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 91: Boredom

68208b428b_Hungry-and-Being-BoredIt is a well-known fact in the NorthernReader household that I have a low boredom threshold. One of the disadvantages of being quite bright, it turns out, is a tendency to spot who dunnit and where this plot is going rather sooner than the writer hoped. That is, of course, no reason in itself to stop reading; nor is the dawning realisation that I’ve been here before. I know, for example, what happens in Hamlet. The ending does not take me by surprise; and yet I can settle down in my seat for production after production, confident that the Boredom Elf will not be tapping me on the shoulder for the next couple of hours. But on other occasions …

We went to see the new, much-hyped, Tom Stoppard play, The Hard Problem. I adore Tom Stoppard. And his plays. I would vote for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties and Jumpers for any list of Great Plays of the Twentieth Century. But I’m afraid the hardest problem a couple of weeks ago was what am I doing here trapped in the cinema (yes, once again the joys of streaming meant we were watching live, cheaply and locally) and what else could I have been doing that would have been more dramatically engaging? Cleaning the oven was a serious contender. The good news is that there was no interval: the ‘play’ (I use the term loosely) is short. The bad news, on the other hand, is that there is no interval, which means that the nicely brought up in the audience cannot make its excuses and leave until the end. Ah yes the end: I thought (hoped) I spotted it coming several times before it did. So why am I, self-evidently the Pollyanna of the critical world with never a cross word to say about anything (except Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer, obviously), being so vile and rude about the latest work by a really, truly great playwright? Well, it’s because I was bored rigid from the first few seconds, when I realised that the basic Law of Plays had been jettisoned. The Law, as of course you know, is that a play should have dramatic tension. It should be possible – easy, even – to spot that you are not at a reading. Especially not at a reading of an early draft along the lines of ‘is this an interesting idea? Might there be a play in here somewhere?’ Dear Sir Tom, yes there might. Had the production money gone on sending us each a slip of paper with the basic premise printed on it, we could have staged an infinitely more riveting evening by sitting around and debating it: for about five minutes, because, to be perfectly honest – and I do seem to be emulating William Brown this week and Speaking Truth One to Another – it isn’t a tremendously new or stimulating idea.

The Glums.  It all comes flooding back to me ... very, very slowly

The Glums. It all comes flooding back to me … very, very slowly

I have been bored before. I was the person who responded to the lovely Vivien Leigh’s declaration, ‘I will go back to Tara’ (it happens about eighty hours into Gone With the Wind) with the heartfelt cry, ‘oh please God no!’ That was me, moaning aloud with boredom and trying to read the programme in the dark as the interminable dreariness of Les Miserables droned by. Books have been flung aside before now at the moment when I realise that I have no recollection of any of the characters, cannot distinguish one from another, and do not care a fig what happens to any of them. As it happens, I stand by all these judgments; but sometimes, my boredom-o-meter swings wildly. Take Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example. When I first read it, I was a rather earnest fourteen-year-old. I loved it (I spurned the light comedic touch at least as much as Hardy: we were, at that moment, made for each other). A decade or so later, a worldlier young woman, I flung the same book across the room and left off re-reading at the point at which Angel Clare flounces out into the night: his hypocrisy was intolerable to me (young people are, of course, notoriously self-righteous and both Angel Clare and I were young). Later yet, teaching ‘The Novel’ to undergraduates, an attempted reconciliation between me and Thomas Hardy was foiled by the relentless undermining of several hundred essays which not only repeated back to me the points I had made in lectures (note to students: have the courtesy to read the whole book and find your own episode in it to discuss) but also rubbed my face in the fact that they fully expected to garner a good degree without meeting me half-way by, for example, bothering to check how the book’s title is spelt. Four hundred essays on Tess of the Dubervilles are guaranteed to drive the iron deep into the academic soul.

And then there are the children’s books that it is the fate of every parent to read aloud again … and again … and again. Only the greatest – books and parents – can survive that sort of test. So thank you, wonderful Judith Kerr, Rod Campbell, Martin Waddell and Mick Inkpen. And hurray for Beatrix Potter, AA Milne and Kenneth Grahame. I still read them now: and I’m never bored.

