Archive for February, 2022


The Pretoria Castle

This ebook is a must.

I invite all to spend time with the wonderful, warm Litinsky family.
A modern Jewish family relocates from their early life in South Africa to London. It was the beginning of the 1960s: This country is no place to bring up children… after Sharpeville.
And already we see the bigger picture, the extra dimensions: we do not live our lives in isolation. Ever.

The book begins with the young family moving from Cape Town to the Transvaal. It ends with the family arriving in Portsmouth, and moving onto London.
They start new lives each time, with all the wrenching upheaval, the breaking away from years laid down in the memory, and to learn new ways of living, speaking, thinking even, this entails.
But more, the books begins and ends with the gathered family remembering itself and  celebrating the Passover ceremony in each new home. Who remains? Who has gone?

And what is the main prayer of the Passover? Next year, in Jerusalem.
One has to learn to fit in, integrate, yet all the time some part keeps one separate – we witness the attitudes of the new Church of England school in London belittling the Jewish holiday traditions, where a holiday  is indeed a holy day.
But there are also the challenges of new ideas and ideals as left wing politics, feminism, find homes in the hearts and minds of the growing children.

I would like to invite you  to meet, spend time with, Isaac and Verena Litinsky, their twin daughters Davida and Sarah, younger siblings spoilt Raphael, and Alicia. But then, of course, there are the extended families of both mother and father’s side, their own experiences of a shocking century.

The family unit is a wide and internationally based web of relationships.
The family unit touches the people they live among, with, beside. In the Transvaal there are the black Africans working in the household: Susan, the nanny, who cooks the specifically Jewish food, and lives by choice apart. Her wedding…. No, you must read for yourself.

Father Isaac flew to London earlier to find work and look for accommodation. The family followed later, by boat.
Here we see where book title, The Floating Castle, begins to throw wider and wider shadows and shapes on the canvas of our reading.
We see how the family arranges itself into at times autocratic, at times capitalist and democratic relationships; we see how other cultures, the travelling companions, the ship-board relationships, impinge, threaten the stability of the family unit: is Verena really taken with that other man? What of Davida’s developing relationships outside the family unit?

At times the Jewish ceremony can seem as strange to the children as the others around them. They visit a Christian Church in Johannesburg with their nanny. Sarah concludes that it’s bunk, if the messiah had really come then they would all be in paradise by now, and they are plainly not.
We see the characters from the inside, through unreliable narration like this. It gives us insights, it provokes empathy. The tone of voice is caught seemingly effortlessly

The background stories fill in, and we see the sense in madness, the folly in sense, as ordered and disordered lives worked themselves out to unforeseeable conclusions. Human, all so human.

The book shifts locale and time giving us the later stories of the character’s lives, and their earlier experiences. And how they reflect in each other.
It gives us, for instance: What does it cost to borrow a ride on a bike? Enough to say, Nanny Susan saved dignity, and the day.
We read into this how one learns bargaining; how the body can be a bargaining counter. Here is the beginning of gender politics, body consciousness; it shows how natural curiosity can devolve into objectification, given a background of gender inequality.

‘Faith’, we say easily, and yet we discern in this story, how the word goes deeper. We discern here how it can permeate every part of one’s being, one’s experiences, one’s interactions with the world. It can colour one’s whole view:
The London Jews… They’re not real Jews, not in the way we understand.’ was Isaac’s verdict.
But we also see Isaac’s Jewishness held up for examination, where the holes show through, and the patches.
We should have gone to Israel, he said, we have lost something staying too long in London, We have stretched the thread of tradition too far.
But Israel, itself, volatile, threatened, and threatening: was that a place for the children? We see Aunt Masha after her parent’s died, living perpetually alone. She was a constant fount of vitality, but duty and  tradition tied her heart, hand and foot.

And on the other hand there’s Molly. She was a member of the Black Sash Movement in South Africa, a fighter for black rights. Molly is a splendid character; she is full of the contradictions of her place and time: comfortable and white interloper fighting for the impoverished and black indigenous peoples. She is passionate, brave, puts herself on the line constantly.

The book is strong and yet flexible, the characters all well realised, warmly depicted, and all so likeable. For all their faults, short-comings. The writing is finely nuanced, crafted; a joy to read.

I have really enjoyed my time with the Litinsky family.

I really must go back and re-read from the beginning.

Charles of Orleans, due to twenty-five years in captivity in England, mastered the language and idioms to write the most accomplished lyric poetry in English of the time.
And yet, even now, acceptance has been slow to accept him into the canon.


