Week 114: Showtime

my-fair-lady-1964-09-gIt used to be called The Season, and jolly tiring it was too.  Never part of the Coming Out (which meant something quite different then), balls and aristocratic hob-nobbing which formed the invisible web binding together the members of a now-vanished caste, I look back in astonishment to realise how many of the London season events were an occasional part of my childhood.  Not a horsey lot, we were not the family that counted the days to Royal Ascot, Badminton and the Epsom Derby (although a later extremely mild interest has led me before now to Cheltenham and Goodwood in the days when it was still about horses). Wimbledon, as I have confessed before, has left memories only of acute and almost terminal boredom.  The highlight used to be the Chelsea Flower Show: I had some halcyon years living on a houseboat practically next door, and in the days when Members’ Day meant you and one or two other people pottering blissfully about in frocks/gents’ lounge suiting in the sunlit acres – ah, it was very heaven, those blue remembered hills whereon celebrity had not been invented.

Since those far-off days, the NorthernReader household, its back turned against the metropolis (hurrah), has found its pleasures in a harmless addiction to country and county shows.  If you have yet to experience a day spent in comfortable footwear solemnly debating the relative merits of different breeds of perfectly darling sheep, showmake this your breakthrough year.  We have happy memories of years and years of drinking Pimms and watching the pole-climbing (no, really) at the New Forest Show: only our morbid dislike of traffic kept us away from the Royal Welsh.  Since becoming adopted citizens of Northumberland, our cravings are splendidly fed by the Northumberland Show, and that was where we were to be found yesterday, knee-deep in cattle, pigs, dogs and tiny children driving tanks around a field.

The country show has seldom, if ever, featured as a key locus in fiction, which is a shame because all human, and indeed sentient, life is there.  A splendid setting for comedy, tragedy, love and mayhem, I suggest.    PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens explores many of Ukridge’s get-rich-quick ideas, but, sadly, exhibiting at the local show is not one of them (incidentally, when did chicken farms fall from favour as an absolutely sure-fire thing for making love or money?  Wodehouse’s breezy chaps are always falling back of the idea as a perfect scheme, but Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and indeed one the plot twists and turns in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, would tend to suggest that there is a melancholy or even a sinister side lurking among our feathered friends). Race meetings have become synonymous with Jilly Cooper territory, in fiction if not in life (haven’t read one and haven’t encountered burly lotharios with Barbara Cartlandish names, so cannot claim any right to judgment here); and of course with Dick Francis’s thrillers, which marry detailed knowledge of the racing world with the most wooden characters since Thunderbirds and are therefore known collectively (there are about a million of them) in the NorthernReader household as The Woodentops Go To The Races.

The London Season in all its debutantish horror lies behind Nancy Mitford’s The mitfordsPursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and is even more clearly brought to life in her sister Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  EF Benson’s Lucia in London charts his heroine’s attempts to break into high society.  If you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia novels, the best recommendation I can give to entice you in is that Benson completely nails the significance of saying ‘no’ with emphasis to mean ‘I never heard anything so marvellous, and it thrills me through and through.  Please go on at once, and tell me a great deal more’ (and if that doesn’t make you want to add Benson to your much-cherished ‘Jane Austen and Other Wasps’ shelf, I despair).

Let us shake off the dust of London and retire gratefully back to the country and its social pleasures.  Our first glimpse of Tess, red lips and sash, white dress and all, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, finds our heroine skipping round the Maypole.  I have only to recall it – and the several hundred dutiful essays retelling it to me handed in each year by undergraduates – to know that the moment when I can re-read  Tess has not yet dawned.  More enjoyable might be Peter Tinniswood’s play, The Village Fete; I don’t know it but he was such a good writer that I’m looking forward to making its acquaintance now I’ve stumbled upon it.  Miss Read, of course, is as ever a mary-mouse-and-the-garden-partysplendid source of fetes, fairs and jamborees, as is Barbara Pym (and why has it only just dawned on me how much those terrific writers have in common?).  If all else fails, we can revisit Enid Blyton’s Mary Mouse, who in Mary Mouse and the Garden Party performs the useful function of setting out all the hard work that lies behind such a festive occasion in so much grim detail it put at least one impressionable young reader off anything to do with such jolly community get-togethers for very many years.  Ah, how are the mighty fallen: this summer (I use the term loosely, having looked out of the window) I find myself organising a village Midsummer Night’s Party and running the raffle for the Village Fete.

