Week 102: The Woolly Liberal Reader


Having seen, seethed and inwardly digested the shameful decision of Archbishop Justin Welby to placate a bunch of homophobic bigots, I finally realised – what took me so long, I hear you ask – that while God and I get on just fine, thank you, the Church of England and I are through. I have been a bit disconcerted, if flattered, by the number of friends who have described my sorrowful au revoir email to our very nice vicar as ‘brave’. Frankly, me not rocking up on Sundays will be (a) nothing new and (b) unlikely in itself to bring the Established Church to its knees. That isn’t, of course, the point. The NorthernReader household did not trade with apartheid South Africa, and continues to do its little best to avoid ‘Made in China’. Our five ha’pence-worth of withheld consumerism did not and will not get them talking in the caverns of power, but as a minor-league player in the Unpleasantness League has it, every little helps. So, Your Grace, should you happen to have dropped by, let me explain to you that saying sorry beforehand for something that you know to be wrong but intend to do anyway does not constitute contrition. And forgive me for pointing out to you what I hoped you knew already, but you represent Anglican Christians, and it is to all of us, or them, that an apology is due. Does ‘not in my name’ have any resonance for you?


So this week’s bookshelf needs to restore some sense that light will always overcome juliannorwich485darkness and that all shall be well. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love might be a good place to start. As Nicholas Lezard points out in his review of the latest modern English version, whether or not we share the mystic nun’s faith is beside the point: read it for the beauty of its prose, its importance as the first text in English we know to have been written by a woman and for its contemplative philosophy, which offers us all a welcome opportunity to stand apart for a moment to think. And if you want to have Hildegard of Bingen playing in the background while you read, who am I to stop you? ‘All shall be well’, by the way, is what Julian heard Jesus saying to her. It certainly sounds like the sort of thing the chap in the New Testament would come up with, rather than, for example, homophobic rants: but then, he always has sounded like a much nicer person than his Church has turned out to be.

Where next? We could do a lot worse than falling back on the company of some thoroughly good priests to lift the spirits. How about the Reverend Charles Henstock, in Miss Read’s endlessly consoling Thrush Green novels? Better him by far than the fearfully self-righteous St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, although his earnest study of ‘Hindoostanee’ does at least suggest that he sees the targets of his missionary zeal as having a language and culture it might behove him to learn about. Jane Eyre has much to say, and even more to imply, about how we see ourselves as ‘us’ and others as ‘them’ and how things might be better all round if we could please stop doing that. Food for thought, Archbishop, next time you are tempted to talk to gay people as an undifferentiated entity. The acerbic (to put it very mildly indeed) American comedian, Lenny Bruce, went straight to the heart of racism by asking, ‘when you say you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one of Them, which one of Them? Harry Belafonte?’ (for younger readers, think Idris Elba).

I do rather hanker for some sort of well-mannered Utopia in which people’s sexual preferences remain known only to themselves and their consenting partners. Much too much interest in who does what to whom, especially if that happens not to conform with what the majority are doing to whom, has been a degrading part of the British legal system (not that many other countries can lay claim to primeval soggy liberal enlightened tolerance or – my ideal – utter indifference). It took a thoroughly shaming ten years for the centuries-overdue Wolfenden Report to amble into law as the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts. To get a sense of what it was like to be one of the thousand or so men imprisoned each year, now might be a good moment to read Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law, remembering as we do so that his unspeakable experiences in Wormwood Scrubs (Wildeblood was one of the defendants in the notorious Lord Montagu case of 1954) were as nothing compared to some of the punishments enthusiastically supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new best friends. Your Grace, might I recommend a thoughtful study of Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, or David Faber’s Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis? It was Churchill, you will recollect, who pointed out to Chamberlain that ‘you were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war’.newsappeasement-tl