Charles, son of the Duke of Orleans, and Italian mother, Valentina Visconti, daughter of the duke of Milan, was born in 1394. He died in 1465.

As a child of the nobility marriage was a game of influence. His first marriage, aged sixteen ended very sadly as his wife, Isabella of Valois (and widow of English king Richard II) died in childbirth. His second wife, Bonne of Armagnac, died whilst he was hostage.
He married a third time, on his return to France to Marie of Cleves. One son became Louis XII of France.

One story has it that he was discovered – luckily, we might add – still alive and uninjured, under a number bodies, on the field at Agincourt. He was thought a good ransom, and held in England. 
There are stories of people drowning in others’ blood under similar circumstances. 
His imprisonment, along with his younger brother Jean d’Angoulême, was relatively ‘open’, mostly held among people of their own rank, and allowed escorted outside access.,_Duke_of_Orléans

He was eventually released, and allowed to return to his inherited Burgundy estates on condition of a sworn oath to not avenge the killers of his father. Wiki says:
Finally freed on 3 November 1440 by the efforts of his former enemies, Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy, he set foot on French soil again after 25 years, by now a middle aged man at 46 and “speaking better English than French,” according to the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed.


He wrote some five hundred plus lyrics in English, and later, again in French. They are of exemplary quality. 
He was writing in that period between the death of Chaucer, the latter years of John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve, of John Skelton, and the resurgence of writing using Italian models under Sir Thomas Wyatt et al.

His earlier French contemporaries mark the ending of a rather prolific period, with the deaths early in Charles’ career, of the honoured writer Alain Chartier, and the phenomenal Christine de Pizan. 

–      It is not easy at the present to obtain affordable collections of the poems of Charles de Orleans. One I did get hold of was a collection of French poets of the period, is Formal Spring, French Renaissance Poets, by R N Currey (published 1950).
The book lists his immediate contemporaries as Guillaume de Marchault, Eustace Deschamps, Joachim du Bellay, Louise Labé, Marie Stuart (yep, Mary pre-Queen of Scots).

The author certainly has his favourites – Charles de Orleans is dismissed as ‘bourgeois’; Christine de Pizan is represented by one poem, the later Louise Labé is called a follower of Christine de Pizan. His favourite, the one with the largest poem contribution, is Francois Villon. Enough said.

His writing strides between past and future modes of literature, his earlier work continuing the debate form of Alain Chartier (The Curialetc), with his Le Débat Des Hérauts D’armes De France Et D’angleterre: Suivi De The Debate Between The Heralds Of England And France, and then the middle and later work looking onward to the Italian sonnet and lyric form of later English writers.


What has been the problem with his acceptance?
Again, Wiki tells us:
Unfortunately, his acceptance in the English canon has been slow. A. E. B. Coldiron has argued that the problem relates to his “approach to the erotic, his use of puns, wordplay, and rhetorical devices, his formal complexity and experimentation, his stance or voice: all these place him well outside the fifteenth-century literary milieu in which he found himself in England.[4]

Against the sententious background of John Lydgate, the wilder satires of John Skelton, the assured style and accomplished imagery of the poems of Charles of Orleans stand out like bright jewels in a muddy light.

Take, for instance, 

The year has changed his mantle cold                mantle: mateau – coat
of wind, of rain, of bitter air;
and he goes clad in cloth of gold,
of laughing suns and seasons fair;
no bird or beast of wood or wold                                  
but doth with cry or song declare
this year lays down its mantle cold.
All founts, all rivers, seaward rolled,
the pleasant summer livery wear,
with silver studs on livery vair;  
                              vair: common fur in heraldry
the world puts off its raiment old,
the year lays down its mantle cold.

His use of roundels, dance forms, song formats, I suspect some view as frivolous. I would certainly argue against that, there is an atmosphere of lightness here but the poems are always so in order to counteract/interact with his own exile and imprisonment. Each poem is shadowed:
My very gentle Valentine,
Alas, for me you were born too soon,
As I was born too late for you!
May God forgive my jailor
Who has kept me from you this entire year.
I am sick without your love, my dear,

My very gentle Valentine.

And here is a particularly joyful one – compare this with the rather staid verse of his contemporaries :

Young lovers
Greeting the spring

Fling themselves downhill,
Making cobblestones ring
With their wild leaps and arcs,
Like ecstatic sparks
Struck from coal.