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson

Week 86: Education, education …

imagesWhen did we start counting everything, and discounting things that can’t be counted? It may be, dearest reader, that you live in a country where education rolls merrily along on the principles that fired up the Enlightenment: exploration, discovery and wonder. Here in Britain – and I know we are not alone – playgroups, nurseries, primary and secondary schools, universities and colleges, have all fallen victim to the glittery-eyed phalanxes of lackeys of the State armed with clipboards. What I have learned this week is that OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – and I defy you to come up with a more meaningless job title than that) costs about £168 million a year. If I had that sort of money to spend on education, my first thought would not be to stagger about making other people’s lives a burden to them and ensuring that school is a stressful and miserable environment for teachers and children alike. In the dreary midst of an interminable election campaign, I’m not sure whether to be glad or sorry that education is not attracting too much fatuous attention from the power-hungry. If only they’d read some good books and dare to think differently.

Most of the education industry at present – oh, yes, it is an industry these days, did no-one tell you? They marched it into the parade ground about twenty years ago, snipped all its professional buttons off and reduced it to the ranks of having to obey orders from people who despise it – most of it seems to be proudly modelling itself on Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. The thing is, OFSTED, that Dickens conjured him up as a savage satire on the repellent regimentation of education. When he made Gradgrind say, ‘Now, what I want is, Facts,’ we were supposed to fall about in appalled laughter, not sit up and take admiring notes. If you haven’t yet, do read Hard Times. It is Dickens at his fiercest and finest (and you can read it for pleasure and not because it is a set text).

How could education be better? Well, I’d be very happy if the way Gerald Durrell was taught could be more of a blueprint. In the sublime My Family and Other Animals, Durrell gives a magical sense of how a gifted tutor guided him into seeing the world as endlessly fascinating and worthy of lifelong enquiry. The ‘Theodore’ of the book was in real life Dr Theodore Stephanides, a Greek poet, scientist, biologist and doctor. He taught young Gerry not by getting out the books and turning relentlessly to Page 6, but by finding out what his pupil was interested in – beetles, mostly, in Durrell’s case – and using that enthusiasm to introduce all the stuff that we need to know in life. For Stephanides and his lucky, lucky, student, there was no such thing as Pure Maths or Pure anything: everything was applied. If I sound envious, it’s because I was taught algebra by someone who, frankly, was terrifying enough to make me let ‘x’ be whatever it wanted to be – but I never knew why. For Durrell, on the other hand, algebra cropped up naturally as a way of working out how long it might take those ants to move all those eggs from a dangerous site to a safe one. Those same ants could be the focus of every subject in the curriculum. Oh yes they could. If you happen to be at a loose end for a few minutes, draw up a curriculum for yourself. The only rules are: pick something, anything, that really interests you; and think of ways you could use that as a focus for every subject you ever did, or are doing, at school. See?

Osbert Sitwell declared that his education happened in the holidays from Eton. He seems to have had much in common with the protagonists of children’s literature. In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, school, as we have noticed in other weeks, is an unfortunate interruption to the real business of learning useful stuff, as it is for Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Even in school stories, from Angela Brazil to the Schoolfriend Annual (cherishable for the adventures of the Silent Three, who all have sensible names like Peggy and BettySilent_three and are awfully good sorts), lessons are little more than a plot device, a hiatus in our hero or heroine’s independent activity. Lessons only get interesting to us, the readers, when the school is for witches (Jill Murphy’s lovely Worst Witch stories) or wizards (HP). We hear little of the lessons at Lowood, the school to which Jane Eyre is packed off, although Charlotte Brontë does give us the satisfactory scene in which the School Inspector, the vile Mr Brocklehurst, is brought to heel by – oh, the irony – another layer of management. Ah, now I see where successive governments have found their whizzo ideas.

