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 67: Into the Dark

aurora borealisFirst, the good news. Here in the far north of England, our summer time stretches like silk across the sky. We are almost in White Nights territory and can read outside until nearly midnight (see Week 47). It follows, however, that at this time of year what passes for daylight blinks by like a moth’s eyelash. For the last few days, befuddled and bemused by the lack of melatonin, we have taken to standing under the kitchen lights, faces turned upwards in the middle of the day. To no avail: we are creatures of the dark, and feel drugged and stupefied with perpetual night-time. Like Hamlet’s dodgy uncle, we want to shout ‘Give me some light: away!’

Because we humans are not built for nocturnal life. At some deep level of the soul we have always known this, and made our gods as creatures of the sun. Apollo Phoebus, Ra: the heavens are teeming with gods laying claim to being the sun-giver. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown story, ‘The Eye of Apollo’, which you will find in The Innocence of Father Brown, shows what happens, both physically and spiritually, to sun worshippers: nothing good, in short. Better Chesterton’s Priest of Apollo, a thoroughly bad hat, however, than the really rather embarrassing sun-lovers in DH Lawrence’s short story, ‘Sun’ (better by far, incidentally, if you are in the mood for short stories, to read Lawrence’s ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ and ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’). Even Agatha Christie’s outstandingly dull Evil Under the Sun plays along with what seems to be a theme, that sunlight is bad for us and we’re better off under our quiet English clouds. This is of course nonsense, as the good folk of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew. You will have noticed that all the most romping Renaissance tragedies take place in Hot Countries. Yes, yes, I know that their heroes and heroines do not live happily ever after, and that we are actually supposed to be appalled at the goings-on in the languorously Mediterranean countries in which they are set – Spain (Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, is an absolute treat, full-to-bursting with horror and mayhem) and Italy (Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Webster’s fabulously bizarre Duchess of Malfi). The point these English playwrights were ostensibly making was, in essence, my dear, murder and treachery, what else would you expect from Catholic countries? But actually of course they make Spain and Italy sound a lot more zizzy – all that sex, apart from anything else – than dreary old Puritan London in the drizzle

But can I find any heroes for this long darkness? My hat is off to polar explorers, who voluntarily put up with this sort of thing for months at a stretch (the contemplation of which should put my whining at a few shorter-than-average daylight hours into some sort of perspective). There are good solid biographies of Scott, Shackleton and Nansen out there, and Shackleton’s own gripping South: The Endurance Expedition: but my favourite approach to the whole subject of Arctic exploration is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday. Ransome, as I’m sure you know, was thoroughly acquainted with the very frozen north, not just in his beloved Lake District but also trotting across the battlefields of revolutionary Russia in his capacity as War Correspondent for the Daily News and The Manchester Guardian. The children in Winter Holiday put the NorthernReader household to shame (not a difficult task even at the best of times) as they buckle cheerfully down to stumbling around in the dark outdoors or making rabbit-skin mittens by lamplight.

Wallander - Series 3The lessening of the light is even more marked in Scandinavia than it is here, and the seemingly perpetual twilight provides the perfect sinister backdrop for a clutch of Swedish and Danish thriller writers. Henning Markell’s Wallander novels are atmospheric, bleak and disturbing: but if that’s your sort of thing, you must read the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In ten novels, written at the kitchen table after the couple’s children had gone to bed, the modern crime novel is born. Calmly, meticulously, they create the genre of the police-procedural and use it to construct devastating critiques of contemporary society.

On second thoughts, perhaps gritty realism and gruesome murders are not my cup of tea at the moment. I’m having to keep the lights on all day as it is, just to get from room to room without bumping into the furniture: think of the reckless extravagance if I have to keep the lights on all night having frightened myself half to death. No, I shall be like Badger, who, you will recall, puts off even the urgent task of reforming Toad with the honest admission, ‘of course you know I can’t do anything now?’. And no sensible animal would question his wisdom. As Kenneth Grahame so rightly points out, ‘no animal […] is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter’ So that’s all right, then. If retiring to the study and putting a red spotted handkerchief over one’s face is good enough for the great Mr Badger at this time of year, it’s certainly good enough for me.badger

Week 59: Bathroom Books

The BathIt occurs to me that inanimate objects tend towards a sense of humour. The NorthernReader household had braced itself for the financial and physical onslaught of ripping out a lurid cloakroom and replacing it with a proper, glorious bootroom, with a huge sink for washing dogs as well as boots. Cue for our bathroom to give up the ghost. So I have spent the last few days with a lump hammer in one hand and a HUGE chisel in the other, bashing several million tiles off walls. The immediate future is one of strenuous manual labour punctuated only by the remorseless *CLICK* that is the sound of more and more money being spent online. It will all be worth it, I have no doubt, but for now I find myself with a morbid preoccupation with the bathing arrangements that crop up in books.

