Week 114: Showtime

my-fair-lady-1964-09-gIt used to be called The Season, and jolly tiring it was too.  Never part of the Coming Out (which meant something quite different then), balls and aristocratic hob-nobbing which formed the invisible web binding together the members of a now-vanished caste, I look back in astonishment to realise how many of the London season events were an occasional part of my childhood.  Not a horsey lot, we were not the family that counted the days to Royal Ascot, Badminton and the Epsom Derby (although a later extremely mild interest has led me before now to Cheltenham and Goodwood in the days when it was still about horses). Wimbledon, as I have confessed before, has left memories only of acute and almost terminal boredom.  The highlight used to be the Chelsea Flower Show: I had some halcyon years living on a houseboat practically next door, and in the days when Members’ Day meant you and one or two other people pottering blissfully about in frocks/gents’ lounge suiting in the sunlit acres – ah, it was very heaven, those blue remembered hills whereon celebrity had not been invented.

Since those far-off days, the NorthernReader household, its back turned against the metropolis (hurrah), has found its pleasures in a harmless addiction to country and county shows.  If you have yet to experience a day spent in comfortable footwear solemnly debating the relative merits of different breeds of perfectly darling sheep, showmake this your breakthrough year.  We have happy memories of years and years of drinking Pimms and watching the pole-climbing (no, really) at the New Forest Show: only our morbid dislike of traffic kept us away from the Royal Welsh.  Since becoming adopted citizens of Northumberland, our cravings are splendidly fed by the Northumberland Show, and that was where we were to be found yesterday, knee-deep in cattle, pigs, dogs and tiny children driving tanks around a field.

The country show has seldom, if ever, featured as a key locus in fiction, which is a shame because all human, and indeed sentient, life is there.  A splendid setting for comedy, tragedy, love and mayhem, I suggest.    PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens explores many of Ukridge’s get-rich-quick ideas, but, sadly, exhibiting at the local show is not one of them (incidentally, when did chicken farms fall from favour as an absolutely sure-fire thing for making love or money?  Wodehouse’s breezy chaps are always falling back of the idea as a perfect scheme, but Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and indeed one the plot twists and turns in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, would tend to suggest that there is a melancholy or even a sinister side lurking among our feathered friends). Race meetings have become synonymous with Jilly Cooper territory, in fiction if not in life (haven’t read one and haven’t encountered burly lotharios with Barbara Cartlandish names, so cannot claim any right to judgment here); and of course with Dick Francis’s thrillers, which marry detailed knowledge of the racing world with the most wooden characters since Thunderbirds and are therefore known collectively (there are about a million of them) in the NorthernReader household as The Woodentops Go To The Races.

The London Season in all its debutantish horror lies behind Nancy Mitford’s The mitfordsPursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and is even more clearly brought to life in her sister Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  EF Benson’s Lucia in London charts his heroine’s attempts to break into high society.  If you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia novels, the best recommendation I can give to entice you in is that Benson completely nails the significance of saying ‘no’ with emphasis to mean ‘I never heard anything so marvellous, and it thrills me through and through.  Please go on at once, and tell me a great deal more’ (and if that doesn’t make you want to add Benson to your much-cherished ‘Jane Austen and Other Wasps’ shelf, I despair).

Let us shake off the dust of London and retire gratefully back to the country and its social pleasures.  Our first glimpse of Tess, red lips and sash, white dress and all, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, finds our heroine skipping round the Maypole.  I have only to recall it – and the several hundred dutiful essays retelling it to me handed in each year by undergraduates – to know that the moment when I can re-read  Tess has not yet dawned.  More enjoyable might be Peter Tinniswood’s play, The Village Fete; I don’t know it but he was such a good writer that I’m looking forward to making its acquaintance now I’ve stumbled upon it.  Miss Read, of course, is as ever a mary-mouse-and-the-garden-partysplendid source of fetes, fairs and jamborees, as is Barbara Pym (and why has it only just dawned on me how much those terrific writers have in common?).  If all else fails, we can revisit Enid Blyton’s Mary Mouse, who in Mary Mouse and the Garden Party performs the useful function of setting out all the hard work that lies behind such a festive occasion in so much grim detail it put at least one impressionable young reader off anything to do with such jolly community get-togethers for very many years.  Ah, how are the mighty fallen: this summer (I use the term loosely, having looked out of the window) I find myself organising a village Midsummer Night’s Party and running the raffle for the Village Fete.

