Week 106: Do No Harm

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

Mr Putin, as you very well know, this is not what a hospital should look like

The idea that doctors should aim to do no harm is attributed to Hippocrates, an Iron Age resident of the Greek island of Kos. This has been a week in which doctors have been much in the news, whether taking industrial action in Britain or being deliberately bombed by President Putin in Syria (in the interests of objectivity and fairness, I should point out that the USA also bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, in Afghanistan, in November 2015. I am not sure it makes much difference to those on the receiving end whether bombs are killing you as a result of incompetence or deliberate malice, but one, at least, of these causes should be avoidable). Governments and authors alike have displayed a tendency over the years to appropriate and manipulate the public response to doctors, who have found themselves starring as heroes and villains far more often than the more mundane ground occupied by the rest of us. Why?

Let’s look at some medical heroes first. There are more than a few real-life doctors who have been mythologised during or after their lives to be godlike, capable of miracles. When I was little, the doctor-as-saint figure was Albert Schweitzer, who I suspect is now hardly known at all – a useful lesson in hubris for anyone currently venerated. An intellectually rigorous theologian, a gifted musician, and a perceptive anti-racist at a time of unthinking empire, Schweitzer gained his medical degree in three short years in order to set up a pioneering hospital in Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. You might find his The Philosophy of Civilization interesting, or his autobiography, which has the slightly unsnappy title Out of My Life and Thought.

Schweitzer was to the twentieth century what David Livingstone was to the nineteenth: so famous and yet remote that Henry Stanley’s famously nonchalant greeting, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ clearly covers up an entirely understandable case of flabbergastedness (‘Look mum! It’s me! With him!’: known in the NorthernReader household as Bowie-proximity syndrome but you can insert name of intergalactically-famous star of your choice). Livingstone has been more biographised than Schweitzer, at imagesleast in English, although many studies are quite shallow. Frankly, our old favourites, the Ladybird series, give you the bones: should you be feeling scholarly, David Livingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy, edited by Sarah Worden, would be my choice.

Now for the doctors who managed to practise medicine and write fiction. In pride of place of this week’s bookshelf we can have Dr Anton Chekhov, who once rather archly declared, ‘medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’ Never mind; if he was half as good a physician as he was a writer, his patients were blessed. And indeed they were: Chekhov devoted much of his time to caring, free of charge, for the poor. Funny, angry, heart-breaking, sometimes despairing but always ready to bring his analytical brilliance to the vital task of finding exactly the right words, the right image, to awaken his audience and his readers, his is more modern Russian voice than Tolstoy’s but every bit as compelling. In such company, pretty much everyone appears in a lesser light, but Chekhov’s almost exact contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle, is today at least as famous. Doyle had a rather splendid time as a indexyoung doctor, going to sea on a whaler and on a voyage to West Africa. How tantalising to set The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next to Moby-Dick and The Heart of Darkness (Melville was the older man, and his most famous novel was published before Doyle was born, but Conrad was another almost precise contemporary). Our third choice, working chronologically, can be William Carlos Williams, imagist, modernist, most painterly of poets, who was also a family doctor and paediatrician. Touchingly, the hospital in New Jersey where he worked has a plaque that reads ‘we walk the wards that Williams walked’ and you just know that they feel it’s an honour.

What of doctors in fiction? Setting aside Dr Zhivago, if only on the dubious grounds that (a) we’ve been quite Russian enough already this week, (b) I’ve never read it and (c) I can’t get the image of Omar Sharif out of my mind, here are two heroes and a villain. Trollope’s Dr Thomas Thorne is an absolute sweetie. How splendid it would be if the Barchester ideal of a doctor who is a trusted friend and confidant were the norm (let alone the GP-as-financial adviser: goodness, we have become a lot more wary since Trollope’s time, haven’t we?). Anything that encourages us to read more Trollope is to be welcomed. It’s quite a jump from Dr Thorne to Doc Daneeka, but the squadron physician who first articulates Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s marvellous novel is assured of his place in this week’s pantheon. Daneeka – self-seeking, venal, hypochondriacal, shifty, and entirely human – might seem an unlikely hero, but the urgent and savage point that Heller makes is that (as other writers had it in an earlier time of darkness) this is a world turned upside down: what Thomas Middleton, clearest-sighted and therefore bleakest of all the early seventeenth-century playwrights, called A Mad World, My Masters. You know, I expect, that Heller, when confronted by an ill-mannered reader who complained that he had not subsequently written anything as good as Catch-22, replied, unarguably, ‘Who has?’.

