Week 93: Random Reading

Week 93: Random Reading

20140502-114045A friend of mine was, in her time, Admissions Tutor for English at one of the Oxford colleges. ‘I’ve stopped asking them what they’re reading at the moment that isn’t an A level text,’ she told me ‘because they generally cry. So now I ask them what they’ve ever read that isn’t an A level text.’ ‘Does that work?’ I asked. ‘Well, a lot of them still cry,’ she replied. It seems that in the struggle for prestige and position, some of the gentler pleasures of reading have been rather lost. Real readers – and by that I am not trying to set up some sort of competition (with smug-face medals for the winners, I might add), but celebrate the life-enhancing thought-provoking and spirits-uplifting power of books – real readers tend to have more than one book at a time on the go. Don’t they? A mini-inventory of the current NorthernReader volumes seems in order.

untitled (12)I am, as you may know if you have diligently read previous weeks’ episodes, a fan of Eleanor Farjeon. So when I found her New Book of Days at Barter Books in Alnwick, I pounced, and each day now begins with a moment or two reading her entry for that date. As I am also a fan of the eclectic, the random and even the downright eccentric, this mix of anecdote, history, folklore and poetry is my perfect start to the day. So much less gloomy that Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, as well as infinitely better-written (there have been, of course, exceptions: Jonathan Sacks’ gentle explanation that ‘love thy neighbour’ is a mistranslation of the far, far harder recommendation that we should ‘love the stranger’: now there really is a thought for the day. Or for life).

3472255I am also dipping into Elizabeth David’s Harvest of the Cold Months which is, as the cover announces, a social history of ice and ices. I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of this one until I stumbled upon it recently. As always with Mrs David, it’s erudite, precisely written and fascinating. A history of ice-cream would, it strikes me, lure more children into a life-long love of history than an endless study of World Wars I and II, gripping though that might be and important – even, possibly, more important than how food has (sometimes rather literally) shaped cultures.

9698011Then there’s my minor indulgence in children’s books: this week, a joyful reunion with The Summer of the Great Secret, one of Monica Edwards’ books that successfully weaned me off Enid Blyton when small. Yes, terrifically old-fashioned now, and so relentlessly middle-class there’s probably already a group advocating their banning, but goodness me they’re well-written. Aspiring authors, take note of how easily she moves the narrative along and how little description is needed for you to see the characters in your mind’s eye. I got to know Tamzin, Rissa and the rest of them a long, long time ago, and I find I still know them. In their own minor way, they are every bit as ‘real’ as Elizabeth Bennett.

untitled (13)I’ve been reading short stories recently as well. The Persephone Book of Short Stories (another Barter Books find) is a joy; as The Guardian called it, a marvellous collection of short stories by women. Thirty perfect short stories, written between 1909 and 1986, some by earth-shatteringly famous writers – but you may well not have read their short stories – and some by women whose work you might be encountering for the first time and quickly making plans to seek out and read everything else they ever wrote. And I’m reading Julian Barnes latest collection of short stories, Pulse. It’s Julian Barnes. It’s short stories. It stands to reason that it’s marvellous: and it is.

untitled (14)What else? Well, I’ve just finished reading A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby, a novel that captures the austerity of post-war London in its pared-down exploration of a murder. Siân Busby died dreadfully early just as she was finishing this book, and the introduction, by her grieving husband, the BBC Economics Editor and all-round Good Thing, Robert Peston, will quite properly break your heart. Incidentally, if you didn’t, listen to his conversation on grief with Julian Barnes and Eddie Mair: more radio that will stay with you for ever.

And of course there are the Useful books. The Faber Book of Useful Verse, for example: a very present help in times of need (I especially treasure the section ‘Useful for Those Contemplating Matrimony’). Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow is, among much else, at least as useful a when-to-do-what (mentally adjusted for our northern latitude) as any, and much more engagingly written and illustrated than most. Jane Grigson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are sharing the honours at present in the NorthernReader kitchen. Oh, and then there’s the fond farewell browse through a teetering pile of art books whose time for the great trip to Alnwick has come.

