Week 113: Flat

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

I have spent the last few weeks, which have felt like geological eras, edging towards selling a flat.  No, despite what our current Beloved Leader’s sidekick would have you believe, this does not mean that I am Rachman reincarnated, leafing through my property portfolio in the Bond-like fastnesses of NorthernReader Towers.  I had a small lump sum and, in the absence of any pension (too young – hurrah – for a state one and too female to have ever been offered a private one) a flat seemed like a slightly better return on capital than, say, a bank account (if only bonuses, and indeed salaries, were capped to the interest rates these people offer).  It also offered the humble pleasures of drastically improving Britain’s housing stock, one flat at a time, and being a model landlord.  Just call me Pollyanna (so much less rude than ‘poor deluded fool’).  What has actually kneaded the iron deep into my soul, however, has been the managing agents who, as the same unsavoury individuals but wearing a multiplicity of hats, hold the freehold, act as their own surveyors, do their own conveyancing, and (don’t) maintain and run the building.  Dante, thou shouldst be living at this hour, because managing agents are a sub-species below even estate agents, bankers and politicians.  Enough of the brutalities of real life; how about flats in fiction?

Strangely enough, none of the occupants of literature’s flats and apartments seem cursed with managing agents.  The male of the species is often attended by a housekeeper (Sherlock Holmes’s Mrs Hudson) or a valet (Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion with the disreputable Lugg; Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves).  Male detectives, it seems, are irresistibly drawn to the flat as an address (yes, I know Bertie isn’t a detective, unless of course you count – as you should – his triumphant work in the Case of Aunt Agatha’s Pearls aka ‘Aunt Agatha Takes the Count’ in Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves).  Hercule Poirot is another denizen of an apartment block, relying on George for sustenance and clean socks.  I cannot think of a single example of a chap who fends for himself in a flat,221b or one whose narrative trajectory is marked by such mundanities as popping to the shops or doing the washing up.  Several of the males of the flat-dwelling species do, however, display a keen interest in the nicer points of interior design – not Holmes, obviously, but Wimsey favours a terrifically modish primrose-and-black scheme at one point and Poirot prides himself on manifesting le dernier cri of Art Deco (and jolly uncomfortable and foreign it is all made to sound).

Flats occupied by women in fiction cover a wider social range, but all, I think, are meant to give us some sense of the freedom that can be enjoyed by a woman living in a city.  While the flats themselves may vary from the steamy bed-sits of John Betjeman and Edna O’Brien territory to the fabulous luxury of Delysia Lafosse’s love-nest in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, they all offer the promise of a life less ordinary and, in particular, of a life not spent darning a man’s socks.  Virginia Woolf quite rightly identifies a woman’s need for A Room of One’s

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Own before she can find  a sense of self; how very much more the autonomy of a woman with a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom (and, be it noted as an advantage of flat-dwelling for people with better things to do, no garden).  I’m not sure that the physical structure of the building is ever specified, but Mary Smiling’s home in Cold Comfort Farm simply must be a flat, albeit a sumptuously huge one (all those brassieres), because to Flora Poste and to us the widowed Mrs Smiling is the embodiment of a certain sort of freedom, which comes entirely  – ah, the wise Jane Austenishness of it! – from her possession of a good fortune and her consequent total absence of need for a husband.  What a bore sex is, Stella Gibbons implies (your age and your inclinations will tend to colour your response); poor old Flora, economically and hormonally driven to end up dwindling into a wife (and if by chance you haven’t read Congreve’s The Way of the World, now is the moment: if only I’d remembered it in time for last month’s NorthernReader Book Club, when we talked about the books we would like to make the film of).

Apartments lived in by women on their own do bring with them – in fiction, I hasten to add, not in life – the dubious aura of being a Kept Woman.  Think of Linda’s beautiful flat in Paris, in which she is installed (why is ‘installed’, with its overtones of plumbing, always the word used for a mistress?) by the great love of her life on Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (still perfect, and perfectly heart-breaking, at the millionth time of reading).

Modern urban living, whether in London, New York, Paris or Edinburgh, has made flat-dwellers of nearly all of us at one time or another in our lives.  The sad truth is that we usually have not the remotest idea who our neighbours might be, as our lives slide past each other like immutable planets.  It should not be like this, and Alexander McCall Smith offers us a vision of a better world in which flats – 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh and Corduroy Mansions in Pimlico – form vertical villages, where no man or woman is an island and every neighbour, like it or not, is involved in mankind.

