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 109: Flower Power

InstagramCapture_ddf232f4-1b90-4a6e-8ccb-c61c3c37152eIt always comes as a delightful shock to notice that the evenings are drawing out and spring is in full swing in garden, pond and forest.  In a moment of madness last summer – you know how easy it is to agree to anything if it is far enough in the future – we agreed to be part of a village ‘gardens open’ this year, so April has seen us, in defiance of the weather, which has been a bit Novemberish for my tastes, digging and raking and sticking tentative forks into what we optimistically call the lawn.  Frogs have spawned, snowdrops have been and gone and we are now knee-deep in daffodils and blossom, with tulips ready to upstage the lot.  What we need from this week’s books is flowers.

Let’s start with some poetry.  Every garden-lover should have a copy of Poems for Gardeners by the bed.  An anthology put together by Germaine Greer, it is exactly the right mixture of the well-known and the surprising, wandering pleasingly far and wide to remind us that gardens have always been, quite literally, a paradise.  Greer includes Andrew Marvell, because he is impossible to resist at the best of times and especially when talking about gardens.  Always writing in couplets, Marvell can seem clunky to us now, and I always have a lurking suspicion that the thought behind ‘The Garden’ outstrips the phrasing – casting the body’s vest aside, for example: memorable, certainly, but, at least in the NorthernReader household, impossible to read straight-faced, which rather lowers the tone.   In all his poems about the natural or the cultivated outdoor world, in fact – Upon Appleton House, the ‘Mower’ poems – Marvell sticks rigidly to his prevailing mood of a rather gloomy austerity.  No, I think I want someone cheerier as my garden companion for today.

Not Wendy Cope, then; but only because her entirely marvellous short poem, ‘Flowers’, breaks my heart.

Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.The shop was closed. Or you had doubts –
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while

From this it is but a short step to Dorothy Parker’s indispensable ‘One Perfect Rose’.  We have talked about this before (Week 83), but here it is in its full acerbic glory:

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Not yet known to me, but looked forward to, is the collection Reading the Flowers by Linda France, who will be talking about her work next Saturday at the Hexham Book Festival. I have seen her poems described as ‘a work of scholarship and imagine and precise observation’ which make them sound exactly the sort of thing for me.

tulipsOn any bookshelf about flowers, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever has to take pride of place.  Perfectly balanced between Calvinist restraint and Catholic excess, the novel is saturated with the extraordinary, breath-holding world that produced the sumptuous still-lives of the Dutch Old Masters.  If you haven’t, read it; if you have, read it again: time well spent in either case.   And we can indulge in some mild word-play by adding Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and the collected works of Rose Tremain to our shelf: none of them very helpful on the natural history or horticultural front, but essential reading on other grounds.  And lest it was buried in the middle of my little list, let me repeat that Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower has to be read; now, at once, immediately: it is that rarest of rare things, an entirely perfect work of art.

Children are probably better served nowadays than they were when I was little and in danger of being fobbed off with the sugary pleasures of Cicely Mary Barker’s The Flower Fairies.  It may of course be that I was an unusually horrid and insensitive child, but I’m afraid her classic illustrations of little girls simpering about with wings and floaty frocks inspired nausea even at a very tender age.  You may of course have loved them, in which case you are very far from being alone judging from the brisk trade in posters, fabric, ceramics and what the NorthernReader household learned from Betty MacDonald to call toe-covers (such a useful phrase, we find, to sum up all those gifty knick-knacks of no possible benefit to mankind).  Getting the poppets to notice flowers, and spot the differences between them, is a good start to engaging them in a lifetime of pleasure in the natural world.  Flowers are colourful, so give children paints and paper and send them outside.  Anyone brought up on the detailed botanical drawings of Beatrix Potter has a headstart; and, among many other reasons for reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the practical descriptions of gardening constitute good sound advice.  You can always follow up with Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden for a later birthday.

Right.  The sun has come, a little fitfully, out.  On with boots and gloves and out we go.

Hurray, as ever, for Bill Watterson

Hurray, as ever, for Bill Watterson

Week 107: Hope

What is it with badness and hair?

What is it with badness and hair?

