Week 98: Books for Birthdays

untitled (15)The lovely KatePonders has had a birthday. A visit from bestest-friend-in-the-whole-world, a morning’s shooting at clays (we know how to live) and an unfeasibly large amount of cake: we may have stumbled on the recipe for the perfect birthday celebrations. With the aching chasm of another 365 days to go before she has another birthday (2016 being, my maths suggests, a leap year), we do at least have plenty of time for a thorough survey of bookish birthdays to see how we might do it even better in future.

Serendipitously, KatePonders shares a birthday with Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party must therefore take first place on this week’s bookshelf. Fabulous, funny, menacing, absurd, enigmatic and contradictory, Pinter’s play is definitely a must-see as well as a must-read. I was quite surprised to find that it is not, as far as I can see, being staged anywhere at the moment. Presumably it is not an A level set text and therefore cannot be guaranteed to bring in enough audience to break even.   It seems to me to be a shame that theatre, especially in the hugely-funded London theatre, has largely become musical adaptations of Disney films, revivals of musicals from the mid-twentieth century or confections that string the collected works of Abba into some sort of narrative (no I haven’t seen it, nor am I making any plans to). The few bones thrown to us non-metropolitan types via the undoubted glories of live streaming should be the beginning of a rich play-going renaissance, not a meagre sop to keep us knowing our place and looking grateful. How easy it would be for the Arts Council, which currently gives an overwhelming majority of its coffers to London-based endeavours, to insist on countrywide screening as a condition of funding. ‘Thursday night is theatre night’: don’t you think that has a pleasing ring to it?

untitled (14)Eeyore, Kipper and Little Grey Rabbit all celebrate their birthdays, or have them celebrated for them, in children’s books, and the eponymous My Naughty Little Sister and her friend Bad Harry have a great time at another child’s birthday party, even if they do suffer the aftermath of greed later that day. As ever, we need to turn to Dickens for some relief from all the sweetness and light. David Copperfield has what he himself calls A Memorable Birthday. Yes, should vague memories of the plot of his Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation be trickling back to you, it’s THAT scene in which Mrs Creakle, the headmaster’s wife, has a crack at the difficult art of breaking bad news gently and, it would be fair to say, proves not to be a natural at it. Oliver Twist’s ninth birthday sees him moved from Mrs Mann’s establishment for ‘juvenile offenders against the Poor Laws’ to Mr Bumble’s workhouse. Good though the film is (even despite the inexplicable failure to cast the original stage ‘Nancy’, Georgia Brown), go and read the book again to send a shiver down your spine at the sheer relentless drabness and nastiness of the Victorian approach to welfare. Only Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes close.

Birthdays in books aimed at adults – and Dickens, of course, was aiming at absolutely anyone of any age who could be persuaded to join his legions of readers – are sadly often a focus of gloom and despondency, almost especially when the celebrant is a child. Poor old Leo in The Go-Between, for example, ends up with a thirteenth birthday that is certainly memorable. Irina’s name-day is the starting-point for Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; a good enough reason to urge you to read this wonderful, witty, dark and heart-breaking play from the greatest of nineteenth-century playwrights (and indeed one of the very greatest of any time). Irina is twenty at the start of the play, but still child enough to be thrilled with the spinning-top she is given. Perhaps Chekhov, a doctor, was ahead of us in acknowledging that, as the most recent research has established, the human brain does not achieve maturity until it is at least as old as KatePonders.

And we must have poetry. For once, Dylan Thomas is just right here: not, for me, his ‘Poem for his Birthday’, which feels too sonorous, too consciously beautiful, as if Thomas had slipped across the line between a unique voice and a parody of himself; but ‘Poem in October’ (another autumn birthday celebrant), with its wonderful images of the heron priested shore and a walk ‘in a shower of all my days’. Which of us has not had an autumn walk like that, misted and fine-spray drizzled, kicking up the golden leaves and letting thoughts and memories cascade? More sobering, perhaps, but indispensable, is Louis Macneice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’, whose litany of imperatives – hear me, console me, forgive me – could usefully be required reading for those contemplating parenthood. Finding a poem for someone’s birthday is, though, fraught with peril, as you steer a precarious path between trite nonsense on one hand and the tendency of good poets to think of birthdays as another milestone on the road to death: true, of course, painfully true, but not quite what you were aiming for to go with your carefully-wrapped present and your balloon. But we could certainly give Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’ might seems a tad melancholy for what should be a happy day, but forewarned is forearmed, and we might do a lot worse than determine to keep the clouds of glory trailed about us. Now that would be a great birthday present.

