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 92: Meh

WP_20150522_009… or Baa if you are a traditionalist. Yes, it’s the time of year when the hills are alive to the sound of bleating. On a trip to the torrid southern slopes of Cheshire last week, we encountered sheep who have already been shorn. Here in the more arctic regions of England, no self-respecting sheep or human has been foolish enough to cast any clouts just yet, and everyone is grimly hanging on in full wool and waiting for the promised summer time. Impressively coiffed or newly-shaved, the chief difference between lambs and their Mammas seems to be that one is enchanting and the other is stoically dull; in life, at least. How about in books?

The ovine clan has provided few heroes and heroines. Yes, yes, Shaun the sheep; but (a) he’s an animated bit of Plasticine rather than a fictional hero and (b) he is a man (or ram) who cannot even spell his own name. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Nick Park and all his works, but Shaun? Really? Could we not be trusted to cope with Sean? There are the exceptionally dim sheep in Dick King-Smith’s utterly delightful The Sheep-Pig, the unnerving little stalker who followed Mary to school according to the nursery rhyme, and the object of doggy attention in Joan Lingard’s Morag and the Lamb. Most popular in the long-suffering NorthernReader stronghold when KatePonders was a very small person was Silly Sheep, which is by Eric Hill and Alan Ahlberg and amused its intended readership an awful lot more than it did the designated reader – especially after repeated re-readings.

5.4Lewis Carroll clearly knew a thing or two about sheep when he created the really rather sinister knitting ewe in Through the Looking-Glass. You will recall that the White Queen metamorphoses into an elderly sheep in the middle of a conversation with Alice. Not only that, but the setting shifts and wobbles every bit as precariously, briefly taking on the shape of a shop before re-assembling itself as a rowing boat on the water and then becoming a shop again. Not much of a surprise that so many academic careers have been happily spent within the confines of the Alice books. I’m sure there are reams of scholarly papers, and even quite possibly whole hefty tomes, devoted to this episode alone. All I’m going to say here is that I stand in awe, as ever, at Carroll’s – well, what is it? Inventive genius or sublime revelation? – in choosing, of all the animals in the world, a sheep for this unsettling transmogrification. It’s the eyes, I think, that give sheep that ineluctable sense of the alien. In its dreamlike and hallucinatory quality, the ‘Wool and Water’ chapter of Through the Looking Glass’ feels almost Blakean. Disappointing, then, that William Blake’s own foray into the world of allegorical sheep, ‘The Lamb’, is so comparatively pedestrian. It seems to prefigure the cotton-wool world of the nineteenth-century nursery and to surrender wild imagination in favour of a docile conformity to Christian evangelism. Read, instead ‘The Tyger’, its counterpart from the Songs of Experience.

Bonnie Nadzam doesn’t, on the surface of her debut novel, Lamb, seem over-burdened with the freight of religious significance of her protagonist’s name. But, as you read on in this tale of an American dystopia, and armed with the NorthernReader First Law of Literary Criticism – which is, as you know, that There’s Always an Essay in Names – it just might strike you that there is a sacrificial element to David Lamb’s grim journey.

But revenons à nos moutons. And in Britain, as hommage to the Norman conquests, sheep hang out in fields and mutton beguiles on tables. Ridiculously out of fashion (but now – hurray! – being championed by the Prince of Wales), mutton and hogget is what we should be demanding when supermarkets try to fob us off with spindly New Zealand lamb. Make your way sharpish to your nearest proper butcher and ask, politely but persistently, for good local sheep-meat. Flushed with success, you might find Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book to be your kitchen companion of choice. Our copy was carefully selected from the shelf some years ago by the resident Labrador and … customised; but it is still readable and much-used. I expect there are umpteen recipe books devoted entirely to lamb, but in truth few of us who cook use more than the trusted handful of, in our opinions at least, Indispensable Cookery Books (Fearnley-Whittingstall, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden, in our case).

And now a sleety hail is pelting down. Hang on to your fleeces, girls, and hope for flaming June.WP_20150522_008

Week 35: A NorthernReader Easter

pastel_easter_egg_wreathEvery year, the newspapers echo with the anguished cries of life’s little organisers against the swerving swooping Easter date as it flits across the calendar. How much tidier things would be, the argument seems to run, if we could just pick a date and stick to it, year by year. Well, yes, probably. But when has tidy ever been much fun? Why on earth do we get so hot under the collar about a free-wheeling festival? Here in NorthernReader territory we celebrate the unpinned-down, the liberated and the ever-so-slightly anarchic, and are therefore particularly fond of the sheer barkingness of a date for Easter that can pop up any time between March 22nd and April 25th. The delicious arbitrariness (and yes, part of the magic is the full-moon-take-away-the-number-you-first-thought-of maths behind the whole thing) is just underlined by the fact that we can have blossom and tulips or snow and howling gales on any of the possible dates. So, aware that we might be frolicking on the sands at Bamburgh or huddling round the fire when you are reading this, here are some of the books that have made it onto the NorthernReader Easter bookshelf.