Oh for the up-to-the-ears bubbles of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day. Usually I re-read this entirely enjoyable short novel for its inherent promise that there is always another chance in life, but just at the moment it’s the bathroom fixtures and fittings that particularly linger. Quite apart from all its other delights, this is the best evocation of a Thirties London apartment that I know. And, hurray hurray, I have a new local heroine, because Winifred Watson was a Newcastle girl .

525px-Cockade1 Bathrooms with gleaming tiles feature strongly in Dornford Yates’s The House That Berry Built, his lightly-fictionalised account of the building of his house in the French Pyrenees. Timing, alas, is everything, and Yates (the pen-name of Cecil Mercer) had less than two years to enjoy ‘Cockade’ before the German occupation of France forced him to flee. It says much, I think, that for his book he re-named the house ‘Grace-Dieu’, and certainly, whether you are charmed or repulsed by his characters – who are, shall we say, very much of their time – the loving detail with which he chronicles the construction of his hill-side house, and the description of rural southern France in the late Thirties, makes this an absorbing read.

Bathing brings surprising danger with it, if we are to believe everything that we read. Not just the awful consequences of painting the bath red, like Charles Pooter in the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of a Nobody, but death and destruction. No, this is not an encouragement to eschew cleanliness – although, come to think of it, Eeyore’s fatalistic, ‘so much for washing’ pretty much captures the essence of many a Greek myth. Be warned by the terrible fate of Actaeon, torn to pieces by hounds for having watched Artemis bathing, and remember to knock. I have never been completely comfortable with the voyeuristic implications of DH Lawence’s poem, ‘Gloire de Dijon’, for exactly that reason. Here is the first stanza:

When she rises in the morning

I linger to watch her;

She spreads the bath-cloth underneath the window

And the sunbeams catch her

Glistening white on the shoulders,

While down her sides the mellow

Golden shadow glows as

She stoops to the sponge, and her swung breasts

Sway like full-blown yellow

Gloire de Dijon roses.

It’s that lingering that makes me uneasy. That and the fact that I may never look at a 5494-Rosa-Gloire-de-DijonRose-ancienne-NoisetteGloire de Dijon rose in quite the same way again. You have to admit, that’s a …. creative mind that walked through a rose garden and was bowled over by the similarity. Did Freud read Lawrence? And did he find him a trifle tiring?

No, when I am done with all this building and tiling and painting and plumbing, I shall lie in the bath and read Amy Lowell’s poem, ‘Bath’:

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.

Doesn’t look like a poem? Try it aloud and your voice will find that it is. Ooo, prose poems, a topic to which we might return one day.

It will not have escaped your childhood attention that personal hygiene is rarely much of a focus in children’s literature. Whether yomping across the fells courtesy of Arthur Ransome, or living in caves, on islands or with the circus in Enid Blyton’s oeuvre, our young heroes and heroines are blessedly untroubled by the sudden need to use the facilities, pop behind a bush or, in Autolycus’s gorgeous phrase in The Winter’s Tale (trust Shakespeare to have something to say on needing a pee as on every other subject) ‘look upon the hedge’. And we know what Pooh and Piglet would have made of all my efforts to improve the daily ablutions: after his heroic endurance of being bathed by Kanga, Piglet had to roll the rest of the way home, ‘so as to get his own nice comfortable colour again’ (yup, we’ve had toys that look like that). But Christopher Robin, at least, knew the pleasures of a good, long soak. I shall under no circumstances be echoing his invitation, ‘Coming to see me have my bath?’ (the very idea), but goodness, I am looking forward to a nice hot shower.CR bath

Week 57: Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

It can be quite a melancholy time of year, if you are disposed to let such things get to you. For the last week, we have been swathed in shawls of mist: even at mid-day the light has glowed silver with a pearly sheen. The year changes gear, but there is a quiet joy to it, too. We are surrounded by beauty – glass-beaded spiders’ webs, the first golds and crimsons as the leaves change colour –and by abundance. This is a marvellous year for blackberries, hawthorns, rosehips and sloes. The garden is yielding courgettes the colour of sunshine, long French beans and satiny black bean pods too. And still the sweet peas flourish. The NorthernReader household centres on the kitchen, and the gentle rhythms of jam- and chutney-making allow plenty of time for sitting at the kitchen table, reading.

