Spring has Sprung

It is almost that time of the year when the first spring flowers start to reveal themselves; although the Weather Fairy is doing her best to spoil the display. This morning’s frost was most unwelcome and my poor little yellow crocuses at the bottom of the rowan tree were not happy.

I love spring flowers. All of my favourites appear at this time of the year. Snowdrops, crocuses, mini daffodils, hyacinths and tulips – usually in that order. Tulips are by far my favourites, but I always think they’re such a sad flower as they are the sign for the end of spring and the start of summer, which is not my best time of year. It’s just so lovely to see the colours appear after a good three months of bare branches, wet grass and foul weather. The crocuses seem to have an order to them too, I often see the yellow ones first, then the white, then the mauve, scattered at various points around the base of the tree. I didn’t plant them, and I really should plant some more, they are starting to look a little sorry for themselves after ten years of fighting the ivy.

The magnolias start to bud at this time of year too. I found out recently that there were over 200 species of magnolia, instead of just the one I had merrily assumed. They are a lovely flower, although can be a very large and sprawling shrub if one is not careful, although they do not last long at all and create a dreadful mess when the petals drop. There is an absolutely gorgeous deep pink one in a neighbour’s front garden which blooms about two weeks later than its more traditional cream coloured cousins.

It strikes me as fascinating how, after living in a semi-rural location for only ten years after a lifetime in the city, I have started to notice these things, things I would never have paid attention to before. And I love it. I notice when the birds are starting to nest (the house martins will be under next door’s guttering shortly, I expect); I can tell my jackdaws from my rooks and my rooks from my crows (it’s not difficult once you know); I’m learning to guess the age of a hedge by the different bushes growing in it – and what those bushes are. And I work full time!

There is so much in my immediate vicinity that I just wouldn’t take any notice of if I didn’t make time. So I’m making time. I don’t want to miss the passing of the seasons because there’s a blog on the internet; the blog will probably be there later, the seasons may not be. With the way the climate and the world is changing so rapidly, I want to make the most of it while I can.

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Tertiary Thoughts on The Night Manager

One question that has been badgering the back of my brain while I’ve been reading this book is: Who is the bad guy here? Who are the villains of this particular piece? I would like to say there is an easy answer, but I would be doing you – and the author – a grave disservice if I did.

Certainly Richard Roper is an unlikeable man in a dangerous and rather vile profession. But as he points out, is he any worse than governments who bend their own rules in the hope of filling their treasuries? For years, the British and American governments armed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iraq – and then stood back in horror when he elected to use those same weapons against his own people. I suppose the question is what he would have got up to if he hadn’t been supplied by governments who viewed their enemy’s enemy as their friend, but it does give Roper’s argument some leverage. Roper is merely supplying the same service, but in a private, non-state supported capacity, which means that the buyers, whomever they are, won’t be attacked by him if they change their minds about what they use the weapons for.

And this is how the question arises; a significant part of the book is spent in the proverbial corridors of power, where Ministers and intelligence officers gather to set policy and relay information. Occasionally, officers of allied agencies (mainly American) get involved as well. And it gradually becomes clear that whilst putting Mr Roper out of business may make a lot of sense, there are an awful lot of people within the Government who actually think they can make more money if he stays in business, so every effort is made to sabotage this particular mission.

Oddly, the person I really dislike in the novel is Major Corkoran; he doesn’t have a single redeeming feature. I dislike his mannerisms, his speech patterns and his motives. I dare say his dress sense would leave a lot to be desired, if I knew anything about it. Horrid little man.

Jonathan Pine is becoming less likeable as the book goes on, but this may be because he takes unnecessary risks, cannot follow orders and essentially does as he pleases. Part of me wants him to succeed, but part of me really wants him to end up in serious trouble. I suspect the latter part will be what happens – I’ve only got ten more chapters to go – but I’m not really in any rush to find out.

That’s one of the problems with this book. You find yourself sweeping through it – and the writing is still wonderful, it’s easily the best part of it – but as a reader you reach a point where you simply don’t care what happens to them. You just want them to hurry up and get on with it so you can move on to the next book with all the loose ends tied up. It’s a strangely grey book (which is no reflection on the cover, which on my edition is blue and orange) and I think I’m finding it frustrating. I suppose I just like my bad guys to be bad and my good guys to be good, with the twain only meeting to end the story.

But this is what happens when you read John le Carre. He knows that real life isn’t like that. No wonder he’s such a good writer.

Chatham Island Forget Me Not (Myosotidium hortensia)

Lately, I’ve been reading up on New Zealand Flower Essences; this was only a matter of time as I love New Zealand and anything to do with it. These essences are based on Maori spirituality and are all native flowers. Today’s essence is Chatham Island Forget Me Not, made from a lovely little flower that grows on one of the small islands just off the east coast of South Island.

The key word for this essence is aspiration and is recommended for anyone who wants to create a niche for themselves in the world. I’m hoping Donald Trump hasn’t been taking this, he’s insufferable enough as it is. People involved in activism or movements promoting change for the benefit of all would benefit greatly from it, and I think teenagers and young people at the stage of making career choices and exam decisions would also benefit from it. It is useful for anyone who is seeking a career change and wants to find out their true vocation, or simply to remind oneself that anything is possible!

