Week 100: Silence, Solace and Defiance

untitled (18)On Friday November 13th, Paris, my beautiful Paris, was assaulted. What words are there? What you have no words for, you cannot talk about, Wittgenstein said. Rage, fury and fear can strip us of words, so that like Hamlet we splutter in a cry of outrage and pain. But our silence, as we stand bare-headed to remember and to grieve, is itself a response to the barbarity and cruelty we have witnessed. A tiny handful of people around the world take it upon themselves to play monstrous god with the lives of others. They devastate whoever they touch, but they have no power to corrupt the human spirit. We, the humans of the world, have language that brings us together, shares our sorrows and our joys, and outshines the darkness. ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.’ Dylan Thomas said that; and he was right.

So this is a moment for us to let words give us solace. Now is the time to hear again Seamus Heaney reminding us that ‘The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.’ Now is the moment to be comforted by the Mediaeval poet of Deor, translated into modern English by Simon Armitage: as he recounts episodes of sorrow, his constant refrain is ‘As that passed over   may this pass also.’ The Persian Sufi poets who gave us the phrase ‘all things shall pass’ come to our aid with some perspective; and the aggrandising megolamania of would-be tyrants everywhere is cut properly down to size by Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’: you remember the line, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ and its immediate absolute rebuttal; ‘Nothing beside remains.’ The history of humankind shows us that it is not possible for evil to hold sway for more than a moment, because we always turn to what is good. I find myself back at John Donne, of course. At a moment when the unwise are rushing to turn away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free, we need more than ever to calm ourselves with Donne’s affirmation that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. […] any man’s death diminishes me …’. Or in other words (those of Charles Kingsley, in fact), do as you would be done by.

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

As for defiance: the problem with answering violence with violence is only too drearily obvious. Resistance, yes, and an implacable adherence to the moral values of the Enlightenment – yes, our old and dear friends, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but let us know, and live by, what we are for rather than enormous lists of what we are against. So the stories of triumph over wickedness are what we need today. How about CS Lewis’s Narnia tales, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark? But ‘triumph’ is the wrong word here. I don’t want the swaggering and trumpets that it evokes. Rather, let us have the quiet proclamations that the human heart cannot be broken. Remember Galileo – like us, flawed, understandably intimidated by fear, but always and for ever stating ‘and yet it moves.’ Let Antoine Leiris be spokesman for us all in his refusal to dignify his wife’s murderers with ‘the gift of hate.’ ‘Even though that is what you were hoping for,’ he goes on, ‘responding to hatred with anger would be to fall to the same ignorance that made you the people that you are. You want me to be scared, to distrust my fellow citizens, and to sacrifice my liberty for security. I will play on.’

That’s the way to do it.   As Auden says, ‘We must love one another or die.’_86701381_86701380


Week 98: Books for Birthdays

untitled (15)The lovely KatePonders has had a birthday. A visit from bestest-friend-in-the-whole-world, a morning’s shooting at clays (we know how to live) and an unfeasibly large amount of cake: we may have stumbled on the recipe for the perfect birthday celebrations. With the aching chasm of another 365 days to go before she has another birthday (2016 being, my maths suggests, a leap year), we do at least have plenty of time for a thorough survey of bookish birthdays to see how we might do it even better in future.

Serendipitously, KatePonders shares a birthday with Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party must therefore take first place on this week’s bookshelf. Fabulous, funny, menacing, absurd, enigmatic and contradictory, Pinter’s play is definitely a must-see as well as a must-read. I was quite surprised to find that it is not, as far as I can see, being staged anywhere at the moment. Presumably it is not an A level set text and therefore cannot be guaranteed to bring in enough audience to break even.   It seems to me to be a shame that theatre, especially in the hugely-funded London theatre, has largely become musical adaptations of Disney films, revivals of musicals from the mid-twentieth century or confections that string the collected works of Abba into some sort of narrative (no I haven’t seen it, nor am I making any plans to). The few bones thrown to us non-metropolitan types via the undoubted glories of live streaming should be the beginning of a rich play-going renaissance, not a meagre sop to keep us knowing our place and looking grateful. How easy it would be for the Arts Council, which currently gives an overwhelming majority of its coffers to London-based endeavours, to insist on countrywide screening as a condition of funding. ‘Thursday night is theatre night’: don’t you think that has a pleasing ring to it?

