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 97: Domestic Bliss

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Mary the creepy Mouse (not the official title)

Well, hello again. I would love to tell you that my summer-long silence was because I was off cycling the route of the Iron Curtain or saving orang-utangs in Borneo (and my hat is off to the friends and children of friends who have done these things and more this year), but the truth is that I have been sitting quietly at home, looking up only every now and then from a life of happy pottering to think ‘where does the time go?’. Here in the NorthernReader stronghold the ‘summer’ – I use the word loosely, as the August skies were grey and the temperatures brisk – saw a great sheaf of domestic projects fulfilled. We have transformed a bathroom that was eerily reminiscent of an economy-class budget airline facility into a tranquil refuge complete with roll-top bath and somewhere to balance your champagne glass while you soak (and, of course, read): we have made jams and chutneys from the pleasingly increasing harvests from the garden we are making out of what was an unprepossessing square of shoulder-high rough turf; we have become grown-up and put down stair carpets, and – best of all – Mr NorthernReader patiently removed several thousand twelve-inch nails from the various pallets we had accumulated and magicked the boards into the best compost bins I have ever seen. So as a summer of domesticity turns into an autumn of golden sunlight, long walks with the dogs and the pleasures of the first evening wood-fires, it is time to revel in some books that capture the spirit of the well-ordered household.

I am struck by the number of children’s books in which our young heroes – or, more usually, heroines – recreate the comforting routines of domestic life, however wild and unfamiliar the setting. The Walker and Callum children in Arthur Ransome’s books, of course, especially Swallowdale and The Picts and the Martyrs, which are in their way every bit as detailed as Robinson Crusoe, work perfectly well as practical ‘how-to’ manuals for ensuring that you and yours are warm, dry and well-fed: as my father used to point out, any fool can be uncomfortable. Eleanor Graham’s The Children Who Lived in a Barn remains my sole source of information on how to build a hay-box: not, admittedly, something I’ve felt the need to do so far in life, but you never know. These resourceful and self-sufficient children (the poppets in Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island are another Mrs-Beeton-eat-your-heart-out bunch) are a far cry from the spoilt Hare and Squirrel waited upon hand and foot by Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit – a down-trodden drudge who practically passes out with meek surprise in Little Grey Rabbit’s f32d73ba16941931b5cb5de8546579faBirthday when her friends stir themselves sufficiently to come up with a cake. Mind you, what a cake: the icon of birthday-cakiness throughout my childhood. Maybe I should have tried a little more selfless service and, who knows, a multi-tiered spongy thing of beauty could have been, transitorily, mine.

There are flocks and herds of domestic servants in literature, seen and unseen. Who is rattling the crockery when Toad hears lunch arriving at Ratty’s house? Who does the laundry – or the cooking, the carpet-beating, the fire-laying, the floor-scrubbing – at Thornfield Hall? One of the many glories of Stella Gibbons’ incomparable Cold Comfort Farm is its acknowledgement that curtains have to be washed and plates have to be cleaned – even, if you must, with a hazel stick, should no-one, in their anxiety to avoid being on the washing-up rota themselves, present you with a little moppet. One of the most self-observant and uncomfortable passages of Jessica Mitford’s memoir of childhood, Hons and Rebels, recalls her patrician ‘rescue’ of a slum child and the chasm between her fantasy and the reality of domestic bondage into which her unlucky protegée was cast. It is one of the minor ironies of life that in an age when disposable income and technology combine to make a life of queen-bee-like indolence a possibility we have taken, Marie-Antoinette-ishly, to baking, knitting and sewing (although not, I note, to washing-up: make a heart-warming programme out of that if you can). Should you be aspiring to a high domestic standard, the ever-indispensable Persephone Books have republished Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help, a gem from the immediate post-war years that you keep hoping might have been replaced by now by a utopian family democracy in which each member trips lightly downstairs in the morning to cheerily complete their designated domestic tasks for the day in a spirit of harmony, well-being and striving for the common good. Perhaps I should get a copy for my butcher, who told me on Saturday of a conversation with his son that morning:

BUTCHER (IN ROLE AS PARENT): Do you think you could pick up all the clothes from your bedroom floor and put them in the laundry basket

SON (IN ROLE AS PARASITE): Could you lend me* £30

And the asterisk dear reader, as any parent among you knows, is to draw your attention to the incorrect use of the word ‘lend’. Persephone Books, incidentally, also publish The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. This is fiction: only it probably isn’t, and its tale of how a family regained happiness by sending mother out to work and unclamping her determined little hands from the egg-whisk is as good a paradigm for the twentieth century as any. As the mother who gave KatePonders’ teddy bear cataracts in the tumble-drier, I find myself identifying a little with Fisher’s heroine, whose son is driven to sob, ‘Don’t let him be washed, Father!’. The comforting moral to be drawn from this, of course, is to keep your domestic standards limbo-dancingly low, Hurray!


But, as the evenings shorten and darken and a distinct chill sharpens the air, there is something to be said for a room where the well-polished furniture scents the air with beeswax and the sofas and chairs beckon invitingly from the fireside. Tea and crumpets, with pretty plates (and, ideally, a teapot that pours into the cup and only into the cup; I have never come across such a paragon and am extremely open to recommendations); books (of course) and talk of books: now that really is domestic bliss.

This is 'A Fireside Read' by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

This is ‘A Fireside Read’ by William Mulready and I do rather like her shrewish expression: whatever can she be reading?

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 71: Books for Parties

muppetschristmasWell, that was fun. A period of intense research has produced definitive answers to the important questions, ‘How many people can we squeeze round the table while still leaving room for them to be able to move their arms enough to eat and drink?’; ‘what is the correct thing to do with an excess of tree decorations?’ (no, I didn’t think such a thing as ‘too many tree decorations’ was possible either, but it turns out that it is); and ‘could this become the sort of family that plays board games without gnawing off our own arms with boredom?’ The answers, incidentally, are twelve – and a jolly festive affair it was too; set up a second tree for the dogs (duh); and yes! Yes we could! Provided one of is lucky enough to be given the Great Penguin Book Chase for Christmas (and I’m looking thoughtfully at an ad for Ex Libris, which claims to be a game of first lines and last words and sounds as if it might have been designed specifically for the NorthernReader household). But opportunities for fireside sloth are still pretty thin on the ground as we hop cheerfully from party to party (see Week 69 for the strain this can put on pleasingly meagre wardrobes, unless of course you are a chap, in which case the rule set out in Week 70 still applies). Just time for a quick browse to see how our social whirl compares with parties in books.

No family get-together can completely avoid a faint sense of the Starkadder Re-enactment Society, it seems to me: re-read Cold Comfort Farm as you prepare for your multi-generational gathering and do not let anyone hear you call your party a Counting. But take comfort, cold or otherwise, from the fact that pretty much all parties in books for grown-ups (I hesitate to call it ‘adult fiction’ because the phrase sounds so queasily Fifty Shades-ish – and imagine my surprise when I discovered that that wasn’t a Farrow and Ball hommage after all) – all parties have their steel core of social anxiety, awkwardness or downright misery. Hurray! One of life’s sparkling little lessons safely under the belt: you are not there to enjoy yourself, you are there to circulate. Stiff upper lip and remember that Darcy hated it too. Getting ready for a party can be fraught, as well: remember the Little Women sisters, Meg and, to a markedly lesser degree, Jo, scurrying around before the New Year’s Eve party to which they have been invited. Jo burns Meg’s hair (so much for straighteners) and finds a splendid iron-burn on her own frock and gloves too stained to be worn, while Meg adds to the fun with too-tight shoes (and haven’t we all done that) and a crushing certainty that her sister will behave badly and show them up. And after all that, well, what do you know, they have a perfectly splendid time after all. Hope springs eternal.

SUCH fun!

SUCH fun!