From anti-hero to villain. We could – should – have Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, who definitely has ….. issues; or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who does rather let the side down when it comes to giving psychiatrists a good name (although the NorthernReader Rule about names is triumphantly vindicated here, for no parent who calls their infant Hannibal – okay, no parent since the third century BC – can be surprised if they turn out badly). I am also uncomfortably aware that women are unrepresented on this week’s shelf, which is a shame: while I wait for the perfect female doctor in fiction, or her villainous alter ego (and do please point me in the right direction), I can read Jo Manton’s biography, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. But the broken caduceus award for Worst Doctor in Fiction goes to ….. well, it has to be Victor Frankenstein, doesn’t it?


PS We are losing great writers this year at an unsustainable rate.  Harper Lee could lay legitimate claim to having written The Great Twentieth-Century Novel: read, or re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend.  And mourn the departure of Umberto Eco, philosopher, semiotician, novelist and all-round man of letters (The Name of the Rose; Foucault’s Pendulum; Baudolino).  Eco lies at the heart of everything I think about our essential need to read; as the great man himself said ,’books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ Arrivaderci


Week 87: Difficult Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

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

Week 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 57: Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

It can be quite a melancholy time of year, if you are disposed to let such things get to you. For the last week, we have been swathed in shawls of mist: even at mid-day the light has glowed silver with a pearly sheen. The year changes gear, but there is a quiet joy to it, too. We are surrounded by beauty – glass-beaded spiders’ webs, the first golds and crimsons as the leaves change colour –and by abundance. This is a marvellous year for blackberries, hawthorns, rosehips and sloes. The garden is yielding courgettes the colour of sunshine, long French beans and satiny black bean pods too. And still the sweet peas flourish. The NorthernReader household centres on the kitchen, and the gentle rhythms of jam- and chutney-making allow plenty of time for sitting at the kitchen table, reading.

Propped up against a big bowl of apples right now is Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow. He writes like a dream, and the gorgeous photographs (by Marsha Arnold) make this a must-have book for all us hopeful gardeners filled with good intentions. Time, too, to re-read his The Jewel Garden, which is at once one of the most enjoyable books about making a garden and one of the best books about depression that I know. Not the most alluring of subjects, you might think – though part of the point that Don wants to make is that we have to give up stigmatising depression – but his is the most absorbing account of what it is like to suffer from depression that I have ever come across. If you know anyone who is affected (and you probably do, because practically everyone experiences depression at some point in their lives), read The Jewel Garden: it will help you to understand.

Now is the time, too, for the vintage (a word that seems to including more and more of my own lifetime these days: perhaps I could join a Vintage Person Rally somewhere) Ladybird book, What To Look For In Autumn. It is only in researching him for you this week that I have discovered that the author, the really rather impressively named Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson, was – to use a technical critical term – a really interesting chap.   A novelist, essayist, philosopher, and poet, his scientific interests included ethnography and biology. It is quite hard not to feel a tiny bit envious of a life that brought friendship with Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein, DH Lawrence, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas. It had fswallowsor some reason never previously occurred to me that – well, real people wrote Ladybird books, so I am grateful to you. And the illustrations, printed in the slightly gloomy greyish colours that were part and parcel of the Ladybird books’ charm, are by Charles Tunnicliffe, which means that they are accurate, unwhimsical and altogether splendid (should you happen to be passing, Oriel Ynys Mon – Anglesey to those of you baffled by a bit of the language of heaven – is holding an exhibition of his work until the end of the year).

