I see that I haven't posted here since I was in New York. I do seem to have been exceptionally occupied since I got back, but I think it's more than that. I don't know what I want to write, and I think that's because I don't know where I am at the moment, in terms of learning to live alone - or perhaps simply how to live. Like Scrooge, I need to change my way.
At the moment I have plenty of things to do, at least during the day, including bits of writing; but I don't have a major piece of writing on hand. People keep asking me what I'm going to write next (now that The Colour of Food is out in print), or worse, what I'm actually writing now, and I have no answer. So I brush them off politely, and go and do the next thing on my list instead.
Almost every day, there's another warm response to the memoir - in a letter, an email, a phone call, or a chance encounter with someone I haven't seen for a while. So I'm getting plenty of encouragement to embark on something.But what? I don't write fiction - I can't make things up, or transform experience into something new. And I don't yet seem to have any coherent idea to build on. I'm toying with the idea of writing pieces on this blog, just to play around with some very vague ideas. In the meantime, I'm hoping to be as happy and as I can over Christmas and New Year, and I hope the same for you too.
Yesterday I saw one of the great treasures of the Morgan Library: the Crusader Bible. I was lucky - the exhibition opened on 17 October. It isn't really a bible at all, because originally there was no text, just 283 incredibly detailed, gold-laden images of successive scenes from the Old Testament. The book is thought to have been originally made around 1250 for King Louis IX of France, who later became St Louis. He commissioned the glorious Sainte Chapelle In Paris.
But like other rulers of our own time, he was also obsessed with waging war in the East, mounting seven crusades, the last of which killed him. (In those days rulers did at least lead their own troops, and knew at first hand what carnage ensued, though that didn't put them off doing it over and over again.)
The Crusader Bible was designed to shore up Louis' reputation as a Christian crusader against the infidel, I.e. the Muslims. So every Old Testament story is shown in contemporary terms, with the Israelites depicted as Crusaders endlessly battling the Philistines, etc, etc. this makes it a remarkable record of 13th century life.
This book has had almost as eventful a history as the Sarajevo Haggadah (discussed recently on National Radio, and the subject of Geraldine Brooks' extraordinary novel, People of the Book). Over the centuries it travelled from France to Italy, Poland, Persia, Egypt, England, and finally New York. Various owners added captions and wrote notes in the margins.
It's about to be rebound, and this means the library has been able, for the first time, to put 40 of the pictures on display. My favourites - a welcome relief from men fighting each other - were the ones showing the story of Ruth.
But looking at all of them again, I was struck by how each ideology and each side involved in violent conflict has confidently portrayed alien "others" in their own image, only an utterly mistaken or evil version, needing to be either wiped out or shown the right path, regardless of the deep cultural and historical gulfs between them.
Today I got up the courage to tackle the Metropolitan Museum. The queue wasn't too bad, only about 10 minutes' wait (I knew better than to try checking my coat), and I had a somewhat limited but sensible plan: head straight for he Impressionists (the purple bits on the map).
I had already had a goodly sample of other periods: medieval art at the Cloisters, Old Masters at the Frick, and Expressionism at the Neue Galerie, with MOMA to come next week. (Cubism at the Met opens to the public then too.) So as one does at giant museums, I strode purposefully past assorted wonders until I got to Degas in Room 810, with only a couple of stops to check I was going the right way.
It's not only the marvellously rich, warm, human paintings themselves - It's the associations they have. So there was one of Monet's many studies of Rouen Cathedral, this time bathed in midday sun. Harvey and I saw the cathedral in Rouen in 1999. We'd seen a group of these paintings before then, I think in Paris.
There were Giverny paintings too - one of the earlier water lily pictures, two very late almost abstract ones, and a path bordered with irises. Plus a vase of chrysanthemums. Thanks to our English friends who brought their car across to join us in Rouen, we managed to get to Giverny on the last day it was open, when the summer flowers had gone but the water lilies were still there - and swathes of chrysanthemums.
The print edition of my memoir has arrived. I talked to Kathryn Ryan about it on Monday, and yesterday it was launched with a lunchtime talk at Unity. It was the first time I'd ever had a lengthy queue form for me to sign books.
And next Wednesday (Heaven help me) I'm going to be simultaneously cooking and talking about my book on Good Morning at 9am. Live. For seven minutes. I just need to get through without (a) burning or dropping something, which happens frequently in my own kitchen, or (b) forgetting the name of my book. If the leaders of political parties can manage this (though some have definitely been better at it than others), surely I can.