Not, I’m afraid, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Normally the champion of the metaphor, I could never get past my revulsion at Aslan the lion – and that was even before the film with the disturbing animatronic animal with sinister eyelashes   When I want to contemplate the Passion, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection – and Easter does seem like a good moment to do so – I will get further with the King James’ Bible. While I’m outing myself as an all-round renegade and party-pooper, I don’t like the Easter Bunny either (a cynical import by the peddlers of surplus sugar and a horrible, horrible, incitement to greed and consumerism). This might be something to do with my dislike of cheap chocolate, of course. An Easter Bunny tucking 70% cocoa solids confections into little nooks and crannies in the garden just might make me think again.

But this is a splendidly appropriate time to read books which remind us of the possibility of redemption. And yes, I know this means we could read Crime and Punishment, but really, are we really going to snuggle up with Dostoevsky this weekend? No, let’s wallow in Shakespeare. Rather pleasingly, he does seem to get cheerier as he matured – a hopeful role-model for us all – and what rather sadly turned out to be his last plays turn their back on all that tragic dooming and offer their characters second chances. So, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest please.

And we can re-read The Secret Garden this weekend. The genius of Frances Hodgson Burnett was to forge metaphors for the redemptive power of love, with all that blossoming, blooming, meetings in gardens and rising from your bed and walking (although you will notice that Colin does not go as far as trying to pick up his huge Jacobean four-poster bed) – metaphors so huge and blindingly obvious they could be printed in fluorescent orange – and not irritate the pants off her readers. Unless, of course, you are one of those poor lost souls for whom The Secret Garden is anathema. Oh, go on, have some chocolate and try it again.

easter-wingsNow for some poetry. We have talked before about Eleanor Farjeon’s brief, haunting poem, ‘Easter Monday’. To that I shall add the lovely metaphysical poet George Herbert’s mystical ‘Easter Wings’ – and, while we’re about it, wallow in the pleasures of his ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ (and listen to John Taverner’s beautiful setting for it). What about Yeats’s ‘Easter, 1916’? It’s a poem that should certainly be on everyone’s ‘I know it’ list, so now is as good a time as any if you happen not to have come across it. And for jollity I shall have Robert Graves’s incomparable ‘Welsh Incident’: but you have to promise to have a go at reading it aloud, with as good an impression of Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins as you can manage.

Great DixterGraves’s poem has at least taken me into the great outdoors. In the hope that this sunshine might continue over the Easter weekend, I am adding Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden – by the best of all gardening writers – to the pile. When I tell you that Lloyd recommended pruning when you walk past a plant that you think needs it, and you have secateurs with you and are in the mood, you will see instantly why I love him. Great Dixter, the garden he inherited, re-made and continued to develop throughout his life, and which the marvellous Fergus Garrett is taking triumphantly onwards, is the most fabulous place, with the ability not to overawe you with the gardening brilliance of others but fill you with confidence, plans and – best of all – visions of your own.

Easter, like Christmas, comes with its own special food. I hope you’re not bothering with New Zealand lamb: have luscious one-year old English hogget now and wait until autumn for home-grown lamb. We shall need a Simnel cake recipe (and, much as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is revered in the NorthernReader household, his innovation of chocolate marzipan is not an improvement: sorry, Hugh), and one for hot-cross buns. But it would be a hardened soul indeed that could completely overlook the ingrained connection between Easter and chocolate. No, I will not be buying special moulds and melting and tempering chocolate. I am not that sort of person.   But I might curl up in a corner – of the garden if the weather holds – and revisit the pleasures of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. The cover of my copy demands, ‘Is this the best book ever written?’ Fatuous nonsense: of course it isn’t. But it is awfully good, and spiced with just the right amount of redemptive hope for this time of year. Happy Easter, everyone.

Yup, another non-gratuitous picture.  You're getting the hang of this, non?

Yup, another non-gratuitous picture. You’re getting the hang of this, non?


bardon-mill-village-storePS  The second NorthernReader Walking Book Club outing meets at 10.00hrs on Friday 25 April outside the Bardon Mill Village Store and Tea Room.  Our topic this month is ‘Writing History’.

