less than angels, by barbara pym

Sexy, independent Catherine Oliphant is the best Pym heroine so far. No frustrated literary yearnings for her: she writes romantic fiction for women’s magazines. Even as she catches her beloved in the act of having an intimate dinner with her replacement, she thinks to herself that their moussaka will be getting cold. She chooses her next crush on the basis of his resemblance to an Easter Island statue. I adore her.

The church takes a step back in this book and the vacuum is filled by anthropology. The resulting shabby-intellectual milieu is surprisingly reminiscent of Iris Murdoch.

jane and prudence, by barbara pym

This is a lot of people’s favourite Pym novel, including Jilly Cooper’s and Pym’s herself. Maybe that’s because it is in part a retelling of Emma, one of Austen’s most charming books. As well as shuffling her own deck of archetypes, Pym has shuffled in several from Austen’s pack.

Prudence disliked being called ‘Miss Bates’; if she resembled any character in fiction, it was certainly not poor silly Miss Bates.

No, when she thought it over, Jane decided that she was really much more like Emma Woodhouse.

The romantic stranger is the widower Fabian Driver, who was serially unfaithful to his dead wife Constance (ouch.) The clergyman is married again, but Jane, his wife, is neither fish nor fowl: too ineffectual to be a helpmeet like Agatha Hoccleve, too lazy to be a thinker like Helena Napier. In her notes on the novel, Pym’s thumbnail sketch of Jane is devastating in its cruelty:

The wife sits on committees. Is literary, but no time for that now – perhaps had even wanted to do research (‘The influence of Somebody on Something’). Missed opportunities. Jane felt she has not been really successful – but a happy marriage and a child, people might say rather reproachfully, wasn’t that something?

And yet readers love Jane, and for good reason. Like the children of Elfine Starkadder and Richard Hawk-Monitor, she blazes with poetry in her soul. Her well-intentioned but blundering efforts to hook Prudence up are, like Emma Woodhouse’s, not punished with success. Only one marriage proposal is accepted in this book, and it is heartily regretted by almost all concerned.

Cameos: Dora’s awful brother William interrupts Prudence and Geoffrey to warn them against ordering the pate. We are given tragic news about Mildred Lathbury.

excellent women, by barbara pym

If Pym is telling stories from the point of view of God then in this novel, which is told in the first person, God is a spinster who refers to herself half-ironically as one of the excellent women. Dunno about you but I’m good with that.

Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look. ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.

The character cards from Some Tame Gazelle are taken up and shuffled another way. This time it is the clergyman who lives with his anxious, ineffectual sister. The bluestocking is married to the dashing hero just back from Italy, and this bluestocking has not transformed herself into an exemplary wife. Where Agatha Hoccleve sublimated her ambition to push Henry into his archdeaconate, Helena Napier is a career anthropologist and to hell with domesticity. This makes her husband entertainingly cross. (Archdeacon Hoccleve himself turns up halfway through this book to give an annoying sermon and it is hilarious, because Barbara Pym loves us and wants us to be happy.)

Despite these variations, the engine of both plots is the same. Women exercise their agency in the only way available to them: by indignantly refusing horrible offers of marriage. It’s Lizzie rejecting Mr Collins over and over again, and it is glorious. Given the Internet, Pym would have dispensed dating advice as sublime as that of Mallory Ortberg. (“Remember that you always have the option of taking to the sea.”)

The unmarriage plot is only one of the ways in which Excellent Women precisely geolocates Pym in the terrain of English literature. There is also the character of Rocky Napier, who wanders in from spending the War years with Nancy Mitford’s Fabrice de Sauveterre and Charles-Edouard de Valhubert. There is Mrs Bone, whose dread of the Dominion of the Birds is clearly listed in the DSM beside Aunt Ada Doom’s Something Nasty in the Woodshed. Maybe most disturbingly there is the anthropologist Everard Bone, whose unselfconsciously monstrous selfishness anticipates both Nelson Denoon in Mating and Richard Churchill in Half of a Yellow Sun.

some tame gazelle, by barbara pym

‘Miss Liversidge is really splendid,’ she declared and then wondered why one always said that Edith was ‘splendid’. It was probably because she hadn’t very much money, was tough and wiry, dug vigorously in her garden and kept goats.

Barbara Pym is the most badass writer who ever lived and I am going to tell you why.

He was smiling to himself in a sardonic way that Belinda found very disconcerting. It was unsuitable for a clergyman to look sardonic.

