Week 114: Showtime

my-fair-lady-1964-09-gIt used to be called The Season, and jolly tiring it was too.  Never part of the Coming Out (which meant something quite different then), balls and aristocratic hob-nobbing which formed the invisible web binding together the members of a now-vanished caste, I look back in astonishment to realise how many of the London season events were an occasional part of my childhood.  Not a horsey lot, we were not the family that counted the days to Royal Ascot, Badminton and the Epsom Derby (although a later extremely mild interest has led me before now to Cheltenham and Goodwood in the days when it was still about horses). Wimbledon, as I have confessed before, has left memories only of acute and almost terminal boredom.  The highlight used to be the Chelsea Flower Show: I had some halcyon years living on a houseboat practically next door, and in the days when Members’ Day meant you and one or two other people pottering blissfully about in frocks/gents’ lounge suiting in the sunlit acres – ah, it was very heaven, those blue remembered hills whereon celebrity had not been invented.

Since those far-off days, the NorthernReader household, its back turned against the metropolis (hurrah), has found its pleasures in a harmless addiction to country and county shows.  If you have yet to experience a day spent in comfortable footwear solemnly debating the relative merits of different breeds of perfectly darling sheep, showmake this your breakthrough year.  We have happy memories of years and years of drinking Pimms and watching the pole-climbing (no, really) at the New Forest Show: only our morbid dislike of traffic kept us away from the Royal Welsh.  Since becoming adopted citizens of Northumberland, our cravings are splendidly fed by the Northumberland Show, and that was where we were to be found yesterday, knee-deep in cattle, pigs, dogs and tiny children driving tanks around a field.

The country show has seldom, if ever, featured as a key locus in fiction, which is a shame because all human, and indeed sentient, life is there.  A splendid setting for comedy, tragedy, love and mayhem, I suggest.    PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens explores many of Ukridge’s get-rich-quick ideas, but, sadly, exhibiting at the local show is not one of them (incidentally, when did chicken farms fall from favour as an absolutely sure-fire thing for making love or money?  Wodehouse’s breezy chaps are always falling back of the idea as a perfect scheme, but Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and indeed one the plot twists and turns in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, would tend to suggest that there is a melancholy or even a sinister side lurking among our feathered friends). Race meetings have become synonymous with Jilly Cooper territory, in fiction if not in life (haven’t read one and haven’t encountered burly lotharios with Barbara Cartlandish names, so cannot claim any right to judgment here); and of course with Dick Francis’s thrillers, which marry detailed knowledge of the racing world with the most wooden characters since Thunderbirds and are therefore known collectively (there are about a million of them) in the NorthernReader household as The Woodentops Go To The Races.

The London Season in all its debutantish horror lies behind Nancy Mitford’s The mitfordsPursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and is even more clearly brought to life in her sister Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  EF Benson’s Lucia in London charts his heroine’s attempts to break into high society.  If you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia novels, the best recommendation I can give to entice you in is that Benson completely nails the significance of saying ‘no’ with emphasis to mean ‘I never heard anything so marvellous, and it thrills me through and through.  Please go on at once, and tell me a great deal more’ (and if that doesn’t make you want to add Benson to your much-cherished ‘Jane Austen and Other Wasps’ shelf, I despair).

Let us shake off the dust of London and retire gratefully back to the country and its social pleasures.  Our first glimpse of Tess, red lips and sash, white dress and all, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, finds our heroine skipping round the Maypole.  I have only to recall it – and the several hundred dutiful essays retelling it to me handed in each year by undergraduates – to know that the moment when I can re-read  Tess has not yet dawned.  More enjoyable might be Peter Tinniswood’s play, The Village Fete; I don’t know it but he was such a good writer that I’m looking forward to making its acquaintance now I’ve stumbled upon it.  Miss Read, of course, is as ever a mary-mouse-and-the-garden-partysplendid source of fetes, fairs and jamborees, as is Barbara Pym (and why has it only just dawned on me how much those terrific writers have in common?).  If all else fails, we can revisit Enid Blyton’s Mary Mouse, who in Mary Mouse and the Garden Party performs the useful function of setting out all the hard work that lies behind such a festive occasion in so much grim detail it put at least one impressionable young reader off anything to do with such jolly community get-togethers for very many years.  Ah, how are the mighty fallen: this summer (I use the term loosely, having looked out of the window) I find myself organising a village Midsummer Night’s Party and running the raffle for the Village Fete.