Week 21: Food, Glorious Food

I am reliably informed that Rudolf Nureyev always aimed to put on 7lbs in the winter.  Passing silently over the depressing realisation that he probably put them off again every spring, I take this to be permission to crack on with the G-Plan Diet.  No, not reducing waistlines by only eating while sitting on stylish modernist furniture: G stands for Greedy.

library restaurantNow here’s where being an avid devourer of books pays off.  As Pongo and Missus know (One Hundred and One Dalmatians), leather bindings are the tastiest, but actually I was for once thinking in terms of metaphor (try Terence Hawkes’ short but definitive exploration for dazzling insight into metaphors).  We omnivorous readers can snack on cookery books, feast on histories of food and gulp down gasp-making accounts of edible excess – all without ingesting a single, wriggling calorie.

Cookery books divide themselves into two categories: instruction manuals (from Isabella Beeton to Delia Smith) and essays-with-recipes.  That’s the sort of cookery book you can read for pleasure and not necessarily in the immediate pursuit of grub.  The best were Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.  It is almost an accidental auxiliary gain that their recipes work (sometimes more or less work, in the case of Mrs David).  As the years sloosh by, both also begin to speak from a world we have lost.  I am sure you know of the revolutionary impact on rationed post-war Britain of A Book of Mediterranean Food.  It burst upon an entirely monochrome country with its unquestioning recommendation of lemons, garlic and olive oil as kitchen essentials. ‘Add little by little 4ozs. of butter and 4 beaten egg yolks,’ it said, in 1950: no problem for the cook complying with the ‘little by little’ advice – up to a week’s ration of butter and of eggs, gone in a transitory glory of béchamel sauce. No surprise, perhaps, that the General Election of 1950 was largely fought on the issue of rationing and how quickly it could come to an end.  Even a generation later, my own garlicky, wine-y (as opposed to whiney, which of course I wasn’t) childhood was, like so many aspects of my childhood, distinctly unusual.  All right, let’s face it, odd.

And no surprise, either, to find that the introduction to my later edition of Mediterranean Food was written by the great Jane Grigson.  Unquestionably a writer you can read in bed (just don’t dribble – that’s never a good look), Mrs Grigson is in many ways the direct heir to Mrs David, passionately arguing for food and cooking to be seen as a central part of our cultural heritage.  Whether she’s telling us about the village food of Troo, in the Loire Valley and home of a wonderful stuffed cabbage recipe (try it: it’s in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book and is just the thing for this rather dispiriting time of year) or reminding us that Mrs Raffald’s Bacon and Egg Pie (English Food) is every bit as delicious as quiche and travels better for picnics, Grigson writes with knowledge, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.  If the movement for Slow Food – the proper recognition of food and cooking as the central binding agent of families and communities – doesn’t yet have a patron saint, then I offer Jane Grigson.

Cookery books have a way of accumulating in kitchens if you’re not careful, and it can be quite eye-opening to go and take stock.  When did you last use One Hundred and One Microwave Suppers (oh, I’ll bet there is a book called that) or 500 Cheescake Recipes  (I know two, and they both work, and I have no interest in knowing any more)?  An afternoon spent carrying out a cull might not only produce a helpful bag-full for your nearest Oxfam, it might also reunite you with some once-treasured recipes that, somehow, you have got out of the habit of making.  When Katie Stewart died last year, I was reminded to dig out my battered and more or less loose-leaf paper-back Times Cookery Book.  I have been cooking from it ever since:  sensible, clearly and calmly-written recipes, not given to provoking you to rush out and buy exotic once-off ingredients (sherry vinegar, anyone?): and, by the way, the best – by which I mean simple and unfussed – instructions for turkey-roasting you are likely to find.

These three good ladies, David, Grigson and Stewart, all pre-date the age of the Celebrity Chef.  Hurray!  I do not want to cook like Gordon Ramsay – in fact there is no aspect of Gordon Ramsay that I wish to emulate.  But cooks-who-can-write are a mercifully different kettle of fish (oh, you can’t begrudge me at least one cooking-based metaphor).  The best of them is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, liked in the NorthernReader household because of his pleasingly practical solution to the Grey Squirrel Problem (clue: they’re delicious), but Nigel Slater, irritating though he can be with a self-regarding preciousness, has the great redeeming quality of liking his grub and writing about it with loving attention.

But, without question, the most memorable cookery book I have ever come across belonged to my great-grandmother.  It may, indeed, have been given to her by her mother, and for all I know it may have been passed down for several generations before that.  Several generations, that is, of redoubtable Highland women who could not only read and write – the book is hand-written – but who could stomach anything.  Nearly all the recipes – and there are many – involve the simple core ingredients of lard, blood and oatmeal.  Even more horrifyingly, several recipes have the simple annotation, ‘this is very good’, noted in the margins.  Armed, possibly only, with this notebook, my great-grandmother travelled fearlessly across the length of the planet and took on whatever the outer fringes of the Empire could throw at her without batting an eyelid.  Well, you can see why.  Eat your heart out, Charles Marlow: if you’d been brought up on my great-grandmother’s cooking, what could Kurtz bring on that would have made you tremble?