untitled (14)Eeyore, Kipper and Little Grey Rabbit all celebrate their birthdays, or have them celebrated for them, in children’s books, and the eponymous My Naughty Little Sister and her friend Bad Harry have a great time at another child’s birthday party, even if they do suffer the aftermath of greed later that day. As ever, we need to turn to Dickens for some relief from all the sweetness and light. David Copperfield has what he himself calls A Memorable Birthday. Yes, should vague memories of the plot of his Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation be trickling back to you, it’s THAT scene in which Mrs Creakle, the headmaster’s wife, has a crack at the difficult art of breaking bad news gently and, it would be fair to say, proves not to be a natural at it. Oliver Twist’s ninth birthday sees him moved from Mrs Mann’s establishment for ‘juvenile offenders against the Poor Laws’ to Mr Bumble’s workhouse. Good though the film is (even despite the inexplicable failure to cast the original stage ‘Nancy’, Georgia Brown), go and read the book again to send a shiver down your spine at the sheer relentless drabness and nastiness of the Victorian approach to welfare. Only Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes close.

Birthdays in books aimed at adults – and Dickens, of course, was aiming at absolutely anyone of any age who could be persuaded to join his legions of readers – are sadly often a focus of gloom and despondency, almost especially when the celebrant is a child. Poor old Leo in The Go-Between, for example, ends up with a thirteenth birthday that is certainly memorable. Irina’s name-day is the starting-point for Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; a good enough reason to urge you to read this wonderful, witty, dark and heart-breaking play from the greatest of nineteenth-century playwrights (and indeed one of the very greatest of any time). Irina is twenty at the start of the play, but still child enough to be thrilled with the spinning-top she is given. Perhaps Chekhov, a doctor, was ahead of us in acknowledging that, as the most recent research has established, the human brain does not achieve maturity until it is at least as old as KatePonders.

And we must have poetry. For once, Dylan Thomas is just right here: not, for me, his ‘Poem for his Birthday’, which feels too sonorous, too consciously beautiful, as if Thomas had slipped across the line between a unique voice and a parody of himself; but ‘Poem in October’ (another autumn birthday celebrant), with its wonderful images of the heron priested shore and a walk ‘in a shower of all my days’. Which of us has not had an autumn walk like that, misted and fine-spray drizzled, kicking up the golden leaves and letting thoughts and memories cascade? More sobering, perhaps, but indispensable, is Louis Macneice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’, whose litany of imperatives – hear me, console me, forgive me – could usefully be required reading for those contemplating parenthood. Finding a poem for someone’s birthday is, though, fraught with peril, as you steer a precarious path between trite nonsense on one hand and the tendency of good poets to think of birthdays as another milestone on the road to death: true, of course, painfully true, but not quite what you were aiming for to go with your carefully-wrapped present and your balloon. But we could certainly give Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’ might seems a tad melancholy for what should be a happy day, but forewarned is forearmed, and we might do a lot worse than determine to keep the clouds of glory trailed about us. Now that would be a great birthday present.


Week 78: Welshness

gan-bwyll-a-siarad-cymraegOnce upon a time the NorthernReader household was located in Wales. Indeed, KatePonders was born there. If you are not fortunate enough to live here in the debateable lands between England and Scotland, I can heartily recommend Wales to you as an alternative: beautiful countryside, not too full, and lovely, lovely people. Only don’t call them Welsh, which means, depending on who you ask, barbarian, savage or slave. Remember your manners and call them Cymraeg, which means The People. You can see for yourself which might get your conversation off on a better foot. This weekend, our very good friends from the Land-of-their-Fathers-and-you-could-do-a-lot-worse have travelled up to stay with us: partly, of course, for the pleasure of our company, but also because we are all marauding northwards on Sunday to the Scotland/Wales rugby match at Murrayfield. You and I have talked before about what it means to be Scottish, and what Scotland has contributed to (in no particular order) the bookshelf, the country (that’s the United Kingdom, Mr Salmond) and the world: so now might be a good moment to consider Wales – I mean Cymru (very easy language to get your head around once you have grasped that Y sounds like UH and U sounds like EE: and there has to be some cachet in being able to say even a few words in what is said to be both the oldest language in Europe and the language of Heaven).

