Week 77: Boxes

Only one! I dream of having only one

Only one! I dream of having only one

As part of the valiant struggle to achieve a sleek and organised life, I have spent much of the last week going through boxes of papers. The photographs – handed on, unannotated, from generation to generation – will have to wait a while longer before I, godlike (or does it make me feel like a Camp Commandant?), pass among them, shepherding them into two piles, the faces of the known and the unknown. I realise that the only solution for the pictures of people now completely unidentifiable is to be shot of them. Tear them up, shred them for mulch, burn them. You see? What began as an exercise in brisk practicality has become freighted with significance. As an academic, I was a True Believer in Semiotics, the study of how we make meaning: is the reward to be haunted by an atavistic reluctance to dispose of these fragile paper shreds of evidence that someone, no matter that every aspect of their identity has been discarded, once existed? I shall set those boxes aside while I re-read Michael Frayn’s Headlong, his fabulous contemplation of the differences between iconography and iconology.

But in another box, I found letters from my father to my mother. No Auden she – you remember his poem, ‘Who’s Who’, which ends:

… answered some

Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

My mother seems to have done quite the reverse: not answered, but kept. And among the letters she kept in a box for more than forty years until she died were letters my father had written to me when I was a child. She never gave them to me: I never knew he had written them, and I never read them until today. I think I might be allowed Ian McEwan’s Atonement on this week’s shelf. And any good re-telling of the story of Pandora, whose box-opening at least lets hope into the world.

‘Box’ is of course one of the collective nouns for books. Auction sales tend to have an assortment of rather tired-looking cardboard boxes under the tables, packed with what the catalogue will describe as ‘books on military subjects’; ‘books, mostly of Roman history’ or the slightly defeatist ‘books, various’. A very enjoyable (and free) morning out is to be had trawling through these boxes on Viewing Day, remembering not to squeak with first folioexcitement in the not-terribly-likely event that you find a first edition Ian Fleming or a First Folio Shakespeare in among the Jeffrey Archers. Auctions are where you will also have the opportunity from time to time to rub shoulders with the miles and miles of leather-bound volumes of ‘a gentleman’s library’, and even enjoy the thrill of watching someone else spend huge sums of (quite possibly someone else’s) money on a single small volume that you had failed to grasp the significance of: £62,000 for a first edition of The Great Gatsby, for example – a book I cannot bring myself to like (although, had I a first edition, I might find that absence would indeed make the heart grow fonder. Much, much fonder).

No, I would rather curl up with a copy, first edition or not, of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights any day: a really splendid adventure story that is far too good to be wasted on children. Reading it brings winter right into the room, and it would have been a good candidate for discussion when the NorthernReader Not-Walking Book Club met the other day for coffee and cake and chat about books with a sense of the seasons of the year (see the Walking Book Club page for details, and do join us next time). Chills of a different sort are on offer in Kate Mosse’s first collection of short stories The Mistletoe Bride. You know the haunting legend on which the title tale is based, and perhaps, like me, can’t help feeling that it is still waiting for a Hilaire Belloc poem to point the moral: ‘brides who want to set a test/ should not hide in wooden chests’ perhaps. Keep an eye out for the Folio Society edition of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, by the way, not least for the pleasures of Posy Simmonds’ illustrations.

But for today, back to my boxes. I have a feeling, what with rediscovering lost treasures and reading letters from the past, that in the words of Robert Frost, I have ‘miles to go before I sleep’.Pandora_-_John_William_Waterhouse


Week 72: Books for Kings and Wise Men

epiphanyausIt seems unlikely that early Christians picked January 6th – Epiphany – solely to mark the day we can take the Christmas decorations down, but how jolly useful of them to have set up a date that can act as a watershed. Before it, celebrations marked by reds and golds, noise and laughter, feasts and cheerful over-doing it; after, a clearing-back to simplicity, calm and quiet. January is the time when even the most cluttered of us find ourselves drawn to a little minimalism, when we can enjoy the sight of a windowsill or chimneypiece untrammelled by cards. A single hyacinth growing in its glass is all the decoration we need as the days begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to lengthen. And now is the time for the lovely peacefulness of evenings by the fire, reading.