What is their brazen goal?

They grab at whatever passes,

So we can hardly hazard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
Raked by brilliant spurs of need,

Young lovers.
It is the surprisingly fresh and contemporary imagery that catches our attention first. There is also a sophistication of emotive expression, that further persuades us to ‘partake of the poem’. 
Although coal was in use by then, its domestic use was rare. As a noble, though, he would have been familiar enough with its properties.

There is a very interesting article on Charles of Orleans, by Mary-Jo Arn: Poetic Form as a Mirror of Meaning (Philological Quarterly, 1999, Number 1, Volume 69)
that argues for an overall structure to the collection of his poetry. ‘Charles of Orleans,’ she writes, ‘following Continental convention, composed in Middle English a type of work that no English poet had yet attempted.

His various poetic forms: roundels, ballads, narrative verse, relate fictional/autobiographical adventures in the Court of Love.

He tells how the supposed author enters the service of the God of Love, and therewith love for a Lady to whom he addresses ballads. This is followed by the death of the Lady, at which the author retires from service and enters the Castle of No Care, supposedly for the rest of his life, to lament the loss. Here he writes nearly one hundred roundels. His heart does not allow him peace, and he wanders, physically and emotionally; he encounters Venus, then Fortune, and once again becomes enamoured. He then writes further of amour. 

‘He’, I write, but there is ‘the poet,’ and ‘the lover’, and both are distinct persons. Mary-Jo Arn calls this form pseudo-biography.

The collection opens with an allegorical section, followed by Part One of eighty-four ballades; section two of nearly one hundred roundels; section three of thirty-seven ballades.

The structure presents the reader with three differing accounts of love. The first section and retirement section produce two very different versions of the same experience, and the last section again a very different approach, to a different set of experiences, presented with comedy, and non-courtly responses from the lady. Courtly idealised love – love of love itself? – is contrasted with the real thing: love of a real woman.

There are some commentators who are not convinced the last section are authentic poems of Charles of Orleans, but suspect that they are copies made of other’s work, and incorporated here, or tacked-on by later compilers. The problem is the change in tone of the last section.
Mary-Jo Arn argues convincingly for overall authorship.

A Selection of Poems

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,
Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,

Your little feet – please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you are far away
To muse on these and thus to ease my pain –
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,

Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains.

So I would beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as before I have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day

By your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,
Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains!

My ghostly father, I confess
First to God and then to you,
That at a window watched by few
I stole a sweet and gentle kiss;

I did this out of avidness –
Now it’s done, what can I do?

My ghostly father, I confess
First to God and then to you:
I shall restore the kiss doubtless 
And give my lover back her due!

And thus to God I make my vow
While always seeking forgiveness.
My ghostly, I confess,
First to God and then to you.

Can we also consider this an early sonnet, I wonder?


One day I asked my heart
In confidence, if he
Had put by any part
Out of our property
When serving Love. Freely
He promised me a true
Account as soon as he
Had looked his papers through.

He promised me this, this heart,
And took his leave of me;
And soon I saw him start 
To rummage freely
Amongst the note books he
Keeps in his desk. I knew

He’d speak immediately
He’d looked his papers through.

I waited, and my heart,
Returning presently
Showed me the books he’d brought,
And I was glad to see
That he had carefully
Entered the facts – so now

I’d know as soon as he
Had looked his papers through.

Such clerical exactitude! The development of the scientific, analytical attitude.
A praise for double-entry bookkeeping?

And so, what do we make of this:

Stephen Le Gout, in the nominative,
Quite recently tried in the optative
Mood to proceed to the copulative,

But failed when it came to the genitive.

Six ducats he placed in the dative
To bring him his love in the vocative –
Stephen Le Gout in the nominative.

He came up against an accusative
Who made of his robe a mere ablative;
From a window whose height was superlative

He jumped, taking blows in the passive: 
Stephen Le Gout, in the nominative.

In his last years he was instrumental in fostering the careers of many writers. In 1455 he attended a performance of Complainte d’Hectorby Georges Chastellain, thereby consolidating the position of the aspiring writer and Burgundian chronicler in literary circles.

·      Works by or about Charles d’Orléans at Internet Archive


Posted: February 11, 2022 in Chat
Tags: , ,

Corduroy talks as you walk
and raincoats sing
as arms swing; the shush
soft-brush snares of wet shoes
swiping through evening slush.

Yes, and hear your breathing hold
and release, and the steady bass
in your throat on the up-hill
you’re all jazz tonight!

