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 60 Careers for Girls

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

When I was little, there was a book knocking around our house called The Girl’s Companion. Among much that was thrilling, such as how to cover a lampshade and how to punch leather (I am not making this up), there was a very slim section called ‘Careers for Girls’. We could aspire to be nursery assistants, it seems, or kennel maids, air hostesses or nurses. Mmmm. It turned out that we were the generation surprisingly well-equipped for the social changes that have happened in our life-times. We may, it is true, have nurtured the secret hope that we could marry a scientist, an astronaut or a company director rather than going to all the trouble of actually being one ourselves, but we had one huge advantage over our male contemporaries. We did not grow up in the expectation that we would step onto the career ladder at Point A within company B and progress steadily upwards towards retirement. The lives we have actually lived, stitching together what hindsight grandly allows us to call a portfolio, changing tack with a panache that would warm Ellen MacArthur’s heart, came more easily to us, with our absence of expectations of anything more structured, than it did to the chaps. But today’s bright young things, emerging soggy-winged from university, know in principle that they must be prepared to duck and weave to forge themselves some sort of money-earning path through life. I think it must be perfectly miserable. They are hedged in by former class-mates on one side, glittery-eyed in the pursuit of telephone-number salaries and strapping themselves blindly to the unstable raft of financial service sector jobs as they head for thewhite water ahead: on the other, by dire warnings that they have missed the boat if they

No it isn't

No it isn’t

haven’t yet picked an outfit to which to sell their soul. The idea that you might find your own way through the forest, guided by ethical values and quiet pleasure rather than naked greed, seems to have little currency at present. Time, I think, for some books to come to the rescue.

I was a great admirer of Sue Barton, the heroine of Helen Dore Boylston’s series, without ever feeling the slightest tug towards nursing as a vocation. The Sue Barton books – Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Rural Nurse – you get the idea – are in fact set in the American hospital and nursing world of the Twenties and Thirties, but what impressed me as a child was the comradeship, warm friendships and selflessness of the central characters. They worked hard, overcame difficulties, and went at life with zest and passion: not bad as role models. Helen Dore Boylston was following that age-old advice , ‘write about what you know’, having been a nurse in Massachusetts and New York. I am only sorry that she did not also send Sue Barton off to re-enact her extremely action-packed life as a nurse on the Western Front in the First World War and later as an American in Paris – and Warsaw, and Albania.

If not medicine, how about teaching? Governesses in fiction very rarely lead lives of beer and skittles (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, the very peculiar governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw), but the life of a country schoolmistress had its charms once upon a time. How about the gloriously-named Miss Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree? Or, indeed, that NorthernReader favourite, the shrewdly perceptive Miss Read, heroine and pseudonymous author of a wonderful series which, beginning some sixty years ago, is already taking its proper place as an important contribution to English rural social history. Most villages now, alas, have The Old Schoolhouse, along with The Old Post Office and The Old Bakery, and few and lucky are the children who can run across the green to school

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

There’s always office work, of course. George Bernard Shaw (oh blast! We really must talk about the lure of the middle name one of these days) simultaneously examines, celebrates and undermines the new and few opportunities for employment available to women at the turn of the last century in Mrs Warren’s Profession. While Mrs Warren’s career choice has been what has long been coyly referred to as the oldest, her daughter rejects her mother and her business empire in order to begin her own, more legitimate, business. But, this being Shaw – in other words, clever, thought-provoking and dancing with wit – the play questions our whole notion that one career might have a greater or lesser moral value than another or be more or less freely entered into. This seems as good a moment as any to notice that the dreary trajectory of job-related sexism across the ages has been for a career to be exclusively male and high status – teacher, secretary – and, once women have won the hard-fought battle to gain entry, to be largely deserted by men and become lower-paid and lower status. It is going to be grimly interesting to see what happens to the public perception of doctors now that more than 50% of medical students are female.

But at least there are now no jobs that women cannot consider. Goodness, even the Church of England has got over itself and agreed that God might not be revolted by women bishops after all. The world of my childhood, in which all taxi-drivers, lorry drivers and pilots (civilian, military or sky) were male seems now as remote as the age of chivalry.  That Girl’s Companion proved a false prophetess: I never did become a hairdresser, a beautician or a florist. Nor, in truth, did I become an engineer or a lion-tamer, but at least I was barred from all these occupations only by lack of talent and interest rather than gender. No, better by far to follow the career advice given, perhaps unsurprisingly, by so many books. Sometimes, as in life, we’re not sure if it’s ever going to work out – Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – but deep down, don’t we all want to be writers?writer

Week 24: Books about Shakespeare

shakespeare-from-cobb-and-chandosThere’s not much to go on.  A few documents, a handful of publications, some court proceedings.  Our total harvest is six signatures, and the name isn’t spelt the same way twice. And yet out of those few straws we have built our conviction that we know the man called William Shakespeare (or, if we were to take his word for it, Shakspere).

