Week 91: Boredom

68208b428b_Hungry-and-Being-BoredIt is a well-known fact in the NorthernReader household that I have a low boredom threshold. One of the disadvantages of being quite bright, it turns out, is a tendency to spot who dunnit and where this plot is going rather sooner than the writer hoped. That is, of course, no reason in itself to stop reading; nor is the dawning realisation that I’ve been here before. I know, for example, what happens in Hamlet. The ending does not take me by surprise; and yet I can settle down in my seat for production after production, confident that the Boredom Elf will not be tapping me on the shoulder for the next couple of hours. But on other occasions …

We went to see the new, much-hyped, Tom Stoppard play, The Hard Problem. I adore Tom Stoppard. And his plays. I would vote for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties and Jumpers for any list of Great Plays of the Twentieth Century. But I’m afraid the hardest problem a couple of weeks ago was what am I doing here trapped in the cinema (yes, once again the joys of streaming meant we were watching live, cheaply and locally) and what else could I have been doing that would have been more dramatically engaging? Cleaning the oven was a serious contender. The good news is that there was no interval: the ‘play’ (I use the term loosely) is short. The bad news, on the other hand, is that there is no interval, which means that the nicely brought up in the audience cannot make its excuses and leave until the end. Ah yes the end: I thought (hoped) I spotted it coming several times before it did. So why am I, self-evidently the Pollyanna of the critical world with never a cross word to say about anything (except Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer, obviously), being so vile and rude about the latest work by a really, truly great playwright? Well, it’s because I was bored rigid from the first few seconds, when I realised that the basic Law of Plays had been jettisoned. The Law, as of course you know, is that a play should have dramatic tension. It should be possible – easy, even – to spot that you are not at a reading. Especially not at a reading of an early draft along the lines of ‘is this an interesting idea? Might there be a play in here somewhere?’ Dear Sir Tom, yes there might. Had the production money gone on sending us each a slip of paper with the basic premise printed on it, we could have staged an infinitely more riveting evening by sitting around and debating it: for about five minutes, because, to be perfectly honest – and I do seem to be emulating William Brown this week and Speaking Truth One to Another – it isn’t a tremendously new or stimulating idea.

The Glums.  It all comes flooding back to me ... very, very slowly

The Glums. It all comes flooding back to me … very, very slowly

I have been bored before. I was the person who responded to the lovely Vivien Leigh’s declaration, ‘I will go back to Tara’ (it happens about eighty hours into Gone With the Wind) with the heartfelt cry, ‘oh please God no!’ That was me, moaning aloud with boredom and trying to read the programme in the dark as the interminable dreariness of Les Miserables droned by. Books have been flung aside before now at the moment when I realise that I have no recollection of any of the characters, cannot distinguish one from another, and do not care a fig what happens to any of them. As it happens, I stand by all these judgments; but sometimes, my boredom-o-meter swings wildly. Take Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example. When I first read it, I was a rather earnest fourteen-year-old. I loved it (I spurned the light comedic touch at least as much as Hardy: we were, at that moment, made for each other). A decade or so later, a worldlier young woman, I flung the same book across the room and left off re-reading at the point at which Angel Clare flounces out into the night: his hypocrisy was intolerable to me (young people are, of course, notoriously self-righteous and both Angel Clare and I were young). Later yet, teaching ‘The Novel’ to undergraduates, an attempted reconciliation between me and Thomas Hardy was foiled by the relentless undermining of several hundred essays which not only repeated back to me the points I had made in lectures (note to students: have the courtesy to read the whole book and find your own episode in it to discuss) but also rubbed my face in the fact that they fully expected to garner a good degree without meeting me half-way by, for example, bothering to check how the book’s title is spelt. Four hundred essays on Tess of the Dubervilles are guaranteed to drive the iron deep into the academic soul.

And then there are the children’s books that it is the fate of every parent to read aloud again … and again … and again. Only the greatest – books and parents – can survive that sort of test. So thank you, wonderful Judith Kerr, Rod Campbell, Martin Waddell and Mick Inkpen. And hurray for Beatrix Potter, AA Milne and Kenneth Grahame. I still read them now: and I’m never bored.