Let it play; and how the spray
of oxygen in your blood floods
and energises carburretor
piston and crank.

Uphill is a tango, between 
unused muscles, and excitement.

You are the evening cabaret.

fair helen, by Andrew Grieg. Published Quercus, 2013.

This is an immersive book. It is also an impressive book.

Spoiler warning. Also, there is a very upsetting scene later in the book for those wishing to read – a scene outwith the deaths of several, and, you guessed it, Helen herself.

The story line is the telling the story of one of the last of the Border Ballads, Fair Helen of Kirkconel.
It’s one song that has stuck in my head, too: I English those hook-lines as Oh would I be where where Helen lies/Night and day on me she cries/ O that I were where Helen lies/ On fair Kirkconnel Lea….
Shivers for me.

The novel uses the framework of writing the real story of the ballad, by Helen’s cousin Harry Langton, under protection of William Drummond of Hawthornden.
We spend much time in Harry’s head as he relives the times.
And the times are one main theme of the book.
It is set in and around 1597, in (Embro) Edinburgh, but most especially the West March of the Scottish Borders.
Anyone who knows their Borders history will instantly pick up on that: the West March was sometimes referred to as The Debateable Lands. It was the haunt of the likes of Johnnie Armstrong, Kinmont Willie, Jock o the Side… and those huge characters still dominated the landscape.
Early in the story Harry is present at an Armstrong wedding in tower and main house. We see through his eyes all the key players from higher levels of society, Border power-base families, as well as those there through family obligations.
This is a masterful piece of writing, bringing us in amongst the clashing egos, as well as opening up to us living conditions, the harsh lives so dependent on good harvests, a well-guarded farm stock.
And we get to ‘see’ inside a peel tower. See

It was the dying years of the reivers’s long rule over people’s lives and livelihoods.
There is one revealing episode where Harry is conducted through ruined and enemy Border country:
I saw burned-out cottages, wooden shacks and empty, untended fields. In the villages, folk lurked, disappeared at out approach. I felt starved eyes staring into my back as we rode on. Suspicion and hunger hung like haar in the air, dank and chilling.
Note the alliteration, the searching-out rhythm of the piece.

The story is that Harry grew up alongside his cousin Helen, before his family moved to Edinburgh.
As a student there later he roomed with fellow Borderer Adam Fleming, Helen’s lover.

And Helen? Harry describes her life as ‘twenty-one years by five miles.‘
This is one small river valley: Kirtle Water, in Annandale, Dumfriesshire
And that is the length of the Kirtle Water their lives were bounded by. Upstream was Nether Albi, Adam’s home; then down river Blackett House, where Rob Bell, Helen’s other lover lived; and then Bonshaw Tower, Helen’s home: five miles. Eight miles, though, he says at one point in the story: who am I to quibble.
Oh, there is a handy map at the front of the book.

One other main theme of the book is the shifting loyalties of Border families. It all had repercussions higher up into society and in the court of James the Sixth, soon to be James the First of England.

The schemings of the titled families to dominate the doings of others; the untitled family groups, and their dependents’ own shifting loyalties, plus the fates of villagers, were all tied into complex relationships. Their strongest tethers were the blood-feuds between families, that went back a hundred years and more.

Harry Langton was a good vehicle for bringing us into this close-knit and volatile mix, as an outsider with fresh eyes, yet who has acceptance through family ties to the region.

Another example of outstanding writing and realisation, is in the description of the gathering of families and dependent tenants to bring back sheep and cattle stolen overnight – from the Warden of the West March, no less. Many Wardens instigated raids they were meant to stop.
These two chapters of the book cover so many levels. We have Adam Fleming, already fearful for his life after three attempts, out in the open among enemies, like Rob Bell, under the one ‘flag’ of loyalty to the Warden. We see the obligated tenants, those fearful for their lives: not all will return; and those fired-up by the ‘adventure’.
Harry notes for us the shocked and appalled voices of reivers who have been themselves raided. ‘You lot!’ he says at one point, in exasperation.

And at the end of it all is a meeting of the top men, of new loyalties forged, and old feuds buried; shifting of allegiances.
Many outsiders would indeed kill to have the inside knowledge of these.

For the Border families loyalties were to their own families, not the Crown, of South or North. The Borders was/is a whole region in itself, not a line on a map.