This sardonic clergyman is a very lightly fictionalized Henry Harvey, the great love of Pym’s life. She met him at Oxford and he sounds like a right tosser. Pym handles this so well! She vivisects and impales him both here and in her own journals with unflinching and scientific rigour. It is very suitable for a novelist to be sardonic; it is an especially suitable posture for a novelist in love.

Like Jane Austen, though, Pym is frequently misconstrued as cosy. It’s all in the subject matter: gossipy Church of England parishioners. If you find such people charming, you might miss the sharpness in Pym. If they make you think of serial murderers and Hot Fuzz then come, sit by me.

Sharp and unflinching as she is, Pym is not herself a serial murderer but something closer to a vet. Consider this curious passage:

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding-place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh, well …’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so.

‘Perhaps you would like to go and have tea,’ said Agatha, who was having difficulty with the bulk of the marrows and the fragility of the tissue paper and did not want Belinda to see.

You’d never get away with a passage like this nowadays (Some Tame Gazelle took fifteen years to find a publisher but eventually came out in 1950). Your editor would tell you you’d made a mistake in the last sentence, where the narrative suddenly switches to Agatha’s point of view.

This is, of course, bullshit. Pym is one of the most controlled and surgical of writers. She wields third person omniscient like an edged weapon. If the POV switches it’s because she meant it to switch.

So who’s talking? Whose gaze is it that pierces both Belinda and Agatha right through to the bone (“all this fuss about two marrows”)? Who measures the tension between them (Agatha has been married to Belinda’s beloved Henry for thirty years) and all their weaknesses and evasions, and yet doesn’t condemn them? By whom are they so seen and known and accepted for what they are?

Barbara Pym is the most badass writer because her books are told from the point of view of God.

the after time

Haddon asked how I was and I admitted that I am not doing very well at all but added, for form’s sake:

“It gets better, right?”

“No,” he said. “Look, I loved your mother very much. She was a rare and dignified soul. When you lose someone like that, it never gets better.”

I was so grateful to him for coming out and saying it, I can’t even tell you.


I mean, I’ll be fine. I am functional. Stuff gets done. I’m busy and engaged and tired. I love my kids and my cats and my Mister.

The trouble is that I continue to love my mother in the present tense.

ancillary justice, by ann leckie

…luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience…

It seems very straightforward when I say “I.”

…when I look closer I seem to see cracks everywhere. Did the singing contribute, the thing that made One Esk different from all other units on the ship, indeed in the fleets? Perhaps. Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?

I spent six months trying to understand how to do anything—not just how to get my message to the Lord of the Radch, but how to walk and breathe and sleep and eat as myself. As a myself that was only a fragment of what I had been, with no conceivable future beyond eternally wishing for what was gone.

It’s hard for me to know how much of myself I remember. How much I might have known, that I had hidden from myself all my life.

the long goodbye: a memoir, by meghan o’rourke

I grew to love her in ways I never had. Some of the new intimacy came from finding myself in a caretaking role where, before, I had been the one taken care of.

One day I understood I had stopped believing that knowledge could save her or help me. I just wanted her to be comfortable.

I am still looking for the alternative outcome to this part of the story—as if had I pushed harder at one of these moments, had I been more aware, all would have changed.

Perhaps my mother’s death would be not unlike a divorce, I found myself thinking, wishfully: I would see her less, but now and then be granted a reprieve like this. It would be a reunion like those in The Aeneid or The Odyssey, when the heroes go down to the Underworld to see their dead parents and embrace them three times, waking to their disappearance.

As she sits on the couch, I bring her yogurt and rub her feet with lavender lotion. She sighs. It is the only thing I can do that brings her pleasure.

Sometimes I just sit on the couch with a quilt and a book and read beside her. I want to be next to her as much as I can.

I kept touching the skin on her face, which was rubbery but still hers, feeling morbid as I did it, but feeling, too, that it was strange that I should think so. This was my mother. In the old days, didn’t the bereaved wash the body as they said their goodbyes?

In the past, I had been good at keeping track of details, but now I couldn’t. Often it took all my energy simply to get to the office, and at meetings I found it hard to concentrate. Instead, my brain ran through my mother’s last days over and over.

I miss her laugh, her sarcasm, and the sound of her voice saying my name.

I miss her hands, which I shall never see again, for we have burned her body into fine, charcoal ash and small white bones, and that is what is now left of her voice and her eyes and her fingernails.

