Week 89: He Do the Police in Different Voices

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It’s been a trying week, watching and – even worse – listening to grown men and women squirm and cavort in the increasingly desperate hope that they might inspire us to like them, or perhaps pity them, enough to vote for them. What with one chap deciding that suit jackets are some sort of symbol of oppressive tyranny, making shirt sleeves a uniform regardless of the weather (I don’t know about you, but I’m not casting any clouts just yet), and another bloke inflicting an excruciatingly awkward Dick Van Dyke sound-alike audition on us when he grovelled round a multi-millionaire middle-aged and somewhat bafflingly self-appointed representative of Youth, it’s all been a bit demeaning. I’m afraid the answer to the question, ‘just how stupid do they think the electorate are?’ is pretty clear. So I thought we might turn away from the hurly-burly of the hustings and give some thought to the uses of disguise.

This week’s title comes, as you well know, from Charles Dickens via TS Eliot. Dickens coined it in Our Mutual Friend to describe Betty Higden’s son (rather splendidly known as Sloppy, as if he were a prototype for Wodehouse) and his talent for reading out the lurid bits in the newpapers; and Eliot borrowed it as the working title for what he later decided to call The Waste Land instead. Eliot’s poem is a fabulous patchwork of different voices, colliding, overlapping, coming in from nowhere. If you haven’t read it, or at least not for a while, rush off and do so now, preferably aloud, and, now that you are not in school and it is not a menacing set text, find all the humour and zest lurking within it. Eliot was not necessarily everyone’s idea of the perfect dinner-party guest – not often given to having the table in stitches – but as well as the undeniably austere philosophy and the rigorously scholarly breadth of his cultural references, he was not unaware of the divine comedy of human existence. Try The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock if you don’t believe me.

I have NO IDEA who this could be

I have NO IDEA who this could be

Some disguises in fiction are, we are told, amazingly effective. Sherlock Holmes, for example, can baffle everyone around him – and especially, of course, Dr Watson, Baldrick to Holmes’s Blackadder – with his ability to metamorphose into – gosh! – a working class person. Poor old Mrs. Hudson, ironing the plumber’s outfit after Holmes comes back from a tiring day righting wrongs (or, of course, stalking people. It all depends on your perspective). At a slightly more sophisticated level, the basic premise behind GK Chesterton’s detective, Father Brown, is that we automatically presume that a bumbling Catholic priest must be too simple and unworldly to unravel the cynical heart of the villainous mysteries he stumbles across. His biretta works as a constant disguise, on the same lines as Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant understanding of where the best place might be to hide The Purloined Letter. Graham Greene develops the idea in The Power and the Glory, and the Whisky Priest is just one of Greene’s flawed heroes whose greatness and courage is disguised, not least from themselves. Greene and Eliot knew and liked each other, incidentally, and were profound admirers of each other’s work. I remain unconvinced that that dinner party I am constructing in my mind would go with more of a swing if they were both invited, nonetheless.

Setting aside all the metaphorical ways in which characters in fiction (and indeed in what we laughingly call real life) disguise their true nature – and Jane Austen is the Mistress of Metaphorical Disguise – a change of costume and some greasepaint can shove the plot forward a treat. Would Mr Rochester ever have got round to declaring his feelings for Jane if he hadn’t happened to have a complete Gypsy Woman outfit knocking around? And doesn’t it say a lot for Jane that, on discovering that the man of her dreams is an occasional cross-dresser, she takes it awfully well? What with that, the endless lying and smirking secrecy and – oh yes! – not just common-or-garden adultery or even attempted bigamy, but actually keeping the present Mrs Rochester in the attic, perhaps Jane is setting her standards just a little bit low. Apart from anything else, I suspect that Rochester’s disguise is on a par with Violet-Elizabeth Bott’s Beatle wig in Richmal Crompton’s unmissable Just William stories (or, indeed, when a temporary and very muddy incarnation as a squaw in William’s tribe renders her unrecognisable to her own father).

