Week 114: Showtime

my-fair-lady-1964-09-gIt used to be called The Season, and jolly tiring it was too.  Never part of the Coming Out (which meant something quite different then), balls and aristocratic hob-nobbing which formed the invisible web binding together the members of a now-vanished caste, I look back in astonishment to realise how many of the London season events were an occasional part of my childhood.  Not a horsey lot, we were not the family that counted the days to Royal Ascot, Badminton and the Epsom Derby (although a later extremely mild interest has led me before now to Cheltenham and Goodwood in the days when it was still about horses). Wimbledon, as I have confessed before, has left memories only of acute and almost terminal boredom.  The highlight used to be the Chelsea Flower Show: I had some halcyon years living on a houseboat practically next door, and in the days when Members’ Day meant you and one or two other people pottering blissfully about in frocks/gents’ lounge suiting in the sunlit acres – ah, it was very heaven, those blue remembered hills whereon celebrity had not been invented.

Since those far-off days, the NorthernReader household, its back turned against the metropolis (hurrah), has found its pleasures in a harmless addiction to country and county shows.  If you have yet to experience a day spent in comfortable footwear solemnly debating the relative merits of different breeds of perfectly darling sheep, showmake this your breakthrough year.  We have happy memories of years and years of drinking Pimms and watching the pole-climbing (no, really) at the New Forest Show: only our morbid dislike of traffic kept us away from the Royal Welsh.  Since becoming adopted citizens of Northumberland, our cravings are splendidly fed by the Northumberland Show, and that was where we were to be found yesterday, knee-deep in cattle, pigs, dogs and tiny children driving tanks around a field.

The country show has seldom, if ever, featured as a key locus in fiction, which is a shame because all human, and indeed sentient, life is there.  A splendid setting for comedy, tragedy, love and mayhem, I suggest.    PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens explores many of Ukridge’s get-rich-quick ideas, but, sadly, exhibiting at the local show is not one of them (incidentally, when did chicken farms fall from favour as an absolutely sure-fire thing for making love or money?  Wodehouse’s breezy chaps are always falling back of the idea as a perfect scheme, but Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and indeed one the plot twists and turns in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, would tend to suggest that there is a melancholy or even a sinister side lurking among our feathered friends). Race meetings have become synonymous with Jilly Cooper territory, in fiction if not in life (haven’t read one and haven’t encountered burly lotharios with Barbara Cartlandish names, so cannot claim any right to judgment here); and of course with Dick Francis’s thrillers, which marry detailed knowledge of the racing world with the most wooden characters since Thunderbirds and are therefore known collectively (there are about a million of them) in the NorthernReader household as The Woodentops Go To The Races.

The London Season in all its debutantish horror lies behind Nancy Mitford’s The mitfordsPursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and is even more clearly brought to life in her sister Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  EF Benson’s Lucia in London charts his heroine’s attempts to break into high society.  If you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia novels, the best recommendation I can give to entice you in is that Benson completely nails the significance of saying ‘no’ with emphasis to mean ‘I never heard anything so marvellous, and it thrills me through and through.  Please go on at once, and tell me a great deal more’ (and if that doesn’t make you want to add Benson to your much-cherished ‘Jane Austen and Other Wasps’ shelf, I despair).

Let us shake off the dust of London and retire gratefully back to the country and its social pleasures.  Our first glimpse of Tess, red lips and sash, white dress and all, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, finds our heroine skipping round the Maypole.  I have only to recall it – and the several hundred dutiful essays retelling it to me handed in each year by undergraduates – to know that the moment when I can re-read  Tess has not yet dawned.  More enjoyable might be Peter Tinniswood’s play, The Village Fete; I don’t know it but he was such a good writer that I’m looking forward to making its acquaintance now I’ve stumbled upon it.  Miss Read, of course, is as ever a mary-mouse-and-the-garden-partysplendid source of fetes, fairs and jamborees, as is Barbara Pym (and why has it only just dawned on me how much those terrific writers have in common?).  If all else fails, we can revisit Enid Blyton’s Mary Mouse, who in Mary Mouse and the Garden Party performs the useful function of setting out all the hard work that lies behind such a festive occasion in so much grim detail it put at least one impressionable young reader off anything to do with such jolly community get-togethers for very many years.  Ah, how are the mighty fallen: this summer (I use the term loosely, having looked out of the window) I find myself organising a village Midsummer Night’s Party and running the raffle for the Village Fete.

