Week 113: Flat

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

I have spent the last few weeks, which have felt like geological eras, edging towards selling a flat.  No, despite what our current Beloved Leader’s sidekick would have you believe, this does not mean that I am Rachman reincarnated, leafing through my property portfolio in the Bond-like fastnesses of NorthernReader Towers.  I had a small lump sum and, in the absence of any pension (too young – hurrah – for a state one and too female to have ever been offered a private one) a flat seemed like a slightly better return on capital than, say, a bank account (if only bonuses, and indeed salaries, were capped to the interest rates these people offer).  It also offered the humble pleasures of drastically improving Britain’s housing stock, one flat at a time, and being a model landlord.  Just call me Pollyanna (so much less rude than ‘poor deluded fool’).  What has actually kneaded the iron deep into my soul, however, has been the managing agents who, as the same unsavoury individuals but wearing a multiplicity of hats, hold the freehold, act as their own surveyors, do their own conveyancing, and (don’t) maintain and run the building.  Dante, thou shouldst be living at this hour, because managing agents are a sub-species below even estate agents, bankers and politicians.  Enough of the brutalities of real life; how about flats in fiction?

Strangely enough, none of the occupants of literature’s flats and apartments seem cursed with managing agents.  The male of the species is often attended by a housekeeper (Sherlock Holmes’s Mrs Hudson) or a valet (Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion with the disreputable Lugg; Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves).  Male detectives, it seems, are irresistibly drawn to the flat as an address (yes, I know Bertie isn’t a detective, unless of course you count – as you should – his triumphant work in the Case of Aunt Agatha’s Pearls aka ‘Aunt Agatha Takes the Count’ in Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves).  Hercule Poirot is another denizen of an apartment block, relying on George for sustenance and clean socks.  I cannot think of a single example of a chap who fends for himself in a flat,221b or one whose narrative trajectory is marked by such mundanities as popping to the shops or doing the washing up.  Several of the males of the flat-dwelling species do, however, display a keen interest in the nicer points of interior design – not Holmes, obviously, but Wimsey favours a terrifically modish primrose-and-black scheme at one point and Poirot prides himself on manifesting le dernier cri of Art Deco (and jolly uncomfortable and foreign it is all made to sound).

Flats occupied by women in fiction cover a wider social range, but all, I think, are meant to give us some sense of the freedom that can be enjoyed by a woman living in a city.  While the flats themselves may vary from the steamy bed-sits of John Betjeman and Edna O’Brien territory to the fabulous luxury of Delysia Lafosse’s love-nest in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, they all offer the promise of a life less ordinary and, in particular, of a life not spent darning a man’s socks.  Virginia Woolf quite rightly identifies a woman’s need for A Room of One’s

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Own before she can find  a sense of self; how very much more the autonomy of a woman with a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom (and, be it noted as an advantage of flat-dwelling for people with better things to do, no garden).  I’m not sure that the physical structure of the building is ever specified, but Mary Smiling’s home in Cold Comfort Farm simply must be a flat, albeit a sumptuously huge one (all those brassieres), because to Flora Poste and to us the widowed Mrs Smiling is the embodiment of a certain sort of freedom, which comes entirely  – ah, the wise Jane Austenishness of it! – from her possession of a good fortune and her consequent total absence of need for a husband.  What a bore sex is, Stella Gibbons implies (your age and your inclinations will tend to colour your response); poor old Flora, economically and hormonally driven to end up dwindling into a wife (and if by chance you haven’t read Congreve’s The Way of the World, now is the moment: if only I’d remembered it in time for last month’s NorthernReader Book Club, when we talked about the books we would like to make the film of).

Apartments lived in by women on their own do bring with them – in fiction, I hasten to add, not in life – the dubious aura of being a Kept Woman.  Think of Linda’s beautiful flat in Paris, in which she is installed (why is ‘installed’, with its overtones of plumbing, always the word used for a mistress?) by the great love of her life on Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (still perfect, and perfectly heart-breaking, at the millionth time of reading).

