Week 105: All You Need is Love (all together now)

valentines_dayGoodness me, one minute it was New Year and now it’s Valentine’s Day. It would be fair to summarise what is known of St Valentine as ‘nothing’. Mmm, our favourite sort of saint, a tabula rasa upon which splendid amounts of stuff can be projected; including, since at least the fourteenth century, stuff about love. Chaucer is commonly credited/blamed for coming up with the link between St Valentine and what I’m afraid I tend to think of as ‘lurv’, but as any fule kno, ‘first surviving mention in writing’ is not necessarily the same as ‘first mention.’ Actually, I’d go a bit further here and bet you a fiver that Chaucer is definitely not the inventor of St Valentine as a mini-love god. Chaucer (like Shakespeare) is a user of snippets and trifles that his audience already knows. His genius lies in what he makes of his material, not in the originality of his sources (originality being an uninteresting and dubious commodity to the mediaeval mind).

But right now we are stuck with Valentine as the patron saint of tacky cards, scentless roses and supermarket meal deals involving fizzy wine and chocolate. Pausing only to wonder why everything has to be pink, I think we can do better. If all will go ill for you should you not mark February 14th by a display of devotion – passion, even – then let me recommend the seductive power of words. Here, then, is the NorthernReader Indispensable bookshelf for lovers.

john-donneLet’s start with the master. I have been promising for a very long time now to try to persuade you to love John Donne, and now the moment has come. I do not have a hard task on my hands. Try the first line and a half of ‘The Good Morrow’:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?

Lovers take note: there is no-one alive who would not give their eye teeth to have you gaze at them across the breakfast toast and marmalade and say that. Before you, nothing; since you, the whole world. Or as Donne puts it:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest
Or try this, from ‘The Sun Rising’:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.

It’s the fabulousness of those thumping slowed-down syllables in the second line that catches at the heart. Shakespeare of course, and others too, could put into words that overwhelming realisation that everything, from climate change and global terrorism to putting the bins out and the cap back on the toothpaste, fades into invisibility in the face of all-absorbing love: but no-one but Donne could do it in four spare beats (a trochee and a lovely, stretched-out, lingering spondee should you be feeling metrically inclined). One more, although I know you must – couldn’t possibly not be – hooked already. This is from ‘The Anniversary’:

Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

Add some Marvell, some Auden, some Browning (her and him) and, yes, Shakespeare’s sonnets too, and our Bookshelf for Lovers will have made a fair start.

And prose? The difficulty, as we noticed way back in Week 27, is that the course of true love, should it happen for once to run smooth, does not tend to run particularly grippingly. Boy meets girl, boy and girl settle down happily, The End, while lovely in real life, is frankly dull in fiction. Literature abounds with tragic entanglements – Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, Dido and Aeneas – but they scarcely set a tactful note for Valentine’s Day. Even romantic comedies depend upon near-misses with catastrophe to drive their plots onward and keep their readers turning the pages. We can definitely add an Austen or two to this week’s shelf, but bear in mind that they range from the long hard road to realising that he’s not the one to the equally stressful trek towards second chances (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion: I invite you to compose one-phrase summaries of all of her novels should you be at a loose end). Colm Toíbín’s Brooklyn is enough to give the genre ‘romantic novel’ a good name: come on boys, be brave and read it even though it has a girl on the cover. And of course, one perfectly good way of countering all the slush of the Valentine’s Day industry is to settle down with any of the sweepingly, swooningly, lavishly romantic novels that categorically side-step the happy ending. How about Kashuo Ishiguro’s haunting, buttoned-up The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s searing Atonement and Rose Tremain’s pitch-perfect Music and Silence? And there are gorgeously-cast films for the first two (the BBC seems to have been in talks since God was a boy to bring Music and Silence to the screen, but without results so far), so all those chocolates could come in handy after all.

indexAs for tales of long-enduring domestic bliss, I see problems. Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man? Two minds with but a single thought, I grant you, but that thought is usually ‘where’s the next cocktail coming from?’ which is bound to take its toll in the long run. Better, perhaps, to take Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane as our ideal detecting couple, as brought to life by Dorothy L Sayers and kept in robust marital health by Jill Paton Walsh. But for a quiet celebration of the mundanities of married life, we could do an awful lot worse than a joyful re-read of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, in which Jane and the Reverend Nicholas Crampton muddle along just fine.