Do things get better if you manage to survive school and go to university? We thought about this many months ago (as long ago as Week 2). Alas, I have to break it to you that student life has changed a bit since Brideshead Revisited, even if today’s students do show equally little interest in their academic endeavours. On the bright side, things, especially for women, have improved a bit since Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. But universities, like schools, are now plagued with endless league tables, ratings and petty competitiveness. Oh for a return to the quietly scholarly world Dorothy L Sayers portrays in Gaudy Night. Well, yes, the college is riven with unholy goings-on, but, if we acknowledge that the jealousies and rivalries between academics that she reveals are pretty true to life, can we cling on to the picture of the joys of tranquil research that she also shows?

All is not lost. If you share any of my feelings – sorrow, disappointment, rage – about the education factories we seem to have created, have a look at Slow Education. You never know, you might learn something.

Definitely non-gratuitous

Definitely non-gratuitous

Week 85: God

It seems I may not have moved on much since the early sixteenth century
It seems I may not have moved on much since the early sixteenth century


Unlike a previous Beloved Leader, who had Alistair Campbell strapping him into the jacket with the arms that go round the back and declaring ‘We don’t do God’, the Northern Reader is happy to tackle this one head-on. Fear not: this is not suddenly going to transmogrify into one of those rather earnest and evangelical blogs with which the aether is awash – sorry if you write one, and I’m sure it’s lovely, and I hope you find it jolly comforting, but never forget that I’m British, which means (praise the Lord) genetically incapable of discussing or even mentioning matters of faith without practically passing out with the terrible toe-curling embarrassment of it all. As it happens, I went to a convent school in infancy, which has left me with a somewhat generalised sense of God as a pleasant chap with a beard who models his appearance, and especially the beard, and his air of slightly anguished worry about us all and what will become of us on Dr Rowan Williams. It also left me with a conviction that the key to religious education is colouring. A non-Catholic, I was barred from the exciting-sounding Catechism classes (have you noticed how religions really enjoy banning, excluding and keeping all the buns for themselves?), and accordingly spent many a happy hour peacefully colouring pictures of the saints while our teacher read aloud to us. What she was reading – and I have checked on the internet to be sure that yes, this book really did exist and no, it is not some subtly satiric invention of mine – was Wopsy the Guardian

Just in case you thought I was making it up

Just in case you thought I was making it up

Angel by Gerard Scriven. Wopsy – what a great name – was a trainee GA, I think, being inducted into his life’s work (I have no information on the longevity of angels and am not about to get into a discussion about it now, however much you beg), which was – and times have changed so much that I hesitate to tell you this – Saving Little Pagan Babies in Africa.

No, I think our bookshelf this week will be better off with Salley Vickers. Miss Garnet’s Angel was her first novel. She writes with immense subtlety and precision, on top of which the book is set in Venice, so I can’t think why you wouldn’t be rushing to find it if by some mischance you have not already come across it. And then there is her thoughtful and humorous Mr Golightly’s Holiday. I do not wish to give too much away to those of you who have reading this as a pleasure still to come, so let it suffice to say that its subject, and hero, fits with our theme this week. I loved it and I hope you do too.

Giovannino Guareschi makes it into the NorthernReader Hall of Fame for having been imprisoned in the cause of free speech. He also wrote the Little World of Don Camillo books (Mondo Piccolo: Don Camillo), which began to appear shortly after the Second World War and reflect the polarised world of post-war Italy, with the Catholic church wading in against the Communists. When the Communist Party was more or less wiped off the face of Italian politics in the 1948 elections, Guareschi turned his satirical pen on the newly-triumphant Christian Democrats instead (they were the party with leaders such as Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, who attracted international attention in ways that did not flatter their poor long-suffering country. The 2008 film, Il Divo, will tell you all you need to know about Andreotti, and is a must-watch). The Don Camillo books are simple to the point of being simplistic, but they have a cheerful rugged charm and a strangely credible voice of Christ coming from the crucifix in Don Camillo’s church. They also now have an historic interest as a reminder of the turmoil of post-war Europe and the dangerous possibilities of further fragmentation and violence. Worth reading now, then, if only to remind ourselves how fragile a peaceful Europe is and how suicidally half-witted we would be to flounce off.

