Clean sheets: tick. Towels: tick. Hell, I’ve even vacuumed. The guest bedroom awaits our friends who are arriving this evening. How else to show them I love them? Flowers from the garden in a jug on the windowsill, a tin of biscuits (home-made of course: you see before you a living goddess of domesticity) …. Now for the fun part: the books to put on the bedside tables.
How to choose? Here are my choices. Some are going to be more or less permanent fixtures in the guest room – books that any guest might want to have around – and others will be chosen with the special likes and interests of this weekend’s friends in mind.
So, the foundations first. We live in a beautiful part of England that many of our friends don’t know all that well, so a guide book or two would be a good idea. I’m going for The Buildings of England: Northumberland by Nikolaus Pevsner. I love the whole series and still keep a look-out for more volumes to complete the set (not hard in this part of the forest, because we’re not that far from the wonderful Barter Books at Alnwick – centre of the bibliophile-on-a-budget’s universe). Pevsner was sharp-eyed, opinionated and idiosyncratic: my sort of chap. Some of the volumes we have remind you how the powers that be keep messing about with boundaries. Our Oxford volume, for example, is old enough to exclude Abingdon because, in its eyes, Abingdon is still in Berkshire.
We live pretty much on Hadrian’s Wall, so something Roman seems like a good idea. I might put out The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis. It’s set in Rome and Britannia in 70AD which makes it a bit too early for Hadrian, who pitched up around here in 122AD, but it qualifies as a good guest-room book by being a crime novel which is quite light and not too gruesome. I have no desire to be woken by the nightmares of others. My other Roman choice would be the wonderful The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. There’s a good chance that most of our friends will have read it as children – which was – how can I put this? A little while ago now, so it will offer the pleasure of revisiting a half-remembered book. And if they didn’t read it when they were children, well, what a treat they have in store. Sutcliff was right up there with Mary Renault as a writer of historical fiction that doesn’t feel as if it is a half-digested history lesson (The King Must Die, if you haven’t read any Renault and want to know which is the very best one).
I’m hoping our guests won’t be reading into the wee small hours, unable to sleep, so putting long novels by the bed seems actively unkind as well as pointless (unless I’m prepared to lend them – but that’s the subject for another week’s blog). A book of short stories, then. I’ve recently enjoyed Salley Vickers’ Aphrodite’s Hat, but I have to say I prefer her full-length novels (which, if you haven’t yet, do). No, I’m going to dust down my copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s A Day in the Dark and other stories. Perfectly observed, perfectly dispassionate, and (often) perfectly heart-breaking. In a good way.
Every bedside table should have some poetry on it at all times. It’s one of the rules. As I write this, the death of Seamus Heaney has just been announced. I’m not at all sure we can afford to be without him. Selected Poems would do, but if I have to pick one, it’s going to be The Spirit Level.
This weekend’s guests are teachers. So, Village School, by the incomparable Miss Read. If my friends have not read her before, I will be giving the gift of a whole series of insightful, dry and witty books which, quite apart from the enjoyment of their gentle plots, stand now as an important snapshot of social history. The one-teacher school, and the tiny village community that it serves, is as vanished from us as the school-house without electricity and mains water in which Miss Read’s chronicles begin. A world we have lost ….
Which reminds me of my last choice for the weekend: Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go? by Michael Bywater. I first came across this gem of splenetic elegy when it was read by Stephen Fry on Radio 4. That should tell you all you need to know, really. But if you need even further encouragement, Bywater reminds you – in nice short chunks – that you are absolutely right to lament – sometimes loudly, in the middle of a shop or Port Office (if you can find one) – the loss of (some random examples) compartments on trains, Proper Doctors, Fathers (with a capital F) …. Oh, go and read it. You’ll love it. Promise. Bet you find yourself reading it out to your nearest and dearest/people trapped in the same room as you.
Enough. Books ready, endless supply of food and drink ditto, spare walking boots and Barbours by the door: we’re ready for the weekend. Let’s hope it rains.