Something optimistic is needed. ‘Only connect’, said Forster. It is what fiction does: gives us the chance to empathise. All great writers have known this. It is easy to be unmoved by statistics; the vast army of unwanted waifs, the hordes of tiny children invisibly cleaning chimneys, the sea of women who were their husband’s or their father’s property. Harder to turn your back and close your mind on the pathetic protagonists of Oliver Twist, The Water Babies and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. So my readerly response to the outrage of the 2016 Anglican Primates’ Conference is to settle down to re-read the works of EM Forster. Starting with Maurice.untitled (3)


Week 54: Hotel Books

Egyptian-cotton-linen-whiteOne of the many joys of living where you want to be is that the ghastly business of going somewhere else can be largely avoided. Occasionally, however, even we need to be somewhere else, and have to find somewhere to lay our weary heads for a night or two. Naturally reclusive, allergic to organised entertainment and bright lights, and often encumbered with dogs or offspring, the NorthernReader household has tended towards self-catering when forced out of the nest, but we have accumulated a tiny cache of hotels we like a lot. Last week, we stayed at the Annandale Arms Hotel in Moffat, and jolly nice it was too. Luxuriating in crisp white bedlinen with no fear of doing the ironing, I fell to thinking about hotels in books. Which – if any – would I like to visit?

First off, a visit to Arnold Bennett’s Grand Babylon Hotel, a really rather wonderful romp that zips along and which I highly recommend to you if you happen not to have read it yet. The action kicks off when Nella Racksole (and what a great name that is) is told she cannot order a steak and a bottle of Bass beer: a useful warning to arrogant restauranteurs everywhere. Equally mysterious, if (even) slighter, is Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel. You are pretty much bound to know this one in some shape or form as it has beebrowns-hotel-london_030320091750347563n filmed, televised and adapted-for-radio about three million times since publication in 1965, each version drifting further and further from the original rather creaky plot. I like the book entirely because it is clearly based on Brown’s Hotel in Albemarle Street, which, before its current incarnation as yet another extortionately expensive joint aimed at the more gullible sort of American tourist, was a splendidly faded and slightly austere hotel where chaps had to wear a tie in the restaurant. I used to lunch there with my father and have happy, probably inaccurate, memories of the place. Mrs Christie was clearly fully convinced of the dramatic potential of hotels: not only did she set so many of her books in them, but she staged one of the more sensational scandals of the 1920s at Harrogate’s Swan Hydrotherapeutic Hotel. Having dropped completely off the radar – if you’ll forgive the anachronism just this once – for eleven days, she was spotted staying at the Swan ‘under the name of’ (to borrow Winnie-the-Pooh’s useful phrase) Mrs Teresa Neele, a name not perhaps entirely randomly selected, given that her husband was having an affair at the time with a Miss Neele.

Further afield, how rather soothing Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac sounds. Brookner deftly captures that rather melancholy charm possessed by end-of-season hotels in places that are on the quietish side at the best of times. Her imagined hotel owes something to the pensione in Forster’s A Room with a View, and perhaps something also to the Grand Hotel on the Venetian Lido, the setting for Thomas Mann’s lush and gloomy Death in Venice (and who would have thought that Mahler would be the ideal soundtrack for La Serenissima? But he is).

Or should we go the whole hog and decamp to Haiti? Not a natural holiday destination now, perhaps, and definitely on the to-be-avoided list under the brutal Duvalier regime in the Sixties, I would have thought: and Graham Greene’s The Comedians does little to sell the place. Why on earth anyone, let alone ‘Brown’, the novel’s narrator, would choose to be an hotelier in the middle of Port-au-Prince is anyone’s guess, and indeed an air of despondent fatalism is the hallmark of the book as it charts Haiti’s slide into ever greater anarchy and brutality. As so often with Greene, a terrible dry humour undercuts the tragedy. A great book, then, but not one that makes you long to own, work or stay in an hotel.