And we can dust down the cookery books with recipes for preserves. For a guide that works, I turn to Pam Corbin and The River Cottage Handbook. For fascination, I am delving into the pages of Florence White and Dorothy Hartley. We should, perhaps, think of Florence White as the pioneer of the Slow Movement. She founded the English Folk Cookery Association in 1928, and jolly sad it is too that it no longer exists: and in 1932 she published Good Things in England, a wonderfully self-explanatory title and a collection of recipes which are both historically interesting and standard-settingly clearly written. Hurray, hurray, Persephone Books have reprinted it. Dorothy Hartley, an artist and social historian, wrote (at her home in Wales) A History of English Food, which, published in 1954, was and still is the undisputed masterwork on the subject. If that makes it sound dry, I have failed you. It is packed with opinion, anecdote and illustrations, and no-one should be without a copy.

All this talk of food! Well, autumn, as Squirrel Nutkin will tell you, is the time to fill larders, count your stores and make ready for the lean times ahead. Writing this has made me realise that, supreme naturalist Miss Potter apart, very few children’s books take autumn as their setting. The reason in simple: children’s adventures tend to happen when they are released from the awful confines of school. Only school stories follow their young heroes and heroines into September, and in them the emphasis is firmly on the perils and conspiracies of a closed community rather than long nature walks. The Walker, Blackett and Callum children, for example, slip completely off the radar between summer (Swallows and Amazons­, Pigeon Post and so on) and winter (Winter Holiday – a bracing re-reading treat to look forward to in somewhat austere January). But we must have Antonia Forest’s Autumn Term on our shelf this week. If you haven’t, do.

This is the time for golds and russets, the purple of heather and the slate blue of the evening sky. This is the time for poetry, then. Despite borrowing from him for this week’s title, I have to confess that Keats still doesn’t make it onto my Desert Island list. Go and re-read ‘Ode to Autumn’ and tell me you don’t find it clunky. And Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ isn’t for me, either. I’d rather have Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Autumn Fires’ and remember all those delicious bonfires of a country childhood.

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfiresbonfire
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!



Fitting, this weekend, to celebrate a Scottish poet. After all the breath-holding of the referendum, the NorthernReader household is so grateful not have been deserted.  Thank you, Scotland.

better together

Week 41: The Book List

crack on, chaps

crack on, chaps

A student’s life, in English Literature anyway, is beset with book lists. These come in two varieties: the Bibliography (books we have read) and the Recommended Texts (books we jolly well should read). Compiling bibliographies can be a misery of the first water and there is in the end no getting away from the heart-breaking realisation that no other approach will do, you are just going to have to develop a Tidy Mind. In other words, you really are going to have to buckle down and work on getting into your muscle-memory the sequence ‘pick up book, make note of author (surname COMMA first name) title (italicised) place of publication (oh help!) COLON publisher COMMA date of first publication COMMA date of the copy you’re handling with increasing loathing. And it has to become as automatic to you as breathing to note the page number of any content, no matter how tiny, you might at any time in the next millennia contemplate quoting or referring to. Because if you don’t do all this EVERY SINGLE TIME, it follows as night follows day and as hangover follows a good single malt that at the very last moment, with deadlines looming, you will want to quote or refer to something which you now realise underscores the entirety of your sublime and original thesis: and all you can remember is that it was in a blue book. This is a true story and as far as I know that particular student is still roaming the stacks of the university library, an academic Flying Dutchman. Remember, too, that all academic readers will turn to your bibliography first, where they will unerringly spot your failure to have read something blindingly obvious and/or their own master-work. They will also immediately notice that you have spelt their great friend Blenkinsop incorrectly. Neither of these lacunae set you up for the easy ride that you were craving.