untitled (22)Which brings me to the finest disguiser of them all. Should Martin Jarvis ever feel a bit down in the dumps and wonder what it’s all for, I hope he will take comfort from the hordes and legions of his admirers, whose lives have been made that little bit sparklier by his readings of Just William. And, if you are familiar with those, rush out now and acquaint yourself with Mr Jarvis bringing all PG Wodehouse’s characters to life on CD. Yes, that’s right, all of them. Once heard, never forgotten. Some people suffer from voices in the head (known in the NorthernReader household as Joan of Arc syndrome), and jolly miserable it probably is for them. Others, more fortunate, simply have Martin Jarvis being Aunt Agatha, or Jeeves, or Violet-Elizabeth, giving command performance for their (inner) ear only. Add Alan Bennett as Eeyore and you will never again question the truth that radio is the medium of choice.

And the good news? Readers-who-are-voters-in-the-UK-General-Election, the end – one way or the other – is nigh. My advice for Thursday night would be to go to bed early with a good book.

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PS You might think us gluttons for punishment, but the next NorthernReader Book Club is going to talk about POLITICS. Eleven o’clock in the morning on Thursday 14th May (see the Book Club page for how to find us). There will be cake. Now, why don’t more politicians use that simple and persuasive phrase?

Week 64: Gunpowder, Treasons and Plots

fireworksFirework displays now being a public event best held on a weekend evening (no school tomorrow) as well as on November 5th itself, it is possible to dodge about in your local area and go to three or four to satisfy your cravings for loud bangs and sparkly lights. In the NorthernReader household it is a widely-held, but incorrect, belief that the nation leaps into this paroxysm of fiery festivity to celebrate our wedding anniversary – yes, Reader, I married him on November 5th, thus extinguishing any possibility of getting away with forgetting the date. The lovely KatePonders has also now discovered for herself that Germany does not mark the occasion, whether of the NorthernReader nuptials or of the foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

It is quite odd, as of course so many things are should we actually stop for a moment to think about them, that we cheerfully celebrate what, whichever way you look at it, was quite a nasty incident. Had Catesby and his chums succeeded, pretty much the entire ruling class in England would have been wiped out – and before you mutter, ‘no loss’ and start toying with radical sympathies, it is probably worth spending a moment or two considering the pain, suffering and death the project would have inflicted. Even the most unpleasant governments are made up of real live human beings, and causing them gratuitous suffering should be no part of our plans. Which noble thought brings us to what did actually happen, which was the harrowing torture and execution of the failed plotters. In amongst the dates we mark in this country, it would perhaps be good to include 13th August 1964. Not familiar with it? It is the date on which the last death sentences in the United Kingdom were carried out.

Gunpowder_Plot_conspiratorsSo a thoroughly grisly bookshelf seems to be in order this week. Let’s start with Antonia Fraser, who has written extensively on the Gunpowder Plot. She is a terrific guide to historical events because she brings to her narratives the instincts of a thriller-writer (which she also is). Admittedly it would take a heart of stone not to find the unfolding details of the 1605 plot utterly absorbing, but I suspect that Fraser could make the Repeal of the Corn Laws into a page-turner. She contributed one of the very best chapters to the compelling Gunpowder Plots, a collection of highly enjoyable essays by experts in their various fields – the history of explosives, early Stuart Britain, the politics of monarchy – published in 2005, the four-hundredth anniversary of the failed coup attempt.

Bearing in mind the extremely sensible observation of Sir John Harrington, ‘Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason’, we might limit the treacherous stretches of our bookshelf to a couple of must-reads: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. If you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s film, incidentally, do so: but read the book as well. And I think we should have Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands while we’re about it. Hugely influential as more or less the founding text of the spy novel genre, the novel – which remains gripping to this day – was widely credited with forcing a change in British military and naval policy in preparing for possible invasion. Childers’ life was almost unfeasibly dramatic and, ultimately, tragic : there are biographies, of which Leonard Piper’s Dangerous Waters: the Life and Death of Erskine Childers is a fine example, and it seems strange that as yet there has been no film.

