Week 101: The Convalescent Reader

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Fallen prey to the New Year Virus, I have spent the last few days coughing and sneezing and staying in bed, huddled in shawls and tissues and proving conclusively that I do not make a good invalid, inclining towards the bored, the tetchy and the Napoleonic. The news has on the whole been as dispiriting as the leaden grey weather – the world already felt a little smaller, sadder and drabber without David Bowie, and then they came and told me about Alan Rickman – and I have had too much time to ponder on mortality and wonder if, after all, there is not as much time left as I had blithely assumed. Time, definitely, to turn to the books by the bed to find some good cheer and quiet encouragement to pull myself together.

The bright side of a post-Christmas virus is that it offers the opportunity to read all those Christmas-present books that you had longed for, hinted heavily for, but so often turn out not to get round to reading once they are actually yours. Not this year: the lovely haul has been read, mulled over, discussed, lent. Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From fulfils expectations (it’s by Tim Parks, it’s probably going to be good): a wonderful bringing-together of his blogs for The New York Review of Books (incidentally, if you never have, succumb to one of the endless offers to receive The London Review of Books free for a year; you are unlikely to be disappointed). Parks freewheels through the very fabric and meaning of the stuff we read – it is no coincidence that these meditations were first published on the internet – and for all of us with New Year Resolutions to live up to about what we read, or don’t read, or what we write this year, Where I’m Reading From is pretty much essential groundwork. (For more about New Year resolutions of a bookish kind, by the way, hop over to the Book Club pages of this blog to see what we got up to in January).

Even the less-than-good, encountered from a soothing pile of pillows, herb tea (that it should come to this) and acres of dogs to hand, offer pleasures. It has been good to find that I still have some sort of critical faculty functioning through the fog of flu-like symptoms, as proved by reading Donna Leon’s latest in the long line of Commissario Brunetti novels, Falling in Love. A treat as always to be reunited with this most uxorious of detectives, but the book feels as if it has been put together by formula. What would be impressive from a lesser writer falls far short of Leon’s usual standard, with sketchily-drawn stock characters, some irritatingly dangling loose ends and an ending carved out of solid woodenness.

I cannot tell a lie.  I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan's

I cannot tell a lie. I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan’s

But three to restore my joyful faith in books. Father Christmas, a good egg if ever there were one, came up trumps with Kate Atkinson’s heavily-hinted-for A God in Ruins, forcing me to indulge in a re-read of Life After Life and revel in her master-classes in the art of fiction. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn turns out to be every bit as good as the film-of-the-book, so if you haven’t, do (I have carried on to discover that Nora Webster is every bit as absorbing). And Landmarks, written by Robert Macfarlane and recommended at the December NorthernReader Book Club, is every bit as delectable as I had hoped.

What next? As this wretched virus at long last starts to pack its bags, I can at least look further than Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. No more the humbling lesson on how to make the sickroom a place of inspiration. Farewell to contemplating the pre-antibiotic world of Betty MacDonald’s fabulous The Plague and I. No need, after all, to start learning the words of Mimi’s farewell aria. I can once again read Keats, the Brontës and Chekhov without a morbid inclination to identify with their every little cough. Time, clearly, for some bracing pull-yourself-together reading, and a heartfelt sense of gratitude at my good fortune to have been born in a very wealthy country in the second half of the twentieth century. It would no doubt be very good for me to read some harrowing tales of unhappy or persecuted lives as an aid to counting my blessings, but I think I might take the softer path and slip back onto the sunlit uplands of life with something cheery. The Wind in the Willows is the ultimate Convalescent Book, at least in the NorthernReader household, although Emma runs it a very close second. Ah, comfort books: this seems as good a place as any to confide in you, now we know each other a little better, that the night before my wedding, sleep eluding me, I read Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea. All of it. Make of that what you will.

But here I am this January, restored to health and raring to go on my readerly way. And my treat, my reward, if not for good behaviour exactly then for having come through the porridge-brained phase of ‘flu in which Noddy might pose too much of an intellectual challenge? Well, Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Noise of Time, has just been published to rave reviews. Bliss it is this dawn to be alive. Happy New Year, everyone.WP_20150129_026

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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.

