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


Week 38: a House in the Country

It will not have escaped your notice, if you are a persistent reader of this blog, that we moved to lovely Northumberland quite recently. Oh, the joys of selling and buying houses. Actually it isn’t all completely unalloyed misery and stress (although some measure of both is guaranteed in the whole process). Selling your house does at least mean that you experience what it is like to live in a clean and tidy home for once: and, if you are us, it even encourages you to start thinking long and hard about the possessions that seem to have accumulated like silt throughout your current resting-place. Why do we still have this packing case, unopened since the last move a decade ago, you might find yourself asking (in fact, if you have such packing-cases, I urge you to ask yourself that question. Right now. Stop reading and go and open it). Am I really ever going to wear/cook with/plant/learn for saleto play that? Time, in fact, for a cull (see Week 10 for book culling). There are other joys to be squeezed out of the whole wretched business of letting total strangers wander round your house making rude remarks about the curtains, but it is strangely hard to remember them even after only a year or so: what lingers is the sensation of existential angst. So, when next you feel the need to up sticks, remember the NorthernReader Golden Rules for Selling Your House:

1) find a good estate agent. You do not want the terrifically up-market firm, established in 1066. They will send a young man called Tristan to value your house. He will not have the right shoes for your garden. He will make it clear that he was brought up in a castle and that your house, with its measly four acres, is frankly slumming it and a bit borderline for his firm but that he just might be able to shift it for you for about a third of what you suspect to be its value. On the other hand, you do not want the nationwide chain of agents who claim to flog properties in warehouse quantities. They will send a young man called Kyle who has never set foot in your village before – or indeed any village – and will be aghast at your chickens. No, what you want is a one-man band who sells houses in the villages around you. He will come round himself, get to know you and your house. He will sell your house because he has invested everything in his business, and if he doesn’t sell your house he might have to sell his.

2) under no circumstances show your house yourself. Insist that your agent pitches up before the viewers. Disappear. I don’t care if you go to Paris for the weekend or hover nervously in the deep undergrowth at the bottom of the field next to your house until the invaders have left, but do not put in an appearance. Think ‘uncast part in The Archers’. You do not want to get to know the people who buy your house. You want this to be strictly business. You know: like in The Godfather.

As for finding your perfect house to move to – well, you’re going to need some books, aren’t you? Try these.



If we are thinking large-scale, then Brideshead, Northanger Abbey and Totleigh Towers would all do. Thornfield sounds draughty and Manderley beset with a serious servant problem. On a more domestic scale, I thought Howard’s End sounded rather lovely even before Peppard Cottage played the part in the Merchant-Ivory film. Or there’s Talboys: Dorothy L Sayers sends Lord Peter Wimsey and his bride, Harriet Vane, there on their wedding night (Busman’s Honeymoon ) and briefly returned there in a subsequent short story (published in Striding Folly). Jill Paton Walsh has now picked up the baton and firmly established the Wimsey family at Talboys for the duration of the war in A Presumption of Death. Even in the midst of the ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ mystery, I heard my hardened property-loving heart whispering, ‘look at all those outhouses! Think of the potential!’ (But no, I do not yearn to be Flora Poste, finding someone to wash curtains at Cold Comfort Farm).

I have a rather splendid member of the Weekend Book tribe called The Countryman’s Weekend Book. Published just after the Second World War (and apparently oblivious to the existence of countrywomen), it has a gripping chapter on how to design and build – by which it is clear the author means ‘have some chappie build for you’ – the perfect country house. Eric Parker, who wrote many of the ‘Weekend’ books, was a naturalist and sportsman who, among much else, campaigned successfully for conservation legislation and wrote for The Field magazine. His thoughts on what makes a good country house are clearly based on experience and common sense. Much thought is given to aspect and to sufficient coal stores. Lutyens-influenced (and that’ll be the architect I’ll try to snap up when I win the lottery), his dream house looks practical and comfortable, with no worries about traipsing in with muddy boots and dogs.

Or perhaps we should get more radical in our approach to rural living. Should Robinson Crusoe be our role model? Having recently discovered that Defoe named his hero (if that is the word I’m looking for) after his friend, the radical preacher Thomas Cruso who was my heaven-knows-how-many greats grandfather (pause for moment of irrational smugness), I’m tempted to consider his stockade as a way of living. But no, Northumberland is not a desert island and the natives are friendly. Perhaps we should follow the example of the ultimate reductionist, Stig – he of The Dump fame – and live in a loose construction of what artists like to call found objects.

But no. Tempting though the tree-houses, castles, cottages and caves of literature undoubtedly are, for once I’ll say no to fiction and settle happily in the NorthernReader barn. A roof of my own, as Virginia Woolf might have said.

Oh, DEFINITELY potential.  I can see it now ...

Oh, DEFINITELY potential. I can see it now …

PS  The next NorthernReader Walking Book Club meets on Wednesday 28th May at Simonburn.  See the Walking Book Club page for details.