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Week 97: Domestic Bliss

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Well, hello again. I would love to tell you that my summer-long silence was because I was off cycling the route of the Iron Curtain or saving orang-utangs in Borneo (and my hat is off to the friends and children of friends who have done these things and more this year), but the truth is that I have been sitting quietly at home, looking up only every now and then from a life of happy pottering to think ‘where does the time go?’. Here in the NorthernReader stronghold the ‘summer’ – I use the word loosely, as the August skies were grey and the temperatures brisk – saw a great sheaf of domestic projects fulfilled. We have transformed a bathroom that was eerily reminiscent of an economy-class budget airline facility into a tranquil refuge complete with roll-top bath and somewhere to balance your champagne glass while you soak (and, of course, read): we have made jams and chutneys from the pleasingly increasing harvests from the garden we are making out of what was an unprepossessing square of shoulder-high rough turf; we have become grown-up and put down stair carpets, and – best of all – Mr NorthernReader patiently removed several thousand twelve-inch nails from the various pallets we had accumulated and magicked the boards into the best compost bins I have ever seen. So as a summer of domesticity turns into an autumn of golden sunlight, long walks with the dogs and the pleasures of the first evening wood-fires, it is time to revel in some books that capture the spirit of the well-ordered household.

I am struck by the number of children’s books in which our young heroes – or, more usually, heroines – recreate the comforting routines of domestic life, however wild and unfamiliar the setting. The Walker and Callum children in Arthur Ransome’s books, of course, especially Swallowdale and The Picts and the Martyrs, which are in their way every bit as detailed as Robinson Crusoe, work perfectly well as practical ‘how-to’ manuals for ensuring that you and yours are warm, dry and well-fed: as my father used to point out, any fool can be uncomfortable. Eleanor Graham’s The Children Who Lived in a Barn remains my sole source of information on how to build a hay-box: not, admittedly, something I’ve felt the need to do so far in life, but you never know. These resourceful and self-sufficient children (the poppets in Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island are another Mrs-Beeton-eat-your-heart-out bunch) are a far cry from the spoilt Hare and Squirrel waited upon hand and foot by Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit – a down-trodden drudge who practically passes out with meek surprise in Little Grey Rabbit’s f32d73ba16941931b5cb5de8546579faBirthday when her friends stir themselves sufficiently to come up with a cake. Mind you, what a cake: the icon of birthday-cakiness throughout my childhood. Maybe I should have tried a little more selfless service and, who knows, a multi-tiered spongy thing of beauty could have been, transitorily, mine.

There are flocks and herds of domestic servants in literature, seen and unseen. Who is rattling the crockery when Toad hears lunch arriving at Ratty’s house? Who does the laundry – or the cooking, the carpet-beating, the fire-laying, the floor-scrubbing – at Thornfield Hall? One of the many glories of Stella Gibbons’ incomparable Cold Comfort Farm is its acknowledgement that curtains have to be washed and plates have to be cleaned – even, if you must, with a hazel stick, should no-one, in their anxiety to avoid being on the washing-up rota themselves, present you with a little moppet. One of the most self-observant and uncomfortable passages of Jessica Mitford’s memoir of childhood, Hons and Rebels, recalls her patrician ‘rescue’ of a slum child and the chasm between her fantasy and the reality of domestic bondage into which her unlucky protegée was cast. It is one of the minor ironies of life that in an age when disposable income and technology combine to make a life of queen-bee-like indolence a possibility we have taken, Marie-Antoinette-ishly, to baking, knitting and sewing (although not, I note, to washing-up: make a heart-warming programme out of that if you can). Should you be aspiring to a high domestic standard, the ever-indispensable Persephone Books have republished Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help, a gem from the immediate post-war years that you keep hoping might have been replaced by now by a utopian family democracy in which each member trips lightly downstairs in the morning to cheerily complete their designated domestic tasks for the day in a spirit of harmony, well-being and striving for the common good. Perhaps I should get a copy for my butcher, who told me on Saturday of a conversation with his son that morning:

BUTCHER (IN ROLE AS PARENT): Do you think you could pick up all the clothes from your bedroom floor and put them in the laundry basket

SON (IN ROLE AS PARASITE): Could you lend me* £30

And the asterisk dear reader, as any parent among you knows, is to draw your attention to the incorrect use of the word ‘lend’. Persephone Books, incidentally, also publish The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. This is fiction: only it probably isn’t, and its tale of how a family regained happiness by sending mother out to work and unclamping her determined little hands from the egg-whisk is as good a paradigm for the twentieth century as any. As the mother who gave KatePonders’ teddy bear cataracts in the tumble-drier, I find myself identifying a little with Fisher’s heroine, whose son is driven to sob, ‘Don’t let him be washed, Father!’. The comforting moral to be drawn from this, of course, is to keep your domestic standards limbo-dancingly low, Hurray!

