Week 114: Showtime

my-fair-lady-1964-09-gIt used to be called The Season, and jolly tiring it was too.  Never part of the Coming Out (which meant something quite different then), balls and aristocratic hob-nobbing which formed the invisible web binding together the members of a now-vanished caste, I look back in astonishment to realise how many of the London season events were an occasional part of my childhood.  Not a horsey lot, we were not the family that counted the days to Royal Ascot, Badminton and the Epsom Derby (although a later extremely mild interest has led me before now to Cheltenham and Goodwood in the days when it was still about horses). Wimbledon, as I have confessed before, has left memories only of acute and almost terminal boredom.  The highlight used to be the Chelsea Flower Show: I had some halcyon years living on a houseboat practically next door, and in the days when Members’ Day meant you and one or two other people pottering blissfully about in frocks/gents’ lounge suiting in the sunlit acres – ah, it was very heaven, those blue remembered hills whereon celebrity had not been invented.

Since those far-off days, the NorthernReader household, its back turned against the metropolis (hurrah), has found its pleasures in a harmless addiction to country and county shows.  If you have yet to experience a day spent in comfortable footwear solemnly debating the relative merits of different breeds of perfectly darling sheep, showmake this your breakthrough year.  We have happy memories of years and years of drinking Pimms and watching the pole-climbing (no, really) at the New Forest Show: only our morbid dislike of traffic kept us away from the Royal Welsh.  Since becoming adopted citizens of Northumberland, our cravings are splendidly fed by the Northumberland Show, and that was where we were to be found yesterday, knee-deep in cattle, pigs, dogs and tiny children driving tanks around a field.

The country show has seldom, if ever, featured as a key locus in fiction, which is a shame because all human, and indeed sentient, life is there.  A splendid setting for comedy, tragedy, love and mayhem, I suggest.    PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens explores many of Ukridge’s get-rich-quick ideas, but, sadly, exhibiting at the local show is not one of them (incidentally, when did chicken farms fall from favour as an absolutely sure-fire thing for making love or money?  Wodehouse’s breezy chaps are always falling back of the idea as a perfect scheme, but Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and indeed one the plot twists and turns in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, would tend to suggest that there is a melancholy or even a sinister side lurking among our feathered friends). Race meetings have become synonymous with Jilly Cooper territory, in fiction if not in life (haven’t read one and haven’t encountered burly lotharios with Barbara Cartlandish names, so cannot claim any right to judgment here); and of course with Dick Francis’s thrillers, which marry detailed knowledge of the racing world with the most wooden characters since Thunderbirds and are therefore known collectively (there are about a million of them) in the NorthernReader household as The Woodentops Go To The Races.

The London Season in all its debutantish horror lies behind Nancy Mitford’s The mitfordsPursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and is even more clearly brought to life in her sister Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  EF Benson’s Lucia in London charts his heroine’s attempts to break into high society.  If you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia novels, the best recommendation I can give to entice you in is that Benson completely nails the significance of saying ‘no’ with emphasis to mean ‘I never heard anything so marvellous, and it thrills me through and through.  Please go on at once, and tell me a great deal more’ (and if that doesn’t make you want to add Benson to your much-cherished ‘Jane Austen and Other Wasps’ shelf, I despair).

Let us shake off the dust of London and retire gratefully back to the country and its social pleasures.  Our first glimpse of Tess, red lips and sash, white dress and all, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, finds our heroine skipping round the Maypole.  I have only to recall it – and the several hundred dutiful essays retelling it to me handed in each year by undergraduates – to know that the moment when I can re-read  Tess has not yet dawned.  More enjoyable might be Peter Tinniswood’s play, The Village Fete; I don’t know it but he was such a good writer that I’m looking forward to making its acquaintance now I’ve stumbled upon it.  Miss Read, of course, is as ever a mary-mouse-and-the-garden-partysplendid source of fetes, fairs and jamborees, as is Barbara Pym (and why has it only just dawned on me how much those terrific writers have in common?).  If all else fails, we can revisit Enid Blyton’s Mary Mouse, who in Mary Mouse and the Garden Party performs the useful function of setting out all the hard work that lies behind such a festive occasion in so much grim detail it put at least one impressionable young reader off anything to do with such jolly community get-togethers for very many years.  Ah, how are the mighty fallen: this summer (I use the term loosely, having looked out of the window) I find myself organising a village Midsummer Night’s Party and running the raffle for the Village Fete.