tumblr_m9pphiFC0i1rnvzfwo1_r1_1280The God of Christianity doesn’t turn up all that often in fiction, presumably because he has more pressing matters in hand. Quentin Crisp, the author of The Naked Civil Servant, was an advocate for a little bit of humility in prayer, pointing out that God probably has more urgent things to deal with than whatever it is that you so desperately want tonight (lottery win? Your maths teacher to be taken ill before you have to hand your homework in?). But the gods of ancient Greece simply adored the limelight and were happy to be stars of stage and screen. High on the list of the joys of reading The Iliad and The Odyssey is the depiction of the Olympian gods and goddesses as a bunch of brawling, psychotic, sulking, sex-obsessed, petty and petulant spoilt brats for whom immortality means never having to grow up. You can see why the people who invented them went on to invent democracy: at worst, rule by the people for the people couldn’t be worse than the hereditary principle when applied to congenital drunks who never die. Adam Nicolson recommends the translation of the Iliad and Odyssey by Robert Fagles, and that’s good enough for me. Happily, Fagles’ is the current Penguin translation, and therefore affordable and readily available (from a good local independent bookshop, please: Cogito, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live in this part of the forest).

Almost godlike in his creativity, Douglas Adams came up with well over a hundred minor characters who make fleeting appearances in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels. Among them is the philosopher, Oolon Colluphid, author of Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, Who Is This God Person Anyway? And Well That About Wraps It Up for God. Quite. But I still have some sense of my nice bearded chap, sitting there well-meaningly worrying about us all, and – and this is the important bit – giving us the chance to do the best we can. And, unlike a distressing number of believers of all faiths over the years, God himself/herself/itself is, in more of Douglas Adams’ well-chosen words, Mostly Harmless.

Happy Easter, dearest readers, and, as the Irish comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you. JS55020378

Week 82: Books for Mother’s Day

f35d6cd0736332b538c7db6ced199285I first had motherhood thrust upon me at the age of about four, when I was given a sinister-looking doll with eyes that clicked unnervingly open and shut, a hard bald skull with curls moulded onto its implacable surface, and a harsh voice like a carrion crow, wailing ‘Mama! Mama!’ whenever it was tipped forward. Unsurprising, then, that I was always a teddy-bear and Lego little girl and regarded dolls with a mistrust bordering on straightforward dislike. With a start like that, it came as a considerable surprise when KatePonders came into my life to discover that being a mother is great. We were aided in this discovery by KatePonders herself, a baby of consummate grace and charm who had the good manners to sleep right through the night from eight weeks’ old (a skill she stills possesses). Unprepared by what we laughingly call real life, I needed – and still need – mothers in books to show me the way.

Of course now I look properly it actually IS Joan Crawford

Of course now I look properly it actually IS Joan Crawford

Lady Macbeth, Cinderella’s stepmother, Snow White’s ditto (tell me, Dr Freud, were the Brothers Grimm trying to tell us something?), Joan Crawford: there is no shortage of role models for how not to do it. It would be pleasing to believe, now that stepmothers are quite thick on the ground, that the shelves would be heavy with books that show her in a more positive light, but if we avoid the overly worthy sort of children’s book (you know the sort of thing: Kylie has a lot of Daddies – not at present a real title but I offer it to anyone at a loose end), a lurking edginess remains, especially should the children be girls. Ungrateful little beasts, really: as my own mother once famously pointed out, when my then very young sister shouted (as four-year-olds are capable of doing at moments of disagreement), ‘You’re not my mummy!’, ‘You think I’m doing this for kicks?’. The step-mother I would most like to have been, had chance offered me that role in life, is Topaz Mortmain in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Come to think of it, Dodie Smith is particularly good on the warm inclusiveness of not being overly hung up about biological parenting: look at the cheerful collectivism shown by dogs and people alike in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett are warm, supportive and kind mothers in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, reminding parents everywhere that one of our principal jobs in life is to stand back and let our children get on with it. Think how different those highly enjoyable adventures would have been had the children’s mothers been in the vanguard of today’s hysterically risk-adverse culture. ‘Can we, aged ten to seven, take a really quite heavy little sailing boat out on the deep and wind-swept waters of one of the northern Lakes, Mother?’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Roger. Of course you can’t. Now stay safely indoors and do some colouring.’ And that would have been that. The Railway Children’s mother is a thoroughly good egg, too, striking a perfect balance between protecting her children from life’s unbearable sorrows but letting them fly free. Those were the days. My own childhood – not all that long ago in the scale of things but beginning to feel as if it took place on another planet – was rich with solitary wanderings through the nearby woods, and my husband, whose mother was categorically not the most laid-back person I have ever met, spent many a happy hour when very small indeed playing out on the moors with his equally tiny friends: moors, I might add, not all that far from the favoured killing fields of Brady and Hindley. Were our parents crazily irresponsible, indifferent, or lacking in imagination? Or did they just have a firmer grasp of statistical probability than we are encouraged to have these days?