And on both days, the sun will shine, print frocks will be worn, bunting will flap, and, best of all, there will be books.  It’s beginning to look like a NorthernReader summer.books

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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 105: All You Need is Love (all together now)

valentines_dayGoodness me, one minute it was New Year and now it’s Valentine’s Day. It would be fair to summarise what is known of St Valentine as ‘nothing’. Mmm, our favourite sort of saint, a tabula rasa upon which splendid amounts of stuff can be projected; including, since at least the fourteenth century, stuff about love. Chaucer is commonly credited/blamed for coming up with the link between St Valentine and what I’m afraid I tend to think of as ‘lurv’, but as any fule kno, ‘first surviving mention in writing’ is not necessarily the same as ‘first mention.’ Actually, I’d go a bit further here and bet you a fiver that Chaucer is definitely not the inventor of St Valentine as a mini-love god. Chaucer (like Shakespeare) is a user of snippets and trifles that his audience already knows. His genius lies in what he makes of his material, not in the originality of his sources (originality being an uninteresting and dubious commodity to the mediaeval mind).

But right now we are stuck with Valentine as the patron saint of tacky cards, scentless roses and supermarket meal deals involving fizzy wine and chocolate. Pausing only to wonder why everything has to be pink, I think we can do better. If all will go ill for you should you not mark February 14th by a display of devotion – passion, even – then let me recommend the seductive power of words. Here, then, is the NorthernReader Indispensable bookshelf for lovers.

john-donneLet’s start with the master. I have been promising for a very long time now to try to persuade you to love John Donne, and now the moment has come. I do not have a hard task on my hands. Try the first line and a half of ‘The Good Morrow’:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?

Lovers take note: there is no-one alive who would not give their eye teeth to have you gaze at them across the breakfast toast and marmalade and say that. Before you, nothing; since you, the whole world. Or as Donne puts it:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest
Or try this, from ‘The Sun Rising’:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.

It’s the fabulousness of those thumping slowed-down syllables in the second line that catches at the heart. Shakespeare of course, and others too, could put into words that overwhelming realisation that everything, from climate change and global terrorism to putting the bins out and the cap back on the toothpaste, fades into invisibility in the face of all-absorbing love: but no-one but Donne could do it in four spare beats (a trochee and a lovely, stretched-out, lingering spondee should you be feeling metrically inclined). One more, although I know you must – couldn’t possibly not be – hooked already. This is from ‘The Anniversary’:

Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

Add some Marvell, some Auden, some Browning (her and him) and, yes, Shakespeare’s sonnets too, and our Bookshelf for Lovers will have made a fair start.

And prose? The difficulty, as we noticed way back in Week 27, is that the course of true love, should it happen for once to run smooth, does not tend to run particularly grippingly. Boy meets girl, boy and girl settle down happily, The End, while lovely in real life, is frankly dull in fiction. Literature abounds with tragic entanglements – Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, Dido and Aeneas – but they scarcely set a tactful note for Valentine’s Day. Even romantic comedies depend upon near-misses with catastrophe to drive their plots onward and keep their readers turning the pages. We can definitely add an Austen or two to this week’s shelf, but bear in mind that they range from the long hard road to realising that he’s not the one to the equally stressful trek towards second chances (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion: I invite you to compose one-phrase summaries of all of her novels should you be at a loose end). Colm Toíbín’s Brooklyn is enough to give the genre ‘romantic novel’ a good name: come on boys, be brave and read it even though it has a girl on the cover. And of course, one perfectly good way of countering all the slush of the Valentine’s Day industry is to settle down with any of the sweepingly, swooningly, lavishly romantic novels that categorically side-step the happy ending. How about Kashuo Ishiguro’s haunting, buttoned-up The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s searing Atonement and Rose Tremain’s pitch-perfect Music and Silence? And there are gorgeously-cast films for the first two (the BBC seems to have been in talks since God was a boy to bring Music and Silence to the screen, but without results so far), so all those chocolates could come in handy after all.

