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The way books make me feel (and other tangents)

Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
Across the moor where I go to think. July 2017

On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.

My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.

Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.

“How do you feel today?”

“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”

Wild orchid
Wild orchid, Penistone Hill. July 2017

What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?

When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.

That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.

I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.

Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
Up the hill from the Bronte Parsonage. July 2017.

It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.

On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.

Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.

For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.

This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.

I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.

I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.

Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).

Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.

María takes control of her own story.  She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.  

Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.

Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.

*Or translator…

Sheep on Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
A watchful sheep on Penistone Hill. July 2017.
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The field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing

In the field of forgiveness

A field in Tuscany left for the wild flowers to grow.

I’m reading a book by Anne Lamott. She makes me laugh.

It helps that she’s easy to read, but it also helps that she writes about how terribly she handles an array of challenging situations, how she’s working on it, how she has all of these great strategies and when she puts them into place she comes out with something that’s nowhere near ideal, but not quite so terrible either.

Much of what she says involves some sort of gratitude and rather a lot of humility. She seems to constantly be admitting her mistakes. Saying things like, I got this wrong, I had to pluck up my courage and go and appologise.

Now I’m sure that I get loads of things wrong

The problem is that I’m frequently wrong about what it is I’m getting wrong. But it’s no wonder. My psychotherapist says I need to be more selfish, my dad says I need to be less selfish. They’re both right, because they mean different things by ‘selfish’ but I’m too afraid of both their meanings to really comprehend any of it at all. I continue blundering on. Most of the time I’m winging it. Guided by delusions of certainty I’m in a habit of getting quite lost.

I have this great belief that if I wasn’t hurting I wouldn’t be so defensive and therefore I wouldn’t find understanding what motivated my behaviour quite so difficult. But even if I’m not hurting I’m fearing hurting, and therefore act defensive just in case. Humility is the opposing force, but it’s quiet and patient and alien.

I want to admit when I’ve made a mistake

Yet I don’t want to negate my hurt. It’s that balance between forgiving someone for hurting you but still allowing yourself to feel the loss that I find so difficult to navigate. The mistake has been made. It’s in the past and is therfore kind of irrelevant now. However the hurt lingers. Hurt piles on hurt and sooner or later you’re feeling buried and you’ve no idea how to dig yourself out. The details are frivolous. All you want is recognition but it’s the last thing you know how to ask for. And when you do, you’re not polite. You’re openly angry (or more often in my case, passive aggressive). You pile up more hurt and throw it about.

I admire it when people just stand there, recognising it’s not about them per se, it’s about you, and your stash of pain. I made a cutting and uncalled for remark at my sister. I knew instantly that I was taking my stress at being in Italian city traffic at rush hour out on her (plus all the uncountable, tiny, seemingly-inconsequential things that weigh me down). I felt bad. That healthy feeling called guilt. I apologised as soon as we got home, and I could look her in the face. Apologies I think are best said to the face. But my sister, that brave soul, stressed-out just like the rest of us, stood there with dignity and that, ‘It’s okay, I understand, you were reacting to the stress, it was a stressful moment, I know you weren’t out to hurt me’.

That is trust.

However, trust can be broken

We say things that spew from things that are completely different from the words we’re too scared to really say. My psychotherapist sits quietly and points out that a little text message saying something so simple as congratulations may in fact be passive aggressive. I’m shocked – really? I want connection not disconnection. Yet, rather than asking for connection, humbly, I’m motivated by my fear of disconnection. I’m defensive. I’m dancing around issues because I’m too scared to face them head on. I fear I’ll act – to use a cliched phrase – like a bull in a china shop. Certainly many of the people I know are delicately beautiful but also somewhat fragile.

I like Anne Lamott

She throws all her mistakes into writing and seems to keep trying, keep writing and keep moving forward.

She quotes Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

And she has written rather a lot, including accounts of both her father and her best-friend dying. She’s written about grief. I have such a sense of loss sometimes. It can be helpful reading that there is only one way to get grief to budge – grieving. It seems so simple and yet reading it written down in black print does feel somewhat reassuring. And surprising.

I rarely know what to say. And perhaps when I do speak, my words are not the most elegantly expressed. But as much as my father jokes about my desire to be a hermit, I know I’m not someone who will ever be their best truly alone. I just have to keep on trying.

