When I was coming to the end of the work for my thesis, the poet Jean Sprackland, who was the support for the creative aspect of my PhD team, asked me what ambitions I had when the PhD was complete. My answer was simple. ‘I intend to read shite for the rest of my life,’ I said, laughing. I’ve made it no secret that I found the PhD difficult. I have two bachelor degrees and two post-graduate degrees, but the PhD was a whole new level of hard; as it should be, of course it should. But I stuck at it and submitted a thesis that I was proud of because, even in the darkest days, I never gave up. It remains to be seen if it is of PhD standard when I attend for my viva in September. But when it was finished I vowed never to pick up another academic, scholarly or intelligent book that required me to engage my brain. For as long as I live I was going to read rubbish. This week I fulfilled that new ambition. I’ve been reading two detective stories by the author, S. J. Parris. Heresy and Sacrilege are set in the Elizabethan era of religious turmoil, and clearly S. J. has done his research because they display minute detail in the history of the era. Sometimes it feels as if he’s beating you about the head with the detail, forgetting that what he’s actually supposed to be doing is telling you a story. The books are full of intricate descriptions of rooms in post-Reformation churches, ex-monasteries/abbeys, Oxford libraries. His imagination comes to bear on the prisons, inns, overhanging street buildings; but his descriptions never fit in with his storytelling. They are grafted on in a different voice, as if he’s cut-and-pasted large swathes of his research notes into his story, forgetting that they should embellish the story, not serve as add-ons, not be ‘pimples on elephants’ bums’. Talking of his stories, I find them predictable. There are no surprises for the reader: you just know his hero, Bruno, is going to get out of whatever unlikely difficulties he gets himself into, so there is no tension in what should be his edge-of-the-seat stuff. Having said all this, they are quite good stories, I’m just not enjoying his style of writing; and the Kindle versions have several typo errors that shouldn’t have got past an alert editor. But I will finish the second one. However, I’ve learned that I can’t do shite quite as easily as I thought. I need a challenge, I need something to think about while I’m reading. I need to lose myself in a book.
Last night I watched ‘Testament of Youth’, the film interpretation of Vera Brittain’s memoir of the First World War. Immediately I wanted to read the book. I’ve downloaded it to my Kindle, it’s the next book on my reading list. I just know this is a book I’ll get lost in.
Most of my reading this week has been on a sunbed in Roda on the island of Corfu. We’re back home now, but we had a lovely holiday, just the total unwind I was needing after five years of academic work. It was my birthday on Tuesday this week. We took a boat trip to Albania—Greeks pronounce it alBanya—to celebrate my birthday.
Albania–alBanya–from our hotel on Corfu
I love a boat trip in the Med, and it took about an hour to get from Corfu harbour to Sarande in alBanya. Sarande is growing as a tourist destination, lots of hotels built along its coastline; including a Holiday Inn. It’s like Greece, but with significant differences. The language is different for one thing, not Cyrillic, Latin or Germanic, it has its own language, its own writing system unique to Albania. We visited the archaeological site at Butrint, which was fascinating, revealing settlement dating back to 800 B.C., later development having a strong Roman influence. There are links to the Trojan wars, with the legend that Butrint is the town where Priam’s son chose to rebuild Troy after its destruction by the beseiging Greek forces. Built on a drained flood plane, it is often underwater, and the amphitheatre stage was raised as decking, the original stage being underneath and still under water. Unfortunately a woman standing next to me fell through a rotting timber on the decking; only one leg went through and I don’t think she was badly hurt, but I expect her leg will be well bruised by now. I felt very vulnerable on that decking after that, and I was glad when we moved on. alBanya is an embryonic tourist destination, outside the EU and its health and safety regulation. Similarly there were lots of steps to negotiate, and handrails were at best inadequate; it’s hardly an accessible site.
The ancient coastal town of Butrint, Albania
We had a buffet lunch in an alBanyan tavern and visited a castle on the highest point of that part of the island in the afternoon. I bought two fridge magnets from a gift shop, neither of which sticks well to the fridge. They are unbalanced and need to prop on other magnets to stay upright and in place. But it was an interesting day and made for a different birthday celebration. We got back to our hotel at about 21.15, showered and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. Bill ordered a bottle of champagne in honour of my birthday: it cost as much as a one-night stay in a five star hotel! I always love my birthday, and this was a particularly memorable one.
On Sunday we sat in the hotel bar and watched England win the cricket world cup. Wow! What a match that was. I guess cricket matches don’t come closer than that. I’ve never seen a match conclude with a super-over finish, the cricket equivalent of a penalty shoot- out and England emerged as victors. When it had looked as if England were going to lose the match, needing 26 runs from the last two overs, the Sky Sports camera followed Bairstow’s restlessness at the wicket and I thought of Hector at the walls of Troy, how he would have looked like Bairstow, determined in the face of impending defeat. Unfortunatley for Hector, it all ended better for Bairstow: match drawn and a super-over in which he helped England to victory. I drafted a poem about Hector and Bairstow, but I won’t bore you with it: it’s certainly not ready for an adoring public yet. I love cricket, particularly the one-day form of the game and twice we’ve been to Australia to follow the one-day series. So I’ll leave you instead with a poem I wrote at a one-day match in Australia in 2007. This poem was shortlisted in the Ilkley competition a few years back. It describes the very last international ball bowled by the astounding Australian fast bowler, Glenn McGrath at his home ground, Sydney Cricket Ground. It was wonderful to be there to witness it.
McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia
Sydney Cricket Ground 02.02.07
In these dying moments of the match
as you bend to a setsquare buffing the ball,
does your brain replay your international career:
the thousand or so leg befores,
catches behind, in the slips, in the deep,
all those middle pegs somersaulting to Gilchrist,
the dogged run chases wagging the tail?
Or do sixty thousand feet tracing your paces
on grandstand floors, hands drumming your beat
on chair-backs, voices rising in a tsunami of sound,
flush all thought before it?
A deafening noise, a roar of Thor
covers the ground, darkens the sky, places
a thunderbolt in your hand, lightning in your stride so,
as if in glorious slo-mo, you run up, plant your feet,
deliver the ball—it is, after all, just a ball.
It bounces short of a length.
Nixon thinks he’ll steal your thunder,
lofts it high over extra cover
where it seems to hover.
English voices join the noise
but on the boundary, buoyed by the tide,
Hodge stretches, hand open
and Nixon c Hodge b McGrath.