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson


Week 15: a la recherche du lost childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 8: First Books

This has been Children’s Book Week.  Apart from two slight grouches – one, that every week is children’s book week, surely, and second, that The Book Trust (or booktrust as they rather disappointingly seem to want to be known – you know, illiterate but approachably chummy) have produced a list of must-reads sponsored by Kindle – make that sponsored by Kindle so you can hear the ‘you see?’ tone of voice in which I’m saying that – apart, as I say, from these two very trifling objections, anything that celebrates reading and enjoying books has to be applauded.  And their lists are all sensible choices, even if they do fall into the usual elephant trap (perhaps we should say Heffalump Trap in honour of the occasion) of listing everything they’ve read recently as Best Thing Since the Dawn of Time.  Really?  Who knows, or, of course, cares?  We’re not reading books as a competitive event.  I hope.

Anyway, three cheers for their list because it includes the official Northern Reader Best Book Ever Written for Small Children: Where the Wild Things Are, written and, somewhat crucially, illustrated, by the sadly late Maurice Sendak.  Like all right-thinking parents, I find to my great joy that I can still recite the text by heart, and like all people with a pulse, can still be exhilarated by the wonderful, magical, hypnotically thrilling  pictures.  I tell you, it knocks spots off The Ladybird Baby’s First Book which I loved as a small person but can now see, in the cold light of experience, was a bit mealy-mouthed on the doling out of visual enchantment.  Still, it gave me some of life’s essential vocabulary:

It's a good start....

It’s a good start….


The pictures are a great deal of what matters in children’s books – the smaller the child, the more important the pictures, although the deserved success of Folio Books proves that adults should be allowed to look at the pictures too.  Newer readers than me of Dorothy Edwards’My Naughty Little Sister may well miss out on the touching little portraits of our heroine in my old battered paperback, which were by the great Shirley Hughes.  I hope it goes without saying among the discerning NorthernReadership that to contemplate Winnie The Pooh without E H Shepherd is Just Plain Wrong.  I would say the same about Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad, but I am happy to award an honourable mention to Inga Moore.  Arthur Rackham, for The Wind in the Willows and, while I’m at it, just about everything else, is far too sinister and mimsy for my liking.

The pictures mattered in fairy stories, too, but not as much.  Were you an Andrew Lang, a Charles Perrault or a Grimm household?  We were definitely of the Grimm persuasion: a huge heavy brown book with what I now know to be the later, gorier, versions of the stories the brothers pottered about collecting.  Ugly sisters hacking off their heels, Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in half, that sort of thing.  Peculiar, the insouciance with which children tend to absorb these horrors: it is the parents who quake as the witch reaches through the bars to see if Hansel is fat enough to eat.  And we had – someone reassure me that ours was not an especially odd childhood – Struwwelpeter, given by our (well, come to think of it, decidedly odd) grandfather to discourage persistent thumb-suckers.  To this day, ‘The door flew open, In he came, The long red-legged scissor-man’ can have me feeling quite faint.  But I don’t suck my thumb.

ah, the stuff of nightmares

ah, the stuff of nightmares

So, what books do I hope the little poppets have on their first shelves?  Boxed sets of the Beatrix Potter stories – detailed pictures to explore for hours and lovely words like ‘soporific’ –  and the Winnie The Pooh stories and poems are the perfect present from godparents (if you are about to be a godparent, and want to give a religiously-inclined gift, my choice would be the ‘original spelling’ Tyndale New Testament published by the British Library.  It’s not facsimile, which would cost thousands, but it is the same size as the original; just the right size to hide up your 16th century sleeve if you hear someone coming.  Buy it and hold the traces of dangerous revolution in your hand).  Dear Zoo, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Mog the Forgetful Cat need to be there from the start.  And poetry.  Any poetry, really: your new very small audience is not critical and will enjoy the rhythms and repetitions, whether you read nursery rhymes or Ezra Pound.

Above all, keep reading.  When Moses came down the mountain with those rocks under his arm, they did not stipulate a cut-off age after which it is not permissible to sit and listen to a story.  The BBC knows that, of course: hence Book at Bedtime, the Classic Serial and Book of the Week.  And the makers of story CDs know it too.  The child without Alan Bennett’s sublime reading of Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows is a deprived child.  There is not much wrong with having been put on this planet to give definitive voice to Eeyore and Badger: there are Nobel Laureates with less to boast about. And it’s better to let Bennett, or Martin Jarvis (the embodiment of William Brown), or Miriam Margolyes (fabulous reader of The Worst Witch stories), or dear Bernard Cribbins (the lovely Sophie stories by Dick King-Smith) read to your darlings than do it yourself when, like Calvin’s dad, you long to rip the chosen favourite book into tiny, tiny slips and feed them to the flames.  Sweet dreams, everybody.Calvin's dad

Week 5: cold comforts

My cousin David has died.  First of all, I want to tell you what a lovely man he was: brimming with interest in people and things, always kindly and gently good-humoured.  And now, of course, I need to read something.  What will help?

