Week 104: Vain Trifles

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)2006AH5344_jpg_ds

What the world sees of me in my NorthernReader incarnation is a fairly unvarying uniform of what are known in this house, with grateful acknowledgements to Nancy and Peggy Blackett of Swallows and Amazons fame, as Comfortables. It has not always been thus and clothing freedom is not the least of my Reasons To Be Cheerful these days. An infancy of knitted things was subsumed into a school uniform of Byzantine complexity involving different hats for all seasons and summer frocks with buttons at the front and bows – large lumpy clumsily-tied bows that ground their fists into you just where spine met unrelenting chair – at the back. As a drama student, I spent three insouciant years in a fetching ensemble of black leotard and footless tights (what were we thinking) before becoming engulfed by the City of London. Think BIG: shoulders, hair – it was not a good time and I have burned the photos. I am still sufficiently prey to social mores to own a black coat, funerals for the use of; two pairs of heels (see Week 69 for why I will never need more), and a proper grown-up frock just in case the moment arises. But by and large we do not march to the tune of any ‘dress code’.

imagesYHGBE8FXHow unlike so many fictional worlds. Virginia Woolf, provider of this week’s title, had a keen eye for class difference demonstrated by clothes: Mrs Dalloway’s gorgeous ‘silver-green mermaid’s dress’, for example, serves not least to mark her out as spectacularly cocooned by wealth and privilege. But Woolf knew that we read clothes, in life and in books, to infer so much more than status. If you haven’t read Orlando, what a treat you have in store and I do not wish to spoil it for you by giving too much away, but clothes most definitely maketh the man. Or woman.

Realising the clothes the characters would be wearing can bring so much to our perception and enjoyment of a novel. To see Jane Austen’s world through her first readers’ eyes, I heartily recommend John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?, not least for his thoughtful chapter on clothes. Her plots are surprisingly often jostled along by death, and many of her characters would therefore be wearing full mourning while going to balls and flirting: a jarring dissonance more obvious to those early-nineteenth-century readers than to us. Austen doesn’t tell us, because she wants us to be unsettled by our not-knowing: when Frank Churchill is flirting his socks off, is he wearing full mourning (shockingly inappropriate)? Or has he instantly ditched the black (equally gasp-making)? Either answer tells us volumes about Frank, and clever Jane leaves both in play, doubling our feeling that Frank is not ideal husband material for Emma.

7e87dba5a205e19ea7b9c591edf94559For worldly vanity, froth and the emptiness thereof, we cannot do better than turn to the wonderful Edith Wharton. I confess it took me half a lifetime (and that might be an optimistic calculation) to get round to reading her. I think I expected her to be heavy and dull (I fell into this trap with her friend Henry James as well and was wrong there too). The House of Mirth shows us an early-twentieth-century Jane Austen on acid. The juxtaposition is deliberate: if Austen’s genius lies in teetering along the edge of the precipice between comedy and tragedy but somehow achieving happy-ever-afterdom, Wharton is her dark twin, sparkling her way towards catastrophe. The heroine of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is the dazzlingly-arrayed victim of a ruthless society in which – ah, Austen again – a girl’s only chance of financial security lies in marrying well. Let’s have Wharton’s The Custom of the Country on this week’s bookshelf while we’re about it: when I tell you that Margaret Drabble, no less, describes this wickedly perceptive tale of social observation as ‘one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written’, how can you resist? And the clincher is that Wharton’s heroine is called Undine Spragg. Admit it; you simply have to read on.

If all these frocks and petticoats are a bit too much for you, we could always turn to the chaps for a sterner and more utilitarian approach to costume. Perhaps we should let Robinson Crusoe set the standard with his detailed instructions for making goatskin breeches (first catch your goat …). In no time at all, he has added a goatskin waistcoat and a goatskin umbrella to what must have been a jolly striking outfit. A far cry from theuntitled (8) Mayor of Gloucester’s fripperies, who, as you remember, is to be married in ‘a coat of cherry-coloured corded silk embroidered with pansies and roses, and a cream coloured satin waistcoat – trimmed with gauze and green worsted chenille.’ Like Miss Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies intoxicated with lettuce, I could drown in the heady poetics of all those fabric words and long (provided someone else was doing the ironing) for the days of paduasoy and taffeta.