The New Zealand Flower Essences are available online from First Light Flower Essences (http://www.firstlightfloweressences.co.nz/) and should be taken as follows: three to four drops added to a glass of water three times a day as required.

The Poems of Edward Thomas

The office book club has thrown a bit of a curve ball at me this month because instead of reading a novel, we are exploring the collected poems of Edward Thomas. As I may have explained before, I am not good with poetry as a rule, but having recently read The Iliad in verse (get me!) I’ve decided that it’s down to lack of practice, so agreed to take on the challenge. And as I have never read any Edward Thomas, if I didn’t like the poetry I wouldn’t be able to blame any preconceptions either. I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Edward Thomas wrote all of his poetry between December 1914 and his death in April 1917, yet it would be unfair to describe him as a war poet because he doesn’t write about war. A great nature lover, his poetry deals with the countryside of Hampshire, Lincolnshire and Wales; everything from birds’ nests to bushes feature and it is clear that he has great fondness for what he sees around him. Yet he was more than a nature poet. One of his poems which has already stuck in my mind is Old Man’s Beard, a poem about a bush which grew near the door of his house. This allows him to explore remembering and misremembering and how the bitter scent of the plant triggers memories of passing the bush as a child.

None of his poetry is difficult to read, but is very lyrical and easy on the ear. I would like to hear some of it read aloud (my poetry reading is abysmal) as I have a feeling it would send me off into a very nice sleep. It’s also extremely visual, and yet seems to go beyond that; you follow the walker as he treks the fields and valleys, noting the birdsong and the changes in the weather and you become part of the poem as you read. I don’t recall having this experience with Keats or Shelley, so I’m finding this a fascinating experience.

Hats off to the book club for making me read something I would never otherwise have picked up. Perhaps I’m not as bad at poetry as I thought I was?

Life Offline

I’ve had no access to the internet for the past couple of days, and I have to say it’s been rather refreshing to do something other than trawl through Twitter, Facebook and various other blogs that I follow. I have been reading books (well, I do that anyway), indulging in some colouring (great fun) and catching up with some needlework.

I’m one of the generation who grew up pre-World Wide Web but even so I am having to re-learn how to do things I used to take for granted, like read an encyclopaedia or look something up in a dictionary. That said, I’ve loved skimming through reference books and finding things that I probably would never have picked up on otherwise. I’ve even found things I’d completely forgotten I had – who knew I had all that Tupperware in the back of the kitchen cupboard and forgot to tell me?

One of the things that fascinated me about William Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” was the fact that he was aware of the dangers of information overload in the days of online everything, and that it was viewed as a disease, much like leprosy – I recall it being called something like “the Black Shakes”. It was devastating, causing nervous collapse and an inability to function, while the body simply shook uncontrollably.

Sounds like exhaustion to me.

I do not believe that the human body – or mind, for that matter – is designed to be constantly on the go. It needs rest, recuperation and time to recover and the modern 24/7 lifestyle doesn’t really allow for that. So an unexpected result of all this is that I now fully intend to have one internet free day a week, and if I want to write something, I will have to do it the old fashioned way, i.e. with pen and paper. I want to make productive use of my time, instead of just staring at a screen and talking about the things that I could be doing if I wasn’t staring at a screen. We all do it!

So that’s my plan. I doubt it will last long, the lure of social media is too much even for me, but I fully intend to try. Nothing ventured and all that. What do you think?

Secondary Thoughts on The Night Manager

Well, I’m some way in now (11 chapters, to be precise) and already le Carre has seduced me into wanting a happy ending, even though I know full well I won’t get one. The writing is exquisite and the plot moves along at a sedate, unhurried pace, allowing us to get to know all the people we come across.

Except we don’t know them. Jonathan Pine very quickly becomes illusory, his existence based on lies and deception. We know little about Burr except what he tells Pine – and being a spy, how much of that is true? The same goes for all the other characters who recur in the story. Is Roper really the worst man in the world, or a businessman filling a niche that someone else would simply fill if he didn’t? Is Corkoran a fool or cannier than we are led to believe? And is anyone as honest and trustworthy as they say they are?

The lengthy scenes in Cornwall and Canada are atmospheric, thoroughly believable and tinged with a poignancy that I suspect is going to recur in this novel. They add detail to the plot and characters and contain some of the most beautiful writing I have read in a very long time. Whether or not you like this kind of story, it’s worth reading for the language alone. We have had background, context, a flavour of the present and a taste of the future in these first 11 chapters, and I have to say it has left me wanting more.

One thing I will say. Having read my Radio Times this week, I have a strong feeling that the TV adaptation is going to be quite a bit different to the book – and not just in recasting Burr as a woman. Whether or not this is going to be to the detriment of the story I don’t know. Either way, the book is wonderful.

Now We Know Who Killed Jacob Marley!