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Week 93: Random Reading

Week 93: Random Reading

20140502-114045A friend of mine was, in her time, Admissions Tutor for English at one of the Oxford colleges. ‘I’ve stopped asking them what they’re reading at the moment that isn’t an A level text,’ she told me ‘because they generally cry. So now I ask them what they’ve ever read that isn’t an A level text.’ ‘Does that work?’ I asked. ‘Well, a lot of them still cry,’ she replied. It seems that in the struggle for prestige and position, some of the gentler pleasures of reading have been rather lost. Real readers – and by that I am not trying to set up some sort of competition (with smug-face medals for the winners, I might add), but celebrate the life-enhancing thought-provoking and spirits-uplifting power of books – real readers tend to have more than one book at a time on the go. Don’t they? A mini-inventory of the current NorthernReader volumes seems in order.

untitled (12)I am, as you may know if you have diligently read previous weeks’ episodes, a fan of Eleanor Farjeon. So when I found her New Book of Days at Barter Books in Alnwick, I pounced, and each day now begins with a moment or two reading her entry for that date. As I am also a fan of the eclectic, the random and even the downright eccentric, this mix of anecdote, history, folklore and poetry is my perfect start to the day. So much less gloomy that Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, as well as infinitely better-written (there have been, of course, exceptions: Jonathan Sacks’ gentle explanation that ‘love thy neighbour’ is a mistranslation of the far, far harder recommendation that we should ‘love the stranger’: now there really is a thought for the day. Or for life).

3472255I am also dipping into Elizabeth David’s Harvest of the Cold Months which is, as the cover announces, a social history of ice and ices. I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of this one until I stumbled upon it recently. As always with Mrs David, it’s erudite, precisely written and fascinating. A history of ice-cream would, it strikes me, lure more children into a life-long love of history than an endless study of World Wars I and II, gripping though that might be and important – even, possibly, more important than how food has (sometimes rather literally) shaped cultures.

9698011Then there’s my minor indulgence in children’s books: this week, a joyful reunion with The Summer of the Great Secret, one of Monica Edwards’ books that successfully weaned me off Enid Blyton when small. Yes, terrifically old-fashioned now, and so relentlessly middle-class there’s probably already a group advocating their banning, but goodness me they’re well-written. Aspiring authors, take note of how easily she moves the narrative along and how little description is needed for you to see the characters in your mind’s eye. I got to know Tamzin, Rissa and the rest of them a long, long time ago, and I find I still know them. In their own minor way, they are every bit as ‘real’ as Elizabeth Bennett.

untitled (13)I’ve been reading short stories recently as well. The Persephone Book of Short Stories (another Barter Books find) is a joy; as The Guardian called it, a marvellous collection of short stories by women. Thirty perfect short stories, written between 1909 and 1986, some by earth-shatteringly famous writers – but you may well not have read their short stories – and some by women whose work you might be encountering for the first time and quickly making plans to seek out and read everything else they ever wrote. And I’m reading Julian Barnes latest collection of short stories, Pulse. It’s Julian Barnes. It’s short stories. It stands to reason that it’s marvellous: and it is.

untitled (14)What else? Well, I’ve just finished reading A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby, a novel that captures the austerity of post-war London in its pared-down exploration of a murder. Siân Busby died dreadfully early just as she was finishing this book, and the introduction, by her grieving husband, the BBC Economics Editor and all-round Good Thing, Robert Peston, will quite properly break your heart. Incidentally, if you didn’t, listen to his conversation on grief with Julian Barnes and Eddie Mair: more radio that will stay with you for ever.

And of course there are the Useful books. The Faber Book of Useful Verse, for example: a very present help in times of need (I especially treasure the section ‘Useful for Those Contemplating Matrimony’). Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow is, among much else, at least as useful a when-to-do-what (mentally adjusted for our northern latitude) as any, and much more engagingly written and illustrated than most. Jane Grigson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are sharing the honours at present in the NorthernReader kitchen. Oh, and then there’s the fond farewell browse through a teetering pile of art books whose time for the great trip to Alnwick has come.

Books do furnish a room, as Anthony Powell pointed out (Volume 10 of Dance to the Music of Time: if you’re going to do it, might as well do it properly and settle down with Volume 1, A Question of Upbringing. That’s your summer – and quite possible autumn and winter – sorted). They furnish, inhabit and illuminate lives as well. They have purpose and give pleasure; they do not make you fat, they are rarely immoral and should never be illegal. What are you reading at the moment?

Thank you, Quentin Blake

Thank you, Quentin Blake

PS Please don’t forget the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, who hasn’t the chance to read anything as he serves out his barbaric sentence of ten years’ imprisonment and one thousand lashes for having the temerity to dream of Saudi Arabia as a nicer place to live.

Week 39: Reading the French

franceGoodness me. Dommage in fact. A level French in England and Wales includes no literature. It also seems to be possible – incroyable – to obtain a degree in French at British universities without reading any fiction. Je suis desolé: in fact, je suis flabbergasted. Here are the NorthernReader suggestions for a starter pack. We might call it, ‘How to Have a Glimpse of What It’s Like to Be French’.