As the years together mount up, I have come to realise that the best advice Mr NorthernReader and I have ever received was not anything red-lipped and passionate (now you come to think about it, can you imagine Romeo and Juliet, irritating adolescents as they are, ever having made it to middle-aged settled-downness?). No, I hope that our guiding light has always been the long-married chap who said, ‘the secret of a happy marriage is to lead parallel lives. She goes her way and I go her way.’ That’s the way to do it.  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

You know what they say: nobody's perfect

You know what they say: nobody’s perfect

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Week 87: Difficult Books

author-writing-writerThe reason, since you ask, why it has taken me until Thursday to write to you this week is that I had a splendid idea for a topic and spent days – and days … trying to get to grips with it. Born with a stubborn streak, it has taken until this evening for me to realise that it’s just not something I can squeeze a thousand words out of (hadn’t you noticed? Each week is more or less a thousand words: which means, if you have been kind enough to read me from the beginning, that we have shared a novel together, in length if not in meaning). Hitting a writerly brick wall has made me think about the books that, for various reasons, have presented the North Face of the Eiger to me: scalable, yes, but not by me.

I have read and enjoyed most of Ian McEwan, but his 1987 novel, The Child in Time, was too painful. I started to read it when my daughter, the lovely KatePonders, was a baby, and the opening chapter, in which a small daughter called Kate is kidnapped, harrowed me so unutterably that to this day I have never been able to return to it. My visceral abandonment of objectivity is my loss, as the book is thought of by many as McEwan’s masterpiece. Should you not have a daughter called Kate, or indeed should you not be at that vulnerable stage of life which revolves around the fragile wonder that is your child, do please read it and get back to me.

While I’m confessing to personal and illogical taboos, the pictures of the Weasel’s House in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books have haunted my dreams since I first came across them when I was about four. And I have told you before about the terrors of Struwwelpeter, my really rather odd grandfather’s preferred choice of reading to his small descendants. Kateponders expressed a profound aversion to Axel Scheffler’s illustrations for Jon Blake’s untitled (18)You’re a Hero, Daley B! and could be reduced to sobs by well-meaning would-be readers-aloud inadvertently retrieving it from the very back of the bookshelf where she had hidden it (actually destroying a book being unthinkable to her even when three: the mixed blessing of an academic household). Should you, or the very little people in your life, be made of slightly sterner stuff, the book – and indeed the illustrations – are delightful and capable of being an enormous hit in your household.

Some books and authors are of course difficult for other reasons. I freely admit that tremendous length is not at first sight a recommendation to me (which is of course precisely why my enthusiasm for a handful of Really Long Books is so striking and worth taking me up on: good God, if I of all people urge you to read Nostromo, say, or Bleak House, there must be something in them). It is worth remembering that many of the weightier Victorian novels first appeared in instalments in periodicals. Perhaps returning to that approach and taking them in regular but well-spaced bite-size chunks will open up a vaster range of fiction for those wary of the long haul. And we should not lose sight of the fact that some authors are just plain hard work. That is by no means a bad thing – think how boring life would be if everything came in condescendingly platitudinous soundbites (an eternal pre-election, for example): but you do have to be in the mood for grappling. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound should both keep you intellectually pinned down for a while if you’re looking for that sort of challenge. James Joyce’s Ulysses and (even more so) Finnegan’s Wake, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, even Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; one of the layers of difficulty lies in the language. Reading them makes us read slowly, taking each word as it comes. This deliberate barrier to glib understanding draws our attention to our everyday habit of impatiently skimming through everything we read. How much do we miss?

And then there are the books that just aren’t for us. Too many of us had teachers – it’s usually teachers, I’m afraid – who got it into our heads that a book, once begun, must be persevered with to the bitter, bitter end. Sadly true if it’s a set text (see, if you feel so inclined, Week 86 for what I think about our exam-ridden education system), but otherwise, arrant nonsense. You cannot know if any particular book is the sort of thing you might like without giving it a whirl (which is why first lines and pages are so important: see Week 20 for details), but only a fool, or, I suppose, someone trapped on a desert island with only one book for company, would carry on reading once it has been clearly established that book and reader have nothing to say to each other. So, dearest reader, if you have been trudging through War and Peace, Moby Dick or Paradise Lost since time began, cast off your dreadful sense of obligation and consign the loathsome volume to Oxfam, where your particular poison will turn out to be someone else’s food for the mind and the soul.