We have talked before (Week 28) about our regrettable tendency to glamorise spying and treachery. It is sobering to read of some of the Cold War conspiracies – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre, Michael Holzman’s Guy Burgess (although you must promise to see Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, with Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne as herself). We should remember, too, that the Armada was not some jolly boating party serendipitously fended off by Francis Drake in between games of bowls. The Spanish were attempting to slip up the English Channel to land in the Low Countries, pick up their army, a byword for terror, and invade England. The plan was more Pol Pot than the costumes let on. If you want to know what people who bruegel_kindermoord_detail_grthad a taste of them thought of the Spanish army, look, long, hard and thoughtfully, as Bruegel’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents. Notice how it isn’t set in first-century Palestine? See the storm-trooper gear the soldiers are wearing?

My point, dearest reader, is that enforced change is rarely an awfully good thing: and that the merchants of change are so depressingly often better at the enforcing than the changing. Non-fiction – history, biography – tells us this, but fiction makes us know it in our hearts. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory will give us plenty to contemplate. Quick: let us draw comfort from John Donne. Who but Donne could take the age-old fear of treachery and betrayal in love and turn it to sublime triumph?

Here upon earth, we’re Kings, and none but we

Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be.

Who is so safe as we? Where none can do

Treason to us, except one of us two.

Written while that same James who was the target of the Gunpowder Plot still sat upon his throne, Donne’s poem, ‘The Anniversarie’, shelters us from paranoia and a world where we are told to be afraid all the time. Find love, he says, and you can know what it is to trust. It’s worth setting off a few fireworks to celebrate.fireworks-newcastle-5JPG

Week 56: Books for Broken Hearts

My great-great grandparents saw eight of their ten children set out from their Aberdeenshire home to every corner of the earth, never to return: and I don’t know how they did it. The lovely KatePonders left yesterday for a year, and, should you be wondering, this is how it feels:aztecs40(it does just cross my mind that the Aztecs were perhaps sweeties who worked with metaphor and were, as so often happens, completely misunderstood by their less imaginative conquerors). Anyway this week’s bookshelf needs either to console or to encourage wallowing. All you parents whose chicks are off to school/university/the other side of the world/another planet for the first time, take heed, and heart. And there is hope, too, for the dumped, the jilted, the just-come-to-my-senses-and-realised-everyone-was-right-about-him. Broken hearts mend of their own accord, but books help.

We could start with Boethius and The Consolations of Philosophy, not least because it serves as a useful reminder that, if he could come up with such warm, gentle acceptance of life’s little tribulations while awaiting execution, we could probably get a grip and find some sort of perspective. We are, to be sure, living in a time of turmoil, when rubbing along together on this one shared earth seems to be slipping out of reach. Now is exactly the moment, therefore, to be reading Boethius, who firmly maintains that people are essentially good, that evil is a choice, and that no-one and nothing can take away from us our ability to be good. I think that by ‘good’ I usually mean ‘kind’, and I promise to vote for the political party that promises – without crossing its fingers – to be kind at all times. Alain de Botton, by the way, has borrowed Boethius’s title for his own Consolations of Philosophy, a well-meaning if a bit facile introduction to a history of philosophy.

Three children’s books that have to be on everyone’s comfort-bookshelf. The full version of this blog’s strapline could well be ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get reading The Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children and The House at Pooh Corner.’ Kenneth Grahame because animals come and go, and set out on great adventures, but they come home safely to eat their suppers in great joy and contentment before retiring to rest between clean sheets: as fine a prescription for a good life as you are ever likely to find. Edith Nesbit is there, of course, because at the end, Father comes home, the family is reunited, Bobbie gets to cry out, ‘Oh! my Daddy! my Daddy!’ before she tells her mother that ‘the sorrow and the struggle and the parting are over and done’. And we cannot be without Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, who remind us, just when we most need to be reminded, that ‘wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way’ ….. oh, you know the rest: I’ve made myself all teary.winnie