Blame-Shifting-our-BlundersWhat of the art of mothering once your offspring are adults (using the term loosely) themselves? Best, I think, to avoid emulating Mrs Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Goodness me. Another prize specimen from Dr Freud’s own bookshelf, I suspect. Lawrence, always quite a difficult chap when it came to relationships with women, rarely misses an opportunity in his novels and short stories to Blame the Mother. To read him is to be reminded of Adam, pointing the finger at Eve and crying out, ‘It’s all her fault!’. Not the action of a gentleman, I would have said. But he hit upon a popular theme: how revealing it is to Google the term ‘mothers with adult children in literature’ (oh, come on: you knew that I’d be the sort of person who even googles in correct syntax) and find yourself bombarded with jolly little articles on ‘adult children of narcissistic mothers’, ‘adult children of bipolar mothers’ and so on.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, just as contented marriages make poor fiction, so good mothers are hard to write about without coming across as terminally dull. How very much more fun to read and judge the parenting skills of Mrs Bennett or Lady Catherine de Bourgh. But there are some perfectly lovely mothers out there. Mrs March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a trouper whose saintliness is saved from schmaltziness by her calm, dry wit. Calmness in the face of threat is also the key to Kanga’s character: yes, that’s right, Kanga the only xx chromosome in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I know and admire mothers like her, serenely gliding through the mayhem to ensure that bedtimes, bathtimes and extract of malt all happen at the right moment. And Calvin’s mother in Bill Watterson’s insightful and utterly unmissable Calvin and Hobbes books is an almost unique poster-girl for real mothers everywhere: doing the best she can, learning on the job (that never stops), trying to focus on a few simple principles and, although she (mercifully) never bangs on about it, always holding on, no matter what the provocation, to her unconditional love for her child. Happy Mother’s Day, girls. b639647bece4e2553967976ecce2e0d7

Week 65: Fly Me To The Moon

Le-Petit-PrinceWoo woo!! Let’s hear it for plucky little Philae – because how can we resist anthropomorphising such a frankly cute little thing with gangly legs. This week’s landing of an extremely mobile science laboratory on a comet hurtling around some unimaginable distance from here is a moment to bask in some reflected glory and think, you know, we humans aren’t entirely a pointless waste of space after all. If only more of us could work harmoniously together over long stretches of time to achieve positive goals with no plan to make loads of money out of it or appear on a (using the term loosely) reality programme. Call me naïve, but I don’t think there is even some dark sinister military purpose lurking in the shadows behind the Rosetta mission. No, the whole thing is inspiring and educational and makes me want to think outside the planet (but first, of course, I must pause for a quick re-read of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful Le Petit Prince, which this week looks more prophetic than fantastic).

We have long tried to imagine ourselves onto a different rock. Once Galileo Galilei looked through his telescope and, crucially, published what he saw, our place in what Douglas Adams christened the Total Perspective Vortex shifted and we became a much, much smaller dot on the ‘You Are Here’ map. (Incidentally, if for some mysterious reason you have not encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … but no, you can’t not be familiar with it. Just in case, let me urge you to listen to it rather than read it. And certainly don’t watch it. The pictures are rubbish). I still mourn my failure to see Ian McDiarmid in the RSC production of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo last year.. Mark Ravenhill translated Brecht’s original Leben DesGalilei for this, and, quite apart from all the other reasons for kicking myself for missing it, I would have been fascinated to see and hear the differences between that pre-war text and Brecht’s own post-war version which he wrote in English with and for Charles Laughton. It is this version that we Anglophones know, not least because it is the text published by Methuen.