Magi_(1)Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t call them kings or wise men and doesn’t say how many of them there were (the most plausible translation, should you be interested, seems to be that they were Zoroastrians – giving rise to a pleasingly frivolous vision of Freddie Mercury pitching up at the stable), but the chaps who followed the star set a precedent for Good Guest behaviour by bringing presents. And, should your tastes or your budget not run to gold, frankincense and myrrh, be of good cheer, because books make the best presents (although if you hanker after frankincense, try a bottle of Tauer’s scent, L’Air du Desert Marocain). Now is the first time since Christmas when we have breathing space to sit down and properly read, rather than flick through, all those gorgeous books lovely people gave us. As well as a stocking-full of vintage Ladybird books, which are becoming a slight obsession of mine, I have the chance to get ahead on at least one anniversary being marked in 2015, thanks to a well-loved nephew and niece and their thoughtful choice of Dan Jones’s Magna Carta as a brilliant present. I am already absorbed in this clear study of how the Charter came about, what happened to it and why it is important. As a consequence, the New Year’s Resolution you will be most pleased to hear about is a determination not to emulate the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and stop one in three to share my newly-acquired fascinating insights (I’ll let you know how successful I am with keeping that resolution).

And I have Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow to enjoy through the year as well. Compellingly written and the perfect blend of discussion, reflection and instruction that puts Don in the same (premier) league as Christopher Lloyd. The catalogues for spring-planted bulbs have started to arrive as well, encouraging a lot of armchair gardening which is, as you know, so much less of a physical and financial drain than the other kind. Now might be a good moment for some more reading about gardens, though: Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History, of course, and Philippa Gregory’s two novels about the Tradescant father and son, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth. I have not read Elizabeth Buchan’s Consider the Lily, but judging from the reviews that might well be my loss and one for the Books To Look Out For list. Oh, and we can have poetry too: Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, you are simply going to have to pop off and read, now that I tell you it seems not to be possible to mention it on the internet without adding the rather crushing phrase ‘one of the most famous poems’ (admittedly they tend to qualify this with ‘of the seventeenth century’, but still, you wouldn’t want to feel left out, would you?). And how about Thom Gunn’s ‘The Garden of the Gods’? And if that gets you reading all of Thom Gunn, well, hurray, and you can thank me later.

snowWhile we wait … and wait … for snow, I can at least re-read the splendid snowiness of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Or – pleasure of all pleasures – revisit Italo Calvino’s playful and mesmerising If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se Una Notte d’Inverno un Viaggatore, but I can’t read Italian, and am lucky to have William Weaver’s assured translation). And if you, like me, enjoy this, that’s 2015 sorted, because you simply must get round to reading Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. You do not need me to remind you of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods One Snowy Evening’ because it stays in the heart of everyone who comes across it, but there is a chance you haven’t read Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, Walt Whitman’s ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ or Thomas Campion’s ‘Now Winter Nights Enlarge’.

While you sit contentedly – oh, and how that lovely word reminds me that now is the time to re-read The Wind in the Willows – book in hand, by all means make resolutions, but make them things to read, not vile self-hating and dreary weight-loss goals. Here, as a New Year’s present to you, are three suggestions. Read something by Charles Dickens. It took me far too many years to realise that there is a reason why he is so famous, and the reason is the very simple one that he is an utterly fabulous writer. So there’s gold for you. Second: read something in translation from a different culture and tradition – the exoticism of frankincense, if you will. For me, that’s going to be Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. And finally, some myrrh. The Balm of Gilead is known for its soothing, healing properties and is beginning to look like the latest wonder-drug from cholesterol-busting to cancer-combatting. Quite a challenge; a book to soothe and console, cure and heal. That’ll be Shakespeare, then. Happy New Year.


Week 46: America

usa_cookiesHappy Independence Day, dear American readers. Almost two hundred and forty years ago, you picked up the ball and ran with it. As the dust settled, you produced the Declaration of Independence, one of the best pieces of aspirational prose ever produced. The lovely, the startling, the truly revolutionary, thing about it is its unqualified commitment to the human right to happiness. If we were only to acknowledge the indivisible relationship between happiness and kindness and have a go at living up to the Dalai Lama’s rigorous instruction to us all, ‘be kind whenever possible. It is always possible’, well, to quote another great American icon, Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world.

