Small Things Like These

Set in a small Irish town during the run up to Christmas in 1985, everybody gathers to light the tree and sing carols. But the convent on the edge of town, has always been a source of rumours. It has a training school and laundry attached to it but no one is quite sure who’s living there with The Good Shepherd nuns.

Bill Furlong, the local coal and timber merchant counts his blessings. Married to Eileen and with five daughters doing well at school, he’s happy with his lot and has ‘a deep, private joy that these children were his own.‘ He knows that it could have been very different. His own mother was 16 when she had him and could easily have ended up in the laundry had the wealthy widow she worked for not taken them in. When he delivers some coal to the convent he comes face to face with life inside and with one child in particular.

Bill was given a copy of A Christmas Carol as a boy and this year he’s asked for David Copperfield and I thought there was a touch of Dickensian sentimentality running through this tale. I found Bill a really believable character, he doesn’t have much but he has enough, he sees the value in the small things around him but he also sees the child in the convent. Can he make a difference and confront the complicit silence of the town or does he turn away and pretend not to have seen?

A Film For November: Throne of Blood

    Shrouds of mist rise over a stark landscape as two horseman ride towards us – it can only be Macbeth, and it is, at least the basic plot. But in this 1957 film, shot in black and white, Akira Kurosawa has moved the action from 11th century Scotland to feudal Japan.

    Returning to their lords castle through ghostly Spiders Web forest, samurai warriors Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) encounter a spirit who predicts their futures. Firstly Washizu will become Lord of the Northern Garrison, secondly he will become Lord of Spiders Web Castle and thirdly Miki’s son will succeed him. When the first part of the spirits prophecy comes true, Washizu’s scheming wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), urges him to speed up the rest of the prophecy by murdering his lord and usurping his place. Fed by his wife’s thirst for status, his own ambition and sense of insecurity see him transformed from a respected warrior to a power mad dictator, willing to do anything to retain the throne.

    Continue reading “A Film For November: Throne of Blood”

    The Fell

    It’s contemporary novellas this week on the Novellas in November challenge and I don’t think I’ve read a book this contemporary for, well, years. Set in November 2020, Kate and her teenage son Matt are isolating because they’ve had contact with someone with Covid and their neighbour Alice is isolating because she’s extremely vulnerable.

    Two things struck me immediately I started reading, the first was how quickly I had forgotten the minutiae of lockdown rules in England and secondly that Kate, Matt and Alice could have all been characters in Summerwater. Our relations with each other were so well captured in that book, and here again, Sarah Moss manages to capture the essence of human connection as the story unfolds and Kate, who can’t stand the confines of home any longer, starts to walk beyond the garden gate.

    As Kate walks, the beauty of the fells and her need for space to breathe alternates with the consequences of her actions. When she falls the writing becomes almost stream of consciousness in her delirium; for Matt and Alice, their anxiety and worry is heightened by confusion over the self-isolating rules and for the mountain rescue team it’s another night away from their own families.

    While the story develops into a dramatic search, it’s also a poignant look at the everyday moments we missed and freshly valued. With some fun at the expense of lockdown terminology, I found this an insightful reminder of a very strange time.


    When I saw there was a buddy read included in Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca I was delighted, surely I could manage one novella in a month? Well, not only did I read it, I lapped it up in one sitting. Claire Keegan was a new author for me and Foster was the most beautiful introduction to her writing.

    At first glance it’s a simple story of a young girl in rural Ireland who goes to stay with some relations, the Kinsella’s, while her mother is getting ready for the arrival of a new baby.

    Their busy days full of household chores, animals and the farm are described in language as measured as their actions but underneath questions are bubbling and it’s soon apparent that there’s a mutual need for comfort. Time and space, a feeling of belonging and being needed are captured perfectly in 88 unsentimental pages.

    Frost in May

    This is the story of 4 years in the life of Fernanda ‘Nanda’ Grey. It opens in 1908 when Nanda is 9 years old and being taken by her father to her new school. Lippington is a convent school of the order of The Five Wounds and home to girls of old European, wealthy Catholic families. Nanda is singled out from the beginning for being middle class and the daughter of a ‘convert’. The school is on the outskirts of London but could be anywhere, ‘catholicism isn’t a religion, it’s a nationality’ says one of the older girls and a Lippington girl is a Child of the Five Wounds for the rest of her life.

    The cold, clear atmosphere is described through Nanda’s eyes. The school commands absolute authority, every child is under constant observation, not allowed to walk about in two’s or form close friendships.

    ‘Some of that severity which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule which you are privileged to follow . . . We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

    Continue reading “Frost in May”

    Just Watching A Film: 2018

    I thought I would try and have a more organised ‘header’ and learn how to make drop down boxes. This has obviously taken me hours and hours of frustration and then resulted in my losing the opening page of my film challenge altogether. Somehow by accident I found a version hidden away but it wants me to post it all over again before I’m allowed to include it in the revamped header. So please accept my apologies this is old news. . .

    After taking up Roof Beam Readers challenge to read 12 books in 12 months from my TBR pile, I thought why stop at books?  I’ve got all sorts of things I’m always wanting to do and never get around too.  A whole new notebook full of lists has been made and one of them is 12 films I really should watch. I asked a couple of movie buffs to help me put together a list and this is it, my To Be Watched challenge.  

