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 113: Flat

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

I have spent the last few weeks, which have felt like geological eras, edging towards selling a flat.  No, despite what our current Beloved Leader’s sidekick would have you believe, this does not mean that I am Rachman reincarnated, leafing through my property portfolio in the Bond-like fastnesses of NorthernReader Towers.  I had a small lump sum and, in the absence of any pension (too young – hurrah – for a state one and too female to have ever been offered a private one) a flat seemed like a slightly better return on capital than, say, a bank account (if only bonuses, and indeed salaries, were capped to the interest rates these people offer).  It also offered the humble pleasures of drastically improving Britain’s housing stock, one flat at a time, and being a model landlord.  Just call me Pollyanna (so much less rude than ‘poor deluded fool’).  What has actually kneaded the iron deep into my soul, however, has been the managing agents who, as the same unsavoury individuals but wearing a multiplicity of hats, hold the freehold, act as their own surveyors, do their own conveyancing, and (don’t) maintain and run the building.  Dante, thou shouldst be living at this hour, because managing agents are a sub-species below even estate agents, bankers and politicians.  Enough of the brutalities of real life; how about flats in fiction?

Strangely enough, none of the occupants of literature’s flats and apartments seem cursed with managing agents.  The male of the species is often attended by a housekeeper (Sherlock Holmes’s Mrs Hudson) or a valet (Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion with the disreputable Lugg; Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves).  Male detectives, it seems, are irresistibly drawn to the flat as an address (yes, I know Bertie isn’t a detective, unless of course you count – as you should – his triumphant work in the Case of Aunt Agatha’s Pearls aka ‘Aunt Agatha Takes the Count’ in Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves).  Hercule Poirot is another denizen of an apartment block, relying on George for sustenance and clean socks.  I cannot think of a single example of a chap who fends for himself in a flat,221b or one whose narrative trajectory is marked by such mundanities as popping to the shops or doing the washing up.  Several of the males of the flat-dwelling species do, however, display a keen interest in the nicer points of interior design – not Holmes, obviously, but Wimsey favours a terrifically modish primrose-and-black scheme at one point and Poirot prides himself on manifesting le dernier cri of Art Deco (and jolly uncomfortable and foreign it is all made to sound).

Flats occupied by women in fiction cover a wider social range, but all, I think, are meant to give us some sense of the freedom that can be enjoyed by a woman living in a city.  While the flats themselves may vary from the steamy bed-sits of John Betjeman and Edna O’Brien territory to the fabulous luxury of Delysia Lafosse’s love-nest in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, they all offer the promise of a life less ordinary and, in particular, of a life not spent darning a man’s socks.  Virginia Woolf quite rightly identifies a woman’s need for A Room of One’s

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Own before she can find  a sense of self; how very much more the autonomy of a woman with a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom (and, be it noted as an advantage of flat-dwelling for people with better things to do, no garden).  I’m not sure that the physical structure of the building is ever specified, but Mary Smiling’s home in Cold Comfort Farm simply must be a flat, albeit a sumptuously huge one (all those brassieres), because to Flora Poste and to us the widowed Mrs Smiling is the embodiment of a certain sort of freedom, which comes entirely  – ah, the wise Jane Austenishness of it! – from her possession of a good fortune and her consequent total absence of need for a husband.  What a bore sex is, Stella Gibbons implies (your age and your inclinations will tend to colour your response); poor old Flora, economically and hormonally driven to end up dwindling into a wife (and if by chance you haven’t read Congreve’s The Way of the World, now is the moment: if only I’d remembered it in time for last month’s NorthernReader Book Club, when we talked about the books we would like to make the film of).

Apartments lived in by women on their own do bring with them – in fiction, I hasten to add, not in life – the dubious aura of being a Kept Woman.  Think of Linda’s beautiful flat in Paris, in which she is installed (why is ‘installed’, with its overtones of plumbing, always the word used for a mistress?) by the great love of her life on Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (still perfect, and perfectly heart-breaking, at the millionth time of reading).

Modern urban living, whether in London, New York, Paris or Edinburgh, has made flat-dwellers of nearly all of us at one time or another in our lives.  The sad truth is that we usually have not the remotest idea who our neighbours might be, as our lives slide past each other like immutable planets.  It should not be like this, and Alexander McCall Smith offers us a vision of a better world in which flats – 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh and Corduroy Mansions in Pimlico – form vertical villages, where no man or woman is an island and every neighbour, like it or not, is involved in mankind.

But not, of course, managing agents, for whom no bell could toll more cheerily when the time comes.vampire-staked-through-the-heart

Week 104: Vain Trifles

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)2006AH5344_jpg_ds

What the world sees of me in my NorthernReader incarnation is a fairly unvarying uniform of what are known in this house, with grateful acknowledgements to Nancy and Peggy Blackett of Swallows and Amazons fame, as Comfortables. It has not always been thus and clothing freedom is not the least of my Reasons To Be Cheerful these days. An infancy of knitted things was subsumed into a school uniform of Byzantine complexity involving different hats for all seasons and summer frocks with buttons at the front and bows – large lumpy clumsily-tied bows that ground their fists into you just where spine met unrelenting chair – at the back. As a drama student, I spent three insouciant years in a fetching ensemble of black leotard and footless tights (what were we thinking) before becoming engulfed by the City of London. Think BIG: shoulders, hair – it was not a good time and I have burned the photos. I am still sufficiently prey to social mores to own a black coat, funerals for the use of; two pairs of heels (see Week 69 for why I will never need more), and a proper grown-up frock just in case the moment arises. But by and large we do not march to the tune of any ‘dress code’.

imagesYHGBE8FXHow unlike so many fictional worlds. Virginia Woolf, provider of this week’s title, had a keen eye for class difference demonstrated by clothes: Mrs Dalloway’s gorgeous ‘silver-green mermaid’s dress’, for example, serves not least to mark her out as spectacularly cocooned by wealth and privilege. But Woolf knew that we read clothes, in life and in books, to infer so much more than status. If you haven’t read Orlando, what a treat you have in store and I do not wish to spoil it for you by giving too much away, but clothes most definitely maketh the man. Or woman.

Realising the clothes the characters would be wearing can bring so much to our perception and enjoyment of a novel. To see Jane Austen’s world through her first readers’ eyes, I heartily recommend John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?, not least for his thoughtful chapter on clothes. Her plots are surprisingly often jostled along by death, and many of her characters would therefore be wearing full mourning while going to balls and flirting: a jarring dissonance more obvious to those early-nineteenth-century readers than to us. Austen doesn’t tell us, because she wants us to be unsettled by our not-knowing: when Frank Churchill is flirting his socks off, is he wearing full mourning (shockingly inappropriate)? Or has he instantly ditched the black (equally gasp-making)? Either answer tells us volumes about Frank, and clever Jane leaves both in play, doubling our feeling that Frank is not ideal husband material for Emma.

7e87dba5a205e19ea7b9c591edf94559For worldly vanity, froth and the emptiness thereof, we cannot do better than turn to the wonderful Edith Wharton. I confess it took me half a lifetime (and that might be an optimistic calculation) to get round to reading her. I think I expected her to be heavy and dull (I fell into this trap with her friend Henry James as well and was wrong there too). The House of Mirth shows us an early-twentieth-century Jane Austen on acid. The juxtaposition is deliberate: if Austen’s genius lies in teetering along the edge of the precipice between comedy and tragedy but somehow achieving happy-ever-afterdom, Wharton is her dark twin, sparkling her way towards catastrophe. The heroine of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is the dazzlingly-arrayed victim of a ruthless society in which – ah, Austen again – a girl’s only chance of financial security lies in marrying well. Let’s have Wharton’s The Custom of the Country on this week’s bookshelf while we’re about it: when I tell you that Margaret Drabble, no less, describes this wickedly perceptive tale of social observation as ‘one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written’, how can you resist? And the clincher is that Wharton’s heroine is called Undine Spragg. Admit it; you simply have to read on.

If all these frocks and petticoats are a bit too much for you, we could always turn to the chaps for a sterner and more utilitarian approach to costume. Perhaps we should let Robinson Crusoe set the standard with his detailed instructions for making goatskin breeches (first catch your goat …). In no time at all, he has added a goatskin waistcoat and a goatskin umbrella to what must have been a jolly striking outfit. A far cry from theuntitled (8) Mayor of Gloucester’s fripperies, who, as you remember, is to be married in ‘a coat of cherry-coloured corded silk embroidered with pansies and roses, and a cream coloured satin waistcoat – trimmed with gauze and green worsted chenille.’ Like Miss Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies intoxicated with lettuce, I could drown in the heady poetics of all those fabric words and long (provided someone else was doing the ironing) for the days of paduasoy and taffeta.

But for the last word in gents’ outer wear we must turn, of course, to the Collected Works of PG Wodehouse. It’s hard to pick a definitive World of Wodehouse costume: from the dandified Psmith to the Earl of Emsworth forced into top hats and stiff collars, from Psmith’s friend Mike, a sort of walking rag-bag, to the unlovely Spode in his black shorts (all shirt colours having been bagged by other Fascists quicker off the sartorial mark), there is no character in the whole pantheon who is not deftly brought to life by his clothes.

untitled (7)Which brings us, of course, to Jeeves. Bertie Wooster’s man, minder, guardian angel , father figure and, untiringly, clothes editor. ‘”There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” “The mood will pass, sir.”’ I think we can safely conclude that Jeeves would not have been happy as valet to the Mayor of Gloucester.

PS   This month’s NorthernReader Book Club is on Friday February 19th and we will be sharing our favourite heroes, heroines and villains.  Pop across to the Book Club page for details and do come if you can.

Week 95: The Body Count

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untitled (5)Why are we, like Webster (you know your TS Eliot), so much possessed by death? Not the slow decline of inevitable ageing and mortality, which is the unavoidable fate of us all and which we refuse to acknowledge, contemplate or come to terms with, but violent death. In 2013, when the population of England and Wales was fifty three and a half million, there were five hundred and fifty one murders. Or, in other words, you are infinitely more likely to win the Lottery (always worth looking on the bright side, I find, even if only to fill in the time until we die; which will not be at the hands of others).

Yet murder forms the staple of television drama. Otherwise perfectly pleasant people who have a tendency to recoil squeamishly at the traumatic idea of squashing a wasp wade knee-deep in gore as they settle down on the sofa in the evening. It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the housing market in the Cotswolds has remained so buoyant, what with all those serial killers portrayed in Morse, Lewis, Endeavour (mostly melodramatic if well-acted should you not have seen this prequel series) and Midsomer Murders (purest ham and suggesting that south Oxfordshire is in the grip of a population decimation not seen since the Black Death). We particularly enjoy sitting unmoved and supine before tales of serial killers: indeed, in the implicit league table of murderers, there is something a bit namby-pamby and not-really-trying about the villain who only kills once.

These crimes – which I do rather hope would produce a more empathetic, not to say wildly hysterical, response in what we laughingly call real life – have literary form. Cain, of course; a tale told with admirable brevity in Genesis: and after him, a grand parade of the vengeful, the greedy, the psychotic and the frankly panic-stricken. Snuggle down in your staggeringly safe home and enjoy.

IPhone pics Nov 13 005Shakespeare, who lived in a rougher world more prone to using its fists and knives, gives us Macbeth – a terribly plausible decent chap who plummets into an unstoppable chain of murders and loses his soul in the process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but far, far, darker – although now I think of it I quite fancy Mickey Mouse as the Scottish King). And, what with being a man of his time and all that, Shakespeare also gives us Lady M, whose fault it all is. It’s that pesky double X chromosome, you see. Did you know that the most popular topic for carving onto the elaborate marriage-beds of the sixteenth-century rich was Adam and Eve? The point, dear newly-married couple, is not so much the blissful existence in Paradise, but the Awful Warning that Eve rocked up in Adam’s comfy homosocial world – just him and, well, Him – and ruined everything. Girls, hey? One of the great triumphs of the Enlightenment is that, in patches and in places, we have, at least from time to time, moved on.

My goodness, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really had a problem with women. When they’re not the sexually voracious evil villains of the piece – try Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling or Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil – they are being murdered on stage in such numbers that I can’t help thinking that the writers had spotted exactly what sells tickets: yup, our old friends sex-and- death, with women as the she-probably-deserved-it fetchingly draped body (we will have a crack at getting our heads round the fact that the bodies in question were boys in frocks another day). Have things, in books at least, changed? Let’s have some murders on this week’s bookshelf.

No self-respecting crime library should be without representative texts from Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and (plonking prose but rattling plots) Agatha Christie. Ah, feminist revenge: weary with being the victim, women rose up and wrote the stuff themselves. It just crosses my mind to wonder (I offer it as a PhD topic should no-one have got there first) whether women writers kill off more chaps. And we must have EC Bentley’sTrent’s Last Case, if only because it is always spoken of as a classic of the genre so we look a bit awkward if we’ve never read it (I don’t know that it’s the most gripping thing that I’ve ever read, but it’s good). Raymond Chandler is another sine qua non, even if you will frequently have no idea what is going on (nor did he, apparently). It is a pleasing coincidence that the two greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century went to the same school – Dulwich College, and the other is, as of course you know, PG Wodehouse, whose murder mysteries, had he written any, would have been byzantinely plotted and shimmerlingly narrated (oh come on, Sebastian Faulks: a clear and obvious next best-seller for you).

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody's guess

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody’s guess

Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, successfully created an entirely believable world in her twenty or more Brother Cadfael books. As murders, especially murders in fiction, go, they are lightly drawn and it is unlikely that you will have nightmares. Their quality lies in the skill with which she breathed life into her twelfth century monk, his friends, colleagues and enemies, and the streets, manors, hovels and fields of Shrewsbury and Shropshire. There have been many – hordes – of imitators, all of which seem to me to fall at the first hurdle of failing to digest their research before regurgitating it into their narratives. If you think you have an historical novel in you, (a) think again and (b) read Ellis Peters very carefully and thoughtfully before you begin (but unless you are Jude Morgan, (a) will still be the correct answer).

The other series which I heartily recommend is Donna Leon’s Brunetti novels. Over the last twenty years or so, Ms Leon, an American living in Venice, has mined deeper and deeper into the politics and psyche of contemporary Italy via the medium of her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. It is worth, should you not have come across them, starting at the beginning with Death at La Fenice, which is a competently plotted crime novel with the ravishing setting of La Serenissima and a detective who arrives fully-formed into the canon of crime fiction. But keep reading; it feels as if Leon has grown in scope and confidence, and the later novels are dark, disturbing (this is a recommendation, by the way) and have profound things to say about the state of Europe today.

 

Of those British murders, incidentally, forty-four involved guns. I just mention this in case anyone from the gun lobby in the USA might have dropped by.untitled (7)

Week 89: He Do the Police in Different Voices

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It’s been a trying week, watching and – even worse – listening to grown men and women squirm and cavort in the increasingly desperate hope that they might inspire us to like them, or perhaps pity them, enough to vote for them. What with one chap deciding that suit jackets are some sort of symbol of oppressive tyranny, making shirt sleeves a uniform regardless of the weather (I don’t know about you, but I’m not casting any clouts just yet), and another bloke inflicting an excruciatingly awkward Dick Van Dyke sound-alike audition on us when he grovelled round a multi-millionaire middle-aged and somewhat bafflingly self-appointed representative of Youth, it’s all been a bit demeaning. I’m afraid the answer to the question, ‘just how stupid do they think the electorate are?’ is pretty clear. So I thought we might turn away from the hurly-burly of the hustings and give some thought to the uses of disguise.

This week’s title comes, as you well know, from Charles Dickens via TS Eliot. Dickens coined it in Our Mutual Friend to describe Betty Higden’s son (rather splendidly known as Sloppy, as if he were a prototype for Wodehouse) and his talent for reading out the lurid bits in the newpapers; and Eliot borrowed it as the working title for what he later decided to call The Waste Land instead. Eliot’s poem is a fabulous patchwork of different voices, colliding, overlapping, coming in from nowhere. If you haven’t read it, or at least not for a while, rush off and do so now, preferably aloud, and, now that you are not in school and it is not a menacing set text, find all the humour and zest lurking within it. Eliot was not necessarily everyone’s idea of the perfect dinner-party guest – not often given to having the table in stitches – but as well as the undeniably austere philosophy and the rigorously scholarly breadth of his cultural references, he was not unaware of the divine comedy of human existence. Try The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock if you don’t believe me.

I have NO IDEA who this could be

I have NO IDEA who this could be

Some disguises in fiction are, we are told, amazingly effective. Sherlock Holmes, for example, can baffle everyone around him – and especially, of course, Dr Watson, Baldrick to Holmes’s Blackadder – with his ability to metamorphose into – gosh! – a working class person. Poor old Mrs. Hudson, ironing the plumber’s outfit after Holmes comes back from a tiring day righting wrongs (or, of course, stalking people. It all depends on your perspective). At a slightly more sophisticated level, the basic premise behind GK Chesterton’s detective, Father Brown, is that we automatically presume that a bumbling Catholic priest must be too simple and unworldly to unravel the cynical heart of the villainous mysteries he stumbles across. His biretta works as a constant disguise, on the same lines as Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant understanding of where the best place might be to hide The Purloined Letter. Graham Greene develops the idea in The Power and the Glory, and the Whisky Priest is just one of Greene’s flawed heroes whose greatness and courage is disguised, not least from themselves. Greene and Eliot knew and liked each other, incidentally, and were profound admirers of each other’s work. I remain unconvinced that that dinner party I am constructing in my mind would go with more of a swing if they were both invited, nonetheless.

Setting aside all the metaphorical ways in which characters in fiction (and indeed in what we laughingly call real life) disguise their true nature – and Jane Austen is the Mistress of Metaphorical Disguise – a change of costume and some greasepaint can shove the plot forward a treat. Would Mr Rochester ever have got round to declaring his feelings for Jane if he hadn’t happened to have a complete Gypsy Woman outfit knocking around? And doesn’t it say a lot for Jane that, on discovering that the man of her dreams is an occasional cross-dresser, she takes it awfully well? What with that, the endless lying and smirking secrecy and – oh yes! – not just common-or-garden adultery or even attempted bigamy, but actually keeping the present Mrs Rochester in the attic, perhaps Jane is setting her standards just a little bit low. Apart from anything else, I suspect that Rochester’s disguise is on a par with Violet-Elizabeth Bott’s Beatle wig in Richmal Crompton’s unmissable Just William stories (or, indeed, when a temporary and very muddy incarnation as a squaw in William’s tribe renders her unrecognisable to her own father).

untitled (22)Which brings me to the finest disguiser of them all. Should Martin Jarvis ever feel a bit down in the dumps and wonder what it’s all for, I hope he will take comfort from the hordes and legions of his admirers, whose lives have been made that little bit sparklier by his readings of Just William. And, if you are familiar with those, rush out now and acquaint yourself with Mr Jarvis bringing all PG Wodehouse’s characters to life on CD. Yes, that’s right, all of them. Once heard, never forgotten. Some people suffer from voices in the head (known in the NorthernReader household as Joan of Arc syndrome), and jolly miserable it probably is for them. Others, more fortunate, simply have Martin Jarvis being Aunt Agatha, or Jeeves, or Violet-Elizabeth, giving command performance for their (inner) ear only. Add Alan Bennett as Eeyore and you will never again question the truth that radio is the medium of choice.

And the good news? Readers-who-are-voters-in-the-UK-General-Election, the end – one way or the other – is nigh. My advice for Thursday night would be to go to bed early with a good book.

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PS You might think us gluttons for punishment, but the next NorthernReader Book Club is going to talk about POLITICS. Eleven o’clock in the morning on Thursday 14th May (see the Book Club page for how to find us). There will be cake. Now, why don’t more politicians use that simple and persuasive phrase?

Week 83: Funny Girl

article-0-12FB462D000005DC-674_306x501I have been the recipient of a whole range of surprises this week, thanks to the Forum Cinema in sunny Hexham (sunny enough to see and enjoy the eclipse on Friday). The streaming of the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake from Covent Garden undermined my life-long belief that I do not like ballet. Romeo and Juliet eat your heart out. With the starring roles danced – and, goodness me, acted – by look-alikes for Rafael Nadal and a particularly dangerous pussy-cat, and a production that made it riotously clear that the Prince’s Mama had good cause to worry that her son was not the marrying type (Dr Freud please note: this is a boy who rejects a bevy of princesses and runs off with a swan – a swan with issues at that), I have capitulated and am now prepared to sign up for Balletomanes Weekly. Heavens, I’m even going to go and see La Fille Mal Gardée. Second surprise was that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is highly enjoyable. I particularly liked the moment when the only woman in the audience – possibly the only woman on the planet – who did not know that the cast included Richard Gere squeaked and almost fell off her chair with excitement when he entered Stage Left (on screen, sadly, although, Mr Gere, should you be reading this – and why wouldn’t you? – I think we can guarantee you a warm welcome in the North Tyne valleys). And my third surprise came hot on his heels. Reader, in all the wall-to-wall publicity for the film, had you seen any mention that Tamsin Greig is in it? Thought not. Don’t get me wrong: I bow to no-one in my appreciation of the comic timing and anarchic charivari conjured up by the incomparable Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton (has her Damehood been lost in the post?) and Celia Imrie. But Tamsin Greig has been quietly and flawlessly turning out wonderful performances on stage, screen and radio for a long, long time, and it seems a bit churlish of the producers to discount her as an asset.

The problem may well be that she is funny. Go on, name me ten female comedians. It’s getting a little easier since the BBC suddenly looked at itself, was ashamed of what it saw and started to make a tiny little bit of effort to include one or two women in their myriad comedy line-ups, but it’s still right up there with listing Ten Famous Belgians. And – misogynists please realise – this is not because of lack of talent. It is, I think, because of lack of audience power. So much comedy is geared towards a Y chromosome. Now, I do grasp the basic principle of syllogism, but an awful lot of my female friends and I do not fall about laughing at slapstick. Or vicious sexual degrading of women. Or Top Gear.

54b5c271528d774ef54093050d71474aSo can we find solace, and laughter, in books? Well, of course we can. No bookshelf set up to honour Thalia, the comic Muse, can consider itself complete that lacks the Complete Works of Dorothy Parker. The crowning glory of the Algonquin Round Table, Miss Parker stripped the skin off New York with her devastating wit. Like all the best clowns, her humour was always undercut with tragedy. Try her poem, ‘One Perfect Rose’ (one in the eye for Robert Burns). Time has reduced her reputation to little more than a handful of wisecracks and one-liners – yes, it was Parker who, on being told of the death of President Coolidge, replied, ‘How can they tell?’ – but there is so much more to her than that. Playwright, short-story writer, essayist and satirist, friend of Benchley and Wodehouse, if you happen not to have read her, what a treat you have in store.

Quieter, gentler, but surgically precise, the very English novels of Barbara Pym should also have you laughing out loud at times, and, more frequently, smiling with a wry bitter-sweet sense of recognition. Pym is the twentieth-century genius of the comedy of social observation, the heir to Jane Austen and the mistress of delicately exposing and balancing the wafer-thin line between comedy and tragedy. She burrowed into a world of church appointments and church-going that allies her to Trollope, and she is at least as good. Try Excellent Women as a starting-place. And next to Pym on our shelf this week we can have EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. She was a fairly prolific novelist, but is far and away best-remembered for the hugely autobiographical Diaries, which began in the 1930s (as a serial for the journal Time and Tide of which she was a director). By turns ingenuous, candid and exasperated, the Diary and its sequels exactly capture the voice of their narrator as she tells us all that is going on in her life. When I tell you that the BBC dramatized it for radio with Imelda Staunton as our heroine, you will immediately recognise just the sort of woman Delafield creates: trying to do the best she can, keeping that upper lip as stiff as possible and revealing, without saying, the gulf between good manners and warm intimacy.

Interesting, isn’t it, the ocean-wide gap between that hard-nosed, brash-sounding American metropolitanism and the quieter domestic focus of the English comic novelists? The British seem always to have found their aptest settings in villages and the countryside. I speak, admittedly, as one who finds Wuthering Heights falling-about funny, but the pièce de résistance of the rural setting has to be Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. How disappointing it is to discover that neither of her two sequels, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (a short story) and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, are a patch on the original. Gibbons’ genius was not only to parody the purple prose of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and others of her ilk – and, frankly, Thomas Hardy has much to answer for here – but to nail the sentiment that inspired such works. Hardy, Webb et al were not the authentic voices of the English countryside at all: they were the voices of the comfortable middle classes sitting by the fireside with all the comforts of urban or suburban life, and they wove a sentimental picture of the honesty of toil and being at one with nature quite untrammelled by the dirty, cold, perpetually damp and squalidly impoverished reality. And, rather than rail at them with an earnest diatribe laden with statistics and appealing to our (often vanishingly flimsy) consciences about our responsibility to improve the lives of others, Gibbons harnessed her comic genius to debunk and ridicule the pompous fantasists who wanted to put a stop to improvements and developments. Forget Tess of the D’Urbervilles trailing through the long grasses and living the pure and simple life. Women, rise up and fight for better bathrooms and education for all! Now that’s worth smiling about. Afghanistan Girl's Education

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