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 63: Raw Work Pulled at the Font

Christening-006From time to time, you and I have paused to notice the arbitrary way in which first names are distributed among authors. Some – AS Byatt, PG Wodehouse (whose penetrating observation provides this week’s title) – are pared down to initials, while others exhibit discontent with a single first name and supply us with a super-abundance. Apart from schadenfreude, what do we gain from such sharing or lose by the reticence of the initials-only brigade?

In Wodehouse’s case, you can sort of see why he might have chosen a degree of obfuscation over his given names. Life can be tough, but I imagine it can be particularly so if you have to make your way through it armed only with the names Pelham Grenville. Whatever his parent were thinking as they cooed at the shawl-wrapped little bundle, it clearly did not include calling ‘Pel-ham!!!’ across the playground. The fact that they quickly took to calling him Plum suggests a hint of second-thoughtism. Perhaps, secure in the steadfast bastions of being called Eleanor and Henry, they had hoped for a little bit of dash when they named their son. Learn from this, gentle reader: should you ever be in the position of lumbering someone with a name for life, think it through. Try it aloud. Write down the initials and look at them long and thoughtfully. Remember that your tiny infant has your genes and is likely to resemble an All-England fullback, in size if not in talent, and reconsider naming her Petal.

The name ‘Antonia’ passes all these tests, and it is likely, therefore, that Antonia Byatt chose to use her initials in order to avoid the lazy categorisation by critics and readers as a female writer (I’m trying to remember who it was I heard the other day refer to a ‘poetess’ so that I can recapture the irritation bordering on fully-fledged fury that I savoured too briefly at the time). In her case, it was the necessity to decide on a surname by which she and her books would be known until the end of time that proved a bit dodgy: Mrs Byatt when she began publishing, but not, as things have turned out, for much of her writing life. Unless you are Victoria Coren Mitchell or a rather over-tattooed and much-married ‘television personality’ (I’m not sure that I know what that means but it is the description used all over the internet so it must be true), becoming known by a completely different surname half-way through your career can be quite tricky. Which brings us to one of my pet hates: the insistence of editors, anthologisers, teachers and readers on re-branding the eminent Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yes, I know she married Robert Browning, and yes, I know she published her subsequent work as Mrs Browning, but to

gosh, the hair is quite striking, isn't it?

gosh, the hair is quite striking, isn’t it?

annex her previous work is an act of subjugation that I can’t help but think that she, a ruthlessly intelligent woman who achieved a marriage of true minds and great creative equality, would have loathed. Never mind: read her most famous poem, the sonnet ‘How do I love thee’ and hear her sparkling energy. To do this you will have to read it aloud for yourself, letting the passion, the intellectual dexterity and the sheer competitiveness shine through. Forget the way you have so often heard it read aloud by people who should know better but persist in using The Poetry Voice. You know – the ‘I have had my spine surgically removed and am now investing every word I say with an awful faint melancholy’ voice which is the curse that haunts great poetry.

How about middle names? Will they enhance my standing as an author, making me sound distinguished and, well, writerly? No, would be my short answer. My slightly longer answer is that middle names have tended to be foisted on the writer rather than freely advertised by him or her. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for example. Fabulous playwright, terrific politician, in many ways a joy to have in your social circle. Did any of his friends, his colleagues or his public find it impossible to call him to mind unless you added the all-important ‘Brinsley’? And, come to that, why just Brinsley, when he was also blessed with ‘Butler’ in his list of given names? No, I strongly suspect that he introduced himself as Richard Sheridan and that it was as Richard Sheridan that he was known. ‘Brinsley’ is in itself not too ghastly – although you cannot really imagine anyone, with the possible exception of the Wodehouses, plumping on it as an ideal name for a new baby (although it would be a very good dog-name) – thus bucking the tendency of the middle names of writers to be pretty grim. The prize for Writer Saddled With The Worst Middle Name goes unhesitatingly to Gerard Hopkins, as he thought of himself when he didn’t think of himself as Father Gerard (he was a Jesuit priest). Gerard’s father was called Manley. Poor little bugger, parents of Manley Hopkin’s childhood friends must have thought, and cautioned their own offspring to be extra-kind and to be grateful for having been named Thomas or Edward. It staggers belief that despite the vicissitudes his baptismal name must have exposed him to, Manley Hopkins stood at the font with his child in his arms and commanded the priest to name this child Gerard Manley (if your first name is Manley, of course, I can only apologise for my crassly judgmental attitude: apologise, and sympathise). Sensibly, young Gerard spent his life tucking his middle name into deserved obscurity. It was in every sense redundant: how many other poets can you think of with the pretty distinctive name Gerard and the capacity for astonishing sprung rhythm and authentic poetic greatness? It was his friend, the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, who included ‘Manley’ in the writer’s name when he edited the poems. Bridges, a nice man if, to our eyes now, an undistinguished poet, may have been genuinely blind to the awfulness of Manley as a middle name. His own – which he had the good sense not to use – was Seymour. Yup. Robert Seymour Bridges and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two men, united not just in being able to hear words more acutely than most people, but in having parents with tin ears and the imaginative capacity of a tin of beans.tyne-bridges

Week 61: How To Be Rich

moneyDespite the high moral tone of last week, in which we agreed that enjoying your job and making some sort of positive contribution to sharing the planet were the important things in life, it cannot be denied that money comes in handy. Not always, of course: Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Utopia either have no need of the stuff or, in Thomas More’s satire, use gold for chamber pots and fetters. But unless you have the time and energy to set up a system based entirely upon barter, or to follow John Seymour’s stern advice on Self-Sufficiency to the back-breaking letter, enough money is a necessity.