And on both days, the sun will shine, print frocks will be worn, bunting will flap, and, best of all, there will be books.  It’s beginning to look like a NorthernReader summer.books

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Week 107: Hope

What is it with badness and hair?

What is it with badness and hair?

Donald Trump is leading in the Republican nominations. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and Africa are fleeing for their lives. North Korea, Zimbabwe and Russia are run as personal fiefdoms by fear-driven despots. A confederation of has-beens and the politically greedy in Britain are making up any old rubbish to persuade us to take our toys home and not play with the big boys and girls in Europe any more. And we’ve had two sunny days so far this year. It’s all looking the teeniest bit gloomy. Books, please.

To remind myself that the United States of America is largely peopled with lovely, intelligent men and women who will not be choosing to be governed by a fascist clown, a small part of this week’s NorthernReader bookshelf is dedicated to a celebration of the spirit of shining optimism that is the defining characteristic of all that is best about America. Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution is widely regarded as the if-I-can-only-have-one choice, and who am I to disagree? Skipping forward a couple of centuries, anyone who said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ earns a place among the angels, so let’s hear it for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his 1933 inaugural speech, Roosevelt went on to call fear ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’ Absolutely right, I would say, and just about nails why lesser politicians find whipping up fear such a useful tool to get away with the flagrant abuse of democracy. Be afraid, be very afraid, our beloved leaders tell us; and look into my eyes, for heaven’s sake don’t use your common sense or your own judgment. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time reminds us that cometh the hour, cometh not only the man but in FDR’s case the woman too, with a perceptive study of how much Eleanor Roosevelt brought to the presidency as well as the marriage. For a taste of the positive impact of the New Deal, let us have Betty MacDonalds’ Anybody Can Do Anything, a witty first-hand account of life during the Great Depression and the recovery. And to remind ourselves that the enlightenment view of history does eventually prevail – that slavery, racism and hatred can be overcome – how about Taylor Branch’s monumental trilogy on the Martin Luther King years, starting with Parting the Waters?

hqdefaultCheery and uplifting books that look at the Middle East and tell us that ‘this too will pass’ might be a little trickier. That particular bag of rats is too close, too much of the present, for us to be able to look forward with confidence. The best that books can do for us is to remind us of the resilience of hope. Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes, his vivid and sometimes harrowing tale of his time in Iraq, does not have a fairy-tale ending, I am sorry to say; but read it together with Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (or indeed anything by the piercingly good Thesiger) to at least deny Saddam Hussein the victory of wiping this entire culture off the face of the earth. An Improbable Friendship should win a prize if only for coming up with a title of such consummate understatement: written by Anthony David, it tells of the long and warm friendship between Ruth Dayan and Raymonda Tawil. Yes, that’s right, the wife of Israel’s Moshe Dayan and Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law. It is impossible to read about these two remarkable women without, just for a hope-filled moment, imagining a world not governed by testosterone. Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, anyone? So very much more optimistic that Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which, coming from the Angry Feminist (or Jolly Cross Feminist) school of the 1980s, now feels a bit wearying and dated. It has become a staple of school and university reading lists, and I do rather wish it could at least be balanced by a more positive feminist outlook. Suggestions please.