But not, of course, managing agents, for whom no bell could toll more cheerily when the time comes.vampire-staked-through-the-heart


Week 25: Books for Walkers

walkingI was so struck when I read about Emily’s Walking Book Club in London (see the lovely EmilyBooks blog) that I immediately wanted to have something like that here in glorious Hadrian’s Wall country.  So, while we start to get that – well, off the ground, how about limbering up with some books about walks and walking?

As a rather lonely child who spent most days playing by myself in the woods near our house (my, how times have changed), there was something about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes that just spoke to me.  I can’t say it has left me with a life-long love of recalcitrant donkeys – although the unforgettable Modestine is one of the great four-legged characters in literature – but it did fix in my young mind an indelible picture of freedom.  Whether I was ever going to stride the length of one of the lesser-known ravishing areas of France might have been, and remains, a moot point, but Stevenson planted the idea that to get out there, into the countryside, is the thing (this week’s blog is probably not aimed at the Woody Allens among you – by which I only mean the convinced, bred-in-the-bone urbanite: although why should you not be your own Dr Livingstone in the concrete jungle?).

From Travels with a Donkey I moved on to Laurie Lee.  As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is of course, as you would hope from a poet, a lyrical description of his journey through the south of England and in Spain, but there is rather more to it than that.  Lee, as I’m sure you know, walked into the Spanish Civil War, and his is as good an evocation of that perilous and terrible time as anything from Hemingway or Orwell. It is disturbingly easy, by the way, to get the impression that Spaniards – especially the non-literary ones – had quite a job of it getting a look-in in their own struggle against a monstrous dictator, being at least as much imposed upon by dewy-eyed writers following their own agenda.  I like Jessica Mitford’s account in Hons and Rebels, not least because its sense of muddle and confusion sounds believable. But it is a strange phenomenon – and possibly one we should talk about some time – that some wars seem fated to become literary landmarks, whereas others get left to hack each other wearily and horribly to death without poets clustering round.

jade_seaWe’ve talked a little about Patrick Leigh-Fermor before, so here let me just remind you of your intention to read him if you haven’t and re-read him if you have: you won’t regret it.   But there is a chance that you haven’t read John Hillaby, because I suspect he is out of fashion as well as out of print.  Once the Zoological Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (and I tell you that only because I rather yearn for a time when that sort of job existed), Hillaby popped on his walking boots to make the trek across Kenya to Lake Turkana, a trip of about a thousand miles which therefore puts the Proclaimers’ pledge to walk a measly five hundred miles somewhat in the shade.  Journey to the Jade Sea was not specifically undertaken as an act of love, but in his later Journey Through Britain, Journey Through Europe and Journey Through Love  Hillaby was increasingly able to interweave his sentimental education with his other observations as he walked.

The idea of walking with a philosophical purpose is of course not new.  To walk to somewhere in order to experience the journey rather than simply to get to your destination might be as good a definition of pilgrimage as any other.  O good; that’s Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into the rucksack then.  And we Umberto Eco fans can slip a copy of his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods in there as well.  Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, would be a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which can be guaranteed to put any moaning about blisters to shame.  Any sort of journey lends itself to being a metaphor, of course: we’re back with our old friend Dante as he finds himself in the middle of the journey of his life standing in a dark wood with no clear path forward.  Sounds familiar?

Lee, Leigh-Fermor, Hillaby and Christian all walked alone, on the whole, but company is allowable: indeed, if you are going to join us in the NorthernReader Walking Book Club, company is mandatory.  It doesn’t have to be human, I suppose: as a dog-owner, Miles Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies painted an appallingly recognisable picture of the highs and lows of choosing as your companion in life a drooling fur-ball with serious personal hygiene issues.  Better, perhaps, to set out for the day with compass, grog and pemmican and your siblings and friends like the Swallows and the Amazons, who seem to undertake forced route marches the length and breadth of the fells without turning a hair.  They brought children up to be sturdier then, is all I can say.  Today’s valedictory picture shows that increasingly rare sight, children released into the wild and enjoying themselves.  They survived their up-bringing and even claim to have enjoyed it.  One of them grew up to be KatePonders, so clearly all that fresh air and exercise did some good.Wales

PS The NorthernReader Walking Book Club is going to stride out soon.  Watch this space, as they say, and I’ll email, tweet (or, to be honest, get KatePonders to tweet for me) and put up nice old-fashioned posters in Cogito Books, Hexham Library and local village shops as well.