Propped up against a big bowl of apples right now is Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow. He writes like a dream, and the gorgeous photographs (by Marsha Arnold) make this a must-have book for all us hopeful gardeners filled with good intentions. Time, too, to re-read his The Jewel Garden, which is at once one of the most enjoyable books about making a garden and one of the best books about depression that I know. Not the most alluring of subjects, you might think – though part of the point that Don wants to make is that we have to give up stigmatising depression – but his is the most absorbing account of what it is like to suffer from depression that I have ever come across. If you know anyone who is affected (and you probably do, because practically everyone experiences depression at some point in their lives), read The Jewel Garden: it will help you to understand.

Now is the time, too, for the vintage (a word that seems to including more and more of my own lifetime these days: perhaps I could join a Vintage Person Rally somewhere) Ladybird book, What To Look For In Autumn. It is only in researching him for you this week that I have discovered that the author, the really rather impressively named Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson, was – to use a technical critical term – a really interesting chap.   A novelist, essayist, philosopher, and poet, his scientific interests included ethnography and biology. It is quite hard not to feel a tiny bit envious of a life that brought friendship with Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein, DH Lawrence, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas. It had fswallowsor some reason never previously occurred to me that – well, real people wrote Ladybird books, so I am grateful to you. And the illustrations, printed in the slightly gloomy greyish colours that were part and parcel of the Ladybird books’ charm, are by Charles Tunnicliffe, which means that they are accurate, unwhimsical and altogether splendid (should you happen to be passing, Oriel Ynys Mon – Anglesey to those of you baffled by a bit of the language of heaven – is holding an exhibition of his work until the end of the year).

And we can dust down the cookery books with recipes for preserves. For a guide that works, I turn to Pam Corbin and The River Cottage Handbook. For fascination, I am delving into the pages of Florence White and Dorothy Hartley. We should, perhaps, think of Florence White as the pioneer of the Slow Movement. She founded the English Folk Cookery Association in 1928, and jolly sad it is too that it no longer exists: and in 1932 she published Good Things in England, a wonderfully self-explanatory title and a collection of recipes which are both historically interesting and standard-settingly clearly written. Hurray, hurray, Persephone Books have reprinted it. Dorothy Hartley, an artist and social historian, wrote (at her home in Wales) A History of English Food, which, published in 1954, was and still is the undisputed masterwork on the subject. If that makes it sound dry, I have failed you. It is packed with opinion, anecdote and illustrations, and no-one should be without a copy.

All this talk of food! Well, autumn, as Squirrel Nutkin will tell you, is the time to fill larders, count your stores and make ready for the lean times ahead. Writing this has made me realise that, supreme naturalist Miss Potter apart, very few children’s books take autumn as their setting. The reason in simple: children’s adventures tend to happen when they are released from the awful confines of school. Only school stories follow their young heroes and heroines into September, and in them the emphasis is firmly on the perils and conspiracies of a closed community rather than long nature walks. The Walker, Blackett and Callum children, for example, slip completely off the radar between summer (Swallows and Amazons­, Pigeon Post and so on) and winter (Winter Holiday – a bracing re-reading treat to look forward to in somewhat austere January). But we must have Antonia Forest’s Autumn Term on our shelf this week. If you haven’t, do.

This is the time for golds and russets, the purple of heather and the slate blue of the evening sky. This is the time for poetry, then. Despite borrowing from him for this week’s title, I have to confess that Keats still doesn’t make it onto my Desert Island list. Go and re-read ‘Ode to Autumn’ and tell me you don’t find it clunky. And Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ isn’t for me, either. I’d rather have Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Autumn Fires’ and remember all those delicious bonfires of a country childhood.

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfiresbonfire
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!

 

 

Fitting, this weekend, to celebrate a Scottish poet. After all the breath-holding of the referendum, the NorthernReader household is so grateful not have been deserted.  Thank you, Scotland.

better together

Week 47: Books for the Summer

British-summer-in-Blyth-N-001Summer might have taken a little while to be coming in, but loudly sing cucku now it’s arrived. Here in what our soft southern friends think of in their secret hearts as the frozen north (as a friend of KatePonders said, getting off the train at Newcastle, ‘I had no idea there was anything north of Manchester!’: ah, just like George Osborne), we are garden-watering and lazing in the sunshine with the best of them – and of course we have daylight until almost midnight, making late-night al fresco reading a real possibility. What to read?