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

Week 12: a Trip to the Library

Week 12: Libraries

BootsWhen I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to the local Boots’ Booklovers’Library.  For the infants among you who are looking at each other with a baffled air, let me whisk you back to a more civilised age when men wore hats – even, if you believe the really rather splendid illustrations in my parents’ copy of How To Grow and Produce Your Own Food, while applying an oiled feather to an egg-bound hen – shops shut on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays, and Boots – yes, that Boots, the chemists – ran a subscription library.  They often had rather fabulous, sub-Liberty architecture as well.  As I remember it, my mother would scan the Sunday papers’ review pages, note down the new books she wanted to read in a special little notebook and take that into the Boots’ Library to place her order.  To be completely honest with you, I can’t remember whether they also catered for the younger reader, but I do recall earnestly lisping to Miss Harris, the librarian, ‘Ith’s my bairthday’.   Which was strange because (a) I did this every week and so it usually wasn’t and (b) I do not otherwise have a Scottish accent.

We also patronised (something my mother was rather good at) the local Public Library, which was definitely an also-ran on the interior design front but which did have children’s books.  And thus was instilled in me The Library Habit.  I am presuming you have it too?  Unless of course you are a multi-millionaire, and even then, frankly, and while I applaud your extravagant expenditure on books, you’ll kick yourself for buying some of the duds that you get to sample for free at your local library.

Or used to.  Now, it may be my dark suspicious mind, but I am not the only person around here to think that the newly-refurbished Hexham Library now has fewer books.  Do not let me in any way put you off going there, however: not least because of the joyful serendipidity of whoever is putting the books back on the shelves entirely randomly, so that I have just tripped over Michael Wood’s Story of England in Fiction (must go and check out the Smallholding section in the eager anticipation of bumping into Animal Farm).  Times are hard, and, for reasons that escape me, councils are preferring to spend money on – well, I’m not quite sure what: certainly not pothole-restoration – rather than on books.  Poor show and short-sighted.

University libraries are quite good fun.  The very greatest pleasure of a spell living in Oxford was the possession of a Bodleian Reader’s Card.  The trick with these is to wait until there is quite a gaggle of tourists clustered round the ‘No Entry: Readers only’ sign at the threshold before weaving importantly through, looking scholarly (don’t lie to me, professorial readers: we’ve all succumbed to this particular shallowness).  So, for those of you who don’t have one, sorry to rub your face in it but it is terrific.  Especially Duke Humphrey’s Library, where you can actually smell the books decaying and the only sound apart from the faint scratch of pencils (no pens allowed) is the full-volume jolly chat of the librarians.  My, they lead trivial lives.  I have a very soft spot for the gorgeous library at Trinity College Dublin, and I love the (admittedly a tad arcane) Dr Williams’s Library in Bloomsbury, but my all-time favourite is probably the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room at the British Library.  I am, of course, so old that I cut my academic teeth under the rotunda at the British Museum – unparalleled fabulousness – but, once I had got over the appalling Walk of Death that takes you, Indiana-Jones like, across the yawning abyss of the atrium (yup, you guessed, I get vertigo) from the (compulsory) lift to Rare Books – the King’s Cross Building is just lovely.  It’s not often that we readers get treated as well as plants, with thought given to our access to light and air.  Take your own pencil-sharpener, though.  But, children of the digital age, forget Sinead O’Connor or indeed the unfeasibly tiny Prince: NOTHING compares to the realisation that you are the first person to have handled some particular book since, say, George III’s librarian.  Or the discovery that the book you have ordered from the stacks is somewhat carelessly bound in a 12th century manuscript, cut to fit.

Children of the internet (and let me take the opportunity now to say thank you, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, not least because he seems to be a terrifically nice self-effacing chap as well as the inventor of the World Wide Web), we have had the immense privilege of living in a world in which we can sit at home and, with the click of a mouse, trawl through a thousand libraries or turn the page of a million books.  At a loose end for an hour?  Go and play on Project Gutenberg or, indeed, the British Library website.  Better still volunteer with Project Gutenberg.  And while you’re on the computer, read Neil Gaiman’s spirited defence of libraries which was this year’s Reading Agency annual lecture: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Back among the deliciousness of paper (I used to teach a course called – a bit pretentiously – ‘The Materiality of the Text’, which simply means, ooh, let’s stop and wonder at the paper, the ink, the layout, the size, the physical history of some particular volume, and unravel all the philosophy and politics that have resulted in it being the way it is), I am looking forward to reading The Library Book, which I am expecting to be a lovely, rambling (very often a recommendation) collection of writers’ responses to the idea of the library.  We’ve talked about Unseen University’s sublime simian librarian before, and we can reel off The Name of the Rose and the slightly ubiquitous H. Potter as books-with-important-libraries in them.  But I haven’t mentioned Jill Paton Walsh’s The Wyndham Case before, which is remiss of me, because it is highly enjoyable.  Bodies have a propensity for libraries, now I come to think about it, from Agatha Christie onwards.  And, no, it wasn’t because they were overwhelmed by all those books.

But the best library of all is available only to you.  Each of you.  It’s the one in your head, and, dearest reader, you can replenish and add to it every day.  At no cost to your local council, if need be.  A simple, daring, thought: lend people your books.  And borrow theirs  (and give them back, please).  And leave books behind you when you go: no, not that sort of final departure (though that would be good too); once you have read a book and will probably not need to do so again, leave it somewhere – a train seat, a public bench, a café table – for the next reader.  It just might be the best thing you ever do.