And on both days, the sun will shine, print frocks will be worn, bunting will flap, and, best of all, there will be books.  It’s beginning to look like a NorthernReader summer.books

Advertisements

Week 108: Hair Days

images We touched last week on the irresistible draw experienced by the bad at heart towards eccentric and baffling hairstyles. ‘By their works shall ye know them’ still holds good, and the best indicator of a person’s moral worth remains his or her actions. So, President Assad of Syria, a surprisingly normal short back-and-sides does not make you a good person. But hair can serve as a sort of early warning system in life (Donald Trump, the little chap making people’s lives unbearable in North Korea, the unnerving brazen helmet that a former Beloved Leader of our own adopted). How about in books?

Richmal Crompton deftly spotted the reassuring nature of the tousled hairdo (only up to a point, Boris Johnson) and contrasts William’s pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards trademark style with that of the unnervingly smooth and glossy Hubert Lane. It is tempting to see Crompton’s inspiration for this nastiest and creepiest of horrid little boys in the slicked-down Adolf Hitler, but in fact Hubert predates the rise of the brylcreemed dictator. It could just be that, should she have had anyone in her sights as a target for parody, the press baron Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, might fit the bill; ‘pioneer of tabloid journalism’ is a damning epitaph, don’t you think? Even more aptly, perhaps, Harmsworth’s brother Harold, later known to us yokels as 1st Viscount Rothermere, another media magnate and an enthusiastic admirer of Nazism, richly deserves the mockery of being thought of as Hubert Lane’s prototype. Chilling, though, to think of William and his gang and the Hubert Laneites growing to adulthood in time for the Second World War (a fate they avoid by remaining forever eleven as the decades pass). I feel the same sad shadow hanging over the Swallows and the Amazons, by the way: while it is quite cheering to think of Nancy as one of those WRNS pushing the model boats about on charts, John and Roger, clear and obvious naval officers both, would have been lucky to come through the war untorpedoed. How comforting of fiction to suspend them all in a nostalgic glow of everlasting holiday (for a sense of what it was like waiting for news of loved ones on active service during the war, Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn takes some beating).

eb046724349a66c2c58b8ddd47576a44Victorian literature, and in particular male Victorian novelists, fetishised long, luxurious female hair to such an extent that it came as quite a surprise to me that not only did many women in the nineteenth century not have hair like Rapunzel but also that short hair was in fashion in the early nineteenth century among radical dissenters and democrats. In the heyday of the Great Victorian Novel, women’s hair is a shortcut (sorry) to character. Dark, flowing locks, untrammelled by pins and an up-do? Think passion, rebellion and (gasp) intelligence. Fair hair, timidly framing the face? A sweet if rather vapid young woman such as Laura Fairlie, heroine of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, where she is contrasted with her black-haired, sallow-skinned half-sister, Marian Halcombe, with her mannish looks and propensity for action. It’s a code that lingers even into the works of Enid Blyton, in which the drippy Anne is blonde and passive while dark-haired Georgina is such a victim of the girls-have-to-simper rule that she breaks out by exploring androgyny (this is just possibly not how I read the Famous Five books when I was small).

