Wednesday, 21 April 2021


Sunday morning, up early and down the stairs to feed Archimedes, switch on the kettle and the radio - and there's Mark Tully with Something Understood. There aren't many good reasons for getting out of bed at 6 o'clock on a Sunday morning, but Mark Tully is one of them. This week the subject was living with regret: lines of poetry, snatches of song (Edith Piaf, of course - no regrets there) and an extraordinary exchange with a man who went to prison for murder and will live with regret for the rest of his life. 

And then, On Your Farm, which is usually when I switch off and take my tea back upstairs, but this week we were in Zimbabwe, farming insects. Crickets, to be precise. Now, I'll listen to anything coming from Zimbabwe - I spent 18 incredibly happy years in that country, my youngest child was born in Harare, and I still have dearly-loved family and friends there - but this was one of those BBC gems. Off we went with a woman who, with the help of a charity, travelled to Costa Rica to study and then came back to set up a cricket farm in her village. Just the sound of those crickets churring away took me back...  This lot had mountains of empty egg cartons to hide in, they are very low maintenance, and as far as I know, produce no methane. If chirping is anything to judge by, they were perfectly happy. In the end, of course, they find themselves in hot water. Literally. They are despatched (the actual term used was 'harvesting') by dunking them in hot water. Apparently it only takes a few seconds and then they are dead and ready to fry. They are packed full of protein and taste, so we are told, like fried chicken skin. The reporter ate a whole plateful but she said it helped not to look at her plate.

It was also the BBC that recently serialised Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, Klara and the Sun. I'd listened to a couple of episodes while I waited for the copy I'd ordered to arrive, and it was one of those satisfying occasions when you enjoy reading the book even more than you'd hoped to. A lovely, poignant, thought-provoking and beautifully written novel. 

Then, in my never-ending quest for books to lighten the prevailing gloom, I re-read Cluny Brown, and if you want to cheer yourself up, then Margery Sharp's 1940s parlour maid who doesn't know her place is the answer to your prayers. I defy anyone not to laugh out loud. I also enjoyed Jan Carson's new book of linked short stories, The Last Resort, set in a surreal Ballycastle caravan park. I always like her writing, but this format was especially pleasing: maybe it's just age that has fragmented my brain lately (although I suspect Covid is also to blame: people a lot younger than I am are reporting the same lack of concentration) but it's a bit like having a mental ulcer - right now I need small, regular, nourishing dollops of stories, not indigestible 500 page novels.

Staying local, I have Sue Divin's highly-praised Guard Your Heart to look forward to, as well as The End of the World is a Cul de Sac (my title of the year) by Louise Kennedy. Having read her brilliant short story, Hunger, earlier in the year, I've been dying to get my hands on this one.

And one more link with Zimbabwe to end my week: I have a young relative from Harare who now teaches English in Istanbul, and because I love her (and loved Istanbul when I went there some years ago) I agreed to do a reading and question & answer session with a group of 60 Turkish 10-11 year-olds. You know how you agree to something because it's still 2 weeks away and if you're lucky, the end of the world or an alien invasion might come first, or you might lose your voice? Well, none of those things happened and I duly found myself talking about my writing life, and reading from Moon's Travelling Circus, the book that found an agent but never a publisher, but which has still managed to reach quite a few children. And these particular children were enchanting (as were their teachers). Articulate (in a second language), interested, curious, appreciative. I enjoyed the whole thing so much that I think I may have invited all 60 of them, and their teachers, to visit me in Ireland. I can only hope they don't all come at once.

Istanbul's covered market

A post script. I wrote this before news reached me of the terrible fire on Table Mountain that destroyed the restaurant at Rhodes Memorial and badly damaged Cape Town University. Apart from fears for the safety of all those affected, my family connections with UCT are very strong and so many of my memories are linked to the surrounding areas, that it was hard to watch: the pictures of the burnt-out Jagger Library would break your heart. But South Africans are extraordinarily resilient and at least the mountain will recover, in time. A reminder though, that in the end all our zeal for building up and tearing down, all our sound and fury, are no match for natural forces. Even Rhodes will fall in time, with no human help at all.

After the fire

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