About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

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Adventures in Dance

Some people are dancers. Others are not. I fall into a kind of hybrid category, in that I am a dancer in my imagination.

As a tiny child of four I was hauled off to Ballet lessons. Initially these took place at ‘Miss Pinegar’s School of Ballet’ in Salisbury, Southern England. Miss Pinegar’s was held in a dark and gloomy hall. We’d use a cloakroom to have our shoes changed for those soft, flesh pink slippers and off we trotted to perfect our pliés and pas des deux. I was even involved in a performance-as a flower fairy in an extravaganza loosely based upon ‘Babes in the Wood’. So far so good.

We moved to East Anglia [as described in a previous post]. A ballet school was duly found. I was given a list of French terms to learn. Others seemed more accomplished and lissom than I, so that I fell by the bar side. I dug my tiny heels in and refused.

When the sixties rushed in, deluging all with Minis, Carnaby Street, The Beatles and swinging style I applied myself with dogged single-mindedness to learning ‘The Twist’ and then ‘The Shake’, gyrating in energetic circles around my friend, Gillian Farley’s kitchen table.

The sixties morphed seamlessly into the seventies and hippie-dom saw us drifting around like characters from Lord of the Rings in elfin attire, skirts sweeping the floor and covering our bare feet-which was just as well since they were filthy from being unshod. We swayed about to ‘Are you going to San Francisco’ with flowers in our hair, thinking we were ethereal, mysterious and elegant.

Thereafter any adventures in the land of Dance were curtailed owing to being mired in the bog of children and domesticity, although my own small daughter, clad in her own soft, pink slippers cavorted around a church hall looking more than cute in a gauzy, circular skirt and leotard.

In my forties I began a newly single life and took up activities hitherto unimagined during married life such as ‘Ceroc’, sometimes called ‘Leroc’ [originating in France] and these days called ‘Mo-jive’-a form of super energetic, fast jiving involving countless moves with a partner which took [me] a very long time to learn. While we single women were not prevented from acquiring Ceroc skills by being in a partner-less state we were hampered by there being significantly fewer male pupils, and since we were required to move along and change partners every few minutes there was always long, snaking queue of women waiting to get back into the line.

There were pleasant enough men at the Ceroc sessions but romantic attachments were rarely formed, however one startling outcome was that after many months of dogged stumbling and treading on toes I learned to dance the Ceroc, for a time becoming addicted to it. Even now, after nearly 20 years with Husband [who planted his feet firmly in the dance-free zone] I am always entranced by watching others twirling together in an effortless jive.

Watching dance, in fact is something I find I love-whether it is the uninhibited thrashing about to a band at the pub or the unutterably lovely elegance of Swan Lake. What’s not to like?

The Best Possible Taste?

                During periods at home it is a rare week that passes without our moseying along to see and hear some live music, and most weeks we’ll go at least twice. Out and about travelling of course it is a different story, with the tiny music player and speakers having to fill in the gap. [This is when some slight differences in musical taste kick in between myself and Husband-usually addressed by me listening to Coldplay during snatched moments while he showers].

                It is a mark of how much I’ve altered, I suppose, that I no longer listen to music radio in my car, preferring the diversions of talk radio these days. Years ago I’d have listened to music during most of my spare hours, but now I often prefer silence, or birdsong, or any of those lyrical, whimsical sounds poets bang on about.

                As a teenager of the mid to late sixties [we babyboomers always like to boast this is the best, the only era for music]-I got my fix in regular doses of essential listening like ‘Pick of the Pops’ on Sunday evenings, when the entire chart would be played to exceedingly naff presentation of Alan Freeman, who called us ‘pop pickers’ [as opposed to pickpockets, perhaps]. In the beginning, one of my brothers and myself would record it all on a reel to reel tape recorder, whilst simultaneously writing each song in a notebook with a diligence we did not apply to homework . We were banished to a cold room. Later, when I was left as the lone teenager I continued to be banished in order to listen, although I’d given up the recording by then.

                A great disappointment to my classical music loving father [he called it seeerious music], I glued myself mulishly to TV’s ‘Top of the Pops’ each Thursday evening. [Sadly its reputation is now tarnished by the grim revelations about one of its presenters]. My parents didn’t ‘get’ it, displaying all the cliché ridden behaviour of the era-‘you can’t tell whether they are boys or girls’ [of the long haired band members], or ‘what a racket!’

                Once, in a rare moment of watching, my father turned to me triumphant during the climax of the number one single and shouted, “I LIKE this one!” I remember my despair. It was the odious, banal and stubbornly popular ‘Silence is Golden’ by the hideous Tremeloes.

                Another time they returned from a weekend away proudly bearing a gift, at a time when I’d just bought ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ by new, progressive band, Cream. They’d gone to a record shop all by themselves [they boasted] and asked the salesperson what was ‘number 1’? “because she’s bound to like that one” What was it? It was ‘This is the Captain of Your Ship’ by Reperata and the Delrons. If you’ve ever heard this you will understand my teenage emotions. I may have managed to play it once, to satisfy their proud smiles. It all demonstrates how parents misunderstand teenagers.

                Now I realise how lucky I am to live within a cycle or a short bus ride away from a whole range of music venues showcasing a broad spectrum of local, talented musicians and I could probably enjoy a different act and genre every night of the week-if I had the energy. Better still, our local music festival takes place next month-about which, more anon!