘BRILL’ next to a chapter title, ‘Drink a bottle of cheap champagne’, and then wrote, ‘Stella. Stella. Cake. Stella.’

The above-mentioned chapter is just sixteen lines long, comprising some ninety-three words. Billy is getting married, he says ‘I do’. But the only reference to his bride is, ‘Her not saying much.’ Twenty-three of the ninety-three-word-tumble are the names of alcoholic drinks – the real loves of Billy’s thunderstorm life.

‘Billy and the Devil’ by Dean Lilleyman is a masterly portrait of an ordinary person who recoils from being ordinary and whose family history dooms him to play the role of the tragic rebel who ‘doesn’t seem to be able to find in-between.’

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Up to a point all is well. Billy is a joker, ‘the boy who danced against the grain’, a hero to his classmates. He’s quick-witted, he notices things, and he dares to do. Maybe there’s a Billy in every class of fifteen-year-olds. We love his rascally cheekiness. Yes, we know he’s wasting himself, but Billy is Billy. We love him.

But Billy’s a bit of mess beneath his crazy confidence. Three barley wines in a pint pot? Nut-aaah! Still, he’s a laugh and we love him. And of course he’s a hit with the ladies – his mother apart that is. ‘We’re worried about Billy’s drinking’ another kid’s parents tell her, quietly, trying to be helpful. But what can she do? Nothing.

They say alcoholism’s a disease. But a disease of what? The body or the soul? Which rots first? Why does Billy succumb to it, when those around him do not?

The writing in ‘Billy and the Devil’ is at times exquisitely poetic in the acuteness of its observation: a hedgehog’s eye ‘goes orangey-red as Chris turns it towards the headlights’. Sometimes it is savagely brutal. Ernie the pig-man removes the runt from a sow’s litter: ‘her lesser-made son is smashed against the wall, again, again’. I was often reminded of Graham Swift’s writing in his powerful novel, ‘Waterland’.

whiskey

Yes, there is much rawness in Billy’s young eye. He watches two mongrels making out on the school playing field: ‘the male sits licking its genitals in the six-yard box.’ There is a desperate vigour about the life in him.

And a sadness. On looking at the footprints his wellies have made in the snow of his youth near Mansfield, in Yorkshire, he says it’s ‘funny seeing where you’ve been. I look at each footmark and try to remember being there and how I felt, but I can’t.’ In some ways, some of the chapters of ‘Billy and the Devil’ felt like footprints in the snows of my own youth, especially some of the references to music. And a reference to George Best – another thirsty man – was highly evocative of a certain time and lifestyle.

ARCH WIT

I’d best not give too much away. There are some eighty-five mostly shortish chapters to the story. When I first looked at the contents page, I thought it might be a collection of verse. The bite-size chapter move the read along smartly through the decades of Billy’s life, yet the story never feels rushed.

Oh and the wit. You will find great wit throughout the story. Sometimes it is just of the half-a-smile-I-know someone-just-like-that variety: Bruce the numpty with his ‘tee-shirt from a Def Leppard tour he never went to see’. The wit keeps pace with the story’s progression into ever darker places, becoming increasingly biting and then cruel. Billy mocks others mercilessly, such is his alienation from the ‘gadges’ but himself ends up as infinitely sadder than the ordinary people he despises. So the joke is on him perhaps. Except it isn’t that funny at all, especially for his wife and kids, or for him. Poor Billy seems scared, loveless, out of touch with all that is gentle. He relates more to Nature, especially birds, than people, who are ‘ugly and tell lies’.

Jameson and Guinness have him firmly in their embrace, fill the voids in his life literally and liberally.

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As well as its poetic dabs, Billy and the Devil is also in part a play or even a TV script. It is certainly dramatic, a dramatic trek in a jagged emotional mountain range. The peak of the story, at least for me, came at around the 70% mark on my Kindle.

Billy has just been through a reunion with his lost father which – like some nuclear sugar high – has him feeling briefly at one with himself, but which then ends in a shocking sexual encounter of his own making. At every turn, his unrestrained nature leads him to mess up. But – shocking as it is – this is a false peak. There’s more and worst to come for Billy, much worse.

Before we get there, Lilleyman serves up the funniest passage in his story. I won’t detail it, but the chapter in question is ‘On the fifth day of Christmas.’ I loved this deft interlude. The wit comes between two very harsh passages and is appropriately arch.

