Week 93: Random Reading
A 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.
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).
I 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.
Then 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.
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.
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?
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.