Donald Trump is leading in the Republican nominations. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and Africa are fleeing for their lives. North Korea, Zimbabwe and Russia are run as personal fiefdoms by fear-driven despots. A confederation of has-beens and the politically greedy in Britain are making up any old rubbish to persuade us to take our toys home and not play with the big boys and girls in Europe any more. And we’ve had two sunny days so far this year. It’s all looking the teeniest bit gloomy. Books, please.

To remind myself that the United States of America is largely peopled with lovely, intelligent men and women who will not be choosing to be governed by a fascist clown, a small part of this week’s NorthernReader bookshelf is dedicated to a celebration of the spirit of shining optimism that is the defining characteristic of all that is best about America. Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution is widely regarded as the if-I-can-only-have-one choice, and who am I to disagree? Skipping forward a couple of centuries, anyone who said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ earns a place among the angels, so let’s hear it for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his 1933 inaugural speech, Roosevelt went on to call fear ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’ Absolutely right, I would say, and just about nails why lesser politicians find whipping up fear such a useful tool to get away with the flagrant abuse of democracy. Be afraid, be very afraid, our beloved leaders tell us; and look into my eyes, for heaven’s sake don’t use your common sense or your own judgment. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time reminds us that cometh the hour, cometh not only the man but in FDR’s case the woman too, with a perceptive study of how much Eleanor Roosevelt brought to the presidency as well as the marriage. For a taste of the positive impact of the New Deal, let us have Betty MacDonalds’ Anybody Can Do Anything, a witty first-hand account of life during the Great Depression and the recovery. And to remind ourselves that the enlightenment view of history does eventually prevail – that slavery, racism and hatred can be overcome – how about Taylor Branch’s monumental trilogy on the Martin Luther King years, starting with Parting the Waters?

hqdefaultCheery and uplifting books that look at the Middle East and tell us that ‘this too will pass’ might be a little trickier. That particular bag of rats is too close, too much of the present, for us to be able to look forward with confidence. The best that books can do for us is to remind us of the resilience of hope. Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes, his vivid and sometimes harrowing tale of his time in Iraq, does not have a fairy-tale ending, I am sorry to say; but read it together with Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (or indeed anything by the piercingly good Thesiger) to at least deny Saddam Hussein the victory of wiping this entire culture off the face of the earth. An Improbable Friendship should win a prize if only for coming up with a title of such consummate understatement: written by Anthony David, it tells of the long and warm friendship between Ruth Dayan and Raymonda Tawil. Yes, that’s right, the wife of Israel’s Moshe Dayan and Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law. It is impossible to read about these two remarkable women without, just for a hope-filled moment, imagining a world not governed by testosterone. Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, anyone? So very much more optimistic that Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which, coming from the Angry Feminist (or Jolly Cross Feminist) school of the 1980s, now feels a bit wearying and dated. It has become a staple of school and university reading lists, and I do rather wish it could at least be balanced by a more positive feminist outlook. Suggestions please.

As for the so-called ‘debate’ about whether the UK should remain as a member state of the European Union: well, an obvious candidate for our shelf this week is Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. But we can also cheer ourselves up with some simply gorgeous European fiction and rejoice that we are lucky enough to be part of the same loose conglomeration of free-thinking, enlightened, rational men and women as – well, fill in names-of-your-choice here. Mine would include Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Muriel Barbery and Michel Houellebecq (although having taught undergraduates who struggled to spell Keats and Hardy correctly I do wonder what they’ll make of him), Patrick Süsskind, Seamus Heaney, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo …. And so, deliciously and endlessly, on. In fact, retiring into the borderless world of intelligent writing might be the only possible way of getting through the next yawningly long weeks of spiteful half-baked threats and warnings that seem to pass for debate these days. Yes, yes, I know, ‘twas ever thus, and the benches in the House of Commons are set two sword-lengths apart for good, if outdated, reason; although over-confidence in the concept of a standard sword-length, let alone a standard arm-length, might well have proved unfortunate should it ever have been put to the test, so that – hurrah! – we can take this pretty piece of Parliamentary legend as proof that good manners (or at least not actually attacking the chap opposite, however tempted) do prevail. And the idea that rational, considered and courteous debate outranks trying to kill your opponent is the most hopeful paradigm for our fractious and troubled world. A copy of Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners might be the thirteenth fairy’s best gift to us all.

