Week 107: Hope

What is it with badness and hair?

What is it with badness and hair?

Donald Trump is leading in the Republican nominations. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and Africa are fleeing for their lives. North Korea, Zimbabwe and Russia are run as personal fiefdoms by fear-driven despots. A confederation of has-beens and the politically greedy in Britain are making up any old rubbish to persuade us to take our toys home and not play with the big boys and girls in Europe any more. And we’ve had two sunny days so far this year. It’s all looking the teeniest bit gloomy. Books, please.

To remind myself that the United States of America is largely peopled with lovely, intelligent men and women who will not be choosing to be governed by a fascist clown, a small part of this week’s NorthernReader bookshelf is dedicated to a celebration of the spirit of shining optimism that is the defining characteristic of all that is best about America. Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution is widely regarded as the if-I-can-only-have-one choice, and who am I to disagree? Skipping forward a couple of centuries, anyone who said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ earns a place among the angels, so let’s hear it for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his 1933 inaugural speech, Roosevelt went on to call fear ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’ Absolutely right, I would say, and just about nails why lesser politicians find whipping up fear such a useful tool to get away with the flagrant abuse of democracy. Be afraid, be very afraid, our beloved leaders tell us; and look into my eyes, for heaven’s sake don’t use your common sense or your own judgment. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time reminds us that cometh the hour, cometh not only the man but in FDR’s case the woman too, with a perceptive study of how much Eleanor Roosevelt brought to the presidency as well as the marriage. For a taste of the positive impact of the New Deal, let us have Betty MacDonalds’ Anybody Can Do Anything, a witty first-hand account of life during the Great Depression and the recovery. And to remind ourselves that the enlightenment view of history does eventually prevail – that slavery, racism and hatred can be overcome – how about Taylor Branch’s monumental trilogy on the Martin Luther King years, starting with Parting the Waters?

hqdefaultCheery and uplifting books that look at the Middle East and tell us that ‘this too will pass’ might be a little trickier. That particular bag of rats is too close, too much of the present, for us to be able to look forward with confidence. The best that books can do for us is to remind us of the resilience of hope. Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes, his vivid and sometimes harrowing tale of his time in Iraq, does not have a fairy-tale ending, I am sorry to say; but read it together with Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (or indeed anything by the piercingly good Thesiger) to at least deny Saddam Hussein the victory of wiping this entire culture off the face of the earth. An Improbable Friendship should win a prize if only for coming up with a title of such consummate understatement: written by Anthony David, it tells of the long and warm friendship between Ruth Dayan and Raymonda Tawil. Yes, that’s right, the wife of Israel’s Moshe Dayan and Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law. It is impossible to read about these two remarkable women without, just for a hope-filled moment, imagining a world not governed by testosterone. Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, anyone? So very much more optimistic that Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which, coming from the Angry Feminist (or Jolly Cross Feminist) school of the 1980s, now feels a bit wearying and dated. It has become a staple of school and university reading lists, and I do rather wish it could at least be balanced by a more positive feminist outlook. Suggestions please.

As for the so-called ‘debate’ about whether the UK should remain as a member state of the European Union: well, an obvious candidate for our shelf this week is Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. But we can also cheer ourselves up with some simply gorgeous European fiction and rejoice that we are lucky enough to be part of the same loose conglomeration of free-thinking, enlightened, rational men and women as – well, fill in names-of-your-choice here. Mine would include Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Muriel Barbery and Michel Houellebecq (although having taught undergraduates who struggled to spell Keats and Hardy correctly I do wonder what they’ll make of him), Patrick Süsskind, Seamus Heaney, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo …. And so, deliciously and endlessly, on. In fact, retiring into the borderless world of intelligent writing might be the only possible way of getting through the next yawningly long weeks of spiteful half-baked threats and warnings that seem to pass for debate these days. Yes, yes, I know, ‘twas ever thus, and the benches in the House of Commons are set two sword-lengths apart for good, if outdated, reason; although over-confidence in the concept of a standard sword-length, let alone a standard arm-length, might well have proved unfortunate should it ever have been put to the test, so that – hurrah! – we can take this pretty piece of Parliamentary legend as proof that good manners (or at least not actually attacking the chap opposite, however tempted) do prevail. And the idea that rational, considered and courteous debate outranks trying to kill your opponent is the most hopeful paradigm for our fractious and troubled world. A copy of Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners might be the thirteenth fairy’s best gift to us all.