I am becoming someone whose mother is dead.

julia and her gemma

for mum’s wake

Jean Eileen “Gemma” Chalmers

Jean Eileen Ellison was born in Victoria House in Warrington, Cheshire in 1935. Her grandmother Ruth Bramhall ran Victoria House as a gentleman’s boarding house; she also ran a corner shop. Jean said that Ruth was very much the businesswoman, way ahead of her time.

Ruth’s daughter, Jean’s mother Doris Bramhall, met Jack Ellison at the local church where they both taught Sunday school. Doris and Jack were married in August 1929. They had two daughters, Ruth and Jean.

Jack was an inventor. Jean remembered his workshop full of gadgets, including a haybale-lifter that he sold to a local farmer for a pittance. The farmer registered the design and sold it to Massey Ferguson. “They made a motza out of it,” she said.

During WW2, Doris and Jack ran The Lamb, a traditional English pub in Whitchurch, Shropshire. When the family dog Dandy had puppies with a neighbour’s dog, Monnie, Jean adopted the runt of the litter and named her Victoria Plum. Vicky Plum loved to ride into town in Jean’s bicycle basket.

At school, Jean enjoyed Latin, history and French. She played tennis and got to know another player, Margaret Maidley. Jean described Margaret as very funny, very droll. She and Margaret remained close for the rest of their lives.

Jean won admission to Battersea Domestic Science College in London. At a social night there in 1954 she met a group of men from the neighboring Battersea College. That group included Murray McGrath, who she found delightful, and Robin Chalmers, who she thought was a very pushy Australian. Of Robin, Jean said, “We could talk. With a lot of the people I’d tried to go out with, I had nothing to talk about. Robin chattered away. He was interesting.” Jean loved Robin’s intelligence and how practical he was, how good with his hands.

Jean and Robin were married in Whitchurch in 1961. Jean wore a dress from Brown’s of Cheshire, long-sleeved and short-skirted with a fitted bodice, a Parisian design. Margaret and Ruth were bridesmaids and the best man was Ivor Wong, a friend of Robin’s from college who also remains close to the couple. Jean and Robin honeymooned in the Lake District, visiting the Beatrix Potter museum and Derwent Water.

After the wedding, Jean and Robin lived in a flat on Narbonne Avenue near Clapham Common in London. Robin worked as an electrical engineer and Jean as a comptometer operator. They loved going to jazz clubs to hear Humphrey Littleton, Chris Barber, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine.

When Jean became pregnant, she and Robin moved to a semi-detached house in Shirley. Jean remembered hedgehogs in the garden. Sarah was born in 1965 and Iain followed in 1967. Jean was always very touched at what a doting father Robin was. When they were bringing Sarah home from the hospital, he pulled the car over before they got home. “I have to hold her,” he said. “The nurses wouldn’t let me hold her.” Iain was a home birth, and his dad caught him.

The family sailed to Australia in 1968 on the Fairsky. They saw albatross, dolphins and flying fish. Jean found Cape Town beautiful but was shocked by signs saying For Whites Only and For Blacks Only.

In Sydney, Robin found a job with AWA Two more children followed: Alain in 1969 and Rachel in 1971. With the birth of Rachel the family outgrew their house in West Pymble and moved to the house in Frenchs Forest that would be their home for the next thirty years.

Jean found work at Avon, where she met Hazel Young, the second of her two great friends.

Jean herself was very funny, very droll. She was a working mother – like her Nana, ahead of her time – but she was dedicated to her children and always took their side. When Sarah was diagnosed with epilepsy and when Alain had a badly broken leg, she became their tireless advocate and fought the medical establishment on their behalf.

For a shy, quiet English rose, she had an unexpected spirit of adventure. In 1983 she announced that the entire family would be going away on a hot-air ballooning weekend. It was the first of many such adventures, and quite unforgettable. But daily life in her home was also full of pleasures, like roast Sunday lunches and uproarious games of mah jongg.

In 1990 Sarah married Ian Marrett, whose grandmother lived two doors down from the Frenchs Forest house. Their daughter Kelly was born in 1995 and Ross followed in 1997. In 2000 Rachel married Jeremy Fitzhardinge. They had Claire in 2002 and Julia in 2005. Jean attended the births of all four grandchildren, intrepidly flying solo to San Francisco to help out with Claire and Julia.

After retirement Jean and Robin sold the Frenchs Forest house and bought the Motley, a Winnebago. For seven years they explored Australia, seeing Uluru in the rain, watching whales off the coast of Western Australia. They also flew to Trinidad and Tobago for the wedding of Ivor Wong’s son. They picked up the friendship as if it had never been interrupted. It was the trip of a lifetime.