And on both days, the sun will shine, print frocks will be worn, bunting will flap, and, best of all, there will be books.  It’s beginning to look like a NorthernReader summer.books


Week 97: Domestic Bliss

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Well, hello again. I would love to tell you that my summer-long silence was because I was off cycling the route of the Iron Curtain or saving orang-utangs in Borneo (and my hat is off to the friends and children of friends who have done these things and more this year), but the truth is that I have been sitting quietly at home, looking up only every now and then from a life of happy pottering to think ‘where does the time go?’. Here in the NorthernReader stronghold the ‘summer’ – I use the word loosely, as the August skies were grey and the temperatures brisk – saw a great sheaf of domestic projects fulfilled. We have transformed a bathroom that was eerily reminiscent of an economy-class budget airline facility into a tranquil refuge complete with roll-top bath and somewhere to balance your champagne glass while you soak (and, of course, read): we have made jams and chutneys from the pleasingly increasing harvests from the garden we are making out of what was an unprepossessing square of shoulder-high rough turf; we have become grown-up and put down stair carpets, and – best of all – Mr NorthernReader patiently removed several thousand twelve-inch nails from the various pallets we had accumulated and magicked the boards into the best compost bins I have ever seen. So as a summer of domesticity turns into an autumn of golden sunlight, long walks with the dogs and the pleasures of the first evening wood-fires, it is time to revel in some books that capture the spirit of the well-ordered household.

I am struck by the number of children’s books in which our young heroes – or, more usually, heroines – recreate the comforting routines of domestic life, however wild and unfamiliar the setting. The Walker and Callum children in Arthur Ransome’s books, of course, especially Swallowdale and The Picts and the Martyrs, which are in their way every bit as detailed as Robinson Crusoe, work perfectly well as practical ‘how-to’ manuals for ensuring that you and yours are warm, dry and well-fed: as my father used to point out, any fool can be uncomfortable. Eleanor Graham’s The Children Who Lived in a Barn remains my sole source of information on how to build a hay-box: not, admittedly, something I’ve felt the need to do so far in life, but you never know. These resourceful and self-sufficient children (the poppets in Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island are another Mrs-Beeton-eat-your-heart-out bunch) are a far cry from the spoilt Hare and Squirrel waited upon hand and foot by Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit – a down-trodden drudge who practically passes out with meek surprise in Little Grey Rabbit’s f32d73ba16941931b5cb5de8546579faBirthday when her friends stir themselves sufficiently to come up with a cake. Mind you, what a cake: the icon of birthday-cakiness throughout my childhood. Maybe I should have tried a little more selfless service and, who knows, a multi-tiered spongy thing of beauty could have been, transitorily, mine.

There are flocks and herds of domestic servants in literature, seen and unseen. Who is rattling the crockery when Toad hears lunch arriving at Ratty’s house? Who does the laundry – or the cooking, the carpet-beating, the fire-laying, the floor-scrubbing – at Thornfield Hall? One of the many glories of Stella Gibbons’ incomparable Cold Comfort Farm is its acknowledgement that curtains have to be washed and plates have to be cleaned – even, if you must, with a hazel stick, should no-one, in their anxiety to avoid being on the washing-up rota themselves, present you with a little moppet. One of the most self-observant and uncomfortable passages of Jessica Mitford’s memoir of childhood, Hons and Rebels, recalls her patrician ‘rescue’ of a slum child and the chasm between her fantasy and the reality of domestic bondage into which her unlucky protegée was cast. It is one of the minor ironies of life that in an age when disposable income and technology combine to make a life of queen-bee-like indolence a possibility we have taken, Marie-Antoinette-ishly, to baking, knitting and sewing (although not, I note, to washing-up: make a heart-warming programme out of that if you can). Should you be aspiring to a high domestic standard, the ever-indispensable Persephone Books have republished Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help, a gem from the immediate post-war years that you keep hoping might have been replaced by now by a utopian family democracy in which each member trips lightly downstairs in the morning to cheerily complete their designated domestic tasks for the day in a spirit of harmony, well-being and striving for the common good. Perhaps I should get a copy for my butcher, who told me on Saturday of a conversation with his son that morning:

BUTCHER (IN ROLE AS PARENT): Do you think you could pick up all the clothes from your bedroom floor and put them in the laundry basket

SON (IN ROLE AS PARASITE): Could you lend me* £30

And the asterisk dear reader, as any parent among you knows, is to draw your attention to the incorrect use of the word ‘lend’. Persephone Books, incidentally, also publish The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. This is fiction: only it probably isn’t, and its tale of how a family regained happiness by sending mother out to work and unclamping her determined little hands from the egg-whisk is as good a paradigm for the twentieth century as any. As the mother who gave KatePonders’ teddy bear cataracts in the tumble-drier, I find myself identifying a little with Fisher’s heroine, whose son is driven to sob, ‘Don’t let him be washed, Father!’. The comforting moral to be drawn from this, of course, is to keep your domestic standards limbo-dancingly low, Hurray!