The feast or reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

The feast of reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

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Week 96: On With the Motley

846361_5ffeed6b6ec847d7a305acdd3116dedf.jpeg_srz_p_198_276_75_22_0.50_1.20_0Last week, the theatre came to town – or to our village at any rate. We were delighted to welcome Paddleboat Theatre to our village picnic, and even more delighted when the sun came out especially for them. Their show, According to Arthur, enthralled an audience of all ages and you could have heard a pin drop – no mean achievement with an age range of three to ninety-three and a splendid Northumbrian propensity for chat. After supper, beds for the night, a frighteningly early breakfast, and advice on how to put oil in a car (should you win the lottery this week, you might like to consider buying them a van), we waved them on their way to the Edinburgh Festival where, I am happy to report, they are taking the infant world by storm (so make sure you go and see them if you are in Edinburgh this month).

Once they had gone, we were happy to fall back on some favourite books to indulge our theatrical leanings. Not, on the whole, actors’ biographies and especially not autobiographies, although they can provide a great deal of unintentional humour. There seems to be an immutable law of the universe that dictates that the greater the acting ability, the blanker the canvas upon which it starts. The ‘my thoughts on acting’ genre can also provide some gems: vying for first place for making the NorthernReader household cry with laughter are Anthony Sher’s The Year of the King and Harriet Walters’ Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting. Most enjoyable of all is Nigel Planer’s sharp-eyed spoof, I, an Actor, purportedly by Nicholas Craig. I would quite like to see this as the end-of-term commemorative volume given to every graduate from drama school.

untitled (11)A love of theatre can – should – start when very small and depends upon grown-ups taking every opportunity to ensure that their darlings experience the immersive joy, fear, wonder and awe of live performance. TAKE THEM TO THE THEATRE. The worst thing that can happen is that they, or you, or even they and you, will be bored for a couple of hours; and there is very little better preparation for adult life that some practice in coping with being bored. And if they should learn to sit still, quietly, for the greater good, you will have done your bit to ensure that posterity is a better-mannered place. And, in between the theatre trips, read books. Here are some.

The Swish of the Curtain is now more than seventy years old, but the story of the Blue Door Theatre Company still engages young readers and makes them urge the characters on to success in the drama contest on which so much depends. Do not watch The Apprentice, which is dreary, soulless and predicated entirely upon the bleak worship of money: read this instead. And if you love it, hurray! There are four further books about the same group of young people. Pamela Brown wrote The Swish of the Curtain when she was fourteen, so the book is also a useful reminder to your offspring that they could be making better use of all this spare time in the summer holidays. And we must have Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes on this week’s shelf. Fear not, loathers of ballet and all things pointy and pirouetty: this deservedly classic tale is about determination, striving and achieving your heart’s desire, whatever that might happen to be.

Get in quickly before the school syllabus ‘does’ – what a doom-laden verb – Shakespeare and puts young people off, sometimes for ever. I loved Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, in which our young hero time-travels (so very much more interestingly than the creepy chap with the wife in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel) and finds himself in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We have talked before about how very good I thought Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare. If for some unaccountable reason you have not yet taken my advice and read it, now is the time. Morgan pulls off that almost impossible trick of populating his story with famous people without making it feel like a Wikipedia extract with added conversation.