It might be that Dylan Thomas comes first to mind: orotund, lyrical and visionary, his poems demand reading aloud. I have previously suggested that you listen to Richard Burton, that great spoiled talent, in Under Milk Wood: I do hope you did so – if not, off you go. But there are other Thomases worth reading. Here are two. RS Thomas – Ronald to his friends – learned Welsh too late in life, by his own assessment, to write poetry in it, and therefore found himself in the quite strange position of writing in English while fiercely criticising the Anglicisation of his beloved home country. Thomas was a priest in the Church in Wales, and his poems are resonant with his sense of spirituality and religion as well as the rich landscapes and characters of Wales. He was beyond question one of the very best poets of the twentieth century. Try the elegant simplicity of ‘A Marriage’, or the bitter bleakness – very much his distinctive note – of ‘The Welsh Hill Country’.

AntHop-lowMy other Thomas for you is the writer, columnist, broadcaster and critic, Gwyn Thomas. Born in the same year (1913) as RS Thomas, but less long-lived, he was the child of the South Wales Valleys. His novels, short stories, essays and articles exactly capture the life of the mining communities in the Depression and beyond, into the postwar years. Self-deprecating and wryly humorous, he is a treat to read, and you can catch up with Anthony Hopkins’ wonderful portrayal of him in Selected Exits, a BBC drama some twenty years old now which was based on Thomas’s memoir A Few Selected Exits.

Two more poets, but of a different time. George Herbert has a lot in common with RS Thomas, being a Welsh-born Anglophone, an Anglican priest and a metaphysical, deeply spiritual poet; but his poems are considerably less pessimistic and grim. Every poem that survives (he was writing in the early seventeenth century and died in 1633) is on a devotional theme. Shortly before his death, he founded the religious community at Little Gidding that was later to influence the thinking and writing of TS Eliot. Herbert’s near-contemporary, Henry Vaughan, came through Cromwell’s Republican years but suffered losses, not least, perhaps, of simple-minded adherence to a cause. Ostensibly a Royalist, his poems reflect a deeply-felt (and entirely justifiable) contempt for all authority and the endless cycle of people struggling for power, gaining power and then cracking on with the same regime of intolerance, repression and beastliness as the previous lot. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? Another good reason to add Henry Vaughan to this week’s shelf.

Going back somewhat further, we come to Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis to his Latin-reading contemporaries and Gerallt Gymro to his Welsh relatives: ah, when I said earlier what a piece of cake Welsh is, I should perhaps have mentioned that it is one of those humdingers of a language that mutates at the front depending on the case: fun, huh?). Gerald was of mixed Norman and Welsh heritage but very sensibly stressed his Norman connections in order to Get On in life. A cleric and chaplain to Henry II, Gerald found himself accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury on a tour of Wales in 1188, which he wrote up some years later as Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae. Fear not, Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, translated by the great Betty Radice, is a most entertaining Penguin paperback, not least because Gerald is a world-class moaner, always ready with something snipey to say about everywhere he goes and everyone he meets. The ideal travel writer, really.

another in our GREAT series of completely non-gratuitous illustrations

another in our GREAT series of completely non-gratuitous illustrations

But before you get carried away with the idea that Wales is entirely – or even faintly – a land of mists and legends, all Arthur and Pendragons, we had better add its current flowering as the home of hugely enjoyable BBC drama to our idea of what it is to be Welsh. Andrew Davies, who brought you the entirely perfect dramatization of Pride and Prejudice, as well as Little Dorrit and the screenplay for Bridget Jones, and Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk and breather of new life into Doctor Who, can wear their ddraig goch (look it up) with pride.

So as you read this, think of us as we head up the A68 – the best, most heart-lifting road in Britain, feverishly trying to remember the words to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau while – because I have a Welsh-born daughter but Scottish ancestry – humming Flower of Scotland and wearing my thistle earrings with pride. Put it this way: this is rugby match I can’t lose.


Week 58: A Fanfare for the Makers

braveheartThis Thursday will be National Poetry Day. I don’t think the nice people at the Forward Poetry Foundation who came up twenty years ago with the idea of an annual celebration meant ‘national’ to conjure up images of flag-wearing, face-painted groups of nationalists chanting poetry at each other across the barricades, but close, forensic attention to words, singly and together, is the essence of poetry. You know, of course, Coleridge’s throw-away line that poetry is ‘the best words in their best order’. Good old Coleridge, a hoot to be with, I suspect, especially after a glass (or a sniff) or two, and showing great mastery of the political art of saying something that sounds good until you start to examine it closely. The antithesis, in fact, of good poetry. But he could write it. Never mind Kubla Khan and his stately pleasure-domes: try ‘Frost at Midnight’ and feel that Coleridge is there in the room with you, talking.