The feast or reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

The feast of reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

Week 101: The Convalescent Reader

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Fallen prey to the New Year Virus, I have spent the last few days coughing and sneezing and staying in bed, huddled in shawls and tissues and proving conclusively that I do not make a good invalid, inclining towards the bored, the tetchy and the Napoleonic. The news has on the whole been as dispiriting as the leaden grey weather – the world already felt a little smaller, sadder and drabber without David Bowie, and then they came and told me about Alan Rickman – and I have had too much time to ponder on mortality and wonder if, after all, there is not as much time left as I had blithely assumed. Time, definitely, to turn to the books by the bed to find some good cheer and quiet encouragement to pull myself together.

The bright side of a post-Christmas virus is that it offers the opportunity to read all those Christmas-present books that you had longed for, hinted heavily for, but so often turn out not to get round to reading once they are actually yours. Not this year: the lovely haul has been read, mulled over, discussed, lent. Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From fulfils expectations (it’s by Tim Parks, it’s probably going to be good): a wonderful bringing-together of his blogs for The New York Review of Books (incidentally, if you never have, succumb to one of the endless offers to receive The London Review of Books free for a year; you are unlikely to be disappointed). Parks freewheels through the very fabric and meaning of the stuff we read – it is no coincidence that these meditations were first published on the internet – and for all of us with New Year Resolutions to live up to about what we read, or don’t read, or what we write this year, Where I’m Reading From is pretty much essential groundwork. (For more about New Year resolutions of a bookish kind, by the way, hop over to the Book Club pages of this blog to see what we got up to in January).

Even the less-than-good, encountered from a soothing pile of pillows, herb tea (that it should come to this) and acres of dogs to hand, offer pleasures. It has been good to find that I still have some sort of critical faculty functioning through the fog of flu-like symptoms, as proved by reading Donna Leon’s latest in the long line of Commissario Brunetti novels, Falling in Love. A treat as always to be reunited with this most uxorious of detectives, but the book feels as if it has been put together by formula. What would be impressive from a lesser writer falls far short of Leon’s usual standard, with sketchily-drawn stock characters, some irritatingly dangling loose ends and an ending carved out of solid woodenness.

I cannot tell a lie.  I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan's

I cannot tell a lie. I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan’s

But three to restore my joyful faith in books. Father Christmas, a good egg if ever there were one, came up trumps with Kate Atkinson’s heavily-hinted-for A God in Ruins, forcing me to indulge in a re-read of Life After Life and revel in her master-classes in the art of fiction. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn turns out to be every bit as good as the film-of-the-book, so if you haven’t, do (I have carried on to discover that Nora Webster is every bit as absorbing). And Landmarks, written by Robert Macfarlane and recommended at the December NorthernReader Book Club, is every bit as delectable as I had hoped.

What next? As this wretched virus at long last starts to pack its bags, I can at least look further than Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. No more the humbling lesson on how to make the sickroom a place of inspiration. Farewell to contemplating the pre-antibiotic world of Betty MacDonald’s fabulous The Plague and I. No need, after all, to start learning the words of Mimi’s farewell aria. I can once again read Keats, the Brontës and Chekhov without a morbid inclination to identify with their every little cough. Time, clearly, for some bracing pull-yourself-together reading, and a heartfelt sense of gratitude at my good fortune to have been born in a very wealthy country in the second half of the twentieth century. It would no doubt be very good for me to read some harrowing tales of unhappy or persecuted lives as an aid to counting my blessings, but I think I might take the softer path and slip back onto the sunlit uplands of life with something cheery. The Wind in the Willows is the ultimate Convalescent Book, at least in the NorthernReader household, although Emma runs it a very close second. Ah, comfort books: this seems as good a place as any to confide in you, now we know each other a little better, that the night before my wedding, sleep eluding me, I read Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea. All of it. Make of that what you will.

