Week 81: All at Sea

WP_20150304_026Thalassa! Thalassa!, Xenophon tells us thirty thousand Greek soldiers cried out when they came over the ridge and saw the Black Sea, The NorthernReader does not quite match that for volume or intensity of feeling, but it is our ritual cry on spotting when the horizon becomes all watery (pretentious? Moi?). Close to Britain’s very best coastline (tell nobody), we give ourselves the opportunity for this egregious showing-off at least once a week. Walking on empty sandy beaches, accompanied by romping dogs, with the early spring sunshine on your back and a breeze so fresh you wish you’d put heavier boots on, is one of life’s great pleasures. Is it just me (and that horde of Ancient Greeks), or have writers thought so too? Yes of course they have. And at least a couple of them know their Xenophon too (try the Penguin History of My Times and The Persian Expedition: he has a wonderfully clear and straightforward style and is full of vivid description): Buck Mulligan exclaims – or shows off to Stephen Dedalus, exclaiming in Ancient Greek and showing off never being very far apart – ‘Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look’. I have no idea whether James Joyce kept a copy of Xenophon under his pillow and liked nothing better than to read a little Greek every day, but here in Ulysses it is clear that he knew this ancient visceral response to the sea. And of course Iris Murdoch – how out of fashion she is now but once she was, more or less single-handed, England’s intelligentsia – finally collared the Booker Prize with The Sea, The Sea. If you are unfamiliar with Murdoch, be warned: her heroes are profoundly slappable and you may be as irritated as you are entranced. An ability to remain calm in the face of barrowloads of cod mysticism is a requirement for reading pretty much any Iris Murdoch, especially her later novels, but go on, give it a go.

WP_20150221_021More fun, perhaps, is some poetry we can chant as we stride along the beach. John Masefield takes some beating: not only ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) but ‘Trade Winds’ and the deliciously exotic ‘Cargoes’, where every word is gorgeous to read and – important to Masefield – to say aloud. Oh, go on then, let’s have Coleridge as well, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And after all that lurid story-telling, let’s pause to reflect with Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. I love it: I come back to it after years away and I still love it. There’s a direct simplicity with which it looks you in the eye and takes you on a journey which engages your intellect as well as your heart. And Arnold’s view of the world, that ‘hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light’, stands delicately balanced between the metaphysics of John Donne and the terrible nihilism of Edward Thomas. Worse places to be, provided you are only visiting.

But there is something about the rhythm and pulse of the waves beating upon the shore that draws novelists as well as poets into lyrical writing. John Banville’s The Sea WP_20150304_022(another Booker winner) shifts its moods as fluidly as the tide. And we must have Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; an astonishing thing, woven of multiple soliloquies, shot through with the changing light of the coast across a single day. One to read while we listen to Britten’s haunting ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes – a Desert Island Discs choice if ever there was one. We could add Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to this week’s shelf, too. Not only is it a perfect gem of Modernism, but it also conjures up a sense of summer on the Isle of Skye that will have you yearning for the Hebrides (To the Lighthouse is almost the only book I can think of that sets itself in the Highlands and Islands without wallowing in clans, tartans and generalised Brigadooning). Even normally-to-be-trusted Arthur Ransome goes a bit goodness-aren’t-they-quaint on us in Great Northern?, his last novel, set in the Outer Hebrides, where all the locals hang around in kilts and beards and mutter in uncouth tongues. It’s worth reading, nonetheless, even if only to give yourself the pleasure of one last trip with the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums. Ransome’s love of the sea and passion for sailing makes him unequalled by anyone other than Joseph Conrad for giving us landlubbers a sense of life on board: try We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Missee Lee and feel that you have sailed across the English Channel at night and met with pirates in the South China Seas. And then settle back in your safely land-locked chair and immerse yourself in the pleasures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We all think we know it – The Muppets, the current National Theatre version (the opera, the ballet and a musical with Tim Minchin as Long John Silver can only be a matter of time), but there is so much more to Treasure Island than adventure and derring-do. Its subtle exploration of the very fluid nature of morality, for a start, makes it a book for our time. Ah, hoarders of gold who will stop at nothing to avoid paying taxes. There are more, and uglier, faces than Johnny Depp’s to be the poster boy for pirates these days.