So perhaps my best course is to indulge in the miseries of others. How about some Graham Greene? I’m not sure he was ever exactly a laugh-a-minute, but the all-out crushing unhappiness of The End of the Affair might be just the thing today. Strangely cheering, other people’s heart-ache, don’t you find (please don’t tell me it’s just me)? And there is little in literature more guaranteed to make you pull yourself together, I have found, than the faint suspicion that others might compare you to Cathy Earnshaw, so a long soak in all the shenanigans of Wuthering Heights might be just the ticket. We could revel in the sheer nastiness of most of Evelyn Waugh’s blighted and benighted lovers – whoever you’ve idiotically lost your heart to, he or she is probably not as bad as that – and recognise every aching moment of longing that Cassandra experiences in Dodie Smith’s gorgeous I Capture the Castle.

But enough. I must comfort myself with the hope that KatePonders does not feel about her doting mother as Selima Hill does about hers, if her wonderful poem ‘The Fowlers of the Marshes’ is to be believed:

Three thousand years ago
they were fowling in the marshes
around Thebes – men in knotted skirts
and tiered faïence collars,
who avoided the brown crocodile,
and loved the ibis, which they stalked
with long striped cats on strings,
under the eye of Nut, the goddess of the sky.

My mother’s hushed peculiar world’s the same:
she haunts it like the fowlers of the marshes,
tiptoeing gaily into history, sustained by gods
as strange to me as Lady Nut, and Anubis,
the oracular, the jackal-masked.
When I meet her at the station, I say
Hello, Mum! and think Hello, Thoth,
This is the Weighing of the Heart.

Don’t you love that ‘hushed peculiar world’? So much more dignified than the noisy scrabble I more usually achieve. For the time being, at least, KatePonders and her parents will be exchanging ideas and thoughts and have-you-reads by email and Skype, and our hearts will lighten.

OMG!  They're reading Stuwwelpeter!  Another blighted childhood ...

OMG! They’re reading Stuwwelpeter! Another blighted childhood …

PS  Scotland, this is not the week to break my heart even further.  Please don’t go.

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 40: Books for A(nother) Rainy Day

ceiling_of_the_sistine_chapel _genesis,_noah_7-9 _the_flood,_left_view-largeThere is a new film out about Noah. In fact, it’s called Noah, and it has Russell Crowe in it. The NorthernReader household will not be traipsing off to the cinema to see it because (a) we’ve seen a trailer and we are beginning to rather yearn for a film with the light meter turned up to penetrable – these Scandinavian dramas have a lot to answer for; (b) when we want to look at lots and lots of water we can peer through the windows (this is the only time since we moved here that the weather in the north-east has not compared favourably with that in other, lesser, counties in England) and (c) we would not knowingly part with good money to see Russell Crowe have another crack at this acting lark. Mind you, he does add to the gaiety of nations with his unswerving adherence to Speaking Very Significantly, which, never mind the unintentional hilarity of any film he adorns, must make the Crowe breakfast conversation, the check-out at Tesco (‘would you like cash-back, sir?’ ‘No. I. Would. Not.’) and a game of Snap a bit more stressful than you were expecting. I’m afraid that Gladiator still takes the Best Comedy prize in the NorthernReader household: right up there with the surprisingly Glaswegian submarine commander in Red October – Sean Connery’s ‘Okay, Anatoly’, always guaranteed to have us gurgling in the aisles).

Anyway, pulling myself together, I need to go with the flow and read about rain.

piglet_rainThe bench-mark, as it were, is as ever provided by Mr Milne, and no contemplation of flooding can be complete without reference to the useful chapter ‘In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water’ (in which you will notice that none of the animals had been daft enough to build their homes upon the floodplains). Pooh is, as you would expect, kind, thoughtful and self-effacing, and above all he does what he can to make a bad situation better. ‘We are what we do’ is one of the very few sayings I would consider having on one of those tasteful bits of washed-out board hanging artily in the downstairs loo – you know the sort of thing – and Pooh, now I come to think about it, is a good figurehead for that philosophy.