There then follows a sex scene during the course of which we find ourselves inside Billy’s head, ‘and the picture changes to …’ Even Billy is horrified at how he is: ‘I shake my fucking head till the Etch-A-Sketch changes to slate, but too fucking late.’ Billy is a lost man.

MASTERFUL EXECUTION

The next chapter ‘Door locked’ gives us just two lines and the last word is ‘Pub’, perhaps used as a verb. Drink is all that Billy has left. Drink is his salvation and escape. Brilliant. The drama of this two line chapter is total.

The other player in all this puts in his one and only appearance shortly after this, as if to check the totality of his dominion over poor Billy: ‘the black  and horny devil scaled the church organ pipes like a cloven-hooved spider.’

We are on the over side now for Billy, the descent. The language is often harsh and crude. But that is fitting. Yet there is elegance, too. Billy is seeking comfort from a priest on the phone while at the same time opening a bottle of Blue Nun. We see him drawing the cork and hear, ‘the glug of the pour’. Such artful and apt working there.

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It gets better, too. Some of the best wording is at the start of the story, when Billy was a kid and towards the end when  the man that is Billy is regressing and retreating to places he knew when he was a kid. We see the monster Billy and the nature boy Billy back in the woods: ‘as another gust of late summer wind shivers the drooping canopy of leaf, as he spits onto the fly tipping…and the blue night darkens.’ So too, ‘the crack-snap of the dark undergrowth’ evokes the sound of a dark fire burning around his ankles.

And always there is the drink, ‘A half-Bells and six cans of Guinness should take me through to opening time.’ It’s eight-thirty in the morning.

We are not spared. We have to know how it is. And so Lilleyman takes us down a little lower in a brilliant coda of emotional and physical collapse with just a glimpse of redemption. The last chapters of the story felt like being in the centre of a decomposing thunder cloud. The worst is over, but it rumbles on until it is no more and the air clears after its passage. It’s brilliantly raw and feels real.

I was in Brighton this week and saw several Billies swaying or dribbling in their alcoholic tragedy. Yes, Billy’s devil is alive and well and still super busy about his work in the lives of many. Having read Dean Lilleyman’s story I will always wonder who they are and what their stories are. I also went into a pub and – as I gazed at the vividly alluring shelves of schnapps and bourbon – could not help thinking that the Devil has a lot of willing helpers. I felt a little like a collaborator myself as I raised a glass to my lips. Cheers, Billy.

bottle 1

On polyamory – and a touching dreamstate

ST. ALBANS, March 13 – We all dream of betterment and more. Perhaps our dream quests define who and what we are. Some seem to live our dreams in the real.

And a few – more determined, more vigorous, more alive perhaps, they who must have more, more, more, especially in love – a few go further. Such is their want, they become polyamorous, love more expansively, or so it appears.

But even life’s most driven winners can’t win forever. Nothing lasts. Anyway, imagine how dull life wld be were we to actually have it all, to know it all – forever.

And dreams? May a dream be said to exist? And if not, now may it cease to be?

Perhaps there’s more to dreams than we may know. Perhaps their singular nature in some way precedes our little lives. Perhaps we are in some way the dreams of dreams raised up into that, which for want of a better word, we call reality.

And so to a fiction about a young woman’s dream that becomes a passing reality…

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Three millennials – Rhiannon and her two guys – escape the trap of London internery, flat white success, and cycling death in ECIV, for the watercress beds of Hampshire, where choirs of nightingales serenade the free.

And the ghost of an old hippie walks through the woods on her trek to her Celtic dreamstate. While Rhiannon strokes her bump and feels the kick of new life within – and sighs contentedly. And so to a piquant little sorbet, to round things off:

DREAMS TOUCHING ON

A dream within a dream becomes

Dreamality profoundly real

We touch – o how we touch in verse

We are the dreams of dreams raised up

To he heart-beating wakefulness

In touching loves made one are we

To be, to be, to be set free

We touch our dream – to hear it sigh:

‘Do that again, do that I pray,’

‘That I, a dream, may feel this day.