But, as the evenings shorten and darken and a distinct chill sharpens the air, there is something to be said for a room where the well-polished furniture scents the air with beeswax and the sofas and chairs beckon invitingly from the fireside. Tea and crumpets, with pretty plates (and, ideally, a teapot that pours into the cup and only into the cup; I have never come across such a paragon and am extremely open to recommendations); books (of course) and talk of books: now that really is domestic bliss.

This is 'A Fireside Read' by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

This is ‘A Fireside Read’ by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

Week 55: Country Pursuits

realclay4Had you sidled up to me to impart the information, possibly in a whisper, that spending a morning trying to shoot little saucers made of clay out of the sky would be such fun, I just might have looked askance at you. But you would have been right, and I would have been …. less right than usual. Clay shooting is great, not least because it is a precious addition to my little fund of Sports You Can Chat While Doing. Companionable, only madly competitive if you do it in the company of madly competitive people (the very nice Peter Wilson, Olympic gold medallist, for example), and the tiniest bit silly: what could be more fun? My new addiction is fed by Alan Hawkings at Northumberland Clays (that’s what to do when next you are in this neck of the woods sorted, then. You can thank me later).

All this country living had already introduced me to the joys of fly-fishing. I think I should tell you that the first time a fishing trip was proposed to me, I did not thrill. Fishing was right up there with golf and bridge as hobbies I hoped I would reach my desired quota of 103 years without ever having experienced. And then Finlay The Ghillie From Heaven showed me how to cast my first fly ….. Now I have a secret nagging doubt. What if I’m …. less right than usual about golf and bridge as well? It is in this reflective frame of mind that I turn to books for guidance

I have three indispensable bedside books for fishing. They are Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life and Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots, which I recommended to you in Week 30. Paxman may be famous in legend and song for the worthwhile pursuit of politician-baiting (and pompous-student-deflating on University Challenge), but his heart clearly lies out on the river and his fishing anthology is an abiding pleasure. Walton is one of those Ur-books that are more talked about than read, I suspect, and yet another pretender to the title of the most-reprinted book in the galaxy. The fly-fishing chapters were added by his chum, Charles Cotton, and remain perfectly practical and sound advice. Norman Thelwell’s Compleat Tangler, on the other hand, is probably less useful as a manual, but it is heaven fthelwell 1or those of us who adore his inimitable illustrations of English country life. To be completely honest, his fishing cartoons lag behind his glorious pony pictures – but then, what doesn’t? They have to be the most perfect commentary on the horsey life ever published.

Shooting, and the perils thereof, is covered by Isabel Colegate’s atmospheric The Shooting Party, which has something of the suspenseful atmosphere of LP Hartley’s mesmerising The Go-Between about it. They are both completely successful in evoking the pre-Great War world in which they are set, and both somehow feel as if that world is holding its breath in anticipation of what is to come. Chekhov also wrote a novel called The Shooting Party, which I have not read and truth to tell, had not heard of until I spotted a copy at Barter Books last week. I will immediately get reading, not only in a spirit of topic-based enquiry but because I am a fully paid-up member of the ‘Chekhov was a genius’ society. It is the only novel he ever wrote, and – hurray! – it is a detective story, so I think I am in for a splendid time.

I never could resist a good profile

I never could resist a good profile

The Mitford sisters –or the speakable-of ones, at any rate – proved adept at chronicling country pursuits, both traditional – Lord Redesdale was an indefatigable rider to hounds, courser of hares and bagger of pheasant, partridge and grouse – and less so – the invention of the child-hunt, when foxes were thin on the ground, being one his more notable achievements. He appears as himself, more or less, in Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which is as good an account as you’ll get of (eccentric, I grant you) country life among the upper classes in the Thirties; and as Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s affecting The Pursuit of Love, which, with its sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, is howlingly funny as well as tragically sad.

The thought of the Mitford children being pursued by a pack of hounds reminds me of the hound in the red jersey in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children. The children, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are actually exemplary incomers to the countryside, scampering about out of doors and making their own entertainment – although the bitter truth is probably that, given today’s technology and half a chance, they’d have been stewing indoors glued to a console. Beware romanticising the past, in other words, and always remember that Bobbie and Phyllis were wearing those terribly useful red flannel petticoats because it was bloody cold out of doors.Unlike, I am delighted to report, here. After a brief encounter with Hurricane Bertha, we have pleasingly reverted to our customary glorious weather. Time to get outside. If not with fishing-rod, shotgun or dog-leash in hand, how about with a book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits.  Spotted the film-of-the-book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits. Spotted the film-of-the-book?