So, yes, Coleridge is a must for a poetry bookshelf. I expect that, tattered and much read or pristine and never opened, you have a Complete Works of Shakespeare and quite possibly some sort of an anthology as well: Oxford, Norton or Penguin? If you are at a loose end as the evenings grow longer and the nights stiller, by the way, you might like to curl up and read Shakespeare’s sonnets as one continuous narrative. Go on, try it. The famous ones – ‘shall I compare thee’; ‘let me not to the marriage of true minds’ ‘my mistress’ eyes’ – will crop up like buoys in the current, but you will be swept along by the fabulous ribbons of words, images and ideas, at once playful and deadly serious, that weave their way through the sonnet sequence. And use that anthology as a bran tub: dip in and read wherever the page opens.

Celebration-Britain-Spirit-Coin-HumourBut here for National Poetry Day are four poets, one from each of the nations that make up this country.

One of the lasting pleasures of poetry is its habit of twining odd lines and phrases into the deepest recesses of your mind, ready and willing to volunteer themselves when the need –or the mood – arises. As a coiner of sonorous phrases, Dylan Thomas knew few equals. An English-speaker with, as far as I know, little or no knowledge of or interest in Cymraig, the language of Wales, he nonetheless resonated with the sound patterns, the rhymes, half-rhymes and repeated sounds that are the cornerstone of Welsh poetry. His poetry is almost obsessively lyrical, meant to be heard, meant to be responded to almost viscerally, in sharp contrast, perhaps, to the dryly intellectual modernism of his contemporaries. Give yourself a treat and listen to Richard Burton begin Under Milk Wood, read (aloud) ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem on His Birthday’ and agree with Thomas that ‘the world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it.’ And remember that, impossible person to live with that I’m sure he was, he had the grace to say, ‘Someone’s boring me. I think it’s me.’ You could love him for that alone.

Flying the Saltire, let us have our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Hers is a still voice dropping into the dark. She can be funny, passionate, dry and reflective, as the need arises. The shipping forecast – a beacon of loveliness on the radio in the small hours – may have changed the area names, but her poem ‘Prayer’ inscribes them on your heart:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.


Yes, even Auden was a young man once

Yes, even Auden was a young man once

If we’re thinking about poetry that speaks of a sense of nation, then let’s have Auden for our English poet for this week’s shelf. ‘Look, stranger, on this island now’ is as good an injunction as any, and the poem, with its celebration of ‘the leaping light’, the small fields and the ‘swaying sound of the sea’ that surrounds us – for Auden, no little Englander, encompassed all Britain – puts a quiet finger on one aspect at least of a sense of this place. You will of course have noticed that Duffy’s poem is a sonnet, and Auden wrote them too – read, if you haven’t, his sonnet sequence ‘In Time of War’, sadly as apposite now as when he wrote it. In fact, he wrote poems in pretty much all the shapes and forms available to him. He argued that a poet should be able to ply his trade across all the structural forms available to him, and he scorned the sonnet-only (or the free verse-only, or the ode-only) poet as he would have scorned a plumber who only did radiators or an electrician who stayed away from ring mains. I wish I knew what Auden thought of Chopin.

And for Northern Ireland? Well, we should most definitely include Louis MacNeice, not least because he gave us this week’s title (and they are from his poem, ‘Autumn Sequel’, which we can slip onto the end of last week’s shelf). A friend of Auden, who was warmly encouraging of his poetry, and of Anthony Blunt – who knows how hard Blunt tried to encourage him down other, more political paths – and a drinking companion of Dylan Thomas, McNeice is perhaps too easily overlooked today, but his poetry, like his character, is subtle and sensitive with an intellectual backbone and a definite twinkle in the eye.

So, a Fanfare for the Makers it is. Never mind National Poetry Day: make this the year you read at least one poem every day.