And talking of philosophy brings us to Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. There is a chance, if you are neither American nor an undergraduate studying American Literature (and we must talk about reading books under duress one of these days), that you haven’t read much Bellow, because I don’t think he’s in focus at present. He died less than ten years ago and is therefore still in the gulf of oblivion that seems to overcome recently-dead authors, even Nobel Prize-winning ones (as he was). Someone, somewhere, has declared a Decent Interval before we can take up again with previous loves, whether it’s books, Ercol furniture, or indeed old loves. Bellow stakes out some territory for himself which is midway between Graham Greene and TS Eliot, leavened by humour and salted with an American world-view. Try him, if you haven’t. And we can add two more novels to our shelf, one very familiar and the other perhaps less so. The familiar is of course Jane Eyre, which begins in the rain and sweeps us onto wet moorlands via a cataclysmic thunderstorm after The Scene in the Orchard. Less familiar might be Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest. In some ways less autobiographical than her really fabulous Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy (put them together with Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and you’ve got the Second World War pretty much covered on the literature front, with no reinforcements required), The Rain Forest is a bit over-laden with symbolism, but Manning’s writing is so vivid that she is always a pleasure to read.  Brittle and well-equipped with shoulder-chips, she cannot have been an easy person – she objected to the casting of Emma Thompson to play her lightly-disguised self in Fortunes of War on the grounds that Thompson’s feet were too big (ah, hell, that’s why I’ll be objecting to Helena Bonham-Carter playing me when they make the bio-pic, then) – Deirdre David has made a thorough job of her biography, A Woman at War, catching both Manning’s right to be considered as a major twentieth-century writer and her desperate, angry ‘pick me! Pick me!’ voice sniping from the sidelines.

Alun Lewis

Alun Lewis

But best of all, perhaps, we can have some poetry to stay indoors with. Shakespeare points out the very English fact that ‘the rain it raineth every day’ (a song he gives to Feste in Twelfth Night, and not, as Sam Mendes would irritatingly have us believe, to the Fool in King Lear). Edward Thomas and Alun Lewis both catch the mood in their great poems from each of the two world wars. The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas would be a good choice for window-seat, looking-out-at-the-rain, reading, especially for ‘Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain/ On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me; (cocoa, anyone?). Alun Lewis’s poem, ‘All Day It Has Rained’, refers to Thomas and picks up where he, and his poem, left off: ‘All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,/ Drenching the gorse and heather’. A quiet and interesting man, Lewis was posted to Burma. He was found, gun in hand, with a bullet in his head, in March 1944. For poets even more than for novelists, it seems, the thought of rain is melancholic. We are left with sadness and need to stand up, to shake ourselves, to look out of the window.

But look! In the immortal words of Bob Newhart, ‘Wait a minute! It’s stopped raining!’ Hand me my Barbour; I’m going outside. If I’m lucky, I might find William Carlos Williams’   red wheel barrow.buddhistmodernpoetry

PS This month’s Walking Book Club meets at 10 o-clock on Wednesday 28 May at St Mungo’s Church, Simonburn. It’ll probably rain.rainbow

Week 36: Aunting

super auntI have spent the last week or so very enjoyably being an aunt. It’s something I think I may be quite good at, having been practising since I was eleven years old. While this is really a family that specialises in cousins – we have hundreds of the blessed things, and indeed, darling reader, you may well be one, and much treasured you are too – the NorthernReader household has accumulated quite a clutch of nieces and nephews of various ages and sizes. In coming up with an Aunting Strategy, I have been guided over the years, not only by my good fortune in possessing some of the very best sorts of aunts and uncles, but also, of course, by reading.