Galileo’s discoveries put rocket-boosters under the dramatic and poetic visions of his contemporaries. Ben Jonson’s masque, News From the New World Discovered in the Moon, written for the Court of King James in 1620, pictures a lunar landscape of fields and meadows, rivers and mountains, different mostly from our own world because the people there do not speak. Being Jonson, the play is a satire, with lawyers and the newly-emerging crocodiles of the journalistic trade in its sights; and being a masque, it is full of dances, spectacular costumes and over-the-top praise of the royal audience. Think of it as plush pantomime mercifully bereft of nonentities from television.

At the same time as Jonson was entertaining the Court, John Donne was fizzing with new metaphors from astronomy and the new science. Not just stars, comets and moons, but compasses, telescopes and sextants gave him his startling material for his urgent, compelling poems. Oh, if you happen not to have read any Donne, I envy you for the moment of first encounter you are about to experience. Switch off your computer and your phone, tell the world you’re out, and curl up with Donne’s poems. Be warned: you are about to lose your heart.

A surprising amount of science fiction seems to deny the possibility of metaphor in favour of a rather plonking alternative reality. Terry Pratchett’s first books were very straightforward science fiction of the kind that, were you to change the Slartibartfast-type names to Gerald or Marjorie, would stand revealed in all its suburban mediocrity. But then – o joy! – he lit upon the glorious wheeze of the Discworld, a planet of enormous improbabilities and resonating familiarities that has enabled him, through about a trillion volumes, to satirise our life here on earth, showing it to be hugely peculiar: often hilariously, and sometimes heart-breakingly so. Pratchett’s great precursor was HG Wells, who is perhaps more remembered now for the legend of Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds to a credulous America than he is actually read. His novel, and Welles’s 1938 dramatisation, signal the very depressing tendency of the twentieth century to drop the wonder and excitement when contemplating the possibility of other cultures out there in favour of all-out paranoia. It does seem a shame and a mystery that the century that saw extraordinary scientific and social advances, including access to rational

Thank you, Bill Watterson

Thank you, Bill Watterson

education for more people than ever before, should have opted so merrily and clung so fiercely to a fear-haunted ‘burn them! Burn them!’ mentality that has kept us out of the inter-galactic Good Places to Stay guide to this day. We the people who can look up into the night sky (especially here in the Dark Sky Park of Northumberland) with an intelligent and informed eye can find more than enough to enthral us without needing to invent little green men (no, I don’t know how they came to be little, or green, or particularly associated with Mars). If I want something to frighten myself with, I can read about the behaviour of jihadists or bankers. No, tonight, as I peek out between the clouds to a far-distant universe, I shall be a watcher of the skies seeing a new comet: not like Keats, using astronomy as a metaphor for the marvelling wonder to be found in books, but really, looking up and out. Little Philae, sweet dreams and goodnight.67P-Rosetta-lander-Philae

Week 49: Reading the Senses

A very pretty picture of complete nonsense

A very pretty picture of complete nonsense

How many senses are we supposed to have? It was five when I was little – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell – but since then, neurologists have added quite a few. There are also people who claim to sense an aura about you. In the NorthernReader experience, this is either (a) offensive and related to the long country walk through slurry that you have just completed, (b) emanating from an earnest-looking person you have met/been trapped with at a party whose own aura of being an obsessional bore you did not spot until it was too late, or (c) – when the exchange of money in return for aura-reading is proposed – fraudulent. The cheering news is that we rational types have no need of books about auras, or ley-lines, or conspiracy theories. But what books are there about the five senses?