    Continue reading “Just Watching A Film: 2018”

    The Exiles Return

    Elisabeth von Ephrussi was born into a Jewish banking dynasty in 1899, her scholarly father was Viktor von Ephrussi and her beautiful socialite mother the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla. Raised in the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, she was at the centre of a city that had become a great collection of nationalities and ethnic groups. As her grandson Edmund de Waal says in his introduction ‘her memories were of a polyglot upbringing in a polyglot city.’ She attended the University, took up poetry and writing and had a significant correspondence with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1923 she married a Dutchman Henrik de Waal and after living in Paris and Switzerland settled in England.

    In 1938 after the German occupation, Elisabeth returned to Vienna and in 1939 managed to get her father to safety in England. At the end of the war she returned again to find out about the rest of her family, and fought for a decade to get justice for the wrongs that had been committed, battling the hostile authorities. This sketchy family history is important because this is such a deeply personal novel. Not published during her lifetime, it was written sometime in the 1950’s and is set during 1954 and ’55 in Allied-occupied Vienna when the city was still divided into occupation zones. This is a novel about finding a home, but very specifically about finding a home in Vienna after the Anschluss. Told through the stories of 3 exiles, each seems to encapsulate something of Elisabeth’s own experience and the adversity she found; the drama that unfolds is as thrilling as anything shown at the Vienna State Opera.

    Continue reading “The Exiles Return”

    A Film For October: Sunset Boulevard

    Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screen writer fleeing from the insurance men who want to re posses his car. He reaches a seemingly derelict mansion and hides his car in the garage. Of course he gets out to have a snoop around and is met by the butler who takes him inside. The house is owned by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) a forgotten silent-screen star, now almost a recluse, hiding herself away except for the odd game of bridge with a group of other ‘waxworks‘!

    Once Norma realises she has a screenwriter in the house she asks Joe to read the script she’s been writing for a potential film about Salome – a film in which she’ll star, and see her triumphal return to the screen. Needing the money Joe agrees, but once he’s moved in, the full extent of her demented fantasy world becomes clear.

    Written and directed by Billy Wilder in 1950, this was utterly gripping right from the start. Narrated by Joe as a flashback to six months earlier this was thrilling and intense, ghoulish and at times bitterly funny as it dramatises the rejection by tinseltown of its once brightest star.

    Continue reading “A Film For October: Sunset Boulevard”

    A Film For September: La Ciénaga

    If I was asked to sum this film up in a sentence it would be that this is the kind of film where the loo seat is always left up.

    In the opening scene of La Ciénaga (The Swamp) a group of adults are drinking around the swimming pool of their summer house, the camera swoops in and around them focusing on separate body parts as if it’s another character. Mecha (Graciela Borges) collects some glasses but falls drunkenly. None of the adults come to help or even seem to realise what’s happened, it’s the children watching through a window that pull the glass out of her chest and take her to the hospital.

    Mecha’s friend, possibly her cousin, Tali (Mercedes Morán) comes to stay with her own children. There’s now quite a crowd in the stifling heat. Ages range from middle age to young adult to teenager and child. The house is shabbily decadent; the maids are Collas, Indians and accused of stealing; the pool is always filthy; there’s a festering quality to the sunbathing on rusty metal chairs. In the sticky, uncomfortable heat no one wears many clothes and they all sprawl around in each others beds doing nothing for a lot of the time.

    Continue reading “A Film For September: La Ciénaga”

    Wheels within Wheels

    Beginning on her birth day November 28th, 1931 this wonderful memoir covers the first 30 years of Dervla Murphy’s unusual life. Her parents Fergus and Kathleen Murphy had arrived in Lismore, County Waterford on their wedding day with all their possessions and a golden haired collie called Kevin in the cab of a lorry. They rented half a decaying mini-mansion and Fergus became the county librarian. As Dubliners the locals were already suspicious, that they were penniless and displayed eccentric bourgeois tastes the reception was hostile and resentful. But that doesn’t seem to have mattered a jot, Fergus and Kathleen travelled together around the county setting up branch libraries, sleeping in the small mobile library van to save money needed to buy more books. When the Doctor arrives at the library to tell Fergus he has a baby daughter, Fergus wraps up the 9 records of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and walks 4 miles to the hospital in Cappoquin, where with a borrowed gramophone they start family life.

    The essence of this memoir is answering the question ‘who makes us what we are?’ what is the series of intricately connected events, plots and circumstances that influence each other and decide who we become? The countryside around her, her insatiable love of books, her richly unconventional home and her republican relations, all gather in her determined, strong-willed self.

    For my tenth birthday my parents gave me a second-hand bicycle and Pappa sent me a second-hand atlas. Already I was an enthusiastic cyclist, though I had never before owned a bicycle, and soon after my birthday I resolved to cycle to India one day. I have never forgotten the exact spot, on a steep hill near Lismore, where this decision was made. Half-way up I rather proudly looked at my legs, slowly pushing the pedals round, and the thought came -If I went on doing this for long enough I could get to India.’ The simplicity of the idea enchanted me. I had been pouring over my new atlas every evening travelling in fancy. Now I saw how I could travel in reality – alone, independent and needing very little money.

    Continue reading “Wheels within Wheels”