Week 99: Remember, Remember

untitled (17)In a week which encompasses our wedding anniversary, Guy Fawkes’ Night and Remembrance Day, there is quite a focus in the NorthernReader stronghold on bringing things to mind. What do we remember, how and why? With the tissue paper of years blurring the details of our wedding day, we find we can recall the church, but not how we got there (literally, you understand, rather than metaphorically). Inevitably, our roll-call of the guests has become a recollection of the dead – all four parents, a range of aunts and uncles, a treasured godmother – and of the friends from whom somehow, somewhere, we have slipped our moorings and drifted away. And then there are the people, now and for many years dear to us, of whom it seems surprising that no, now we come to think of it, they were not there, because meeting them for the first time was still around the corner (it is quite comforting to know that we in turn feature in the phantom guest-list memories of these friends). Our recall of the events of the deeper past is of course even shakier, and each firework-and-poppy time brings up palimpsests of personal memories overlaying the public moments they commemorate. So for me, November 11th is a swirl of what we all know, or think we know, of the two World Wars – books, history lessons in school, photographs of relatives I never knew – mixed in with personal memories (watching the Cenotaph ceremony on television; my father, placing the wreath at the village ceremony in his last November). Our lived experience makes this a month of contrasting emotions, melancholy, joy and nostalgia as ever-present as the mists and fogs that have set in, it seems, for the duration. Books, please, to lighten our darkness, share our pleasures, and remind us of the fragile and elusive phenomenon of memory.

Oh, go on then, let’s start by having a crack at Mr Memory himself. Have you read À La Recherche du Temps Perdu? No, nor have I. Our loss, I suspect, and we should probably both start getting round to it now. If it’s the size of the task that daunts (seven volumes: it’s never going to be a popular book-club choice, is it?), we could make a start with Swann’s Way, comforting ourselves by remembering that Proust left the whole enterprise unfinished, as indeed he left much of his work, making him, at least to me, a much more sympathetic character than I was expecting. If something slimmer is more what you are looking for to get you through the long November evenings, try Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. We talked about Bowen before, and, should you unaccountably not have done so, I want to urge you to read her. The House in Paris is a Modernist masterpiece, exploring the very Proustian concept that the present is shaped not just by the past but by our constantly shifting understanding and recollection of the past. And, unlike Proust, Bowen’s novels are short.

We are constantly at work on our memories, sifting and discarding, seeing them from new and unexpected angles as life changes us. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending enhanced-8934-1409654432-3delves into the unstable nature of our memories and the non-existence of any such thing as an objective recollection. I love this book and hope you will too. Barnes shows us that we are all masters of fiction when it comes to constructing our own pasts. Some do this consciously and usually for material gain, of course, but we are all constantly looking backwards through highly selective lenses that owe more to emotion than to actual events. This is precisely why autobiographies can make such satisfying reading: we turn to them, not for a dreary list of pin-downable dates – born then, did this then and then – but for an invitation to see the world through the writer’s eyes for a moment or two. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece is a joy and a delight. The grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, Raverat’s great achievement in this memoir of her Cambridge childhood is to re-inhabit her childhood self. She sees, and lets us see, the world from a child’s point of view, more successfully than almost any other writer I can think of. Do not let me put you off. I do not mean that the book is an arch stream-of-consciousness voiced as a seven-year old (now that really would be ‘Tonstant-Weader-fwowed-up’); the narrative voice of Period Piece is the adult self, but an adult who can recall the utterly different world of childhood. Nigel Slater’s Toast: the Story of a Boy’s Hunger pulls off the same trick. Do not, please, imagine that I am suggesting these two books have otherwise an awful lot in common: Slater’s memories of his childhood in twentieth-century suburbia edge into Misery Memoir territory (I have to confess to being taken by surprise in a chain ‘bookshop’ by a section proudly headed ‘True Misery’, and, no doubt revealingly, having to sit down because I was laughing so much). But, not really unexpectedly for those of us who read Appetite in bed, Slater writes so well, that he is able to steer his narrative past the perils of poor-me indulgence.

All writing is engaged with memory. Novelists, playwrights and poets scavenge their personal stores of lived experience and the tales they have heard to make anew. Historians time-travel to bring themselves and their current perspectives to bear upon a past they construct. And we, if we have any sense, take heed of John Donne’s words, remind ourselves that we are not islands of separate experience, and choose to be part of the collective acts of memorialisation. They are what makes us human.

