Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Life in Letters - Up With the Larks: Starting Again in Cornwall

Up With the Larks: Starting Again in Cornwall - Tessa Hainsworth

I mentioned in my introductory post to A Life in Letters, that I would be reading a wide range of books related to letters and letter writing. This week instead of reading a collection of letters I read a memoir about a letter collector, i.e. the postman, in this case, a postwoman.

Up With the Larks tells the story of Tessa Hainsworth and her family as they adjust to life in a small seaside village. Tessa Hainsworth leaves her high-powered job in London and in an escape from the rat race, moves, with her husband and two young children, to South Cornwall. 

The book charts their struggles to keep financially afloat after their initial business plan designed to provide their livelihood in Cornwall collapses,
"Our golden dream was slowly turning to dust as we worried ourselves sick night after night. By this time we didn't even know if we could afford to move back to London, where we could at least find work."
Forced to find jobs, Tessa and her husband apply for everything from receptionist to taxi driver and supermarket assistant manager. Her husband ends up working multiple part-time jobs and Tessa, much to the surprise of her friends and family, gets a job with Royal Mail delivering the post.

Tessa is initiated into the life of a postwoman during the busy pre-Christmas delivery weeks by barking dogs, savage cats and suspicious locals. Ms Hainsworth's storytelling is both witty and engaging and the parts of the memoir that deal with her daily round and the lives of her customers (particularly the sympathetic descriptions of elderly Mr Hawker and the B&B owners Martin and Emma) make this book an enjoyable read.

There were elements of the writing that made me squirm in my seat and think that the book could have done with more strident editing. On its third appearance, I was thoroughly fed up with the figurative use of clotted cream, e.g. "one minute as thick as clotted cream and the next sparring with each other". Also, when her husband returns from providing a massage at the local, upmarket hotel she says, "I hope it was a rich Eastern European princess who was so thrilled by your exquisite application of healing oils and massage that she gave you a huge tip". Shouldn't that be Middle Eastern princess? I think you would be hard-pressed to find an Eastern European princess anywhere, let alone in Cornwall.  

Despite these pedantic niggles, I did enjoy this quick and easy read. Tessa Hainsworth's memoir must have enjoyed a measure of commercial success, as since the publication of Up With The Larks  in 2009 a further two books (Seagulls in The Attic and Home to Roost) about village life on the Roseland peninsula have been published.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Life in Letters - The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Part Two

Enclosed sketch from a letter dated 16th October 1888.

I finished The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh this week and, I think I may have found a contender for my book of the year. 

Vincent Van Gogh's letters have been fascinating to read and have really changed any preconceived ideas I may have had about the great artist. I didn't really know that much about Van Gogh before I picked up this book - I love some of his paintings, but I had the general idea that he was a madman who cut off his ear and eventually committed suicide.

Reading these letters showed me a man who was dedicated to the creation of art and who longed for close relationships and a family, but who faced obstacles (poor health and poverty) in the pursuit of both of these goals. 

The letters in the second half of the book detail Vincent's disputes with his mother and father and the strain that this puts on his relationship with his brother Theo (to whom most of the letters are addressed). The close relationship which the Van Gogh brothers clearly had is one of the elements of the letters that attracted me when I started to read the book. That their relationship is sometimes strained is understandable when you take into account that Theo more or less supported Vincent throughout his adult life by sending him money to live and buy painting equipment.

Van Gogh's father died suddenly in March 1885 and from that time Vincent's relationship with his family (his mother and sisters) seemed slightly better. However, he still felt frustrated with Theo (an art dealer) who did not seem able, or willing, to sell any of his work neither as a professional nor in an individual capacity. 

In November 1885 Vincent moved to Antwerp to attend lessens at the Antwerp Academy, although at that time he began to have the idea that a move to Paris and the ability to study the works in the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg would benefit his artistic progression. He discusses a move to Paris with Theo, but before any definite plans can be made he takes any mutual decision-making out of Theo's hands by turning up in Paris in March 1886.

The fertile Parisian period of Van Gogh's life when he came into contact with Impressionism for the first time, met many artists (including: Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, Emile Barnard) and developed his style significantly is not well covered in his letters. He shared an apartment with Theo, so they did not need to write to each other.

Vincent's Parisian period ended in February 1888 when he arrived in Arles, Provence. These letters were some of the most interesting, for me, when Vincent is full of ideas for his artist's union (a concept he developed which was designed to provide artists with a measure of financial security), his excitement at all the subjects available to paint in the surrounding area, his improving health and artistic development, notably in his fascination with colour theory.

The final letter in the collection does not feel like a goodbye as it contains Vincent's customary order for more paints. Nevertheless, on the 27th July Vincent shot himself and died two days later in his brother's arms.

Instead of finishing this post with Vincent's death I will leave you with a quotation about technique and the creation of art (I wrote out so many little snippets as I was reading, but this is one of my favourites),
"That art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man's soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self-righteousness in religion."

If you can't wait for a trip to your local library to pick up the Letters, or if you really want to read more right now, you can do so online at this fabulous resource

Sunday, 14 July 2013

A Life in Letters - The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

I am only half way through this collection (it is 500 pages long, so I will probably do a review of the second half next week). Although I have been slow with my reading this week it is not because this is a difficult read, in fact, quite the opposite. This is a collection to be savoured as, among other talents, Van Gogh was a fantastic letter writer.

