Week 68: Chairs

house that jack builtIt’s a bit like The House that Jack Built. Only – blessed relief – without the sinister dog and the insipid young man of the Caldecott book that slightly haunted my childhood. But today we have bought the fabric to cover the chair that we bid for at auction to sit by the table that can come into the room instead of the piano. Because realisation that we are never going to learn to play the piano has dawned, and it has gone to a splendid young woman who is not only doing so, but enjoying it. The result of all this furniture moving has been a fixation on identifying the perfect chair. As I’m sure you have experienced for yourself, anything thought about too long becomes completely surreal and improbable. I can report to you that this holds true for chairs. Stare at enough of the wretched things and they start to look very unlikely indeed. Squat and sitting on their haunches, most of them, like a rather stout gentleman with his hands on his knees, just about to stand up and launch into loud conversation. Not what we want in the corner of the sitting room. Or there are horrid little spindly things that will obviously cringe if anyone of normal proportions so much as looks at them. At the point at which my dreams are full of chairs, swirling through the air and looking as if they might start staging their own Disney film, a hasty retreat into the world of books is called for.

In this mood, the most noticeable thing about Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair is that three children can sit in it comfortably. Its tendency to swoosh about from place to place disqualifies it from serious sitting-room consideration, however, and when you add the wings… there is a fine line to be drawn between eccentric and Just Plain Weird, and chairs that sprout wings have picked which side they are on. CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair will not do either. Not only is the plot so convoluted that it requires a notebook and pencil as well as exam-level knowledge of the previous Narnia novels, but the whole thing strays dangerously into Hobbit territory for this Tolkien-allergic household, which maintains that if you want truly terrific questing stories (and who doesn’t?) stick to Gawain and the Green Knight, especially in Simon Armitage’s translation into modern English. And whatever chair I was seeking, it was certainly not one to which I have to be bound at night so that I don’t start rampaging about eating people and turning into a worm. No, I am not making this up, and this indeed is the nub of my argument that CS Lewis, though no doubt a good egg (and I loved the film of Shadowlands with wonderful Anthony Hopkins as Lewis), is the last author on earth that children, or indeed anyone of a nervous or morbid disposition, should have dealings with. Oh, for heaven’s sake, go and read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf instead: all the blood-tingling horror with none of the tinge of voyeuristic sado-masochism that makes Lewis quite an odd hero of children’s literature.

TS Eliot’s chair in The Waste Land starts more promisingly, perhaps:

‘The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne’

Mmm, sounds good. But wait! Just as the line is a distortion of Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, ‘The barge she sat in, Like a burnished throne’ – and remember what happens to her – Eliot’s chair starts slipping in and out of focus, a hallucinogenic ingredient in a cloyingly rich and disturbing inner landscape. And all I wanted was comfortable. ‘The chair he or she sat in’ holds a strange allure for curators and collectors, and many which are known, or at least thought, to have supported the frame of a famous author as she or he toiled over their work have become icons, heavy-freighted with significance. The Museum of London and the Charles Dickens’ Museum in Broadstairs both have His Chair: not quite as unreasonable as, say, the myriad foreskins of Christ which have been cherished and venerated in shrines across the world, given that it is extremely likely that Dickens, over a long life and the production of umpteen novels and short stories, sat in any number of places to knock out a few hundred words a day. No-one lays claim to having one of the Austen family’s dining chairs, as far as I know (but you should still have a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, on your To Do list – and they do have her writing-table). And if anyone tries to sell you Shakespeare’s chair, call the Fraud Squad. Tolstoy – and why are we not surprised? – shaw's deskseems to have sat on The World’s Most Uncomfortable Chair to write what, in that context, really do look like extremely long novels. And George Bernard Shaw (bother! A shoo-in for our cogitations on middle names ) had a captain’s chair. All I can tell you is that I have one just like it, and I love it, because it was my great-great-grandfather’s, and it has been – well, part of the furniture -all my life. But I would not willingly sit in it for hours at a time.