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous


Week 57: Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

better together

Week 47: Books for the Summer

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

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

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

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

We make our own entertainment in the country

We make our own entertainment in the country

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

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

Week 40: Books for A(nother) Rainy Day

ceiling_of_the_sistine_chapel _genesis,_noah_7-9 _the_flood,_left_view-largeThere is a new film out about Noah. In fact, it’s called Noah, and it has Russell Crowe in it. The NorthernReader household will not be traipsing off to the cinema to see it because (a) we’ve seen a trailer and we are beginning to rather yearn for a film with the light meter turned up to penetrable – these Scandinavian dramas have a lot to answer for; (b) when we want to look at lots and lots of water we can peer through the windows (this is the only time since we moved here that the weather in the north-east has not compared favourably with that in other, lesser, counties in England) and (c) we would not knowingly part with good money to see Russell Crowe have another crack at this acting lark. Mind you, he does add to the gaiety of nations with his unswerving adherence to Speaking Very Significantly, which, never mind the unintentional hilarity of any film he adorns, must make the Crowe breakfast conversation, the check-out at Tesco (‘would you like cash-back, sir?’ ‘No. I. Would. Not.’) and a game of Snap a bit more stressful than you were expecting. I’m afraid that Gladiator still takes the Best Comedy prize in the NorthernReader household: right up there with the surprisingly Glaswegian submarine commander in Red October – Sean Connery’s ‘Okay, Anatoly’, always guaranteed to have us gurgling in the aisles).

Anyway, pulling myself together, I need to go with the flow and read about rain.

piglet_rainThe bench-mark, as it were, is as ever provided by Mr Milne, and no contemplation of flooding can be complete without reference to the useful chapter ‘In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water’ (in which you will notice that none of the animals had been daft enough to build their homes upon the floodplains). Pooh is, as you would expect, kind, thoughtful and self-effacing, and above all he does what he can to make a bad situation better. ‘We are what we do’ is one of the very few sayings I would consider having on one of those tasteful bits of washed-out board hanging artily in the downstairs loo – you know the sort of thing – and Pooh, now I come to think about it, is a good figurehead for that philosophy.

And talking of philosophy brings us to Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. There is a chance, if you are neither American nor an undergraduate studying American Literature (and we must talk about reading books under duress one of these days), that you haven’t read much Bellow, because I don’t think he’s in focus at present. He died less than ten years ago and is therefore still in the gulf of oblivion that seems to overcome recently-dead authors, even Nobel Prize-winning ones (as he was). Someone, somewhere, has declared a Decent Interval before we can take up again with previous loves, whether it’s books, Ercol furniture, or indeed old loves. Bellow stakes out some territory for himself which is midway between Graham Greene and TS Eliot, leavened by humour and salted with an American world-view. Try him, if you haven’t. And we can add two more novels to our shelf, one very familiar and the other perhaps less so. The familiar is of course Jane Eyre, which begins in the rain and sweeps us onto wet moorlands via a cataclysmic thunderstorm after The Scene in the Orchard. Less familiar might be Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest. In some ways less autobiographical than her really fabulous Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy (put them together with Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and you’ve got the Second World War pretty much covered on the literature front, with no reinforcements required), The Rain Forest is a bit over-laden with symbolism, but Manning’s writing is so vivid that she is always a pleasure to read.  Brittle and well-equipped with shoulder-chips, she cannot have been an easy person – she objected to the casting of Emma Thompson to play her lightly-disguised self in Fortunes of War on the grounds that Thompson’s feet were too big (ah, hell, that’s why I’ll be objecting to Helena Bonham-Carter playing me when they make the bio-pic, then) – Deirdre David has made a thorough job of her biography, A Woman at War, catching both Manning’s right to be considered as a major twentieth-century writer and her desperate, angry ‘pick me! Pick me!’ voice sniping from the sidelines.

Alun Lewis

Alun Lewis

But best of all, perhaps, we can have some poetry to stay indoors with. Shakespeare points out the very English fact that ‘the rain it raineth every day’ (a song he gives to Feste in Twelfth Night, and not, as Sam Mendes would irritatingly have us believe, to the Fool in King Lear). Edward Thomas and Alun Lewis both catch the mood in their great poems from each of the two world wars. The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas would be a good choice for window-seat, looking-out-at-the-rain, reading, especially for ‘Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain/ On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me; (cocoa, anyone?). Alun Lewis’s poem, ‘All Day It Has Rained’, refers to Thomas and picks up where he, and his poem, left off: ‘All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,/ Drenching the gorse and heather’. A quiet and interesting man, Lewis was posted to Burma. He was found, gun in hand, with a bullet in his head, in March 1944. For poets even more than for novelists, it seems, the thought of rain is melancholic. We are left with sadness and need to stand up, to shake ourselves, to look out of the window.

