Week 113: Flat

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

I have spent the last few weeks, which have felt like geological eras, edging towards selling a flat.  No, despite what our current Beloved Leader’s sidekick would have you believe, this does not mean that I am Rachman reincarnated, leafing through my property portfolio in the Bond-like fastnesses of NorthernReader Towers.  I had a small lump sum and, in the absence of any pension (too young – hurrah – for a state one and too female to have ever been offered a private one) a flat seemed like a slightly better return on capital than, say, a bank account (if only bonuses, and indeed salaries, were capped to the interest rates these people offer).  It also offered the humble pleasures of drastically improving Britain’s housing stock, one flat at a time, and being a model landlord.  Just call me Pollyanna (so much less rude than ‘poor deluded fool’).  What has actually kneaded the iron deep into my soul, however, has been the managing agents who, as the same unsavoury individuals but wearing a multiplicity of hats, hold the freehold, act as their own surveyors, do their own conveyancing, and (don’t) maintain and run the building.  Dante, thou shouldst be living at this hour, because managing agents are a sub-species below even estate agents, bankers and politicians.  Enough of the brutalities of real life; how about flats in fiction?

Strangely enough, none of the occupants of literature’s flats and apartments seem cursed with managing agents.  The male of the species is often attended by a housekeeper (Sherlock Holmes’s Mrs Hudson) or a valet (Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion with the disreputable Lugg; Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves).  Male detectives, it seems, are irresistibly drawn to the flat as an address (yes, I know Bertie isn’t a detective, unless of course you count – as you should – his triumphant work in the Case of Aunt Agatha’s Pearls aka ‘Aunt Agatha Takes the Count’ in Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves).  Hercule Poirot is another denizen of an apartment block, relying on George for sustenance and clean socks.  I cannot think of a single example of a chap who fends for himself in a flat,221b or one whose narrative trajectory is marked by such mundanities as popping to the shops or doing the washing up.  Several of the males of the flat-dwelling species do, however, display a keen interest in the nicer points of interior design – not Holmes, obviously, but Wimsey favours a terrifically modish primrose-and-black scheme at one point and Poirot prides himself on manifesting le dernier cri of Art Deco (and jolly uncomfortable and foreign it is all made to sound).

Flats occupied by women in fiction cover a wider social range, but all, I think, are meant to give us some sense of the freedom that can be enjoyed by a woman living in a city.  While the flats themselves may vary from the steamy bed-sits of John Betjeman and Edna O’Brien territory to the fabulous luxury of Delysia Lafosse’s love-nest in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, they all offer the promise of a life less ordinary and, in particular, of a life not spent darning a man’s socks.  Virginia Woolf quite rightly identifies a woman’s need for A Room of One’s

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Own before she can find  a sense of self; how very much more the autonomy of a woman with a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom (and, be it noted as an advantage of flat-dwelling for people with better things to do, no garden).  I’m not sure that the physical structure of the building is ever specified, but Mary Smiling’s home in Cold Comfort Farm simply must be a flat, albeit a sumptuously huge one (all those brassieres), because to Flora Poste and to us the widowed Mrs Smiling is the embodiment of a certain sort of freedom, which comes entirely  – ah, the wise Jane Austenishness of it! – from her possession of a good fortune and her consequent total absence of need for a husband.  What a bore sex is, Stella Gibbons implies (your age and your inclinations will tend to colour your response); poor old Flora, economically and hormonally driven to end up dwindling into a wife (and if by chance you haven’t read Congreve’s The Way of the World, now is the moment: if only I’d remembered it in time for last month’s NorthernReader Book Club, when we talked about the books we would like to make the film of).

Apartments lived in by women on their own do bring with them – in fiction, I hasten to add, not in life – the dubious aura of being a Kept Woman.  Think of Linda’s beautiful flat in Paris, in which she is installed (why is ‘installed’, with its overtones of plumbing, always the word used for a mistress?) by the great love of her life on Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (still perfect, and perfectly heart-breaking, at the millionth time of reading).