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Week 48: In Praise of Elizabeth Bowen

All great writers are great readers

All great writers are great readers

It’s confusing stuff, this modernism. In music, it seems to mean Mahler, Richard Strauss and Debussy (and they can happily go on the tracks list for a Modernist Desert Island Discs). In the sometimes arcane worlds of art and design, Modernism means angles and an austere rejection of ornament. For us literary types, Modernism came and went and we are all Post-Modern now: a topic for another day. Literary Modernism can be broadly dated from the First World War up to the beginning of the Cold War. Yes, I know you want to quibble, and say ‘but what about …?’, but to give us some boundaries to get hold of in our minds, the Somme and the Iron Curtain will do nicely. So, our Modernist bookshelf has probably already got TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce propping each other up. But I wonder if you’ve read Elizabeth Bowen, and if not, why not. It is the NorthernReader contention that she is one of the greats of English Modernism. Much more to the point, she is a joy to read: dry, witty and piercing. As the brothers Gershwin (great Modernists themselves) put it, who could ask for anything more?

Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin, thus giving her a place in the Irish pantheon together with Joyce and Beckett, but brought up in England. She was (one is tempted to say ‘of course’) friends with the Bloomsbury Group, and she had the almost obligatory affairs. Having inherited Bowen’s Court in County Cork, she and her husband lived there on and off from the 1930s to the 1950s and held a sort of literary salon to which pretty much anyone who was anyone – Woolf, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch – flocked. She died in 1973.

Her second published novel, The Last September, which appeared in 1929, is a haunting and sparely told story of love amid the Irish War of Independence. It is my everlasting sorrow that someone with actual, as opposed to Monopoly, money got there before me, bought the film rights, and made a complete hash of it. Alright, I am not an impartial witness, because I had cast it and directed it so perfectly in my mind.  Please, don’t see the film, read the book. And then you can join me in my Ancient Mariner impersonations, stopping people in the streets to tell them that they should read it too.

I’m going to implore you to add her next novel, Friends and Relations, to your bookshelf too. We could call it a comedy of manners, but it unflinchingly notes every tiny detail, every opportunity missed, every road not taken, as it tracks the constrained lives of two young couples. It is also the best-observed depiction ever written of the turmoils of being a teenager in bourgeois society. If you enjoyed EM Forster’s Howard’s End – and of course you did ­– this is definitely one for you. We could club together for the film rights.

TheHouseInParisOur Elizabeth Bowen collection must include (possibly my very favourite in a crowded field) The House in Paris. One of the tenets of Modernism is that it challenges the idea of a linear narrative – you know, one damn thing after another. Well, The House in Paris starts on a particular day, skips back for its central chunk to a narrative that may be entirely imaginary, and then catches up with itself exactly where we left off at the end of Part 1 – and oh, as Wordsworth would undoubtedly have said, had he been lucky enough to be around in 1935 to read a first edition, the difference to us! We return to the House in Paris, but we are now in the position of the person who says, ‘Well, if I’d known then what I know now …’. Only it’s cleverer, and more unsettling, than that, because we’re not sure that we know anything more than we did. All we know is that time, and places, and narratives, and – most of all – people, can’t be trusted. Elizabeth Bowen seems to have been incapable of writing a sentence that wasn’t graceful, lean and elegant, and The House in Paris will wind itself round you like an Hermès silk scarf. Only sadder.

Bowen's Court

Bowen’s Court

Just two more. She wrote almost a dozen novels, many short stories, essays, biographies and memoirs, including Bowen’s Court, the best biography a house ever received, but it is my purpose to whet your appetite, not give you a potted digest of every book she wrote. To you, the joys of browsing, especially as (unaccountably in my opinion) several of her books are out of print. So I am going to pick out another novel and a book of short stories. The Heat of the Day, first published in 1948, can sit beside Waugh and Manning who, you will recall, we have elected as the writers of the greatest fiction to deal with the Second World War. Set in London after the Blitz, it weaves together ideas about personal and national loyalty and betrayal. It makes us question our certainties about identity and truth. In true Modernist style, its narratives overlap and contradict each other. But don’t for one moment run away with the idea that Elizabeth Bowen sat down to write a Modernist Novel: not even, perhaps, The Modernist Novel.  No, like all the very best writers, she has something to explore and she found a way to do so.

The book of short stories I am going to recommend to you is A Day in the Dark (and part of me is shouting ‘No, wait! If you can really only have one, have [insert name of today’s favourite] instead!’ You can see I’ll be rubbish when Kirsty asks me which book I’m going to take with me to that island of hers). A Day in the Dark was published in 1965 and brings together nearly forty years of short-story writing. It is a selection made by the author, who prefaced it with the graceful disclaimer, ‘If this selection of stories does not please, I can blame nobody but myself – in the first place, for not having written better ones; in the second, for choosing wrongly from those there are.’ Dear Miss Bowen, no blame attaches: no-one has written better ones, and a selection made in the dark would be as pleasing.