On this your sort-of-birthday, America, I’m not going to say a word about some of the less praiseworthy things you have brought to the party (but that does not mean that I am condoning your really extraordinary continued espousal of killing people as a method of justice). No, today is a day for celebrating what you have done with the English language and how American literature has added to the sum of human happiness.

archy-and-mThank you for your poets. From Walt Whitman to the Beat generation and beyond, they have spun and whooshed into the language store with verve and energy and freedom and fun, and we are all the better for it. I’m choosing just three for this week’s bookshelf. The first is Don Marquis. Journalist, humorist (please note American spelling in honour – can’t go too far – of the occasion), novelist and playwright, Marquis is best remembered in the NorthernReader household as the poet behind Archy the cockroach who had been a vers libre poet in a previous life. Using Marquis’s typewriter (lower case only: it is tough to be a cockroach), Archy writes poems of great humour and poignancy about Mehitabel, the great love of his life who happens to be a cat – as in feline, although jazz culture and argot underpin Archy’s world. And that’s why I love the Archy and Mehitabel poems: they are the voice of NewYork, every bit as distinctive and authentic as Woody Allen, reminding me that the modern era started at least a decade before we tend to think it did (Marquis created Archy in 1916) and that by the end of the First World War the baton had already passed from tired old Europe to up-and-at-‘em America.

My second poet (I’m taking it for granted, by the way, that we already have the usual suspects on the bookshelf: Whitman of course; Longfellow – although a little of that relentless tum-ti-tum-ti rhythm goes a very long way; Pound and Eliot) is Robert Frost. Friend of Edward Thomas, which is accolade enough, surely, Frost was in many ways an old-fashioned poet; perhaps, even, the last of the old-style poets. Long-lived and prolific, his poems use colloquial language and, very often, a New England rural location to set out, scene by scene – he is, I think, a particularly visual poet – a careful exploration of the human condition. To my mind, Frost is second only to Auden as a poet of the twentieth century with the knack of coining perfect phrases. As a taster, let me remind you that Frost gave us ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (perfect for us here in the debatable lands of the North) and ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.’ Exactly, now I come to think about, what America herself did, and something for us all to check our actions against from time to time.

And my third great American poet (all of the twentieth century this week, you’ll have noticed) is E E Cummings, another celebrant of the typewriter’s lower case (although not for his own name: e e cummings was an orthographic imposition of his publishers later copied by critics). The Fourth of July is the day to remember his sonnet, ‘next to of course god america i’. Fiercely critical, satirical and unswervingly ready to call his country’s failings to account, Cummings is a splendid figurehead for the necessity for free speech (please don’t forget the Al-Jazeera journalists today, by the way: there is an Amnesty International petition here that you might consider signing). Cummings didn’t so much eschew the capital letters and punctuation in his poetry as play fast and loose with them, and one of the pleasing consequences is that you really do have to read his work aloud. His work is free-wheeling, exuberant and musical, and as American as they come.

We must have novelists too. Another trio, then, chosen pretty much at random from another crowded field: how about Henry James, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway? The lives of all three overlap, and James and Wharton were chums. I do  rather long to discover that Hemingway dropped round for tea and gossip with them both, and it would in strictly temporal terms have been possible, as he was sixteen by the time James died and I’ll bet he was precocious. But, whatever the vast chasms of difference between them – and the idea of James wrestling with lions is almost as enchanting as that of Hemingway getting to grips with Upper East Side manners – all three share the distinction of being indispensably great. If you have never got round to reading Henry James, you might not be expecting his dry observational humour. Granted, The Turn of the Screw isn’t terrifically

Correy Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

Corey Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

comedic, but, by and large, trust me. If Edith Wharton has so far passed you by, you’re going to love her acid and astute analysis of the power of money. Try The Custom of the Country. Think of her as an American, early twentieth-century, Jane Austen. And if you didn’t think Hemingway was your sort of thing, try Across the River and Into the Trees, not least because it made me cry and I don’t see why I should be the only one.