In 2007 Jean and Robin settled in Barraba, which Robin believes is the most beautiful small town in Australia. Jean quickly became involved with the Clay Pan. Her grandchildren were always plentifully supplied with beautifully knitted cardigans and hats. Jean also made many exquisite pieces of needlework.

Investigation into trouble swallowing in August 2013 showed Jean had aggressive oesophageal cancer. A period in Sydney having radiotherapy treated that cancer, although on January 7 2014 scans showed secondaries.

Jean spent the last four weeks of her life being nursed at Barraba Hospital. The dedicated care and excellent facilities there gave Jean precious time with her husband, sons and daughters and friends. Her great friend Hazel joined with Jean’s daughters in caring for her in Barraba Hospital.

Jean’s sense of humour remained glorious: laughing off concerns about her visitors’ germs, she said: “That won’t kill me!”

Jean is survived by her husband Robin, eldest daughter Sarah, her husband Ian and children Kelly and Ross, eldest son Iain and his partner Rachel, younger son Alain and younger daughter Rachel and her husband Jeremy and daughters Claire and Julia.

jean eileen chalmers, 1935-2014

A great lady, my mother.

our friendly ghosts have names

Their names are inscribed on little brass plaques on all the family-supporting pieces of kit in the palliative care room.

Kate Spencer gave us the Rupert Richardson watercolour of Mulwarree. Tony Brown gave us the TV and Clarrie Sugden the DVD. The boombox is from Woody Woodgate. Col Howarth gave us the chair and tables on the patio, and I sleep on Peter Milson’s fold-out bed.


What piece of kit will have my mother’s name on it?


Sometimes the ghosts open the door and let themselves in.


Last night Mum dreamt she rode Alfie. This morning she started up, saying: “Bebe? Bebe?” She could hear my cat meowing.


I don’t believe in ghosts. I do believe in love. I believe in kindness. I believe in bearing witness. I believe that this matters, and that it’s worth it.

five tweets make a post

  • Sarah: “Sorry, we’re fussing over you again, aren’t we?” Mum: “I like to be fussed over.”
  • Have I mentioned how compassionate the nurses are? Humbling.
  • Giving Mum water. Hazel: “Don’t know how much you want.” Mum: “A whole jug full.” Me: “I can put gin in if you want.” Mum: “Gin and tonic.”
  • Mum: “This is so lovely.” Me: “Having everyone here?” Mum: “Yes.” Me: “We should have done it years ago.” Mum: “Yes.”
  • “Look who it is, Mum! It’s your number one son.” “NUMBER ONE SON!”

yet another saturday

Mum slept all day Wednesday. I called my brother, Mum’s best friend and my aunt and uncle to let them know how things stood. My brother and Mum’s best friend decided not to come, under the circumstances.

My Auntie Barb and my Uncle Ron, both in their eighties, already busy supporting their youngest daughter Lynne whose husband is also dying of cancer, dropped everything and drove for nine hours to see Mum.

We expected them at 10.30pm. I called the innkeeper every hour until 1am. I slept fitfully from 3am till 5am. No news. I imagined my aunt and uncle dead in a ditch. I called Jeremy and cried.

They were already safe in bed at Andy’s Guest House, of course. Ron was scathing of my concern.

Ron: “Why on earth would I be dead in a ditch?”

When they came in to see Mum, she woke up and wept for joy at the sight of them.

Mum: “I can’t believe you came all this way to see me. It’s so kind of you. I’m speechless.”

Ron: “Obviously not actually speechless.”

We had good hours after that, until Mum realized that her best friend had cancelled her flight. She cried out in pain.

Oh reader, I hope you never have to feel what I felt then.

I called Hazel, who instantly rebooked her flight. She should be here within the hour.

Auntie Barb, saying goodbye to Mum: “Thank you for taking such good care of my little brother. It’s been a wonderful life, hasn’t it?”

not too heavy

After a string of terrible nights, Mum slept peacefully until 9.30am.

“You’ve been asleep twelve hours,” I told her.

“Twelve hours! What time is it? Sarah will be cross.”

“You needed it. You were very tired.”

“I was.”

I helped her into the bathroom. She was very staggery.

“Your hair looks beautiful,” I told her as she washed her face. Jenny came and gave her a haircut yesterday.

“It does, doesn’t it?”

“You look beautiful,” I said, and she smiled at me so that her face lit up. “Do you want to go back to bed or sit on the sofa?” I asked.

“Not the bed. But I don’t want to knock you flat.”

