Thursday 3 November 2022

Serendipitous Reads

My recent reading has been largely dictated by charity-shop serendipity, which is not a bad method (or lack of). Having never read any Rosamond Lehmann, I snapped up a copy of her The Swan in the Evening, which I found to be a fascinating mixture of a memoir of her early years – very sharply and vividly written – and an account of the sudden, shocking death of her beloved daughter, Sally. What happened after Sally's death left her firmly convinced that survival after physical death is a fact of life – but The Swan in the Evening is no spiritualist tract; Lehmann is far too intelligent, and too good a writer, for that. It is simply an account of her own experiences and what she drew from them – consolation of course, but also a new way of looking at the world and the nature of reality. It's an extraordinary book, and would be worth reading just for the recollections of Rosamond's childhood. 
  Next came Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris by Derek Johns, which made a brief appearance on this blog (here).
  Then a book that might be seen as a kind of sequel to The Swan in the EveningThe Perfect Stranger by P.J. Kavanagh, who was Sally Lehmann's husband. Once again it is partly an autobiography and partly a memorial to Sally, but the difference is that Kavanagh's autobiog occupies nearly all the book, and Sally's death occurs right at the end, with nothing about what happened after. The book is in part the story of a truly extraordinary love – one that suddenly made sense of a life that, until he met Sally, had made very little – but it is also a remarkably honest, often funny account of a life that seemed to buffet Kavanagh from one adventure, or stretch of stupefying boredom, to another without much input from him: a Butlin's holiday camp, Switzerland, Paris, war in Korea, Oxford, Barcelona, and finally Java, where Sally died. 
  Here's one of the funnier passages. Kavanagh is trying to get into the BBC (always good for a laugh) and has presented them with a couple of ideas –

'They seemed enthusiastic, sent me away to work the ideas over. I did so – more enthusiasm – I even met the big boss, who delivered an impromptu lecture on the Medium (there was much talk of the Medium in those days) which finished up: "I don't care what it is – Hamlet or I Love Lucy – the script is télevision" (the pros always call it télevision while the rest of the world says televísion) "the script is Tee Vee if you can see it – er – see it – er – visually! ... Isn't that so?" Four heads in the room nodded together like metronomes, four pairs of eyes fastened themselves sightlessly on toe-caps or on the ceiling, lost in wonder at the profundity of this thought."
[I don't remember there being two ways of pronouncing television – the pros' version has prevailed.]

 A little later he tries radio: 

'I did a feature for sound radio on the Pre-Raphaelites. Spent weeks on the British Museum on that, found some interesting stuff and fell in love with Morris. I showed the long-hand draft to a Features producer – more enthusiasm – he stuffed it in his pocket and we went off to celebrate on the strength of it, until I had to drop out through lack of cash. When I next succeeded in tracking him down he confessed that at some stage of the celebration after I'd left him he'd lost it.'

[In the end Kavanagh was given a job as an Assistant Floor Manager in Television – one for which he was spectacularly unsuited. Such is the BBC.]

  And now I'm reading James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (found in charity shop this week). This is a terrific read – 'Riveting', Hilary Mantel called it, and she's not far wrong – and offers fascinating insights into the origins and development of the curious, remarkably tenacious idea that the 'man from Stratford' could not possibly have written the works of Shakespeare. Spoiler alert: he did. 

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