Modern urban living, whether in London, New York, Paris or Edinburgh, has made flat-dwellers of nearly all of us at one time or another in our lives.  The sad truth is that we usually have not the remotest idea who our neighbours might be, as our lives slide past each other like immutable planets.  It should not be like this, and Alexander McCall Smith offers us a vision of a better world in which flats – 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh and Corduroy Mansions in Pimlico – form vertical villages, where no man or woman is an island and every neighbour, like it or not, is involved in mankind.

But not, of course, managing agents, for whom no bell could toll more cheerily when the time comes.vampire-staked-through-the-heart

Week 111: The Festive Reader (and its prey)

hexhamThis week and next sees the Hexham Book Festival strut its stuff on a stage/in a café/gallery/library/cinema/Abbey near the NorthernReader stronghold: o joy, o rapture is a not unreasonable response, especially for James Naughtie devotees (as who could not be?) who have a  BBC Radio 4 Book Club session with Tony Harrison and the launch of Mr Naughtie’s own novel to look forward to. Wherever you are, certainly in Britain, it seems increasingly unlikely that you will not find yourself within sauntering distance of a literary festival of one sort or another between now and October.  Authors have become the new strolling players, ever on the road smiling bravely and often, answering the same question from Ashby-de-la-Zouche to Stromness and signing their little paws off.  Woe betide the plain, the recalcitrant and the reclusive: the modern author can forget the luxury of anonymity.  Should you happen to have a warm, engaging personality as well as a flair for writing fiction, your book sales can only be enhanced, but sadly the converse also holds: there are one or two writers whose dour demeanour and brusque absence of good manners has forever tainted my enjoyment of their writing.

Which is extremely unfair of me on two counts: a) because authors, no less than other more ordinary mortals, have the right not to be judged on their appearance and b) because such discrimination can only be applied to writers who post-date photography.  Yes, yes, I know that there are writers immortalised in pastels, watercolours and oils, but even setting aside the objection that only the wealthy, the famous in their own lifetimes or the writers with artistic siblings qualified for being captured on canvas, one glance at, say, the Droeshout engraving of William Shakespeare is enough to remind us that a good likeness can be hard to find.  But even though it undoubtedly shouldn’t donnematter, does it matter?  Are we drawn to or repelled by John Donne’s uncanny resemblance to Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy fame?  Is Philip Larkin’s reputation for unpleasantness bolstered by his frankly lugubrious mugshots?  And how would our reading of Chaucer change if we found a portrait which showed him to be a ringer for Shrek?

The idea of the author as celebrity, ever on the road promoting his or her work, is scarcely new.  Indeed we have an illustration of Chaucer himself reading his work to the chaucercourt of Richard II, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to hear him doing all the voices and keeping his audience enthralled.  Perhaps the greatest performer of his own work was Charles Dickens.  He toured the country, and the United States as well, giving readings of his novels so dramatic that people in the huge audiences fainted.  Dickens was clearly a brilliant actor: think what it must have been to be his parlourmaid, walking past the study door and hearing Bill Sikes and Nancy rather startlingly slugging it out, with pauses while their new-minted words were written down.  Now it is rare for the author to be the wisest choice of reader, but goodness me the pleasure of the perfect reading.  Alan Bennett, for example, clearly put upon earth to give us Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner and The Wind in the Willows (among much else, Bennett has also recorded Alice in Wonderland which is also sublime but somehow never quite made it onto the NorthernReader Truly Indispensable list).  The BBC’s Radio 4 is the source of much realewisding-aloud perfection:  I have recently much enjoyed listening to Damien Lewis reading John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth, not least because I am at heart shallow  (it should come as no surprise to learn that I am eagerly awaiting the film of Our Kind of Traitor).

But deciding which famous actor should be tasked with reading your favourite book, or indeed your own first novel, for posterity is perilously close to deciding who should play you when they make the biopic (not that there’s any harm in Being Prepared, of course: who does not have their list of eight records, a book and a luxury ready just in case Kirsty phones?)  The fact remains that most writers today, including the ones who only became writers as a by-product of their Badger-like aversion to Company, have to pitch up at endless events where a brightly anticipatory audience demands insights into the creative process, answers to questions about how much you fancy your own main character, and a preview of your latest effort read, falteringly and woodenly, by you, aware as you are that you have either not explained who these characters are and what the hell they are doing sitting in an empty ballroom/on an upturned boat/in the Sistine Chapel discussing the death of someone else the audience has never heard of, or that in the depth and complexity of your introductory explanations you have killed off any need for purchasing your book together with, judging from their frozen glazed expressions, much of your audience’s will to live.