Modern urban living, whether in London, New York, Paris or Edinburgh, has made flat-dwellers of nearly all of us at one time or another in our lives.  The sad truth is that we usually have not the remotest idea who our neighbours might be, as our lives slide past each other like immutable planets.  It should not be like this, and Alexander McCall Smith offers us a vision of a better world in which flats – 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh and Corduroy Mansions in Pimlico – form vertical villages, where no man or woman is an island and every neighbour, like it or not, is involved in mankind.

But not, of course, managing agents, for whom no bell could toll more cheerily when the time comes.vampire-staked-through-the-heart


Week 95: The Body Count


untitled (5)Why are we, like Webster (you know your TS Eliot), so much possessed by death? Not the slow decline of inevitable ageing and mortality, which is the unavoidable fate of us all and which we refuse to acknowledge, contemplate or come to terms with, but violent death. In 2013, when the population of England and Wales was fifty three and a half million, there were five hundred and fifty one murders. Or, in other words, you are infinitely more likely to win the Lottery (always worth looking on the bright side, I find, even if only to fill in the time until we die; which will not be at the hands of others).

Yet murder forms the staple of television drama. Otherwise perfectly pleasant people who have a tendency to recoil squeamishly at the traumatic idea of squashing a wasp wade knee-deep in gore as they settle down on the sofa in the evening. It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the housing market in the Cotswolds has remained so buoyant, what with all those serial killers portrayed in Morse, Lewis, Endeavour (mostly melodramatic if well-acted should you not have seen this prequel series) and Midsomer Murders (purest ham and suggesting that south Oxfordshire is in the grip of a population decimation not seen since the Black Death). We particularly enjoy sitting unmoved and supine before tales of serial killers: indeed, in the implicit league table of murderers, there is something a bit namby-pamby and not-really-trying about the villain who only kills once.

These crimes – which I do rather hope would produce a more empathetic, not to say wildly hysterical, response in what we laughingly call real life – have literary form. Cain, of course; a tale told with admirable brevity in Genesis: and after him, a grand parade of the vengeful, the greedy, the psychotic and the frankly panic-stricken. Snuggle down in your staggeringly safe home and enjoy.

IPhone pics Nov 13 005Shakespeare, who lived in a rougher world more prone to using its fists and knives, gives us Macbeth – a terribly plausible decent chap who plummets into an unstoppable chain of murders and loses his soul in the process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but far, far, darker – although now I think of it I quite fancy Mickey Mouse as the Scottish King). And, what with being a man of his time and all that, Shakespeare also gives us Lady M, whose fault it all is. It’s that pesky double X chromosome, you see. Did you know that the most popular topic for carving onto the elaborate marriage-beds of the sixteenth-century rich was Adam and Eve? The point, dear newly-married couple, is not so much the blissful existence in Paradise, but the Awful Warning that Eve rocked up in Adam’s comfy homosocial world – just him and, well, Him – and ruined everything. Girls, hey? One of the great triumphs of the Enlightenment is that, in patches and in places, we have, at least from time to time, moved on.

My goodness, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really had a problem with women. When they’re not the sexually voracious evil villains of the piece – try Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling or Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil – they are being murdered on stage in such numbers that I can’t help thinking that the writers had spotted exactly what sells tickets: yup, our old friends sex-and- death, with women as the she-probably-deserved-it fetchingly draped body (we will have a crack at getting our heads round the fact that the bodies in question were boys in frocks another day). Have things, in books at least, changed? Let’s have some murders on this week’s bookshelf.

No self-respecting crime library should be without representative texts from Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and (plonking prose but rattling plots) Agatha Christie. Ah, feminist revenge: weary with being the victim, women rose up and wrote the stuff themselves. It just crosses my mind to wonder (I offer it as a PhD topic should no-one have got there first) whether women writers kill off more chaps. And we must have EC Bentley’sTrent’s Last Case, if only because it is always spoken of as a classic of the genre so we look a bit awkward if we’ve never read it (I don’t know that it’s the most gripping thing that I’ve ever read, but it’s good). Raymond Chandler is another sine qua non, even if you will frequently have no idea what is going on (nor did he, apparently). It is a pleasing coincidence that the two greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century went to the same school – Dulwich College, and the other is, as of course you know, PG Wodehouse, whose murder mysteries, had he written any, would have been byzantinely plotted and shimmerlingly narrated (oh come on, Sebastian Faulks: a clear and obvious next best-seller for you).