indexAs for tales of long-enduring domestic bliss, I see problems. Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man? Two minds with but a single thought, I grant you, but that thought is usually ‘where’s the next cocktail coming from?’ which is bound to take its toll in the long run. Better, perhaps, to take Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane as our ideal detecting couple, as brought to life by Dorothy L Sayers and kept in robust marital health by Jill Paton Walsh. But for a quiet celebration of the mundanities of married life, we could do an awful lot worse than a joyful re-read of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, in which Jane and the Reverend Nicholas Crampton muddle along just fine.

As the years together mount up, I have come to realise that the best advice Mr NorthernReader and I have ever received was not anything red-lipped and passionate (now you come to think about it, can you imagine Romeo and Juliet, irritating adolescents as they are, ever having made it to middle-aged settled-downness?). No, I hope that our guiding light has always been the long-married chap who said, ‘the secret of a happy marriage is to lead parallel lives. She goes her way and I go her way.’ That’s the way to do it.  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

You know what they say: nobody's perfect

You know what they say: nobody’s perfect

Week 95: The Body Count

Quote

untitled (5)Why are we, like Webster (you know your TS Eliot), so much possessed by death? Not the slow decline of inevitable ageing and mortality, which is the unavoidable fate of us all and which we refuse to acknowledge, contemplate or come to terms with, but violent death. In 2013, when the population of England and Wales was fifty three and a half million, there were five hundred and fifty one murders. Or, in other words, you are infinitely more likely to win the Lottery (always worth looking on the bright side, I find, even if only to fill in the time until we die; which will not be at the hands of others).

Yet murder forms the staple of television drama. Otherwise perfectly pleasant people who have a tendency to recoil squeamishly at the traumatic idea of squashing a wasp wade knee-deep in gore as they settle down on the sofa in the evening. It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the housing market in the Cotswolds has remained so buoyant, what with all those serial killers portrayed in Morse, Lewis, Endeavour (mostly melodramatic if well-acted should you not have seen this prequel series) and Midsomer Murders (purest ham and suggesting that south Oxfordshire is in the grip of a population decimation not seen since the Black Death). We particularly enjoy sitting unmoved and supine before tales of serial killers: indeed, in the implicit league table of murderers, there is something a bit namby-pamby and not-really-trying about the villain who only kills once.

These crimes – which I do rather hope would produce a more empathetic, not to say wildly hysterical, response in what we laughingly call real life – have literary form. Cain, of course; a tale told with admirable brevity in Genesis: and after him, a grand parade of the vengeful, the greedy, the psychotic and the frankly panic-stricken. Snuggle down in your staggeringly safe home and enjoy.

IPhone pics Nov 13 005Shakespeare, who lived in a rougher world more prone to using its fists and knives, gives us Macbeth – a terribly plausible decent chap who plummets into an unstoppable chain of murders and loses his soul in the process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but far, far, darker – although now I think of it I quite fancy Mickey Mouse as the Scottish King). And, what with being a man of his time and all that, Shakespeare also gives us Lady M, whose fault it all is. It’s that pesky double X chromosome, you see. Did you know that the most popular topic for carving onto the elaborate marriage-beds of the sixteenth-century rich was Adam and Eve? The point, dear newly-married couple, is not so much the blissful existence in Paradise, but the Awful Warning that Eve rocked up in Adam’s comfy homosocial world – just him and, well, Him – and ruined everything. Girls, hey? One of the great triumphs of the Enlightenment is that, in patches and in places, we have, at least from time to time, moved on.

My goodness, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really had a problem with women. When they’re not the sexually voracious evil villains of the piece – try Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling or Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil – they are being murdered on stage in such numbers that I can’t help thinking that the writers had spotted exactly what sells tickets: yup, our old friends sex-and- death, with women as the she-probably-deserved-it fetchingly draped body (we will have a crack at getting our heads round the fact that the bodies in question were boys in frocks another day). Have things, in books at least, changed? Let’s have some murders on this week’s bookshelf.