But be not afeard, as Shakespeare so comfortingly reminds us; the isle is full of noises, and many of them at this time of year are the sounds of polite audiences applauding before they queue to buy your book.  Never mind that when they ask you to dedicate their copy you are pretty sure they asked you to write ‘To Dirty’  and it is only later – much, much later – that it occurs to you it is more probable that the name was Bertie.  Yours, dear author, are the sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.  And only three or four readers out of ten at every festival will unfailingly assure you that they will get your new book from the library.books

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 100: Silence, Solace and Defiance

untitled (18)On Friday November 13th, Paris, my beautiful Paris, was assaulted. What words are there? What you have no words for, you cannot talk about, Wittgenstein said. Rage, fury and fear can strip us of words, so that like Hamlet we splutter in a cry of outrage and pain. But our silence, as we stand bare-headed to remember and to grieve, is itself a response to the barbarity and cruelty we have witnessed. A tiny handful of people around the world take it upon themselves to play monstrous god with the lives of others. They devastate whoever they touch, but they have no power to corrupt the human spirit. We, the humans of the world, have language that brings us together, shares our sorrows and our joys, and outshines the darkness. ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.’ Dylan Thomas said that; and he was right.

So this is a moment for us to let words give us solace. Now is the time to hear again Seamus Heaney reminding us that ‘The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.’ Now is the moment to be comforted by the Mediaeval poet of Deor, translated into modern English by Simon Armitage: as he recounts episodes of sorrow, his constant refrain is ‘As that passed over   may this pass also.’ The Persian Sufi poets who gave us the phrase ‘all things shall pass’ come to our aid with some perspective; and the aggrandising megolamania of would-be tyrants everywhere is cut properly down to size by Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’: you remember the line, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ and its immediate absolute rebuttal; ‘Nothing beside remains.’ The history of humankind shows us that it is not possible for evil to hold sway for more than a moment, because we always turn to what is good. I find myself back at John Donne, of course. At a moment when the unwise are rushing to turn away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free, we need more than ever to calm ourselves with Donne’s affirmation that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. […] any man’s death diminishes me …’. Or in other words (those of Charles Kingsley, in fact), do as you would be done by.

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

As for defiance: the problem with answering violence with violence is only too drearily obvious. Resistance, yes, and an implacable adherence to the moral values of the Enlightenment – yes, our old and dear friends, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but let us know, and live by, what we are for rather than enormous lists of what we are against. So the stories of triumph over wickedness are what we need today. How about CS Lewis’s Narnia tales, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark? But ‘triumph’ is the wrong word here. I don’t want the swaggering and trumpets that it evokes. Rather, let us have the quiet proclamations that the human heart cannot be broken. Remember Galileo – like us, flawed, understandably intimidated by fear, but always and for ever stating ‘and yet it moves.’ Let Antoine Leiris be spokesman for us all in his refusal to dignify his wife’s murderers with ‘the gift of hate.’ ‘Even though that is what you were hoping for,’ he goes on, ‘responding to hatred with anger would be to fall to the same ignorance that made you the people that you are. You want me to be scared, to distrust my fellow citizens, and to sacrifice my liberty for security. I will play on.’

That’s the way to do it.   As Auden says, ‘We must love one another or die.’_86701381_86701380

