Week 114: Showtime

my-fair-lady-1964-09-gIt used to be called The Season, and jolly tiring it was too.  Never part of the Coming Out (which meant something quite different then), balls and aristocratic hob-nobbing which formed the invisible web binding together the members of a now-vanished caste, I look back in astonishment to realise how many of the London season events were an occasional part of my childhood.  Not a horsey lot, we were not the family that counted the days to Royal Ascot, Badminton and the Epsom Derby (although a later extremely mild interest has led me before now to Cheltenham and Goodwood in the days when it was still about horses). Wimbledon, as I have confessed before, has left memories only of acute and almost terminal boredom.  The highlight used to be the Chelsea Flower Show: I had some halcyon years living on a houseboat practically next door, and in the days when Members’ Day meant you and one or two other people pottering blissfully about in frocks/gents’ lounge suiting in the sunlit acres – ah, it was very heaven, those blue remembered hills whereon celebrity had not been invented.

Since those far-off days, the NorthernReader household, its back turned against the metropolis (hurrah), has found its pleasures in a harmless addiction to country and county shows.  If you have yet to experience a day spent in comfortable footwear solemnly debating the relative merits of different breeds of perfectly darling sheep, showmake this your breakthrough year.  We have happy memories of years and years of drinking Pimms and watching the pole-climbing (no, really) at the New Forest Show: only our morbid dislike of traffic kept us away from the Royal Welsh.  Since becoming adopted citizens of Northumberland, our cravings are splendidly fed by the Northumberland Show, and that was where we were to be found yesterday, knee-deep in cattle, pigs, dogs and tiny children driving tanks around a field.

The country show has seldom, if ever, featured as a key locus in fiction, which is a shame because all human, and indeed sentient, life is there.  A splendid setting for comedy, tragedy, love and mayhem, I suggest.    PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens explores many of Ukridge’s get-rich-quick ideas, but, sadly, exhibiting at the local show is not one of them (incidentally, when did chicken farms fall from favour as an absolutely sure-fire thing for making love or money?  Wodehouse’s breezy chaps are always falling back of the idea as a perfect scheme, but Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and indeed one the plot twists and turns in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, would tend to suggest that there is a melancholy or even a sinister side lurking among our feathered friends). Race meetings have become synonymous with Jilly Cooper territory, in fiction if not in life (haven’t read one and haven’t encountered burly lotharios with Barbara Cartlandish names, so cannot claim any right to judgment here); and of course with Dick Francis’s thrillers, which marry detailed knowledge of the racing world with the most wooden characters since Thunderbirds and are therefore known collectively (there are about a million of them) in the NorthernReader household as The Woodentops Go To The Races.

The London Season in all its debutantish horror lies behind Nancy Mitford’s The mitfordsPursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and is even more clearly brought to life in her sister Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  EF Benson’s Lucia in London charts his heroine’s attempts to break into high society.  If you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia novels, the best recommendation I can give to entice you in is that Benson completely nails the significance of saying ‘no’ with emphasis to mean ‘I never heard anything so marvellous, and it thrills me through and through.  Please go on at once, and tell me a great deal more’ (and if that doesn’t make you want to add Benson to your much-cherished ‘Jane Austen and Other Wasps’ shelf, I despair).

Let us shake off the dust of London and retire gratefully back to the country and its social pleasures.  Our first glimpse of Tess, red lips and sash, white dress and all, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, finds our heroine skipping round the Maypole.  I have only to recall it – and the several hundred dutiful essays retelling it to me handed in each year by undergraduates – to know that the moment when I can re-read  Tess has not yet dawned.  More enjoyable might be Peter Tinniswood’s play, The Village Fete; I don’t know it but he was such a good writer that I’m looking forward to making its acquaintance now I’ve stumbled upon it.  Miss Read, of course, is as ever a mary-mouse-and-the-garden-partysplendid source of fetes, fairs and jamborees, as is Barbara Pym (and why has it only just dawned on me how much those terrific writers have in common?).  If all else fails, we can revisit Enid Blyton’s Mary Mouse, who in Mary Mouse and the Garden Party performs the useful function of setting out all the hard work that lies behind such a festive occasion in so much grim detail it put at least one impressionable young reader off anything to do with such jolly community get-togethers for very many years.  Ah, how are the mighty fallen: this summer (I use the term loosely, having looked out of the window) I find myself organising a village Midsummer Night’s Party and running the raffle for the Village Fete.