Week 25: Books for Walkers

walkingI was so struck when I read about Emily’s Walking Book Club in London (see the lovely EmilyBooks blog) that I immediately wanted to have something like that here in glorious Hadrian’s Wall country.  So, while we start to get that – well, off the ground, how about limbering up with some books about walks and walking?

As a rather lonely child who spent most days playing by myself in the woods near our house (my, how times have changed), there was something about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes that just spoke to me.  I can’t say it has left me with a life-long love of recalcitrant donkeys – although the unforgettable Modestine is one of the great four-legged characters in literature – but it did fix in my young mind an indelible picture of freedom.  Whether I was ever going to stride the length of one of the lesser-known ravishing areas of France might have been, and remains, a moot point, but Stevenson planted the idea that to get out there, into the countryside, is the thing (this week’s blog is probably not aimed at the Woody Allens among you – by which I only mean the convinced, bred-in-the-bone urbanite: although why should you not be your own Dr Livingstone in the concrete jungle?).

From Travels with a Donkey I moved on to Laurie Lee.  As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is of course, as you would hope from a poet, a lyrical description of his journey through the south of England and in Spain, but there is rather more to it than that.  Lee, as I’m sure you know, walked into the Spanish Civil War, and his is as good an evocation of that perilous and terrible time as anything from Hemingway or Orwell. It is disturbingly easy, by the way, to get the impression that Spaniards – especially the non-literary ones – had quite a job of it getting a look-in in their own struggle against a monstrous dictator, being at least as much imposed upon by dewy-eyed writers following their own agenda.  I like Jessica Mitford’s account in Hons and Rebels, not least because its sense of muddle and confusion sounds believable. But it is a strange phenomenon – and possibly one we should talk about some time – that some wars seem fated to become literary landmarks, whereas others get left to hack each other wearily and horribly to death without poets clustering round.

jade_seaWe’ve talked a little about Patrick Leigh-Fermor before, so here let me just remind you of your intention to read him if you haven’t and re-read him if you have: you won’t regret it.   But there is a chance that you haven’t read John Hillaby, because I suspect he is out of fashion as well as out of print.  Once the Zoological Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (and I tell you that only because I rather yearn for a time when that sort of job existed), Hillaby popped on his walking boots to make the trek across Kenya to Lake Turkana, a trip of about a thousand miles which therefore puts the Proclaimers’ pledge to walk a measly five hundred miles somewhat in the shade.  Journey to the Jade Sea was not specifically undertaken as an act of love, but in his later Journey Through Britain, Journey Through Europe and Journey Through Love  Hillaby was increasingly able to interweave his sentimental education with his other observations as he walked.

The idea of walking with a philosophical purpose is of course not new.  To walk to somewhere in order to experience the journey rather than simply to get to your destination might be as good a definition of pilgrimage as any other.  O good; that’s Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into the rucksack then.  And we Umberto Eco fans can slip a copy of his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods in there as well.  Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, would be a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which can be guaranteed to put any moaning about blisters to shame.  Any sort of journey lends itself to being a metaphor, of course: we’re back with our old friend Dante as he finds himself in the middle of the journey of his life standing in a dark wood with no clear path forward.  Sounds familiar?

Lee, Leigh-Fermor, Hillaby and Christian all walked alone, on the whole, but company is allowable: indeed, if you are going to join us in the NorthernReader Walking Book Club, company is mandatory.  It doesn’t have to be human, I suppose: as a dog-owner, Miles Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies painted an appallingly recognisable picture of the highs and lows of choosing as your companion in life a drooling fur-ball with serious personal hygiene issues.  Better, perhaps, to set out for the day with compass, grog and pemmican and your siblings and friends like the Swallows and the Amazons, who seem to undertake forced route marches the length and breadth of the fells without turning a hair.  They brought children up to be sturdier then, is all I can say.  Today’s valedictory picture shows that increasingly rare sight, children released into the wild and enjoying themselves.  They survived their up-bringing and even claim to have enjoyed it.  One of them grew up to be KatePonders, so clearly all that fresh air and exercise did some good.Wales

PS The NorthernReader Walking Book Club is going to stride out soon.  Watch this space, as they say, and I’ll email, tweet (or, to be honest, get KatePonders to tweet for me) and put up nice old-fashioned posters in Cogito Books, Hexham Library and local village shops as well.