Earlier, Jane Austen knew her readers were attuned to the semiotics of hair, and gives us plenty of telling detail. One of the very many things that Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility gets exactly right is the difference between Elinor’s neatly confined hair and the tumbling wind-blown tresses of her sister Marianne. Much of the plot depends upon our understanding that to touch or stroke woman’s hair is an intimate and erotic gesture, so that when Elinor sees Marianne allowing Willoughby to cut off a lock of her hair as a keepsake she takes this as absolute confirmation that the two are engaged to be married. It is this fondling of someone else’s hair that gives such a decadent and disturbing edge to the scene in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in which Miss Havisham – she whose own hair is macabrely decked with withered flowers – ties jewels in Estella’s hair and on her breast before poor Pip’s helpless gaze. Remember Pip is British: it is a wonder that he didn’t just die of embarrassment on the spot (note to readers who are not British: there is something in the British DNA that makes watching an older woman suggestively stroking a young girl not titillating but utterly, toe-curlingly, mortifying).

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Marianne’s lock of hair has literary precedent, of course, and if you have unaccountably not yet got round to reading Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the moment has arrived. Pope’s mock-heroic poem arose out of an incident which threatened to escalate to Capulet/Montagu proportions: an aristocratic young man took it upon himself to snip off a ringlet from the head of his distant cousin, a celebrated beauty whom he was courting. In life, the story does not have a happy ending: Lord Petrie married someone else (great wealth proving even more attractive than great hair) and died of smallpox two years later, aged only twenty-three. But Pope’s poem sparkles and breezes along, joyfully skipping from one hyperbole to the next. His aphorism, ‘Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul’, continues to have much to recommend it and should be on every young man’s reading list before he a-courting goes.

That young man should also bear in mind the good example set him by Shakespeare. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,’ Will tells us, and carries on to say,’ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.’ Oh, you might think, a bit blunt; but that’s the point of glorious Sonnet 130: Shakespeare shuns flattery and shows it up as the empty mockery that it is. Love everything about who your beloved really is, he tells us, and it’s priceless advice. The reference to wires is a technological one, by the way: the fashion of the day was to compare the ideal woman’s hair to finely-spun golden thread or wire. Shakespeare’s is the time when to be blonde is to be, in every sense, fair. Marina Warner’s scholarly study, From the Beast to the Blonde, examines the world of fairy tales and is completely fascinating about our cultural response to hair colour. Long or short, black, brown, red, blonde, green or blue or violet if you really must, grey, silver or white, other people are reading our hair. When you come across descriptions of hair in fiction, just ask yourself why.

You have to admit, a great hairdo

You have to admit, a great hairdo: and we haven’t had an entirely non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

Week 97: Domestic Bliss

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Week 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 86: Education, education …

imagesWhen did we start counting everything, and discounting things that can’t be counted? It may be, dearest reader, that you live in a country where education rolls merrily along on the principles that fired up the Enlightenment: exploration, discovery and wonder. Here in Britain – and I know we are not alone – playgroups, nurseries, primary and secondary schools, universities and colleges, have all fallen victim to the glittery-eyed phalanxes of lackeys of the State armed with clipboards. What I have learned this week is that OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – and I defy you to come up with a more meaningless job title than that) costs about £168 million a year. If I had that sort of money to spend on education, my first thought would not be to stagger about making other people’s lives a burden to them and ensuring that school is a stressful and miserable environment for teachers and children alike. In the dreary midst of an interminable election campaign, I’m not sure whether to be glad or sorry that education is not attracting too much fatuous attention from the power-hungry. If only they’d read some good books and dare to think differently.

Most of the education industry at present – oh, yes, it is an industry these days, did no-one tell you? They marched it into the parade ground about twenty years ago, snipped all its professional buttons off and reduced it to the ranks of having to obey orders from people who despise it – most of it seems to be proudly modelling itself on Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. The thing is, OFSTED, that Dickens conjured him up as a savage satire on the repellent regimentation of education. When he made Gradgrind say, ‘Now, what I want is, Facts,’ we were supposed to fall about in appalled laughter, not sit up and take admiring notes. If you haven’t yet, do read Hard Times. It is Dickens at his fiercest and finest (and you can read it for pleasure and not because it is a set text).