But look! In the immortal words of Bob Newhart, ‘Wait a minute! It’s stopped raining!’ Hand me my Barbour; I’m going outside. If I’m lucky, I might find William Carlos Williams’   red wheel barrow.buddhistmodernpoetry

PS This month’s Walking Book Club meets at 10 o-clock on Wednesday 28 May at St Mungo’s Church, Simonburn. It’ll probably rain.rainbow

Week 16: Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 11: The Weather in the Streets and Other Places

Within the last three days, we have had warm golden sunshine, gales that have redistributed around the village anything not actually nailed down, bitter blasts and wallops of rain.  Hello, autumn.  Whether it’s turning the lights on at midday or forging across the fell at an unfeasible angle, it’s clear that the weather affects more than just what we wear.  One of the delicious things about these islands is that we have Proper Weather.  The British are famous for talking about it: come and live here and so will you, because it surprises, delights, frustrates and awes twelve times a day.  No surprise, then, that books written here are imbued with a sense of the elements.

This week’s title comes from Rosamond Lehmann.  The Weather in the Streets follows on from Invitation to the Waltz (and I do urge you, if you haven’t read Lehmann, to start now).  A perceptive study of an affair, with some claim to make Graham Greene seem cheery and shallow, the title implies that when we say weather, we are not thinking sunshine and little fluffy clouds. Thinking of which, I did have a copy of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, but it just confirmed that I don’t have that sort of brain and I left it – well, under a little cloud of its own.  More up my street was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (no, not that one), which hops about from narrative to narrative in a way that echoes If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and is only not as good because nothing could be (we’ll talk about Favourite Books of All Time one day: and while we’re about it we’re still on a promise to talk about books in translation – unless of course you are equipped to read Italo Calvino in the original, in which case I am, frankly, jealous.  I suppose you read Umberto Eco too: lucky, lucky you).

For sticky, un-English weather, Nostromo will have you sweltering: in fact ‘swelter’ is one of Joseph Conrad’s default settings: Heart of Darkness, anyone?  But then, he’s good at all shapes and sizes of weather: if you haven’t, go and be engulfed in the mist and fog of The Secret Agent.  Best of all, perhaps, on the weather on someone else’s streets, is the incomparably wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  The cold of the Russian winter follows the heartbeat of the story and gives pathetic fallacy a good name after all.  From the sublime to the – well, the more straightforward –  we might have a peek at Ice Station Zebra: does anyone read Alistair MacLean these days?  Goodness, there’s a lot of plot, mostly uncluttered by any of that tiresome character development or subtlety stuff that so clutters up other writers’ work, but you can’t deny that MacLean could make you feel the cold.

photograph of Hadrian's Wall taken some time between January and December

photograph of Hadrian’s Wall taken some time between January and December

Back home, if we’re putting together a small shelf of books that catch the British weather – and, now I think about it, there would be worse ‘welcome’ presents for someone new to these shores – we will have to include Arthur Ransome: Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post cover the coldest of Lake District winter and the parching that an English summer can deliver.  And then there’s Christopher Robin in his gumboots and Pooh afloat on The Floating Bear while Piglet sends messages in a bottle and hopes for rescue.  For the grown-ups among us, let’s have the pleasures of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, not least for its dry certainty that if summer comes, winter must be just round the corner: one in the eye for Shelley.

But of course it’s the poets who really get to grips with the weather.  Poetry and weather have much in common, after all, being flickering, allusive and elusive, a sudden flash and then whisking on to the next thing.  Above all, they both have the power to lift our hearts and to wring them.  So let’s have that fanfare for the makers that Louis MacNeice proclaimed.  And – oh, splendid! – here is my first opportunity to fulfil an earlier promise and talk a little about Edward Thomas.

If we were to be silly enough to be making lists of top ten this and top forty that, and presumptuous enough to try for a list of top poets, Edward Thomas would be there.  You know the story, I expect: the journalist author of non-fiction books who insisted on volunteering in 1915 and began, under those intolerable and unknowable pressures, to write some of the sparest, bleakest and most beautiful poetry, not only of the First World War but of anywhere or any time.  And of course you’ve guessed the ending: sniper’s bullet at Arras in April 1917.  Eleanor Farjeon, a friend, wrote the most heart-breaking poem, ‘Easter Monday’, on hearing the news of his death.  Thomas could make you feel the rain that beat upon him, hour by relentless hour, but he was such a poet of the countryside that you can also feel the warm breeze at Adlestrop and smell the beguiling earth being turned in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. More envy on my part, I’m afraid, because if you happen not to have got round to reading much Edward Thomas yet, and now you potter off to do so, you will be steeping yourself in quiet pleasure.  I, on the other hand, will be out in the rain, carrying buckets of gravel to make a path.  Oh well.  As Louis MacNeice says, ‘Let us make.  And set the weather fair.’

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.