I ought to be feeling really happy about all this - and of course I am. But not entirely, and I know why. I hadn't even thought about it beforehand, but this is the first book I've had published without Harvey at my side. Of course the e-book came out last year, but somehow that wasn't quite the same. Having the memoir in print suddenly brought home to me the fact that for every other book either he or I published, we were there to cheer each other on.
But in another sense he is here, because he figures so largely in the book. So I just have to hang on to that and be grateful that I had him by my side for all those years. Still - I do wish he could have been here to welcome me home next week from my TV cooking session, regardless of how it goes, with a wide, warm grin, a large gin and tonic and a good dinner.
"It’s a common and easy enough distinction, this separation of books into those we read because we want to and those we read because we have to, and it serves as a useful marketing trope for publishers, especially when they are trying to get readers to take this book rather than that one to the beach. But it’s a flawed and pernicious division. This linking of pleasure and guilt is intended as an enticement, not as an admonition: reading for guilty pleasure is like letting one’s diet slide for a day—naughty but relatively harmless. The distinction partakes of a debased cultural Puritanism, which insists that the only fun to be had with a book is the frivolous kind, or that it’s necessarily a pleasure to read something accessible and easy. Associating pleasure and guilt in this way presumes an anterior, scolding authority—one which insists that reading must be work."
I was thinking about this distinction at the book fair today. There were scores of copies of recent mass market best sellers, from Philippa Gregory to Stephen King, but there were also plenty of copies of the "classics" of every era - books that people have so consistently responded to that they have embedded themselves in the life of readers in English everywhere.
Today was the first day of the annual DCM Bookfair. It's been a milestone in my life for as long as I've lived in Wellington. Like everything else, it's been affected by change. For years, Harvey and I went together, then I went alone. After he died I started volunteering there, mainly because I wanted to help DCM - but also because I thought working at the fair would prevent me from buying too many books.
There is, of course, no such thing. I've yet to see a reality show about people who can barely move in their house because of their hoards of books. I reckon books make great wall insulation, too...
Anyway, this year I had my son home for a holiday from his teaching job in China. His timing was perfect, because for years I've had to hunt out books for him and then post them to him at exorbitant cost, since NZ Post has stubbornly refused to recognise the vital importance of having a special rate for books. This year he could choose his own, and carry them back himself. Meanwhile I would do my morning stint, followed by a brief bout of shopping.
I was very good. While I was channelling my inner librarian - floor-walking, answering questions ("Where is the chicklit?"), tidying up the tables, and (my favourite thing) relocating misplaced titles - I saw more than a few books I wanted, but I didn't collect any until I was free. Of course, by then some of the ones I'd spotted had gone, but that was the luck of the game - I just wasn't meant to have those particular books. After all, there were plenty of others to choose from.
I reckon you could get an entire lifetime's education, as well as vast amounts of pleasure, from what turns up at the fair. Of course I saw quite a few that Harvey would have liked, but never mind, he certainly never went short of books. Here's what I ended up with.
The walking plan is going quite well - better, as you can see, than the blogging plan. I keep getting distracted by books to read and review, friends to phone and see, lunches and dinners to cook, the fact that it's warmer down in the living room than it is up here at the computer - and a mild winter addiction to House Rules.
I'm well aware that such programmes are carefully designed to hook you in. The contestants are obviously hand-picked to be compared and contrasted - the older couple, the parents of seven kids, the rough-and-ready ones ... though I come a bit unstuck on the two very similar-looking young blonde women and their handsome husbands, I tend to get them and their "zones" confused.
Like most TV contest series, this one has a subtle and uncomfortable affinity with the appalling Depression-era marathon dance competitions so effectively captured in Sydney Pollack's 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don't They. In those contests, too, the audience was manipulated along with the contestants. It's a hymn to conspicuous consumption, too - this week the couples have been hard at work tearing down the bits of their renovated houses they don't like and replacing brand new stuff with another lot of new stuff.
But I keep coming back for more. I started watching while I was organising the bathroom reno. That one room took me a couple of months to plan and it took my nice tradesmen weeks to complete. They didn't work slowly, they were just fitting my small job in with all their other, larger jobs, waiting for things to arrive or dry properly, and so on. (Only in TV-land do tradesmen appear instantly and either all at once, or immediately after each other, and heaven knows when or if anything gets to dry or set or whatever.)