Pooh visits OwlThe secret to choosing the right chair is, I suspect, that it is right for you. Owl’s chair, for example, is clearly perfect for him, allowing good perching-room (not a consideration in the NorthernReader household). For reading, there must be room to curl up, a light peeping over your shoulder, and a table nearby for coffee and cake or a glass of wine (if it has become impossible to sit through a film without major calorific intake, I’m damned if I’m stinting myself when lost in a good book). And, should I fleetingly miss academic life, I can always pretend my new acquisition is not just a chair, but a Chair.


Week 44: By Another Name

pen-nameWhat makes an author hide behind a nom de plume? The usual reasons for changing your name in non-literary walks of life are to avoid your creditors or the law, or simply because you feel blighted by the hand your parents dealt you: raw work pulled at the font, as PG Wodehouse accurately observes.

It was a belief widely held – and nurtured by the exclusively male tribe of publishers – that it was not seemly for a woman to take to the page. Or, in mediaeval England, to be heard at all, which is why the resourceful and very attention-seeking Margery Kempe made great play of the fact that she had dictated her autobiography to a male scribe. Oh, and that Jesus had told her to get it all written down, which you have to admit, is a rather splendid pre-emptive strike against potential critics. The Book of Margery Kempe seems to have been finished by 1450, but the first (and so far only) complete manuscript only came to light in 1934. Kempe was a remarkable woman of her own or indeed any time, and I suspect you are going to enjoy her tales of pilgrimage, chats with celebrities from Julian of Norwich to assorted bishops and archbishops, and a tour of the religious sites of Europe and the Holy Land. She is also, to my mind, the precursor of the great feminist icon, Violet Elizabeth Bott, with her ability to scream and scream until she is sick.

We do at least know Mrs Kempe’s name. In the seventeenth century, as religious sensibilities started to consign women to the private domestic sphere, it became increasingly difficult to get heard without either using a pseudonym or anonymity. Katherine Philips, the Welsh poet, translator of Corneille and leader of a literary circle, was undoubtedly as tough as old boots, but bowed to the conventions with a great deal of classical nick-naming for herself and her friends. She was ‘the matchless Orinda’, which, on the face of it, is a bit – well, simpery. She made great play of her virtue and devotion to her husband, and it is noticeable that despite all the coy shunning of publicity, Mrs Philips was very well known indeed as the perfect model of a female author. Not like that brazen Aphra Behn, you see, whose private life remained just that and who wrote to make money. Gosh, how infra dig. And for the stage at that. She also seems to have spied for the British Government to make money, by the way, and generally comes across as a woman who would have sold her grandmother to you at the right price. Behn wrote with wit and energy, and about sex and death. Obviously, she is a must-read. Start with Oroonoko, which is neither about South American rivers (although it is set in Surinam) nor Wombles, but is a high-octane tale of slavery, true love and barbarity: a sort of cross between Othello and Twelve Years a Slave.

The late eighteenth century produced a fine crop of women who were perfectly happy to see their names on the covers of their books, from Ann Radcliffe, whose Mysteries of Udolpho so stirred Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women stirred the Establishment as with a Magimix. Northanger Abbey itself, like all Jane Austen’s novels, appeared anonymously: the strap-line ‘by a lady’, which first appeared on Pride and Prejudice seems to suggest a genteel need to distance herself from the women who presented themselves as professional writers. After Austen, we enter a morass of Brontës, believing or being advised that readers will only come their way if they publish as the various dubiously-named Bell brothers, and Marian Evans, who led parallel lives as Miss Evans, the lover of George Henry Lewes, and George Eliot, the author of seven of the best novels of the nineteenth century (it’s the dry humour, which perhaps you weren’t expecting, that makes Middlemarch such a winner).