They made a film of it

They made a film of it

For a taste of a theatrical world that we have now lost, two books: Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure. Smith’s novel, which, like her completely essential I Capture the Castle, is aimed at young adults (and upwards), is mainly set in the small-company theatrical world in the nineteen-twenties: Bainbridge’s, which draws upon her experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse, is set just after the Second World War. Several of Ngaio Marsh’s murder mysteries are set in the world of the theatre as well, and like Smith and Bainbridge, her books now have a period flavour as well as an assured and detailed understanding of the back-stage world. Try Enter a Murderer, Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin (for some reason that completely escapes me, the last two were published in America as Night at the Vulcan and Killer Dolphin, which, while hilarious, does make me wonder whether her American publishers were involved in a bizarre plot to sabotage her career by ensuring no sales at all).

But to end where we (more or less) began, in Edinburgh at the Festival: do not go without reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Oh wait; I could have ended that sentence sooner: go nowhere without reading Kate Atkinson. But One Good Turn is set at the Festival. It also revisits her compelling detective hero, Jackson Brodie. This has two beneficial consequences for you, dear reader: once gripped, you might as well settle down and read the four novels in which he features (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog). And then you could watch the television dramatisations, starring Jason Isaacs. You can thank me later.

Well, it's been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture

Well, it’s been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture

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 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.

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Week 60 Careers for Girls

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

When I was little, there was a book knocking around our house called The Girl’s Companion. Among much that was thrilling, such as how to cover a lampshade and how to punch leather (I am not making this up), there was a very slim section called ‘Careers for Girls’. We could aspire to be nursery assistants, it seems, or kennel maids, air hostesses or nurses. Mmmm. It turned out that we were the generation surprisingly well-equipped for the social changes that have happened in our life-times. We may, it is true, have nurtured the secret hope that we could marry a scientist, an astronaut or a company director rather than going to all the trouble of actually being one ourselves, but we had one huge advantage over our male contemporaries. We did not grow up in the expectation that we would step onto the career ladder at Point A within company B and progress steadily upwards towards retirement. The lives we have actually lived, stitching together what hindsight grandly allows us to call a portfolio, changing tack with a panache that would warm Ellen MacArthur’s heart, came more easily to us, with our absence of expectations of anything more structured, than it did to the chaps. But today’s bright young things, emerging soggy-winged from university, know in principle that they must be prepared to duck and weave to forge themselves some sort of money-earning path through life. I think it must be perfectly miserable. They are hedged in by former class-mates on one side, glittery-eyed in the pursuit of telephone-number salaries and strapping themselves blindly to the unstable raft of financial service sector jobs as they head for thewhite water ahead: on the other, by dire warnings that they have missed the boat if they

No it isn't

No it isn’t

haven’t yet picked an outfit to which to sell their soul. The idea that you might find your own way through the forest, guided by ethical values and quiet pleasure rather than naked greed, seems to have little currency at present. Time, I think, for some books to come to the rescue.

I was a great admirer of Sue Barton, the heroine of Helen Dore Boylston’s series, without ever feeling the slightest tug towards nursing as a vocation. The Sue Barton books – Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Rural Nurse – you get the idea – are in fact set in the American hospital and nursing world of the Twenties and Thirties, but what impressed me as a child was the comradeship, warm friendships and selflessness of the central characters. They worked hard, overcame difficulties, and went at life with zest and passion: not bad as role models. Helen Dore Boylston was following that age-old advice , ‘write about what you know’, having been a nurse in Massachusetts and New York. I am only sorry that she did not also send Sue Barton off to re-enact her extremely action-packed life as a nurse on the Western Front in the First World War and later as an American in Paris – and Warsaw, and Albania.

