Week 97: Domestic Bliss

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Well, hello again. I would love to tell you that my summer-long silence was because I was off cycling the route of the Iron Curtain or saving orang-utangs in Borneo (and my hat is off to the friends and children of friends who have done these things and more this year), but the truth is that I have been sitting quietly at home, looking up only every now and then from a life of happy pottering to think ‘where does the time go?’. Here in the NorthernReader stronghold the ‘summer’ – I use the word loosely, as the August skies were grey and the temperatures brisk – saw a great sheaf of domestic projects fulfilled. We have transformed a bathroom that was eerily reminiscent of an economy-class budget airline facility into a tranquil refuge complete with roll-top bath and somewhere to balance your champagne glass while you soak (and, of course, read): we have made jams and chutneys from the pleasingly increasing harvests from the garden we are making out of what was an unprepossessing square of shoulder-high rough turf; we have become grown-up and put down stair carpets, and – best of all – Mr NorthernReader patiently removed several thousand twelve-inch nails from the various pallets we had accumulated and magicked the boards into the best compost bins I have ever seen. So as a summer of domesticity turns into an autumn of golden sunlight, long walks with the dogs and the pleasures of the first evening wood-fires, it is time to revel in some books that capture the spirit of the well-ordered household.

I am struck by the number of children’s books in which our young heroes – or, more usually, heroines – recreate the comforting routines of domestic life, however wild and unfamiliar the setting. The Walker and Callum children in Arthur Ransome’s books, of course, especially Swallowdale and The Picts and the Martyrs, which are in their way every bit as detailed as Robinson Crusoe, work perfectly well as practical ‘how-to’ manuals for ensuring that you and yours are warm, dry and well-fed: as my father used to point out, any fool can be uncomfortable. Eleanor Graham’s The Children Who Lived in a Barn remains my sole source of information on how to build a hay-box: not, admittedly, something I’ve felt the need to do so far in life, but you never know. These resourceful and self-sufficient children (the poppets in Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island are another Mrs-Beeton-eat-your-heart-out bunch) are a far cry from the spoilt Hare and Squirrel waited upon hand and foot by Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit – a down-trodden drudge who practically passes out with meek surprise in Little Grey Rabbit’s f32d73ba16941931b5cb5de8546579faBirthday when her friends stir themselves sufficiently to come up with a cake. Mind you, what a cake: the icon of birthday-cakiness throughout my childhood. Maybe I should have tried a little more selfless service and, who knows, a multi-tiered spongy thing of beauty could have been, transitorily, mine.

There are flocks and herds of domestic servants in literature, seen and unseen. Who is rattling the crockery when Toad hears lunch arriving at Ratty’s house? Who does the laundry – or the cooking, the carpet-beating, the fire-laying, the floor-scrubbing – at Thornfield Hall? One of the many glories of Stella Gibbons’ incomparable Cold Comfort Farm is its acknowledgement that curtains have to be washed and plates have to be cleaned – even, if you must, with a hazel stick, should no-one, in their anxiety to avoid being on the washing-up rota themselves, present you with a little moppet. One of the most self-observant and uncomfortable passages of Jessica Mitford’s memoir of childhood, Hons and Rebels, recalls her patrician ‘rescue’ of a slum child and the chasm between her fantasy and the reality of domestic bondage into which her unlucky protegée was cast. It is one of the minor ironies of life that in an age when disposable income and technology combine to make a life of queen-bee-like indolence a possibility we have taken, Marie-Antoinette-ishly, to baking, knitting and sewing (although not, I note, to washing-up: make a heart-warming programme out of that if you can). Should you be aspiring to a high domestic standard, the ever-indispensable Persephone Books have republished Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help, a gem from the immediate post-war years that you keep hoping might have been replaced by now by a utopian family democracy in which each member trips lightly downstairs in the morning to cheerily complete their designated domestic tasks for the day in a spirit of harmony, well-being and striving for the common good. Perhaps I should get a copy for my butcher, who told me on Saturday of a conversation with his son that morning:

BUTCHER (IN ROLE AS PARENT): Do you think you could pick up all the clothes from your bedroom floor and put them in the laundry basket

SON (IN ROLE AS PARASITE): Could you lend me* £30

And the asterisk dear reader, as any parent among you knows, is to draw your attention to the incorrect use of the word ‘lend’. Persephone Books, incidentally, also publish The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. This is fiction: only it probably isn’t, and its tale of how a family regained happiness by sending mother out to work and unclamping her determined little hands from the egg-whisk is as good a paradigm for the twentieth century as any. As the mother who gave KatePonders’ teddy bear cataracts in the tumble-drier, I find myself identifying a little with Fisher’s heroine, whose son is driven to sob, ‘Don’t let him be washed, Father!’. The comforting moral to be drawn from this, of course, is to keep your domestic standards limbo-dancingly low, Hurray!


But, as the evenings shorten and darken and a distinct chill sharpens the air, there is something to be said for a room where the well-polished furniture scents the air with beeswax and the sofas and chairs beckon invitingly from the fireside. Tea and crumpets, with pretty plates (and, ideally, a teapot that pours into the cup and only into the cup; I have never come across such a paragon and am extremely open to recommendations); books (of course) and talk of books: now that really is domestic bliss.