At my father’s funeral (sorry, going to funerals seems to have become my specialist subject over the last few years), I read John Donne’s magnificent, defiant sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’.  Talk about marching out all colours flying: it’s a poem that exactly hits the spot when you are damned if you going to let a little thing like death vanquish someone’s spirit. At my mother’s, I chose Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’.  The occasion felt like the reunion of my parents and that spare, quite ambivalent but ultimately affirmative poem could have been written for them.  Larkin is one of the great examples of the person you wouldn’t like who writes work that you do.  He seems to have been an unkind, verbally brutal misanthrope.   This is no doubt very unfair of me because I never met him and he may have been a poppet to his inner circle – but I don’t get the impression he went in for circles.  Or any shape other than the solitary unit.  And yet he wrote ‘What will remain of us is love’: one of only two contenders for the accolade, line-of-poetry-I-would-consider-having-tatooed-on-me (admittedly, would only consider for two seconds before moving on).  The other, should you be interested, is Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’.  You must admit, I’m going to make a classy corpse.

There are readings to avoid.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ seems  – well, a bit late, really, by the time you reach the funeral.  Better, surely, to address death itself, or those of us left behind, than the now-indifferent body.  And I have a horror of the maudlin, which rules out quite a lot (though I do appreciate that, if maudlin were to be your thing, a funeral is not a bad place to unleash it).  There is a case to be made for Edward Thomas’s ‘Lights Out’: ‘I have come to the borders of sleep,/ The unfathomable deep/ Forest where all must lose/Their way’.  But then, there is always a case to be made for reading Edward Thomas (yes, we’d better talk about him quite soon).

I can see that all my choices seem to be poetry.  Well, it’s the right stuff for the moment, don’t you think?  Stripped down to an essence, saying what needs to be said with a quiet precision.  It gives you permission to use metaphor and allusion to say things that would be too bald if plonked down as prose.  And I can see, too, that I am only talking about the sad and regretted death of generations above one’s own.  I bow to no man in my conviction that reading conquers all, but even I am not sure that anything can offer even a shred of comfort on the death of a child.  If I have to, I would go to Ben Jonson and ‘On My First Son’.  But even that wouldn’t help.All the best families are a bit like this

But what to read later, on my own?  Any death in the family involves a gathering of the tribe, and any gathering of my particular tribe cannot fail to send me back to the models for all families – Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – and for all family gatherings – the sublime Cold Comfort Farm. Dearest cousins-who-are-readers (and I know some of you are), this is praise indeed and a tribute to how gorgeous you all are.  Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate offer acute observations of a range of relatives.  There’s death and tragedy there too, wrapped into the comedy – a bit like life really and perhaps this is quite a good time to reflect on that.

So now, some solace please.  Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a good start: wise and brave as you would expect of him.  Antoine St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince/ The Little Prince will not do because it makes me cry and I’m not going to.  If ‘much-loved book from childhood’ is the category I’m searching for comfort, I might be better off with ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (chapter 7) from The Wind in the Willows.  Children’s books are a perhaps surprisingly rich source of facing up to death.  We liked Posy Simmond’s Fred, about the funeral wake for a family cat (trust me, a lot warmer and funnier than I’ve made it sound).  And come to think of it, cats seem to be the go-to animal for lessons on dying: the incomparable Judith Kerr tackled the subject with gentle authority in Goodbye Mog.  I still remember Jenni Murray’s tear-stained tones on Woman’s Hour when she said to Mrs Kerr, ‘but Mog dies’, and the sweetly firm response, ‘Well, Jenni, everybody does.’

Otherwise, there might be something to be said for trivialising the subject of death.  Let’s not empathise: instead, let’s have bodies, heaps of them, festoons of them.  The comfort-criminals then: Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham (but not The Tiger in the Smoke, which belongs to quite a different category, that of ‘too scary ever to be read again’).  Or we could be cheered up by Terry Pratchett’s  Death – no, let me rephrase that, by the character of Death who is a glory of the Discworld novels written by Terry Pratchett.  Death speaks, if that is the word we are looking for here, in small capitals and without inverted commas.  And he tells us not to think of it as dying, but as LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.  Which is a tiny bit comforting.  See you later, David.