But for the last word in gents’ outer wear we must turn, of course, to the Collected Works of PG Wodehouse. It’s hard to pick a definitive World of Wodehouse costume: from the dandified Psmith to the Earl of Emsworth forced into top hats and stiff collars, from Psmith’s friend Mike, a sort of walking rag-bag, to the unlovely Spode in his black shorts (all shirt colours having been bagged by other Fascists quicker off the sartorial mark), there is no character in the whole pantheon who is not deftly brought to life by his clothes.

untitled (7)Which brings us, of course, to Jeeves. Bertie Wooster’s man, minder, guardian angel , father figure and, untiringly, clothes editor. ‘”There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” “The mood will pass, sir.”’ I think we can safely conclude that Jeeves would not have been happy as valet to the Mayor of Gloucester.

PS   This month’s NorthernReader Book Club is on Friday February 19th and we will be sharing our favourite heroes, heroines and villains.  Pop across to the Book Club page for details and do come if you can.


Week 97: Domestic Bliss

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Well, hello again. I would love to tell you that my summer-long silence was because I was off cycling the route of the Iron Curtain or saving orang-utangs in Borneo (and my hat is off to the friends and children of friends who have done these things and more this year), but the truth is that I have been sitting quietly at home, looking up only every now and then from a life of happy pottering to think ‘where does the time go?’. Here in the NorthernReader stronghold the ‘summer’ – I use the word loosely, as the August skies were grey and the temperatures brisk – saw a great sheaf of domestic projects fulfilled. We have transformed a bathroom that was eerily reminiscent of an economy-class budget airline facility into a tranquil refuge complete with roll-top bath and somewhere to balance your champagne glass while you soak (and, of course, read): we have made jams and chutneys from the pleasingly increasing harvests from the garden we are making out of what was an unprepossessing square of shoulder-high rough turf; we have become grown-up and put down stair carpets, and – best of all – Mr NorthernReader patiently removed several thousand twelve-inch nails from the various pallets we had accumulated and magicked the boards into the best compost bins I have ever seen. So as a summer of domesticity turns into an autumn of golden sunlight, long walks with the dogs and the pleasures of the first evening wood-fires, it is time to revel in some books that capture the spirit of the well-ordered household.

I am struck by the number of children’s books in which our young heroes – or, more usually, heroines – recreate the comforting routines of domestic life, however wild and unfamiliar the setting. The Walker and Callum children in Arthur Ransome’s books, of course, especially Swallowdale and The Picts and the Martyrs, which are in their way every bit as detailed as Robinson Crusoe, work perfectly well as practical ‘how-to’ manuals for ensuring that you and yours are warm, dry and well-fed: as my father used to point out, any fool can be uncomfortable. Eleanor Graham’s The Children Who Lived in a Barn remains my sole source of information on how to build a hay-box: not, admittedly, something I’ve felt the need to do so far in life, but you never know. These resourceful and self-sufficient children (the poppets in Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island are another Mrs-Beeton-eat-your-heart-out bunch) are a far cry from the spoilt Hare and Squirrel waited upon hand and foot by Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit – a down-trodden drudge who practically passes out with meek surprise in Little Grey Rabbit’s f32d73ba16941931b5cb5de8546579faBirthday when her friends stir themselves sufficiently to come up with a cake. Mind you, what a cake: the icon of birthday-cakiness throughout my childhood. Maybe I should have tried a little more selfless service and, who knows, a multi-tiered spongy thing of beauty could have been, transitorily, mine.