Before we start, let’s get the tricky bit out of the way. I’m not suggesting you should read all, or even any, of these in French, really I’m not: but, even if you don’t have a word of the language, please try a sentence or two, just to get the sounds and rhythms swirling around in your mouth. Humour me.

Right. Which books shall we put on our shelf this week? We already have one: Le Petit Prince by the extraordinary, romantic and really rather heroic Antoine de Saint Exupéry (see Week 5): and in Week 23 we added Terre Des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) and Vol de Nuit (Night Flight). Saint Exupéry scatters Gallic je ne sais quoi through every page. You may need to take up smoking Gitanes.

But, even more essential to our Instant-Being-French kitbag, we need Madame Bovary (and read Julian Barnes’ acute observations in the London Reveniew of Books on choosing an English translation). You have to read Madame Bovary. It’s as simple as that. It’s up there with Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet and Nineteen Eighty-Four as stories you must have under your belt. But – if you happen not to have got round to reading it yet – prepare to have your heart broken. While we’re about it, can we have Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir please? It does perhaps demand some quick swotting-up on Bourbon post-Napoleonic France (and what could be more fun?), but really its power lies in its psychology. If you have ever wiled away an hour or two pondering the nature of sincerity, this is the book for you.

We could do this thing thoroughly and read Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (known, not terrifically politically-correctly, as The Hunchback of N.D. in English and as Le Hunchback in the NorthernReader household). Les Misérables – or The Glums, as some of us like to think of it – is apparently one of the world’s most-read books. Well, I bet it isn’t. I think we have a statistic there that is muddling ‘books I ought to pretend to have read’ with ‘books I have actually read’. I did, many years ago, get inveigled into taking KatePonders and my mother to the musical. The book is one of the longest ever written. So is the musical. Take a picnic (and perhaps an i-Pod so that you drown out the noise coming from the stage as the long hours drag by).

d08_aurore_janv_981Much more riveting to read Émile Zola, a courageous and clear-sighted man who put everything on the line with the publication in L’Aurore of his article, ‘J’accuse’, his forthright denunciation of the mess that was the Dreyfus Affair. He achieved what he had set out to do, which was to be prosecuted for criminal libel, which meant that the whole tawdry tale of wicked connivance and conspiracy at the very highest levels of the French Establishment was aired in open court. Zola was stripped of his Légion d’Honneur, and avoided jail only by hopping nimbly onto the first boat-train to London, arriving with only the clothes he stood up in. It is still thought that his death, by carbon-monoxide poisoning, was arranged by his government enemies, who, in France as elsewhere, have so often shown themselves to be poor losers. For this alone we can elect him to the Hero shelf, but his novels – perhaps especially Thérèse Raquin – earn their place on their own merits as ripping yarns. Talking of which, why ever do we not have

merci, the person who drew this

merci, the person who drew this

Alexandre Dumas’s Trois Mousquetaires? It is pacy, gripping and funny: and as the years go by I have very nearly got over my childhood disappointment that it is not, despite my slight misunderstanding of the title in French, about mice.

What of the twentieth century? I’m not sure that anyone, either side of La Manche, reads Colette these days, but both Chéri and Gigi have been huge best-sellers in their time. Let us have Le Grand Meaulnes instead: and we could do a lot worse than pop a copy of Proust on our shelf, even if it is with intention rather than determination (why do long books, or series of books, so make us quail?). And we must have some Simenon: we will get nowhere on our great project of Trying to Be French if we only read classics – although, of course, Simenon’s Maigret is a classic. And so, quite rightly, is Franҫoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. It has something of the same affecting ability to capture the world through adolescent eyes that I love in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding: but in plot, if not in atmosphere, it is darker.

And we could have a very French evening in, with a bottle of wine, some fabulously garlicky sausage, and a film. My choice? A tough call, because j’aime French films: but the best celebration of Paris that I know isn’t French, but Hollywood: Woody Allan’s Midnight in Paris. It’s beautiful, it’s romantic, and it’s quietly thought-provoking. But you can’t not see Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule, so if you haven’t, that’s your evening sorted. Santé.midnight-in-paris5

Week 27: Books for a Marriage

sonnet 116The daughter of our dear friends got married yesterday.  To Louise and James, therefore, we NorthernReaders send every possible ounce of love and congratulations and welcome to the wonderful and slightly strange world of being married.  What books should we give you?