The book I’ve just finished reading is Small Victories by Anne Lamott. I’d also recommend her book on writing, Bird by Bird.

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How Not To Be A Boy (by Robert Webb)

How not to be a boy

I snapped a quick picture of this flowery basket in Verona the other day.

If the author of the email I received had known me a little better, he might not have recommended to me the autobiography of a comedian. A book published in 2017 no less. An autobiography by someone younger than my mother.

I have never seen The Peep Show, and if you had asked me a few days ago the first names of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb I might have shrugged, and then frowned. The frown clearly conveying my general feeling about people who try and manipulate me into laughter. It’s not that I have a low regard for all comedians, or all humour, it’s merely that I feel reluctant to join in.

I don’t know the author of the email’s views on comedy. And they aren’t relevant. What I do know is that the author of the email introduced the book as one that he’d strongly resonated with. The main topic being that of masculinity. Actually, he sobbed. Within the first chapter.

Intriguing?

My curiosity woke up. Since I’m abroad I’m currently reading on my ebook reader, which has the delightful option of downloading a preview of any book. I figured I would read the preview, make an informed decision that the book wasn’t for me and then move on to something more… pretentious.

I read the preview and bought the book with a couple of taps. Then I finished the book, only really diverging from it when faced with the whine of the dog who needed a walk and the big, brown eyes of the non-English speaking six-year-old trying to express his need for me to play volleyball with him in the garden, Puss-in-Boots style.

First, Robert Webb knows how to write. Second, he has a story to tell. Third, he’s got the guts to tell it.

Fourth, his story is the story of all of us. How we grow up with certain beliefs, dictated by the society our parents and grandparents were raised in, and inadvertently pass down to our children. Despite the simple fact that these beliefs tear us through when grief hits, when loneliness clings or when we become afraid.

I promise I am not being wilfully dense about this. I don’t know what the words ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ have to offer. Avoiding them, we still have a massive language of more precise words to describe individuals and their behaviour which somehow manage not to come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century.

‘How Not To Be A Boy’ is a book about screwing up. I can’t imagine anyone not relating to something within its pages.

And, yes… very occasionally, it made me laugh.

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When dropped, does it ring true?

'rings true'

Would you recognise an authentic coin?

All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. I know this to be a fact because in my line of work I read a lot of bad books – books that are so bad they aren’t even published, which is quite a feat when you consider what is published.

And what they all have in common, these bad books, be they novels or memoirs, is this: they don’t ring true.

– Robert Harris, The Ghost

The title, The Ghost, refers to the art of ghost-writing

I picked up the Robert Harris novel from a charity shop some time ago, and packed it in my suitcase when going to Madeira with my family, assuming rightfully that I wouldn’t be the only one to enjoy it. It’s a book about a ghost-writer, hired to write the autobiography of a fictional former British prime minister.

As one does on holiday, I read The Ghost quickly and obsessively over two days. Sometimes I fall headlong into book and allow it to absorb me completely, and that’s what happened. A book can be a safe place in which you can hide. A sanctuary away from thoughts of reality and feelings of supposed to. This is one of those books which you can just devour like that, and I did. Although on reflection, I still probably prefer Harris’ Pompeii or Imperium.

This quote though, about bad books, stopped me. I scribbled it down in my notebook wondering, what does it mean for something to ‘ring true’. Apparently, historically it was a phrase used to describe the sound of an authentic coin when dropped. Nothing to do with bells. It’s recognition of authenticity. Authentic, of course, being the word we use to differentiate things in a market place of fakery, look a-likes, and marketing charades.

Who would really expect a ghost-writer of a prime minister to stick to the truth?

But actually, does one ever expect the truth?

Thinking about biographies of figures with power, I’m reminded of reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography and how I was amazed at the detachment that he showed to his younger self. As I read, I despised the young Dalai Lama for being so unlikable, and I despised the older Dalai Lama for not writing about himself with more gentility. This is despite me having some awareness of Buddhist beliefs around attachment and impermanency.

One of the parrots was very friendly with… Master of the Robes. He used to feed it nuts. As it nibbled from his fingers, he used to stroke its head, at which the bird appeared to enter a state of ecstasy. I very much wanted this kind of friendliness and several times tried to get a similar response, but to no avail. So I took a stick to punish it. Of course, thereafter it fled at the sight of me. This was a very good lesson in how to make friends: not by force but by compassion.

-Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile

The belief that a story rings true, I think, has much to do with a feeling of connection. You must trust the author, and the narrator, not to hide too much from you. But at the same time, some truths feel too harsh. The protagonist in The Ghost doesn’t claim to write the truth, he knows how much more profitable an untrue, but flawed and human story is over something boringly reserved and factual. He knows that a cohesive story can be much easier to believe than a disjointed and incomprehensible truth.

It’s easy to forget how much we love our own narrative

As we learn, we match things into the narrative that we understand. Everything needs to link together, and our minds are often happy to make the connections within our subconscious without our awareness. If you believe you’re an idiot, then you will identify the things in the world that prove your belief to be true – the things that ‘ring true’ – and unwittingly discard praise for your competency. You don’t need to consciously wander around life thinking ‘I am an idiot’. It happens easily beneath the surface.

In a way, the brain’s modules are like specialists in a movie production crew. The cinematographer is framing shots, zooming in tight, dropping back, stockpiling footage. The sound engineer is recording, fiddling with volume, filtering background noise. There are editors and writers, a graphics person, a prop stylist, a composer working to supply tone, feeling – the emotional content […] And there’s a director, deciding which pieces go where, braiding all these elements together to tell a story that holds up. Not just any story, of course, but the one that best explains the ‘material’ pouring through the senses.

-Benedict Carey, How We Learn

We believe that which fits with what we already know about the world.

It’s intriguing then how readily we suspend our beliefs for entertainment. Fiction requires us to accept the unreal, for just a moment. This though is where craftsmanship comes in. We struggle when a protagonist acts against our beliefs, consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or the fictionalisation of a world that does not obey our understanding of nature, but we’re also drawn to these dark protagonists and impossible futures. I know too well the discomfort of watching science fiction films with indigent, squirming physicists. For a story to ring true, we only need to believe it for the short amount of time that we’re absorbed in it, but to be absorbed, we have to believe willingly. Beneath the fiction, there has to be something we see ourselves in.

My truth is different to your truth

Inevitably, if our fundamental beliefs are wrong, then our narrative we’re trying to make things conform to is going to be skewed.

According to The Psychotherapist, there are certain things I believe, because at some early point in my life it was convenient to believe them. She calls this magical thinking. I understand these ideas to be logical and reasonable, but they’re innate. They came prior to my obsession with analysis. They came before language. When she questions whether my magical thinking is based on anything substantive, it’s not so surprising that I develop a tight defensive feeling in my gut.

The narrow mind is always defensive, it’s a case of self-preservation.

I’m trying to pay more attention to the feelings that accompany my beliefs. Emotions acts as deep knowledge, and feel more concrete than can be written in words.  I’m a bit apt to haphazardly believing them wholeheartedly to be the truth and the only truth when I’m caught by them intensely. When emotions drown you like a tidal wave, it’s difficult to have any other perspective.

We learn how to stay alive through trial and error and extrapolate. What ‘rings true’ is, at heart, is the sound of conformity.

On holiday I swapped The Ghost for Paulo Coelho’s The Spy. The similarity of the titles amused me. The two books though are very different stories. The Spy is a fictionalised account of the life of Mata Hari, an exotic dancer in early 20th century Paris, who was executed for being a German spy. She was escorted into a woodland by a couple of nuns, and then shot by a firing squad. Years later, the prosecutor of the case confided to a journalist that, “Between us, the evidence we had was so poor that it wouldn’t have been fit to punish a cat.”

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Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

football

Football pitch, taken in Nitra, Slovakia.

I don’t ‘get’ football. I imagine I never will. That moment when the whole crowd stands up with an almighty roar – I find it disconcerting. The gestures, the singing, the sense of belonging with a weird bunch of fanatics, no, I don’t get it.

I’d go further and state that I find football alienating. When people are getting all pent up about which team scored against whom, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who hasn’t lost the plot. When football funks last not minutes but hours and days (and since my family support Leeds United, sometimes years) I’m not going to pretend not to judge you. I find that eccentric bouncing off walls after a rare win similarly annoying. My favourite result: 1:1. You can’t complain that nothing happened, there were two goals, but it’s also (mostly) an emotionally neutral result. Pretty forgettable.