There are flocks and herds of domestic servants in literature, seen and unseen. Who is rattling the crockery when Toad hears lunch arriving at Ratty’s house? Who does the laundry – or the cooking, the carpet-beating, the fire-laying, the floor-scrubbing – at Thornfield Hall? One of the many glories of Stella Gibbons’ incomparable Cold Comfort Farm is its acknowledgement that curtains have to be washed and plates have to be cleaned – even, if you must, with a hazel stick, should no-one, in their anxiety to avoid being on the washing-up rota themselves, present you with a little moppet. One of the most self-observant and uncomfortable passages of Jessica Mitford’s memoir of childhood, Hons and Rebels, recalls her patrician ‘rescue’ of a slum child and the chasm between her fantasy and the reality of domestic bondage into which her unlucky protegée was cast. It is one of the minor ironies of life that in an age when disposable income and technology combine to make a life of queen-bee-like indolence a possibility we have taken, Marie-Antoinette-ishly, to baking, knitting and sewing (although not, I note, to washing-up: make a heart-warming programme out of that if you can). Should you be aspiring to a high domestic standard, the ever-indispensable Persephone Books have republished Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help, a gem from the immediate post-war years that you keep hoping might have been replaced by now by a utopian family democracy in which each member trips lightly downstairs in the morning to cheerily complete their designated domestic tasks for the day in a spirit of harmony, well-being and striving for the common good. Perhaps I should get a copy for my butcher, who told me on Saturday of a conversation with his son that morning:

BUTCHER (IN ROLE AS PARENT): Do you think you could pick up all the clothes from your bedroom floor and put them in the laundry basket

SON (IN ROLE AS PARASITE): Could you lend me* £30

And the asterisk dear reader, as any parent among you knows, is to draw your attention to the incorrect use of the word ‘lend’. Persephone Books, incidentally, also publish The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. This is fiction: only it probably isn’t, and its tale of how a family regained happiness by sending mother out to work and unclamping her determined little hands from the egg-whisk is as good a paradigm for the twentieth century as any. As the mother who gave KatePonders’ teddy bear cataracts in the tumble-drier, I find myself identifying a little with Fisher’s heroine, whose son is driven to sob, ‘Don’t let him be washed, Father!’. The comforting moral to be drawn from this, of course, is to keep your domestic standards limbo-dancingly low, Hurray!


But, as the evenings shorten and darken and a distinct chill sharpens the air, there is something to be said for a room where the well-polished furniture scents the air with beeswax and the sofas and chairs beckon invitingly from the fireside. Tea and crumpets, with pretty plates (and, ideally, a teapot that pours into the cup and only into the cup; I have never come across such a paragon and am extremely open to recommendations); books (of course) and talk of books: now that really is domestic bliss.

This is 'A Fireside Read' by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

This is ‘A Fireside Read’ by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

Week 74: Books for Procrastinators

iStock_000011145477Large_mini_(1)Those of you whose Sunday morning is made by the safe arrival of the weekly NorthernReader post (well, a girl can dream) will have noticed that it has taken me until Monday to get round to this week’s deathless prose. Sorry about that. I would love to thrill you with tales of earth-shatteringly important things that have come between us for more than twenty four hours, but the simple truth is that I didn’t get round to writing until this afternoon. Yes, Sloth, my favourite Deadly Sin, has wrapped its languorous arms around me. At least I am in distinguished, if tardy, company. I think AA Milne’s sailor, who, as you will recall, had so many things to do that he couldn’t decide which one to do first (sound familiar?) and in the end did nothing at all ‘but basked in the shingle wrapped up in a shawl’ could gain a serious following as a patron saint, if only he could get round to filling in the necessary forms. Or perhaps I can have Cassandra Mortmain’s novelist father as my role model: you remember him in Dodie Smith’s utterly essential I Capture the Castle, forever putting off starting the sequel to his monumental novel, Jacob Wrestling (of course I do have to face the fact that I have not quite knuckled down to writing my first Monumental Novel, but clearly that can only be a matter of time …). Better Mortmain than Baudelaire, anyway, whose reputation as a first-class procrastinator is a bit too closely linked to his equally well-deserved reputation for being a spoilt dilettante and an enemy of democracy. An interesting, if unlikeable, chap, Baudelaire: he seems principally to have stirred himself solely to scandalise, outrage or annoy other people, which, while possibly admirable in terms of flying the flag for free speech, must have been tiresome and was certainly unkind. Je Suis Charlie, yes, but je ne suis pas Charlie Baudelaire for absolute preference.

Or how about Harper Lee as our poster-girl for procrastination? One novel in 1960, and since then, more or less, the rest is silence, as another great procrastinator would have it. That one novel though, was To Kill a Mockingbird, and if you haven’t read it, do so without further delay. It takes you by the heart with its limpid simplicity and will stay with you for ever.