Week 22: Books in Translation

Right.  A promise is a promise, and, while I am lousy at keeping New Year resolutions, I am, if you will only give me world enough, and time, very good at (eventually) fulfilling babelpromises.  And I said we’d talk about books in translation.

Let’s start with Dorothy L Sayers (and the L, if you’re wondering and can’t be bothered to Google it for yourself, stands for Leigh, and, no, I don’t know why she felt that it lifted her name from the mundane to the inscrutable, but she clearly did, because she insisted on it).  Miss Sayers (oh, alright: she wanted her surname to be pronounced as a more-or-less monosyllable, like stairs without the T.  But I do pronounce it like that anyway – I am also guilty of referring to the author of Blithe Spirit as a monosyllable to rhyme with bard – and I don’t find myself thinking, ‘well, thank heavens that L is there, otherwise I would have fallen into the terrible trap of calling her Say-ers, and social death would inexorably have followed.  But I digress) – where was I? – Miss Sayers shunned few opportunities to air her erudition: which is to say, show off.  So, in Clouds of Witness, much of the plot, and your chance of keeping up with it, faint but pursuing, depends upon your ability to translate the conversations and correspondence that appear in French.  Now, I accuse Miss Sayers of showing off more because the evidence stacks up against her, book by book (needing to know about painting in order to twig to Five Red Herrings; being braced and able to follow the decoding of the Playfair Cipher in Have His Carcase, and so on): but is her assumption that we understand French misplaced or not?  Well, her pretty-much-exact contemporary, Thomas Stearns Eliot (and while we’re on the parallel topic of names and middle initials, you can quite see why Tom went for TS given the hand the font had dealt him), freights The Waste Land with French, German, Latin and Greek – among others – precisely in order to make his point: which is that these languages and cultures are where we come from and we jolly well should be familiar with them.  Which is, of course, a bit of a moot point.  It depends rather on who we, and of course TS Eliot, mean by ‘we’.  He’s clearly no paid-up Romantic and has no truck with the idea that the English-speaking world might flaunt its Saxon, Celtic and Norse antecedents and might not, in truth, have an awful lot in common with the-glory-that-was-Greece and the-splendour-that-was-Rome.  He is also, of course, being deliberately – call it playfully if you will – difficult.  Don’t forget Eliot is the great champion of the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century: in many ways, his own poems demand the same depth of concentration and commitment as Donne and Herbert.  We are forced to use our brains to translate from difficult into understandable.

But when we translate from one language into another, what do we translate?  The exact words?  Dodgy enough in prose, but when you come to wrestling with the extra demands of rhyme and rhythm that poetry can impose, you might want to sit on the stairs and cry.  Usually, translators concentrate on letting us know what is going on in the unknown language.  That’s why we can find many different versions of the same text.  Take Homer’s Iliad, for example (trust me).  The collection-of-aural-transmission-known-as-Homer produced the thing in verse –in dactylic hexameters, no less.  The great George Chapman trojan_war– yes, that one, the one whose translation bowled over Keats a couple of hundred years after it first appeared – used a range of mostly iambic forms of differing line lengths.  Alexander Pope popped up a hundred years after Chapman and rendered the whole thing into very splendid rhyming couplets.  And then (I’m skipping and being picky: there are lots and lots of translations), there is Christopher Logue’s fabulous, free-wheeling War Music.  Is it a translation or a response?  Well, obviously, you know I’m going to say, read it and make your own decision.

But, supposing for one pleasing moment that you and Ancient Greek are old chums and you can read your Loeb edition unfalteringly over your breakfast egg, I still ask, what is it you are hearing in your mind?  If you are such a linguist that you think in Ancient Greek, I have to break it to you that you are nonetheless not one.  You have different experiences, a different cultural background, a different view of the world.  You know about antibiotics (all that fighting). You know about agnosticism and atheism (all those gods).  You react differently (I hope) to all that really rather casual female-prisoner swapping.  You may even take a dim view of the Trojan Horse (not very Geneva Convention, which also doesn’t cover the dragging of Hector round the walls of Troy, which certainly isn’t cricket).  In other words, you are not having the same reader-experience, even if you learned Ancient Greek as an academic discipline at school or university, as your Bronze Age predecessors (this is of course also true when approaching, say, Shakespeare, and we will undoubtedly discuss reading the past as a foreign country one of these days).