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody's guess

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody’s guess

Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, successfully created an entirely believable world in her twenty or more Brother Cadfael books. As murders, especially murders in fiction, go, they are lightly drawn and it is unlikely that you will have nightmares. Their quality lies in the skill with which she breathed life into her twelfth century monk, his friends, colleagues and enemies, and the streets, manors, hovels and fields of Shrewsbury and Shropshire. There have been many – hordes – of imitators, all of which seem to me to fall at the first hurdle of failing to digest their research before regurgitating it into their narratives. If you think you have an historical novel in you, (a) think again and (b) read Ellis Peters very carefully and thoughtfully before you begin (but unless you are Jude Morgan, (a) will still be the correct answer).

The other series which I heartily recommend is Donna Leon’s Brunetti novels. Over the last twenty years or so, Ms Leon, an American living in Venice, has mined deeper and deeper into the politics and psyche of contemporary Italy via the medium of her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. It is worth, should you not have come across them, starting at the beginning with Death at La Fenice, which is a competently plotted crime novel with the ravishing setting of La Serenissima and a detective who arrives fully-formed into the canon of crime fiction. But keep reading; it feels as if Leon has grown in scope and confidence, and the later novels are dark, disturbing (this is a recommendation, by the way) and have profound things to say about the state of Europe today.


Of those British murders, incidentally, forty-four involved guns. I just mention this in case anyone from the gun lobby in the USA might have dropped by.untitled (7)

Week 67: Into the Dark

aurora borealisFirst, the good news. Here in the far north of England, our summer time stretches like silk across the sky. We are almost in White Nights territory and can read outside until nearly midnight (see Week 47). It follows, however, that at this time of year what passes for daylight blinks by like a moth’s eyelash. For the last few days, befuddled and bemused by the lack of melatonin, we have taken to standing under the kitchen lights, faces turned upwards in the middle of the day. To no avail: we are creatures of the dark, and feel drugged and stupefied with perpetual night-time. Like Hamlet’s dodgy uncle, we want to shout ‘Give me some light: away!’

Because we humans are not built for nocturnal life. At some deep level of the soul we have always known this, and made our gods as creatures of the sun. Apollo Phoebus, Ra: the heavens are teeming with gods laying claim to being the sun-giver. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown story, ‘The Eye of Apollo’, which you will find in The Innocence of Father Brown, shows what happens, both physically and spiritually, to sun worshippers: nothing good, in short. Better Chesterton’s Priest of Apollo, a thoroughly bad hat, however, than the really rather embarrassing sun-lovers in DH Lawrence’s short story, ‘Sun’ (better by far, incidentally, if you are in the mood for short stories, to read Lawrence’s ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ and ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’). Even Agatha Christie’s outstandingly dull Evil Under the Sun plays along with what seems to be a theme, that sunlight is bad for us and we’re better off under our quiet English clouds. This is of course nonsense, as the good folk of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew. You will have noticed that all the most romping Renaissance tragedies take place in Hot Countries. Yes, yes, I know that their heroes and heroines do not live happily ever after, and that we are actually supposed to be appalled at the goings-on in the languorously Mediterranean countries in which they are set – Spain (Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, is an absolute treat, full-to-bursting with horror and mayhem) and Italy (Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Webster’s fabulously bizarre Duchess of Malfi). The point these English playwrights were ostensibly making was, in essence, my dear, murder and treachery, what else would you expect from Catholic countries? But actually of course they make Spain and Italy sound a lot more zizzy – all that sex, apart from anything else – than dreary old Puritan London in the drizzle

But can I find any heroes for this long darkness? My hat is off to polar explorers, who voluntarily put up with this sort of thing for months at a stretch (the contemplation of which should put my whining at a few shorter-than-average daylight hours into some sort of perspective). There are good solid biographies of Scott, Shackleton and Nansen out there, and Shackleton’s own gripping South: The Endurance Expedition: but my favourite approach to the whole subject of Arctic exploration is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday. Ransome, as I’m sure you know, was thoroughly acquainted with the very frozen north, not just in his beloved Lake District but also trotting across the battlefields of revolutionary Russia in his capacity as War Correspondent for the Daily News and The Manchester Guardian. The children in Winter Holiday put the NorthernReader household to shame (not a difficult task even at the best of times) as they buckle cheerfully down to stumbling around in the dark outdoors or making rabbit-skin mittens by lamplight.