The summer holidays in children’s books were always uniformly warm and sunny, paving the way for endless picnics. Enid Blyton’s children have gone down in legend and song for their lashings of ginger beer (I wonder if the phrase actually appears in any of the books?), and the Swallows and Amazons, thanks almost entirely to Susan but with Peggy as sous chef, feast on pemmican and grog: but the best of all picnics is Ratty and Mole’s. Whose mouth does not water at the thought of all that cold chicken and ‘cold​tongue​cold​ham​cold​beef​pickled​gherkins​salad​french​rolls​cress​sandwiches​potted​meat​ginger​beer​lemonade​soda​water’? Although I do hope there is finely chopped hard-boiled egg in with the cress, and I notice their manly omission of cakes and chocolate. We Freudian critics (such fun) have long noticed that food in children’s literature offers much the same sorts of thrills as sex in books aimed (we hope) at a more adult readership – and can’t help thinking that poor old Constance Chatterley would have been so much happier had she taken a nice wicker hamper into the woods with the gamekeeper. Lawrence had a bit of a penchant for picnics, sending the Brangwen sisters off on various al fresco jaunts in Women in Love. Good old DH, never one to hint subtly at what can be made hugely, glaringly obvious (all that nude wrestling! All that drowning! All those frozen mountains!). But do read/re-read Women in Love. It is the best of him and will remind you that we were not wrong to think of him as a major novelist.

Deliciously, we can put Jane Austen next to DH Lawrence on this week’s shelf, because we cannot be without Emma being rude to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In fact, the Box Hill picnic can sit shoulder to shoulder with the outing into the Italian countryside in EM Forster’s A Room with a View – and yes, do watch the Merchant-Ivory film again, because it really is as perfect as you remember it. Kiri Te Kanawa is singing somewhere inside your head right now, isn’t she? Let’s add the gorgeous score for Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisited while we’re at it: it’s by Geoffrey Burgon, who also composed the haunting Nunc Dimittis for the BBC Tinker, Tailor,Soldier, Spy. That lush, over-ripe trumpet music for Brideshead takes us to Sebastian and Charles eating strawberries and drinking champagne in heady mid-summer.

But there is more to summer than food. No, really there is. If you are of a holidaying disposition, this is the time of year to load the car with a change of clothes and forty books each as you head off for the joys of motorway, ferry and autoroute on your way to the Dordogne/Tuscany/wherever is fashionable at present. Hilariously, the lighter magazines will advise you to take a selection of impossibly irritatingly badly-written chick-lit with you, presumably on the grounds that you will be leaving your intellectual faculties behind to watch the house while you’re away. Equally preposterously, what used to be called the broadsheets will earnestly admonish you to take twenty or so of those classics you always meant to read. Lounging by a pool with a drink in your hand? An obvious moment to get stuck into Ulysses. No, just take lots: you’ll read each other’s, anyway, won’t you (which is just one of the reasons why you should choose your holiday companions, or indeed life partners, with such care).

We make our own entertainment in the country

We make our own entertainment in the country

We will need some poetry. For a sense of that heavy, shimmering heat that gets into your bones, we can have some more Lawrence. ‘Snake’, which he wrote in Sicily in the early nineteen-twenties, lodges in your heart: once read, never forgotten. And this is the time of year for Edward Thomas’s evocative ‘Adelstrop’. Shakespeare’s sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ may seem too obvious, too clichéd, but read it again. Far from being a simple cheery piece of sunny flattery, the poem reminds us how much we would like to be young and lovely for ever and how inexorably old age, decay and death will overtake us – and, just when we might be hoping for the comfort of assurance that we will always be loved, the poem twists round to its real subject – the author – and promises him immortality. He got it, too. The bee-loud glade allows us to have Yeats’s ‘Lake Isle at Innisfree’ as well. And now is the moment for Auden’s ‘A Summer Night’. It’s far from his best, but Auden not-at-his-best still outranks pretty much everyone. The stanza, ‘Now north and south and east and west/ Those I love lie down to rest; The moon looks on them all,/ The healers and the brilliant talkers,/ The eccentrics and the silent walkers,/ The dumpy and the tall’, is irresistibly Auden. What could in other, lesser, hands, be doggerel is transfigured by some special alchemy into a blessing, an incantation that we can whisper as we lie on our backs in the grass and marvel at the night skies.Pleiades-from-Kielder-1

Ah yes, that reminds me. Above all, this is the time of year to get outside. Go for a walk. Go fishing (if the light is right). Go and sit on the grass. Take a picnic, by all means. And – of course – take something to read.