The Recommended Reading List, in comparison, is a doddle, but it can intimidate. For a start, it is usually, at first glance at any rate, several thousand pages long, and is unnervingly separated into helpful sections such as ‘primary texts’, ‘secondary texts’ and ‘periodicals and journals’. Fear not and do not be down-hearted. Here are some tips.

Read these ...

Read these …

First, it is important to take on board that these lists are neither prescriptive (you don’t have to read everything) nor proscriptive (you are allowed to read other things). Well, alright, I suppose they are quite prescriptive, but their breadth, once they have got the absolutely mandatory set texts out of the way, is meant to cater for a range of tastes. Something for everyone. Behind their rock-like masks of learned indifference and inscrutability, academics do have some sort of a heart, and they are not really seriously suggesting that you settle down and read every page of every tome on that list. Whisper it not, but there is just a chance that not even the compiler of the list has read every text on it. Not cover-to-cover. But they are giving you some pretty hefty clues that your spirit, your world or your degree (pretty much the same thing, I’m sure you’ll agree) would be immeasurably improved if you were to humour them and have a crack at quite a few on the list. It is neither funny nor clever to pitch up to discuss your thesis on Jane Austen and have to declare (because it is becoming distressingly obvious) that you’ve only read Pride and Prejudice (this is another true story. I was there). A booklist for a course on the novel that lists, say, eight texts, which the course then considers week by week in the order printed, is not just a useful checklist for you to be certain when you have been to enough lectures to not bother to go to any more or read any more. Just because you know the exam will ask you to write about two of the texts does not mean that you will show yourself to best advantage by having to write only about Sons and Lovers and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which just happened to be the subjects of Weeks 1 and 2 of the course. Remember: some poor sod has to mark your essays and yours might by the one hundred and ninety-eighth on those two. Imagine the cry of glee, the sparkling eye, and the willingness to give a good grade out of simple human gratitude, that befalls the essay on Moll Flanders in those circumstances (yup, that was me, too. All one hundred and ninety eight of them. And they all spelt D’Urberville wrong).

So what if you’ve taken a quick peek, like a horse in the show-ring, at the set texts and decided they’re not your sort of thing? Well, there are two answers to that. The first is, why are you cluttering up a perfectly good place at a good university reading English Literature when someone else could have been there instead of you and enjoyed it? The other answer is, trust them. Go on. Go out on a limb. It’s really not going to kill you. The very, very worst thing that can happen is that, after a few hours that you’ll never get back (but nothing like the sum of the hours you’ve spent playing Call of Duty or watching Game of Thrones), you’ll close the book knowing what happens, knowing it didn’t do it for you, and –crucially – being able to put WHY into words. What, apart from it was long and you have the attention span of a crisp, kept you from engaging with this book? The subject? The setting? The prose style? You may be right, don’t forget: it may be awful: mind-numbingly, toe-curlingly, skin-crawlingly awful (The Da Vinci Code is my nomination here for illustrative purposes). But think about what exactly made you so cross (the terrible, endless adjectives, and the relentless, entirely predictable plot, in my case). See? You are now an accomplished, articulate literary critic.

Try it. You might love it.

Try it. You might love it.

Or, of course, you might surprise yourself. I had lunch earlier this year with the man who made me read Joseph Conrad when I was a raw and tender undergraduate. Yup: all one million pages of Nostromo. I can still recall the exceedingly ill grace with which I embarked upon this enforced labour. And I also still remember the shock of pleasure as it dawned on me that this was great. Thank you, Anthony.

Week 21: Food, Glorious Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 11: The Weather in the Streets and Other Places

Within the last three days, we have had warm golden sunshine, gales that have redistributed around the village anything not actually nailed down, bitter blasts and wallops of rain.  Hello, autumn.  Whether it’s turning the lights on at midday or forging across the fell at an unfeasible angle, it’s clear that the weather affects more than just what we wear.  One of the delicious things about these islands is that we have Proper Weather.  The British are famous for talking about it: come and live here and so will you, because it surprises, delights, frustrates and awes twelve times a day.  No surprise, then, that books written here are imbued with a sense of the elements.