But it’s not just the girls: chaps, too, on signing the contract with a publisher, have taken the opportunity to re-invent themselves. Eric Blair became George Orwell and Hector Hugh Munro became Saki: Eric Mercer (none of them seem happy to be Eric, do they? Do you think that Eric, or Little by Little started the rot?) metamorphosed into the suave Dornford Yates, now hugely unfashionable but for most of the first half of the twentieth century one of the most-read authors around. Oxford seems to bring out the pseudonymous in a writer: Charles Dodgson’s alter ego was Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis published some poetry as Clive Hamilton, and J I M Stewart became Michael Innes when he felt like writing filmanonymouscrime fiction. Michael Innes, incidentally, was the source of Robert Bruce Montgomery’s pen name, Edmund Crispin, for his highly enjoyable Oxford-set detective novels starring Professor Gervase Fen. But no, the Earl of Oxford did not write poems and plays and call himself William Shakespeare. Really he didn’t. Don’t be silly.

Some authors have developed different personas for different genres they wish to dabble in. So the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis, published crime fiction as Nicholas Blake (and jolly good they are too) and Barbara Vine is the darker, more disturbing hat that Ruth Rendell wears from time to time. Edith Pargeter, a fine historical novelist, took on a new lease of life as Ellis Peters, writing crime fiction and all twenty-something Brother Cadfael mysteries. What I notice, writing this, is how deliberately transparent most also-writing-as has become. Indeed, many front covers now proclaim the dual identities, presumably in the hope of generating maximum sales. I can see this is going to have consequences when Val McDermid starts writing picture books for the very small.

So, when you write the Great Novel of the Twenty-First Century, who will you say you are? Your own name? Terrific if it turns out to be as good as you thought it was, and friends and neighbours stop you in the street to kiss the hand that wrote the book and ask for your autograph: but what if the reviewers hate you, and your name blares out below the headline, ‘Is This the Worst Book Ever Written?’(now there’s a topic for a NorthernReader Walking Book Club session). You might have to move, or change your children’s name by deed poll, or pretend to be the nanny when you collect your children at the school gate. I begin to see the attraction of hiding behind a pseudonym. How about ‘The Northern Reader’?my avatar

Week 35: A NorthernReader Easter

pastel_easter_egg_wreathEvery year, the newspapers echo with the anguished cries of life’s little organisers against the swerving swooping Easter date as it flits across the calendar. How much tidier things would be, the argument seems to run, if we could just pick a date and stick to it, year by year. Well, yes, probably. But when has tidy ever been much fun? Why on earth do we get so hot under the collar about a free-wheeling festival? Here in NorthernReader territory we celebrate the unpinned-down, the liberated and the ever-so-slightly anarchic, and are therefore particularly fond of the sheer barkingness of a date for Easter that can pop up any time between March 22nd and April 25th. The delicious arbitrariness (and yes, part of the magic is the full-moon-take-away-the-number-you-first-thought-of maths behind the whole thing) is just underlined by the fact that we can have blossom and tulips or snow and howling gales on any of the possible dates. So, aware that we might be frolicking on the sands at Bamburgh or huddling round the fire when you are reading this, here are some of the books that have made it onto the NorthernReader Easter bookshelf.

Not, I’m afraid, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Normally the champion of the metaphor, I could never get past my revulsion at Aslan the lion – and that was even before the film with the disturbing animatronic animal with sinister eyelashes   When I want to contemplate the Passion, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection – and Easter does seem like a good moment to do so – I will get further with the King James’ Bible. While I’m outing myself as an all-round renegade and party-pooper, I don’t like the Easter Bunny either (a cynical import by the peddlers of surplus sugar and a horrible, horrible, incitement to greed and consumerism). This might be something to do with my dislike of cheap chocolate, of course. An Easter Bunny tucking 70% cocoa solids confections into little nooks and crannies in the garden just might make me think again.

