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 106: Do No Harm

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

The idea that doctors should aim to do no harm is attributed to Hippocrates, an Iron Age resident of the Greek island of Kos. This has been a week in which doctors have been much in the news, whether taking industrial action in Britain or being deliberately bombed by President Putin in Syria (in the interests of objectivity and fairness, I should point out that the USA also bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, in Afghanistan, in November 2015. I am not sure it makes much difference to those on the receiving end whether bombs are killing you as a result of incompetence or deliberate malice, but one, at least, of these causes should be avoidable). Governments and authors alike have displayed a tendency over the years to appropriate and manipulate the public response to doctors, who have found themselves starring as heroes and villains far more often than the more mundane ground occupied by the rest of us. Why?

Let’s look at some medical heroes first. There are more than a few real-life doctors who have been mythologised during or after their lives to be godlike, capable of miracles. When I was little, the doctor-as-saint figure was Albert Schweitzer, who I suspect is now hardly known at all – a useful lesson in hubris for anyone currently venerated. An intellectually rigorous theologian, a gifted musician, and a perceptive anti-racist at a time of unthinking empire, Schweitzer gained his medical degree in three short years in order to set up a pioneering hospital in Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. You might find his The Philosophy of Civilization interesting, or his autobiography, which has the slightly unsnappy title Out of My Life and Thought.

Schweitzer was to the twentieth century what David Livingstone was to the nineteenth: so famous and yet remote that Henry Stanley’s famously nonchalant greeting, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ clearly covers up an entirely understandable case of flabbergastedness (‘Look mum! It’s me! With him!’: known in the NorthernReader household as Bowie-proximity syndrome but you can insert name of intergalactically-famous star of your choice). Livingstone has been more biographised than Schweitzer, at imagesleast in English, although many studies are quite shallow. Frankly, our old favourites, the Ladybird series, give you the bones: should you be feeling scholarly, David Livingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy, edited by Sarah Worden, would be my choice.

Now for the doctors who managed to practise medicine and write fiction. In pride of place of this week’s bookshelf we can have Dr Anton Chekhov, who once rather archly declared, ‘medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’ Never mind; if he was half as good a physician as he was a writer, his patients were blessed. And indeed they were: Chekhov devoted much of his time to caring, free of charge, for the poor. Funny, angry, heart-breaking, sometimes despairing but always ready to bring his analytical brilliance to the vital task of finding exactly the right words, the right image, to awaken his audience and his readers, his is more modern Russian voice than Tolstoy’s but every bit as compelling. In such company, pretty much everyone appears in a lesser light, but Chekhov’s almost exact contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle, is today at least as famous. Doyle had a rather splendid time as a indexyoung doctor, going to sea on a whaler and on a voyage to West Africa. How tantalising to set The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next to Moby-Dick and The Heart of Darkness (Melville was the older man, and his most famous novel was published before Doyle was born, but Conrad was another almost precise contemporary). Our third choice, working chronologically, can be William Carlos Williams, imagist, modernist, most painterly of poets, who was also a family doctor and paediatrician. Touchingly, the hospital in New Jersey where he worked has a plaque that reads ‘we walk the wards that Williams walked’ and you just know that they feel it’s an honour.

What of doctors in fiction? Setting aside Dr Zhivago, if only on the dubious grounds that (a) we’ve been quite Russian enough already this week, (b) I’ve never read it and (c) I can’t get the image of Omar Sharif out of my mind, here are two heroes and a villain. Trollope’s Dr Thomas Thorne is an absolute sweetie. How splendid it would be if the Barchester ideal of a doctor who is a trusted friend and confidant were the norm (let alone the GP-as-financial adviser: goodness, we have become a lot more wary since Trollope’s time, haven’t we?). Anything that encourages us to read more Trollope is to be welcomed. It’s quite a jump from Dr Thorne to Doc Daneeka, but the squadron physician who first articulates Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s marvellous novel is assured of his place in this week’s pantheon. Daneeka – self-seeking, venal, hypochondriacal, shifty, and entirely human – might seem an unlikely hero, but the urgent and savage point that Heller makes is that (as other writers had it in an earlier time of darkness) this is a world turned upside down: what Thomas Middleton, clearest-sighted and therefore bleakest of all the early seventeenth-century playwrights, called A Mad World, My Masters. You know, I expect, that Heller, when confronted by an ill-mannered reader who complained that he had not subsequently written anything as good as Catch-22, replied, unarguably, ‘Who has?’.

From anti-hero to villain. We could – should – have Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, who definitely has ….. issues; or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who does rather let the side down when it comes to giving psychiatrists a good name (although the NorthernReader Rule about names is triumphantly vindicated here, for no parent who calls their infant Hannibal – okay, no parent since the third century BC – can be surprised if they turn out badly). I am also uncomfortably aware that women are unrepresented on this week’s shelf, which is a shame: while I wait for the perfect female doctor in fiction, or her villainous alter ego (and do please point me in the right direction), I can read Jo Manton’s biography, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. But the broken caduceus award for Worst Doctor in Fiction goes to ….. well, it has to be Victor Frankenstein, doesn’t it?

