Week 108: Hair Days

images We touched last week on the irresistible draw experienced by the bad at heart towards eccentric and baffling hairstyles. ‘By their works shall ye know them’ still holds good, and the best indicator of a person’s moral worth remains his or her actions. So, President Assad of Syria, a surprisingly normal short back-and-sides does not make you a good person. But hair can serve as a sort of early warning system in life (Donald Trump, the little chap making people’s lives unbearable in North Korea, the unnerving brazen helmet that a former Beloved Leader of our own adopted). How about in books?

Richmal Crompton deftly spotted the reassuring nature of the tousled hairdo (only up to a point, Boris Johnson) and contrasts William’s pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards trademark style with that of the unnervingly smooth and glossy Hubert Lane. It is tempting to see Crompton’s inspiration for this nastiest and creepiest of horrid little boys in the slicked-down Adolf Hitler, but in fact Hubert predates the rise of the brylcreemed dictator. It could just be that, should she have had anyone in her sights as a target for parody, the press baron Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, might fit the bill; ‘pioneer of tabloid journalism’ is a damning epitaph, don’t you think? Even more aptly, perhaps, Harmsworth’s brother Harold, later known to us yokels as 1st Viscount Rothermere, another media magnate and an enthusiastic admirer of Nazism, richly deserves the mockery of being thought of as Hubert Lane’s prototype. Chilling, though, to think of William and his gang and the Hubert Laneites growing to adulthood in time for the Second World War (a fate they avoid by remaining forever eleven as the decades pass). I feel the same sad shadow hanging over the Swallows and the Amazons, by the way: while it is quite cheering to think of Nancy as one of those WRNS pushing the model boats about on charts, John and Roger, clear and obvious naval officers both, would have been lucky to come through the war untorpedoed. How comforting of fiction to suspend them all in a nostalgic glow of everlasting holiday (for a sense of what it was like waiting for news of loved ones on active service during the war, Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn takes some beating).

eb046724349a66c2c58b8ddd47576a44Victorian literature, and in particular male Victorian novelists, fetishised long, luxurious female hair to such an extent that it came as quite a surprise to me that not only did many women in the nineteenth century not have hair like Rapunzel but also that short hair was in fashion in the early nineteenth century among radical dissenters and democrats. In the heyday of the Great Victorian Novel, women’s hair is a shortcut (sorry) to character. Dark, flowing locks, untrammelled by pins and an up-do? Think passion, rebellion and (gasp) intelligence. Fair hair, timidly framing the face? A sweet if rather vapid young woman such as Laura Fairlie, heroine of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, where she is contrasted with her black-haired, sallow-skinned half-sister, Marian Halcombe, with her mannish looks and propensity for action. It’s a code that lingers even into the works of Enid Blyton, in which the drippy Anne is blonde and passive while dark-haired Georgina is such a victim of the girls-have-to-simper rule that she breaks out by exploring androgyny (this is just possibly not how I read the Famous Five books when I was small).

Earlier, Jane Austen knew her readers were attuned to the semiotics of hair, and gives us plenty of telling detail. One of the very many things that Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility gets exactly right is the difference between Elinor’s neatly confined hair and the tumbling wind-blown tresses of her sister Marianne. Much of the plot depends upon our understanding that to touch or stroke woman’s hair is an intimate and erotic gesture, so that when Elinor sees Marianne allowing Willoughby to cut off a lock of her hair as a keepsake she takes this as absolute confirmation that the two are engaged to be married. It is this fondling of someone else’s hair that gives such a decadent and disturbing edge to the scene in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in which Miss Havisham – she whose own hair is macabrely decked with withered flowers – ties jewels in Estella’s hair and on her breast before poor Pip’s helpless gaze. Remember Pip is British: it is a wonder that he didn’t just die of embarrassment on the spot (note to readers who are not British: there is something in the British DNA that makes watching an older woman suggestively stroking a young girl not titillating but utterly, toe-curlingly, mortifying).

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Marianne’s lock of hair has literary precedent, of course, and if you have unaccountably not yet got round to reading Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the moment has arrived. Pope’s mock-heroic poem arose out of an incident which threatened to escalate to Capulet/Montagu proportions: an aristocratic young man took it upon himself to snip off a ringlet from the head of his distant cousin, a celebrated beauty whom he was courting. In life, the story does not have a happy ending: Lord Petrie married someone else (great wealth proving even more attractive than great hair) and died of smallpox two years later, aged only twenty-three. But Pope’s poem sparkles and breezes along, joyfully skipping from one hyperbole to the next. His aphorism, ‘Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul’, continues to have much to recommend it and should be on every young man’s reading list before he a-courting goes.

That young man should also bear in mind the good example set him by Shakespeare. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,’ Will tells us, and carries on to say,’ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.’ Oh, you might think, a bit blunt; but that’s the point of glorious Sonnet 130: Shakespeare shuns flattery and shows it up as the empty mockery that it is. Love everything about who your beloved really is, he tells us, and it’s priceless advice. The reference to wires is a technological one, by the way: the fashion of the day was to compare the ideal woman’s hair to finely-spun golden thread or wire. Shakespeare’s is the time when to be blonde is to be, in every sense, fair. Marina Warner’s scholarly study, From the Beast to the Blonde, examines the world of fairy tales and is completely fascinating about our cultural response to hair colour. Long or short, black, brown, red, blonde, green or blue or violet if you really must, grey, silver or white, other people are reading our hair. When you come across descriptions of hair in fiction, just ask yourself why.

You have to admit, a great hairdo

You have to admit, a great hairdo: and we haven’t had an entirely non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

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Week 96: On With the Motley

846361_5ffeed6b6ec847d7a305acdd3116dedf.jpeg_srz_p_198_276_75_22_0.50_1.20_0Last week, the theatre came to town – or to our village at any rate. We were delighted to welcome Paddleboat Theatre to our village picnic, and even more delighted when the sun came out especially for them. Their show, According to Arthur, enthralled an audience of all ages and you could have heard a pin drop – no mean achievement with an age range of three to ninety-three and a splendid Northumbrian propensity for chat. After supper, beds for the night, a frighteningly early breakfast, and advice on how to put oil in a car (should you win the lottery this week, you might like to consider buying them a van), we waved them on their way to the Edinburgh Festival where, I am happy to report, they are taking the infant world by storm (so make sure you go and see them if you are in Edinburgh this month).

Once they had gone, we were happy to fall back on some favourite books to indulge our theatrical leanings. Not, on the whole, actors’ biographies and especially not autobiographies, although they can provide a great deal of unintentional humour. There seems to be an immutable law of the universe that dictates that the greater the acting ability, the blanker the canvas upon which it starts. The ‘my thoughts on acting’ genre can also provide some gems: vying for first place for making the NorthernReader household cry with laughter are Anthony Sher’s The Year of the King and Harriet Walters’ Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting. Most enjoyable of all is Nigel Planer’s sharp-eyed spoof, I, an Actor, purportedly by Nicholas Craig. I would quite like to see this as the end-of-term commemorative volume given to every graduate from drama school.

untitled (11)A love of theatre can – should – start when very small and depends upon grown-ups taking every opportunity to ensure that their darlings experience the immersive joy, fear, wonder and awe of live performance. TAKE THEM TO THE THEATRE. The worst thing that can happen is that they, or you, or even they and you, will be bored for a couple of hours; and there is very little better preparation for adult life that some practice in coping with being bored. And if they should learn to sit still, quietly, for the greater good, you will have done your bit to ensure that posterity is a better-mannered place. And, in between the theatre trips, read books. Here are some.

The Swish of the Curtain is now more than seventy years old, but the story of the Blue Door Theatre Company still engages young readers and makes them urge the characters on to success in the drama contest on which so much depends. Do not watch The Apprentice, which is dreary, soulless and predicated entirely upon the bleak worship of money: read this instead. And if you love it, hurray! There are four further books about the same group of young people. Pamela Brown wrote The Swish of the Curtain when she was fourteen, so the book is also a useful reminder to your offspring that they could be making better use of all this spare time in the summer holidays. And we must have Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes on this week’s shelf. Fear not, loathers of ballet and all things pointy and pirouetty: this deservedly classic tale is about determination, striving and achieving your heart’s desire, whatever that might happen to be.

Get in quickly before the school syllabus ‘does’ – what a doom-laden verb – Shakespeare and puts young people off, sometimes for ever. I loved Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, in which our young hero time-travels (so very much more interestingly than the creepy chap with the wife in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel) and finds himself in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We have talked before about how very good I thought Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare. If for some unaccountable reason you have not yet taken my advice and read it, now is the time. Morgan pulls off that almost impossible trick of populating his story with famous people without making it feel like a Wikipedia extract with added conversation.

They made a film of it

They made a film of it

For a taste of a theatrical world that we have now lost, two books: Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure. Smith’s novel, which, like her completely essential I Capture the Castle, is aimed at young adults (and upwards), is mainly set in the small-company theatrical world in the nineteen-twenties: Bainbridge’s, which draws upon her experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse, is set just after the Second World War. Several of Ngaio Marsh’s murder mysteries are set in the world of the theatre as well, and like Smith and Bainbridge, her books now have a period flavour as well as an assured and detailed understanding of the back-stage world. Try Enter a Murderer, Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin (for some reason that completely escapes me, the last two were published in America as Night at the Vulcan and Killer Dolphin, which, while hilarious, does make me wonder whether her American publishers were involved in a bizarre plot to sabotage her career by ensuring no sales at all).

But to end where we (more or less) began, in Edinburgh at the Festival: do not go without reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Oh wait; I could have ended that sentence sooner: go nowhere without reading Kate Atkinson. But One Good Turn is set at the Festival. It also revisits her compelling detective hero, Jackson Brodie. This has two beneficial consequences for you, dear reader: once gripped, you might as well settle down and read the four novels in which he features (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog). And then you could watch the television dramatisations, starring Jason Isaacs. You can thank me later.

Well, it's been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture

Well, it’s been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture

Week 86: Education, education …

imagesWhen did we start counting everything, and discounting things that can’t be counted? It may be, dearest reader, that you live in a country where education rolls merrily along on the principles that fired up the Enlightenment: exploration, discovery and wonder. Here in Britain – and I know we are not alone – playgroups, nurseries, primary and secondary schools, universities and colleges, have all fallen victim to the glittery-eyed phalanxes of lackeys of the State armed with clipboards. What I have learned this week is that OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – and I defy you to come up with a more meaningless job title than that) costs about £168 million a year. If I had that sort of money to spend on education, my first thought would not be to stagger about making other people’s lives a burden to them and ensuring that school is a stressful and miserable environment for teachers and children alike. In the dreary midst of an interminable election campaign, I’m not sure whether to be glad or sorry that education is not attracting too much fatuous attention from the power-hungry. If only they’d read some good books and dare to think differently.

Most of the education industry at present – oh, yes, it is an industry these days, did no-one tell you? They marched it into the parade ground about twenty years ago, snipped all its professional buttons off and reduced it to the ranks of having to obey orders from people who despise it – most of it seems to be proudly modelling itself on Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. The thing is, OFSTED, that Dickens conjured him up as a savage satire on the repellent regimentation of education. When he made Gradgrind say, ‘Now, what I want is, Facts,’ we were supposed to fall about in appalled laughter, not sit up and take admiring notes. If you haven’t yet, do read Hard Times. It is Dickens at his fiercest and finest (and you can read it for pleasure and not because it is a set text).

How could education be better? Well, I’d be very happy if the way Gerald Durrell was taught could be more of a blueprint. In the sublime My Family and Other Animals, Durrell gives a magical sense of how a gifted tutor guided him into seeing the world as endlessly fascinating and worthy of lifelong enquiry. The ‘Theodore’ of the book was in real life Dr Theodore Stephanides, a Greek poet, scientist, biologist and doctor. He taught young Gerry not by getting out the books and turning relentlessly to Page 6, but by finding out what his pupil was interested in – beetles, mostly, in Durrell’s case – and using that enthusiasm to introduce all the stuff that we need to know in life. For Stephanides and his lucky, lucky, student, there was no such thing as Pure Maths or Pure anything: everything was applied. If I sound envious, it’s because I was taught algebra by someone who, frankly, was terrifying enough to make me let ‘x’ be whatever it wanted to be – but I never knew why. For Durrell, on the other hand, algebra cropped up naturally as a way of working out how long it might take those ants to move all those eggs from a dangerous site to a safe one. Those same ants could be the focus of every subject in the curriculum. Oh yes they could. If you happen to be at a loose end for a few minutes, draw up a curriculum for yourself. The only rules are: pick something, anything, that really interests you; and think of ways you could use that as a focus for every subject you ever did, or are doing, at school. See?

Osbert Sitwell declared that his education happened in the holidays from Eton. He seems to have had much in common with the protagonists of children’s literature. In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, school, as we have noticed in other weeks, is an unfortunate interruption to the real business of learning useful stuff, as it is for Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Even in school stories, from Angela Brazil to the Schoolfriend Annual (cherishable for the adventures of the Silent Three, who all have sensible names like Peggy and BettySilent_three and are awfully good sorts), lessons are little more than a plot device, a hiatus in our hero or heroine’s independent activity. Lessons only get interesting to us, the readers, when the school is for witches (Jill Murphy’s lovely Worst Witch stories) or wizards (HP). We hear little of the lessons at Lowood, the school to which Jane Eyre is packed off, although Charlotte Brontë does give us the satisfactory scene in which the School Inspector, the vile Mr Brocklehurst, is brought to heel by – oh, the irony – another layer of management. Ah, now I see where successive governments have found their whizzo ideas.

Do things get better if you manage to survive school and go to university? We thought about this many months ago (as long ago as Week 2). Alas, I have to break it to you that student life has changed a bit since Brideshead Revisited, even if today’s students do show equally little interest in their academic endeavours. On the bright side, things, especially for women, have improved a bit since Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. But universities, like schools, are now plagued with endless league tables, ratings and petty competitiveness. Oh for a return to the quietly scholarly world Dorothy L Sayers portrays in Gaudy Night. Well, yes, the college is riven with unholy goings-on, but, if we acknowledge that the jealousies and rivalries between academics that she reveals are pretty true to life, can we cling on to the picture of the joys of tranquil research that she also shows?

All is not lost. If you share any of my feelings – sorrow, disappointment, rage – about the education factories we seem to have created, have a look at Slow Education. You never know, you might learn something.

Definitely non-gratuitous

Definitely non-gratuitous

Week 80: Books for Journalists

Journalism-is4-e1373668581362As one of a dazzlingly-rare series of posts which follow on from each other, I thought I might carry on where I left off last week and think about journalists in books. This is not least because I rather yearn for those dear dead days when all a writer had to contend with was a pen or a typewriter: not a laptop which, as the more obsessionally observant among you will have noticed, takes the vows of matrimony very seriously indeed and posted a comment from Mr NorthernReader on last week’s blog as if it came from me, on the grounds that our computers as well as our hearts and minds turn out to be inextricably linked.   I am glad to report that he was right– as always, of course (just call me Katerina and go and enjoy The Taming of the Shrew) – to celebrate Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (whose journalist hero, William Boot, even gave us a blog title way back in Week 6), Wodehouse’s sublime Psmith, Journalist and Andrew Marr’s absorbing My Trade. No aspiring journalist should take another step without getting these three under the belt. And then what?

Well, fewer people have a copy of Michael Ignatieff’s Charlie Johnson in the Flames on their shelves, which I think is a pity. Ignatieff, an historian, philosopher and more recently a liberal politician in his native Canada, lived in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and was a frequent thoughtful contributor to television discussion programmes (this was in the now far-distant days when television did not solely cater to our inner spoilt and fretful six-year-old and occasionally treated us as sentient adults who could cope with the odd moment or two of serious debate). He is a fiercely articulate champion for human rights and especially the right not to feel frightened and threatened. Subtle and nuanced, his writing on international politics continues to adapt and respond as the world mood darkens. I urge you to read Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience: informed by his experiences in the Balkans and Kosovo, but also encompassing the horrors of Rwanda, it goes behind the particular to the essential moral questions. Put it on your shelf next to Adam Nicolson’s fabulous The Mighty Dead and consider the antiquity and perseverance of violence.

Ignatieff currently holds the Edward R Murrow Chair of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. That’s quite some job title – I can only imagine his office door (possibly with a fold-out flap to accommodate it all) – but any reminder of Murrow is good enough for me. If you haven’t, settle down to watch Goodnight, and Good Luck, a film which explores the troubled relationship between press freedom and the state. Sounds a bit

This is entirely non-gratuitous

This is entirely non-gratuitous

worthy? Let me try again. Watch Goodnight, and Good Luck. It was written and directed by George Clooney who also stars in it (as Murrow’s co-producer: David Strathairn plays Murrow and jolly good he is too). Murrow was a seriously good thing in a naughty world. A passionate believer in the power and the responsibility of broadcast journalism, he became famous for his radio news broadcasts during World War II before moving into television, where he was at the forefront of the struggle to overcome Senator Joseph McCarthy and his deranged and destructive works. Murrow was a byword for honesty and integrity and a good candidate for patron saint of journalists. If you happen to be a journalist, print or broadcast, and your owners are requiring you to tell what you know not to be the truth or you consider not to be the best that you could do to inform and empower your audience, pause a moment and ask yourself, ‘what would Ed Morrow have done?’

Fearless, determined and questing for truth (although very rarely doing any actual reporting), the best-known journalist in fiction is probably Tintin. Together with his deeply adorable little dog (Milou originally, but Snowy in English-language versions), our young hero sent his first despatches from The Land of the Soviets in 1929. His creator, Georges Prosper Remi – known, of course, as Hergé – very properly tried to make Tintin the medium, not the message, and deliberately drew him as near to a blank as was possible, suggesting that the good journalist is without personality, biography or, indeed, personal interest to his reader: what matters, or what should matter, is the story he has to tell.

Anna_Politkovskaja_im_Gespräch_mit_Christhard_LäppleOr, of course, she. While in what we laughingly call real life some of the very greatest journalists have been women – Martha Gellhorn, Victoria Guerin, Anna Politkovskaya – fiction has served us less well. Lois Lane, anyone? Or Carrie-whatever-her-name-is in the deeply demeaning Sex and the City? (and if anyone ever told you that that little lot was somehow empowering and a bastion of feminism; darling, they were putting you down with their sniggering voyeuristic point of view). I’d rather re-read Monica Dickens’ My Turn to Make the Tea, not least for its chronicling of a vanished world of typewriters and local reporters.

Three more. The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins reminds us what a useful profession investigative journalism can be for the hero of your crime novel. On the Booker Prize shortlist in 2000, it’s a cracking read. And no journalists’ bookshelf should be without Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, even if only as a reminder of the sheer mind-numbing boredom of what you thought would be a glamorous profession. It says much that the book was published in America as Against Entropy. But today of all days, as we stand back and watch Vladimir Putin throw up his little hands in horror and wonder aloud how it could possibly be that Boris Nemtsov, the man who dared to speak out against him, has been gunned down; today is the day to read David Hare and Howard Brenton’s play, Pravda. It means ‘truth’, and is therefore, of course, a savage and despairing satire. Goodnight, and good luck, indeed.549213

Week 78: Welshness

gan-bwyll-a-siarad-cymraegOnce upon a time the NorthernReader household was located in Wales. Indeed, KatePonders was born there. If you are not fortunate enough to live here in the debateable lands between England and Scotland, I can heartily recommend Wales to you as an alternative: beautiful countryside, not too full, and lovely, lovely people. Only don’t call them Welsh, which means, depending on who you ask, barbarian, savage or slave. Remember your manners and call them Cymraeg, which means The People. You can see for yourself which might get your conversation off on a better foot. This weekend, our very good friends from the Land-of-their-Fathers-and-you-could-do-a-lot-worse have travelled up to stay with us: partly, of course, for the pleasure of our company, but also because we are all marauding northwards on Sunday to the Scotland/Wales rugby match at Murrayfield. You and I have talked before about what it means to be Scottish, and what Scotland has contributed to (in no particular order) the bookshelf, the country (that’s the United Kingdom, Mr Salmond) and the world: so now might be a good moment to consider Wales – I mean Cymru (very easy language to get your head around once you have grasped that Y sounds like UH and U sounds like EE: and there has to be some cachet in being able to say even a few words in what is said to be both the oldest language in Europe and the language of Heaven).

It might be that Dylan Thomas comes first to mind: orotund, lyrical and visionary, his poems demand reading aloud. I have previously suggested that you listen to Richard Burton, that great spoiled talent, in Under Milk Wood: I do hope you did so – if not, off you go. But there are other Thomases worth reading. Here are two. RS Thomas – Ronald to his friends – learned Welsh too late in life, by his own assessment, to write poetry in it, and therefore found himself in the quite strange position of writing in English while fiercely criticising the Anglicisation of his beloved home country. Thomas was a priest in the Church in Wales, and his poems are resonant with his sense of spirituality and religion as well as the rich landscapes and characters of Wales. He was beyond question one of the very best poets of the twentieth century. Try the elegant simplicity of ‘A Marriage’, or the bitter bleakness – very much his distinctive note – of ‘The Welsh Hill Country’.

AntHop-lowMy other Thomas for you is the writer, columnist, broadcaster and critic, Gwyn Thomas. Born in the same year (1913) as RS Thomas, but less long-lived, he was the child of the South Wales Valleys. His novels, short stories, essays and articles exactly capture the life of the mining communities in the Depression and beyond, into the postwar years. Self-deprecating and wryly humorous, he is a treat to read, and you can catch up with Anthony Hopkins’ wonderful portrayal of him in Selected Exits, a BBC drama some twenty years old now which was based on Thomas’s memoir A Few Selected Exits.

Two more poets, but of a different time. George Herbert has a lot in common with RS Thomas, being a Welsh-born Anglophone, an Anglican priest and a metaphysical, deeply spiritual poet; but his poems are considerably less pessimistic and grim. Every poem that survives (he was writing in the early seventeenth century and died in 1633) is on a devotional theme. Shortly before his death, he founded the religious community at Little Gidding that was later to influence the thinking and writing of TS Eliot. Herbert’s near-contemporary, Henry Vaughan, came through Cromwell’s Republican years but suffered losses, not least, perhaps, of simple-minded adherence to a cause. Ostensibly a Royalist, his poems reflect a deeply-felt (and entirely justifiable) contempt for all authority and the endless cycle of people struggling for power, gaining power and then cracking on with the same regime of intolerance, repression and beastliness as the previous lot. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? Another good reason to add Henry Vaughan to this week’s shelf.

Going back somewhat further, we come to Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis to his Latin-reading contemporaries and Gerallt Gymro to his Welsh relatives: ah, when I said earlier what a piece of cake Welsh is, I should perhaps have mentioned that it is one of those humdingers of a language that mutates at the front depending on the case: fun, huh?). Gerald was of mixed Norman and Welsh heritage but very sensibly stressed his Norman connections in order to Get On in life. A cleric and chaplain to Henry II, Gerald found himself accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury on a tour of Wales in 1188, which he wrote up some years later as Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae. Fear not, Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, translated by the great Betty Radice, is a most entertaining Penguin paperback, not least because Gerald is a world-class moaner, always ready with something snipey to say about everywhere he goes and everyone he meets. The ideal travel writer, really.

another in our GREAT series of completely non-gratuitous illustrations

another in our GREAT series of completely non-gratuitous illustrations

But before you get carried away with the idea that Wales is entirely – or even faintly – a land of mists and legends, all Arthur and Pendragons, we had better add its current flowering as the home of hugely enjoyable BBC drama to our idea of what it is to be Welsh. Andrew Davies, who brought you the entirely perfect dramatization of Pride and Prejudice, as well as Little Dorrit and the screenplay for Bridget Jones, and Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk and breather of new life into Doctor Who, can wear their ddraig goch (look it up) with pride.

So as you read this, think of us as we head up the A68 – the best, most heart-lifting road in Britain, feverishly trying to remember the words to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau while – because I have a Welsh-born daughter but Scottish ancestry – humming Flower of Scotland and wearing my thistle earrings with pride. Put it this way: this is rugby match I can’t lose.

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Week 74: Books for Procrastinators

iStock_000011145477Large_mini_(1)Those of you whose Sunday morning is made by the safe arrival of the weekly NorthernReader post (well, a girl can dream) will have noticed that it has taken me until Monday to get round to this week’s deathless prose. Sorry about that. I would love to thrill you with tales of earth-shatteringly important things that have come between us for more than twenty four hours, but the simple truth is that I didn’t get round to writing until this afternoon. Yes, Sloth, my favourite Deadly Sin, has wrapped its languorous arms around me. At least I am in distinguished, if tardy, company. I think AA Milne’s sailor, who, as you will recall, had so many things to do that he couldn’t decide which one to do first (sound familiar?) and in the end did nothing at all ‘but basked in the shingle wrapped up in a shawl’ could gain a serious following as a patron saint, if only he could get round to filling in the necessary forms. Or perhaps I can have Cassandra Mortmain’s novelist father as my role model: you remember him in Dodie Smith’s utterly essential I Capture the Castle, forever putting off starting the sequel to his monumental novel, Jacob Wrestling (of course I do have to face the fact that I have not quite knuckled down to writing my first Monumental Novel, but clearly that can only be a matter of time …). Better Mortmain than Baudelaire, anyway, whose reputation as a first-class procrastinator is a bit too closely linked to his equally well-deserved reputation for being a spoilt dilettante and an enemy of democracy. An interesting, if unlikeable, chap, Baudelaire: he seems principally to have stirred himself solely to scandalise, outrage or annoy other people, which, while possibly admirable in terms of flying the flag for free speech, must have been tiresome and was certainly unkind. Je Suis Charlie, yes, but je ne suis pas Charlie Baudelaire for absolute preference.

Or how about Harper Lee as our poster-girl for procrastination? One novel in 1960, and since then, more or less, the rest is silence, as another great procrastinator would have it. That one novel though, was To Kill a Mockingbird, and if you haven’t read it, do so without further delay. It takes you by the heart with its limpid simplicity and will stay with you for ever.

As the years trot ever more swiftly by, I might prefer to find my heroes and heroines among the late starts in life. Let us refuse to be discouraged by the Mozarts who are fully into the swing of things before they lose their milk teeth. Not for us this week, delicious though it undoubtedly is, Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, written when the author was nine years old. We shall not even be crushed by the tendency of reviewers, critics and Granta to regard forty as the threshold of advanced old age – even odder now that most forty-year-olds are still in thrall to their PlayStations and are only reluctantly moving into long trousers and books without pictures. Daniel Defoe, who as you know I claim as a friend of the family (a few generations back, you understand), published Robinson Crusoe when he was – and this is the really, really important thing – older than me. And Mary Wesley, a really fabulously acute and quietly moving novelist, first burst into print when she was seventy (Jumping the Queue: compellingly heart-breaking and at least as good as The Camomile Lawn which should also be on anyone’s reading list). Raymond Chandler had blown out fifty candles on a single cake before he published The Big Sleep; so had Bram Stoker when he came up with Dracula. Marian Evans, or George Eliot as we know her, started as a mere stripling at forty with Adam Bede, waiting until she was in her fifties before writing many people’s candidate for Greatest Novel Ever, Middlemarch. And Giacomo Casanova only began thinking about writing his memoirs – so very much more entertaining than most – when he was well into his sixties.

My goodness, it's been far too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

My goodness, it’s been far too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

So it seems there is hope for all us slaves to slothfulness. And, frankly, how very much more tempting it is to be louche, lazy and laid-back than earnestly buzzing about. No-one could be more admiring than I am of my lots-of-greats grandfather who was, from earliest youth, amanuensis to Isaac Watts, but I do rather hope that he was out of the room when Watts came up with ‘How doth the little busy bee/ Improve each shining hour/And gather honey all the day/ From every opening flower’, which makes one want to rise from one’s couch of lassitude and stamp firmly on the nauseatingly self-righteous bee. Samuel Johnson’s 134th essay for The Rambler is on procrastination. You will have noticed the tell-tale ‘134th’ which somewhat gives the lie to the great man’s claim to have been dogged by sloth and the putting off of things all his life. Oh to suffer from Johnson’s procrastination. You will like the pleasing irony that he wrote that particular essay in tearing haste while the boy waited for it to get it to the press before the deadline. Ah yes, deadlines: in the late and permanently-lamented Douglas Adams’ immortal phrase, ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ I’ll be back on track next Sunday. Promise.

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Week 62: Ghost Stories

Not too scary

Not too scary

All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Eve. Hallowe’en. Or, with the directness for which the North East is rightly famous, Spook Night. With the clocks going back, this is the beginning of the dark months. In times gone by, our ancestors lit fires and celebrated Samhain, which like so many Celtic words, is not pronounced as it looks and is probably nothing to do with the rather earnest festivities laid on by modern-day pagans (as mostly harmless people from Brighton with time on their hands like to be called). The fire and the fireworks have shifted a few days to mark Guy Fawkes’ Day in England, and Hallowe’en has on the whole become another shopping opportunity based on ill-understood American customs and, I’m afraid, greed. But as we start to draw the curtains at tea-time, light the wood-burner and settle down for cosy winter evenings in, what could be more cheering than some properly flesh-creeping horror?

No self-respecting bookshelf should be without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget Lon Chaney and staggering around with a bolt through the neck. Among the very many pleasures of reading the book is the sisterly knowledge that it is said to be the product of Mary listening quietly to Percy B and his chum Lord Byron drone on about how marvellously they would write such a story: she then popped upstairs and, unlike the chaps, sat down and wrote the definitive myth-creating novel that defines the Gothic. That showed them. It really is an extraordinary book, poised on the brink of a new age of science and deeply concerned with how we use our new-found understanding. The questions it explores remain piercingly relevant and we would do well to insist that every scientist, and certainly every politician (the ones that can read, anyway), study it very carefully indeed.

Oh, go on then, let’s have Dracula as well. Bram Stoker has much to answer for, not least bequeathing us – and especially the good citizens of Whitby – generations of whey-faced young people drooping around in black clothes and uncomfortable piercings. But the book itself has more merit than that, not least in perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of 1897, the year in which it was published, when Sigmund Freud began his self-analysis, and our sub-conscious minds were hauled out of the shadows and the way back was barred (you freudwill recall Anita Loos’s wonderful Lorelei Lee – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a must-read – being encouraged by Dr Froyd to develop some inhibitions).

Only a year after Dracula first saw – well, ‘the light of day’ might not be the happiest phrase in this context – Henry James played with our minds and undermined our certainties in his compelling novella, The Turn of the Screw. It is fabulously unsettling because it refuses ever to let us decide on a single fixed meaning for it. It gives us joyful literary theorists great pleasure, enabling us to chant our battle cry, ‘meanings are not fixed, or singular, and they can be ambiguous and even contradictory’. And Benjamin Britten’s opera is thrilling, chilling and eerie: like James’s book, it perfectly captures Freud’s idea of unheimlich, the uncanny, the ruling passion of this time of ghouls and ghosts.

The Goths spent a thousand years or so, from perhaps the third to the tenth century and beyond, happily pottering around huge swathes of Europe developing their undoubted talent for laying waste and fighting. At various times, they had a crack at the Roman Empire, the Huns, the Franks and the Moors. As the Geats of Scandinavia, they can register a claim to be the people of Beowulf, and thus enable us to indulge in the joys of re-reading Seamus Heaney’s great translation. But they are not otherwise hugely well-known for their literary bent, which makes it perhaps mildly surprising that, from Horace Walpole onwards, we have appropriated the term ‘Gothic’ to mean melodramatically romantic. This, of course, is where we came in, with Mr and Mrs Shelley and the boys in the Romantic band. Time, then, to add Jane Austen’s delicious Northanger Abbey to this week’s shelf as a helpful antidote to sensational excess. Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is a poppet, and only seventeen, making her longing for the squalid discomforts of mediaeval living almost forgiveable. We can perhaps take Austen’s cheerful practicality with us to temper the marvellous horrors of Angela Carter’s darkly gothic tales in The Bloody Chamber.

completely non-gratuitous

completely non-gratuitous

Will you be lighting the new darkness with a Jack o’Lantern? I have it on good authority that the carving of vegetables to put a candle inside them and make sinister flickering faces is an English tradition, and originally involved turnips and swedes. This is yet another awe-inspiring example of the hardiness and fortitude of the English, because, trust me, turnip-whittling is jolly hard work. How our lives have been improved, in this and in one or two other instances, by the adoption of American habits. Pumpkins are a cinch to hack away at, and a delicious conserve can be made with the resulting pile of golden flesh (think sugar, fresh ginger and lemons). Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, unites ghosts, pumpkins and headless horsemen in a highly satisfactory way.

But tonight the wind is wuthering around the house and the candles are flickering. Was that a creak upon the stair? Put away Elizabeth Taylor’s haunting story, ‘Poor Girl’: leave Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, Macbeth and Richard III – so many ghosts!- for now: turn away, even, from the Border Ballads – yes, even Kate Rusby singing ‘The Unquiet Grave’. Snuggle up in bed with PG Wodehouse’s ghost story, ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have learned that Wittgenstein rated it as the funniest thing he’d ever read. Any fears of things that go bump in the night are at once vanquished by picturing the great, but not necessarily uproarious, philosopher, laughing his socks off.