Week 15: a la recherche du lost childhood

In a rare fit of continuity, this week follows on from last week.  I would say that it segues, but I am still so disappointed to have found out that what I thought was pronounced seegs – a word I rather liked, with an implied glissando into the next topic that made it rather pleasingly onomatopoeic – is in fact pronounced the infinitely duller seg-ways, which sounds like a moving pavement in Wisconsin (and indeed may be for all I know) – that I have sworn off it and cancelled my subscription to its fan-club.  So let us agree that this week picks up where last week left off, considering childcare, and moves on to consider the victim.  Which books successfully recreate the highs and lows of childhood?

The infant Gwen Raverat, her dog Sancho, and a bun

The infant Gwen Raverat, her dog Sancho, and a bun

First onto the podium has to be Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece.  Gwen Raverat was Charles Darwin’s grand-daughter, and therefore daughter or niece to a host of breath-takingly clever Cambridge academics who would probably have known normal if they saw it, but only under a microscope.  Her memoir of a Cambridge childhood in the late nineteenth century is a joy: witty, acutely observed and perfectly capturing a child’s-eye view of a very particular world.  She handles her cast of eccentrics with a scientific accuracy, and is also rather good on the uncomfortable metamorphosis from child to young adult.

Her natural companion is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels.  I know that the whole Mitford thing has been achingly over-milked, and that all the self-consciously outlandish nicknames and behaviour can be a trifle wearing.  But she is so awfully good on loneliness and a child’s sense, unexpressed even to itself, of not fitting in properly with the world.  She is also ruthlessly honest, which is brave when it comes to discussing the foibles of your own sisters and particularly when she sticks to her affection for her extremely difficult sister Unity.  I realise that ‘extremely difficult’ is both a bit of an under-statement and a hotly-contested title in the Mitford household, but Hons and Rebels makes it clear that they were in many ways a two-generation sibling group, with the elders seeming as remote and exotic as distant galaxies, with the chillingly serene and ardently Fascist Diana as unknowable as Jupiter.

We could add Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to the pile at this point.  Fabulous and rightly now regarded as a classic, it absolutely nails that child’s-eye view of events that the adult reader understands better than the heroine, while also allowing young readers or listeners to understand a refugee’s bewildered sense of displacement. You know, of course, that she very cleverly wrote each part of her trilogy of remembering – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away – for a readership of the same age as she is in the story.  This makes the Out of the Hitler Time books a perfect present from an aunt or uncle or a godparent, as the reader can grow with them.

Children have a surprising gift for inhabiting a completely different planet from grown-ups while seeming to share the same space (ask Calvin’s parents: Calvin and Hobbes, you understand, not the great Protestant reformer, about whose inner life as a child we can only speculate). Arthur Ransome’s great achievement is to let us inhabit that world in a completely matter-of-fact way and (the acid test for readability in the NorthernReader household) without tweeness. He patronises neither his characters nor his readers and you cannot imagine him ruffling a child’s hair (note to younger readers: in the long-ago days before paedophiles were presumed to lurk between the cracks in the pavements, adults were wont to show how avuncular they were/cover their sense of embarrassment at being in the presence of children and having absolutely nothing to say by a whole range of ritual gestures worthy of anthropological study.  Children could expect to have their heads patted and their hair ruffled.  This was not seen as odd on the part of the ruffler and presumably built character in the rufflee).  Children who could detect something phoney in Enid Blyton’s cardboard children (you see? I never said she was perfect) could relax when they encountered the Blacketts, the Walkers and the Callums, because these are characters that are treated with respect by their author and whose friendships, family relationships and dealings with the mostly alien adult world feel faithfully chronicled.  It is perfectly logical, after all, that the children should presume that Timothy, being sent by Captain Flint from South America  (Pigeon Post if you don’t know and what a treat you have in store), is an armadillo: which, as it turns out, he is not.

Too many autobiographies are of the intimations, if not of immortality, then of destined greatness tendency.  Is it unkind to point out the relationship between the claimed racketiness of childhood and the pompous boredom of the fully-fledged adult?  Biographies can have the same cloud of foreknowledge hanging over them: what distinguished one public schoolboy with appalling school reports from another is that one of them grew up to be Winston Churchill (though actually, if you want a story of school reports that is practically cinema verité in its wincing authenticity, stick with Just William). Perhaps more memoirs should take a leaf from Mrs May’s book, and transport us back to a remembered world of childhood which slipped through the cracks of reality.  Mrs May?  She’s the narrator of Mary Norton’s truly fabulous – in every sense of the word – Borrowers.  Lonely children, it seems, make the best story-tellers. But we avid readers were never lonely, were we?  We had all those people (and bears, and fauns, and mad hatters, dormice and march hares) to keep us company.  And, it turns out, to fuel our memories.  Why say goodbye to childhood when you can keep it with you?