No self-respecting crime library should be without representative texts from Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and (plonking prose but rattling plots) Agatha Christie. Ah, feminist revenge: weary with being the victim, women rose up and wrote the stuff themselves. It just crosses my mind to wonder (I offer it as a PhD topic should no-one have got there first) whether women writers kill off more chaps. And we must have EC Bentley’sTrent’s Last Case, if only because it is always spoken of as a classic of the genre so we look a bit awkward if we’ve never read it (I don’t know that it’s the most gripping thing that I’ve ever read, but it’s good). Raymond Chandler is another sine qua non, even if you will frequently have no idea what is going on (nor did he, apparently). It is a pleasing coincidence that the two greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century went to the same school – Dulwich College, and the other is, as of course you know, PG Wodehouse, whose murder mysteries, had he written any, would have been byzantinely plotted and shimmerlingly narrated (oh come on, Sebastian Faulks: a clear and obvious next best-seller for you).

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody's guess

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody’s guess

Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, successfully created an entirely believable world in her twenty or more Brother Cadfael books. As murders, especially murders in fiction, go, they are lightly drawn and it is unlikely that you will have nightmares. Their quality lies in the skill with which she breathed life into her twelfth century monk, his friends, colleagues and enemies, and the streets, manors, hovels and fields of Shrewsbury and Shropshire. There have been many – hordes – of imitators, all of which seem to me to fall at the first hurdle of failing to digest their research before regurgitating it into their narratives. If you think you have an historical novel in you, (a) think again and (b) read Ellis Peters very carefully and thoughtfully before you begin (but unless you are Jude Morgan, (a) will still be the correct answer).

The other series which I heartily recommend is Donna Leon’s Brunetti novels. Over the last twenty years or so, Ms Leon, an American living in Venice, has mined deeper and deeper into the politics and psyche of contemporary Italy via the medium of her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. It is worth, should you not have come across them, starting at the beginning with Death at La Fenice, which is a competently plotted crime novel with the ravishing setting of La Serenissima and a detective who arrives fully-formed into the canon of crime fiction. But keep reading; it feels as if Leon has grown in scope and confidence, and the later novels are dark, disturbing (this is a recommendation, by the way) and have profound things to say about the state of Europe today.

 

Of those British murders, incidentally, forty-four involved guns. I just mention this in case anyone from the gun lobby in the USA might have dropped by.untitled (7)

Week 86: Education, education …

imagesWhen did we start counting everything, and discounting things that can’t be counted? It may be, dearest reader, that you live in a country where education rolls merrily along on the principles that fired up the Enlightenment: exploration, discovery and wonder. Here in Britain – and I know we are not alone – playgroups, nurseries, primary and secondary schools, universities and colleges, have all fallen victim to the glittery-eyed phalanxes of lackeys of the State armed with clipboards. What I have learned this week is that OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – and I defy you to come up with a more meaningless job title than that) costs about £168 million a year. If I had that sort of money to spend on education, my first thought would not be to stagger about making other people’s lives a burden to them and ensuring that school is a stressful and miserable environment for teachers and children alike. In the dreary midst of an interminable election campaign, I’m not sure whether to be glad or sorry that education is not attracting too much fatuous attention from the power-hungry. If only they’d read some good books and dare to think differently.

Most of the education industry at present – oh, yes, it is an industry these days, did no-one tell you? They marched it into the parade ground about twenty years ago, snipped all its professional buttons off and reduced it to the ranks of having to obey orders from people who despise it – most of it seems to be proudly modelling itself on Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. The thing is, OFSTED, that Dickens conjured him up as a savage satire on the repellent regimentation of education. When he made Gradgrind say, ‘Now, what I want is, Facts,’ we were supposed to fall about in appalled laughter, not sit up and take admiring notes. If you haven’t yet, do read Hard Times. It is Dickens at his fiercest and finest (and you can read it for pleasure and not because it is a set text).