Week 45: Playing the Game

Nadal - ir is it Cumberbatch?

Nadal – or is it Cumberbatch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 9: Men’s Books

Oh dear.  This week (like most weeks) the news has been full of chaps behaving like a bunch of three-year olds while the rest of us stand by with our jaws dropped.  Whether the American Republican Party, in a pet because democracy hasn’t given it the answer it wanted, or British police Chief Constables – um, ditto, the wonder is that they haven’t been sent up to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.  They could read a book or two while they were there and find some grown-up male role models.

Although they might have to wade through some depressing stereotypes first.  Bookshops (not brilliant ones such as Cogito Books in Hexham, obviously) are filling up with the Boys’ Own Book of Crash, Thud, and Tying Knots (or something like that) in time for Christmas.  What men want, if you believe the publishers, is facts.  Lots of lists, preferably, and detailed instructions on how to do something they’re never actually going to do (fish, mend something, make a pipe-rack).  Now, I am not disputing the need from time to time for instruction books and clear explanations of how to do something, and I am quietly thrilled that reference books such as Wisden are holding on despite the internet: but the assumption that chaps can’t handle fiction seems a tad depressing.

I don't think this is gratuitous, do you?

I don’t think this is gratuitous, do you?

There is fiction aimed at men, of course.  William Boyd has just done a bang-up job on replicating the dreary, list-laden, unsubtle humourlessness of the original James Bond books.  It sits most easily with the derring-do military anecdotes of Andy McNab, Chris Ryan et al. The most interesting thing I know about Ian Fleming, by the way, is that he may well have been the back-room boy at SIS who came up with the ‘Major Martin’ wheeze: Ewen Montagu’s  The Man Who Never Was discreetly tells the tale.  Spying is a popular topic, too: the best, of course, is John Le Carré’s Smiley and his descendants: if you enjoyed that, try Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six – and, while we’re talking about good spying books, Robert Harris’s Enigma brings a very believable Bletchley to life.

But does the y chromosome have to debar you from Jane Austen? Is Mr Darcy only fit for the company of women?  Well, perhaps he is a bad example, because his creator was female, but an awful lot of fiction has been written by men: not only novels, short stories and plays, but even (whisper it) poetry.  So if chaps are considered too – well, blokeish – to be expected to read stories, how is that they are dab hands at turning the stuff out?  And, it must be said, doing it to quite a high standard – you know, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Auden, that sort of thing.

Rising above the comment of my friend that Wolf Hall is really a girls’ book because it’s full of conversation (well, obviously the casual violence is just there for the male reader, but it clearly didn’t work in my friend’s case), what books am I going to lend out eagerly to men? And which am I going to tuck quietly away onto a special pink shelf with frills on it?

First thoughts are to segregate Bridget Jones and her like (but I’m damned if I’ll protect my male friends from the astute precision of Jane Austen).  It might even be that some of the more introspective evocations of female emotional experience might not grab some male imaginations (to be fair, I can’t stand football, so I am prepared to concede that there might be a chromosomal tendency towards finding different things tolerable).  So, chaps, not for you the water-colour perfections of Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym.  If Salley Vicker’s Dancing Backwards is not your cup of tea, try Where Three Roads Meet instead.  If you find Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart elliptical, read The Last September (if you find the heroine of Wuthering Heights tedious, on the other hand, welcome to my world).

But if we are to go along with the idea that only the tough and the hard-boiled will do for the male reader, then who more perfect that Raymond Chandler?  Philip Marlowe’s heart does get broken, but in true hero style, he doesn’t go on about it.  Peter Wimsey’s heart, we are told, was broken during the War by a girl called Barbara.  He morphs during the novels from being a Wooster-ish fop, through being an embarrassingly drooled-over object of desire in his creator’s eye, to emerge as a middle-aged married man with –gosh, how brave! – sensitivities.  No-one could ever call Wimsey hard-boiled.  Inspector Morse is infinitely duller in Colin Dexter’s hands than in John Thaw’s.  Dan Starkey, the rather unlikely hero of Colin Bateman’s books, might be better off if he could only harden his heart a bit.  If you haven’t read any, try the film of Divorcing Jack, and not just because Jason Isaacs is in it: although that doesn’t hurt, does it?  And he was spot-on as Jackson Brodie in the television adaptations of Kate Atkinson’s multi-layered, poignant novels about loss, starting with Case Histories (don’t worry, chaps, there’s detecting, some violence and even the odd chase there too).  Donna Leon’s detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, on the other hand, is unusual in being kindly, deeply uxurious, happily long-married and a caring father: now there’s a male role model.  Can we have Colin Firth for the film please?