Goodness me.  We haven't had a non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

Goodness me. We haven’t had a non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

Week 18: a NorthernReader Christmas

advent candleThe Northern Reader household can be slow to get into full Christmas mode.  Not for us Michael Bublé on continuous loop from the end of October. In fact, there are votes to be had  from us for the first politician brave enough to propose a complete ban on even using the C word until the first Sunday of Advent.  Through most of December, we track a gentle course towards the great day aided only by an advent candle and our daughter’s now-twenty-something-year-old Advent calendar – a cardboard model of a school nativity play complete with figures to add each day accompanied by the reading (or, let’s face it, after all these years, recitation by heart and in unison) of a dramatic introduction of each character; along the lines of ‘Here is Billy, he’s a king/Let’s hope he doesn’t have to sing.’  The Christmas CDs – carols, Bach, Kate Rusby, Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band –  play while the puddings, chutneys and mulling syrups are made.  At last, with a week to go, the box of decorations comes out and the house can put on its Christmas clothes.  I say ‘box’: over the years, this seems to have become a big wooden trunk in addition to the original container, which is, for reasons which are slightly lost in time, an ammunition box.  An ammunition box which has been painted silver, I hasten to add, which of course makes it festive and Christmassy and not odd at all.

And, just before we go out to find a tree large enough to hold all the stars and angels, the bottom drawer of my great-great-great-grandfather’s desk is opened and the Christmas Books come out.

winterFirst out are the carols.  Penguin – edited by Elizabeth Poston who wrote the gorgeous ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’, Faber – good for translations of some less-known carols from elsewhere – and Oxford, vital for the words for all the verses of the carols we all think we know. Into the kitchen comes Elizabeth David’s Christmas and Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Christmas (we’re meat-eaters, as it happens, but Elliot’s book has the Christmas pudding and Christmas Eve cous-cous recipes that are hallowed tradition in this house).  Bedside tables get copies of John Julius Norwich’s delectable Christmas Crackers.

Good old Henry II, up there with the zeitgeist

Good old Henry II, up there with the zeitgeist

And some good wholesome Christmassy crime, too: the Folio Society is the best anthology: although the insistence of so many crime-writers on the inevitability of murder breaking out when family and friends cluster under the same roof at Christmas might, I suppose, be thought to lack tact in a guest bedroom (sleep tight,dearest).

And now for the favourites.  Christmas without re-reading these would be empty and hollow. Susan Hill’s Can It Be True, a magical prose-poem that seems to hold its breath as it approaches the stable, is a good companion for Thomas Hardy’s wistful poem, christmas eve‘The Oxen’. Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: better by far than Thomas’s own too-portly voice – can he always have sounded so middle-aged as in his recordings? – would be to persuade Anthony Hopkins to read it for us.  And we have to have A Christmas Carol.  Necessary though both the Alistair Sim and the Muppet film versions are to a properly enjoyable Christmas, go back and read the book again, and remind yourself how dry, and sparkling, and angry, Charles Dickens was.

treyer evans christmasThe best of all Christmas compendia remains Enid Blyton’s (yes, her again) The Christmas Book.  It was first published in 1944 and you really need to have an early hard-back copy so that the wonderful illustrations, by Treyer Evans, can seep into your memory-bank of What Makes Christmas.  As we would expect from Ms B, the children are called Susan and Peter, Ann (who’s a bit wet – there’s always one) and the positively exotically-named Benny.  They make their own cards and crackers and ask their father – sorry, make that Father – all sorts of probing questions about the origins of Christmas customs.  Mother does get a look-in, too: she might be no use for rugged outdoor stuff like cutting holly and bringing in the Yule log (though guess who makes the cocoa and brings it out on a tray – I am clearly just not hacking it in the Good Mother stakes), but she can play the piano – you knew they’d gather round the piano to sing carols, didn’t you?  And interestingly, it is Mother who gets allocated the God bits: and jolly good she is too. For many years and for several generations now, this has been the version of the Christmas story read aloud by the NorthernReader fireside.

On Tuesday night, as we put on our fourteen layers of clothes, our socks and gumboots, find our torches and candles and set out for Midnight Mass at the church at the top of the Fell, we will raise a glass to our dear family of NorthernReaders.  We send you, whether known to us or not, our love and best wishes for peace and joy this Christmas. And when we squelch muddily back in in the wee small hours of Christmas morning, we shall read aloud Tyndale’s very English nativity:

And she brought forth her first begotten sonne. And wrapped him in swadlynge clothes, and layed him in a manger, because there was no roume for them within, in the hostrey.