But this is a splendidly appropriate time to read books which remind us of the possibility of redemption. And yes, I know this means we could read Crime and Punishment, but really, are we really going to snuggle up with Dostoevsky this weekend? No, let’s wallow in Shakespeare. Rather pleasingly, he does seem to get cheerier as he matured – a hopeful role-model for us all – and what rather sadly turned out to be his last plays turn their back on all that tragic dooming and offer their characters second chances. So, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest please.

And we can re-read The Secret Garden this weekend. The genius of Frances Hodgson Burnett was to forge metaphors for the redemptive power of love, with all that blossoming, blooming, meetings in gardens and rising from your bed and walking (although you will notice that Colin does not go as far as trying to pick up his huge Jacobean four-poster bed) – metaphors so huge and blindingly obvious they could be printed in fluorescent orange – and not irritate the pants off her readers. Unless, of course, you are one of those poor lost souls for whom The Secret Garden is anathema. Oh, go on, have some chocolate and try it again.

easter-wingsNow for some poetry. We have talked before about Eleanor Farjeon’s brief, haunting poem, ‘Easter Monday’. To that I shall add the lovely metaphysical poet George Herbert’s mystical ‘Easter Wings’ – and, while we’re about it, wallow in the pleasures of his ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ (and listen to John Taverner’s beautiful setting for it). What about Yeats’s ‘Easter, 1916’? It’s a poem that should certainly be on everyone’s ‘I know it’ list, so now is as good a time as any if you happen not to have come across it. And for jollity I shall have Robert Graves’s incomparable ‘Welsh Incident’: but you have to promise to have a go at reading it aloud, with as good an impression of Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins as you can manage.

Great DixterGraves’s poem has at least taken me into the great outdoors. In the hope that this sunshine might continue over the Easter weekend, I am adding Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden – by the best of all gardening writers – to the pile. When I tell you that Lloyd recommended pruning when you walk past a plant that you think needs it, and you have secateurs with you and are in the mood, you will see instantly why I love him. Great Dixter, the garden he inherited, re-made and continued to develop throughout his life, and which the marvellous Fergus Garrett is taking triumphantly onwards, is the most fabulous place, with the ability not to overawe you with the gardening brilliance of others but fill you with confidence, plans and – best of all – visions of your own.

Easter, like Christmas, comes with its own special food. I hope you’re not bothering with New Zealand lamb: have luscious one-year old English hogget now and wait until autumn for home-grown lamb. We shall need a Simnel cake recipe (and, much as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is revered in the NorthernReader household, his innovation of chocolate marzipan is not an improvement: sorry, Hugh), and one for hot-cross buns. But it would be a hardened soul indeed that could completely overlook the ingrained connection between Easter and chocolate. No, I will not be buying special moulds and melting and tempering chocolate. I am not that sort of person.   But I might curl up in a corner – of the garden if the weather holds – and revisit the pleasures of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. The cover of my copy demands, ‘Is this the best book ever written?’ Fatuous nonsense: of course it isn’t. But it is awfully good, and spiced with just the right amount of redemptive hope for this time of year. Happy Easter, everyone.

Yup, another non-gratuitous picture.  You're getting the hang of this, non?

Yup, another non-gratuitous picture. You’re getting the hang of this, non?


bardon-mill-village-storePS  The second NorthernReader Walking Book Club outing meets at 10.00hrs on Friday 25 April outside the Bardon Mill Village Store and Tea Room.  Our topic this month is ‘Writing History’.