Of course, a good part of the appeal was that what the HR couples were expected to cope with every week made my bathroom seem a piece of cake. And I didn't have to suffer inspection by two snooty designers at the end. (Maybe I should have asked my viewing friends to fill out little score-cards.)
The baser aspect of HR's hold on me has to do with my own pretensions to home decor expertise. I like watching what everyone comes up with as they wrestle with a swarm of trendy "house rule" style concepts from "junkshop chic" to "modern rustic" to "vintage luxe", while dealing with the untrendy realities of rotten framing, asbestos linings and cockroach infestations. I have no idea myself exactly what such phrases mean, but it is a mean kind of fun to watch obviously awful choices being made (the hideous wall-art, the sacking ceiling...)
What really interests me most, though, is the whole notion that it's fine for complete strangers to come charging into your home, turf out pretty much everything you own, and replace it with stuff they have chosen that has no history or meaning for you apart from its newness and trendiness. I remember when I wanted to replace some of our kitchen plates and bowls because I'd seen some really pretty Hooker's Fruit ones on sale at Briscoe's (and I needed the right size bowls for microwaving Harvey's porridge).
Harvey looked hurt and said, in a puzzled sort of way, "Aren't you loyal to the old china?" He agreed only when I pointed out that we hadn't actually chosen the ones I wanted to replace, he had won them by buying a bottle of brandy at the local liquor shop. The were thick and white and we'd never liked them all that much, but we'd felt we shouldn't look gift china in the mouth, so to speak.
He had been born into the Depression. I grew up in better post-war times, but even so, when I first got married there was very little around in the way of affordable, attractive household goods. So we both had a tendency to hang on to and hoard things once we got them, even if we really didn't need or want them any more. But we also both cherished things harking back to our respective pasts and our lives together - books and pictures, inevitably, but also familiar pieces of furniture, pottery, china, even kitchen tools (I wrote about some of these in my memoir). And now Harvey is gone, they mean even more to me. I can't help hoping (almost certainly in vain) that somehow it will be my son, not me, who will have to deal with their disposal. Meanwhile
I can enjoy shifting them around into new lights. The bathroom has at last
provided me with a place to put the collection of small Crown Lynn vases that
I've stubbornly hung on to since we moved here seven years ago. And in case
you're wondering, I've called the bathroom concept I was working with
"upstyled '50s retro". Just so you know. You may have missed
them on Facebook, so here they are again, for your viewing pleasure.
I see my last post here was the end of April. It hasn't been a good time for writing anything much since, but I think something's shifting now.
Just for completion's sake, I'll post a couple of bathroom photos here. Is it finished? Yes, and no. Something strange has surfaced in the vinyl floor, so I'm waiting to see what happens about that before all the final details can be finished off. Anyway, in the meantime I can use it and I'm enjoying it very much, especially the brightness of the blind I made for it. (If you read me on Facebook you'll have seen this already, but Facebook just flows on forever and everything drifts past and away. I'm kidding myself, I know, but a blog has at least the illusion of being more lasting.)
So now I need another project. I've been agonising over what it might be, and getting depressed in the process. Something had to be done, so I decided that until I got a good idea, I'd make one small simple change that I knew would be good for me and, more importantly, would instantly make me feel better - I would go for a walk every day.
On the whole I've managed to do it, helped by a spell of fairly fine weather, and I do feel more cheerful, or rather, perhaps, more hopeful (a good friend has pointed me to the notion of "reasonable hope" espoused by Kaethe Weingarten). I'm also getting a new hard drive made for me by my excellent computer expert, so now I urgently need to start clearing out the vast cupboard full of obsolete documents and emails that my computer has become over the years. And my third change is to return to posting on both my blogs more regularly, instead of endlessly deferring it and making do with Facebook instead, which is not at all the same thing. All good for wintering.
This Piece of Earth: a year in my New Zealand garden
Harvey's memoir, now available as an Awa Press e-book - click on the cover to see how to buy it.
MY FOOD BLOG
Click on the lemons to go to Something Else To Eat
At my book launch - Lois Daish, me, Mary Varnham of Awa Press. Click on the photo to go to the book's Facebook page.
Harvey's last anthology, These I Have Loved: My favourite New Zealand poems, published by Steele Roberts, was launched on 10/10/2010. To see what Beattie's Book Blog has to say about it, click on the cover.
"I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most." — Margaret Atwood