Week 99: Remember, Remember

untitled (17)In a week which encompasses our wedding anniversary, Guy Fawkes’ Night and Remembrance Day, there is quite a focus in the NorthernReader stronghold on bringing things to mind. What do we remember, how and why? With the tissue paper of years blurring the details of our wedding day, we find we can recall the church, but not how we got there (literally, you understand, rather than metaphorically). Inevitably, our roll-call of the guests has become a recollection of the dead – all four parents, a range of aunts and uncles, a treasured godmother – and of the friends from whom somehow, somewhere, we have slipped our moorings and drifted away. And then there are the people, now and for many years dear to us, of whom it seems surprising that no, now we come to think of it, they were not there, because meeting them for the first time was still around the corner (it is quite comforting to know that we in turn feature in the phantom guest-list memories of these friends). Our recall of the events of the deeper past is of course even shakier, and each firework-and-poppy time brings up palimpsests of personal memories overlaying the public moments they commemorate. So for me, November 11th is a swirl of what we all know, or think we know, of the two World Wars – books, history lessons in school, photographs of relatives I never knew – mixed in with personal memories (watching the Cenotaph ceremony on television; my father, placing the wreath at the village ceremony in his last November). Our lived experience makes this a month of contrasting emotions, melancholy, joy and nostalgia as ever-present as the mists and fogs that have set in, it seems, for the duration. Books, please, to lighten our darkness, share our pleasures, and remind us of the fragile and elusive phenomenon of memory.

Oh, go on then, let’s start by having a crack at Mr Memory himself. Have you read À La Recherche du Temps Perdu? No, nor have I. Our loss, I suspect, and we should probably both start getting round to it now. If it’s the size of the task that daunts (seven volumes: it’s never going to be a popular book-club choice, is it?), we could make a start with Swann’s Way, comforting ourselves by remembering that Proust left the whole enterprise unfinished, as indeed he left much of his work, making him, at least to me, a much more sympathetic character than I was expecting. If something slimmer is more what you are looking for to get you through the long November evenings, try Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. We talked about Bowen before, and, should you unaccountably not have done so, I want to urge you to read her. The House in Paris is a Modernist masterpiece, exploring the very Proustian concept that the present is shaped not just by the past but by our constantly shifting understanding and recollection of the past. And, unlike Proust, Bowen’s novels are short.

We are constantly at work on our memories, sifting and discarding, seeing them from new and unexpected angles as life changes us. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending enhanced-8934-1409654432-3delves into the unstable nature of our memories and the non-existence of any such thing as an objective recollection. I love this book and hope you will too. Barnes shows us that we are all masters of fiction when it comes to constructing our own pasts. Some do this consciously and usually for material gain, of course, but we are all constantly looking backwards through highly selective lenses that owe more to emotion than to actual events. This is precisely why autobiographies can make such satisfying reading: we turn to them, not for a dreary list of pin-downable dates – born then, did this then and then – but for an invitation to see the world through the writer’s eyes for a moment or two. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece is a joy and a delight. The grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, Raverat’s great achievement in this memoir of her Cambridge childhood is to re-inhabit her childhood self. She sees, and lets us see, the world from a child’s point of view, more successfully than almost any other writer I can think of. Do not let me put you off. I do not mean that the book is an arch stream-of-consciousness voiced as a seven-year old (now that really would be ‘Tonstant-Weader-fwowed-up’); the narrative voice of Period Piece is the adult self, but an adult who can recall the utterly different world of childhood. Nigel Slater’s Toast: the Story of a Boy’s Hunger pulls off the same trick. Do not, please, imagine that I am suggesting these two books have otherwise an awful lot in common: Slater’s memories of his childhood in twentieth-century suburbia edge into Misery Memoir territory (I have to confess to being taken by surprise in a chain ‘bookshop’ by a section proudly headed ‘True Misery’, and, no doubt revealingly, having to sit down because I was laughing so much). But, not really unexpectedly for those of us who read Appetite in bed, Slater writes so well, that he is able to steer his narrative past the perils of poor-me indulgence.

All writing is engaged with memory. Novelists, playwrights and poets scavenge their personal stores of lived experience and the tales they have heard to make anew. Historians time-travel to bring themselves and their current perspectives to bear upon a past they construct. And we, if we have any sense, take heed of John Donne’s words, remind ourselves that we are not islands of separate experience, and choose to be part of the collective acts of memorialisation. They are what makes us human.