How could education be better? Well, I’d be very happy if the way Gerald Durrell was taught could be more of a blueprint. In the sublime My Family and Other Animals, Durrell gives a magical sense of how a gifted tutor guided him into seeing the world as endlessly fascinating and worthy of lifelong enquiry. The ‘Theodore’ of the book was in real life Dr Theodore Stephanides, a Greek poet, scientist, biologist and doctor. He taught young Gerry not by getting out the books and turning relentlessly to Page 6, but by finding out what his pupil was interested in – beetles, mostly, in Durrell’s case – and using that enthusiasm to introduce all the stuff that we need to know in life. For Stephanides and his lucky, lucky, student, there was no such thing as Pure Maths or Pure anything: everything was applied. If I sound envious, it’s because I was taught algebra by someone who, frankly, was terrifying enough to make me let ‘x’ be whatever it wanted to be – but I never knew why. For Durrell, on the other hand, algebra cropped up naturally as a way of working out how long it might take those ants to move all those eggs from a dangerous site to a safe one. Those same ants could be the focus of every subject in the curriculum. Oh yes they could. If you happen to be at a loose end for a few minutes, draw up a curriculum for yourself. The only rules are: pick something, anything, that really interests you; and think of ways you could use that as a focus for every subject you ever did, or are doing, at school. See?

Osbert Sitwell declared that his education happened in the holidays from Eton. He seems to have had much in common with the protagonists of children’s literature. In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, school, as we have noticed in other weeks, is an unfortunate interruption to the real business of learning useful stuff, as it is for Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Even in school stories, from Angela Brazil to the Schoolfriend Annual (cherishable for the adventures of the Silent Three, who all have sensible names like Peggy and BettySilent_three and are awfully good sorts), lessons are little more than a plot device, a hiatus in our hero or heroine’s independent activity. Lessons only get interesting to us, the readers, when the school is for witches (Jill Murphy’s lovely Worst Witch stories) or wizards (HP). We hear little of the lessons at Lowood, the school to which Jane Eyre is packed off, although Charlotte Brontë does give us the satisfactory scene in which the School Inspector, the vile Mr Brocklehurst, is brought to heel by – oh, the irony – another layer of management. Ah, now I see where successive governments have found their whizzo ideas.

Do things get better if you manage to survive school and go to university? We thought about this many months ago (as long ago as Week 2). Alas, I have to break it to you that student life has changed a bit since Brideshead Revisited, even if today’s students do show equally little interest in their academic endeavours. On the bright side, things, especially for women, have improved a bit since Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. But universities, like schools, are now plagued with endless league tables, ratings and petty competitiveness. Oh for a return to the quietly scholarly world Dorothy L Sayers portrays in Gaudy Night. Well, yes, the college is riven with unholy goings-on, but, if we acknowledge that the jealousies and rivalries between academics that she reveals are pretty true to life, can we cling on to the picture of the joys of tranquil research that she also shows?

All is not lost. If you share any of my feelings – sorrow, disappointment, rage – about the education factories we seem to have created, have a look at Slow Education. You never know, you might learn something.

Definitely non-gratuitous

Definitely non-gratuitous

Week 68: Chairs

house that jack builtIt’s a bit like The House that Jack Built. Only – blessed relief – without the sinister dog and the insipid young man of the Caldecott book that slightly haunted my childhood. But today we have bought the fabric to cover the chair that we bid for at auction to sit by the table that can come into the room instead of the piano. Because realisation that we are never going to learn to play the piano has dawned, and it has gone to a splendid young woman who is not only doing so, but enjoying it. The result of all this furniture moving has been a fixation on identifying the perfect chair. As I’m sure you have experienced for yourself, anything thought about too long becomes completely surreal and improbable. I can report to you that this holds true for chairs. Stare at enough of the wretched things and they start to look very unlikely indeed. Squat and sitting on their haunches, most of them, like a rather stout gentleman with his hands on his knees, just about to stand up and launch into loud conversation. Not what we want in the corner of the sitting room. Or there are horrid little spindly things that will obviously cringe if anyone of normal proportions so much as looks at them. At the point at which my dreams are full of chairs, swirling through the air and looking as if they might start staging their own Disney film, a hasty retreat into the world of books is called for.