But, should the mood take you, there are times when we really quite fancy something difficult, or at least something different and out of our comfort zone. So here are three that you might possibly not have read: James Kelman’s Not Not While the Giro; Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And if they turn out not to be your cup of tea, fear not. Let them drop from your hand and reach for another. Don’t forget Yeats’s wise words:

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

That’s telling us. Happy reading.Reynolds_BoyReading (2)

Week 77: Boxes

Only one! I dream of having only one

Only one! I dream of having only one

As part of the valiant struggle to achieve a sleek and organised life, I have spent much of the last week going through boxes of papers. The photographs – handed on, unannotated, from generation to generation – will have to wait a while longer before I, godlike (or does it make me feel like a Camp Commandant?), pass among them, shepherding them into two piles, the faces of the known and the unknown. I realise that the only solution for the pictures of people now completely unidentifiable is to be shot of them. Tear them up, shred them for mulch, burn them. You see? What began as an exercise in brisk practicality has become freighted with significance. As an academic, I was a True Believer in Semiotics, the study of how we make meaning: is the reward to be haunted by an atavistic reluctance to dispose of these fragile paper shreds of evidence that someone, no matter that every aspect of their identity has been discarded, once existed? I shall set those boxes aside while I re-read Michael Frayn’s Headlong, his fabulous contemplation of the differences between iconography and iconology.

But in another box, I found letters from my father to my mother. No Auden she – you remember his poem, ‘Who’s Who’, which ends:

… answered some

Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

My mother seems to have done quite the reverse: not answered, but kept. And among the letters she kept in a box for more than forty years until she died were letters my father had written to me when I was a child. She never gave them to me: I never knew he had written them, and I never read them until today. I think I might be allowed Ian McEwan’s Atonement on this week’s shelf. And any good re-telling of the story of Pandora, whose box-opening at least lets hope into the world.

‘Box’ is of course one of the collective nouns for books. Auction sales tend to have an assortment of rather tired-looking cardboard boxes under the tables, packed with what the catalogue will describe as ‘books on military subjects’; ‘books, mostly of Roman history’ or the slightly defeatist ‘books, various’. A very enjoyable (and free) morning out is to be had trawling through these boxes on Viewing Day, remembering not to squeak with first folioexcitement in the not-terribly-likely event that you find a first edition Ian Fleming or a First Folio Shakespeare in among the Jeffrey Archers. Auctions are where you will also have the opportunity from time to time to rub shoulders with the miles and miles of leather-bound volumes of ‘a gentleman’s library’, and even enjoy the thrill of watching someone else spend huge sums of (quite possibly someone else’s) money on a single small volume that you had failed to grasp the significance of: £62,000 for a first edition of The Great Gatsby, for example – a book I cannot bring myself to like (although, had I a first edition, I might find that absence would indeed make the heart grow fonder. Much, much fonder).

No, I would rather curl up with a copy, first edition or not, of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights any day: a really splendid adventure story that is far too good to be wasted on children. Reading it brings winter right into the room, and it would have been a good candidate for discussion when the NorthernReader Not-Walking Book Club met the other day for coffee and cake and chat about books with a sense of the seasons of the year (see the Walking Book Club page for details, and do join us next time). Chills of a different sort are on offer in Kate Mosse’s first collection of short stories The Mistletoe Bride. You know the haunting legend on which the title tale is based, and perhaps, like me, can’t help feeling that it is still waiting for a Hilaire Belloc poem to point the moral: ‘brides who want to set a test/ should not hide in wooden chests’ perhaps. Keep an eye out for the Folio Society edition of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, by the way, not least for the pleasures of Posy Simmonds’ illustrations.

But for today, back to my boxes. I have a feeling, what with rediscovering lost treasures and reading letters from the past, that in the words of Robert Frost, I have ‘miles to go before I sleep’.Pandora_-_John_William_Waterhouse

Week 69: ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly

Kate GreenawayOne of the many delights of living in the North East of England is that people here have far better things to do than start fossicking about Christmas immediately after the summer holidays have ended. But, with less than a fortnight to go, even we are beginning to hum ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like …’ as we go about the daily round. And yesterday, we had our first snow of the season. The Farmers’ Market is joined by the Christmas Market this weekend and there is a distinct air of mulled wine and cheerful expectancy: which is exactly what Advent ought to mean (the expectancy rather than the wine, especially if you are under eighteen). This is not, I suspect, the neck of the woods at which all those dreary advertisements imploring us to buy sofas and rather horrid dining tables in time for Christmas are aimed. Not for us the articles in magazines promoting geegaws and fripperies as – and I quote – ‘ideal stocking fillers under £100’: what planet do these people think we inhabit? There is a splendid amount of knitting, sewing, and sweet-and preserve-making going on around here and pleasingly little belief that friendship and love can be Kipper's Christmasmeasured by the amount carelessly spent at the till. ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’, as the King James Bible firmly decrees, and how right it is. No, this is the season when the long retreat into a wintry hibernation snaps out of itself and is transformed into warmth, friendship and good neighbourliness by parties. They began a few days ago, a little trickle of invitations to lunch, or tea, or drinks with friends, and now they stretch as an unbroken shining path of gentle pleasures, all the way to Christmas and beyond, to Old Year’s Night and Twelfth Night.