This week’s title comes from Rosamond Lehmann.  The Weather in the Streets follows on from Invitation to the Waltz (and I do urge you, if you haven’t read Lehmann, to start now).  A perceptive study of an affair, with some claim to make Graham Greene seem cheery and shallow, the title implies that when we say weather, we are not thinking sunshine and little fluffy clouds. Thinking of which, I did have a copy of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, but it just confirmed that I don’t have that sort of brain and I left it – well, under a little cloud of its own.  More up my street was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (no, not that one), which hops about from narrative to narrative in a way that echoes If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and is only not as good because nothing could be (we’ll talk about Favourite Books of All Time one day: and while we’re about it we’re still on a promise to talk about books in translation – unless of course you are equipped to read Italo Calvino in the original, in which case I am, frankly, jealous.  I suppose you read Umberto Eco too: lucky, lucky you).

For sticky, un-English weather, Nostromo will have you sweltering: in fact ‘swelter’ is one of Joseph Conrad’s default settings: Heart of Darkness, anyone?  But then, he’s good at all shapes and sizes of weather: if you haven’t, go and be engulfed in the mist and fog of The Secret Agent.  Best of all, perhaps, on the weather on someone else’s streets, is the incomparably wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  The cold of the Russian winter follows the heartbeat of the story and gives pathetic fallacy a good name after all.  From the sublime to the – well, the more straightforward –  we might have a peek at Ice Station Zebra: does anyone read Alistair MacLean these days?  Goodness, there’s a lot of plot, mostly uncluttered by any of that tiresome character development or subtlety stuff that so clutters up other writers’ work, but you can’t deny that MacLean could make you feel the cold.

photograph of Hadrian's Wall taken some time between January and December

photograph of Hadrian’s Wall taken some time between January and December

Back home, if we’re putting together a small shelf of books that catch the British weather – and, now I think about it, there would be worse ‘welcome’ presents for someone new to these shores – we will have to include Arthur Ransome: Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post cover the coldest of Lake District winter and the parching that an English summer can deliver.  And then there’s Christopher Robin in his gumboots and Pooh afloat on The Floating Bear while Piglet sends messages in a bottle and hopes for rescue.  For the grown-ups among us, let’s have the pleasures of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, not least for its dry certainty that if summer comes, winter must be just round the corner: one in the eye for Shelley.

But of course it’s the poets who really get to grips with the weather.  Poetry and weather have much in common, after all, being flickering, allusive and elusive, a sudden flash and then whisking on to the next thing.  Above all, they both have the power to lift our hearts and to wring them.  So let’s have that fanfare for the makers that Louis MacNeice proclaimed.  And – oh, splendid! – here is my first opportunity to fulfil an earlier promise and talk a little about Edward Thomas.

If we were to be silly enough to be making lists of top ten this and top forty that, and presumptuous enough to try for a list of top poets, Edward Thomas would be there.  You know the story, I expect: the journalist author of non-fiction books who insisted on volunteering in 1915 and began, under those intolerable and unknowable pressures, to write some of the sparest, bleakest and most beautiful poetry, not only of the First World War but of anywhere or any time.  And of course you’ve guessed the ending: sniper’s bullet at Arras in April 1917.  Eleanor Farjeon, a friend, wrote the most heart-breaking poem, ‘Easter Monday’, on hearing the news of his death.  Thomas could make you feel the rain that beat upon him, hour by relentless hour, but he was such a poet of the countryside that you can also feel the warm breeze at Adlestrop and smell the beguiling earth being turned in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. More envy on my part, I’m afraid, because if you happen not to have got round to reading much Edward Thomas yet, and now you potter off to do so, you will be steeping yourself in quiet pleasure.  I, on the other hand, will be out in the rain, carrying buckets of gravel to make a path.  Oh well.  As Louis MacNeice says, ‘Let us make.  And set the weather fair.’