~

We touch – o how we touch our dream,

With tender touching fingertips

We are made more than what we seem

To kiss – intrinsicately dreaming lips

~

In The Room With Three Doors

by R J Askew

myBook.to/ThreeDoors

My blog is in the oven

ST ALBANS, March 6 – You will need a handy bunch of the freshest Hampshire watercress. And a generous quantity of mozzarella.

Throw a mug of pasta into a pan of boiling water. I leave the actual quantities entirely to your discretion. Turn your oven on. Smile.

While your pasta simmers, wash your watercress and dice three or four large open mushrooms in readiness. Dice another for good measure. This is art.

Sip your wine, which should be red. Progress to stuffing a couple of dozen pitted black olives with garlic. Not too much garlic, mind. Moderation is best.

Rinse your pasta with boiling water and strew a thin layer across the bottom of a baking dish. A little olive oil at this stage may prove efficacious.

Sip wine. Spread your watercress on top of the pasta. You might want to cut your watercress with scissors. Up to you.

Arrange your diced mushrooms in a herringbone pattern studied with the stuffed olives. Add chopped tomatoes – fresh is best. I’d add basil but have none to hand.

Now for your mozzarella, which must be buffalo. Dice several balls into medallions and spread them over the toms. Slide into your oven for twenty minutes. Sip wine.

KITCHEN BREAK

What are you reading now? I’m into ‘Billy and the Devil’ by Dean Lilleyman, a chilli pepper read. Whoa! And you? I’m curious.

Prepare a bowl of breadcrumbs. Sip wine. Ready your plates and cutlery. Sow breadcrumbs over mozzarella. Grate a little Parmesan over said crumbs. Place under grill to finish off. Refill glass. Sip. This sharing of pleasure is so … pleasurable.

Be at pains not to relax too much and take your eye off the bake. A singed topping is exactly what you do not what. Not that we are measuring or marking here.

Turn off all phones, PC’s, tablets, anything that might intrude upon your enjoyment of this august moment.

Serve. Savour. Return for seconds. Return to reading. So what exactly are you enjoying most about..?

Let the record show empty plates and replete minds.

This ‘Rustic Watercress Bake’ was created for you by R J Askew, author of ‘In The Room With Three Doors’, a contemporary novella set largely in the watercress beds of Hampshire, England. Link to follow. But first: the piquant poetry sorbet, next Friday.

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A sepulchral Victorian fashion

ST. ALBANS, Feb 27 – Strictly speaking, when some wag deploys the term ‘as p—-d as a newt’ to describe someone in their cups, they should actually say, ‘as p—-d as a mute’.

The mutes in question were professional mourners, especially favoured in Victorian times, when they knew far more about the dramatic potential of Death than we do, inclined as we are to do our utmost to ruin a good Death by turning it into a ‘celebration’.

mutes mutes mutes

Bedecked from head to toe in fifty shades of black, mutes were hired to attend funerals as the silent friends of the deceased, to stand outside the departed’s house, or the portals of church or cemetery, there to usher the spirit on its way with a touch of visual solemnity.

All that standing around embodying sepulchral melancholy must have taken its toll. And so it was customary to ply said mutes with copious quantities of drink after the internment. Not surprisingly the mutes did not hold back and, it seems, were often the worse for wear.

Not a bad job, all things considered. Perhaps we could revive the role. Anyway, here is a short homage to the lost art of the Victorian newt, apologies, mute – been at the gin.

MY MUTES AND  I

Come, silent sentinels of Death!

Let your hats be steam-punk stovepipes,

Tall, black, out-blacking black, jet, noir ..

Shall be your crepe, a-swaddling heads,

Beards dyed Death adumbral, black inked,

My ink shall die in every eye,

Indelible not – my life’s run.

And you, mute sirs, black-capped, silk-gloved:

Stand, without my door, standards raised,

Black-wrapped and dripping doom, stand you!

Mute. Shud’ring as you feel Death .. pass ..

Your glass! Hand me your glass, mute swan!

Let’s to the bar, let life be loud!

Sepulchral mutes, you’ve stood me proud.

by R J Askew

myBook.to/OneSwiftSummer 

Trouble with books

ST. ALBANS, Feb 20 – My kids will not want them – my books that is.

Hundreds of dusty old Penguins, Picadors, Corgis and Pans confer no value, no status. Out with ’em. Box ’em up. Cart ’em to Oxfam. Into the skip with ’em!