How could education be better? Well, I’d be very happy if the way Gerald Durrell was taught could be more of a blueprint. In the sublime My Family and Other Animals, Durrell gives a magical sense of how a gifted tutor guided him into seeing the world as endlessly fascinating and worthy of lifelong enquiry. The ‘Theodore’ of the book was in real life Dr Theodore Stephanides, a Greek poet, scientist, biologist and doctor. He taught young Gerry not by getting out the books and turning relentlessly to Page 6, but by finding out what his pupil was interested in – beetles, mostly, in Durrell’s case – and using that enthusiasm to introduce all the stuff that we need to know in life. For Stephanides and his lucky, lucky, student, there was no such thing as Pure Maths or Pure anything: everything was applied. If I sound envious, it’s because I was taught algebra by someone who, frankly, was terrifying enough to make me let ‘x’ be whatever it wanted to be – but I never knew why. For Durrell, on the other hand, algebra cropped up naturally as a way of working out how long it might take those ants to move all those eggs from a dangerous site to a safe one. Those same ants could be the focus of every subject in the curriculum. Oh yes they could. If you happen to be at a loose end for a few minutes, draw up a curriculum for yourself. The only rules are: pick something, anything, that really interests you; and think of ways you could use that as a focus for every subject you ever did, or are doing, at school. See?

Osbert Sitwell declared that his education happened in the holidays from Eton. He seems to have had much in common with the protagonists of children’s literature. In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, school, as we have noticed in other weeks, is an unfortunate interruption to the real business of learning useful stuff, as it is for Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Even in school stories, from Angela Brazil to the Schoolfriend Annual (cherishable for the adventures of the Silent Three, who all have sensible names like Peggy and BettySilent_three and are awfully good sorts), lessons are little more than a plot device, a hiatus in our hero or heroine’s independent activity. Lessons only get interesting to us, the readers, when the school is for witches (Jill Murphy’s lovely Worst Witch stories) or wizards (HP). We hear little of the lessons at Lowood, the school to which Jane Eyre is packed off, although Charlotte Brontë does give us the satisfactory scene in which the School Inspector, the vile Mr Brocklehurst, is brought to heel by – oh, the irony – another layer of management. Ah, now I see where successive governments have found their whizzo ideas.

Do things get better if you manage to survive school and go to university? We thought about this many months ago (as long ago as Week 2). Alas, I have to break it to you that student life has changed a bit since Brideshead Revisited, even if today’s students do show equally little interest in their academic endeavours. On the bright side, things, especially for women, have improved a bit since Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. But universities, like schools, are now plagued with endless league tables, ratings and petty competitiveness. Oh for a return to the quietly scholarly world Dorothy L Sayers portrays in Gaudy Night. Well, yes, the college is riven with unholy goings-on, but, if we acknowledge that the jealousies and rivalries between academics that she reveals are pretty true to life, can we cling on to the picture of the joys of tranquil research that she also shows?

All is not lost. If you share any of my feelings – sorrow, disappointment, rage – about the education factories we seem to have created, have a look at Slow Education. You never know, you might learn something.

Definitely non-gratuitous

Definitely non-gratuitous

Week 72: Books for Kings and Wise Men

epiphanyausIt seems unlikely that early Christians picked January 6th – Epiphany – solely to mark the day we can take the Christmas decorations down, but how jolly useful of them to have set up a date that can act as a watershed. Before it, celebrations marked by reds and golds, noise and laughter, feasts and cheerful over-doing it; after, a clearing-back to simplicity, calm and quiet. January is the time when even the most cluttered of us find ourselves drawn to a little minimalism, when we can enjoy the sight of a windowsill or chimneypiece untrammelled by cards. A single hyacinth growing in its glass is all the decoration we need as the days begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to lengthen. And now is the time for the lovely peacefulness of evenings by the fire, reading.

Magi_(1)Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t call them kings or wise men and doesn’t say how many of them there were (the most plausible translation, should you be interested, seems to be that they were Zoroastrians – giving rise to a pleasingly frivolous vision of Freddie Mercury pitching up at the stable), but the chaps who followed the star set a precedent for Good Guest behaviour by bringing presents. And, should your tastes or your budget not run to gold, frankincense and myrrh, be of good cheer, because books make the best presents (although if you hanker after frankincense, try a bottle of Tauer’s scent, L’Air du Desert Marocain). Now is the first time since Christmas when we have breathing space to sit down and properly read, rather than flick through, all those gorgeous books lovely people gave us. As well as a stocking-full of vintage Ladybird books, which are becoming a slight obsession of mine, I have the chance to get ahead on at least one anniversary being marked in 2015, thanks to a well-loved nephew and niece and their thoughtful choice of Dan Jones’s Magna Carta as a brilliant present. I am already absorbed in this clear study of how the Charter came about, what happened to it and why it is important. As a consequence, the New Year’s Resolution you will be most pleased to hear about is a determination not to emulate the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and stop one in three to share my newly-acquired fascinating insights (I’ll let you know how successful I am with keeping that resolution).