In this mood, the most noticeable thing about Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair is that three children can sit in it comfortably. Its tendency to swoosh about from place to place disqualifies it from serious sitting-room consideration, however, and when you add the wings… there is a fine line to be drawn between eccentric and Just Plain Weird, and chairs that sprout wings have picked which side they are on. CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair will not do either. Not only is the plot so convoluted that it requires a notebook and pencil as well as exam-level knowledge of the previous Narnia novels, but the whole thing strays dangerously into Hobbit territory for this Tolkien-allergic household, which maintains that if you want truly terrific questing stories (and who doesn’t?) stick to Gawain and the Green Knight, especially in Simon Armitage’s translation into modern English. And whatever chair I was seeking, it was certainly not one to which I have to be bound at night so that I don’t start rampaging about eating people and turning into a worm. No, I am not making this up, and this indeed is the nub of my argument that CS Lewis, though no doubt a good egg (and I loved the film of Shadowlands with wonderful Anthony Hopkins as Lewis), is the last author on earth that children, or indeed anyone of a nervous or morbid disposition, should have dealings with. Oh, for heaven’s sake, go and read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf instead: all the blood-tingling horror with none of the tinge of voyeuristic sado-masochism that makes Lewis quite an odd hero of children’s literature.

TS Eliot’s chair in The Waste Land starts more promisingly, perhaps:

‘The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne’

Mmm, sounds good. But wait! Just as the line is a distortion of Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, ‘The barge she sat in, Like a burnished throne’ – and remember what happens to her – Eliot’s chair starts slipping in and out of focus, a hallucinogenic ingredient in a cloyingly rich and disturbing inner landscape. And all I wanted was comfortable. ‘The chair he or she sat in’ holds a strange allure for curators and collectors, and many which are known, or at least thought, to have supported the frame of a famous author as she or he toiled over their work have become icons, heavy-freighted with significance. The Museum of London and the Charles Dickens’ Museum in Broadstairs both have His Chair: not quite as unreasonable as, say, the myriad foreskins of Christ which have been cherished and venerated in shrines across the world, given that it is extremely likely that Dickens, over a long life and the production of umpteen novels and short stories, sat in any number of places to knock out a few hundred words a day. No-one lays claim to having one of the Austen family’s dining chairs, as far as I know (but you should still have a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, on your To Do list – and they do have her writing-table). And if anyone tries to sell you Shakespeare’s chair, call the Fraud Squad. Tolstoy – and why are we not surprised? – shaw's deskseems to have sat on The World’s Most Uncomfortable Chair to write what, in that context, really do look like extremely long novels. And George Bernard Shaw (bother! A shoo-in for our cogitations on middle names ) had a captain’s chair. All I can tell you is that I have one just like it, and I love it, because it was my great-great-grandfather’s, and it has been – well, part of the furniture -all my life. But I would not willingly sit in it for hours at a time.

Pooh visits OwlThe secret to choosing the right chair is, I suspect, that it is right for you. Owl’s chair, for example, is clearly perfect for him, allowing good perching-room (not a consideration in the NorthernReader household). For reading, there must be room to curl up, a light peeping over your shoulder, and a table nearby for coffee and cake or a glass of wine (if it has become impossible to sit through a film without major calorific intake, I’m damned if I’m stinting myself when lost in a good book). And, should I fleetingly miss academic life, I can always pretend my new acquisition is not just a chair, but a Chair.