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PS We are losing great writers this year at an unsustainable rate.  Harper Lee could lay legitimate claim to having written The Great Twentieth-Century Novel: read, or re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend.  And mourn the departure of Umberto Eco, philosopher, semiotician, novelist and all-round man of letters (The Name of the Rose; Foucault’s Pendulum; Baudolino).  Eco lies at the heart of everything I think about our essential need to read; as the great man himself said ,’books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ Arrivaderci

Week 89: He Do the Police in Different Voices

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It’s been a trying week, watching and – even worse – listening to grown men and women squirm and cavort in the increasingly desperate hope that they might inspire us to like them, or perhaps pity them, enough to vote for them. What with one chap deciding that suit jackets are some sort of symbol of oppressive tyranny, making shirt sleeves a uniform regardless of the weather (I don’t know about you, but I’m not casting any clouts just yet), and another bloke inflicting an excruciatingly awkward Dick Van Dyke sound-alike audition on us when he grovelled round a multi-millionaire middle-aged and somewhat bafflingly self-appointed representative of Youth, it’s all been a bit demeaning. I’m afraid the answer to the question, ‘just how stupid do they think the electorate are?’ is pretty clear. So I thought we might turn away from the hurly-burly of the hustings and give some thought to the uses of disguise.

This week’s title comes, as you well know, from Charles Dickens via TS Eliot. Dickens coined it in Our Mutual Friend to describe Betty Higden’s son (rather splendidly known as Sloppy, as if he were a prototype for Wodehouse) and his talent for reading out the lurid bits in the newpapers; and Eliot borrowed it as the working title for what he later decided to call The Waste Land instead. Eliot’s poem is a fabulous patchwork of different voices, colliding, overlapping, coming in from nowhere. If you haven’t read it, or at least not for a while, rush off and do so now, preferably aloud, and, now that you are not in school and it is not a menacing set text, find all the humour and zest lurking within it. Eliot was not necessarily everyone’s idea of the perfect dinner-party guest – not often given to having the table in stitches – but as well as the undeniably austere philosophy and the rigorously scholarly breadth of his cultural references, he was not unaware of the divine comedy of human existence. Try The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock if you don’t believe me.

I have NO IDEA who this could be

I have NO IDEA who this could be

Some disguises in fiction are, we are told, amazingly effective. Sherlock Holmes, for example, can baffle everyone around him – and especially, of course, Dr Watson, Baldrick to Holmes’s Blackadder – with his ability to metamorphose into – gosh! – a working class person. Poor old Mrs. Hudson, ironing the plumber’s outfit after Holmes comes back from a tiring day righting wrongs (or, of course, stalking people. It all depends on your perspective). At a slightly more sophisticated level, the basic premise behind GK Chesterton’s detective, Father Brown, is that we automatically presume that a bumbling Catholic priest must be too simple and unworldly to unravel the cynical heart of the villainous mysteries he stumbles across. His biretta works as a constant disguise, on the same lines as Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant understanding of where the best place might be to hide The Purloined Letter. Graham Greene develops the idea in The Power and the Glory, and the Whisky Priest is just one of Greene’s flawed heroes whose greatness and courage is disguised, not least from themselves. Greene and Eliot knew and liked each other, incidentally, and were profound admirers of each other’s work. I remain unconvinced that that dinner party I am constructing in my mind would go with more of a swing if they were both invited, nonetheless.

Setting aside all the metaphorical ways in which characters in fiction (and indeed in what we laughingly call real life) disguise their true nature – and Jane Austen is the Mistress of Metaphorical Disguise – a change of costume and some greasepaint can shove the plot forward a treat. Would Mr Rochester ever have got round to declaring his feelings for Jane if he hadn’t happened to have a complete Gypsy Woman outfit knocking around? And doesn’t it say a lot for Jane that, on discovering that the man of her dreams is an occasional cross-dresser, she takes it awfully well? What with that, the endless lying and smirking secrecy and – oh yes! – not just common-or-garden adultery or even attempted bigamy, but actually keeping the present Mrs Rochester in the attic, perhaps Jane is setting her standards just a little bit low. Apart from anything else, I suspect that Rochester’s disguise is on a par with Violet-Elizabeth Bott’s Beatle wig in Richmal Crompton’s unmissable Just William stories (or, indeed, when a temporary and very muddy incarnation as a squaw in William’s tribe renders her unrecognisable to her own father).

untitled (22)Which brings me to the finest disguiser of them all. Should Martin Jarvis ever feel a bit down in the dumps and wonder what it’s all for, I hope he will take comfort from the hordes and legions of his admirers, whose lives have been made that little bit sparklier by his readings of Just William. And, if you are familiar with those, rush out now and acquaint yourself with Mr Jarvis bringing all PG Wodehouse’s characters to life on CD. Yes, that’s right, all of them. Once heard, never forgotten. Some people suffer from voices in the head (known in the NorthernReader household as Joan of Arc syndrome), and jolly miserable it probably is for them. Others, more fortunate, simply have Martin Jarvis being Aunt Agatha, or Jeeves, or Violet-Elizabeth, giving command performance for their (inner) ear only. Add Alan Bennett as Eeyore and you will never again question the truth that radio is the medium of choice.

And the good news? Readers-who-are-voters-in-the-UK-General-Election, the end – one way or the other – is nigh. My advice for Thursday night would be to go to bed early with a good book.

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PS You might think us gluttons for punishment, but the next NorthernReader Book Club is going to talk about POLITICS. Eleven o’clock in the morning on Thursday 14th May (see the Book Club page for how to find us). There will be cake. Now, why don’t more politicians use that simple and persuasive phrase?

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!’