imagesYRPHP4YN

Week 81: All at Sea

WP_20150304_026Thalassa! Thalassa!, Xenophon tells us thirty thousand Greek soldiers cried out when they came over the ridge and saw the Black Sea, The NorthernReader does not quite match that for volume or intensity of feeling, but it is our ritual cry on spotting when the horizon becomes all watery (pretentious? Moi?). Close to Britain’s very best coastline (tell nobody), we give ourselves the opportunity for this egregious showing-off at least once a week. Walking on empty sandy beaches, accompanied by romping dogs, with the early spring sunshine on your back and a breeze so fresh you wish you’d put heavier boots on, is one of life’s great pleasures. Is it just me (and that horde of Ancient Greeks), or have writers thought so too? Yes of course they have. And at least a couple of them know their Xenophon too (try the Penguin History of My Times and The Persian Expedition: he has a wonderfully clear and straightforward style and is full of vivid description): Buck Mulligan exclaims – or shows off to Stephen Dedalus, exclaiming in Ancient Greek and showing off never being very far apart – ‘Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look’. I have no idea whether James Joyce kept a copy of Xenophon under his pillow and liked nothing better than to read a little Greek every day, but here in Ulysses it is clear that he knew this ancient visceral response to the sea. And of course Iris Murdoch – how out of fashion she is now but once she was, more or less single-handed, England’s intelligentsia – finally collared the Booker Prize with The Sea, The Sea. If you are unfamiliar with Murdoch, be warned: her heroes are profoundly slappable and you may be as irritated as you are entranced. An ability to remain calm in the face of barrowloads of cod mysticism is a requirement for reading pretty much any Iris Murdoch, especially her later novels, but go on, give it a go.

WP_20150221_021More fun, perhaps, is some poetry we can chant as we stride along the beach. John Masefield takes some beating: not only ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) but ‘Trade Winds’ and the deliciously exotic ‘Cargoes’, where every word is gorgeous to read and – important to Masefield – to say aloud. Oh, go on then, let’s have Coleridge as well, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And after all that lurid story-telling, let’s pause to reflect with Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. I love it: I come back to it after years away and I still love it. There’s a direct simplicity with which it looks you in the eye and takes you on a journey which engages your intellect as well as your heart. And Arnold’s view of the world, that ‘hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light’, stands delicately balanced between the metaphysics of John Donne and the terrible nihilism of Edward Thomas. Worse places to be, provided you are only visiting.

But there is something about the rhythm and pulse of the waves beating upon the shore that draws novelists as well as poets into lyrical writing. John Banville’s The Sea WP_20150304_022(another Booker winner) shifts its moods as fluidly as the tide. And we must have Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; an astonishing thing, woven of multiple soliloquies, shot through with the changing light of the coast across a single day. One to read while we listen to Britten’s haunting ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes – a Desert Island Discs choice if ever there was one. We could add Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to this week’s shelf, too. Not only is it a perfect gem of Modernism, but it also conjures up a sense of summer on the Isle of Skye that will have you yearning for the Hebrides (To the Lighthouse is almost the only book I can think of that sets itself in the Highlands and Islands without wallowing in clans, tartans and generalised Brigadooning). Even normally-to-be-trusted Arthur Ransome goes a bit goodness-aren’t-they-quaint on us in Great Northern?, his last novel, set in the Outer Hebrides, where all the locals hang around in kilts and beards and mutter in uncouth tongues. It’s worth reading, nonetheless, even if only to give yourself the pleasure of one last trip with the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums. Ransome’s love of the sea and passion for sailing makes him unequalled by anyone other than Joseph Conrad for giving us landlubbers a sense of life on board: try We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Missee Lee and feel that you have sailed across the English Channel at night and met with pirates in the South China Seas. And then settle back in your safely land-locked chair and immerse yourself in the pleasures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We all think we know it – The Muppets, the current National Theatre version (the opera, the ballet and a musical with Tim Minchin as Long John Silver can only be a matter of time), but there is so much more to Treasure Island than adventure and derring-do. Its subtle exploration of the very fluid nature of morality, for a start, makes it a book for our time. Ah, hoarders of gold who will stop at nothing to avoid paying taxes. There are more, and uglier, faces than Johnny Depp’s to be the poster boy for pirates these days.