And I have Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow to enjoy through the year as well. Compellingly written and the perfect blend of discussion, reflection and instruction that puts Don in the same (premier) league as Christopher Lloyd. The catalogues for spring-planted bulbs have started to arrive as well, encouraging a lot of armchair gardening which is, as you know, so much less of a physical and financial drain than the other kind. Now might be a good moment for some more reading about gardens, though: Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History, of course, and Philippa Gregory’s two novels about the Tradescant father and son, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth. I have not read Elizabeth Buchan’s Consider the Lily, but judging from the reviews that might well be my loss and one for the Books To Look Out For list. Oh, and we can have poetry too: Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, you are simply going to have to pop off and read, now that I tell you it seems not to be possible to mention it on the internet without adding the rather crushing phrase ‘one of the most famous poems’ (admittedly they tend to qualify this with ‘of the seventeenth century’, but still, you wouldn’t want to feel left out, would you?). And how about Thom Gunn’s ‘The Garden of the Gods’? And if that gets you reading all of Thom Gunn, well, hurray, and you can thank me later.

snowWhile we wait … and wait … for snow, I can at least re-read the splendid snowiness of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Or – pleasure of all pleasures – revisit Italo Calvino’s playful and mesmerising If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se Una Notte d’Inverno un Viaggatore, but I can’t read Italian, and am lucky to have William Weaver’s assured translation). And if you, like me, enjoy this, that’s 2015 sorted, because you simply must get round to reading Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. You do not need me to remind you of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods One Snowy Evening’ because it stays in the heart of everyone who comes across it, but there is a chance you haven’t read Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, Walt Whitman’s ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ or Thomas Campion’s ‘Now Winter Nights Enlarge’.

While you sit contentedly – oh, and how that lovely word reminds me that now is the time to re-read The Wind in the Willows – book in hand, by all means make resolutions, but make them things to read, not vile self-hating and dreary weight-loss goals. Here, as a New Year’s present to you, are three suggestions. Read something by Charles Dickens. It took me far too many years to realise that there is a reason why he is so famous, and the reason is the very simple one that he is an utterly fabulous writer. So there’s gold for you. Second: read something in translation from a different culture and tradition – the exoticism of frankincense, if you will. For me, that’s going to be Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. And finally, some myrrh. The Balm of Gilead is known for its soothing, healing properties and is beginning to look like the latest wonder-drug from cholesterol-busting to cancer-combatting. Quite a challenge; a book to soothe and console, cure and heal. That’ll be Shakespeare, then. Happy New Year.

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Week 45: Playing the Game

Nadal - ir is it Cumberbatch?

Nadal – or is it Cumberbatch?

I am not the naturally sporty sort. As an undiagnosed myopic, I experienced school sports as hockey – beefy girls looming out of the mist and a ball striking painfully on the ankle, lacrosse – the same but higher, and tennis – the same with whippetier girls and added ‘ping’ noise. The last time I picked up a tennis racquet, they were still made of wood and came with the same dinky little wooden presses that people use to press flowers (now there’s another pointless pastime). The school gym revealed my classmates to be either natural shinners up fantastically hairy and painful ropes or – like me- whimperingly earth-fixed. And then there was the horror of the communal changing room. My spectating career was no more illustrious. My father was a rugby referee and many a drear wintry Saturday afternoon of my infancy crawled past on the muddy edges of a playing field somewhere on the London circuit. I did quite like going to Twickenham but I am ashamed to tell you that that had more to do with the picnic. And all I remember of Wimbledon is the strawberries.   Oh, and John Newcombe’s luxuriant moustache (I was very young and impressionable – and bored out of my tiny mind).

footballSo I am disinclined to celebrate these long, long, endless weeks of football. Are there books out there to come to my rescue and reconcile me to this sporting summer?