And on both days, the sun will shine, print frocks will be worn, bunting will flap, and, best of all, there will be books.  It’s beginning to look like a NorthernReader summer.books

Week 105: All You Need is Love (all together now)

valentines_dayGoodness me, one minute it was New Year and now it’s Valentine’s Day. It would be fair to summarise what is known of St Valentine as ‘nothing’. Mmm, our favourite sort of saint, a tabula rasa upon which splendid amounts of stuff can be projected; including, since at least the fourteenth century, stuff about love. Chaucer is commonly credited/blamed for coming up with the link between St Valentine and what I’m afraid I tend to think of as ‘lurv’, but as any fule kno, ‘first surviving mention in writing’ is not necessarily the same as ‘first mention.’ Actually, I’d go a bit further here and bet you a fiver that Chaucer is definitely not the inventor of St Valentine as a mini-love god. Chaucer (like Shakespeare) is a user of snippets and trifles that his audience already knows. His genius lies in what he makes of his material, not in the originality of his sources (originality being an uninteresting and dubious commodity to the mediaeval mind).

But right now we are stuck with Valentine as the patron saint of tacky cards, scentless roses and supermarket meal deals involving fizzy wine and chocolate. Pausing only to wonder why everything has to be pink, I think we can do better. If all will go ill for you should you not mark February 14th by a display of devotion – passion, even – then let me recommend the seductive power of words. Here, then, is the NorthernReader Indispensable bookshelf for lovers.

john-donneLet’s start with the master. I have been promising for a very long time now to try to persuade you to love John Donne, and now the moment has come. I do not have a hard task on my hands. Try the first line and a half of ‘The Good Morrow’:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?

Lovers take note: there is no-one alive who would not give their eye teeth to have you gaze at them across the breakfast toast and marmalade and say that. Before you, nothing; since you, the whole world. Or as Donne puts it:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest
Or try this, from ‘The Sun Rising’:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.

It’s the fabulousness of those thumping slowed-down syllables in the second line that catches at the heart. Shakespeare of course, and others too, could put into words that overwhelming realisation that everything, from climate change and global terrorism to putting the bins out and the cap back on the toothpaste, fades into invisibility in the face of all-absorbing love: but no-one but Donne could do it in four spare beats (a trochee and a lovely, stretched-out, lingering spondee should you be feeling metrically inclined). One more, although I know you must – couldn’t possibly not be – hooked already. This is from ‘The Anniversary’:

Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

Add some Marvell, some Auden, some Browning (her and him) and, yes, Shakespeare’s sonnets too, and our Bookshelf for Lovers will have made a fair start.

And prose? The difficulty, as we noticed way back in Week 27, is that the course of true love, should it happen for once to run smooth, does not tend to run particularly grippingly. Boy meets girl, boy and girl settle down happily, The End, while lovely in real life, is frankly dull in fiction. Literature abounds with tragic entanglements – Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, Dido and Aeneas – but they scarcely set a tactful note for Valentine’s Day. Even romantic comedies depend upon near-misses with catastrophe to drive their plots onward and keep their readers turning the pages. We can definitely add an Austen or two to this week’s shelf, but bear in mind that they range from the long hard road to realising that he’s not the one to the equally stressful trek towards second chances (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion: I invite you to compose one-phrase summaries of all of her novels should you be at a loose end). Colm Toíbín’s Brooklyn is enough to give the genre ‘romantic novel’ a good name: come on boys, be brave and read it even though it has a girl on the cover. And of course, one perfectly good way of countering all the slush of the Valentine’s Day industry is to settle down with any of the sweepingly, swooningly, lavishly romantic novels that categorically side-step the happy ending. How about Kashuo Ishiguro’s haunting, buttoned-up The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s searing Atonement and Rose Tremain’s pitch-perfect Music and Silence? And there are gorgeously-cast films for the first two (the BBC seems to have been in talks since God was a boy to bring Music and Silence to the screen, but without results so far), so all those chocolates could come in handy after all.