Margot Pardoe’s hugely likeable Bunkle does just that – work in an hotel – in Bunkle Breaks Away. Far and away the best of the Bunkle books was Bunkle Butts In, a completely riveting wartime yarn about espionage on the southern coast of England that is also one of the best books about a house that I know: I could conduct guided tours of Marsh House. Bunkle Breaks Away is, frankly, not a patch on it, whether for plot or for writing, but on the other hand it does give us an authentic flavour of children’s books in the Forties and perhaps makes it easier to see why Blyton revolutionised the genre: quite simply, and however plonking you think her prose style is, she wrote better than most people could or bothered to do for children. The Bunkle books hold a nostalgic charm, nonetheless, and Bunkle Breaks Away shows a pleasing concern that its young readers should understand that life behind the scenes at an hotel is not all beer and skittles.

But wait! If literature has never quite captured the cosy charm of the sort of hotels I love, how about the Awful Warning School of writing? Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, and of course Hitchcock’s film-of-the-book (or, more accurately, film-loosely-based-on-the-book), ought to make you think twice before you shower, let alone before you book in to a creepy motel (what a great word ‘motel’ is: plangent with sleaziness). Or how about Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn? As far as I can remember, no-one seems to take a room there: understandable, of course, given the marvellous gothic-ness (gothicity?) that afflicts anyone who comes within a hundred yards of the joint, but it makes you think, nevertheless, that if Mary Yellan had only got in touch with her inner Flora Poste, laid about her with the Farrow & Ball paint and persuaded tiresome Aunt Patience to chalk up an enticing blackboard of chef’s specials (emphasising the local provenance, good life and aristocratic pedigree of each and every ingredient, of course), things out on Bodmin Moor could have been a lot less hopeless and gloomy. Hard to find time for really thorough-going wickedness as the Michelin stars come rolling in.

And that suggested re-write of one of the most enjoyable bits of tosh ever written shows you, dearest reader, that while I might be a cheerier soul than Miss du Maurier, she is the better novelist. Oh well. Back to my hotel room for breakfast in bed and a good book.berkeley_breakfast_cnt_21jan10_pr_b

Week 51: Come into the Garden, Maud. And Bring a Book

P1050215July seems to have whooshed by and the NorthernReader household has spent a pleasingly large amount of it outside in the garden. When we came here a little under two years ago, the garden was not much more than a large square of knee-high grass. Many months of digging allow me to state authoritatively that it must have been some special sort of grass, part insinuating vine and part barbed wire, with roots like coir matting and the survival instinct of bacteria. But paths have been dug – and levelled, and lined with (hah-hah) weed-discouraging membrane, and filled with countless numbers of buckets full of gravel – and beds have been raised, and ponds have been dug, and a shed and a cold-frame have been cobbled together, and all in all things are beginning to look quite gardenish. Where once there were no bees and no butterflies, we are now set fair for Yeats country (bee-loud glades and all that). Time off for good behaviour, I think. What shall I read as, for the first time, I try out the gentler pastime of just sitting in the garden?

Clearly we cannot be without Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. At the risk of appearing a bit like the reviewers at The Field, who rated Lady Chatterley’s Lover as essentially sound on keepering, one of the many joys of The Secret Garden is its perfectly practical horticultural advice. But there is rather more to the tale of Mary Lennox. Happy the reader who, like Mary, can feel their stiff little heart warm to the pleasures of a summer in a paradise (which, as of course you know, is a word that means ‘garden’). This is too idle a time of year to take on Milton and the somewhat stern pleasures of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. And great though it undoubtedly is, I am continuing to put off my first encounter with Toni Morrison’s Paradise: gruelling is not what I am seeking today. No, I’d rather turn gratefully to Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, translated into English as The Ladies’ Paradise. Sex and shopping in the glittering world of nineteenth-century Paris: how can it possibly have escaped you until now?

kate-greenaway-mary-mary-quite-contrary-from-april-baby-s-book-of-tunes-1900But I drift (I have been known to do this). What I really want for my shelf this week are books about gardens. What about Elizabeth Von Armin’s Elizabeth and her German Garden? As a child, I absolutely adored a rather tattered copy of her The April Baby’s Book of Tunes (complete with Kate Greenaway’s iconic illustrations), never realising what a very full life the author had packed in. Born in Australia to British parents, Mary Beauchamp (Elizabeth was a pen-name) was married first to the Prussian Count von Arnim, a domineering crook who spent time in prison for fraud. The Countess saw parallels between her struggles to make a beautiful garden out of the uncultivated soil of her husband’s country estate with her attempts to integrate with the militaristic Prussian social circles in which she was expected to move. Incidentally, among the tutors she employed for her five children was a young writer called Edward Morgan Forster, or EM as we like to think of him.