Books do furnish a room, as Anthony Powell pointed out (Volume 10 of Dance to the Music of Time: if you’re going to do it, might as well do it properly and settle down with Volume 1, A Question of Upbringing. That’s your summer – and quite possible autumn and winter – sorted). They furnish, inhabit and illuminate lives as well. They have purpose and give pleasure; they do not make you fat, they are rarely immoral and should never be illegal. What are you reading at the moment?

Thank you, Quentin Blake

Thank you, Quentin Blake

PS Please don’t forget the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, who hasn’t the chance to read anything as he serves out his barbaric sentence of ten years’ imprisonment and one thousand lashes for having the temerity to dream of Saudi Arabia as a nicer place to live.


Week 92: Meh

WP_20150522_009… or Baa if you are a traditionalist. Yes, it’s the time of year when the hills are alive to the sound of bleating. On a trip to the torrid southern slopes of Cheshire last week, we encountered sheep who have already been shorn. Here in the more arctic regions of England, no self-respecting sheep or human has been foolish enough to cast any clouts just yet, and everyone is grimly hanging on in full wool and waiting for the promised summer time. Impressively coiffed or newly-shaved, the chief difference between lambs and their Mammas seems to be that one is enchanting and the other is stoically dull; in life, at least. How about in books?

The ovine clan has provided few heroes and heroines. Yes, yes, Shaun the sheep; but (a) he’s an animated bit of Plasticine rather than a fictional hero and (b) he is a man (or ram) who cannot even spell his own name. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Nick Park and all his works, but Shaun? Really? Could we not be trusted to cope with Sean? There are the exceptionally dim sheep in Dick King-Smith’s utterly delightful The Sheep-Pig, the unnerving little stalker who followed Mary to school according to the nursery rhyme, and the object of doggy attention in Joan Lingard’s Morag and the Lamb. Most popular in the long-suffering NorthernReader stronghold when KatePonders was a very small person was Silly Sheep, which is by Eric Hill and Alan Ahlberg and amused its intended readership an awful lot more than it did the designated reader – especially after repeated re-readings.

5.4Lewis Carroll clearly knew a thing or two about sheep when he created the really rather sinister knitting ewe in Through the Looking-Glass. You will recall that the White Queen metamorphoses into an elderly sheep in the middle of a conversation with Alice. Not only that, but the setting shifts and wobbles every bit as precariously, briefly taking on the shape of a shop before re-assembling itself as a rowing boat on the water and then becoming a shop again. Not much of a surprise that so many academic careers have been happily spent within the confines of the Alice books. I’m sure there are reams of scholarly papers, and even quite possibly whole hefty tomes, devoted to this episode alone. All I’m going to say here is that I stand in awe, as ever, at Carroll’s – well, what is it? Inventive genius or sublime revelation? – in choosing, of all the animals in the world, a sheep for this unsettling transmogrification. It’s the eyes, I think, that give sheep that ineluctable sense of the alien. In its dreamlike and hallucinatory quality, the ‘Wool and Water’ chapter of Through the Looking Glass’ feels almost Blakean. Disappointing, then, that William Blake’s own foray into the world of allegorical sheep, ‘The Lamb’, is so comparatively pedestrian. It seems to prefigure the cotton-wool world of the nineteenth-century nursery and to surrender wild imagination in favour of a docile conformity to Christian evangelism. Read, instead ‘The Tyger’, its counterpart from the Songs of Experience.

Bonnie Nadzam doesn’t, on the surface of her debut novel, Lamb, seem over-burdened with the freight of religious significance of her protagonist’s name. But, as you read on in this tale of an American dystopia, and armed with the NorthernReader First Law of Literary Criticism – which is, as you know, that There’s Always an Essay in Names – it just might strike you that there is a sacrificial element to David Lamb’s grim journey.