230x110 cards

Week 5: cold comforts

My cousin David has died.  First of all, I want to tell you what a lovely man he was: brimming with interest in people and things, always kindly and gently good-humoured.  And now, of course, I need to read something.  What will help?

At my father’s funeral (sorry, going to funerals seems to have become my specialist subject over the last few years), I read John Donne’s magnificent, defiant sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’.  Talk about marching out all colours flying: it’s a poem that exactly hits the spot when you are damned if you going to let a little thing like death vanquish someone’s spirit. At my mother’s, I chose Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’.  The occasion felt like the reunion of my parents and that spare, quite ambivalent but ultimately affirmative poem could have been written for them.  Larkin is one of the great examples of the person you wouldn’t like who writes work that you do.  He seems to have been an unkind, verbally brutal misanthrope.   This is no doubt very unfair of me because I never met him and he may have been a poppet to his inner circle – but I don’t get the impression he went in for circles.  Or any shape other than the solitary unit.  And yet he wrote ‘What will remain of us is love’: one of only two contenders for the accolade, line-of-poetry-I-would-consider-having-tatooed-on-me (admittedly, would only consider for two seconds before moving on).  The other, should you be interested, is Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’.  You must admit, I’m going to make a classy corpse.

There are readings to avoid.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ seems  – well, a bit late, really, by the time you reach the funeral.  Better, surely, to address death itself, or those of us left behind, than the now-indifferent body.  And I have a horror of the maudlin, which rules out quite a lot (though I do appreciate that, if maudlin were to be your thing, a funeral is not a bad place to unleash it).  There is a case to be made for Edward Thomas’s ‘Lights Out’: ‘I have come to the borders of sleep,/ The unfathomable deep/ Forest where all must lose/Their way’.  But then, there is always a case to be made for reading Edward Thomas (yes, we’d better talk about him quite soon).

I can see that all my choices seem to be poetry.  Well, it’s the right stuff for the moment, don’t you think?  Stripped down to an essence, saying what needs to be said with a quiet precision.  It gives you permission to use metaphor and allusion to say things that would be too bald if plonked down as prose.  And I can see, too, that I am only talking about the sad and regretted death of generations above one’s own.  I bow to no man in my conviction that reading conquers all, but even I am not sure that anything can offer even a shred of comfort on the death of a child.  If I have to, I would go to Ben Jonson and ‘On My First Son’.  But even that wouldn’t help.All the best families are a bit like this

But what to read later, on my own?  Any death in the family involves a gathering of the tribe, and any gathering of my particular tribe cannot fail to send me back to the models for all families – Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – and for all family gatherings – the sublime Cold Comfort Farm. Dearest cousins-who-are-readers (and I know some of you are), this is praise indeed and a tribute to how gorgeous you all are.  Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate offer acute observations of a range of relatives.  There’s death and tragedy there too, wrapped into the comedy – a bit like life really and perhaps this is quite a good time to reflect on that.

So now, some solace please.  Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a good start: wise and brave as you would expect of him.  Antoine St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince/ The Little Prince will not do because it makes me cry and I’m not going to.  If ‘much-loved book from childhood’ is the category I’m searching for comfort, I might be better off with ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (chapter 7) from The Wind in the Willows.  Children’s books are a perhaps surprisingly rich source of facing up to death.  We liked Posy Simmond’s Fred, about the funeral wake for a family cat (trust me, a lot warmer and funnier than I’ve made it sound).  And come to think of it, cats seem to be the go-to animal for lessons on dying: the incomparable Judith Kerr tackled the subject with gentle authority in Goodbye Mog.  I still remember Jenni Murray’s tear-stained tones on Woman’s Hour when she said to Mrs Kerr, ‘but Mog dies’, and the sweetly firm response, ‘Well, Jenni, everybody does.’

Otherwise, there might be something to be said for trivialising the subject of death.  Let’s not empathise: instead, let’s have bodies, heaps of them, festoons of them.  The comfort-criminals then: Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham (but not The Tiger in the Smoke, which belongs to quite a different category, that of ‘too scary ever to be read again’).  Or we could be cheered up by Terry Pratchett’s  Death – no, let me rephrase that, by the character of Death who is a glory of the Discworld novels written by Terry Pratchett.  Death speaks, if that is the word we are looking for here, in small capitals and without inverted commas.  And he tells us not to think of it as dying, but as LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.  Which is a tiny bit comforting.  See you later, David.