Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Summer reading

I'm in a book group and each year the members put forward their suggestions for the twelve months ahead. Each person is given just a minute or two to 'sell' their proposal, which will later be put to the vote.
Ours is a very sociable group. Everyone brings a contribution to the meal and we always eat well and have a lot of opinions!

 I have learnt to beware the choices of the silver-tongued Welshman in our group, but this year all was forgiven because he suggested 'Tender'. I hadn't read it for over thirty years and couldn't find my old copy anywhere. I bought a new edition at the airport terminal and was so pleased that I did so, not only an excellent introduction to the novel, but also Scott Fitzgerald's original structure. 
My new book starts on the beach and we first see Nicole and Dick Diver through other characters' eyes. Their history is only later revealed in flashback. I much preferred this structure, it is how we get to know people in real life. 

It was the perfect book to read whilst lying under a woven sunshade in total indolence, having noted with satisfaction that the sand each morning had been carefully raked!

I find this such a moving book. Making the link between Dick and Fitzgerald's own life, it disturbs me that he could write so knowingly of all that goes wrong and yet do nothing to help himself. The ending is very quietly and ironically written, which makes it incredibly powerful.

Of course, as soon as I got home, not one, but two copies of the book were easily spotted in the bookcase! Both were the reconstructed text, where the 'flashback' chapters had been rearranged to be in chronological order.

I looked a little more carefully along the bookshelves and discovered three books of his short stories. And 'Love in the Night' even ends happily - how wonderful is that!

A book group choice that I absolutely HATED (suggested by the infamous Welshman!) was Ivy Compton-Burnett's,  'A Heritage and it's History'. It befell me to introduce it, so I know far more about her than I would wish to know, having plowed through a large and, oh, so thorough biography. her writing seemed to me to be everything that Fitzgerald's is not.
If you are a fan of her work, please explain to me why.
This was another book group choice for this summer and demonstrates why it's so good to be in a group. I didn't vote for it. Beneath the title it states, "his masterpiece of war and military life." That and a name that sounds like a member of the rat pack would be enough for me to ignore the book completely. But other members voted it in, and I'm so glad that they did. It defied all my expectations.

The other books that I read come from the fortnightly mobile library, which very conveniently stops right outside our gate. There isn't a huge choice, and it is pot luck as to what's on the bus.
'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' was a happy choice, one of those feel good novels that it's great to escape into now and then.

For our next book group meeting I'm reading 'What I Loved'. Not very impressed so far, and I keep arguing with the main character's/author's statements about art, among other complaints.
Should make for a lively evening!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Rolf-Dietrich Ratzmann and a summer to remember.

Rolf and I first met in the etching studio at Leeds College of Art. He stood behind me, peering over my shoulder as I brushed away the bubbles forming on a zinc plate in the acid bath. He was a great hulk of a youth, transferred from Dortmund Art School on a scholarship to study at Leeds.

The life room at Leeds College of Art

Josie, Cliff, Alan, Dave, Val and Hazel.

Rolf was very intense, with a forceful personality and a great capacity for enjoyment. Whilst he could be exhausting and annoying, life was certainly never dull in his company. I introduced him to Peter and the three of us formed a close friendship that we imagined would last for ever.

Peter and I traveled to Rolf's home just after England had beaten Germany in the World Cup. The train was full of disgruntled German students having plenty to say about Nobby Stiles, none of it polite! No one else appeared to be English, so we kept a low profile!
We were met at the station by a sheik in flowing robes, together with his chauffeur in peaked cap. Rolf was the sheik. He drove ahead in his battered old Va Wa and we followed in style in the chauffeur-driven car. It took most of the journey to his parents' home to discover that the 'chauffeur' was actually Rolf's school-friend, Norbert, now a medical student.
After five years of study this was going to be our last long summer break. In the autumn Peter and I were to start work as art college lecturers in different parts of the country. Before then we intended to enjoy a memorable summer.

Our destination was 'Franchieux', a half-derelict farm in the south of France. Peter, Rolf, Norbert and I were joined by Eckart, another former school-friend of Rolf's, who was studying architecture.
'Franchieux' and its abandoned valley were beautiful. The only evidence of any other human being was the distant sound of a woodcutter. He started work in the early morning and stopped before the heat of the afternoon, leaving us to perfect silence.

What did we do? 
We painted and drew, we talked and sang, we cleared the water storage of plants and silt so that we could swim. We picked plums in the deserted orchard and drank from our barrels of 'everyday' and 'special' wines. Eckart worked on the building, repairing walls.

Eckart walling.

At night I could hear rustling in the eaves of the farmhouse which I thought must be rats. "No!" said the German boys, "it's a sebenschlaffer." According to them it was an innocent creature, something like a squirrel. I remained unconvinced so they set about trying to catch it - with no success. Was I merely being humoured?

We were invited to the holiday home of a German art tutor where we ate an excellent supper. To my surprise, Rolf, usually an ardent anglophile, became very disparaging of English cooking. (He had eaten very well on numerous occasions at my parents' home!) 
The following week we returned the invitation and shopped for a couple of chickens at the local market. I jointed the portions with care. Cooked in herbs and wine those chickens smelt divine! Everyone ate well, apart from Rolf. He could find no meat and complained that the birds were all bone. 'French birds,' I told him quietly.
Only when our guests had gone home did I point out to Rolf that it was not a good idea to be rude about English cooking when I was the one preparing the food. I had jointed out two boney pieces of back and served them up, just for him!

One evening we went to the amphitheatre in Vaison la Romaine where the gypsy guitarist, Manitas de Plata was performing. We sat under the stars and listened to his music and the strange, disembodied bird and animal calls made by his appreciative audience.

Every day we woke to warmth and sunshine. I swam in the cleared water storage, a dammed stream, with my pet duck, bought as  duckling at the market. 
It was a magical summer.

Our friendship continued and our lives followed a similar pattern, teaching art, happily married, both households with two daughters. We met often and I was always greeted by being lifted off my feet and swung in the air. It was no surprise to me when an article was written in the German newspapers about Rolf having successfully grappled a large brown bear that had been attacking a woman!
Rolf was always keen to reminisce about our student days. There was strong competition between the Leeds art school and the university students, which involved gatecrashing balls, raves and parties. Rolf's favourite memory was of the end of a party where the three of us were sitting in a room when a university student walked in, trying to look as though he should be there. He studied us, then gave up the pretence and left without a word being said. Pure Pinter! Rolf never tired of recounting this, while slapping his knees and guffawing.

Ulla, Mrs Ratzmann and Julia at Hogenbogen

Rolf died suddenly at the age of forty-six. No one since has swung me off my feet and some of my own past has gone with him.
This week I looked on google and discovered that a street has been named after him. I expect it to be a big street, and colourful!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

I'd like to be..

The weather is warm and I would like to be pootling on a beach

or on a sailing boat
or sitting at the end of Kerasia jetty .