It’s one of life’s little achievements, realising beforehand that the clocks are going forward an hour during the night. In the far-distant land that was Me Going to Real Work in a Real Office, the only notes left on desks with the time pencilled oh-so-casually-on were the ones left at half past six in the morning by serial insomniacs, or party-goers for whom the dawn and the end of the carousing had merged, making it too late to go home and start out again and offering the chance to look utterly dedicated to the job (if a bit bleary and, later in the day, prone to calamitous misjudgements and a tendency to fall asleep during meetings). Now, in just the same way, Sunday morning when the clocks have sprung forward suddenly seems like the perfect moment to be unusually gregarious. Church sees its highest turn-out for weeks; cars are being ostentatiously groomed on front drives; husbands are volunteering for the not-strictly-necessary trip to the supermarket. And after all that unwonted early-hours activity, what could be nicer than to curl up in corner with a good book?
Not, for me, Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (one L: she’s American). It’s a book that generated quite a lot of steam when it was published in 2003, but I have to confess that I thought it by turns tawdry and dull, which, you have to agree, is not much of a recommendation. Frankly I’d much rather have Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Mediaeval England (two Ls: he’s not), which is a vividly written exploration of what, when I was little, was called ‘Everyday Life in …’ (and a most enjoyable series of school textbooks they were, too, with lots of opportunities for colouring the illustrations, no doubt to the irritation of the teachers but at least we were quiet). Mortimer has now added The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, presumably skipping earlier Tudors on the premise that Hilary Mantel has covered the ground efficiently, sufficiently and memorably.
Time travel, and the quantum physics thereof, form the core of what at first sight might seem like an unlikely pairing of books: Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. One is a more rollicking read than the other, but both are the product of scintillating minds. I have no idea whether they ever met, but I hope that they did; or will do, or are doing so right now somewhere else. Professor Hawking is quite simply one of life’s Good Things – and yes of course go and see The Theory of Everything, and find Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant performance in the 2004 BBC film, Hawking, as well. And keep your eyes open for the newly-emerging genre of Quantum Fiction. It would be fair to say that the great Quantum Fiction novel has yet to be written – so why not you? Take Post-Modernism as your springboard and venture forth fearlessly. Or, at the very least, experimentally.
Every year at this time we lose an hour. While good news for dogs, who find breakfast being served almost before they realised they were Actually Starving to Actual Death (and before they confront the heart-breaking reality that this ever-earlier room service does not carry on into tomorrow), it can be slightly existentially disconcerting for the thoughtful among us; or, if you prefer, those among us looking for an excuse to stay in bed for an extra hour anyway pretending to think deeply about something. Where did the hour go? What might I have done with it? And – a far more worrying subject for contemplation – how does that lost hour differ from all the other hours I lose doing nothing much? Never mind Ten Days that Shook the World (although do read it: John Reed’s first-hand account of the October Revolution is gripping); can I summon up sixty minutes of achievement. Once a year? Spread thinly over an entire lifetime? Time, perhaps, for some knuckling-down books.
The trouble, of course, with inspirational testaments is that they can be rather crushing. Compared with Marjory Fleming, for example, I have clearly wasted my time on earth. Little Miss Fleming, should you not have come across her, was a Scottish poet, letter-writer and diarist of considerable wit and a charm based not least upon her dry acerbity. She appears to have had no truck with sentimentality (always such a high recommendation to the NorthernReader sensibility) and, indeed, her works were heavily bowdlerised for many years after her death to present her in a more anodyne light. And, oh yes, she was eight years old when she died. I think you might enjoy Oriel Malet’s Marjory Fleming, a fictionalised biography. Malet wrote it in 1946 (when she herself was only twenty) and it has been re-published by Persephone Books, which is a clear indication that we are going to enjoy it.
Tick, tock: tempus fugit. And, as those of you who wait breathlessly for the next epistle from the Northern Reader will have noticed, it has taken me four days to recover from the loss of that single hour to write to you. Shame on me. Normal service will be resumed at the weekend.