But here I am this January, restored to health and raring to go on my readerly way. And my treat, my reward, if not for good behaviour exactly then for having come through the porridge-brained phase of ‘flu in which Noddy might pose too much of an intellectual challenge? Well, Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Noise of Time, has just been published to rave reviews. Bliss it is this dawn to be alive. Happy New Year, everyone.WP_20150129_026

Week 32: Books for the Frugal Life

mendIt is possible, as, like me, you delve and toil in your garden in this spring sunshine, that you are unfamiliar with the joys of a category of clothing known as gardening cashmere. Let me explain. Clothes in the frugal NorthernReader household fall into three categories in descending order of acceptability upon the public stage: respectable, gardening, and recycling. It follows that cashmere cardigans, so far past their days of glory that they have become felted, knobbly and darned, find their apotheosis as welcome comforters against the crisp spring air. Jeans so old that their colour is now a matter of some debate can still see useful service. Proper leather walking boots, bought some time in the last century, soldier on under loving applications of saddle soap. Swathed in what I hope is the joy of simplicity rather than the smugness of self-righteousness (such a fine line, don’t you think?), I need books to sustain and celebrate the frugal life.

I was brought up on the witty writing of Betty MacDonald, who chronicled family life during the hard times of the American Depression in The Egg and I and Anybody Can Do Anything,a slogan which was pretty much the rallying cry of my formative years. She set a valuable benchmark by teaching me to presume that happiness is not dependent on income. There is no age too tiny to start drinking in this lesson, and the more we feign indifference to our offspring’s plaintive cries of deprivation because they do not have the latest gizmo and (all together now) everyone else does, the better parents we are. Amazing though it may seem, poppets, you really do survive the social death that is not-owning several impoverished countries’ GDP-worth of kit. Trust me.

There is a lot to be said for taking on board the thrifty and resourceful attitude of Mary Norton’s Borrowers, although living under the floorboards in someone else’s house might be taking things a little bit too far. Perhaps we should turn instead to Robinson Crusoe, which, quite apart from much else, is an invaluable source of useful information on the taming and keeping of goats, together with Fifty Things to do with various goaty products. Or, as always, Arthur Ransome comes to the rescue, this time with the trend-setting upcycling of The Picts and the Martyrs.

It comes as no surprise to realise that the supremely materialist Jane Austen sees money as the root of all happiness. Yes, you can make do and mend in a cottage (can there be such poverty?) – and jolly Country Living it all is – but the happy ending comes when your girls marry men possessed of good fortune. Even the uncomfortable fact that the wealth of the Bertrams, Bingleys and Darcys of this world comes from the sugar plantations of slavery is swept under the carpet. Before we get too high and mighty about this, we should perhaps do a tiny bit of mote-and-beam contemplation. Just how big an area is covered by the high moral ground when it comes to money? O dear. Are we going to need to be, not just frugal, but abstemious to the point of ascetism?

If so, we can at least, in this part of the world, comfort ourselves with Bede. Such a good egg. When you are here, you must of course go and visit his tomb, at the other end of Durham Cathedral from the truly astonishing and important St Cuthbert: and you can make your own private pilgrimage of the great churches of the Anglo-Saxon North while you’re at it. But read Bede. An Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a lot more fun that it perhaps sounds, and is packed with little anecdotes. He lived at a turning-point in the history of the church, when England decided not to remain within the austere Celtic tradition and to join forces instead with the might – and materialism – of Rome. We could perhaps turn aside for a moment from our self-imposed frugality to wonder at the splendours of the Lindisfarne Gospel while we’re in the mood.

walden pathBack to the simple life. How about Walden? Thoreau’s beautifully-written contemplation of the self-contained life explores his two years of living in the woods by Walden Pond in Massachusetts. We can add to that Neil Ansell’s Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills. Ansell lived alone in an astonishingly remote and astonishingly dilapidated cottage, retuning himself to the rhythms of the natural world. His book teaches us to look lovingly and with great attention at the small things in our lives. Both these books remind me always of Yeats’s poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’: we can picture the small cabin and its bean-rows in the bee-loud glade, the cabin by the American pond and the cottage somewhere in the quiet hills of Mid-Wales. It is good, sometimes at least, to stop and ask ourselves what it’s all for. And good, too, to make a life for ourselves that allows for plenty of time to think, to wonder, and, of course, to read.

Thank you, Bill Watterson

Thank you, Bill Watterson