indexAs for tales of long-enduring domestic bliss, I see problems. Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man? Two minds with but a single thought, I grant you, but that thought is usually ‘where’s the next cocktail coming from?’ which is bound to take its toll in the long run. Better, perhaps, to take Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane as our ideal detecting couple, as brought to life by Dorothy L Sayers and kept in robust marital health by Jill Paton Walsh. But for a quiet celebration of the mundanities of married life, we could do an awful lot worse than a joyful re-read of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, in which Jane and the Reverend Nicholas Crampton muddle along just fine.

As the years together mount up, I have come to realise that the best advice Mr NorthernReader and I have ever received was not anything red-lipped and passionate (now you come to think about it, can you imagine Romeo and Juliet, irritating adolescents as they are, ever having made it to middle-aged settled-downness?). No, I hope that our guiding light has always been the long-married chap who said, ‘the secret of a happy marriage is to lead parallel lives. She goes her way and I go her way.’ That’s the way to do it.  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

You know what they say: nobody's perfect

You know what they say: nobody’s perfect

Week 83: Funny Girl

article-0-12FB462D000005DC-674_306x501I have been the recipient of a whole range of surprises this week, thanks to the Forum Cinema in sunny Hexham (sunny enough to see and enjoy the eclipse on Friday). The streaming of the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake from Covent Garden undermined my life-long belief that I do not like ballet. Romeo and Juliet eat your heart out. With the starring roles danced – and, goodness me, acted – by look-alikes for Rafael Nadal and a particularly dangerous pussy-cat, and a production that made it riotously clear that the Prince’s Mama had good cause to worry that her son was not the marrying type (Dr Freud please note: this is a boy who rejects a bevy of princesses and runs off with a swan – a swan with issues at that), I have capitulated and am now prepared to sign up for Balletomanes Weekly. Heavens, I’m even going to go and see La Fille Mal Gardée. Second surprise was that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is highly enjoyable. I particularly liked the moment when the only woman in the audience – possibly the only woman on the planet – who did not know that the cast included Richard Gere squeaked and almost fell off her chair with excitement when he entered Stage Left (on screen, sadly, although, Mr Gere, should you be reading this – and why wouldn’t you? – I think we can guarantee you a warm welcome in the North Tyne valleys). And my third surprise came hot on his heels. Reader, in all the wall-to-wall publicity for the film, had you seen any mention that Tamsin Greig is in it? Thought not. Don’t get me wrong: I bow to no-one in my appreciation of the comic timing and anarchic charivari conjured up by the incomparable Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton (has her Damehood been lost in the post?) and Celia Imrie. But Tamsin Greig has been quietly and flawlessly turning out wonderful performances on stage, screen and radio for a long, long time, and it seems a bit churlish of the producers to discount her as an asset.

The problem may well be that she is funny. Go on, name me ten female comedians. It’s getting a little easier since the BBC suddenly looked at itself, was ashamed of what it saw and started to make a tiny little bit of effort to include one or two women in their myriad comedy line-ups, but it’s still right up there with listing Ten Famous Belgians. And – misogynists please realise – this is not because of lack of talent. It is, I think, because of lack of audience power. So much comedy is geared towards a Y chromosome. Now, I do grasp the basic principle of syllogism, but an awful lot of my female friends and I do not fall about laughing at slapstick. Or vicious sexual degrading of women. Or Top Gear.