If not medicine, how about teaching? Governesses in fiction very rarely lead lives of beer and skittles (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, the very peculiar governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw), but the life of a country schoolmistress had its charms once upon a time. How about the gloriously-named Miss Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree? Or, indeed, that NorthernReader favourite, the shrewdly perceptive Miss Read, heroine and pseudonymous author of a wonderful series which, beginning some sixty years ago, is already taking its proper place as an important contribution to English rural social history. Most villages now, alas, have The Old Schoolhouse, along with The Old Post Office and The Old Bakery, and few and lucky are the children who can run across the green to school

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

There’s always office work, of course. George Bernard Shaw (oh blast! We really must talk about the lure of the middle name one of these days) simultaneously examines, celebrates and undermines the new and few opportunities for employment available to women at the turn of the last century in Mrs Warren’s Profession. While Mrs Warren’s career choice has been what has long been coyly referred to as the oldest, her daughter rejects her mother and her business empire in order to begin her own, more legitimate, business. But, this being Shaw – in other words, clever, thought-provoking and dancing with wit – the play questions our whole notion that one career might have a greater or lesser moral value than another or be more or less freely entered into. This seems as good a moment as any to notice that the dreary trajectory of job-related sexism across the ages has been for a career to be exclusively male and high status – teacher, secretary – and, once women have won the hard-fought battle to gain entry, to be largely deserted by men and become lower-paid and lower status. It is going to be grimly interesting to see what happens to the public perception of doctors now that more than 50% of medical students are female.

But at least there are now no jobs that women cannot consider. Goodness, even the Church of England has got over itself and agreed that God might not be revolted by women bishops after all. The world of my childhood, in which all taxi-drivers, lorry drivers and pilots (civilian, military or sky) were male seems now as remote as the age of chivalry.  That Girl’s Companion proved a false prophetess: I never did become a hairdresser, a beautician or a florist. Nor, in truth, did I become an engineer or a lion-tamer, but at least I was barred from all these occupations only by lack of talent and interest rather than gender. No, better by far to follow the career advice given, perhaps unsurprisingly, by so many books. Sometimes, as in life, we’re not sure if it’s ever going to work out – Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – but deep down, don’t we all want to be writers?writer

Week 56: Books for Broken Hearts

My great-great grandparents saw eight of their ten children set out from their Aberdeenshire home to every corner of the earth, never to return: and I don’t know how they did it. The lovely KatePonders left yesterday for a year, and, should you be wondering, this is how it feels:aztecs40(it does just cross my mind that the Aztecs were perhaps sweeties who worked with metaphor and were, as so often happens, completely misunderstood by their less imaginative conquerors). Anyway this week’s bookshelf needs either to console or to encourage wallowing. All you parents whose chicks are off to school/university/the other side of the world/another planet for the first time, take heed, and heart. And there is hope, too, for the dumped, the jilted, the just-come-to-my-senses-and-realised-everyone-was-right-about-him. Broken hearts mend of their own accord, but books help.

We could start with Boethius and The Consolations of Philosophy, not least because it serves as a useful reminder that, if he could come up with such warm, gentle acceptance of life’s little tribulations while awaiting execution, we could probably get a grip and find some sort of perspective. We are, to be sure, living in a time of turmoil, when rubbing along together on this one shared earth seems to be slipping out of reach. Now is exactly the moment, therefore, to be reading Boethius, who firmly maintains that people are essentially good, that evil is a choice, and that no-one and nothing can take away from us our ability to be good. I think that by ‘good’ I usually mean ‘kind’, and I promise to vote for the political party that promises – without crossing its fingers – to be kind at all times. Alain de Botton, by the way, has borrowed Boethius’s title for his own Consolations of Philosophy, a well-meaning if a bit facile introduction to a history of philosophy.