This is 'A Fireside Read' by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

This is ‘A Fireside Read’ by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?


Week 6: Through the Plashy Fen

Ah, the country.  John Julius Norwich has been known to sing, to the tune of Beethoven’s Sixth:  ‘The country, the country, it always gets me down/ The country, the country, I’d rather be in town.’  Foolish boy (only in this: in all other ways, he is a thoroughly good thing, not least for coming up with the phrase (when asked about his father’s serial adultery), ‘ah, yes, well, he made friends terribly easily’). Today, we went for a walk by the North Tyne.  The sun glinted on the river, a salmon leapt with a splash like a hippo dropping her soap in the bath, and a kingfisher caught the light as he swooped just above the clear waters.  And we picked blackberries.  We will not have bread and milk and blackberries for supper, even though we have undoubtedly been good little rabbits (reference too obvious to give you: if you don’t recognise it, I despair), but we shall have the first crumble of the autumn.DSCF1289

It’s not always an easy thing to write about, the countryside.  Shades of purple prose hover uncomfortably over too many earnest attempts.  Better than Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, then, read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.  And watch the completely perfect film version starring Kate Beckinsale with pretty much everyone in it (Judi Dench seems to be unaccountably missing but otherwise the band’s all there: and rather gloriously, it is directed by John Schlesinger). The ‘Miss Read’ books remain incomparable in capturing a way of life in the countryside in mid-twentieth century England.  Flora Thompson’s  Lark Rise to Candleford  novels, now hugely prettified and soaped for television, are in fact quite clear-sighted memoirs of impoverished rural life at the end of the nineteenth century.  Like so much writing about life in the country, they strike an elegiac note for a world that has gone or is on the brink of going.

Children’s books tended to hover around the countryside until the fashion for gritty urban realism overcame them.  In real life a loather of camping or indeed of any physical discomfort, no matter how minor, I adored all the Arthur Ransome sagas and also the lesser-known (and now I re-read them, much more pedestrian) Fell Farm books by Marjorie Lloyd.  Anthropomorphic books about animals tend, for obvious reasons, to have rural settings, which can present some difficulties, as anyone who has read Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep Pig will testify (if you haven’t read it, do: there is more to Babe than Babe).  Life in the wild can be scary.  If you don’t believe me, ask Mole about the Wild Wood.  Life on the farm hasn’t always had a good press, either: George Orwell, anyone?  You will be pleased to hear that you can introduce your offspring to the delights of the socialist parable (for or against? You decide) at a very early age by virtue of the wonderfully concise Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell, beautifully illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

Sometimes we need books to tell us what the hell we’re looking at (yes I know I should now be relying on an app to do this but I have some shreds of dignity left and I am not going to start tramping the fells peering at a microcosmic screen which I can’t see anyway because (a) it is raining or (b) the sun is shining).  I inherited several sets of very worthy books about birds: in fact I think I may have been the fourth generation to have not opened one particular set.  You know the sort of thing: fancy spines (the books not the birds, sadly), very small print and rather muddy reproductions of monochrome photographs of – let’s be honest here – birds that were only ever some sort of little brown job to begin with.  I think I’d rather have ‘Nature Notes’ by William Boot (you’re going to love Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop if you haven’t already read it) or – o yes please! –  Alexander Worple’s American Birds and More American Birds (I could explain, but I won’t: you’ll have so much more fun finding out for yourself with the help of PG Wodehouse in Leave It to Jeeves).  Meanwhile, Simon Barnes’s Bad Birdwatcher books will help me tell a hawk from a handsaw (which, as we all know, is a heron and things were clearly coming to a pretty pass in Elsinore if there was any danger of confusing the two).

Still, John Julius Norwich does have a point.  Literature is awash with heroines (it is usually the female of the species) who tramp about in the countryside a great deal to show how emotionally over-wrought they are and who don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.  Yes, Cathy Earnshaw, I’m looking at you.  There is such a thing as taking the pathetic fallacy too far, you know.  It’s why Jane Austen is such fun: she’s so nasty about all that sort of self-conscious pretension.  Not a Romantic, it would be fair to say, and without a sentimental bone in her body (praise indeed from your correspondent).

But fiction is the thing. Two books, both called A House in the Country, both set during the Second World War, both quietly marvellous.  I have seen Ruth Adams’s lightly-disguised memoir of the attempt she and her husband made to set up a commune in the English countryside described as a comic novel.  Well, so is Bleak House.  Jocelyn Playfair’s novel has a wryly comedic tone, too: but it also, effortlessly, breaks your heart.  Read it.  Persephone Books have reprinted it (and also a different title by Ruth Adams), which is a good indication in its own right that this is a book worth reading.

Proof of Persephone Books’ invincibility (as if you needed one)?  They have reprinted The Children Who Lived in a Barn.  It’s by Eleanor Graham, who by being Editor at Puffin Books did more for launching children into a world of reading than probably anyone else, and it’s wonderful, and you can see the rather splendid Puffin front cover from the 1950s  thanks to our friends at Google so you don’t even have to miss out on that.  Puffin coverAnd now, having read it – possibly a tiny bit obsessively – in childhood, live in a barn is exactly what I do.  So be careful what you read.