So, as hostess or as guest, where can I find my role models? Children’s books are full of parties, usually featuring as joyful occasions, flying in the face of most children’s experiences. If you are small and living in dread of the next birthday party, take comfort from the fact that you at least do not have to suffer the indignities and limitations imposed upon previous generations by a dress code that involved ties for boys and sticky-out dresses for girls. Photographs from my own childhood confirm that a blue net dress with a sash did not transform me into a sparkly fairy: a glum-looking cross-patch in a flowery frock is more like it. Dorothy Edwards’ lovable My Naughty Little Sister captures the real world of children’s parties, especially when our heroine and her best friend, Bad Harry, wander off from the games that the nice boys and girls are playing and find the party food

I've been to a MARVELLOUS party

I’ve been to a MARVELLOUS party

unguarded. Their business-like demolition job on the trifle would draw praise from the Weasels at Toad Hall, and makes me wonder whether adults’ parties would go with more of a swing if trifle was more heavily involved.

We can at least make every effort to avoid the sort of parties that Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things find themselves drawn to. Read Vile Bodies and be grateful that you do not get invited to that sort of thing (of course, it may be that you do: in which case, read it to the end, take heed and amend your ways). And while we’re on the look-out for Parties to Avoid, Ian McEwan’s haunting Atonement, Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway provide some useful guidelines. But if we are lucky we might find ourselves going to the sort of magical and dreamlike party that Augustin stumbles across in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Or how about Dick Hawk-Monitor’s 21st birthday party as chronicled in Stella Gibbon’s completely essential Cold Comfort Farm ? It sounds as if it was an enjoyable enough occasion even before the birthday boy livened it up no end by throwing a marriage proposal into the works.

Time for some less hectic gatherings, perhaps. In these days of seemingly endless bling, when we are exhorted to spend a fortune at Christmas decking ourselves out as gaudily as any Christmas tree, it is good to spend a few moments with Miss Fogarty (in the Thrush Green books by Miss Read), who worries whether her seed pearl necklace might be too showy for a village drinks party. All the Miss Read characters could walk into any social occasion in our part of the world with no questions asked, and it is their mastery of clothes that qualifies them. Like us, they cheerfully recognise each other’s party outfits as they clock up considerable mileage. What more robust and sensible judgment of clothes can there be than ‘there’s years of use in that yet’? Since moving here, I have come to realise Ballthat my two pairs of heels will see me out, as there is not much call for them when even an evening out involves hopping across a field or a farmyard: and I couldn’t be more thankful if I tried. There is no rural festivity that a silk shirt and a thermal vest cannot rise to. A far cry, indeed, from Kitty’s outfit for a ball in Anna Karenina: ravishing white net over pink silk, with little pink slippers to match – utterly darling, of course, but a tad impractical, one would have thought.

No, as friends come here to supper, or we go to drinks with neighbours, and a quiet excitement starts to hum, our build-up to Christmas will be modelling itself on Ratty, Mole and Badger, good country-dwellers all, who knew the importance at all times of year of living in great joy and contentment.

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

PS If you were to ask me for suggestions for books as presents this Christmas, my absolutely unhesitating first choice would be Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead. You will not look at anything, ever, in the same way once you have read it.

Week 27: Books for a Marriage

sonnet 116The daughter of our dear friends got married yesterday.  To Louise and James, therefore, we NorthernReaders send every possible ounce of love and congratulations and welcome to the wonderful and slightly strange world of being married.  What books should we give you?

1 snowdropsThe truth is that poets, playwrights and novelists get more inspiration from the unmarried state which you have just left.  As everyone will point out to you, Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding in the air and his tragedies begin shortly afterwards.  Don’t be put off: think of Lord and Lady Macbeth and General and Mrs Othello as helpful what-not-to-do guides and you’ll be fine.  And stick like glue to every wise word of Shakespeare’s sonnet.  If you minds are as one, and open to each other, yours will be the best and happiest of marriages.