I don’t, despite my family’s joking, hate football. I always enjoyed playing football. I’d say I’m crap at it, but in my short history of playing for a team I was part of a defence which kept a clean sheet in every match we played. I admit I was about nine at the time and didn’t play often. At a similar time in my great footballing career, alongside another friend, I made a case for us girls being allowed to play football to the primary school headmistress. We won the right to play and chased down the pitch with great glee.

However, what was always clear was that the Midget was simply better. She was faster than me, despite being a head shorter, and could coordinate the ball going into the back of the net. She also remained interested.

And my sister’s interest fuelled my mother’s interest. And my father dutifully paid attention. And so began a family love of football that involved everyone except me. The Saturday afternoon division began when the Father decided that he wasn’t paying for me to attend another match after I’d spent the entire 90 minutes plus teaching myself to read back to front and upside down with the assistance of the program. It escalated as the Mother became more obsessed. I enjoyed the Saturday afternoons left to my own devices, but dreaded the emotional implosion that would come through the door in the evening.

Why am I thinking about all this now? Because I’ve been reading Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. It’s a book about obsession, and his obsession happens to be football.

I recognise the truth of the fact that in a good football match, where both the team and the fans have bothered turning up, you can close your eyes and feel what’s going on by the sound and motion of the crowd. The Mother talks about this as you might a religious experience. Perhaps, if I could allow myself to shut my brain off and just join this, then I do believe that I would feel some great sense of belonging. After all, it’s not ‘You are Leeds and I am a fan’, but ‘We are Leeds’.

Instead it all makes me mildly anxious.

I’m fascinated though with the concept of belonging. It is a weird need which so many people I meet seem to struggle with. If football stands in for religion or village communities and satisfies a basic human need, who am I to argue with it. In a way, I have a deep respect for football’s ability to create a sense of belonging. I just can’t be part of it. For unknown reason, I’m not wired that way.

But I enjoyed the book, Fever Pitch, probably because as much as it talked about score lines and players to whom I cannot relate, it also tackled masculinity, depression and identity. Nick Hornby blended his mental patterns with the character and history of his own, intimate relationship with Arsenal, and allowed him to write how he felt. Quite an achievement when feelings are so tricky to truly grasp.

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Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker

Sheep herding, Romania

When friends in England were mastering the latest computer technology, I was learning to mow. ‘This’, as I wrote to a friend, ‘is what I call progress.’

On a hill, just outside an old Romanian village, I’m sprawled out on the sofa, reading Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker. I giggle causing my friend to glance up from his own book. This is what happens when you’re reading a tale of an Eton educated Brit falling – quite haphazardly – in love with Romania in the 90’s and its peoples. You laugh at the absurdities.

I had found myself uncomfortable with the fact that I knew nothing about Romania, especially since I was going to be spending so much time talking with Romanians, so I loaded Along the Enchanted Way onto my e-book reader and began to learn.

There’s something special about reading about the land you actually see when you look out of the window. I read Victoria Hislop’s The Island, when I visited the island of Spinalonga – an old Greek leper colony – and the mixture of reading and seeing had convinced me of this fact. As the sun peeked up over the hills of Romania, I passed the goats, heard the donkey braying, saw the sheep being herded down the road, saw the women chasing their cows with their sticks, saw the stacks of hay in each garden, alongside rows of bold red tomatoes. At lunch time I lay on the sofa and read about what I was seeing.

On our first evening in the countryside, we were warned, strenuously, to keep to the path, beware of the sheep dogs which won’t hesitate if they think you’re trespassing on their flock’s territory. I nodded convinced, I’d read about how these dogs are trained to hold their line if wolves attack. I’d learnt that a herd of horses can keep off wolves over night by putting their heads together to form a circle and using their hind legs to kick out. I’d learnt how the dogs were trained to position themselves around the flock, with the shepherd in the middle to coordinate their aggressive defense.

I read about tensions between populations (Saxons, Romanians, Hungarians, Romani Gypsies) and love and history and tradition, and I listened, because all around me were Romanians speaking of Romania. The primary and secondary evidence educating me with a complete visual, kinesthetic and auditory experience. We drank milk brought up fresh from the village, and bought watermelon from the van which passed by calling, “Pepene, pepene!”

I delighted in it all. The book itself is an entertaining read, brought to life for me by the colour of the people I lived beside.

 

Additional reading: Prince Charles and the Half-Gypsy Kid

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