Wallander - Series 3The lessening of the light is even more marked in Scandinavia than it is here, and the seemingly perpetual twilight provides the perfect sinister backdrop for a clutch of Swedish and Danish thriller writers. Henning Markell’s Wallander novels are atmospheric, bleak and disturbing: but if that’s your sort of thing, you must read the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In ten novels, written at the kitchen table after the couple’s children had gone to bed, the modern crime novel is born. Calmly, meticulously, they create the genre of the police-procedural and use it to construct devastating critiques of contemporary society.

On second thoughts, perhaps gritty realism and gruesome murders are not my cup of tea at the moment. I’m having to keep the lights on all day as it is, just to get from room to room without bumping into the furniture: think of the reckless extravagance if I have to keep the lights on all night having frightened myself half to death. No, I shall be like Badger, who, you will recall, puts off even the urgent task of reforming Toad with the honest admission, ‘of course you know I can’t do anything now?’. And no sensible animal would question his wisdom. As Kenneth Grahame so rightly points out, ‘no animal […] is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter’ So that’s all right, then. If retiring to the study and putting a red spotted handkerchief over one’s face is good enough for the great Mr Badger at this time of year, it’s certainly good enough for me.badger

Week 54: Hotel Books

Egyptian-cotton-linen-whiteOne of the many joys of living where you want to be is that the ghastly business of going somewhere else can be largely avoided. Occasionally, however, even we need to be somewhere else, and have to find somewhere to lay our weary heads for a night or two. Naturally reclusive, allergic to organised entertainment and bright lights, and often encumbered with dogs or offspring, the NorthernReader household has tended towards self-catering when forced out of the nest, but we have accumulated a tiny cache of hotels we like a lot. Last week, we stayed at the Annandale Arms Hotel in Moffat, and jolly nice it was too. Luxuriating in crisp white bedlinen with no fear of doing the ironing, I fell to thinking about hotels in books. Which – if any – would I like to visit?

First off, a visit to Arnold Bennett’s Grand Babylon Hotel, a really rather wonderful romp that zips along and which I highly recommend to you if you happen not to have read it yet. The action kicks off when Nella Racksole (and what a great name that is) is told she cannot order a steak and a bottle of Bass beer: a useful warning to arrogant restauranteurs everywhere. Equally mysterious, if (even) slighter, is Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel. You are pretty much bound to know this one in some shape or form as it has beebrowns-hotel-london_030320091750347563n filmed, televised and adapted-for-radio about three million times since publication in 1965, each version drifting further and further from the original rather creaky plot. I like the book entirely because it is clearly based on Brown’s Hotel in Albemarle Street, which, before its current incarnation as yet another extortionately expensive joint aimed at the more gullible sort of American tourist, was a splendidly faded and slightly austere hotel where chaps had to wear a tie in the restaurant. I used to lunch there with my father and have happy, probably inaccurate, memories of the place. Mrs Christie was clearly fully convinced of the dramatic potential of hotels: not only did she set so many of her books in them, but she staged one of the more sensational scandals of the 1920s at Harrogate’s Swan Hydrotherapeutic Hotel. Having dropped completely off the radar – if you’ll forgive the anachronism just this once – for eleven days, she was spotted staying at the Swan ‘under the name of’ (to borrow Winnie-the-Pooh’s useful phrase) Mrs Teresa Neele, a name not perhaps entirely randomly selected, given that her husband was having an affair at the time with a Miss Neele.

Further afield, how rather soothing Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac sounds. Brookner deftly captures that rather melancholy charm possessed by end-of-season hotels in places that are on the quietish side at the best of times. Her imagined hotel owes something to the pensione in Forster’s A Room with a View, and perhaps something also to the Grand Hotel on the Venetian Lido, the setting for Thomas Mann’s lush and gloomy Death in Venice (and who would have thought that Mahler would be the ideal soundtrack for La Serenissima? But he is).