Well, I have to say, I wasn’t expecting that! A lady? With a rolling pin? I’ve not heard the like in years! At least justice – of a sort – has been done, although I expect Mr Marley’s ghost might have something to say on the subject. Humbug, sir!

Dickensian has been an absolute joy to watch, not only in terms of testing how well I know my Dickens (not as well as I thought, it would seem – a perfect excuse to re-read them) but in producing a lengthy serial which combines murder mystery, costume drama and soap opera. I really do think Dickens would have approved. I also hope there will be another season – it’s not as if there aren’t the characters to choose from! Any chance of Edwin Drood appearing from an opium den and bumping into Martin Chuzzlewit? Miss Peggoty taking Uriah Heep to task? Mr Squeers opening a school for young gentlemen in the hope of educating young Master Copperfield?

The only storyline left to tidy up is the Grand Wedding. If regular soap operas are anything to go by, this will be an Event to be remembered. And if I’ve remembered my Great Expectations correctly, this one will be no exception…

Daytime Dramas

One of the things about being home unwell is that I’ve ended up watching quite a bit of daytime telly. On the whole it’s not great but occasionally little gems appear which make me wonder why they are not on prime time television – they really are that good. Why aren’t The Father Brown Mysteries being shown on a Sunday teatime, dear BBC? They’d go well alongside Call The Midwife. Just a thought.

The one that has me absolutely hooked is an Australian period drama called A Place to Call Home. It’s set in early 1950s Sydney and deals with the trials and tribulations of the occupants of a large manor house called Ashe Park, the Bligh family. It’s essentially an over glorified soap opera, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it, even though I sometimes feel like I can see each plot twist coming a mile away. It’s not great but it IS entertaining, and when you’re not feeling 100% you want pretty drama that doesn’t require a PhD. Consequently, A Place to Call Home is ideal.

Actually, it reminded me a lot of The Dr Blake Mysteries – partly because of the small pool of available actors means that you see the same faces in lots of different things – in terms of styling, period and characterisation. Now that’s another show that could do with being shown much later in the day than a weekday lunchtime. Really, BBC, you don’t know how lucky you are with these things.

The Night Manager – Preliminary Thoughts

I’ve read quite a bit of John le Carré over the years, mostly his Cold War spy thrillers, such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Most of these are extremely well known and went a long way to set the benchmark for spy thrillers for years after their publication in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Night Manager is le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel and was published in 1993. As the Soviets were no longer “the enemy” the scope of the spy novel had to broaden and in this novel we are introduced to the world of international arms dealers. Richard Onslow Royle is an arms dealer based in the Bahamas who travels the world making multi-million dollar deals with whomever has the cash for top of the range weaponry. He travels in a private jet, has a luxury yacht and stays in the best hotels.

It is in one of these luxurious hotels that we meet Jonathan Pine, the night manager of the title. In the book (the BBC serialisation hasn’t started yet, so I don’t know what they’ve done here), Pine is a former soldier who has worked his way up the hospitality ladder to be in charge of one of Switzerland’s finest hotels. Some of the stories he recounts of the staff he works with are hilarious – one doesn’t expect humour in these sorts of novels, but it’s there if you look for it. Le Carré contrasts the hotels in Cairo and Switzerland deftly, but you are in no doubt at any time where you are.

I’ve only read the first two chapters, and already I’m gripped. I know that there’s a great deal of intrigue to come and that there may not be a happy ending, but I’m fine with that. I’m just saving up enough money to let me stay in a really posh hotel for a month.

A Certain Naughtiness

I’ve not been at work much recently as I’ve been unwell, but as my husband pointed out, shopping is called retail therapy for a reason and I do have £30 of Waterstones vouchers sitting in my handbag waiting to be used appropriately. He thought it would do me good to venture outside and blow my cobwebs off. Shame, I was nurturing the Miss Havisham look… So it was with some trepidation that I ventured into town, fought off two panic attacks and ventured into the hallowed rooms of my local Waterstones. And then panicked again, because they’d had a move round and I wasn’t sure where anything was. And I still have change from my vouchers before you ask!

It didn’t take me long to find something that I wanted – The Night Manager by John le Carre. This has nothing to do with the forthcoming BBC series, I promise*, but I have read quite a lot of le Carre over the years and this one seems to have slipped through the net. And it was on BOGOF so… ** The other book was a small history of Russia immediately prior to the revolution which I’ve had on my Amazon wishlist for a while. The recent BBC production of War and Peace has made me want to find out a bit more about Imperial Russia and this seemed like a fairly good place to start.

But on my way home, I felt incredibly guilty. I have hundreds of books, most of which I have read but there are still a sneaky few that have ended up on shelves without having had a bookmark go near them. I really can’t justify buying any more books, even if I do salve my conscience a bit by passing them on once I’ve read them. In a sense, it’s a shame they were Waterstones vouchers – they would have been more useful to me if they’d been for BHS or Marks, I could do with some new undies. Anyway, there we are. I have been naughty and remain strangely unrepentant. Funny how book shopping can do that to you…

* If you believe that, I shall endeavour to sell you a used car.
** That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.