54b5c271528d774ef54093050d71474aSo can we find solace, and laughter, in books? Well, of course we can. No bookshelf set up to honour Thalia, the comic Muse, can consider itself complete that lacks the Complete Works of Dorothy Parker. The crowning glory of the Algonquin Round Table, Miss Parker stripped the skin off New York with her devastating wit. Like all the best clowns, her humour was always undercut with tragedy. Try her poem, ‘One Perfect Rose’ (one in the eye for Robert Burns). Time has reduced her reputation to little more than a handful of wisecracks and one-liners – yes, it was Parker who, on being told of the death of President Coolidge, replied, ‘How can they tell?’ – but there is so much more to her than that. Playwright, short-story writer, essayist and satirist, friend of Benchley and Wodehouse, if you happen not to have read her, what a treat you have in store.

Quieter, gentler, but surgically precise, the very English novels of Barbara Pym should also have you laughing out loud at times, and, more frequently, smiling with a wry bitter-sweet sense of recognition. Pym is the twentieth-century genius of the comedy of social observation, the heir to Jane Austen and the mistress of delicately exposing and balancing the wafer-thin line between comedy and tragedy. She burrowed into a world of church appointments and church-going that allies her to Trollope, and she is at least as good. Try Excellent Women as a starting-place. And next to Pym on our shelf this week we can have EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. She was a fairly prolific novelist, but is far and away best-remembered for the hugely autobiographical Diaries, which began in the 1930s (as a serial for the journal Time and Tide of which she was a director). By turns ingenuous, candid and exasperated, the Diary and its sequels exactly capture the voice of their narrator as she tells us all that is going on in her life. When I tell you that the BBC dramatized it for radio with Imelda Staunton as our heroine, you will immediately recognise just the sort of woman Delafield creates: trying to do the best she can, keeping that upper lip as stiff as possible and revealing, without saying, the gulf between good manners and warm intimacy.

Interesting, isn’t it, the ocean-wide gap between that hard-nosed, brash-sounding American metropolitanism and the quieter domestic focus of the English comic novelists? The British seem always to have found their aptest settings in villages and the countryside. I speak, admittedly, as one who finds Wuthering Heights falling-about funny, but the pièce de résistance of the rural setting has to be Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. How disappointing it is to discover that neither of her two sequels, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (a short story) and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, are a patch on the original. Gibbons’ genius was not only to parody the purple prose of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and others of her ilk – and, frankly, Thomas Hardy has much to answer for here – but to nail the sentiment that inspired such works. Hardy, Webb et al were not the authentic voices of the English countryside at all: they were the voices of the comfortable middle classes sitting by the fireside with all the comforts of urban or suburban life, and they wove a sentimental picture of the honesty of toil and being at one with nature quite untrammelled by the dirty, cold, perpetually damp and squalidly impoverished reality. And, rather than rail at them with an earnest diatribe laden with statistics and appealing to our (often vanishingly flimsy) consciences about our responsibility to improve the lives of others, Gibbons harnessed her comic genius to debunk and ridicule the pompous fantasists who wanted to put a stop to improvements and developments. Forget Tess of the D’Urbervilles trailing through the long grasses and living the pure and simple life. Women, rise up and fight for better bathrooms and education for all! Now that’s worth smiling about. Afghanistan Girl's Education

Week 9: Men’s Books

Oh dear.  This week (like most weeks) the news has been full of chaps behaving like a bunch of three-year olds while the rest of us stand by with our jaws dropped.  Whether the American Republican Party, in a pet because democracy hasn’t given it the answer it wanted, or British police Chief Constables – um, ditto, the wonder is that they haven’t been sent up to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.  They could read a book or two while they were there and find some grown-up male role models.