Or should we go the whole hog and decamp to Haiti? Not a natural holiday destination now, perhaps, and definitely on the to-be-avoided list under the brutal Duvalier regime in the Sixties, I would have thought: and Graham Greene’s The Comedians does little to sell the place. Why on earth anyone, let alone ‘Brown’, the novel’s narrator, would choose to be an hotelier in the middle of Port-au-Prince is anyone’s guess, and indeed an air of despondent fatalism is the hallmark of the book as it charts Haiti’s slide into ever greater anarchy and brutality. As so often with Greene, a terrible dry humour undercuts the tragedy. A great book, then, but not one that makes you long to own, work or stay in an hotel.

Margot Pardoe’s hugely likeable Bunkle does just that – work in an hotel – in Bunkle Breaks Away. Far and away the best of the Bunkle books was Bunkle Butts In, a completely riveting wartime yarn about espionage on the southern coast of England that is also one of the best books about a house that I know: I could conduct guided tours of Marsh House. Bunkle Breaks Away is, frankly, not a patch on it, whether for plot or for writing, but on the other hand it does give us an authentic flavour of children’s books in the Forties and perhaps makes it easier to see why Blyton revolutionised the genre: quite simply, and however plonking you think her prose style is, she wrote better than most people could or bothered to do for children. The Bunkle books hold a nostalgic charm, nonetheless, and Bunkle Breaks Away shows a pleasing concern that its young readers should understand that life behind the scenes at an hotel is not all beer and skittles.

But wait! If literature has never quite captured the cosy charm of the sort of hotels I love, how about the Awful Warning School of writing? Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, and of course Hitchcock’s film-of-the-book (or, more accurately, film-loosely-based-on-the-book), ought to make you think twice before you shower, let alone before you book in to a creepy motel (what a great word ‘motel’ is: plangent with sleaziness). Or how about Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn? As far as I can remember, no-one seems to take a room there: understandable, of course, given the marvellous gothic-ness (gothicity?) that afflicts anyone who comes within a hundred yards of the joint, but it makes you think, nevertheless, that if Mary Yellan had only got in touch with her inner Flora Poste, laid about her with the Farrow & Ball paint and persuaded tiresome Aunt Patience to chalk up an enticing blackboard of chef’s specials (emphasising the local provenance, good life and aristocratic pedigree of each and every ingredient, of course), things out on Bodmin Moor could have been a lot less hopeless and gloomy. Hard to find time for really thorough-going wickedness as the Michelin stars come rolling in.

And that suggested re-write of one of the most enjoyable bits of tosh ever written shows you, dearest reader, that while I might be a cheerier soul than Miss du Maurier, she is the better novelist. Oh well. Back to my hotel room for breakfast in bed and a good book.berkeley_breakfast_cnt_21jan10_pr_b

Week 27: Books for a Marriage

sonnet 116The daughter of our dear friends got married yesterday.  To Louise and James, therefore, we NorthernReaders send every possible ounce of love and congratulations and welcome to the wonderful and slightly strange world of being married.  What books should we give you?

1 snowdropsThe truth is that poets, playwrights and novelists get more inspiration from the unmarried state which you have just left.  As everyone will point out to you, Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding in the air and his tragedies begin shortly afterwards.  Don’t be put off: think of Lord and Lady Macbeth and General and Mrs Othello as helpful what-not-to-do guides and you’ll be fine.  And stick like glue to every wise word of Shakespeare’s sonnet.  If you minds are as one, and open to each other, yours will be the best and happiest of marriages.

Asta_in_Shadow_of_The_Thin_Man_trailerThe problem with happy marriages is that they do not provide useful material for fiction, because stories, unlike people, thrive on conflict.  Good marriages can be found in books, but – just as in what we laughingly call real life – you may need to pick and choose to select the aspects you would like to copy.  Nick and Nora Charles, for example – the couple at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man:  happy, certainly; devoted, even – but I’m not sure that all that alcohol is a very helpful ingredient in our recipe for a long and contented marriage (Asta, on the other hand, is a good reminder that dogs and marriages go together very well indeed).  But detective fiction, strangely, does provide us with some well-matched couples.  Not Poirot, obviously, nor Miss Marple, although Agatha Christie did have a married pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  But Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey embody Shakespeare’s invaluable advice to be a marriage of true minds.  We shall give our newly-married couple, not only Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon,.but also the sequels developed by Jill Paton Walsh. We can add Ngaio Marsh’s really rather nice Roderick Alleyn and his splendid wife Troy.  Best of all are Commissario Guido Brunetti and his clever academic wife, Paola, in Donna Leon’s absorbing series of detective novels set in Venice.  It is true that Paola is a fabulous cook, but, if you are not, do not despair that a great marriage will elude you: the Brunetti household is forged by love, patience, understanding, a shared sense of humour and – hurray – books.  The couple that reads together, stays together.