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

Week 65: Fly Me To The Moon

Le-Petit-PrinceWoo woo!! Let’s hear it for plucky little Philae – because how can we resist anthropomorphising such a frankly cute little thing with gangly legs. This week’s landing of an extremely mobile science laboratory on a comet hurtling around some unimaginable distance from here is a moment to bask in some reflected glory and think, you know, we humans aren’t entirely a pointless waste of space after all. If only more of us could work harmoniously together over long stretches of time to achieve positive goals with no plan to make loads of money out of it or appear on a (using the term loosely) reality programme. Call me naïve, but I don’t think there is even some dark sinister military purpose lurking in the shadows behind the Rosetta mission. No, the whole thing is inspiring and educational and makes me want to think outside the planet (but first, of course, I must pause for a quick re-read of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful Le Petit Prince, which this week looks more prophetic than fantastic).

We have long tried to imagine ourselves onto a different rock. Once Galileo Galilei looked through his telescope and, crucially, published what he saw, our place in what Douglas Adams christened the Total Perspective Vortex shifted and we became a much, much smaller dot on the ‘You Are Here’ map. (Incidentally, if for some mysterious reason you have not encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … but no, you can’t not be familiar with it. Just in case, let me urge you to listen to it rather than read it. And certainly don’t watch it. The pictures are rubbish). I still mourn my failure to see Ian McDiarmid in the RSC production of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo last year.. Mark Ravenhill translated Brecht’s original Leben DesGalilei for this, and, quite apart from all the other reasons for kicking myself for missing it, I would have been fascinated to see and hear the differences between that pre-war text and Brecht’s own post-war version which he wrote in English with and for Charles Laughton. It is this version that we Anglophones know, not least because it is the text published by Methuen.

Galileo’s discoveries put rocket-boosters under the dramatic and poetic visions of his contemporaries. Ben Jonson’s masque, News From the New World Discovered in the Moon, written for the Court of King James in 1620, pictures a lunar landscape of fields and meadows, rivers and mountains, different mostly from our own world because the people there do not speak. Being Jonson, the play is a satire, with lawyers and the newly-emerging crocodiles of the journalistic trade in its sights; and being a masque, it is full of dances, spectacular costumes and over-the-top praise of the royal audience. Think of it as plush pantomime mercifully bereft of nonentities from television.

At the same time as Jonson was entertaining the Court, John Donne was fizzing with new metaphors from astronomy and the new science. Not just stars, comets and moons, but compasses, telescopes and sextants gave him his startling material for his urgent, compelling poems. Oh, if you happen not to have read any Donne, I envy you for the moment of first encounter you are about to experience. Switch off your computer and your phone, tell the world you’re out, and curl up with Donne’s poems. Be warned: you are about to lose your heart.

A surprising amount of science fiction seems to deny the possibility of metaphor in favour of a rather plonking alternative reality. Terry Pratchett’s first books were very straightforward science fiction of the kind that, were you to change the Slartibartfast-type names to Gerald or Marjorie, would stand revealed in all its suburban mediocrity. But then – o joy! – he lit upon the glorious wheeze of the Discworld, a planet of enormous improbabilities and resonating familiarities that has enabled him, through about a trillion volumes, to satirise our life here on earth, showing it to be hugely peculiar: often hilariously, and sometimes heart-breakingly so. Pratchett’s great precursor was HG Wells, who is perhaps more remembered now for the legend of Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds to a credulous America than he is actually read. His novel, and Welles’s 1938 dramatisation, signal the very depressing tendency of the twentieth century to drop the wonder and excitement when contemplating the possibility of other cultures out there in favour of all-out paranoia. It does seem a shame and a mystery that the century that saw extraordinary scientific and social advances, including access to rational

Thank you, Bill Watterson

Thank you, Bill Watterson

education for more people than ever before, should have opted so merrily and clung so fiercely to a fear-haunted ‘burn them! Burn them!’ mentality that has kept us out of the inter-galactic Good Places to Stay guide to this day. We the people who can look up into the night sky (especially here in the Dark Sky Park of Northumberland) with an intelligent and informed eye can find more than enough to enthral us without needing to invent little green men (no, I don’t know how they came to be little, or green, or particularly associated with Mars). If I want something to frighten myself with, I can read about the behaviour of jihadists or bankers. No, tonight, as I peek out between the clouds to a far-distant universe, I shall be a watcher of the skies seeing a new comet: not like Keats, using astronomy as a metaphor for the marvelling wonder to be found in books, but really, looking up and out. Little Philae, sweet dreams and goodnight.67P-Rosetta-lander-Philae