Here are the facts.  Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon, has a baptismal register which was compiled in about 1600, transcribing records from earlier registers, that has an entry for 26th April 1564 for the baptism of ‘Guilielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare’.  The episcopal register for Worcester has an entry for 27 November 1582 recording a marriage licence for Wm Shaxpere and Annam Whateley.  The next day, William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey were married.  The couple had three children: Susanna, baptised 26 May 1583, and twins Hamnet and Judith, baptised 2 February 1585.  At the end of 1592, an actor and playwright in London makes some catty remarks about ‘the only Shake-scene’, suggesting that our man was making a name in the theatre.  In 1593, William Shakespeare publishes Venus and Adonis.  Over the next twenty years, there are spasmodic records enabling us to see him working and living in London while building up a property portfolio back in Stratford (where, incidentally, he gets done for hoarding and for moving the boundary stones between his fields and a neighbour’s).  The registers for Trinity Church in Stratford record the burial of Will Shakespeare, gent, on 25 April 1616.  Oh, yes, and then there’s that will (as in Last Will and Testament: don’t worry, Shakespeare spent his professional life making puns about his name).

You see?  He even flaunts a pen-name

You see? He even flaunts a pen-name

This is as good a place as any to state firmly that the various conspiracy theories that the plays and poems of William Shakespeare were written by the Earl of Oxford/Francis Bacon/Christopher Marlowe/Elizabeth I/Winnie-the-Pooh (all actual candidates hotly supported, sometimes by people who otherwise come across as quite well-balanced.  Alright, maybe not Winnie-the-Pooh; but it can only be a matter of time) are all nonsense.  Bunkum.  Rubbish.  Ludicrous.  The theories principally stem from the unattractively snobbish belief that a glover’s son (or possibly a butcher’s son – I did warn you we don’t know much) from the Midlands couldn’t possibly have written – well, the stuff we call Shakespeare.

So what sort of a fist have people made of writing Shakespeare’s story?  Well, the tendency has been to flesh out those meagre facts with lots of information about everyday life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and with accounts of what we know about the practice of theatre.  If non-fiction, the result can be a history of a place and time which is more or less successfully draped around the central, rather vague, figure of Shakespeare.  For my money, the best recent stab at this has been Bill Bryson’s.  Charles Nicholl takes a more focused approach in his highly readable quite scholarly account of Shakespeare’s domestic life in London, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, which uses documentary evidence to reconstruct Shakespeare’s business concerns and social world.  It’s a thought-provoking reminder that this was a real person who ate and slept and shopped and had friends and neighbours.  Will in the World is another winner, largely because Stephen Greenblatt wrote it: Greenblatt is one of the most engaging, vivid and articulate of Shakespearean scholars and couldn’t be dull if he tried.

What of fiction?  George Bernard Shaw (and we must talk one day about writers who get saddled, by themselves, their parents or, even more bafflingly, by posterity, with a range of names) dashed off a one-act play called The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which is a hoot, playing on the tiresomely concrete insistence that all poetry must be autobiographical and that therefore Shakespeare’s sonnets are no more than an embarrassingly public series of love letters.  I have to say that I’ve never quite understood why, according to this annoying theory, he is allowed to have had no trouble imagining, say, a tenth-century Scottish king or a couple of Veronese teenagers, but can only be plonkingly recording his own amours in the sonnets.

Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin got together to write No Bed for Bacon, a gloriously enjoyable comic romp which bears an astonishing resemblance to Tom Stoppard’s script for Shakespeare in Love a generation later.  Sherrin, ever the gentleman, must have been amused by the coincidence.  Anthony Burgess took time off from writing A Clockwork Orange to come up with both Nothing Like the Sun (which is fun but complex and elliptical to the point of archness) and   Shakespeare, a ‘speculative biography’: I’m not sure the absence of either would make this week’s bookshelf feel too hauntingly empty.

I owe discovering Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare to the Anarchist Librarian of Hexham. It had been shelved as detective fiction, where it caught my eye and persuaded me to pick it up, thinking it as interesting an angle in the increasingly crowded field of detective-fiction-with-an-historical-setting as any.  In fact, it isn’t a crime story.  What it is – and I say this as someone with reservations about Shakespeare ‘biographising’ so deep they would fit snugly in the Mariana Trench – is a triumph.  It is completely, compellingly, poetically believable.  Read it.  Tell me if you don’t find yourself thinking, ‘yup: this is him alright.’ And then – of course – go back and read the poems and the plays. As someone said to me only yesterday when I bought a cup of coffee, but this time meaningfully, enjoy.