Sticking together through the tough bits might be a useful role model, so hats off to Mother in The Railway Children who quite properly never doubts her husband’s innocence for a second.  Married couples in children’s books almost inevitably – and appropriately – appear as parents rather than lovers, but there are some that stand out as couples  Sadly, Mr and Mrs Bear, parents of  Rupert, make it very clear where he gets his outstanding dullness from.  Much more enjoyably, Mr and Mrs Pig of Evening Out fame, although a bit slapdash in their choice of baby-sitter (and which cabin-fevered parent wouldn’t joyfully accept any offer of child-care?), are clearly fond of each other and can still face the idea of an evening in each other’s company with equanimity.  Richmal Crompton’s Mr and Mrs Brown stoically present a united front in the face of the adversity which is their youngest child, William.  There is, incidentally, an emerging trend for weddings to include readings from children’s books – the more toe-curlingly and vapidly sugary the better.  I suspect that the reason for this is straightforward and two-fold: first, because, consciously or not, the happy couple are thinking about children, and secondly because under the strain of arranging a wedding, which nowadays has to be of a pomp and splendour formerly restricted to the court at Versailles, the bride has lost her marbles and the groom is too afraid to put his foot down.  I may, of course, be wrong

Snowdrops-bouquet-wallpaper_7017Let us turn to the poets for help and guidance.  Once again, we hit the problem that it is far more fun to write about the awful agonies of unrequited love and broken romance than the glorious mundanities of lasting happiness, but here are two who step up to the mark.  Although Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion is, strictly speaking, ineligible for our bookshelf of marriage guidance because it speaks only of the wedding day itself, it is definitely having a place for its very clear standard-setting on how to praise your wife.  Read it, chaps, and take notes.  You will never fall far out of favour with your wife as the years roll by if you can keep up this level of admiration.  Pay special attention to his celebration of her intelligence, charm, kindness and wit.  Practise in the car on the way home if necessary.

Our second teacher is of course the utterly wonderful John Donne.   Read ‘The Anniversary’. If you don’t feel like that, don’t marry.  There we are.  Simple really.

Now is not the time to indulge the NorthernReader’s sense of humour by presenting our happy couple with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me.  We could give them Wodehouse, though.  Not Bingo Little’s marriage to the popular novelist Rosie M Banks, perhaps, and the fireplace with ‘Two Lovebirds Built This Nest’ – although there is something rather marvellous about such squirm-making horror – but Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom rub along together pretty well through umpteen years of marriage and despite the depradations of her nephew Bertie.  Best of all, let’s make sure that all newly-married couples embark upon their life together with the complete works of Jane Austen tucked into their trousseaux.  Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: they are all highly unusual romantic couples, because we can imagine them settling into long contented marriages (for contrast, try picturing Romeo and Juliet’s silver wedding anniversary.  You see? It was never going to work).  And Jane Bennett, of course – like our own dear Louise – has the great good sense to marry a man from the North of England.  Good on you, petheavenfield

Week 26: Books for a Train Journey

Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Trains haven’t actually sounded like that for ages, or possibly for ever, but they do when we imagine them: which is all my dear readers in the benighted and line-less West Country can do at present.  So, time to curl up with a good book and transport ourselves back to a golden age of travel.‘Northumberland Coast’, BR (NER) poster, 1948-1965.