New Year’s parties are set a high standard to live up to, not only by the wonderful Old Year’s Night celebrations in our own Village Hall here in NorthernReader-land, but also and more anciently by King Arthur’s jolly get-together at Camelot as chronicled in Gawain and the Green Knight. When I tell you that this particular knees-up is gate-crashed by a green giant who proposes a friendly Christmas game involving AN AXE, you will see that, put like that, the parties you go to are not nearly as hair-raising as you thought they were. You will also, of course, make an immediate resolution to get no more than a couple of days into the new year without avidly reading Simon Armitage’s translation of the story (translation because the original manuscript we have is from the late fourteenth century and is written in Middle English, which is related to what we speak today but not so that you can read it without limbering up first).

I don’t know whether either of our current Beloved Leaders is planning to go and pluck the gowans fine this New Year’s Eve, but Prime Ministers in fiction have had their partying moments. Alan Hollinghurst deftly captures the horror of the whole decade in his image of Mrs Thatcher, dressed in some sort of Ruritanian outfit, gliding across the dance-floor with the cocaine-sozzled hero of The Line of Beauty. The Prime Minister who attends the party that is the climax of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, un-named in the book but presumably Stanley Baldwin, pays the price, whether he is aware of it or not, of mixing with colleagues and –even worse – voters, when other party-goers take one look and think, ‘One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits.’ Ah. I feel I should point out that, yes, she was a crashing snob, over-burdened with a full and distasteful armoury of bigotries and prejudices, but nevertheless you might well enjoy reading Virginia Woolf. Probably our greatest Modernist, so it would be a shame to miss out. And she does have the distinction of making Evelyn Waugh seem positively kindly – not an easy manoeuvre – by comparison: in Vile Bodies, Waugh contents himself with merely calling his Prime Minister ‘Mr Outrage’ and then feeling sorry for him for being ‘just a Prime Minister, nothing more.’ R & JOuch.

And of course, if you are hosting a party, keep a weather eye out for gate-crashers. Especially if you are called Capulet and you have a teenage daughter.

Anyway, glad-rags on and out you go. If you are very, very lucky, you might find, as we do, that you are among friends and that you are really, truly, enjoying yourself hugely. So have a lovely time and remember that you have the pleasure of a good book to come home to. Happy New Year. (This picture is of the Tar Bar’l Ceremony in Allendale and I think you’re going to love listening to this song from the lovely Unthank sisters)


Week 69: ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly

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

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

I've been to a MARVELLOUS party

I’ve been to a MARVELLOUS party

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

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

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

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

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

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

Week 38: a House in the Country

It will not have escaped your notice, if you are a persistent reader of this blog, that we moved to lovely Northumberland quite recently. Oh, the joys of selling and buying houses. Actually it isn’t all completely unalloyed misery and stress (although some measure of both is guaranteed in the whole process). Selling your house does at least mean that you experience what it is like to live in a clean and tidy home for once: and, if you are us, it even encourages you to start thinking long and hard about the possessions that seem to have accumulated like silt throughout your current resting-place. Why do we still have this packing case, unopened since the last move a decade ago, you might find yourself asking (in fact, if you have such packing-cases, I urge you to ask yourself that question. Right now. Stop reading and go and open it). Am I really ever going to wear/cook with/plant/learn for saleto play that? Time, in fact, for a cull (see Week 10 for book culling). There are other joys to be squeezed out of the whole wretched business of letting total strangers wander round your house making rude remarks about the curtains, but it is strangely hard to remember them even after only a year or so: what lingers is the sensation of existential angst. So, when next you feel the need to up sticks, remember the NorthernReader Golden Rules for Selling Your House:

1) find a good estate agent. You do not want the terrifically up-market firm, established in 1066. They will send a young man called Tristan to value your house. He will not have the right shoes for your garden. He will make it clear that he was brought up in a castle and that your house, with its measly four acres, is frankly slumming it and a bit borderline for his firm but that he just might be able to shift it for you for about a third of what you suspect to be its value. On the other hand, you do not want the nationwide chain of agents who claim to flog properties in warehouse quantities. They will send a young man called Kyle who has never set foot in your village before – or indeed any village – and will be aghast at your chickens. No, what you want is a one-man band who sells houses in the villages around you. He will come round himself, get to know you and your house. He will sell your house because he has invested everything in his business, and if he doesn’t sell your house he might have to sell his.