So is there any point in reading in translation?  Well, yes, of course there is, because some taste of Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy is better than none, some sense of what fired Dante, Calvino and Eco enriches our English-speaking lives; some contact with Zola, Flaubert and Stendhal makes us long to know France better.  And the translated text can be glorious in its own right.  I am in no position to pronounce on the original Biblical testaments, Old or New, but I know that when I get the phone call from Kirsty for Desert Island Discs (it can only be a matter of time, surely), when she says, ‘we give you the Bible’, I will make it clear that I’m only playing if I can have the King James version.  And that, dear readers, was produced by a committee.

Week 16: Trees

little grey rabbitI have only just realised that the endpapers for the Little Grey Rabbit books look just like the house where I lived when I was a little girl.  Alison Uttley’s stories, truth be told, always felt a bit wordy and dull, but the lovely illustrations by Margaret Tempest fired the infant imagination (I still have to turn two pages when we come to the bleakly sinister Weasel’s House).  Those silver birches remind us that the world is quite magical enough as it is, thank you, without wands and whizzing.  Let us contemplate trees for a moment: they are amazing.

Our old friends Piglet and Owl remind us that trees are for living in; and they provide sticks, too, which make jolly good shelters, as Eeyore can testify.  Twelfth Night’s Viola knew that too, of course, and when she set out how she thought a lover should pursue his beloved, she took the practical precaution of including a willow cabin at the gates. Any fool can be uncomfortable, after all, and a lover with the sense to shelter from the rain has to be a more attractive proposition.  Henry Thoreau settled in the woods at Walden for two years, two months and two days (did no-one tell him that three and seven are meant to be magic numbers? Where on earth did two come from?) and built himself a cabin there.  Yeats thought about it, but the nearest he came to building Walden at Innisfree was in his imagination.

But we don’t have to cut trees down.  To start to get a sense of them, some identification might come in handy.  There are Ladybird, Observer and quite probably I-Spy books about trees, and any amount of the sort of slightly earnest guide that expects you to know about sepals.  A disconcerting number of these call themselves ‘complete’ or ‘comprehensive’, which I’m afraid rather makes me long to scour the continents for the one little sapling that they overlooked.  No, better by far to settle down and enjoy Thomas Pakenham’s Meeting with Remarkable Trees.  An absolutely gorgeous writer from a family who seem not to be able not to write well, Pakenham’s encomium is a definite must-have for our tree shelf.

And – oh hurray! – we can have Edward Thomas’s ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ as well, with its crystal-clear picture of the fallen elm uncleared because the men have left the land and fallen themselves, in the mud of France.  And put with that Thomas’s friend (if that is not too unequivocal a word for that most self-contained of men) Robert Frost. ‘Birches’, we must have, and (especially at this time of year) ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which is contender for poem-to-learn-by-heart-if-you’re-only-going-to-learn-one (although how could you bear to only carry one poem around with you?).

Woods – even the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows – are quite different from forests. To our forebears, woods were managed spaces where they could make a living.  They had paths, and edges, and clearings.  But forests: ah, now they really are wild.  Dante’s selva oscura is the dark forest where he finds himself, in the middle of his life, with no path to follow.  Who needs Freud when we have Dante?  Or we can follow (if we dare) Edmund Spenser’s lady and the Redcrosse Knight into the forest to find – well, what do you know? – not only an absence of paths, so that they feel lost, but a cave with a terrible beast lurking in it.  And the lady gets the Knight to go into the cave.  Yup. You see, you’re going to love The Faerie Queene.  Whenever young women venture into forests, they have a tendency to bump into danger.  Remember Little Red Riding Hood?  Take it from me: that wolf was no lupine.  He probably wore Tom Ford.

But come away from all these thrills and perils (and yes, we must have Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’ on our shelf too).   Let us find some comfort under Susan Hill’s Magic Apple Tree, which sounds twee but isn’t, being instead a record of passing seasons and life in the countryside.  We can put it with Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure: not exclusively about trees, but Mabey can always be relied upon to bring us back to a sense of our connection to the earth and to nature.  And next to him, we shall have Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne.

Trees are the great survivors.  They have been here more or less for ever, they cling grimly on no matter what fresh imbecility we come up with to foul up their world, they find themselves – possibly not intentionally – giving us homes, and heat, and food: and awe, which is good for us.  Oh, and they give us paper too.  And without paper, dearest reader, even in this internet age, we would be lost indeed.sycamore gap