But revenons à nos moutons. And in Britain, as hommage to the Norman conquests, sheep hang out in fields and mutton beguiles on tables. Ridiculously out of fashion (but now – hurray! – being championed by the Prince of Wales), mutton and hogget is what we should be demanding when supermarkets try to fob us off with spindly New Zealand lamb. Make your way sharpish to your nearest proper butcher and ask, politely but persistently, for good local sheep-meat. Flushed with success, you might find Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book to be your kitchen companion of choice. Our copy was carefully selected from the shelf some years ago by the resident Labrador and … customised; but it is still readable and much-used. I expect there are umpteen recipe books devoted entirely to lamb, but in truth few of us who cook use more than the trusted handful of, in our opinions at least, Indispensable Cookery Books (Fearnley-Whittingstall, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden, in our case).

And now a sleety hail is pelting down. Hang on to your fleeces, girls, and hope for flaming June.WP_20150522_008

Week 49: Reading the Senses

A very pretty picture of complete nonsense

A very pretty picture of complete nonsense

How many senses are we supposed to have? It was five when I was little – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell – but since then, neurologists have added quite a few. There are also people who claim to sense an aura about you. In the NorthernReader experience, this is either (a) offensive and related to the long country walk through slurry that you have just completed, (b) emanating from an earnest-looking person you have met/been trapped with at a party whose own aura of being an obsessional bore you did not spot until it was too late, or (c) – when the exchange of money in return for aura-reading is proposed – fraudulent. The cheering news is that we rational types have no need of books about auras, or ley-lines, or conspiracy theories. But what books are there about the five senses?

I am told by my loving family that I spent the whole of a summer holiday reading aloud chunks of Victoria Finlay’s Colour to them. I prefer to think of this as sharing, and Colour is definitely a book worth sharing. I challenge you to read about where red comes from, for example, without interrupting the infinitely less interesting things your loved ones are doing to enrich their lives for a moment or two.

gregynogReading is in itself a visual experience, and now is a good moment to celebrate the makers of books; the paper-makers, the ink-grinders, the font-designers and the whole glorious kit and caboodle of the hand press. If you have never seen one in action, seek one out and flock to it. I love Gwasg Gregynog in Powys and, in writing this week’s blog, have become mildly obsessed with finding hand presses and makers of paper. A local paper-maker, once called Warden Paper Mill, began making paper for books in 1763, but has produced only industrial wrappings for the last forty or so years. Simon Garfield’s Just My Type is sufficiently interesting about fonts to redeem the terrible pun. Any study of fonts and type-faces runs slap into the perennial problem of ghastly person/great artist in the form of Eric Gill. Gill’s private life, as these things are euphemistically known, would have brought a blush to the cheek of a marauding Goth (that’s the Germanic people who felled the Roman empire, not the whey-faced children who droop about in black). But he gave the world Perpetua and Gill Sans, which has been at various times the typeface of the BBC, the Church of England, the British Government and Penguin and Pelican Books.

How about sound? All reading resonates in the reader’s mind, and all poetry, especially, should be read aloud. The Sound Poets were experimental performance artists of the early twentieth century, linked to Dadaism and Surrealism. The most accessible and enjoyable is perhaps Edith Sitwell’s Façade (music by William Walton), which I’m sure you know. The most famous of a later generation of American poets exploring the abstract use of sound is Alan Ginsberg, whose Howl is, I confess, a taste I’ve never managed to acquire. Deaf heroes or heroines in fiction are few and far between, although rather cheeringly a superficial trawl through Google suggests that they are two-a-penny in romantic fiction. More lastingly, perhaps, we can add Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to this week’s bookshelf. Her profoundly deaf protagonist is called John Singer, one of the best examples I know of my contention that names in fiction are always significant (or, more pragmatically should you be a student, there’s always an essay in names. You can thank me later).