As the years trot ever more swiftly by, I might prefer to find my heroes and heroines among the late starts in life. Let us refuse to be discouraged by the Mozarts who are fully into the swing of things before they lose their milk teeth. Not for us this week, delicious though it undoubtedly is, Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, written when the author was nine years old. We shall not even be crushed by the tendency of reviewers, critics and Granta to regard forty as the threshold of advanced old age – even odder now that most forty-year-olds are still in thrall to their PlayStations and are only reluctantly moving into long trousers and books without pictures. Daniel Defoe, who as you know I claim as a friend of the family (a few generations back, you understand), published Robinson Crusoe when he was – and this is the really, really important thing – older than me. And Mary Wesley, a really fabulously acute and quietly moving novelist, first burst into print when she was seventy (Jumping the Queue: compellingly heart-breaking and at least as good as The Camomile Lawn which should also be on anyone’s reading list). Raymond Chandler had blown out fifty candles on a single cake before he published The Big Sleep; so had Bram Stoker when he came up with Dracula. Marian Evans, or George Eliot as we know her, started as a mere stripling at forty with Adam Bede, waiting until she was in her fifties before writing many people’s candidate for Greatest Novel Ever, Middlemarch. And Giacomo Casanova only began thinking about writing his memoirs – so very much more entertaining than most – when he was well into his sixties.

My goodness, it's been far too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

My goodness, it’s been far too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

So it seems there is hope for all us slaves to slothfulness. And, frankly, how very much more tempting it is to be louche, lazy and laid-back than earnestly buzzing about. No-one could be more admiring than I am of my lots-of-greats grandfather who was, from earliest youth, amanuensis to Isaac Watts, but I do rather hope that he was out of the room when Watts came up with ‘How doth the little busy bee/ Improve each shining hour/And gather honey all the day/ From every opening flower’, which makes one want to rise from one’s couch of lassitude and stamp firmly on the nauseatingly self-righteous bee. Samuel Johnson’s 134th essay for The Rambler is on procrastination. You will have noticed the tell-tale ‘134th’ which somewhat gives the lie to the great man’s claim to have been dogged by sloth and the putting off of things all his life. Oh to suffer from Johnson’s procrastination. You will like the pleasing irony that he wrote that particular essay in tearing haste while the boy waited for it to get it to the press before the deadline. Ah yes, deadlines: in the late and permanently-lamented Douglas Adams’ immortal phrase, ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ I’ll be back on track next Sunday. Promise.


Week 61: How To Be Rich

moneyDespite the high moral tone of last week, in which we agreed that enjoying your job and making some sort of positive contribution to sharing the planet were the important things in life, it cannot be denied that money comes in handy. Not always, of course: Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Utopia either have no need of the stuff or, in Thomas More’s satire, use gold for chamber pots and fetters. But unless you have the time and energy to set up a system based entirely upon barter, or to follow John Seymour’s stern advice on Self-Sufficiency to the back-breaking letter, enough money is a necessity.

Ah, ‘enough’. Dangerously slippery word, that: my ‘enough’ might be riches beyond your wildest dreams, or less than you pop on a horse for the Grand National. Clever old Dickens spotted the chameleon-like quality of the word when he named Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations, a book that revolves around money (as so much Dickens does). She lived, you will remember, at Satis House. Oh, the irony: Miss Havisham’s tragedy is never to be able to say ‘enough’ and have done with her bitterness and brooding. Justice and revenge, Dickens keeps trying to tell us, are like money: you have to accept that, while it would be great to have more, what you have is probably enough and you are better off living with what you have than hankering after what you cannot have.

But how rarely the heroes and heroines of literature settle for what they’ve got – which is nice of them, of course, as without their striving and questing we could kiss goodbye to plot. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the chaps in the Bertram family (Mansfield Park as of course you know), and indeed our old friend R. Crusoe: they, and so many of their fictive chums, rush around the place, often spreading ruin and scattering ban as they go, motivated by the remorseless desire to accumulate dosh. (The ‘spreading ruin’ quotation, should it be on the tip of your tongue but just eluding you for the moment, is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Musical Instrument’. You may or may not be entertained to know that in the NorthernReader household, the opening line,Darcy read by others as ‘WHAT is he doing, the great god Pan’ with the emphasis very properly on the first syllable, is habitually rendered as the far more disapproving ‘What IS he doing, the great god Pan’. So much more fun). Contrary to Jane Austen’s hopes, the possession of a good fortune is rarely a guarantee of gorgeous eligibility. Dour old Darcy, Lady de Bourgh’s dreary daughter, self-pitying Willoughby and the ghastly Robert Ferrars make a sobering roll-call of what might be on offer when you marry for money . As my great-grandmother was apparently given to saying, don’t marry for money, marry for love; but only love where there’s money.