Week 30: A Great Day for Out

Created with Nokia Smart CamAfter the wettest winter since the world began, London newspapers – which is pretty much all the English papers, then, ‘the north’ being something that starts at Islington for them – are cheering the first signs of spring.  Here in the not-so-wet North East we have almost been made to feel guilty for some months now, as we potter about in the t-shirt and jeans that comprise the average Northumberlander’s specialised winter gear.  But in the last week or so we have rejoined the rest of the country in a tiny frenzy of blooming and budding.  As promised, the NorthernReader Walking Book Club stepped out for the first time this week, and in amongst the book-lined pleasure path we made of  ‘have you read?’ and ‘oh, I loved’, we had time to notice (as we paused to 1170411678catch our breath – walking uphill and talking –one of us with the very smallest reader in a baby sling – you’d have been proud of us and I bet you’re wishing you’d come with us now, aren’t you?) – we had time to notice that lambs were skipping, catkins were doing some tail-shaking and the world was gently turning emerald green.  We tucked into home-made cakes at St Oswald’s tearoom on Hadrian’s Wall before skittering down the fell to get back to the serious business of following up on all those lovely reading recommendations.  Here are mine.

salmonWalking above the sparkling North Tyne, which is England’s best salmon river, it was perhaps inevitable that some books about fishing came to mind.  Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, of course: but have you read Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots? I’m not sure that I can recommend it highly enough.  Beautifully written, it is the perfect example of the meditative and philosophical nature of fishing (or indeed walking – anything that gets you out there, perhaps). Jennings’ young life was shaped by two astonishingly brave men, his father (A Military Cross-earning hero of the Second World War) and Robert Nairac, whose posthumous George Cross recognises his almost unimaginable courage as an undercover special forces officer who was discovered, tortured and killed in a lonely field in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  Jennings manages to think aloud about both these men, and about his own upbringing in a vanishing England, in a way that never seems contrived or awkward. cheviotsIn return, I’m looking forward to reading At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig, which was recommended to me as we walked along the ridge, with views of the Pennines to the south and the Cheviots to the north (you see how this Walking Book Club works?  Why would you want to sit in a frowsty room to talk books when you can have all this?).  Greig was a friend of the great Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, whose dying request to him was that he should make his way to a remote hill loch in the far north-west of Scotland and catch a brown trout in his memory.  I am reliably informed that this is a book about life, not a book about fishing, and I can’t wait.  The most delicious anthology of writing about fishing, by the way – although it predates both Jennings and Greig so I shall now have to hope for a new edition  –  is Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.  And while we’re at it, we can re-read Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs for the valuable lessons in guddling trout.

Our adorable baby reader caused us all to bubble with fond memories of the stories either we or our own children had loved when truly tiny.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar is already pooh and pigletgoing down well, we learned, but we added Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo and Oh Dear to the pile, together with CDs of Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.

And we talked about books of letters.  I have to admit that I got fairly short shrift from KatePonders when I helpfully suggested she should read Les Liaisons Dangereuses in French (a mother has a duty never to give up).  Wait till she clocks all fifteen hundred pages of Clarissa.  CS Lewis’s  Screwtape Letters, recently marvellously read on the radio by Simon Russell Beale, should be on everyone’s list: as should Lionel Shriver’s dark masterpiece, We Need to Talk About Kevin I’m definitely going to read Dear Lupin, the letters Roger Mortimer wrote to his son Charlie; Dear Lumpy, his letters to his daughter Louise (and I don’t care what you say, no father should ever call his daughter Lumpy.  Not ever.  Even silently in his own head), and Dearest Jane, his letters to his elder daughter.

We were (of course) blessed with goodish weather for our inaugural walk.  Well, alright, it was a bit misty and there was a hell of a gale, but it only rained when we were soaking up coffee and cake in the lovely tearooms.  So I’m glad to say that no-one’s thoughts seemed to turn to Sun Shuyun’s The Long March, nor her Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud.  No-one broke out into a few bars of ‘Climb Every Mountain’– though I’m sure they’d have been lovely if they did.  Next month, we shall walk to the beat of the Hexham Book Festival.

Tobias should have taken a book with him

Tobias should have taken a book with him

PS Congratulations to our dear friends Dawn and Michael, who have just won the Countryside Alliance award for the North East for their lovely Bardon Mill Village Store and Tearoom.  Hurray!bardon mill