Smell? We must have Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, one of the most gloriously weird and disturbing novels to have been hatched in the late twentieth century. Sensuous and distasteful in almost equal measure, the book is a tour de force of celebration of a sense that might be thought to elude pinning down in words. Not that you would think that for long once you dipped into the marvellous Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfume: The A-Z Guide. If you do not own this, you should. It is completely indispensable as well as fascinating, brilliantly written and, frequently, a hoot (especially about some of the nastier scents being offered for sale). I would seriously consider toting this one along to Kirsty’s desert island. Turin is a seriously interesting chap and I highly recommend Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which may well start you campaigning for Turin to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

calvin-and-hobbes-better-tasting-foodBooks that evoke taste? Too easy, you might be thinking: all those cookery books that fall into the category of Cookery Books to Read in Bed (so much more enjoyable than the instruction manuals). Best of the literary cooks, to my mind, are Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. I think I could endure much culinary deprivation if I could sit up in bed and read A Book of Mediterranean Food and Good Things. But what about Proust and his madeleines and linden tea? The most bewildering thing to many English readers of a certain age was why anyone would have any sort of involuntary memories worth recounting on sampling the rather nasty little turrets of desiccated coconut and glacé cherries that were sold in this country, for reasons that elude me, as madeleines. Sometimes food, like literature, simply does not translate very well. Fiction has the last laugh, though, as it steals its metaphors from the larder and the table. What is taste, after all – literary taste, ‘good’ taste – but a vivid metaphor describing how we select what feeds our minds and shapes our cultural contours? I think we should let Alexander Pope have the last word on taste, and add to our bookshelf his ‘Essay on Criticism’, which is not an essay but a poem, and in heroic couplets at that, and I hope you love it.

So we are left with touch. Paper, bindings, covers, keyboards and screens all send their messages to us through our skin as we pick up books, turn the pages, click the mouse and stroke the cool surface of our e-readers. And every writer who ever lived, prose or poetry, fact of fiction, sought to touch our minds and our hearts. Hurray to that: let them in.Pile-of-Books

Week 33: The Illustrated NorthernReader

Just back from an exhilarating jaunt to Barter Books in Alnwick. I resisted the temptation to simply give them power of attorney over my bank account and scoop up all their delectable offerings, but I did wallow in joyful recognition of These We Have Loved. A trawl of the shelves produces books-I-once-knew and books-I-want-to-meet in about equal proportions. My first books, like yours, were picture books. Words got added as my ability to read them grew, but the pictures were always part of the experience. Where does it say in the book of rules that once we have reached full height we can no longer be allowed the pleasure of the illustrated book? Here are some favourites, a few recommendations, and a heart-felt plea.

Alright, I can now see that this is a tiny bit camp, but I loved it

Alright, I can now see that this is a tiny bit camp, but I loved it

My uncle – one of those best sorts of uncle, who never seemed to notice any disparity in age between uncle and niece – gave me two books in childhood that were fabulous, gorgeously illustrated and, it turned out, hugely influential in shaping my future reading and interests. The first was Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans, published by the now-moribund Purnell & Sons and illustrated by the Grahame Johnstone sisters, Janet and Ann. You may know their work from their illustrations for Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Bereft of my childhood copy, I finally tracked one down a few years ago and had the thrill of finding that the pictures were, unusually, exactly as I had remembered them. The story-telling is of the very finest quality too: how many really quite small children do you know who spend their time being a Trojan princess? Because that, dearest reader, was how I whiled away many a happy childhood hour. The second treasured gift was a re-telling of Don Quixote with – crucially – amazing, don quixotedream-like illustrations by Giovanni Benvenuti. No matter that I was about six years old: I was hooked.

As I grew to teenagerdom, the illustrations started to seep out of the books I was reading. I missed them, along with the exercise books at school with lines on one side, for writing on, and blank pages on the other, for drawing. I wonder whether the world might not be a nicer place if all notebooks, especially, perhaps, those provided in Cabinet, were made along these lines, and a nice fat pot of coloured pencils plonked onto the green baize. However. The one disadvantage with illustrations is when the principal characters have not been drawn in strict accordance with how they look inside your head: akin to the gross miscasting of television or film versions. Remember the mental scars Dick Van Dyke left on all you Mary Poppins’ readers? Like that. One of the reasons why Arthur Ransome turned out to be the perfect illustrator of his own books is that, lacking confidence in his ability to draw faces, he shows the Swallows, the Amazons, the Coots and all the rest only from the rear, at a great distance or wearing hats.

LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattBut as adults, if it were not for the splendours of Folio Books, we would be in danger of falling for the half-baked idea that pictures are only for children: which would come as news to the maker of the Lindisfarne Gospel. I am pleased to report that Barter Books have a whole section devoted to second-hand copies of Folio books, so your next trip to Alnwick (cracking little town, wonderful garden, Harry-Potter themed Castle if that’s your sort of thing and wonderful, fantastic, lyrical countryside and beaches within spitting distance) might be a good opportunity to start your collection of illustrated Austens, Trollopes, Waughs or Chandlers (the illustration I have chosen is by Tatsuro Kiuchi. Can you see what it is yet?).day of the jackal And the lovely Miss Read publishers stuck doggedly and delightfully to her requirement to have her books illustrated, by John Goodall for many years. The drawings are idiosyncratic, just right and form part of the pleasure of the text. Otherwise we visually-starved grown-ups are thrown to the mercies of the sort of publishers who – and I promise I am not making this up – produce copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets interleaved with reproductions of Hilliard miniatures and twee watercolours of flowers, and scented. Yup: honestly. The whole damn book, scented with the reek of artificial violets. Someone who did not know me at all well once gave me a copy, not, I regret to say, in a discernible spirit of irony.

mintonOr we could find solace in cookery books. Not the rather intimidating photographs of what it all should look like (but probably won’t even if I become the sort of person who follows the instructions slavishly), but the strange, oddly brooding woodcuts that decorate the original Elizabeth David books. They are by John Minton, an unhappy soul who deserves greater recognition than as side-kick to the waspish Mrs David, who didn’t much like his work.

So, please don’t deprive us of pictures just because we’re over ten years old.  Yes, I know the best ones are the ones the words make in our heads (precisely why radio is so vivid) and no, Idon’t want every character, every setting and every twist in the plot laboriously spelled out in watercolour, any more than I want great solemn chunks of physical description of our heroine and what she is wearing: but decoration that adds to the mood of the piece can only add to the enjoyment.  After all, I have long thought that of the two best jobs in the world, one must be the lucky person who chooses the front cover art for books (can I have John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose for  Women in Love please?).  The other best-job-in-the-world?  Why, naming paint colours of course.Carnation_Lily_Lily_Rose_B

Week 21: Food, Glorious Food

I am reliably informed that Rudolf Nureyev always aimed to put on 7lbs in the winter.  Passing silently over the depressing realisation that he probably put them off again every spring, I take this to be permission to crack on with the G-Plan Diet.  No, not reducing waistlines by only eating while sitting on stylish modernist furniture: G stands for Greedy.

library restaurantNow here’s where being an avid devourer of books pays off.  As Pongo and Missus know (One Hundred and One Dalmatians), leather bindings are the tastiest, but actually I was for once thinking in terms of metaphor (try Terence Hawkes’ short but definitive exploration for dazzling insight into metaphors).  We omnivorous readers can snack on cookery books, feast on histories of food and gulp down gasp-making accounts of edible excess – all without ingesting a single, wriggling calorie.