So are there any shining beacons of plutocracy out there on the pages of fiction?   Not Ebenezer Scrooge, that’s for sure, nor Hard Times’s Josiah Bounderby (contender for the closely-fought title of Best Name in a Dickens Novel). We’re better off, in every sense, with J Washburn Stoker, millionaire father to one of Bertie Wooster’s fleeting fiancées. Or how about Bertie himself? We should perhaps not overlook the fact that shoals of young women make it their business to become engaged to him, despite for the most part judging him to be a work in progress rather than the answer to a maiden’s prayer. Could it be that his enormous bank balance has something to do with his attractiveness? One of the very many joys of reading PG Wodehouse, by the way lies in savouring his seemingly endless euphemisms and synonyms for being rich. But it is noticeable how, with the exception of the occasional dog-biscuit millionaire, money is very rarely a commodity that Wodehouse’s characters knuckle down and actually earn. A bit different from the hard and uncertain road to riches travelled by Defoe’s Moll Flanders. If you should happen not to

It is, you know.  It's Daniel Craig!  And the simply terrific Alex Kingston

It is, you know. It’s Daniel Craig! And the simply terrific Alex Kingston

have read The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, well, what a treat you have in store. This is Defoe’s masterpiece, and it is packed with pungent social criticism. But don’t worry, it’s packed with sex and death as well and is altogether a rollicking good yarn as well as a searing indictment of how hard life can be if you should happen not to be born into a cocoon of wealth and privilege.

Children’s literature tends not to take to the  moral high ground about the love of money and the evil thereof, unless we count A Christmas Carol – and I think we can, because, not least thanks to sterling work by the Muppets, it is a sad childhood that does not know the tale of Dicken’s great miser. Perhaps we should see if the Muppets fancy having a go at Silas Marner. In George Eliot’s terrific parable, Marner the linen weaver learns the hard way that gold is just stuff and that what we actually need to earn, and to spend, is love.

Goodness me, how uplifting. Time to come back to earth with a favourite short poem by Franklin P Adams:

The rich man has his motor-car,
His country and his town estate.
He smokes a fifty-cent cigar
And jeers at Fate.

He frivols through the livelong day,
He knows not Poverty, her pinch.
His lot seems light, his heart seems gay;
He has a cinch.

Yet though my lamp burns low and dim,
Though I must slave for livelihood—
Think you that I would change with him?
You bet I would!writer

Week 41: The Book List

crack on, chaps

crack on, chaps

A student’s life, in English Literature anyway, is beset with book lists. These come in two varieties: the Bibliography (books we have read) and the Recommended Texts (books we jolly well should read). Compiling bibliographies can be a misery of the first water and there is in the end no getting away from the heart-breaking realisation that no other approach will do, you are just going to have to develop a Tidy Mind. In other words, you really are going to have to buckle down and work on getting into your muscle-memory the sequence ‘pick up book, make note of author (surname COMMA first name) title (italicised) place of publication (oh help!) COLON publisher COMMA date of first publication COMMA date of the copy you’re handling with increasing loathing. And it has to become as automatic to you as breathing to note the page number of any content, no matter how tiny, you might at any time in the next millennia contemplate quoting or referring to. Because if you don’t do all this EVERY SINGLE TIME, it follows as night follows day and as hangover follows a good single malt that at the very last moment, with deadlines looming, you will want to quote or refer to something which you now realise underscores the entirety of your sublime and original thesis: and all you can remember is that it was in a blue book. This is a true story and as far as I know that particular student is still roaming the stacks of the university library, an academic Flying Dutchman. Remember, too, that all academic readers will turn to your bibliography first, where they will unerringly spot your failure to have read something blindingly obvious and/or their own master-work. They will also immediately notice that you have spelt their great friend Blenkinsop incorrectly. Neither of these lacunae set you up for the easy ride that you were craving.