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 33: The Illustrated NorthernReader

Just back from an exhilarating jaunt to Barter Books in Alnwick. I resisted the temptation to simply give them power of attorney over my bank account and scoop up all their delectable offerings, but I did wallow in joyful recognition of These We Have Loved. A trawl of the shelves produces books-I-once-knew and books-I-want-to-meet in about equal proportions. My first books, like yours, were picture books. Words got added as my ability to read them grew, but the pictures were always part of the experience. Where does it say in the book of rules that once we have reached full height we can no longer be allowed the pleasure of the illustrated book? Here are some favourites, a few recommendations, and a heart-felt plea.

Alright, I can now see that this is a tiny bit camp, but I loved it

Alright, I can now see that this is a tiny bit camp, but I loved it

My uncle – one of those best sorts of uncle, who never seemed to notice any disparity in age between uncle and niece – gave me two books in childhood that were fabulous, gorgeously illustrated and, it turned out, hugely influential in shaping my future reading and interests. The first was Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans, published by the now-moribund Purnell & Sons and illustrated by the Grahame Johnstone sisters, Janet and Ann. You may know their work from their illustrations for Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Bereft of my childhood copy, I finally tracked one down a few years ago and had the thrill of finding that the pictures were, unusually, exactly as I had remembered them. The story-telling is of the very finest quality too: how many really quite small children do you know who spend their time being a Trojan princess? Because that, dearest reader, was how I whiled away many a happy childhood hour. The second treasured gift was a re-telling of Don Quixote with – crucially – amazing, don quixotedream-like illustrations by Giovanni Benvenuti. No matter that I was about six years old: I was hooked.

As I grew to teenagerdom, the illustrations started to seep out of the books I was reading. I missed them, along with the exercise books at school with lines on one side, for writing on, and blank pages on the other, for drawing. I wonder whether the world might not be a nicer place if all notebooks, especially, perhaps, those provided in Cabinet, were made along these lines, and a nice fat pot of coloured pencils plonked onto the green baize. However. The one disadvantage with illustrations is when the principal characters have not been drawn in strict accordance with how they look inside your head: akin to the gross miscasting of television or film versions. Remember the mental scars Dick Van Dyke left on all you Mary Poppins’ readers? Like that. One of the reasons why Arthur Ransome turned out to be the perfect illustrator of his own books is that, lacking confidence in his ability to draw faces, he shows the Swallows, the Amazons, the Coots and all the rest only from the rear, at a great distance or wearing hats.

LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattBut as adults, if it were not for the splendours of Folio Books, we would be in danger of falling for the half-baked idea that pictures are only for children: which would come as news to the maker of the Lindisfarne Gospel. I am pleased to report that Barter Books have a whole section devoted to second-hand copies of Folio books, so your next trip to Alnwick (cracking little town, wonderful garden, Harry-Potter themed Castle if that’s your sort of thing and wonderful, fantastic, lyrical countryside and beaches within spitting distance) might be a good opportunity to start your collection of illustrated Austens, Trollopes, Waughs or Chandlers (the illustration I have chosen is by Tatsuro Kiuchi. Can you see what it is yet?).day of the jackal And the lovely Miss Read publishers stuck doggedly and delightfully to her requirement to have her books illustrated, by John Goodall for many years. The drawings are idiosyncratic, just right and form part of the pleasure of the text. Otherwise we visually-starved grown-ups are thrown to the mercies of the sort of publishers who – and I promise I am not making this up – produce copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets interleaved with reproductions of Hilliard miniatures and twee watercolours of flowers, and scented. Yup: honestly. The whole damn book, scented with the reek of artificial violets. Someone who did not know me at all well once gave me a copy, not, I regret to say, in a discernible spirit of irony.

mintonOr we could find solace in cookery books. Not the rather intimidating photographs of what it all should look like (but probably won’t even if I become the sort of person who follows the instructions slavishly), but the strange, oddly brooding woodcuts that decorate the original Elizabeth David books. They are by John Minton, an unhappy soul who deserves greater recognition than as side-kick to the waspish Mrs David, who didn’t much like his work.

So, please don’t deprive us of pictures just because we’re over ten years old.  Yes, I know the best ones are the ones the words make in our heads (precisely why radio is so vivid) and no, Idon’t want every character, every setting and every twist in the plot laboriously spelled out in watercolour, any more than I want great solemn chunks of physical description of our heroine and what she is wearing: but decoration that adds to the mood of the piece can only add to the enjoyment.  After all, I have long thought that of the two best jobs in the world, one must be the lucky person who chooses the front cover art for books (can I have John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose for  Women in Love please?).  The other best-job-in-the-world?  Why, naming paint colours of course.Carnation_Lily_Lily_Rose_B