Asta_in_Shadow_of_The_Thin_Man_trailerThe problem with happy marriages is that they do not provide useful material for fiction, because stories, unlike people, thrive on conflict.  Good marriages can be found in books, but – just as in what we laughingly call real life – you may need to pick and choose to select the aspects you would like to copy.  Nick and Nora Charles, for example – the couple at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man:  happy, certainly; devoted, even – but I’m not sure that all that alcohol is a very helpful ingredient in our recipe for a long and contented marriage (Asta, on the other hand, is a good reminder that dogs and marriages go together very well indeed).  But detective fiction, strangely, does provide us with some well-matched couples.  Not Poirot, obviously, nor Miss Marple, although Agatha Christie did have a married pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  But Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey embody Shakespeare’s invaluable advice to be a marriage of true minds.  We shall give our newly-married couple, not only Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon,.but also the sequels developed by Jill Paton Walsh. We can add Ngaio Marsh’s really rather nice Roderick Alleyn and his splendid wife Troy.  Best of all are Commissario Guido Brunetti and his clever academic wife, Paola, in Donna Leon’s absorbing series of detective novels set in Venice.  It is true that Paola is a fabulous cook, but, if you are not, do not despair that a great marriage will elude you: the Brunetti household is forged by love, patience, understanding, a shared sense of humour and – hurray – books.  The couple that reads together, stays together.

Sticking together through the tough bits might be a useful role model, so hats off to Mother in The Railway Children who quite properly never doubts her husband’s innocence for a second.  Married couples in children’s books almost inevitably – and appropriately – appear as parents rather than lovers, but there are some that stand out as couples  Sadly, Mr and Mrs Bear, parents of  Rupert, make it very clear where he gets his outstanding dullness from.  Much more enjoyably, Mr and Mrs Pig of Evening Out fame, although a bit slapdash in their choice of baby-sitter (and which cabin-fevered parent wouldn’t joyfully accept any offer of child-care?), are clearly fond of each other and can still face the idea of an evening in each other’s company with equanimity.  Richmal Crompton’s Mr and Mrs Brown stoically present a united front in the face of the adversity which is their youngest child, William.  There is, incidentally, an emerging trend for weddings to include readings from children’s books – the more toe-curlingly and vapidly sugary the better.  I suspect that the reason for this is straightforward and two-fold: first, because, consciously or not, the happy couple are thinking about children, and secondly because under the strain of arranging a wedding, which nowadays has to be of a pomp and splendour formerly restricted to the court at Versailles, the bride has lost her marbles and the groom is too afraid to put his foot down.  I may, of course, be wrong

Snowdrops-bouquet-wallpaper_7017Let us turn to the poets for help and guidance.  Once again, we hit the problem that it is far more fun to write about the awful agonies of unrequited love and broken romance than the glorious mundanities of lasting happiness, but here are two who step up to the mark.  Although Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion is, strictly speaking, ineligible for our bookshelf of marriage guidance because it speaks only of the wedding day itself, it is definitely having a place for its very clear standard-setting on how to praise your wife.  Read it, chaps, and take notes.  You will never fall far out of favour with your wife as the years roll by if you can keep up this level of admiration.  Pay special attention to his celebration of her intelligence, charm, kindness and wit.  Practise in the car on the way home if necessary.

Our second teacher is of course the utterly wonderful John Donne.   Read ‘The Anniversary’. If you don’t feel like that, don’t marry.  There we are.  Simple really.

Now is not the time to indulge the NorthernReader’s sense of humour by presenting our happy couple with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me.  We could give them Wodehouse, though.  Not Bingo Little’s marriage to the popular novelist Rosie M Banks, perhaps, and the fireplace with ‘Two Lovebirds Built This Nest’ – although there is something rather marvellous about such squirm-making horror – but Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom rub along together pretty well through umpteen years of marriage and despite the depradations of her nephew Bertie.  Best of all, let’s make sure that all newly-married couples embark upon their life together with the complete works of Jane Austen tucked into their trousseaux.  Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: they are all highly unusual romantic couples, because we can imagine them settling into long contented marriages (for contrast, try picturing Romeo and Juliet’s silver wedding anniversary.  You see? It was never going to work).  And Jane Bennett, of course – like our own dear Louise – has the great good sense to marry a man from the North of England.  Good on you, petheavenfield