Cookery books divide themselves into two categories: instruction manuals (from Isabella Beeton to Delia Smith) and essays-with-recipes.  That’s the sort of cookery book you can read for pleasure and not necessarily in the immediate pursuit of grub.  The best were Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.  It is almost an accidental auxiliary gain that their recipes work (sometimes more or less work, in the case of Mrs David).  As the years sloosh by, both also begin to speak from a world we have lost.  I am sure you know of the revolutionary impact on rationed post-war Britain of A Book of Mediterranean Food.  It burst upon an entirely monochrome country with its unquestioning recommendation of lemons, garlic and olive oil as kitchen essentials. ‘Add little by little 4ozs. of butter and 4 beaten egg yolks,’ it said, in 1950: no problem for the cook complying with the ‘little by little’ advice – up to a week’s ration of butter and of eggs, gone in a transitory glory of béchamel sauce. No surprise, perhaps, that the General Election of 1950 was largely fought on the issue of rationing and how quickly it could come to an end.  Even a generation later, my own garlicky, wine-y (as opposed to whiney, which of course I wasn’t) childhood was, like so many aspects of my childhood, distinctly unusual.  All right, let’s face it, odd.

And no surprise, either, to find that the introduction to my later edition of Mediterranean Food was written by the great Jane Grigson.  Unquestionably a writer you can read in bed (just don’t dribble – that’s never a good look), Mrs Grigson is in many ways the direct heir to Mrs David, passionately arguing for food and cooking to be seen as a central part of our cultural heritage.  Whether she’s telling us about the village food of Troo, in the Loire Valley and home of a wonderful stuffed cabbage recipe (try it: it’s in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book and is just the thing for this rather dispiriting time of year) or reminding us that Mrs Raffald’s Bacon and Egg Pie (English Food) is every bit as delicious as quiche and travels better for picnics, Grigson writes with knowledge, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.  If the movement for Slow Food – the proper recognition of food and cooking as the central binding agent of families and communities – doesn’t yet have a patron saint, then I offer Jane Grigson.

Cookery books have a way of accumulating in kitchens if you’re not careful, and it can be quite eye-opening to go and take stock.  When did you last use One Hundred and One Microwave Suppers (oh, I’ll bet there is a book called that) or 500 Cheescake Recipes  (I know two, and they both work, and I have no interest in knowing any more)?  An afternoon spent carrying out a cull might not only produce a helpful bag-full for your nearest Oxfam, it might also reunite you with some once-treasured recipes that, somehow, you have got out of the habit of making.  When Katie Stewart died last year, I was reminded to dig out my battered and more or less loose-leaf paper-back Times Cookery Book.  I have been cooking from it ever since:  sensible, clearly and calmly-written recipes, not given to provoking you to rush out and buy exotic once-off ingredients (sherry vinegar, anyone?): and, by the way, the best – by which I mean simple and unfussed – instructions for turkey-roasting you are likely to find.

These three good ladies, David, Grigson and Stewart, all pre-date the age of the Celebrity Chef.  Hurray!  I do not want to cook like Gordon Ramsay – in fact there is no aspect of Gordon Ramsay that I wish to emulate.  But cooks-who-can-write are a mercifully different kettle of fish (oh, you can’t begrudge me at least one cooking-based metaphor).  The best of them is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, liked in the NorthernReader household because of his pleasingly practical solution to the Grey Squirrel Problem (clue: they’re delicious), but Nigel Slater, irritating though he can be with a self-regarding preciousness, has the great redeeming quality of liking his grub and writing about it with loving attention.

But, without question, the most memorable cookery book I have ever come across belonged to my great-grandmother.  It may, indeed, have been given to her by her mother, and for all I know it may have been passed down for several generations before that.  Several generations, that is, of redoubtable Highland women who could not only read and write – the book is hand-written – but who could stomach anything.  Nearly all the recipes – and there are many – involve the simple core ingredients of lard, blood and oatmeal.  Even more horrifyingly, several recipes have the simple annotation, ‘this is very good’, noted in the margins.  Armed, possibly only, with this notebook, my great-grandmother travelled fearlessly across the length of the planet and took on whatever the outer fringes of the Empire could throw at her without batting an eyelid.  Well, you can see why.  Eat your heart out, Charles Marlow: if you’d been brought up on my great-grandmother’s cooking, what could Kurtz bring on that would have made you tremble?

Week 18: a NorthernReader Christmas

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

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

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

Good old Henry II, up there with the zeitgeist

Good old Henry II, up there with the zeitgeist

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

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

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

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

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

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