This birthday reflection has thought only of America’s past, dominated by white men. The present and the future are different, gloriously different. The land that said (through Emma Lazarus, a woman from an immigrant family) ‘give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, has often lived up to such magnificence. America the generous, America the advocate of happiness, happy Independence Day.lady-liberty

Week 16: Trees

little grey rabbitI have only just realised that the endpapers for the Little Grey Rabbit books look just like the house where I lived when I was a little girl.  Alison Uttley’s stories, truth be told, always felt a bit wordy and dull, but the lovely illustrations by Margaret Tempest fired the infant imagination (I still have to turn two pages when we come to the bleakly sinister Weasel’s House).  Those silver birches remind us that the world is quite magical enough as it is, thank you, without wands and whizzing.  Let us contemplate trees for a moment: they are amazing.

Our old friends Piglet and Owl remind us that trees are for living in; and they provide sticks, too, which make jolly good shelters, as Eeyore can testify.  Twelfth Night’s Viola knew that too, of course, and when she set out how she thought a lover should pursue his beloved, she took the practical precaution of including a willow cabin at the gates. Any fool can be uncomfortable, after all, and a lover with the sense to shelter from the rain has to be a more attractive proposition.  Henry Thoreau settled in the woods at Walden for two years, two months and two days (did no-one tell him that three and seven are meant to be magic numbers? Where on earth did two come from?) and built himself a cabin there.  Yeats thought about it, but the nearest he came to building Walden at Innisfree was in his imagination.

But we don’t have to cut trees down.  To start to get a sense of them, some identification might come in handy.  There are Ladybird, Observer and quite probably I-Spy books about trees, and any amount of the sort of slightly earnest guide that expects you to know about sepals.  A disconcerting number of these call themselves ‘complete’ or ‘comprehensive’, which I’m afraid rather makes me long to scour the continents for the one little sapling that they overlooked.  No, better by far to settle down and enjoy Thomas Pakenham’s Meeting with Remarkable Trees.  An absolutely gorgeous writer from a family who seem not to be able not to write well, Pakenham’s encomium is a definite must-have for our tree shelf.

And – oh hurray! – we can have Edward Thomas’s ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ as well, with its crystal-clear picture of the fallen elm uncleared because the men have left the land and fallen themselves, in the mud of France.  And put with that Thomas’s friend (if that is not too unequivocal a word for that most self-contained of men) Robert Frost. ‘Birches’, we must have, and (especially at this time of year) ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which is contender for poem-to-learn-by-heart-if-you’re-only-going-to-learn-one (although how could you bear to only carry one poem around with you?).

Woods – even the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows – are quite different from forests. To our forebears, woods were managed spaces where they could make a living.  They had paths, and edges, and clearings.  But forests: ah, now they really are wild.  Dante’s selva oscura is the dark forest where he finds himself, in the middle of his life, with no path to follow.  Who needs Freud when we have Dante?  Or we can follow (if we dare) Edmund Spenser’s lady and the Redcrosse Knight into the forest to find – well, what do you know? – not only an absence of paths, so that they feel lost, but a cave with a terrible beast lurking in it.  And the lady gets the Knight to go into the cave.  Yup. You see, you’re going to love The Faerie Queene.  Whenever young women venture into forests, they have a tendency to bump into danger.  Remember Little Red Riding Hood?  Take it from me: that wolf was no lupine.  He probably wore Tom Ford.

But come away from all these thrills and perils (and yes, we must have Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’ on our shelf too).   Let us find some comfort under Susan Hill’s Magic Apple Tree, which sounds twee but isn’t, being instead a record of passing seasons and life in the countryside.  We can put it with Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure: not exclusively about trees, but Mabey can always be relied upon to bring us back to a sense of our connection to the earth and to nature.  And next to him, we shall have Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne.

Trees are the great survivors.  They have been here more or less for ever, they cling grimly on no matter what fresh imbecility we come up with to foul up their world, they find themselves – possibly not intentionally – giving us homes, and heat, and food: and awe, which is good for us.  Oh, and they give us paper too.  And without paper, dearest reader, even in this internet age, we would be lost indeed.sycamore gap