Week 59: Bathroom Books

The BathIt occurs to me that inanimate objects tend towards a sense of humour. The NorthernReader household had braced itself for the financial and physical onslaught of ripping out a lurid cloakroom and replacing it with a proper, glorious bootroom, with a huge sink for washing dogs as well as boots. Cue for our bathroom to give up the ghost. So I have spent the last few days with a lump hammer in one hand and a HUGE chisel in the other, bashing several million tiles off walls. The immediate future is one of strenuous manual labour punctuated only by the remorseless *CLICK* that is the sound of more and more money being spent online. It will all be worth it, I have no doubt, but for now I find myself with a morbid preoccupation with the bathing arrangements that crop up in books.

Oh for the up-to-the-ears bubbles of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day. Usually I re-read this entirely enjoyable short novel for its inherent promise that there is always another chance in life, but just at the moment it’s the bathroom fixtures and fittings that particularly linger. Quite apart from all its other delights, this is the best evocation of a Thirties London apartment that I know. And, hurray hurray, I have a new local heroine, because Winifred Watson was a Newcastle girl .

525px-Cockade1 Bathrooms with gleaming tiles feature strongly in Dornford Yates’s The House That Berry Built, his lightly-fictionalised account of the building of his house in the French Pyrenees. Timing, alas, is everything, and Yates (the pen-name of Cecil Mercer) had less than two years to enjoy ‘Cockade’ before the German occupation of France forced him to flee. It says much, I think, that for his book he re-named the house ‘Grace-Dieu’, and certainly, whether you are charmed or repulsed by his characters – who are, shall we say, very much of their time – the loving detail with which he chronicles the construction of his hill-side house, and the description of rural southern France in the late Thirties, makes this an absorbing read.

Bathing brings surprising danger with it, if we are to believe everything that we read. Not just the awful consequences of painting the bath red, like Charles Pooter in the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of a Nobody, but death and destruction. No, this is not an encouragement to eschew cleanliness – although, come to think of it, Eeyore’s fatalistic, ‘so much for washing’ pretty much captures the essence of many a Greek myth. Be warned by the terrible fate of Actaeon, torn to pieces by hounds for having watched Artemis bathing, and remember to knock. I have never been completely comfortable with the voyeuristic implications of DH Lawence’s poem, ‘Gloire de Dijon’, for exactly that reason. Here is the first stanza:

When she rises in the morning

I linger to watch her;

She spreads the bath-cloth underneath the window

And the sunbeams catch her

Glistening white on the shoulders,

While down her sides the mellow

Golden shadow glows as

She stoops to the sponge, and her swung breasts

Sway like full-blown yellow

Gloire de Dijon roses.

It’s that lingering that makes me uneasy. That and the fact that I may never look at a 5494-Rosa-Gloire-de-DijonRose-ancienne-NoisetteGloire de Dijon rose in quite the same way again. You have to admit, that’s a …. creative mind that walked through a rose garden and was bowled over by the similarity. Did Freud read Lawrence? And did he find him a trifle tiring?

No, when I am done with all this building and tiling and painting and plumbing, I shall lie in the bath and read Amy Lowell’s poem, ‘Bath’:

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.

Doesn’t look like a poem? Try it aloud and your voice will find that it is. Ooo, prose poems, a topic to which we might return one day.

It will not have escaped your childhood attention that personal hygiene is rarely much of a focus in children’s literature. Whether yomping across the fells courtesy of Arthur Ransome, or living in caves, on islands or with the circus in Enid Blyton’s oeuvre, our young heroes and heroines are blessedly untroubled by the sudden need to use the facilities, pop behind a bush or, in Autolycus’s gorgeous phrase in The Winter’s Tale (trust Shakespeare to have something to say on needing a pee as on every other subject) ‘look upon the hedge’. And we know what Pooh and Piglet would have made of all my efforts to improve the daily ablutions: after his heroic endurance of being bathed by Kanga, Piglet had to roll the rest of the way home, ‘so as to get his own nice comfortable colour again’ (yup, we’ve had toys that look like that). But Christopher Robin, at least, knew the pleasures of a good, long soak. I shall under no circumstances be echoing his invitation, ‘Coming to see me have my bath?’ (the very idea), but goodness, I am looking forward to a nice hot shower.CR bath