The collection almost feels like a diary rather than letters as they are very personal and we only have one side of the correspondence. The book is filled, in the main, with Vincent's letters to his younger brother Theo, who must have been quite a hoarder as it seems that he kept every letter he received. There is at least one letter from Theo in the collection, but we only have that as Vincent sent the letter back to his brother with numbers in the margins as a time expedient way of responding to his brother's criticisms (Vincent had just had a blazing row with his mother and father and been thrown out of the house).

The letters start three years after Vincent began working at the art dealers Goupil & Cie. He begins his career in the Hague and then is transferred to the London branch in June 1873. Vincent eventually loses his job with the art dealers and spends some time working as a teacher before returning to the Netherlands and working in a bookshop. This period, when he loses his job in London and returns to the Netherlands to work in a bookshop, is Vincent's religious period and his letters are full of his plans to follow his father into his noble position as a clergyman. During a period working as an evangelist in a mining village in Belgium, Vincent decides to become an artist. The letters have not been as full of art as I would have expected (he mentions his predilection for Ingres paper (a type of drawing paper), live models for his drawings and the problems of finding a suitable studio), but I think that the focus on art and painting will increase in the second half of the collection, now that he has abandoned his religious leanings and his infatuation with his cousin Kee Vos.

Almost thirty pages of the book are taken up by Vincent's love problems. He falls violently in love with his widowed cousin Kee, who tells him that she could never be with him. Despite this setback, Vincent continues to ask her father for her hand in marriage and the letters of this period detail his perseverance in the face of adversity and his family's increasing discomfort in the face of his obsession.

These letters seem to contain all sorts of thoughts and feelings that many others might choose to write in a diary rather than in a letter. Vincent seemed to recognise the dramatic and revelatory nature of his letters, as in one letter he writes,
"Write to me soon and try to separate the wheat from the chaff in my letters. If there is some good in them, some truth, tant mieux,* but there is, of course, much in them that is more or less wrong or exaggerated perhaps, without my always being aware of it."
* So much the better.

It is this, I suppose, that makes the letters so readable.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A Life in Letters - Dear Friend & Gardener

Dear Friend & Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd

This is the first post for my Sundays in summer theme: A Life in Letters.

Dear Friend & Gardener is slightly unusual for a letter collection between two correspondents as it was published, in 1998, whilst both writers were still alive (Christopher Lloyd died in 2006). As both Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto are very popular garden writers, I suppose the publisher thought that a series of letters written by the two friends, over the space of two years (1996 and 1997), about gardening and their wider lives would sell well.

The letters didn't feel particularly contrived when I read them, and as Christopher Dixter writes in his last letter of the series,
"The main difference, from a totally private letter, is the extra explanatory matter that is necessary, as, in this letter, 'the autumn-flowering Crocus speciosus'. Obviously, 'autumn-flowering' would be omitted in a wholly private letter, as we both know this perfectly well. Apart from that, perhaps the odd indiscretion had to be foregone, but nothing much."
Perhaps, "the odd indiscretion" would have made the collection more thrilling to read, but I was happy enough with Chatto and Lloyd's discussions on plants, planting trends, fellow horticulturalists and horticultural students, the vagaries of the English weather, reminiscences of previous lecture tours they had taken together,  health problems, Glyndebourne and opera, family and friends and from Christopher Lloyd lots of news about Fergus (Fergus Garrett is now head-gardener at Great Dixter).

In addition to singing Fergus' praises in nearly every letter, Christopher Dixter also mentions his dogs a lot. Canna, in particular, gets plenty of mention in his letters, probably because at the beginning of the collection she is only about 6 months old and is not fully trained (or, perhaps she is, and she is just naughty). Some of his comments on Canna's behaviour were really quite disgusting: "Canna greeted me effusively, when I called the dogs, early this morning. That is ominous. She usually lies in bed. Sure enough, she had left me a 'present'. After I had rubbed her nose in it, she knew that that was over, and was effusively affectionate." He is obviously very attached to his "girls" as he calls them, and his letters see him relaxing on a sofa with the dogs alongside his right leg and sitting in the garden with his dogs at his side.

If you like gardening then this letter collection is definitely for you. However, if you have a passing interest in gardening but like to read about genteel days gone by then this collection would also appeal to you. There was something quite touching about these letters written by two (sometimes quite opinionated) experts in their field who were facing the challenge of dealing with the constrictions of aging bodies, if not, minds.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Summer Recess - A Life in Letters

A Life in Letters

Much as I am enjoying reading a short story, or a whole collection, every week,  I decided to have a change of theme for Sundays in the summer: The Library File's summer recess.

Throughout July and August I will be reading letter collections or books associated with letter writing and posting about what I have read on Sundays. I flirted with the idea of naming this theme "Literary Letters on a Sunday"; however, when it came to sourcing books from the library to read I discovered that some of the collections I was really interested in were not written by literary figures, so most of the books I will be blogging about will be literary letters but with a sprinkling of something else too.

If you have written a review of a letter collection please feel free to put a link to your blog post in the comments section of my Sunday posts.

Short Story Sunday will return in September.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Independent Booksellers Week - Plymouth

University Bookseller

In recognition of Independent Booksellers Week, which is taking place this week, I decided to take a trip to my local independent bookshop.

As the name suggests, University Bookseller is an academic bookshop that stocks textbooks for courses taught at Plymouth University which is just around the corner from the shop.

The bookshop is spread over two floors with the science and medical sections taking up the basement. In addition to the edifying academic books, the shop also displays a good selection of fiction titles.

The ground floor of the shop.
There are a couple of good secondhand bookshops in Plymouth, but University Bookseller is the only independent bookshop I know of in the city that sells new books. 

Do you have many independent bookshops where you live? Do you use your local bookshop, or do you prefer to buy online or from a chain store?