2) under no circumstances show your house yourself. Insist that your agent pitches up before the viewers. Disappear. I don’t care if you go to Paris for the weekend or hover nervously in the deep undergrowth at the bottom of the field next to your house until the invaders have left, but do not put in an appearance. Think ‘uncast part in The Archers’. You do not want to get to know the people who buy your house. You want this to be strictly business. You know: like in The Godfather.

As for finding your perfect house to move to – well, you’re going to need some books, aren’t you? Try these.



If we are thinking large-scale, then Brideshead, Northanger Abbey and Totleigh Towers would all do. Thornfield sounds draughty and Manderley beset with a serious servant problem. On a more domestic scale, I thought Howard’s End sounded rather lovely even before Peppard Cottage played the part in the Merchant-Ivory film. Or there’s Talboys: Dorothy L Sayers sends Lord Peter Wimsey and his bride, Harriet Vane, there on their wedding night (Busman’s Honeymoon ) and briefly returned there in a subsequent short story (published in Striding Folly). Jill Paton Walsh has now picked up the baton and firmly established the Wimsey family at Talboys for the duration of the war in A Presumption of Death. Even in the midst of the ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ mystery, I heard my hardened property-loving heart whispering, ‘look at all those outhouses! Think of the potential!’ (But no, I do not yearn to be Flora Poste, finding someone to wash curtains at Cold Comfort Farm).

I have a rather splendid member of the Weekend Book tribe called The Countryman’s Weekend Book. Published just after the Second World War (and apparently oblivious to the existence of countrywomen), it has a gripping chapter on how to design and build – by which it is clear the author means ‘have some chappie build for you’ – the perfect country house. Eric Parker, who wrote many of the ‘Weekend’ books, was a naturalist and sportsman who, among much else, campaigned successfully for conservation legislation and wrote for The Field magazine. His thoughts on what makes a good country house are clearly based on experience and common sense. Much thought is given to aspect and to sufficient coal stores. Lutyens-influenced (and that’ll be the architect I’ll try to snap up when I win the lottery), his dream house looks practical and comfortable, with no worries about traipsing in with muddy boots and dogs.

Or perhaps we should get more radical in our approach to rural living. Should Robinson Crusoe be our role model? Having recently discovered that Defoe named his hero (if that is the word I’m looking for) after his friend, the radical preacher Thomas Cruso who was my heaven-knows-how-many greats grandfather (pause for moment of irrational smugness), I’m tempted to consider his stockade as a way of living. But no, Northumberland is not a desert island and the natives are friendly. Perhaps we should follow the example of the ultimate reductionist, Stig – he of The Dump fame – and live in a loose construction of what artists like to call found objects.

But no. Tempting though the tree-houses, castles, cottages and caves of literature undoubtedly are, for once I’ll say no to fiction and settle happily in the NorthernReader barn. A roof of my own, as Virginia Woolf might have said.

Oh, DEFINITELY potential.  I can see it now ...

Oh, DEFINITELY potential. I can see it now …

PS  The next NorthernReader Walking Book Club meets on Wednesday 28th May at Simonburn.  See the Walking Book Club page for details.

Week 36: Aunting

super auntI have spent the last week or so very enjoyably being an aunt. It’s something I think I may be quite good at, having been practising since I was eleven years old. While this is really a family that specialises in cousins – we have hundreds of the blessed things, and indeed, darling reader, you may well be one, and much treasured you are too – the NorthernReader household has accumulated quite a clutch of nieces and nephews of various ages and sizes. In coming up with an Aunting Strategy, I have been guided over the years, not only by my good fortune in possessing some of the very best sorts of aunts and uncles, but also, of course, by reading.

