Windows to the past


It’s a joke on the Backlisted podcast that if you praise an author on Twitter, a kind of intellectual race to the bottom begins, with fans crawling out of the woodwork to ask if you’ve read variously the short stories / letters / journals yet. But it is true that letters are wonderful things to find – full of jokes, turns of phrase and bizarre incidents. Dora Carrington telling an inamorato that she loved him as much as raspberries and cream is one favourite; Sydney Smith recommending warm fires, cheering books and a pleasant bedroom for seeing our depression is another, and Dicke s was renowned for firing off rockets by every post.

So I think Letters Live, which has actors reading aloud a series of letters from the past – a kind of brought to life Letters of Note website – sounds just right for a night out at this time of year.

The tulips are too excitable

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

Sylvia Plath “Tulips”.

Being Plath this poem of course gets darker and darker, so I don’t want to quote the whole thing here, but her writing is extraordinary.


7 a.m. The light freshens. The plane trees harden in the square. Morning music starts on Radio 3 – the tingling antiseptic earwash of Telemann and Scarlatti – and I come awake at last and am healed.

My Day by Laurie Lee. Something cheering about the morning as we hit the tranche of dark mornings till early January when the tide starts to turn visibly again. Also, don’t forget this. Waking up is not always painful!

The fragrant egg and b.

“Jeeves,” I said, “I am not the old merry self this morning.”
“Indeed, sir?”
“No, Jeeves. Far from it. Far from the merry old self.”
“I am sorry to hear it, sir.”
He uncovered the fragrant egg and b. and I pronged a moody forkful.

From the ever excellent PG Wodehouse whose Leave it to Psmith joined me on holiday last month as I sat pronging Devil’s Food Cake in my pyjamas. Greatly relieved it’s now the weekend after a LONG week.

It was only just beginning

And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would be begin; and it was clear…that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.

Chekhov, Lady with a lapdog.

Dressed as a wasp or Viking

My second writing shift starts after dark. When the children were young it was the way I could get in a 12-hour day: 6am to 2pm (cycle home, spend a few hours dressed as a wasp or Viking – the things that being a parent requires), then back at my desk 9pm to 1am. I’d like to think they didn’t notice I was absent in my head, working, but they called my Helen of Troy, “that treacherous book”. The perfidy of writing is ingrained.

Extract from an excellent interview (it was published about a year back in the Times or Telegraph, I think), with the history Bettany Hughes. I’m sure quite a few mothers (I’d like to say parents) recognise this…

Bread and ashes

Tabasarn, in south-eastern Daghestan, spoken by about 90,000 has, I was once assured by a tipsy linguist, eight genders. Scholars, he assured me, enjoyed introducing new, unfamiliar objects to the Tamasars to see which gender might be assigned. Apparently a samovar was unanimously assigned to the seventh gender, though no one could say why.


A typically hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy type intervention from this delightful book that talks you through the politics, landscape, history and languages of this region, along with a good smattering of rollicking travel tales (Tony’s friend Chris generally sleeping upright in his green sleeping bag like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and staring at the local cheese trying to decide whether it would make his hangover better or worse.)

Here’s some more on the local linguistic melting pot:

Many languages here have a prolix proliferation of cases: one analysis of  Tsez identified forty-two different locative case markers, which can describe precisely what space someone or something is in, at, under, by, near, away from: a hollow space, a flat space, a space that might be a trifle uncomfortable or sadly lacking in alcohol…Abkhaz, a notoriously difficult language, has fifty-eight [consonants] ; one of its dialects, Bzyp, has sixty-seven…Essed Bey insisted that Tabarsarn was so difficult that the Tabasars…preferred to speak an easier, neighbouring tongue.

Eating dresses

Talking of pockets – this time I mean pockets and not votes/social justice –  I think this piece by Sali Hughes is brilliantly spot on. “Eating dresses” – “neat at the shoulders, sleeves and neck and shoulders, but with enough fabric around the middle to invisibly conceal a bottle of red and more than 19 calories” are a genius description for what I’ve mooched up and down shop aisles looking for, ditto Sali’s call for the kind of occasion wear that is basically whatever you need in the day but will look good with red lipstick and a funkier pair of shoes than what you’ve worn at the office.


Finally, check out Sali’s list of dresses every middle-class woman of 35 and over wants. It’s probably the only time that a capsule wardrobe has made sense and is exactly what the fashion industry ought to lobby retail for.


Photos: Oliver Bonas shift dress snapped by me – would be a good weekend dress though ideally more colour please, and possibly even pattern. Libby London dress from their website – a good 15 hour dress, but not really enough waist room for an eating dress & pretty pricey. Their shirt dresses are good though, if you suit that style.

Because buttons are not a natural right.

Try this any time someone tries to fob you off. The brilliance is that translating the bullshit to an argument over pockets exposes the full nonsense of “oh no, X doesn’t need a voice at the table because if they did they’d already have it [ignores massive power differential and access to influence.]”

This list is from the American Suffragist , journalist and eventual White House speechwriter, Alice Duer Miller, and you can download her book “Are Women People?” for free from the lovely people at Project Gutenberg.

Why women should not have pockets:

1. Because pockets are not a natural right.
2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did they would have them.
3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.
4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets.
5. Because it would make dissension between husband and wife as to whose pockets were to be filled.
6. Because it would destroy man’s chivalry towards woman if he did not have to carry all her things in his pockets.
7. Because men are men and women are women. We must not fly on the face of nature.
8. Because pockets have been used by men to carry tobacco, pipes, whisky flasks, chewing gum and compromising letters. There is no reason to suppose that women will use them more sensibly.