Thinking of Forster takes us to Italy: all those gorgeous gardens in A Room with a View (lovely Surrey garden too) and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Giorgio Bassani’s great novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, stands as a reminder that Italian fascism was just as deadly as its German counterpart. We do not have to be strict Lacanian critical theorists (although it is quite fun being one, trust me) to spot the significance of the narrator’s long-deferred entry into the garden. The book tells the story of an Italian Jewish family in Ferrara through the nineteen thirties to their inevitable deportation to the concentration camps. The beautiful garden of their manor house becomes a meeting place where the young Finzi-Continis and their friends, Jewish and Christian, can play tennis, fall in love and, for brief moments, detach themselves from the realities of life outside the garden walls. The novel is important, I think: almost as good as Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Reading both stops Italy’s troubled history from slipping quietly out of sight.

And now for some poetry. I do not think we have talked much about Andrew Marvell, which is a shame, because he is one of the very greatest poets Britain has come up with, and I want you to like him as much as I do. The biographical facts might sound a bit unpromising: brought up in Hull, a staunch Cromwellian MP, a civil servant. But wait! There is more to him than that. A good and decent man with the ability to see more than one side of an argument and the courage to express this even in times of political extremism, Marvell is the man who wrote an ode praising Cromwell which nonetheless contains probably the most favourable reflection on Charles the First ever made:

‘He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene’

He was also a stringent satirist (always a good point in the NorthernReader estimation) who used mockery as a surprisingly powerful weapon in Parliament, during both the Commonwealth and the Restoration. And he argued, powerfully and successfully, against the execution of his friend and colleague, John Milton, thus saving Charles II from at least one mean and despicable act of petty revenge. But for our purposes today, the important thing about Andrew Marvell is that he wrote – well, marvellously – about gardens. He saw them as a private enclosed space – the paradise idea again – in which a man’s true nature could blossom. In that same poem that praised Charles I, which is called ‘An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return From Ireland’, he argues of the New Model Army leader that

‘Much to the man is due,

Who from his private gardens where

He liv’d reserved and austere,

As if his highest plot

To plant the bergamot

Could by industrious valour climb

To ruin the great work of time’

Praise? Or satire? Perhaps something of both from this complex, subtle poet. But, as I head out into the garden with my trowel and my kneeler, I am mindful of his picture of Cromwell, a man for whom pottering held no meaning, who could see the dignity and the importance of apparently trivial actions. The seed we plant today will be the tree for future generations. Important, then, that we keep nurturing the love of reading.P1050232(1)

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 47: Books for the Summer

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

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

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

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

We make our own entertainment in the country

We make our own entertainment in the country

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

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

Week 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 38: a House in the Country

It will not have escaped your notice, if you are a persistent reader of this blog, that we moved to lovely Northumberland quite recently. Oh, the joys of selling and buying houses. Actually it isn’t all completely unalloyed misery and stress (although some measure of both is guaranteed in the whole process). Selling your house does at least mean that you experience what it is like to live in a clean and tidy home for once: and, if you are us, it even encourages you to start thinking long and hard about the possessions that seem to have accumulated like silt throughout your current resting-place. Why do we still have this packing case, unopened since the last move a decade ago, you might find yourself asking (in fact, if you have such packing-cases, I urge you to ask yourself that question. Right now. Stop reading and go and open it). Am I really ever going to wear/cook with/plant/learn for saleto play that? Time, in fact, for a cull (see Week 10 for book culling). There are other joys to be squeezed out of the whole wretched business of letting total strangers wander round your house making rude remarks about the curtains, but it is strangely hard to remember them even after only a year or so: what lingers is the sensation of existential angst. So, when next you feel the need to up sticks, remember the NorthernReader Golden Rules for Selling Your House:

1) find a good estate agent. You do not want the terrifically up-market firm, established in 1066. They will send a young man called Tristan to value your house. He will not have the right shoes for your garden. He will make it clear that he was brought up in a castle and that your house, with its measly four acres, is frankly slumming it and a bit borderline for his firm but that he just might be able to shift it for you for about a third of what you suspect to be its value. On the other hand, you do not want the nationwide chain of agents who claim to flog properties in warehouse quantities. They will send a young man called Kyle who has never set foot in your village before – or indeed any village – and will be aghast at your chickens. No, what you want is a one-man band who sells houses in the villages around you. He will come round himself, get to know you and your house. He will sell your house because he has invested everything in his business, and if he doesn’t sell your house he might have to sell his.

2) under no circumstances show your house yourself. Insist that your agent pitches up before the viewers. Disappear. I don’t care if you go to Paris for the weekend or hover nervously in the deep undergrowth at the bottom of the field next to your house until the invaders have left, but do not put in an appearance. Think ‘uncast part in The Archers’. You do not want to get to know the people who buy your house. You want this to be strictly business. You know: like in The Godfather.

As for finding your perfect house to move to – well, you’re going to need some books, aren’t you? Try these.



If we are thinking large-scale, then Brideshead, Northanger Abbey and Totleigh Towers would all do. Thornfield sounds draughty and Manderley beset with a serious servant problem. On a more domestic scale, I thought Howard’s End sounded rather lovely even before Peppard Cottage played the part in the Merchant-Ivory film. Or there’s Talboys: Dorothy L Sayers sends Lord Peter Wimsey and his bride, Harriet Vane, there on their wedding night (Busman’s Honeymoon ) and briefly returned there in a subsequent short story (published in Striding Folly). Jill Paton Walsh has now picked up the baton and firmly established the Wimsey family at Talboys for the duration of the war in A Presumption of Death. Even in the midst of the ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ mystery, I heard my hardened property-loving heart whispering, ‘look at all those outhouses! Think of the potential!’ (But no, I do not yearn to be Flora Poste, finding someone to wash curtains at Cold Comfort Farm).

I have a rather splendid member of the Weekend Book tribe called The Countryman’s Weekend Book. Published just after the Second World War (and apparently oblivious to the existence of countrywomen), it has a gripping chapter on how to design and build – by which it is clear the author means ‘have some chappie build for you’ – the perfect country house. Eric Parker, who wrote many of the ‘Weekend’ books, was a naturalist and sportsman who, among much else, campaigned successfully for conservation legislation and wrote for The Field magazine. His thoughts on what makes a good country house are clearly based on experience and common sense. Much thought is given to aspect and to sufficient coal stores. Lutyens-influenced (and that’ll be the architect I’ll try to snap up when I win the lottery), his dream house looks practical and comfortable, with no worries about traipsing in with muddy boots and dogs.

Or perhaps we should get more radical in our approach to rural living. Should Robinson Crusoe be our role model? Having recently discovered that Defoe named his hero (if that is the word I’m looking for) after his friend, the radical preacher Thomas Cruso who was my heaven-knows-how-many greats grandfather (pause for moment of irrational smugness), I’m tempted to consider his stockade as a way of living. But no, Northumberland is not a desert island and the natives are friendly. Perhaps we should follow the example of the ultimate reductionist, Stig – he of The Dump fame – and live in a loose construction of what artists like to call found objects.

But no. Tempting though the tree-houses, castles, cottages and caves of literature undoubtedly are, for once I’ll say no to fiction and settle happily in the NorthernReader barn. A roof of my own, as Virginia Woolf might have said.

Oh, DEFINITELY potential.  I can see it now ...

Oh, DEFINITELY potential. I can see it now …

PS  The next NorthernReader Walking Book Club meets on Wednesday 28th May at Simonburn.  See the Walking Book Club page for details.