My nephews will, I suspect, confirm that my essential role models have always been Bertie Wooster’s tribe of aunts. They appear in pretty much every one of the great man’s oeuvre, but the general idea of them is neatly summed up in the title of his 1974 contribution to the sum of human happiness, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. I hope I have veered appropriately between the nephew-crushing attributes of Aunt Agatha – a girl could be proud to have earned the accolade, ‘the one who chews bottles and kills rats with her teeth’ – and (and I do hope this is the inner aunt that predominates) the ability of Aunt Dahlia to show an idiot nephew an aunt’s love. (‘Idiot nephew’, I should perhaps explain hastily – especially to those of you who happen to be my nephews and have nonetheless mysteriously so far put off familiarising yourselves with the works of PG Wodehouse – is a quotation rather than a considered or personally-held opinion). There is also within the tribe from which I spring a slight touch of Bertie’s lesser aunts, with their tendency to circulate incriminating information: ‘Aunt […] calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps’, as Wodehouse rather niftily puts it.

Need we stray from Wodehouse? Well, Jane Austen is pretty good on aunts. Mrs Norris, Fanny Price’s aunt in Mansfield Park, is definitely not who we should aspire to be. Skinflint, self-pitying and (worst indictment of all) a terrible bore, we might keep her as the poster-girl for how not to do this aunting business. She could, I suppose, slug it out for the title with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the pantomime-dame Ghastly Aunt of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett sisters’ aunt, Mrs Gardiner, on the other hand, feels very like an aunt of choice for us NorthernReaders, especially since she threw so much helpfdanny la rueul light for us on real aunts and uncles of the distant past (Week 34). In fact, she’s pretty much alone as an aunt who is a normal woman, not an over-the-top, barkingly-mad, dangerously unbalanced harpy, humorous or frankly sinister. David Copperfield’s aunt Betsey Trotwood, anyone? (note to self: stay away from the donkeys). Talking of normal women, I confess to a slight obsession in childhood with the farce, Charley’s Aunt, based, I think, on the eye-popping glamour of Danny La Rue, who I saw when very young and impressionable (me, not Mr La Rue).

Graham Greene at least had the decency to suggest that nephews should take their aunts with them on their travels. Aunt Augusta might make quite a good president of the Aunts’ Association, travels with my auntactually, being (as is so often the case among us aunts) a lot more laid-back, dashing and daring than her nephew. Isn’t it interesting, by the way, that nieces generally come off rather better in encounters with aunts? They rarely find themselves in the uncomfortable role of dull timid stooge to their remarkable aged relative. Some nieces do find themselves scooped up in auntly travel plans, but all that gallery-trudging can pay off: look at Little Women’s Amy March nabbing Laurie in Europe (and hurray for the irresistibly selfish Amy, anyway, for saving her sister Jo from an inevitable murder charge had she accompanied Aunt March on the Grand Tour).

And then there are the aunts that haunt the gloom of the wildest, most rural retreats. Life in the countryside can take a girl in different ways, and my, don’t our two characters model those differences? I’m thinking of Mary Yellan’s Aunt Patience in Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and Aunt Ada Doom – queen of her tribe – in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. If you have very sensibly not bothered to try to hear the current disastrous BBC version of Jamaica Inn, do add it to your reading list – and do feel free to point out to the BBC that filming with the lights out at midnight may have worked once, briefly, in Wallander but the term ‘film noir’ is actually meant to be a bloody metaphor, not an instruction – and meanwhile take my word for it that Aunt Patience is a terrible drip who could do with a good shaking (what happens to her is rather more extreme than a good shaking but I’m afraid I cannot muster much sympathy). But Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed, is one of the great literary creations of all time, and, had I political power, I would instantly propose an annual Aunt Ada Doom Day, on which we aunts could be properly feared, pampered and revered by our assembled nieces and nephews. Until that happy day, I shall make do with Rupert Christiansen’s The Complete Book of Aunts, which should give me some tips. After all, as Wodehouse pointed out, ‘It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.’ Something to live up to there, I feel.babygro