Week 1: books for the guest-room

flowers on a windowsillClean sheets: tick.  Towels: tick.  Hell, I’ve even vacuumed.  The guest bedroom awaits our friends who are arriving this evening.  How else to show them I love them?  Flowers from the garden in a jug on the windowsill, a tin of biscuits (home-made of course: you see before you a living goddess of domesticity) …. Now for the fun part: the books to put on the bedside tables.

How to choose?  Here are my choices.  Some are going to be more or less permanent fixtures in the guest room – books that any guest might want to have around – and others will be chosen with the special likes and interests of this weekend’s friends in mind.

So, the foundations first. We live in a beautiful part of England that many of our friends don’t know all that well, so a guide book or two would be a good idea.  I’m going for The Buildings of England: Northumberland by Nikolaus Pevsner.  I love the whole series and still keep a look-out for more volumes to complete the set (not hard in this part of the forest, because we’re not that far from the wonderful Barter Books at Alnwick – centre of the bibliophile-on-a-budget’s universe).  Pevsner was sharp-eyed, opinionated and idiosyncratic: my sort of chap.  Some of the volumes we have remind you how the powers that be keep messing about with boundaries.  Our Oxford volume, for example, is old enough to exclude Abingdon because, in its eyes, Abingdon is still in Berkshire.

We live pretty much on Hadrian’s Wall, so something Roman seems like a good idea.  I might put out The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis.  It’s set in Rome and Britannia in 70AD which makes it a bit too early for Hadrian, who pitched up around here in 122AD, but it qualifies as a good guest-room book by being a crime novel which is quite light and not too gruesome.  I have no desire to be woken by the nightmares of others.  My other Roman choice would be the wonderful The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.  There’s a good chance that most of our friends will have read it as children – which was – how can I put this? A little while ago now, so it will offer the pleasure of revisiting a half-remembered book.  And if they didn’t read it when they were children, well, what a treat they have in store.  Sutcliff was right up there with Mary Renault as a writer of historical fiction that doesn’t feel as if it is a half-digested history lesson (The King Must Die, if you haven’t read any Renault and want to know which is the very best one).

I’m hoping our guests won’t be reading into the wee small hours, unable to sleep, so putting long novels by the bed seems actively unkind as well as pointless (unless I’m prepared to lend them – but that’s the subject for another week’s blog).  A book of short stories, then.  I’ve recently enjoyed Salley Vickers’ Aphrodite’s Hat, but I have to say I prefer her full-length novels (which, if you haven’t yet, do).  No, I’m going to dust down my copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s A Day in the Dark and other stories.  Perfectly observed, perfectly dispassionate, and (often) perfectly heart-breaking.  In a good way.

Every bedside table should have some poetry on it at all times.  It’s one of the rules.  As I write this, the death of Seamus Heaney has just been announced.  I’m not at all sure we can afford to be without him.  Selected Poems would do, but if I have to pick one, it’s going to be The Spirit Level.

This weekend’s guests are teachers.  So, Village School, by the incomparable Miss Read.  If my friends have not read her before, I will be giving the gift of a whole series of insightful, dry and witty books which, quite apart from the enjoyment of their gentle plots, stand now as an important snapshot of social history.  The one-teacher school, and the tiny village community that it serves, is as vanished from us as the school-house without electricity and mains water in which Miss Read’s chronicles begin.  A world we have lost ….

Which reminds me of my last choice for the weekend:  Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go? by Michael Bywater.  I first came across this gem of splenetic elegy when it was read by Stephen Fry on Radio 4.  That should tell you all you need to know, really.  But if you need even further encouragement, Bywater reminds you – in nice short chunks – that you are absolutely right to lament – sometimes loudly, in the middle of a shop or Port Office (if you can find one) – the loss of (some random examples) compartments on trains, Proper Doctors, Fathers (with a capital F) …. Oh, go and read it.  You’ll love it.  Promise.  Bet you find yourself reading it out to your nearest and dearest/people trapped in the same room as you.

Enough.  Books ready, endless supply of food and drink ditto, spare walking boots and Barbours by the door: we’re ready for the weekend.  Let’s hope it rains.