Some boomers are taking pre-emptive action already, I hear.

A St. Albans book-group recently strayed from considering ‘The Kite Flyer’ to mull what exactly one is to do with one’s books when one downsizes  from ‘family, detached, five-bedrooms’, to ‘twee terrace, with view of Abbey’.

Book spines

Light and space take precedence over shelving for Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy and Jean-Paul Sartre, it seems. Light is just so efficacious, so now. Sorry, JP.

LPs went decades ago and CDs, if not gone, are semi-gone, boxed up in the garage. But books are different, especially for readers of a certain imprint. They remind us of moments in our lives. We remember where we were, who we were with, life lived. We touch our past when we run our eyes over their spines. Is that a cigarette burn I spy on ‘Animal Farm’?

But this is all far too sentimental for the age of Apple and Amazon. De-materialisation rules. And books, well, real books are just too inconveniently physical.

And so they will go. The scene will be repeated hundreds, thousands, millions of times in the next couple of decades: books thudding into plastic crates, motes of dust in morning sunlight, girlfriend sneezing. Charities will cart a selected few thousand off to Africa. (This already happens.)

My ‘Palgraves Golden Treasury’, a small book I’ve had since I was eighteen will be ‘let go’, along with my two four-leaved clover leaves pressed within its pages. The book is a part of my soul. But who needs a soul in 2020, 2025, 2030 – the decade of death for many a book.

Book spines

That said, we still venerate books. Pictures of aged tomes are lovingly retweeted on Twitter. Some atavistic yearning for the comforting certainty of a hushed library beats within many of us. We instinctively know the rightness and beauty of it.

Yes, there will be a cull, disposing of a generation’s books will be the thing to do. It will happen, for the most part quietly and quickly. But, equally, there will be a counter movement. Isn’t there always? Value will be found in the humble Penguin, slowly and surely. Yet-to-be-born ‘bookies’ will discover a strange appeal in that slightly beaten copy of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. They may never buy a new book in their lives, but they will come to love the old survivors. They will collect them, in a geekish way at first perhaps. But then value will be found to exist in those foxed Penguins, Picadors, Corgis and Pans.

And then, don’t you know, by about 2050, the coolest thing in the world may just be to be seen sitting up in your pod on the moon reading a genuine 1975 paperback copy of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus Alone’ – worth about a hundred million NMDs (New Moon Dollars).

Still planning to throw my book away kids?

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myBook.to/OneSwiftSummer 

by R J Asew

Charismatic megabeast

ST. ALBANS, Feb 13 – We humans are capable of great achievement, progress, passion. We are also greedy, nasty and brutal. We are all too often at odds with ourselves for ridiculous reasons. And we are not too kind to other creatures.

Take elephants. They’re like whales – charismatic megabeasts. And we slaughter them. Some people at least eat whales, but elephants? We steal their teeth to sell, to carve, to own, for status. Of course, we protest about it, sign petitions on Facebook and so on. But nothing changes.

It’s not just elephants and whales of course. We all know that. We all know that we are destroying the very nature we depend on for our own survival. Could it be that we are the elephant in the room? It’s an uncomfortable thought. But we have to face it to change our ways.

So here’s one for the tuskers. Our attitude towards them and the rest of Nature will determine our own fate. Don’t look away now …

elephant 1

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM CRIES

.

A man in China craves my teeth

And so will pay to have me shot

By men with automatic guns

Who will not stop because I’m here

You have to hear my trumpet shrill!

My teeth they crave, my life to take!

I hear the engines of their jeeps …

Of course they’re drunk, they always are

On greed! Your greatest drug of all

Help me! Help! Please hear my cry!

How many more of us must die?

Because a man in China lusts,

To own, to have, to carve my tusks?

.

Three men with guns burst in on us

RIP! RIP! of shooting fills our room

ZIP! THUD! of bullets sewing doom

A tear of pain in tusker’s eyes

As he succumbs and silent dies

.

Don’t look away! DON’T! look away

.

A ‘Made in China’ chainsaw coughs

In a grinning poacher’s bloody hands

A smuggled smoke between in his lips

As chainsaw whines triumphantly

And dentistry for elephants – begins

by R J Askew

(picture credit: www.andybiggs.com)

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