Ah, ‘enough’. Dangerously slippery word, that: my ‘enough’ might be riches beyond your wildest dreams, or less than you pop on a horse for the Grand National. Clever old Dickens spotted the chameleon-like quality of the word when he named Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations, a book that revolves around money (as so much Dickens does). She lived, you will remember, at Satis House. Oh, the irony: Miss Havisham’s tragedy is never to be able to say ‘enough’ and have done with her bitterness and brooding. Justice and revenge, Dickens keeps trying to tell us, are like money: you have to accept that, while it would be great to have more, what you have is probably enough and you are better off living with what you have than hankering after what you cannot have.

But how rarely the heroes and heroines of literature settle for what they’ve got – which is nice of them, of course, as without their striving and questing we could kiss goodbye to plot. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the chaps in the Bertram family (Mansfield Park as of course you know), and indeed our old friend R. Crusoe: they, and so many of their fictive chums, rush around the place, often spreading ruin and scattering ban as they go, motivated by the remorseless desire to accumulate dosh. (The ‘spreading ruin’ quotation, should it be on the tip of your tongue but just eluding you for the moment, is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Musical Instrument’. You may or may not be entertained to know that in the NorthernReader household, the opening line,Darcy read by others as ‘WHAT is he doing, the great god Pan’ with the emphasis very properly on the first syllable, is habitually rendered as the far more disapproving ‘What IS he doing, the great god Pan’. So much more fun). Contrary to Jane Austen’s hopes, the possession of a good fortune is rarely a guarantee of gorgeous eligibility. Dour old Darcy, Lady de Bourgh’s dreary daughter, self-pitying Willoughby and the ghastly Robert Ferrars make a sobering roll-call of what might be on offer when you marry for money . As my great-grandmother was apparently given to saying, don’t marry for money, marry for love; but only love where there’s money.

So are there any shining beacons of plutocracy out there on the pages of fiction?   Not Ebenezer Scrooge, that’s for sure, nor Hard Times’s Josiah Bounderby (contender for the closely-fought title of Best Name in a Dickens Novel). We’re better off, in every sense, with J Washburn Stoker, millionaire father to one of Bertie Wooster’s fleeting fiancées. Or how about Bertie himself? We should perhaps not overlook the fact that shoals of young women make it their business to become engaged to him, despite for the most part judging him to be a work in progress rather than the answer to a maiden’s prayer. Could it be that his enormous bank balance has something to do with his attractiveness? One of the very many joys of reading PG Wodehouse, by the way lies in savouring his seemingly endless euphemisms and synonyms for being rich. But it is noticeable how, with the exception of the occasional dog-biscuit millionaire, money is very rarely a commodity that Wodehouse’s characters knuckle down and actually earn. A bit different from the hard and uncertain road to riches travelled by Defoe’s Moll Flanders. If you should happen not to

It is, you know.  It's Daniel Craig!  And the simply terrific Alex Kingston

It is, you know. It’s Daniel Craig! And the simply terrific Alex Kingston

have read The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, well, what a treat you have in store. This is Defoe’s masterpiece, and it is packed with pungent social criticism. But don’t worry, it’s packed with sex and death as well and is altogether a rollicking good yarn as well as a searing indictment of how hard life can be if you should happen not to be born into a cocoon of wealth and privilege.

Children’s literature tends not to take to the  moral high ground about the love of money and the evil thereof, unless we count A Christmas Carol – and I think we can, because, not least thanks to sterling work by the Muppets, it is a sad childhood that does not know the tale of Dicken’s great miser. Perhaps we should see if the Muppets fancy having a go at Silas Marner. In George Eliot’s terrific parable, Marner the linen weaver learns the hard way that gold is just stuff and that what we actually need to earn, and to spend, is love.

Goodness me, how uplifting. Time to come back to earth with a favourite short poem by Franklin P Adams:

The rich man has his motor-car,
His country and his town estate.
He smokes a fifty-cent cigar
And jeers at Fate.

He frivols through the livelong day,
He knows not Poverty, her pinch.
His lot seems light, his heart seems gay;
He has a cinch.

Yet though my lamp burns low and dim,
Though I must slave for livelihood—
Think you that I would change with him?
You bet I would!writer

Week 43: Woof Woof


The newest NorthernReader

The newest NorthernReader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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