I am told by my loving family that I spent the whole of a summer holiday reading aloud chunks of Victoria Finlay’s Colour to them. I prefer to think of this as sharing, and Colour is definitely a book worth sharing. I challenge you to read about where red comes from, for example, without interrupting the infinitely less interesting things your loved ones are doing to enrich their lives for a moment or two.

gregynogReading is in itself a visual experience, and now is a good moment to celebrate the makers of books; the paper-makers, the ink-grinders, the font-designers and the whole glorious kit and caboodle of the hand press. If you have never seen one in action, seek one out and flock to it. I love Gwasg Gregynog in Powys and, in writing this week’s blog, have become mildly obsessed with finding hand presses and makers of paper. A local paper-maker, once called Warden Paper Mill, began making paper for books in 1763, but has produced only industrial wrappings for the last forty or so years. Simon Garfield’s Just My Type is sufficiently interesting about fonts to redeem the terrible pun. Any study of fonts and type-faces runs slap into the perennial problem of ghastly person/great artist in the form of Eric Gill. Gill’s private life, as these things are euphemistically known, would have brought a blush to the cheek of a marauding Goth (that’s the Germanic people who felled the Roman empire, not the whey-faced children who droop about in black). But he gave the world Perpetua and Gill Sans, which has been at various times the typeface of the BBC, the Church of England, the British Government and Penguin and Pelican Books.

How about sound? All reading resonates in the reader’s mind, and all poetry, especially, should be read aloud. The Sound Poets were experimental performance artists of the early twentieth century, linked to Dadaism and Surrealism. The most accessible and enjoyable is perhaps Edith Sitwell’s Façade (music by William Walton), which I’m sure you know. The most famous of a later generation of American poets exploring the abstract use of sound is Alan Ginsberg, whose Howl is, I confess, a taste I’ve never managed to acquire. Deaf heroes or heroines in fiction are few and far between, although rather cheeringly a superficial trawl through Google suggests that they are two-a-penny in romantic fiction. More lastingly, perhaps, we can add Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to this week’s bookshelf. Her profoundly deaf protagonist is called John Singer, one of the best examples I know of my contention that names in fiction are always significant (or, more pragmatically should you be a student, there’s always an essay in names. You can thank me later).

Smell? We must have Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, one of the most gloriously weird and disturbing novels to have been hatched in the late twentieth century. Sensuous and distasteful in almost equal measure, the book is a tour de force of celebration of a sense that might be thought to elude pinning down in words. Not that you would think that for long once you dipped into the marvellous Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfume: The A-Z Guide. If you do not own this, you should. It is completely indispensable as well as fascinating, brilliantly written and, frequently, a hoot (especially about some of the nastier scents being offered for sale). I would seriously consider toting this one along to Kirsty’s desert island. Turin is a seriously interesting chap and I highly recommend Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which may well start you campaigning for Turin to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

calvin-and-hobbes-better-tasting-foodBooks that evoke taste? Too easy, you might be thinking: all those cookery books that fall into the category of Cookery Books to Read in Bed (so much more enjoyable than the instruction manuals). Best of the literary cooks, to my mind, are Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. I think I could endure much culinary deprivation if I could sit up in bed and read A Book of Mediterranean Food and Good Things. But what about Proust and his madeleines and linden tea? The most bewildering thing to many English readers of a certain age was why anyone would have any sort of involuntary memories worth recounting on sampling the rather nasty little turrets of desiccated coconut and glacé cherries that were sold in this country, for reasons that elude me, as madeleines. Sometimes food, like literature, simply does not translate very well. Fiction has the last laugh, though, as it steals its metaphors from the larder and the table. What is taste, after all – literary taste, ‘good’ taste – but a vivid metaphor describing how we select what feeds our minds and shapes our cultural contours? I think we should let Alexander Pope have the last word on taste, and add to our bookshelf his ‘Essay on Criticism’, which is not an essay but a poem, and in heroic couplets at that, and I hope you love it.

So we are left with touch. Paper, bindings, covers, keyboards and screens all send their messages to us through our skin as we pick up books, turn the pages, click the mouse and stroke the cool surface of our e-readers. And every writer who ever lived, prose or poetry, fact of fiction, sought to touch our minds and our hearts. Hurray to that: let them in.Pile-of-Books