The Recommended Reading List, in comparison, is a doddle, but it can intimidate. For a start, it is usually, at first glance at any rate, several thousand pages long, and is unnervingly separated into helpful sections such as ‘primary texts’, ‘secondary texts’ and ‘periodicals and journals’. Fear not and do not be down-hearted. Here are some tips.

Read these ...

Read these …

First, it is important to take on board that these lists are neither prescriptive (you don’t have to read everything) nor proscriptive (you are allowed to read other things). Well, alright, I suppose they are quite prescriptive, but their breadth, once they have got the absolutely mandatory set texts out of the way, is meant to cater for a range of tastes. Something for everyone. Behind their rock-like masks of learned indifference and inscrutability, academics do have some sort of a heart, and they are not really seriously suggesting that you settle down and read every page of every tome on that list. Whisper it not, but there is just a chance that not even the compiler of the list has read every text on it. Not cover-to-cover. But they are giving you some pretty hefty clues that your spirit, your world or your degree (pretty much the same thing, I’m sure you’ll agree) would be immeasurably improved if you were to humour them and have a crack at quite a few on the list. It is neither funny nor clever to pitch up to discuss your thesis on Jane Austen and have to declare (because it is becoming distressingly obvious) that you’ve only read Pride and Prejudice (this is another true story. I was there). A booklist for a course on the novel that lists, say, eight texts, which the course then considers week by week in the order printed, is not just a useful checklist for you to be certain when you have been to enough lectures to not bother to go to any more or read any more. Just because you know the exam will ask you to write about two of the texts does not mean that you will show yourself to best advantage by having to write only about Sons and Lovers and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which just happened to be the subjects of Weeks 1 and 2 of the course. Remember: some poor sod has to mark your essays and yours might by the one hundred and ninety-eighth on those two. Imagine the cry of glee, the sparkling eye, and the willingness to give a good grade out of simple human gratitude, that befalls the essay on Moll Flanders in those circumstances (yup, that was me, too. All one hundred and ninety eight of them. And they all spelt D’Urberville wrong).

So what if you’ve taken a quick peek, like a horse in the show-ring, at the set texts and decided they’re not your sort of thing? Well, there are two answers to that. The first is, why are you cluttering up a perfectly good place at a good university reading English Literature when someone else could have been there instead of you and enjoyed it? The other answer is, trust them. Go on. Go out on a limb. It’s really not going to kill you. The very, very worst thing that can happen is that, after a few hours that you’ll never get back (but nothing like the sum of the hours you’ve spent playing Call of Duty or watching Game of Thrones), you’ll close the book knowing what happens, knowing it didn’t do it for you, and –crucially – being able to put WHY into words. What, apart from it was long and you have the attention span of a crisp, kept you from engaging with this book? The subject? The setting? The prose style? You may be right, don’t forget: it may be awful: mind-numbingly, toe-curlingly, skin-crawlingly awful (The Da Vinci Code is my nomination here for illustrative purposes). But think about what exactly made you so cross (the terrible, endless adjectives, and the relentless, entirely predictable plot, in my case). See? You are now an accomplished, articulate literary critic.

Try it. You might love it.

Try it. You might love it.

Or, of course, you might surprise yourself. I had lunch earlier this year with the man who made me read Joseph Conrad when I was a raw and tender undergraduate. Yup: all one million pages of Nostromo. I can still recall the exceedingly ill grace with which I embarked upon this enforced labour. And I also still remember the shock of pleasure as it dawned on me that this was great. Thank you, Anthony.

Week 38: a House in the Country

It will not have escaped your notice, if you are a persistent reader of this blog, that we moved to lovely Northumberland quite recently. Oh, the joys of selling and buying houses. Actually it isn’t all completely unalloyed misery and stress (although some measure of both is guaranteed in the whole process). Selling your house does at least mean that you experience what it is like to live in a clean and tidy home for once: and, if you are us, it even encourages you to start thinking long and hard about the possessions that seem to have accumulated like silt throughout your current resting-place. Why do we still have this packing case, unopened since the last move a decade ago, you might find yourself asking (in fact, if you have such packing-cases, I urge you to ask yourself that question. Right now. Stop reading and go and open it). Am I really ever going to wear/cook with/plant/learn for saleto play that? Time, in fact, for a cull (see Week 10 for book culling). There are other joys to be squeezed out of the whole wretched business of letting total strangers wander round your house making rude remarks about the curtains, but it is strangely hard to remember them even after only a year or so: what lingers is the sensation of existential angst. So, when next you feel the need to up sticks, remember the NorthernReader Golden Rules for Selling Your House:

1) find a good estate agent. You do not want the terrifically up-market firm, established in 1066. They will send a young man called Tristan to value your house. He will not have the right shoes for your garden. He will make it clear that he was brought up in a castle and that your house, with its measly four acres, is frankly slumming it and a bit borderline for his firm but that he just might be able to shift it for you for about a third of what you suspect to be its value. On the other hand, you do not want the nationwide chain of agents who claim to flog properties in warehouse quantities. They will send a young man called Kyle who has never set foot in your village before – or indeed any village – and will be aghast at your chickens. No, what you want is a one-man band who sells houses in the villages around you. He will come round himself, get to know you and your house. He will sell your house because he has invested everything in his business, and if he doesn’t sell your house he might have to sell his.

2) under no circumstances show your house yourself. Insist that your agent pitches up before the viewers. Disappear. I don’t care if you go to Paris for the weekend or hover nervously in the deep undergrowth at the bottom of the field next to your house until the invaders have left, but do not put in an appearance. Think ‘uncast part in The Archers’. You do not want to get to know the people who buy your house. You want this to be strictly business. You know: like in The Godfather.

As for finding your perfect house to move to – well, you’re going to need some books, aren’t you? Try these.



If we are thinking large-scale, then Brideshead, Northanger Abbey and Totleigh Towers would all do. Thornfield sounds draughty and Manderley beset with a serious servant problem. On a more domestic scale, I thought Howard’s End sounded rather lovely even before Peppard Cottage played the part in the Merchant-Ivory film. Or there’s Talboys: Dorothy L Sayers sends Lord Peter Wimsey and his bride, Harriet Vane, there on their wedding night (Busman’s Honeymoon ) and briefly returned there in a subsequent short story (published in Striding Folly). Jill Paton Walsh has now picked up the baton and firmly established the Wimsey family at Talboys for the duration of the war in A Presumption of Death. Even in the midst of the ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ mystery, I heard my hardened property-loving heart whispering, ‘look at all those outhouses! Think of the potential!’ (But no, I do not yearn to be Flora Poste, finding someone to wash curtains at Cold Comfort Farm).

I have a rather splendid member of the Weekend Book tribe called The Countryman’s Weekend Book. Published just after the Second World War (and apparently oblivious to the existence of countrywomen), it has a gripping chapter on how to design and build – by which it is clear the author means ‘have some chappie build for you’ – the perfect country house. Eric Parker, who wrote many of the ‘Weekend’ books, was a naturalist and sportsman who, among much else, campaigned successfully for conservation legislation and wrote for The Field magazine. His thoughts on what makes a good country house are clearly based on experience and common sense. Much thought is given to aspect and to sufficient coal stores. Lutyens-influenced (and that’ll be the architect I’ll try to snap up when I win the lottery), his dream house looks practical and comfortable, with no worries about traipsing in with muddy boots and dogs.

Or perhaps we should get more radical in our approach to rural living. Should Robinson Crusoe be our role model? Having recently discovered that Defoe named his hero (if that is the word I’m looking for) after his friend, the radical preacher Thomas Cruso who was my heaven-knows-how-many greats grandfather (pause for moment of irrational smugness), I’m tempted to consider his stockade as a way of living. But no, Northumberland is not a desert island and the natives are friendly. Perhaps we should follow the example of the ultimate reductionist, Stig – he of The Dump fame – and live in a loose construction of what artists like to call found objects.

But no. Tempting though the tree-houses, castles, cottages and caves of literature undoubtedly are, for once I’ll say no to fiction and settle happily in the NorthernReader barn. A roof of my own, as Virginia Woolf might have said.

Oh, DEFINITELY potential.  I can see it now ...

Oh, DEFINITELY potential. I can see it now …

PS  The next NorthernReader Walking Book Club meets on Wednesday 28th May at Simonburn.  See the Walking Book Club page for details.