My nephews will, I suspect, confirm that my essential role models have always been Bertie Wooster’s tribe of aunts. They appear in pretty much every one of the great man’s oeuvre, but the general idea of them is neatly summed up in the title of his 1974 contribution to the sum of human happiness, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. I hope I have veered appropriately between the nephew-crushing attributes of Aunt Agatha – a girl could be proud to have earned the accolade, ‘the one who chews bottles and kills rats with her teeth’ – and (and I do hope this is the inner aunt that predominates) the ability of Aunt Dahlia to show an idiot nephew an aunt’s love. (‘Idiot nephew’, I should perhaps explain hastily – especially to those of you who happen to be my nephews and have nonetheless mysteriously so far put off familiarising yourselves with the works of PG Wodehouse – is a quotation rather than a considered or personally-held opinion). There is also within the tribe from which I spring a slight touch of Bertie’s lesser aunts, with their tendency to circulate incriminating information: ‘Aunt […] calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps’, as Wodehouse rather niftily puts it.

Need we stray from Wodehouse? Well, Jane Austen is pretty good on aunts. Mrs Norris, Fanny Price’s aunt in Mansfield Park, is definitely not who we should aspire to be. Skinflint, self-pitying and (worst indictment of all) a terrible bore, we might keep her as the poster-girl for how not to do this aunting business. She could, I suppose, slug it out for the title with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the pantomime-dame Ghastly Aunt of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett sisters’ aunt, Mrs Gardiner, on the other hand, feels very like an aunt of choice for us NorthernReaders, especially since she threw so much helpfdanny la rueul light for us on real aunts and uncles of the distant past (Week 34). In fact, she’s pretty much alone as an aunt who is a normal woman, not an over-the-top, barkingly-mad, dangerously unbalanced harpy, humorous or frankly sinister. David Copperfield’s aunt Betsey Trotwood, anyone? (note to self: stay away from the donkeys). Talking of normal women, I confess to a slight obsession in childhood with the farce, Charley’s Aunt, based, I think, on the eye-popping glamour of Danny La Rue, who I saw when very young and impressionable (me, not Mr La Rue).

Graham Greene at least had the decency to suggest that nephews should take their aunts with them on their travels. Aunt Augusta might make quite a good president of the Aunts’ Association, travels with my auntactually, being (as is so often the case among us aunts) a lot more laid-back, dashing and daring than her nephew. Isn’t it interesting, by the way, that nieces generally come off rather better in encounters with aunts? They rarely find themselves in the uncomfortable role of dull timid stooge to their remarkable aged relative. Some nieces do find themselves scooped up in auntly travel plans, but all that gallery-trudging can pay off: look at Little Women’s Amy March nabbing Laurie in Europe (and hurray for the irresistibly selfish Amy, anyway, for saving her sister Jo from an inevitable murder charge had she accompanied Aunt March on the Grand Tour).

And then there are the aunts that haunt the gloom of the wildest, most rural retreats. Life in the countryside can take a girl in different ways, and my, don’t our two characters model those differences? I’m thinking of Mary Yellan’s Aunt Patience in Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and Aunt Ada Doom – queen of her tribe – in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. If you have very sensibly not bothered to try to hear the current disastrous BBC version of Jamaica Inn, do add it to your reading list – and do feel free to point out to the BBC that filming with the lights out at midnight may have worked once, briefly, in Wallander but the term ‘film noir’ is actually meant to be a bloody metaphor, not an instruction – and meanwhile take my word for it that Aunt Patience is a terrible drip who could do with a good shaking (what happens to her is rather more extreme than a good shaking but I’m afraid I cannot muster much sympathy). But Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed, is one of the great literary creations of all time, and, had I political power, I would instantly propose an annual Aunt Ada Doom Day, on which we aunts could be properly feared, pampered and revered by our assembled nieces and nephews. Until that happy day, I shall make do with Rupert Christiansen’s The Complete Book of Aunts, which should give me some tips. After all, as Wodehouse pointed out, ‘It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.’ Something to live up to there, I feel.babygro