1 snowdropsThe truth is that poets, playwrights and novelists get more inspiration from the unmarried state which you have just left.  As everyone will point out to you, Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding in the air and his tragedies begin shortly afterwards.  Don’t be put off: think of Lord and Lady Macbeth and General and Mrs Othello as helpful what-not-to-do guides and you’ll be fine.  And stick like glue to every wise word of Shakespeare’s sonnet.  If you minds are as one, and open to each other, yours will be the best and happiest of marriages.

Asta_in_Shadow_of_The_Thin_Man_trailerThe problem with happy marriages is that they do not provide useful material for fiction, because stories, unlike people, thrive on conflict.  Good marriages can be found in books, but – just as in what we laughingly call real life – you may need to pick and choose to select the aspects you would like to copy.  Nick and Nora Charles, for example – the couple at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man:  happy, certainly; devoted, even – but I’m not sure that all that alcohol is a very helpful ingredient in our recipe for a long and contented marriage (Asta, on the other hand, is a good reminder that dogs and marriages go together very well indeed).  But detective fiction, strangely, does provide us with some well-matched couples.  Not Poirot, obviously, nor Miss Marple, although Agatha Christie did have a married pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  But Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey embody Shakespeare’s invaluable advice to be a marriage of true minds.  We shall give our newly-married couple, not only Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon,.but also the sequels developed by Jill Paton Walsh. We can add Ngaio Marsh’s really rather nice Roderick Alleyn and his splendid wife Troy.  Best of all are Commissario Guido Brunetti and his clever academic wife, Paola, in Donna Leon’s absorbing series of detective novels set in Venice.  It is true that Paola is a fabulous cook, but, if you are not, do not despair that a great marriage will elude you: the Brunetti household is forged by love, patience, understanding, a shared sense of humour and – hurray – books.  The couple that reads together, stays together.

Sticking together through the tough bits might be a useful role model, so hats off to Mother in The Railway Children who quite properly never doubts her husband’s innocence for a second.  Married couples in children’s books almost inevitably – and appropriately – appear as parents rather than lovers, but there are some that stand out as couples  Sadly, Mr and Mrs Bear, parents of  Rupert, make it very clear where he gets his outstanding dullness from.  Much more enjoyably, Mr and Mrs Pig of Evening Out fame, although a bit slapdash in their choice of baby-sitter (and which cabin-fevered parent wouldn’t joyfully accept any offer of child-care?), are clearly fond of each other and can still face the idea of an evening in each other’s company with equanimity.  Richmal Crompton’s Mr and Mrs Brown stoically present a united front in the face of the adversity which is their youngest child, William.  There is, incidentally, an emerging trend for weddings to include readings from children’s books – the more toe-curlingly and vapidly sugary the better.  I suspect that the reason for this is straightforward and two-fold: first, because, consciously or not, the happy couple are thinking about children, and secondly because under the strain of arranging a wedding, which nowadays has to be of a pomp and splendour formerly restricted to the court at Versailles, the bride has lost her marbles and the groom is too afraid to put his foot down.  I may, of course, be wrong

Snowdrops-bouquet-wallpaper_7017Let us turn to the poets for help and guidance.  Once again, we hit the problem that it is far more fun to write about the awful agonies of unrequited love and broken romance than the glorious mundanities of lasting happiness, but here are two who step up to the mark.  Although Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion is, strictly speaking, ineligible for our bookshelf of marriage guidance because it speaks only of the wedding day itself, it is definitely having a place for its very clear standard-setting on how to praise your wife.  Read it, chaps, and take notes.  You will never fall far out of favour with your wife as the years roll by if you can keep up this level of admiration.  Pay special attention to his celebration of her intelligence, charm, kindness and wit.  Practise in the car on the way home if necessary.

Our second teacher is of course the utterly wonderful John Donne.   Read ‘The Anniversary’. If you don’t feel like that, don’t marry.  There we are.  Simple really.

Now is not the time to indulge the NorthernReader’s sense of humour by presenting our happy couple with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me.  We could give them Wodehouse, though.  Not Bingo Little’s marriage to the popular novelist Rosie M Banks, perhaps, and the fireplace with ‘Two Lovebirds Built This Nest’ – although there is something rather marvellous about such squirm-making horror – but Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom rub along together pretty well through umpteen years of marriage and despite the depradations of her nephew Bertie.  Best of all, let’s make sure that all newly-married couples embark upon their life together with the complete works of Jane Austen tucked into their trousseaux.  Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: they are all highly unusual romantic couples, because we can imagine them settling into long contented marriages (for contrast, try picturing Romeo and Juliet’s silver wedding anniversary.  You see? It was never going to work).  And Jane Bennett, of course – like our own dear Louise – has the great good sense to marry a man from the North of England.  Good on you, petheavenfield

Week 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.