Rugby league has its own laureate in David Storey, one-time professional player, Yorkshireman and writer. His first novel, This Sporting Life, has in the fifty-something years of its existence given lazy journalists a resonant strapline. It also, in its film version (for which Storey wrote the screenplay) gave the world the mesmerising talent of Richard Harris, surely the most dedicated of the British/Celtic Ratpack. Storey also wrote The Changing Room, a play which pre-dates The Full Monty and avoids its saccharine tendencies but shares its focus on the lives of working-class northern men. I am suddenly, if mildly, possessed with the desire to stage a musical version: a sort of it’s-grim-oop-north Chorus Line.

Tennis is less well served (sorry). Granted, we have the game Cecil won’t play in A Room with a View, and the young men in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September come from a world of garden parties and lawn tennis. But a game which is based upon the repression of wild emotion (or used to be) and involves standing rather decorously either side of a net is a difficult setting for the unfolding of grand passion (this is, as you can see, a direct challenge to the novelists and short-story writers among you. Rush directly to your laptop, tablet, or pen and paper and give us the Wuthering Heights of the tennis court please).

tour de franceCycling ought to be a hotbed of good plots, if the real-life scandals of recent years are anything to go by. But the only book worth reading that has come out of the whole two-wheeled business is Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, and even that isn’t a patch on its boating prequel. Incidentally, pure NorthernReader outrage has been provoked by the news that a council in Yorkshire has ordered the taking-down of lovingly hand-knitted tiny Tour de France jerseys from lamp-posts on the grounds that they might be too much weight for the posts to bear. If the good citizens of Yorkshire rise as one and refuse to pay any Council Tax at all, they will have the comfort of knowing that the Northern Reader is cheering them on.

So has any fictional good come out of the pointless human endeavour that is sport? Well, yes, hurray for PG Wodehouse. A keen golfer, his ‘Oldest Member’ short stories are a total joy and are particularly useful in pointing out the romantic potential of a round of golf. No mean cricketer, Wodehouse also gave us Mike and its eponymous opening bat. A fictional cricketing XI would have to include him, together with Lord Peter Wimsey, whose exploits on the pitch at Eton and Lord’s trail glory before him, almost to his undoing in Murder Must Advertise. As always with Wimsey, his creator’s besottedness does rather open him to the charge of naughty showing-off, and you do really have to have seen a match yourself to make any sense of the goings-on in the novel, but it is at least quite enjoyable. No, I’m afraid that I side with EM Forster’s Maurice, who ‘hated cricket. It demanded a snickety neatness he could not supply.’ Wonderful. We’ll have an anti-sport bookshelf, then, and Maurice shall begin it.

schoolfriendChildren’s books, of course, tended in the past to be fully signed-up to the importance and benefits of playing for one’s team/House/school/country. Girls in particular seemed to come in for a lot of exhorting to be frightfully good at sport. Dear kindly writers, illustrators and publishers of Girl, Schoolfriend and the like, did you really think you could change the natural inclination of millennia with a few well-chosen lines about winning the trophy for your chums? If there is a gender difference out there, it is that girls aren’t so easily conned. You will notice that Jane Austen’s heroines do not have to resort to displays of running, jumping or swimming to achieve their goals: unless we count Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy yomp to Netherfield as a competitive sport – and I think we probably should, but her victory is a psychological one (the feminine sport of choice).

And so we come, reluctantly, to football. Who in the name of God called it the beautiful game? And what were they thinking? Yes, I know Albert Camus played a bit, and claimed to have enjoyed it, and yes I also know that there is a book by Nick Hornby about watching the stuff. Well, Mr Hornby, purely in the interest of rigorous academic research, I have now watched a match. It was England playing someone or other. And it made me yearn for the fierce lyrical poetry of watching mould grow on a wall.  Now, excuse me, I have some dogs who would like me to kick a ball about with them …

On the other hand ... it's been too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

On the other hand … it’s been too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture