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 91: Boredom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson

Week 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 44: By Another Name

pen-nameWhat makes an author hide behind a nom de plume? The usual reasons for changing your name in non-literary walks of life are to avoid your creditors or the law, or simply because you feel blighted by the hand your parents dealt you: raw work pulled at the font, as PG Wodehouse accurately observes.

It was a belief widely held – and nurtured by the exclusively male tribe of publishers – that it was not seemly for a woman to take to the page. Or, in mediaeval England, to be heard at all, which is why the resourceful and very attention-seeking Margery Kempe made great play of the fact that she had dictated her autobiography to a male scribe. Oh, and that Jesus had told her to get it all written down, which you have to admit, is a rather splendid pre-emptive strike against potential critics. The Book of Margery Kempe seems to have been finished by 1450, but the first (and so far only) complete manuscript only came to light in 1934. Kempe was a remarkable woman of her own or indeed any time, and I suspect you are going to enjoy her tales of pilgrimage, chats with celebrities from Julian of Norwich to assorted bishops and archbishops, and a tour of the religious sites of Europe and the Holy Land. She is also, to my mind, the precursor of the great feminist icon, Violet Elizabeth Bott, with her ability to scream and scream until she is sick.

We do at least know Mrs Kempe’s name. In the seventeenth century, as religious sensibilities started to consign women to the private domestic sphere, it became increasingly difficult to get heard without either using a pseudonym or anonymity. Katherine Philips, the Welsh poet, translator of Corneille and leader of a literary circle, was undoubtedly as tough as old boots, but bowed to the conventions with a great deal of classical nick-naming for herself and her friends. She was ‘the matchless Orinda’, which, on the face of it, is a bit – well, simpery. She made great play of her virtue and devotion to her husband, and it is noticeable that despite all the coy shunning of publicity, Mrs Philips was very well known indeed as the perfect model of a female author. Not like that brazen Aphra Behn, you see, whose private life remained just that and who wrote to make money. Gosh, how infra dig. And for the stage at that. She also seems to have spied for the British Government to make money, by the way, and generally comes across as a woman who would have sold her grandmother to you at the right price. Behn wrote with wit and energy, and about sex and death. Obviously, she is a must-read. Start with Oroonoko, which is neither about South American rivers (although it is set in Surinam) nor Wombles, but is a high-octane tale of slavery, true love and barbarity: a sort of cross between Othello and Twelve Years a Slave.

The late eighteenth century produced a fine crop of women who were perfectly happy to see their names on the covers of their books, from Ann Radcliffe, whose Mysteries of Udolpho so stirred Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women stirred the Establishment as with a Magimix. Northanger Abbey itself, like all Jane Austen’s novels, appeared anonymously: the strap-line ‘by a lady’, which first appeared on Pride and Prejudice seems to suggest a genteel need to distance herself from the women who presented themselves as professional writers. After Austen, we enter a morass of Brontës, believing or being advised that readers will only come their way if they publish as the various dubiously-named Bell brothers, and Marian Evans, who led parallel lives as Miss Evans, the lover of George Henry Lewes, and George Eliot, the author of seven of the best novels of the nineteenth century (it’s the dry humour, which perhaps you weren’t expecting, that makes Middlemarch such a winner).

But it’s not just the girls: chaps, too, on signing the contract with a publisher, have taken the opportunity to re-invent themselves. Eric Blair became George Orwell and Hector Hugh Munro became Saki: Eric Mercer (none of them seem happy to be Eric, do they? Do you think that Eric, or Little by Little started the rot?) metamorphosed into the suave Dornford Yates, now hugely unfashionable but for most of the first half of the twentieth century one of the most-read authors around. Oxford seems to bring out the pseudonymous in a writer: Charles Dodgson’s alter ego was Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis published some poetry as Clive Hamilton, and J I M Stewart became Michael Innes when he felt like writing filmanonymouscrime fiction. Michael Innes, incidentally, was the source of Robert Bruce Montgomery’s pen name, Edmund Crispin, for his highly enjoyable Oxford-set detective novels starring Professor Gervase Fen. But no, the Earl of Oxford did not write poems and plays and call himself William Shakespeare. Really he didn’t. Don’t be silly.

Some authors have developed different personas for different genres they wish to dabble in. So the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis, published crime fiction as Nicholas Blake (and jolly good they are too) and Barbara Vine is the darker, more disturbing hat that Ruth Rendell wears from time to time. Edith Pargeter, a fine historical novelist, took on a new lease of life as Ellis Peters, writing crime fiction and all twenty-something Brother Cadfael mysteries. What I notice, writing this, is how deliberately transparent most also-writing-as has become. Indeed, many front covers now proclaim the dual identities, presumably in the hope of generating maximum sales. I can see this is going to have consequences when Val McDermid starts writing picture books for the very small.

So, when you write the Great Novel of the Twenty-First Century, who will you say you are? Your own name? Terrific if it turns out to be as good as you thought it was, and friends and neighbours stop you in the street to kiss the hand that wrote the book and ask for your autograph: but what if the reviewers hate you, and your name blares out below the headline, ‘Is This the Worst Book Ever Written?’(now there’s a topic for a NorthernReader Walking Book Club session). You might have to move, or change your children’s name by deed poll, or pretend to be the nanny when you collect your children at the school gate. I begin to see the attraction of hiding behind a pseudonym. How about ‘The Northern Reader’?my avatar

Week 43: Woof Woof

 

The newest NorthernReader

The newest NorthernReader

KatePonders has gone mad and bought a puppy. This means that the NorthernReader household currently comprises three people and three dogs. Some wariness is called for, as the grandmother who began all this by living in Northumberland, and who was the tiniest bit eccentric, had ten dogs. And twenty-four cats. And assorted other wildlife. No surprise, perhaps, that she is still vividly remembered in this part of the world, some thirty years after her death.

So what help, advice, role models and – as if we need any – encouragement can we find in books?

William Brown’s Jumble is a bit of a doggy hero. Clearly possessed of the sort of spirit that would have stood a Battle of Britain pilot in good stead, Jumble follows William fearlessly where other – lesser? wiser? – dogs might have chosen to stand back and let the young master take the hit. For fortitude, faithfulness and valour, Jumble, we salute you. Enid Blyton’s Timmy, by contrast, is a bit of a cipher. Can anyone remember a single thing about him, other than the fact, now that I’ve prodded your memory, that he was a dog and an honorary member of the Famous Five? Like Harpo Marx but without the curls or the musical talent. We’re much, much better off with the dashing Pongo, brave dog-of-action in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

duchessBefore the infant reader makes it to Blyton or Crompton, the delights of Spot – rather pleasingly known in KatePonders’ Welsh childhood as Smot – beckon. How sad we were to see that Eric Hill, Spot’s creator – should that be owner? – died this week.  We loved Mick Inkpen’s charmingly dim Kipper, too (still do, to be honest), and we adored Duchess in Beatrix Potter’s The Pie and the Patty Pan (definite contender for Best Potter Book). Our other great favourite was A Dog Day. It was written by Walter Emanuel, and if he is your relative or specialist subjectcecil_aldin_pudding_sm2, I apologise, but I know nothing about him: the point, really, of A Dog Day is the illustrations, which are by Cecil Aldin and, therefore, perfect. How very much cheerier all these books are than Rudyard Kipling’s Thy Servant a Dog. Being Kipling, it is strikingly written and, once you get used to the voice he finds for Boots the Aberdeen Terrier (times have changed and this might be another candidate for Dorothy Parker’s ‘Tonstant Weader Fwowed up’), engagingly sure-footed (pawed?) on giving us the dog’s perspective. But Kipling takes no prisoners and, be warned, you will howl at the end. It marches in my memory together with a particularly glum book inherited, I think, from previous generations, called Jack & Me. Time is a great healer and I am now hazy on the details, but I am pretty certain that No Good comcaldecottes to the puppy that Me and her brother are given. Oh Lord, yes, and there were Randolph Caldecott’s poignant illustrations for Oliver Goldsmith’s The Mad Dog: was mine, I begin to wonder, a particularly strange childhood?

But are there no dogs for grown-ups? Well, of course there are. Montmorency must head their tribe, a deserved accolade for a chap who ‘put his leg in the jam’ when boating with three men. Bartholomew, the assertive Aberdeen Terrier who stars in several of PG Wodehouse’s peerless books, is pleasingly direct in his dealings with mankind – especially, of course, the male of the species. And I retain a soft spot for Muggs the Airedale, ‘The Dog that Bit People’ fondly memorialised by James Thurber. There are, of course, nice dogs in literature as well, but rather like nice people, they are sadly less kc-reg-english-bull-terrier-pups-51e8385ebdb51memorable than the rapscallions, the ne’er do wells and the biters. Bill Sikes’ Bull’s Eye, far and away my favourite character in Oliver Twist, for example: no-one’s idea of a good dog. Jip, Dora Copperfield’s lap dog, is as irritating as her owner (how hugely unkind Dickens could be). The Pomeranian in Anton Chekhov’s superlative The Lady with the Dog won’t do either: we can concede that it is crucial to the plot, but the wretched animal doesn’t even have a name as far as I can recall, and while offering to bite the man’s hand shows it be quite a good judge of character, it probably, strictly speaking, disqualifies it on the Nice Dog stakes.

Another would-be biter is Flush, Elizabeth Barrett’s cocker spaniel. He failed to engage his target, the young Robert Browning, and found himself swept up in the Barrett-Browning romance and whisked off to Italy. A happily-ever-after story, and a true one. Virginia Woolf’s biography, Flush, is too often overlooked, but if you like Woolf – as who could not – both poets (ditto) and cocker spaniels – heart of stone not to, obviously – then a great pleasure awaits you if you happen not have read this yet.

The very nicest dog in literature, it suddenly occurs to me, is Cyril, the canine component of the ensemble cast of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books. It might just be the gold tooth, but I think that it is Cyril’s reasoned philosophical approach to life that wins us over. That, and his pleasing habit of peeing on the command, ‘Turner Prize.’

Vivien Leigh - by Laszlo WillingerAs for the latest addition to the NorthernReader household, at present she appears to be modelling herself more on Slinky in Toy Story than any heroine of literature, although her Vivien Leigh looks suggest she might enjoy reading AEW Mason’s Fire Over England, or of course Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when she’s a little older (and hands/paws up anyone who’s actually read it? Really? All I remember of the film is crying out ‘O please, no!’ when the lovely Miss Leigh declared ‘I will go back to Tara’, and I have an uneasy feeling that the book is even longer. Up to you, of course). Oh well, it could be worse: at least she doesn’t seem to be too influenced by Gerald Durrell’s puppies (My Family and Other Animals), who, you will recall, are named Widdle and Puke.

 

PS NorthernReader Walking Book Club news on Walking Book Club page. Hope you can come.

Week 27: Books for a Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 15: a la recherche du lost childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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