Although they might have to wade through some depressing stereotypes first.  Bookshops (not brilliant ones such as Cogito Books in Hexham, obviously) are filling up with the Boys’ Own Book of Crash, Thud, and Tying Knots (or something like that) in time for Christmas.  What men want, if you believe the publishers, is facts.  Lots of lists, preferably, and detailed instructions on how to do something they’re never actually going to do (fish, mend something, make a pipe-rack).  Now, I am not disputing the need from time to time for instruction books and clear explanations of how to do something, and I am quietly thrilled that reference books such as Wisden are holding on despite the internet: but the assumption that chaps can’t handle fiction seems a tad depressing.

I don't think this is gratuitous, do you?

I don’t think this is gratuitous, do you?

There is fiction aimed at men, of course.  William Boyd has just done a bang-up job on replicating the dreary, list-laden, unsubtle humourlessness of the original James Bond books.  It sits most easily with the derring-do military anecdotes of Andy McNab, Chris Ryan et al. The most interesting thing I know about Ian Fleming, by the way, is that he may well have been the back-room boy at SIS who came up with the ‘Major Martin’ wheeze: Ewen Montagu’s  The Man Who Never Was discreetly tells the tale.  Spying is a popular topic, too: the best, of course, is John Le Carré’s Smiley and his descendants: if you enjoyed that, try Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six – and, while we’re talking about good spying books, Robert Harris’s Enigma brings a very believable Bletchley to life.

But does the y chromosome have to debar you from Jane Austen? Is Mr Darcy only fit for the company of women?  Well, perhaps he is a bad example, because his creator was female, but an awful lot of fiction has been written by men: not only novels, short stories and plays, but even (whisper it) poetry.  So if chaps are considered too – well, blokeish – to be expected to read stories, how is that they are dab hands at turning the stuff out?  And, it must be said, doing it to quite a high standard – you know, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Auden, that sort of thing.

Rising above the comment of my friend that Wolf Hall is really a girls’ book because it’s full of conversation (well, obviously the casual violence is just there for the male reader, but it clearly didn’t work in my friend’s case), what books am I going to lend out eagerly to men? And which am I going to tuck quietly away onto a special pink shelf with frills on it?

First thoughts are to segregate Bridget Jones and her like (but I’m damned if I’ll protect my male friends from the astute precision of Jane Austen).  It might even be that some of the more introspective evocations of female emotional experience might not grab some male imaginations (to be fair, I can’t stand football, so I am prepared to concede that there might be a chromosomal tendency towards finding different things tolerable).  So, chaps, not for you the water-colour perfections of Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym.  If Salley Vicker’s Dancing Backwards is not your cup of tea, try Where Three Roads Meet instead.  If you find Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart elliptical, read The Last September (if you find the heroine of Wuthering Heights tedious, on the other hand, welcome to my world).

But if we are to go along with the idea that only the tough and the hard-boiled will do for the male reader, then who more perfect that Raymond Chandler?  Philip Marlowe’s heart does get broken, but in true hero style, he doesn’t go on about it.  Peter Wimsey’s heart, we are told, was broken during the War by a girl called Barbara.  He morphs during the novels from being a Wooster-ish fop, through being an embarrassingly drooled-over object of desire in his creator’s eye, to emerge as a middle-aged married man with –gosh, how brave! – sensitivities.  No-one could ever call Wimsey hard-boiled.  Inspector Morse is infinitely duller in Colin Dexter’s hands than in John Thaw’s.  Dan Starkey, the rather unlikely hero of Colin Bateman’s books, might be better off if he could only harden his heart a bit.  If you haven’t read any, try the film of Divorcing Jack, and not just because Jason Isaacs is in it: although that doesn’t hurt, does it?  And he was spot-on as Jackson Brodie in the television adaptations of Kate Atkinson’s multi-layered, poignant novels about loss, starting with Case Histories (don’t worry, chaps, there’s detecting, some violence and even the odd chase there too).  Donna Leon’s detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, on the other hand, is unusual in being kindly, deeply uxurious, happily long-married and a caring father: now there’s a male role model.  Can we have Colin Firth for the film please?