And on both days, the sun will shine, print frocks will be worn, bunting will flap, and, best of all, there will be books.  It’s beginning to look like a NorthernReader summer.books

Week 102: The Woolly Liberal Reader

christ_in_emmaus-400

Having seen, seethed and inwardly digested the shameful decision of Archbishop Justin Welby to placate a bunch of homophobic bigots, I finally realised – what took me so long, I hear you ask – that while God and I get on just fine, thank you, the Church of England and I are through. I have been a bit disconcerted, if flattered, by the number of friends who have described my sorrowful au revoir email to our very nice vicar as ‘brave’. Frankly, me not rocking up on Sundays will be (a) nothing new and (b) unlikely in itself to bring the Established Church to its knees. That isn’t, of course, the point. The NorthernReader household did not trade with apartheid South Africa, and continues to do its little best to avoid ‘Made in China’. Our five ha’pence-worth of withheld consumerism did not and will not get them talking in the caverns of power, but as a minor-league player in the Unpleasantness League has it, every little helps. So, Your Grace, should you happen to have dropped by, let me explain to you that saying sorry beforehand for something that you know to be wrong but intend to do anyway does not constitute contrition. And forgive me for pointing out to you what I hoped you knew already, but you represent Anglican Christians, and it is to all of us, or them, that an apology is due. Does ‘not in my name’ have any resonance for you?

 

So this week’s bookshelf needs to restore some sense that light will always overcome juliannorwich485darkness and that all shall be well. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love might be a good place to start. As Nicholas Lezard points out in his review of the latest modern English version, whether or not we share the mystic nun’s faith is beside the point: read it for the beauty of its prose, its importance as the first text in English we know to have been written by a woman and for its contemplative philosophy, which offers us all a welcome opportunity to stand apart for a moment to think. And if you want to have Hildegard of Bingen playing in the background while you read, who am I to stop you? ‘All shall be well’, by the way, is what Julian heard Jesus saying to her. It certainly sounds like the sort of thing the chap in the New Testament would come up with, rather than, for example, homophobic rants: but then, he always has sounded like a much nicer person than his Church has turned out to be.

Where next? We could do a lot worse than falling back on the company of some thoroughly good priests to lift the spirits. How about the Reverend Charles Henstock, in Miss Read’s endlessly consoling Thrush Green novels? Better him by far than the fearfully self-righteous St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, although his earnest study of ‘Hindoostanee’ does at least suggest that he sees the targets of his missionary zeal as having a language and culture it might behove him to learn about. Jane Eyre has much to say, and even more to imply, about how we see ourselves as ‘us’ and others as ‘them’ and how things might be better all round if we could please stop doing that. Food for thought, Archbishop, next time you are tempted to talk to gay people as an undifferentiated entity. The acerbic (to put it very mildly indeed) American comedian, Lenny Bruce, went straight to the heart of racism by asking, ‘when you say you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one of Them, which one of Them? Harry Belafonte?’ (for younger readers, think Idris Elba).

I do rather hanker for some sort of well-mannered Utopia in which people’s sexual preferences remain known only to themselves and their consenting partners. Much too much interest in who does what to whom, especially if that happens not to conform with what the majority are doing to whom, has been a degrading part of the British legal system (not that many other countries can lay claim to primeval soggy liberal enlightened tolerance or – my ideal – utter indifference). It took a thoroughly shaming ten years for the centuries-overdue Wolfenden Report to amble into law as the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts. To get a sense of what it was like to be one of the thousand or so men imprisoned each year, now might be a good moment to read Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law, remembering as we do so that his unspeakable experiences in Wormwood Scrubs (Wildeblood was one of the defendants in the notorious Lord Montagu case of 1954) were as nothing compared to some of the punishments enthusiastically supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new best friends. Your Grace, might I recommend a thoughtful study of Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, or David Faber’s Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis? It was Churchill, you will recollect, who pointed out to Chamberlain that ‘you were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war’.newsappeasement-tl

Something optimistic is needed. ‘Only connect’, said Forster. It is what fiction does: gives us the chance to empathise. All great writers have known this. It is easy to be unmoved by statistics; the vast army of unwanted waifs, the hordes of tiny children invisibly cleaning chimneys, the sea of women who were their husband’s or their father’s property. Harder to turn your back and close your mind on the pathetic protagonists of Oliver Twist, The Water Babies and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. So my readerly response to the outrage of the 2016 Anglican Primates’ Conference is to settle down to re-read the works of EM Forster. Starting with Maurice.untitled (3)

Week 69: ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly

Kate GreenawayOne of the many delights of living in the North East of England is that people here have far better things to do than start fossicking about Christmas immediately after the summer holidays have ended. But, with less than a fortnight to go, even we are beginning to hum ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like …’ as we go about the daily round. And yesterday, we had our first snow of the season. The Farmers’ Market is joined by the Christmas Market this weekend and there is a distinct air of mulled wine and cheerful expectancy: which is exactly what Advent ought to mean (the expectancy rather than the wine, especially if you are under eighteen). This is not, I suspect, the neck of the woods at which all those dreary advertisements imploring us to buy sofas and rather horrid dining tables in time for Christmas are aimed. Not for us the articles in magazines promoting geegaws and fripperies as – and I quote – ‘ideal stocking fillers under £100’: what planet do these people think we inhabit? There is a splendid amount of knitting, sewing, and sweet-and preserve-making going on around here and pleasingly little belief that friendship and love can be Kipper's Christmasmeasured by the amount carelessly spent at the till. ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’, as the King James Bible firmly decrees, and how right it is. No, this is the season when the long retreat into a wintry hibernation snaps out of itself and is transformed into warmth, friendship and good neighbourliness by parties. They began a few days ago, a little trickle of invitations to lunch, or tea, or drinks with friends, and now they stretch as an unbroken shining path of gentle pleasures, all the way to Christmas and beyond, to Old Year’s Night and Twelfth Night.

So, as hostess or as guest, where can I find my role models? Children’s books are full of parties, usually featuring as joyful occasions, flying in the face of most children’s experiences. If you are small and living in dread of the next birthday party, take comfort from the fact that you at least do not have to suffer the indignities and limitations imposed upon previous generations by a dress code that involved ties for boys and sticky-out dresses for girls. Photographs from my own childhood confirm that a blue net dress with a sash did not transform me into a sparkly fairy: a glum-looking cross-patch in a flowery frock is more like it. Dorothy Edwards’ lovable My Naughty Little Sister captures the real world of children’s parties, especially when our heroine and her best friend, Bad Harry, wander off from the games that the nice boys and girls are playing and find the party food

I've been to a MARVELLOUS party

I’ve been to a MARVELLOUS party

unguarded. Their business-like demolition job on the trifle would draw praise from the Weasels at Toad Hall, and makes me wonder whether adults’ parties would go with more of a swing if trifle was more heavily involved.

We can at least make every effort to avoid the sort of parties that Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things find themselves drawn to. Read Vile Bodies and be grateful that you do not get invited to that sort of thing (of course, it may be that you do: in which case, read it to the end, take heed and amend your ways). And while we’re on the look-out for Parties to Avoid, Ian McEwan’s haunting Atonement, Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway provide some useful guidelines. But if we are lucky we might find ourselves going to the sort of magical and dreamlike party that Augustin stumbles across in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Or how about Dick Hawk-Monitor’s 21st birthday party as chronicled in Stella Gibbon’s completely essential Cold Comfort Farm ? It sounds as if it was an enjoyable enough occasion even before the birthday boy livened it up no end by throwing a marriage proposal into the works.

Time for some less hectic gatherings, perhaps. In these days of seemingly endless bling, when we are exhorted to spend a fortune at Christmas decking ourselves out as gaudily as any Christmas tree, it is good to spend a few moments with Miss Fogarty (in the Thrush Green books by Miss Read), who worries whether her seed pearl necklace might be too showy for a village drinks party. All the Miss Read characters could walk into any social occasion in our part of the world with no questions asked, and it is their mastery of clothes that qualifies them. Like us, they cheerfully recognise each other’s party outfits as they clock up considerable mileage. What more robust and sensible judgment of clothes can there be than ‘there’s years of use in that yet’? Since moving here, I have come to realise Ballthat my two pairs of heels will see me out, as there is not much call for them when even an evening out involves hopping across a field or a farmyard: and I couldn’t be more thankful if I tried. There is no rural festivity that a silk shirt and a thermal vest cannot rise to. A far cry, indeed, from Kitty’s outfit for a ball in Anna Karenina: ravishing white net over pink silk, with little pink slippers to match – utterly darling, of course, but a tad impractical, one would have thought.

No, as friends come here to supper, or we go to drinks with neighbours, and a quiet excitement starts to hum, our build-up to Christmas will be modelling itself on Ratty, Mole and Badger, good country-dwellers all, who knew the importance at all times of year of living in great joy and contentment.

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

PS If you were to ask me for suggestions for books as presents this Christmas, my absolutely unhesitating first choice would be Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead. You will not look at anything, ever, in the same way once you have read it.

Week 60 Careers for Girls

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

When I was little, there was a book knocking around our house called The Girl’s Companion. Among much that was thrilling, such as how to cover a lampshade and how to punch leather (I am not making this up), there was a very slim section called ‘Careers for Girls’. We could aspire to be nursery assistants, it seems, or kennel maids, air hostesses or nurses. Mmmm. It turned out that we were the generation surprisingly well-equipped for the social changes that have happened in our life-times. We may, it is true, have nurtured the secret hope that we could marry a scientist, an astronaut or a company director rather than going to all the trouble of actually being one ourselves, but we had one huge advantage over our male contemporaries. We did not grow up in the expectation that we would step onto the career ladder at Point A within company B and progress steadily upwards towards retirement. The lives we have actually lived, stitching together what hindsight grandly allows us to call a portfolio, changing tack with a panache that would warm Ellen MacArthur’s heart, came more easily to us, with our absence of expectations of anything more structured, than it did to the chaps. But today’s bright young things, emerging soggy-winged from university, know in principle that they must be prepared to duck and weave to forge themselves some sort of money-earning path through life. I think it must be perfectly miserable. They are hedged in by former class-mates on one side, glittery-eyed in the pursuit of telephone-number salaries and strapping themselves blindly to the unstable raft of financial service sector jobs as they head for thewhite water ahead: on the other, by dire warnings that they have missed the boat if they

No it isn't

No it isn’t

haven’t yet picked an outfit to which to sell their soul. The idea that you might find your own way through the forest, guided by ethical values and quiet pleasure rather than naked greed, seems to have little currency at present. Time, I think, for some books to come to the rescue.

I was a great admirer of Sue Barton, the heroine of Helen Dore Boylston’s series, without ever feeling the slightest tug towards nursing as a vocation. The Sue Barton books – Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Rural Nurse – you get the idea – are in fact set in the American hospital and nursing world of the Twenties and Thirties, but what impressed me as a child was the comradeship, warm friendships and selflessness of the central characters. They worked hard, overcame difficulties, and went at life with zest and passion: not bad as role models. Helen Dore Boylston was following that age-old advice , ‘write about what you know’, having been a nurse in Massachusetts and New York. I am only sorry that she did not also send Sue Barton off to re-enact her extremely action-packed life as a nurse on the Western Front in the First World War and later as an American in Paris – and Warsaw, and Albania.

If not medicine, how about teaching? Governesses in fiction very rarely lead lives of beer and skittles (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, the very peculiar governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw), but the life of a country schoolmistress had its charms once upon a time. How about the gloriously-named Miss Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree? Or, indeed, that NorthernReader favourite, the shrewdly perceptive Miss Read, heroine and pseudonymous author of a wonderful series which, beginning some sixty years ago, is already taking its proper place as an important contribution to English rural social history. Most villages now, alas, have The Old Schoolhouse, along with The Old Post Office and The Old Bakery, and few and lucky are the children who can run across the green to school

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

There’s always office work, of course. George Bernard Shaw (oh blast! We really must talk about the lure of the middle name one of these days) simultaneously examines, celebrates and undermines the new and few opportunities for employment available to women at the turn of the last century in Mrs Warren’s Profession. While Mrs Warren’s career choice has been what has long been coyly referred to as the oldest, her daughter rejects her mother and her business empire in order to begin her own, more legitimate, business. But, this being Shaw – in other words, clever, thought-provoking and dancing with wit – the play questions our whole notion that one career might have a greater or lesser moral value than another or be more or less freely entered into. This seems as good a moment as any to notice that the dreary trajectory of job-related sexism across the ages has been for a career to be exclusively male and high status – teacher, secretary – and, once women have won the hard-fought battle to gain entry, to be largely deserted by men and become lower-paid and lower status. It is going to be grimly interesting to see what happens to the public perception of doctors now that more than 50% of medical students are female.

But at least there are now no jobs that women cannot consider. Goodness, even the Church of England has got over itself and agreed that God might not be revolted by women bishops after all. The world of my childhood, in which all taxi-drivers, lorry drivers and pilots (civilian, military or sky) were male seems now as remote as the age of chivalry.  That Girl’s Companion proved a false prophetess: I never did become a hairdresser, a beautician or a florist. Nor, in truth, did I become an engineer or a lion-tamer, but at least I was barred from all these occupations only by lack of talent and interest rather than gender. No, better by far to follow the career advice given, perhaps unsurprisingly, by so many books. Sometimes, as in life, we’re not sure if it’s ever going to work out – Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – but deep down, don’t we all want to be writers?writer

Week 33: The Illustrated NorthernReader

Just back from an exhilarating jaunt to Barter Books in Alnwick. I resisted the temptation to simply give them power of attorney over my bank account and scoop up all their delectable offerings, but I did wallow in joyful recognition of These We Have Loved. A trawl of the shelves produces books-I-once-knew and books-I-want-to-meet in about equal proportions. My first books, like yours, were picture books. Words got added as my ability to read them grew, but the pictures were always part of the experience. Where does it say in the book of rules that once we have reached full height we can no longer be allowed the pleasure of the illustrated book? Here are some favourites, a few recommendations, and a heart-felt plea.

Alright, I can now see that this is a tiny bit camp, but I loved it

Alright, I can now see that this is a tiny bit camp, but I loved it

My uncle – one of those best sorts of uncle, who never seemed to notice any disparity in age between uncle and niece – gave me two books in childhood that were fabulous, gorgeously illustrated and, it turned out, hugely influential in shaping my future reading and interests. The first was Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans, published by the now-moribund Purnell & Sons and illustrated by the Grahame Johnstone sisters, Janet and Ann. You may know their work from their illustrations for Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Bereft of my childhood copy, I finally tracked one down a few years ago and had the thrill of finding that the pictures were, unusually, exactly as I had remembered them. The story-telling is of the very finest quality too: how many really quite small children do you know who spend their time being a Trojan princess? Because that, dearest reader, was how I whiled away many a happy childhood hour. The second treasured gift was a re-telling of Don Quixote with – crucially – amazing, don quixotedream-like illustrations by Giovanni Benvenuti. No matter that I was about six years old: I was hooked.

As I grew to teenagerdom, the illustrations started to seep out of the books I was reading. I missed them, along with the exercise books at school with lines on one side, for writing on, and blank pages on the other, for drawing. I wonder whether the world might not be a nicer place if all notebooks, especially, perhaps, those provided in Cabinet, were made along these lines, and a nice fat pot of coloured pencils plonked onto the green baize. However. The one disadvantage with illustrations is when the principal characters have not been drawn in strict accordance with how they look inside your head: akin to the gross miscasting of television or film versions. Remember the mental scars Dick Van Dyke left on all you Mary Poppins’ readers? Like that. One of the reasons why Arthur Ransome turned out to be the perfect illustrator of his own books is that, lacking confidence in his ability to draw faces, he shows the Swallows, the Amazons, the Coots and all the rest only from the rear, at a great distance or wearing hats.

LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattBut as adults, if it were not for the splendours of Folio Books, we would be in danger of falling for the half-baked idea that pictures are only for children: which would come as news to the maker of the Lindisfarne Gospel. I am pleased to report that Barter Books have a whole section devoted to second-hand copies of Folio books, so your next trip to Alnwick (cracking little town, wonderful garden, Harry-Potter themed Castle if that’s your sort of thing and wonderful, fantastic, lyrical countryside and beaches within spitting distance) might be a good opportunity to start your collection of illustrated Austens, Trollopes, Waughs or Chandlers (the illustration I have chosen is by Tatsuro Kiuchi. Can you see what it is yet?).day of the jackal And the lovely Miss Read publishers stuck doggedly and delightfully to her requirement to have her books illustrated, by John Goodall for many years. The drawings are idiosyncratic, just right and form part of the pleasure of the text. Otherwise we visually-starved grown-ups are thrown to the mercies of the sort of publishers who – and I promise I am not making this up – produce copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets interleaved with reproductions of Hilliard miniatures and twee watercolours of flowers, and scented. Yup: honestly. The whole damn book, scented with the reek of artificial violets. Someone who did not know me at all well once gave me a copy, not, I regret to say, in a discernible spirit of irony.

mintonOr we could find solace in cookery books. Not the rather intimidating photographs of what it all should look like (but probably won’t even if I become the sort of person who follows the instructions slavishly), but the strange, oddly brooding woodcuts that decorate the original Elizabeth David books. They are by John Minton, an unhappy soul who deserves greater recognition than as side-kick to the waspish Mrs David, who didn’t much like his work.

So, please don’t deprive us of pictures just because we’re over ten years old.  Yes, I know the best ones are the ones the words make in our heads (precisely why radio is so vivid) and no, Idon’t want every character, every setting and every twist in the plot laboriously spelled out in watercolour, any more than I want great solemn chunks of physical description of our heroine and what she is wearing: but decoration that adds to the mood of the piece can only add to the enjoyment.  After all, I have long thought that of the two best jobs in the world, one must be the lucky person who chooses the front cover art for books (can I have John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose for  Women in Love please?).  The other best-job-in-the-world?  Why, naming paint colours of course.Carnation_Lily_Lily_Rose_B

Week 6: Through the Plashy Fen

Ah, the country.  John Julius Norwich has been known to sing, to the tune of Beethoven’s Sixth:  ‘The country, the country, it always gets me down/ The country, the country, I’d rather be in town.’  Foolish boy (only in this: in all other ways, he is a thoroughly good thing, not least for coming up with the phrase (when asked about his father’s serial adultery), ‘ah, yes, well, he made friends terribly easily’). Today, we went for a walk by the North Tyne.  The sun glinted on the river, a salmon leapt with a splash like a hippo dropping her soap in the bath, and a kingfisher caught the light as he swooped just above the clear waters.  And we picked blackberries.  We will not have bread and milk and blackberries for supper, even though we have undoubtedly been good little rabbits (reference too obvious to give you: if you don’t recognise it, I despair), but we shall have the first crumble of the autumn.DSCF1289

It’s not always an easy thing to write about, the countryside.  Shades of purple prose hover uncomfortably over too many earnest attempts.  Better than Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, then, read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.  And watch the completely perfect film version starring Kate Beckinsale with pretty much everyone in it (Judi Dench seems to be unaccountably missing but otherwise the band’s all there: and rather gloriously, it is directed by John Schlesinger). The ‘Miss Read’ books remain incomparable in capturing a way of life in the countryside in mid-twentieth century England.  Flora Thompson’s  Lark Rise to Candleford  novels, now hugely prettified and soaped for television, are in fact quite clear-sighted memoirs of impoverished rural life at the end of the nineteenth century.  Like so much writing about life in the country, they strike an elegiac note for a world that has gone or is on the brink of going.

Children’s books tended to hover around the countryside until the fashion for gritty urban realism overcame them.  In real life a loather of camping or indeed of any physical discomfort, no matter how minor, I adored all the Arthur Ransome sagas and also the lesser-known (and now I re-read them, much more pedestrian) Fell Farm books by Marjorie Lloyd.  Anthropomorphic books about animals tend, for obvious reasons, to have rural settings, which can present some difficulties, as anyone who has read Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep Pig will testify (if you haven’t read it, do: there is more to Babe than Babe).  Life in the wild can be scary.  If you don’t believe me, ask Mole about the Wild Wood.  Life on the farm hasn’t always had a good press, either: George Orwell, anyone?  You will be pleased to hear that you can introduce your offspring to the delights of the socialist parable (for or against? You decide) at a very early age by virtue of the wonderfully concise Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell, beautifully illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

Sometimes we need books to tell us what the hell we’re looking at (yes I know I should now be relying on an app to do this but I have some shreds of dignity left and I am not going to start tramping the fells peering at a microcosmic screen which I can’t see anyway because (a) it is raining or (b) the sun is shining).  I inherited several sets of very worthy books about birds: in fact I think I may have been the fourth generation to have not opened one particular set.  You know the sort of thing: fancy spines (the books not the birds, sadly), very small print and rather muddy reproductions of monochrome photographs of – let’s be honest here – birds that were only ever some sort of little brown job to begin with.  I think I’d rather have ‘Nature Notes’ by William Boot (you’re going to love Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop if you haven’t already read it) or – o yes please! –  Alexander Worple’s American Birds and More American Birds (I could explain, but I won’t: you’ll have so much more fun finding out for yourself with the help of PG Wodehouse in Leave It to Jeeves).  Meanwhile, Simon Barnes’s Bad Birdwatcher books will help me tell a hawk from a handsaw (which, as we all know, is a heron and things were clearly coming to a pretty pass in Elsinore if there was any danger of confusing the two).

Still, John Julius Norwich does have a point.  Literature is awash with heroines (it is usually the female of the species) who tramp about in the countryside a great deal to show how emotionally over-wrought they are and who don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.  Yes, Cathy Earnshaw, I’m looking at you.  There is such a thing as taking the pathetic fallacy too far, you know.  It’s why Jane Austen is such fun: she’s so nasty about all that sort of self-conscious pretension.  Not a Romantic, it would be fair to say, and without a sentimental bone in her body (praise indeed from your correspondent).

But fiction is the thing. Two books, both called A House in the Country, both set during the Second World War, both quietly marvellous.  I have seen Ruth Adams’s lightly-disguised memoir of the attempt she and her husband made to set up a commune in the English countryside described as a comic novel.  Well, so is Bleak House.  Jocelyn Playfair’s novel has a wryly comedic tone, too: but it also, effortlessly, breaks your heart.  Read it.  Persephone Books have reprinted it (and also a different title by Ruth Adams), which is a good indication in its own right that this is a book worth reading.

Proof of Persephone Books’ invincibility (as if you needed one)?  They have reprinted The Children Who Lived in a Barn.  It’s by Eleanor Graham, who by being Editor at Puffin Books did more for launching children into a world of reading than probably anyone else, and it’s wonderful, and you can see the rather splendid Puffin front cover from the 1950s  thanks to our friends at Google so you don’t even have to miss out on that.  Puffin coverAnd now, having read it – possibly a tiny bit obsessively – in childhood, live in a barn is exactly what I do.  So be careful what you read.

Week 1: books for the guest-room

flowers on a windowsillClean sheets: tick.  Towels: tick.  Hell, I’ve even vacuumed.  The guest bedroom awaits our friends who are arriving this evening.  How else to show them I love them?  Flowers from the garden in a jug on the windowsill, a tin of biscuits (home-made of course: you see before you a living goddess of domesticity) …. Now for the fun part: the books to put on the bedside tables.

How to choose?  Here are my choices.  Some are going to be more or less permanent fixtures in the guest room – books that any guest might want to have around – and others will be chosen with the special likes and interests of this weekend’s friends in mind.

So, the foundations first. We live in a beautiful part of England that many of our friends don’t know all that well, so a guide book or two would be a good idea.  I’m going for The Buildings of England: Northumberland by Nikolaus Pevsner.  I love the whole series and still keep a look-out for more volumes to complete the set (not hard in this part of the forest, because we’re not that far from the wonderful Barter Books at Alnwick – centre of the bibliophile-on-a-budget’s universe).  Pevsner was sharp-eyed, opinionated and idiosyncratic: my sort of chap.  Some of the volumes we have remind you how the powers that be keep messing about with boundaries.  Our Oxford volume, for example, is old enough to exclude Abingdon because, in its eyes, Abingdon is still in Berkshire.

We live pretty much on Hadrian’s Wall, so something Roman seems like a good idea.  I might put out The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis.  It’s set in Rome and Britannia in 70AD which makes it a bit too early for Hadrian, who pitched up around here in 122AD, but it qualifies as a good guest-room book by being a crime novel which is quite light and not too gruesome.  I have no desire to be woken by the nightmares of others.  My other Roman choice would be the wonderful The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.  There’s a good chance that most of our friends will have read it as children – which was – how can I put this? A little while ago now, so it will offer the pleasure of revisiting a half-remembered book.  And if they didn’t read it when they were children, well, what a treat they have in store.  Sutcliff was right up there with Mary Renault as a writer of historical fiction that doesn’t feel as if it is a half-digested history lesson (The King Must Die, if you haven’t read any Renault and want to know which is the very best one).

I’m hoping our guests won’t be reading into the wee small hours, unable to sleep, so putting long novels by the bed seems actively unkind as well as pointless (unless I’m prepared to lend them – but that’s the subject for another week’s blog).  A book of short stories, then.  I’ve recently enjoyed Salley Vickers’ Aphrodite’s Hat, but I have to say I prefer her full-length novels (which, if you haven’t yet, do).  No, I’m going to dust down my copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s A Day in the Dark and other stories.  Perfectly observed, perfectly dispassionate, and (often) perfectly heart-breaking.  In a good way.

Every bedside table should have some poetry on it at all times.  It’s one of the rules.  As I write this, the death of Seamus Heaney has just been announced.  I’m not at all sure we can afford to be without him.  Selected Poems would do, but if I have to pick one, it’s going to be The Spirit Level.

This weekend’s guests are teachers.  So, Village School, by the incomparable Miss Read.  If my friends have not read her before, I will be giving the gift of a whole series of insightful, dry and witty books which, quite apart from the enjoyment of their gentle plots, stand now as an important snapshot of social history.  The one-teacher school, and the tiny village community that it serves, is as vanished from us as the school-house without electricity and mains water in which Miss Read’s chronicles begin.  A world we have lost ….

Which reminds me of my last choice for the weekend:  Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go? by Michael Bywater.  I first came across this gem of splenetic elegy when it was read by Stephen Fry on Radio 4.  That should tell you all you need to know, really.  But if you need even further encouragement, Bywater reminds you – in nice short chunks – that you are absolutely right to lament – sometimes loudly, in the middle of a shop or Port Office (if you can find one) – the loss of (some random examples) compartments on trains, Proper Doctors, Fathers (with a capital F) …. Oh, go and read it.  You’ll love it.  Promise.  Bet you find yourself reading it out to your nearest and dearest/people trapped in the same room as you.

Enough.  Books ready, endless supply of food and drink ditto, spare walking boots and Barbours by the door: we’re ready for the weekend.  Let’s hope it rains.