Almost as much as I like the fact that time only had to shape up and get accurate across Britain when the railways were invented (timetables meant that one couldn’t really say, ‘well, the train from London will be along at half past two.  Ish’: although of course as it turned out, 2.30-ish would be a utopian paradise of prompt arrival compared to the sadly current ‘well, the train from London should pitch up some time in the next six months when we’ve finished thinking about improving the line’) – almost as much as that, I like the impact that the railway had on fiction.  While I treasure a letter from my great-great-great grandfather to his beloved, casually and really rather thrillingly letting her know that he was planning to drive down for the weekend, in reality what he was showing off about (this was 1809) was that he was a young man about town with a gig, and his nipping off to darkest Berkshire was going to take quite a chunk of the weekend – up to and including the following Wednesday, in fact, the idea of the weekend being at least as much in its infancy as was the steam engine – and rather more planning than invading France.  His was the world of Jane Austen, who was only nine years his senior: a world of Colonel Brandon rushing off  hither and yon on horseback (which, now I think about it, he does have a bit of a tendency to do) and frightful aunts pitching up in carriages.  A single generation later, and the train had arrived in fiction.

Perhaps its single most dramatic effect was, as in life, to bring people together.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (not, I should add, the Hardy to embark upon if you’re on your own and feeling a bit low: it’s not the cheeriest book ever written) relies heavily upon the Great Western Railway to bring its tragic characters together and, this being Hardy, to tear them apart.  Dickens was also on the despondent side when it came  to trains, long before he was himself involved in a ghastly railway accident  – and the moral of that particular story, dearest reader, is do not travel with someone you would be embarrassed to be in an accident with – and trains figure in Dombey and Son entirely as agents of disaster.   Trains, and of course stations, figure quite prominently in the life and work of Tolstoy, too: not only does a train provide a most useful plot device in Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy himself had a tendency to flit about the vastness of Russia by locomotive and even managed a highly theatrical death-scene at a railway station which you can’t help suspecting the master story-teller must have hugely enjoyed.

We haven't had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

We haven’t had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

But where train travel really seems to come into its own is in crime fiction.  We begin with Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, who swoops down to solve the mystery of The Moonstone thanks to the speed and reliability of the railways.  Where Wilkie Collins (a good friend of Dickens, incidentally) led, Conan Doyle was happy to follow, and Sherlock Holmes constantly gads about the place by train (and let’s not talk about errors in Tube journeys or whatever it was that made some of the more concrete watchers of BBC’s jolly enjoyable Sherlock get themselves into a flutter).  Holmes and Watson, who once would have taken several days and a series of stage coaches to get anywhere, spend most of the canon whooshing off from London to further-flung parts of England (although, sadly, they missed out on the glorious North-East – no doubt a tribute to the low crime rates in this part of the world).  By the twentieth century, a really avid reader might well start to feel a trifle uneasy about hopping onto a train lest the worst befall her.  The most pessimistic about your chances of getting through a journey unscathed is of course Agatha Christie.  What with The 4.50 from Paddington, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express, it’s a wonder we don’t all catch the bus.  But think what interestingly deranged people we would miss out on meeting: surely no-one is immune to reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train without murmuring ‘what fun’?  And there is always the chance of romance, although do not be bamboozled by the truly splendid Hitchcock film of The Thirty Nine Steps to expect love to blossom on the Flying Scotsman: Richard Hannay is indeed at least as much a man-on-a-train as a man-on-the-run, but he is never diverted by mere females from single-handedly saving Britain’s secrets in 1914.

trainTalking of desperate heroes fleeing their pursuers, all this talk of trains lets us realise that Kenneth Grahame got there first: Mr Toad, among his many achievements, must figure as one of the very earliest men – well, alright, toads, but you know what I mean – on the run in literature, even if his disguise as a washer-woman is somewhat less suave than Hannay’s.  Children’s books abound with trains and we should probably acknowledge the Reverend Awdry’s  Thomas the Tank Engine, although for me they were always a bit too trainspotty (in the sense of appealing to the inner anorak rather than the inner heroin-user from Leith).  No, let’s end by celebrating that power of the railway to offer new hope.  Michael Bond – another Reverend – did a gentle interest in trains supersede the botany and palaeontology of their Victorian precursors? – recognised that a railway station might be a very possible place for different worlds to collide, and so a small bear from darkest Peru became Paddington and lived happily ever after.  And, greatest of all (and I defy you to watch Jenny Agutter at the end of the perfectly lovely film without sobbing your socks off), who can forget Bobbie, running down the station platform with the heart-breaking cry, ‘Daddy! My Daddy!’