“You won’t. I play with horses, remember? And I probably outweigh you now.”

“You probably do!”

“I don’t have to catch you. I just have to push you back over your center of gravity.”

“You’re right, that’s true.”

She made it to the sofa, holding on to her bed and her trolley. I told her what I’d been chatting to Jeremy about. She felt a little ill and asked me to pat her back.

“She only keeps me around because I beat her,” I explained to the orderlies who’d come to clean.

“You can get me back for all the times I beat you,” she said.

“Revenge at last!”

The orderly was anxious to make sure she didn’t walk around in her bedsocks on the wet floor.

“But they have these spots on the soles, so I don’t slip,” said Mum, showing her. “They’re really good.”

The orderlies left and Mum dozed off in my arms. I shifted to hold her better.

“Am I too heavy?” she asked drowsily.

“No,” I said. “I like cuddling you.”

She hasn’t woken up yet, not even when the nurses moved her back to bed in a mechanical sling.

explaining mum to the nurses

Nurse Karen: It’s great that you two have such a good relationship with your mother. I envy you. I don’t have that.

Sarah: She is the best mum in the world.

Mum: I don’t know what I did.

Me: You always took our side, even when we were in the wrong.

Sarah: You loved us unconditionally.

Me: You took out a second mortgage so I could go to college overseas.

Mum: Did you know, I’d forgotten about that!


bebe by claire

from my kindle notes

“I sounded ignorant and shallow, a twerp with no experience of life.”

– Helen Garner, Joe Cinque’s Consolation

“Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.”

– Donald Hall, Without: Poems

“I consider my father and mother the best part of myself, sir.”

– George Eliot, Middlemarch

another saturday

Nurse Dale said: “Every day is precious now.”

She said, “What people want most now is your time.”

Mum’s sleeping more and eating less. She’s sleeping now. When she’s awake, she’s – I have run out of words to describe her valor and derring-do. As she gets thinner she is more and more like a bolt of silver fire. Like Galadriel, only funnier.

My brother Iain and his partner Rachel drove up from Sydney last night. Mum’s overjoyed to have them here. We played some good mah jongg this morning. Mum won a game.

Rachel’s car was fine all the way to my sister’s house, then broke its fanbelt on the way to Pam’s. Luckily Adam is in Tamworth today, meeting his parents and picking up his puppy. He’s getting a new fanbelt for Iain and a new pair of tongs for Dad, who broke his old tongs collecting fallen needles from around the base of the Bunya pine.

I drove down to the markets to spend a bit of time with Dad. We had coffee together in the Playhouse.

But I can’t stay away from my mother for very long.

I love her.

goodbye, bebe

Bebe the Circus Queen

You are my beastie and I will love you for the rest of my life.

another day

First a clarification on behalf of Dad, who I am pleased to discover still reads my blog with close attention. Dad’s view on his own condition is that he has a little problem with his language, not with his memory.


Dad and I went for a lovely drive the other day. We went out to Mulwarree, the homestead that is the original of the Rupert Richardson watercolour in Mum’s hospital room. It’s only 7km out of town, but the Hereford cattle, the dry golden paddocks and the gnarled gum trees are pure outback.

The lightning storm on Monday night had sparked a bushfire on Mount Hobden, and we could see the smoke streaming off the mountain and the haze falling from it like white rain. We stopped behind the saleyards so that I could speak words of love to four Thoroughbred broodmares, their bellies heavy with foal.


Mum is …stable. She eats little or nothing and keeps little enough of it down, but she can cope with Sustagen, and usually has a glass of it on the go. Sylvia the syringe driver keeps her pain at zero, mostly.

The improvement this has made to her quality of life is hard to adequately convey. After Christmas (when Mum was still treating her end-stage cancer pain with the equivalent of Tylenol) it was hard for her to sit up long enough to play a game of mah jongg. She was folded in on herself. She looked grey.

Now she is comfortable, and the glow has returned to her skin. We play for hours. We watch The Last of the Summer Wine. We finish crosswords. She is teaching Sarah to do crosswords. She tells jokes. She is full of good cheer.

Morphine is mercy.


She is a remarkable listener. Her friends come by and tell her extraordinary, deeply personal stories. Mum is a quiet and accepting presence. It’s a privilege to witness.


I’m settling in for my fourth night on the pull-out sofa. I take my meds, I brush my teeth, I eat healthy food, I swim my laps.

I take each thing as it comes. I look for things that need doing. I do a little bit of work while Mum is asleep.

I’m very lucky to be here.