 

But, as the evenings shorten and darken and a distinct chill sharpens the air, there is something to be said for a room where the well-polished furniture scents the air with beeswax and the sofas and chairs beckon invitingly from the fireside. Tea and crumpets, with pretty plates (and, ideally, a teapot that pours into the cup and only into the cup; I have never come across such a paragon and am extremely open to recommendations); books (of course) and talk of books: now that really is domestic bliss.

This is 'A Fireside Read' by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

This is ‘A Fireside Read’ by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

Week 87: Difficult Books

author-writing-writerThe reason, since you ask, why it has taken me until Thursday to write to you this week is that I had a splendid idea for a topic and spent days – and days … trying to get to grips with it. Born with a stubborn streak, it has taken until this evening for me to realise that it’s just not something I can squeeze a thousand words out of (hadn’t you noticed? Each week is more or less a thousand words: which means, if you have been kind enough to read me from the beginning, that we have shared a novel together, in length if not in meaning). Hitting a writerly brick wall has made me think about the books that, for various reasons, have presented the North Face of the Eiger to me: scalable, yes, but not by me.

I have read and enjoyed most of Ian McEwan, but his 1987 novel, The Child in Time, was too painful. I started to read it when my daughter, the lovely KatePonders, was a baby, and the opening chapter, in which a small daughter called Kate is kidnapped, harrowed me so unutterably that to this day I have never been able to return to it. My visceral abandonment of objectivity is my loss, as the book is thought of by many as McEwan’s masterpiece. Should you not have a daughter called Kate, or indeed should you not be at that vulnerable stage of life which revolves around the fragile wonder that is your child, do please read it and get back to me.

While I’m confessing to personal and illogical taboos, the pictures of the Weasel’s House in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books have haunted my dreams since I first came across them when I was about four. And I have told you before about the terrors of Struwwelpeter, my really rather odd grandfather’s preferred choice of reading to his small descendants. Kateponders expressed a profound aversion to Axel Scheffler’s illustrations for Jon Blake’s untitled (18)You’re a Hero, Daley B! and could be reduced to sobs by well-meaning would-be readers-aloud inadvertently retrieving it from the very back of the bookshelf where she had hidden it (actually destroying a book being unthinkable to her even when three: the mixed blessing of an academic household). Should you, or the very little people in your life, be made of slightly sterner stuff, the book – and indeed the illustrations – are delightful and capable of being an enormous hit in your household.

Some books and authors are of course difficult for other reasons. I freely admit that tremendous length is not at first sight a recommendation to me (which is of course precisely why my enthusiasm for a handful of Really Long Books is so striking and worth taking me up on: good God, if I of all people urge you to read Nostromo, say, or Bleak House, there must be something in them). It is worth remembering that many of the weightier Victorian novels first appeared in instalments in periodicals. Perhaps returning to that approach and taking them in regular but well-spaced bite-size chunks will open up a vaster range of fiction for those wary of the long haul. And we should not lose sight of the fact that some authors are just plain hard work. That is by no means a bad thing – think how boring life would be if everything came in condescendingly platitudinous soundbites (an eternal pre-election, for example): but you do have to be in the mood for grappling. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound should both keep you intellectually pinned down for a while if you’re looking for that sort of challenge. James Joyce’s Ulysses and (even more so) Finnegan’s Wake, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, even Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; one of the layers of difficulty lies in the language. Reading them makes us read slowly, taking each word as it comes. This deliberate barrier to glib understanding draws our attention to our everyday habit of impatiently skimming through everything we read. How much do we miss?

And then there are the books that just aren’t for us. Too many of us had teachers – it’s usually teachers, I’m afraid – who got it into our heads that a book, once begun, must be persevered with to the bitter, bitter end. Sadly true if it’s a set text (see, if you feel so inclined, Week 86 for what I think about our exam-ridden education system), but otherwise, arrant nonsense. You cannot know if any particular book is the sort of thing you might like without giving it a whirl (which is why first lines and pages are so important: see Week 20 for details), but only a fool, or, I suppose, someone trapped on a desert island with only one book for company, would carry on reading once it has been clearly established that book and reader have nothing to say to each other. So, dearest reader, if you have been trudging through War and Peace, Moby Dick or Paradise Lost since time began, cast off your dreadful sense of obligation and consign the loathsome volume to Oxfam, where your particular poison will turn out to be someone else’s food for the mind and the soul.