How to break this centuries’ old bloodshed? That is another theme behind the book: the power-broking of top-movers.
Harry’s loyalty is claimed by a ‘patron’. He cannot move in Edinburgh without his say-so; and in the borders must report regularly and truthfully on all developments. This strains his loyalty to family friends, to Adam’s family who he stays with. It also puts his life at risk.

And Helen?
I cannot hear her voice, here.
She has attitude, yes; knows full well the curse of being born ‘fair’ in such a restricted world as the Kirtle Water. Of being a woman: ‘to breed’, she scorns. At times, though, she is fully immersed in the earthy love of the Borderers.
Harry is at pains to point out that the ‘chaste’ Helen of the ballad was not the real Helen. But then, was his own judgement of that not a reflection of the Calvinism he took such pains to disavow?

And what of Adam and Helen’s love? It comes to us as infatuation, passion, in the language of the recently dead John Knox, ‘lust’.
We do not get to know Adam, beyond the deliberate front he puts on after his mother’s rushed re-marriage. His father’s death on a raid, we find to have been suspicious indeed. He missed being family ‘heidsman’ by this marriage. What, then, was his standing? Very Hamlet.

There are three levels of woman’s ‘power’ in the novel, all along that five miles of river.
We have Helen, constricted by birth, standing, honourable name, financial and family security. Her role, to make a good marriage, but in reality to have it made for her. But to love aside from that.

We have Janet Fleming, Adam’s mother, widowed and married to her husband’s brother – happily, we are led to believe.
It was put upon Harry to get them to change their family loyalty to the new power on the rise. But she makes plain to Harry that they will not. She was indeed a full partner in the power-base of the all-important family group.

And then there is Elenora Jarvis, owner of the Fortune Rigg, the inn at the centre of all doings in the valley. Not yet thirty and yet a widow (did he fall, or was he pushed?) but sole owner of the most important tavern of the area. And Harry’s lover, and source of information.
Information is power; but it can also kill.
Her tavern had stood while all was ravaged around her. That took some delicate handling, indeed.
She used her earnings to buy stock, and to trade through Edinburgh to Europe.
And yet when the big men came through, and stopped at her tavern, she had to acquiesce to whatever they required. I can handle this one, she said, but left unsaid that the other, more powerful, she could not.

The old Ballads, though – Harry comments at one point that the ballad-makers had a lot to answer for. The Raid of Reidsmere, he notes, for example, ‘was not in Reidsmere, and it is was not a raid.’
But Fair Helen of Kirkconnel, to me, speaks of that kind of love people would die for. In the book, love is something else, more earthy, more of the body only.
It could well be that, keeping to the mind-set of the time, Harry had no language for that other kind of love.
It is in the Ballads, though. We get hints of such emotional heights as the story-line screws tensions to their denouement.

There are odd omissions in the book.
At one point Harry rues the loss of major Scottish writer, Robert Henrysoun, and yet there is no mention of the great William Dunbar, beyond a chapter heading: Timor Mortis Conturbat Me (from his Lament for the Makars).
There is mention of Ben Jonson, even a signed copy of his book, of Edmund Spencer, even Christopher Marlowe…. But no Shakespeare – except by implication. There are echoes aplenty of Adam as Hamlet, of Adam and Helen as Romeo and Juliet, maybe Coriolanus in the shifting loyalties and betrayals. But that’s it.
No David Lindsey or his Three Estaites, or Gavin Douglas.
He does incorporate a couple of lines from a poem by old buddy, Norman MacCaig!
No, Harry’s main literary interests are Montaigne’s Essaies, and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.
(Shame he could not find room for Rabelais.)

‘And that’s it,’ I wrote about Shakespeare. But is it?
Who were the players Harry Langton fell in with one drunken night on a stop-over in London, while on the run to Europe? And that play draft in his pocket next morning, hung-over, aboard ship:'loves Labours Won‘ – the famous lost play.

The story moves from line to line, page to page and does not falter. It sets a good pace, is a page-turner, and nicely balanced.
It does not have the overcooked, stifling, feel of a workshopped book that we meet a lot at present.
It moves with good pace, and deepens its concerns and levels of thought as the story is developed.

For all the scheming, Harry notes ‘for Lucretius the energy that drives us is quite impersonal, yet not mechanical. For on account of the swerve, nothing is predictable, and … may take a new, unguessable turn.’
The swerve – that was Lucretius’ acquiesce to free will, to accident, and chance.
This is how ‘the best laid plans o mice and men, do often gang astray,’ as Robbie Burns wrote much later.

And there we have it.