Every year, the newspapers echo with the anguished cries of life’s little organisers against the swerving swooping Easter date as it flits across the calendar. How much tidier things would be, the argument seems to run, if we could just pick a date and stick to it, year by year. Well, yes, probably. But when has tidy ever been much fun? Why on earth do we get so hot under the collar about a free-wheeling festival? Here in NorthernReader territory we celebrate the unpinned-down, the liberated and the ever-so-slightly anarchic, and are therefore particularly fond of the sheer barkingness of a date for Easter that can pop up any time between March 22nd and April 25th. The delicious arbitrariness (and yes, part of the magic is the full-moon-take-away-the-number-you-first-thought-of maths behind the whole thing) is just underlined by the fact that we can have blossom and tulips or snow and howling gales on any of the possible dates. So, aware that we might be frolicking on the sands at Bamburgh or huddling round the fire when you are reading this, here are some of the books that have made it onto the NorthernReader Easter bookshelf.
Not, I’m afraid, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Normally the champion of the metaphor, I could never get past my revulsion at Aslan the lion – and that was even before the film with the disturbing animatronic animal with sinister eyelashes When I want to contemplate the Passion, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection – and Easter does seem like a good moment to do so – I will get further with the King James’ Bible. While I’m outing myself as an all-round renegade and party-pooper, I don’t like the Easter Bunny either (a cynical import by the peddlers of surplus sugar and a horrible, horrible, incitement to greed and consumerism). This might be something to do with my dislike of cheap chocolate, of course. An Easter Bunny tucking 70% cocoa solids confections into little nooks and crannies in the garden just might make me think again.
But this is a splendidly appropriate time to read books which remind us of the possibility of redemption. And yes, I know this means we could read Crime and Punishment, but really, are we really going to snuggle up with Dostoevsky this weekend? No, let’s wallow in Shakespeare. Rather pleasingly, he does seem to get cheerier as he matured – a hopeful role-model for us all – and what rather sadly turned out to be his last plays turn their back on all that tragic dooming and offer their characters second chances. So, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest please.
And we can re-read The Secret Garden this weekend. The genius of Frances Hodgson Burnett was to forge metaphors for the redemptive power of love, with all that blossoming, blooming, meetings in gardens and rising from your bed and walking (although you will notice that Colin does not go as far as trying to pick up his huge Jacobean four-poster bed) – metaphors so huge and blindingly obvious they could be printed in fluorescent orange – and not irritate the pants off her readers. Unless, of course, you are one of those poor lost souls for whom The Secret Garden is anathema. Oh, go on, have some chocolate and try it again.
Now for some poetry. We have talked before about Eleanor Farjeon’s brief, haunting poem, ‘Easter Monday’. To that I shall add the lovely metaphysical poet George Herbert’s mystical ‘Easter Wings’ – and, while we’re about it, wallow in the pleasures of his ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ (and listen to John Taverner’s beautiful setting for it). What about Yeats’s ‘Easter, 1916’? It’s a poem that should certainly be on everyone’s ‘I know it’ list, so now is as good a time as any if you happen not to have come across it. And for jollity I shall have Robert Graves’s incomparable ‘Welsh Incident’: but you have to promise to have a go at reading it aloud, with as good an impression of Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins as you can manage.
Graves’s poem has at least taken me into the great outdoors. In the hope that this sunshine might continue over the Easter weekend, I am adding Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden – by the best of all gardening writers – to the pile. When I tell you that Lloyd recommended pruning when you walk past a plant that you think needs it, and you have secateurs with you and are in the mood, you will see instantly why I love him. Great Dixter, the garden he inherited, re-made and continued to develop throughout his life, and which the marvellous Fergus Garrett is taking triumphantly onwards, is the most fabulous place, with the ability not to overawe you with the gardening brilliance of others but fill you with confidence, plans and – best of all – visions of your own.
Easter, like Christmas, comes with its own special food. I hope you’re not bothering with New Zealand lamb: have luscious one-year old English hogget now and wait until autumn for home-grown lamb. We shall need a Simnel cake recipe (and, much as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is revered in the NorthernReader household, his innovation of chocolate marzipan is not an improvement: sorry, Hugh), and one for hot-cross buns. But it would be a hardened soul indeed that could completely overlook the ingrained connection between Easter and chocolate. No, I will not be buying special moulds and melting and tempering chocolate. I am not that sort of person. But I might curl up in a corner – of the garden if the weather holds – and revisit the pleasures of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. The cover of my copy demands, ‘Is this the best book ever written?’ Fatuous nonsense: of course it isn’t. But it is awfully good, and spiced with just the right amount of redemptive hope for this time of year. Happy Easter, everyone.