Three children’s books that have to be on everyone’s comfort-bookshelf. The full version of this blog’s strapline could well be ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get reading The Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children and The House at Pooh Corner.’ Kenneth Grahame because animals come and go, and set out on great adventures, but they come home safely to eat their suppers in great joy and contentment before retiring to rest between clean sheets: as fine a prescription for a good life as you are ever likely to find. Edith Nesbit is there, of course, because at the end, Father comes home, the family is reunited, Bobbie gets to cry out, ‘Oh! my Daddy! my Daddy!’ before she tells her mother that ‘the sorrow and the struggle and the parting are over and done’. And we cannot be without Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, who remind us, just when we most need to be reminded, that ‘wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way’ ….. oh, you know the rest: I’ve made myself all teary.winnie

So perhaps my best course is to indulge in the miseries of others. How about some Graham Greene? I’m not sure he was ever exactly a laugh-a-minute, but the all-out crushing unhappiness of The End of the Affair might be just the thing today. Strangely cheering, other people’s heart-ache, don’t you find (please don’t tell me it’s just me)? And there is little in literature more guaranteed to make you pull yourself together, I have found, than the faint suspicion that others might compare you to Cathy Earnshaw, so a long soak in all the shenanigans of Wuthering Heights might be just the ticket. We could revel in the sheer nastiness of most of Evelyn Waugh’s blighted and benighted lovers – whoever you’ve idiotically lost your heart to, he or she is probably not as bad as that – and recognise every aching moment of longing that Cassandra experiences in Dodie Smith’s gorgeous I Capture the Castle.

But enough. I must comfort myself with the hope that KatePonders does not feel about her doting mother as Selima Hill does about hers, if her wonderful poem ‘The Fowlers of the Marshes’ is to be believed:

Three thousand years ago
they were fowling in the marshes
around Thebes – men in knotted skirts
and tiered faïence collars,
who avoided the brown crocodile,
and loved the ibis, which they stalked
with long striped cats on strings,
under the eye of Nut, the goddess of the sky.

My mother’s hushed peculiar world’s the same:
she haunts it like the fowlers of the marshes,
tiptoeing gaily into history, sustained by gods
as strange to me as Lady Nut, and Anubis,
the oracular, the jackal-masked.
When I meet her at the station, I say
Hello, Mum! and think Hello, Thoth,
This is the Weighing of the Heart.

Don’t you love that ‘hushed peculiar world’? So much more dignified than the noisy scrabble I more usually achieve. For the time being, at least, KatePonders and her parents will be exchanging ideas and thoughts and have-you-reads by email and Skype, and our hearts will lighten.

OMG!  They're reading Stuwwelpeter!  Another blighted childhood ...

OMG! They’re reading Stuwwelpeter! Another blighted childhood …

PS  Scotland, this is not the week to break my heart even further.  Please don’t go.

Week 43: Woof Woof

 

The newest NorthernReader

The newest NorthernReader

KatePonders has gone mad and bought a puppy. This means that the NorthernReader household currently comprises three people and three dogs. Some wariness is called for, as the grandmother who began all this by living in Northumberland, and who was the tiniest bit eccentric, had ten dogs. And twenty-four cats. And assorted other wildlife. No surprise, perhaps, that she is still vividly remembered in this part of the world, some thirty years after her death.

So what help, advice, role models and – as if we need any – encouragement can we find in books?

William Brown’s Jumble is a bit of a doggy hero. Clearly possessed of the sort of spirit that would have stood a Battle of Britain pilot in good stead, Jumble follows William fearlessly where other – lesser? wiser? – dogs might have chosen to stand back and let the young master take the hit. For fortitude, faithfulness and valour, Jumble, we salute you. Enid Blyton’s Timmy, by contrast, is a bit of a cipher. Can anyone remember a single thing about him, other than the fact, now that I’ve prodded your memory, that he was a dog and an honorary member of the Famous Five? Like Harpo Marx but without the curls or the musical talent. We’re much, much better off with the dashing Pongo, brave dog-of-action in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