But, should the mood take you, there are times when we really quite fancy something difficult, or at least something different and out of our comfort zone. So here are three that you might possibly not have read: James Kelman’s Not Not While the Giro; Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And if they turn out not to be your cup of tea, fear not. Let them drop from your hand and reach for another. Don’t forget Yeats’s wise words:

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

That’s telling us. Happy reading.Reynolds_BoyReading (2)

Week 16: Trees

little grey rabbitI have only just realised that the endpapers for the Little Grey Rabbit books look just like the house where I lived when I was a little girl.  Alison Uttley’s stories, truth be told, always felt a bit wordy and dull, but the lovely illustrations by Margaret Tempest fired the infant imagination (I still have to turn two pages when we come to the bleakly sinister Weasel’s House).  Those silver birches remind us that the world is quite magical enough as it is, thank you, without wands and whizzing.  Let us contemplate trees for a moment: they are amazing.

Our old friends Piglet and Owl remind us that trees are for living in; and they provide sticks, too, which make jolly good shelters, as Eeyore can testify.  Twelfth Night’s Viola knew that too, of course, and when she set out how she thought a lover should pursue his beloved, she took the practical precaution of including a willow cabin at the gates. Any fool can be uncomfortable, after all, and a lover with the sense to shelter from the rain has to be a more attractive proposition.  Henry Thoreau settled in the woods at Walden for two years, two months and two days (did no-one tell him that three and seven are meant to be magic numbers? Where on earth did two come from?) and built himself a cabin there.  Yeats thought about it, but the nearest he came to building Walden at Innisfree was in his imagination.

But we don’t have to cut trees down.  To start to get a sense of them, some identification might come in handy.  There are Ladybird, Observer and quite probably I-Spy books about trees, and any amount of the sort of slightly earnest guide that expects you to know about sepals.  A disconcerting number of these call themselves ‘complete’ or ‘comprehensive’, which I’m afraid rather makes me long to scour the continents for the one little sapling that they overlooked.  No, better by far to settle down and enjoy Thomas Pakenham’s Meeting with Remarkable Trees.  An absolutely gorgeous writer from a family who seem not to be able not to write well, Pakenham’s encomium is a definite must-have for our tree shelf.

And – oh hurray! – we can have Edward Thomas’s ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ as well, with its crystal-clear picture of the fallen elm uncleared because the men have left the land and fallen themselves, in the mud of France.  And put with that Thomas’s friend (if that is not too unequivocal a word for that most self-contained of men) Robert Frost. ‘Birches’, we must have, and (especially at this time of year) ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which is contender for poem-to-learn-by-heart-if-you’re-only-going-to-learn-one (although how could you bear to only carry one poem around with you?).

Woods – even the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows – are quite different from forests. To our forebears, woods were managed spaces where they could make a living.  They had paths, and edges, and clearings.  But forests: ah, now they really are wild.  Dante’s selva oscura is the dark forest where he finds himself, in the middle of his life, with no path to follow.  Who needs Freud when we have Dante?  Or we can follow (if we dare) Edmund Spenser’s lady and the Redcrosse Knight into the forest to find – well, what do you know? – not only an absence of paths, so that they feel lost, but a cave with a terrible beast lurking in it.  And the lady gets the Knight to go into the cave.  Yup. You see, you’re going to love The Faerie Queene.  Whenever young women venture into forests, they have a tendency to bump into danger.  Remember Little Red Riding Hood?  Take it from me: that wolf was no lupine.  He probably wore Tom Ford.

But come away from all these thrills and perils (and yes, we must have Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’ on our shelf too).   Let us find some comfort under Susan Hill’s Magic Apple Tree, which sounds twee but isn’t, being instead a record of passing seasons and life in the countryside.  We can put it with Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure: not exclusively about trees, but Mabey can always be relied upon to bring us back to a sense of our connection to the earth and to nature.  And next to him, we shall have Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne.

Trees are the great survivors.  They have been here more or less for ever, they cling grimly on no matter what fresh imbecility we come up with to foul up their world, they find themselves – possibly not intentionally – giving us homes, and heat, and food: and awe, which is good for us.  Oh, and they give us paper too.  And without paper, dearest reader, even in this internet age, we would be lost indeed.sycamore gap