duchessBefore the infant reader makes it to Blyton or Crompton, the delights of Spot – rather pleasingly known in KatePonders’ Welsh childhood as Smot – beckon. How sad we were to see that Eric Hill, Spot’s creator – should that be owner? – died this week.  We loved Mick Inkpen’s charmingly dim Kipper, too (still do, to be honest), and we adored Duchess in Beatrix Potter’s The Pie and the Patty Pan (definite contender for Best Potter Book). Our other great favourite was A Dog Day. It was written by Walter Emanuel, and if he is your relative or specialist subjectcecil_aldin_pudding_sm2, I apologise, but I know nothing about him: the point, really, of A Dog Day is the illustrations, which are by Cecil Aldin and, therefore, perfect. How very much cheerier all these books are than Rudyard Kipling’s Thy Servant a Dog. Being Kipling, it is strikingly written and, once you get used to the voice he finds for Boots the Aberdeen Terrier (times have changed and this might be another candidate for Dorothy Parker’s ‘Tonstant Weader Fwowed up’), engagingly sure-footed (pawed?) on giving us the dog’s perspective. But Kipling takes no prisoners and, be warned, you will howl at the end. It marches in my memory together with a particularly glum book inherited, I think, from previous generations, called Jack & Me. Time is a great healer and I am now hazy on the details, but I am pretty certain that No Good comcaldecottes to the puppy that Me and her brother are given. Oh Lord, yes, and there were Randolph Caldecott’s poignant illustrations for Oliver Goldsmith’s The Mad Dog: was mine, I begin to wonder, a particularly strange childhood?

But are there no dogs for grown-ups? Well, of course there are. Montmorency must head their tribe, a deserved accolade for a chap who ‘put his leg in the jam’ when boating with three men. Bartholomew, the assertive Aberdeen Terrier who stars in several of PG Wodehouse’s peerless books, is pleasingly direct in his dealings with mankind – especially, of course, the male of the species. And I retain a soft spot for Muggs the Airedale, ‘The Dog that Bit People’ fondly memorialised by James Thurber. There are, of course, nice dogs in literature as well, but rather like nice people, they are sadly less kc-reg-english-bull-terrier-pups-51e8385ebdb51memorable than the rapscallions, the ne’er do wells and the biters. Bill Sikes’ Bull’s Eye, far and away my favourite character in Oliver Twist, for example: no-one’s idea of a good dog. Jip, Dora Copperfield’s lap dog, is as irritating as her owner (how hugely unkind Dickens could be). The Pomeranian in Anton Chekhov’s superlative The Lady with the Dog won’t do either: we can concede that it is crucial to the plot, but the wretched animal doesn’t even have a name as far as I can recall, and while offering to bite the man’s hand shows it be quite a good judge of character, it probably, strictly speaking, disqualifies it on the Nice Dog stakes.

Another would-be biter is Flush, Elizabeth Barrett’s cocker spaniel. He failed to engage his target, the young Robert Browning, and found himself swept up in the Barrett-Browning romance and whisked off to Italy. A happily-ever-after story, and a true one. Virginia Woolf’s biography, Flush, is too often overlooked, but if you like Woolf – as who could not – both poets (ditto) and cocker spaniels – heart of stone not to, obviously – then a great pleasure awaits you if you happen not have read this yet.

The very nicest dog in literature, it suddenly occurs to me, is Cyril, the canine component of the ensemble cast of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books. It might just be the gold tooth, but I think that it is Cyril’s reasoned philosophical approach to life that wins us over. That, and his pleasing habit of peeing on the command, ‘Turner Prize.’

Vivien Leigh - by Laszlo WillingerAs for the latest addition to the NorthernReader household, at present she appears to be modelling herself more on Slinky in Toy Story than any heroine of literature, although her Vivien Leigh looks suggest she might enjoy reading AEW Mason’s Fire Over England, or of course Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when she’s a little older (and hands/paws up anyone who’s actually read it? Really? All I remember of the film is crying out ‘O please, no!’ when the lovely Miss Leigh declared ‘I will go back to Tara’, and I have an uneasy feeling that the book is even longer. Up to you, of course). Oh well, it could be worse: at least she doesn’t seem to be too influenced by Gerald Durrell’s puppies (My Family and Other Animals), who, you will recall, are named Widdle and Puke.

 

PS NorthernReader Walking Book Club news on Walking Book Club page. Hope you can come.