As for the so-called ‘debate’ about whether the UK should remain as a member state of the European Union: well, an obvious candidate for our shelf this week is Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. But we can also cheer ourselves up with some simply gorgeous European fiction and rejoice that we are lucky enough to be part of the same loose conglomeration of free-thinking, enlightened, rational men and women as – well, fill in names-of-your-choice here. Mine would include Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Muriel Barbery and Michel Houellebecq (although having taught undergraduates who struggled to spell Keats and Hardy correctly I do wonder what they’ll make of him), Patrick Süsskind, Seamus Heaney, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo …. And so, deliciously and endlessly, on. In fact, retiring into the borderless world of intelligent writing might be the only possible way of getting through the next yawningly long weeks of spiteful half-baked threats and warnings that seem to pass for debate these days. Yes, yes, I know, ‘twas ever thus, and the benches in the House of Commons are set two sword-lengths apart for good, if outdated, reason; although over-confidence in the concept of a standard sword-length, let alone a standard arm-length, might well have proved unfortunate should it ever have been put to the test, so that – hurrah! – we can take this pretty piece of Parliamentary legend as proof that good manners (or at least not actually attacking the chap opposite, however tempted) do prevail. And the idea that rational, considered and courteous debate outranks trying to kill your opponent is the most hopeful paradigm for our fractious and troubled world. A copy of Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners might be the thirteenth fairy’s best gift to us all.

The feast or reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

The feast of reason and the flow of soul. Democracy in action, Australian Parliament

Week 102: The Woolly Liberal Reader

christ_in_emmaus-400

Having seen, seethed and inwardly digested the shameful decision of Archbishop Justin Welby to placate a bunch of homophobic bigots, I finally realised – what took me so long, I hear you ask – that while God and I get on just fine, thank you, the Church of England and I are through. I have been a bit disconcerted, if flattered, by the number of friends who have described my sorrowful au revoir email to our very nice vicar as ‘brave’. Frankly, me not rocking up on Sundays will be (a) nothing new and (b) unlikely in itself to bring the Established Church to its knees. That isn’t, of course, the point. The NorthernReader household did not trade with apartheid South Africa, and continues to do its little best to avoid ‘Made in China’. Our five ha’pence-worth of withheld consumerism did not and will not get them talking in the caverns of power, but as a minor-league player in the Unpleasantness League has it, every little helps. So, Your Grace, should you happen to have dropped by, let me explain to you that saying sorry beforehand for something that you know to be wrong but intend to do anyway does not constitute contrition. And forgive me for pointing out to you what I hoped you knew already, but you represent Anglican Christians, and it is to all of us, or them, that an apology is due. Does ‘not in my name’ have any resonance for you?

 

So this week’s bookshelf needs to restore some sense that light will always overcome juliannorwich485darkness and that all shall be well. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love might be a good place to start. As Nicholas Lezard points out in his review of the latest modern English version, whether or not we share the mystic nun’s faith is beside the point: read it for the beauty of its prose, its importance as the first text in English we know to have been written by a woman and for its contemplative philosophy, which offers us all a welcome opportunity to stand apart for a moment to think. And if you want to have Hildegard of Bingen playing in the background while you read, who am I to stop you? ‘All shall be well’, by the way, is what Julian heard Jesus saying to her. It certainly sounds like the sort of thing the chap in the New Testament would come up with, rather than, for example, homophobic rants: but then, he always has sounded like a much nicer person than his Church has turned out to be.

Where next? We could do a lot worse than falling back on the company of some thoroughly good priests to lift the spirits. How about the Reverend Charles Henstock, in Miss Read’s endlessly consoling Thrush Green novels? Better him by far than the fearfully self-righteous St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, although his earnest study of ‘Hindoostanee’ does at least suggest that he sees the targets of his missionary zeal as having a language and culture it might behove him to learn about. Jane Eyre has much to say, and even more to imply, about how we see ourselves as ‘us’ and others as ‘them’ and how things might be better all round if we could please stop doing that. Food for thought, Archbishop, next time you are tempted to talk to gay people as an undifferentiated entity. The acerbic (to put it very mildly indeed) American comedian, Lenny Bruce, went straight to the heart of racism by asking, ‘when you say you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one of Them, which one of Them? Harry Belafonte?’ (for younger readers, think Idris Elba).

I do rather hanker for some sort of well-mannered Utopia in which people’s sexual preferences remain known only to themselves and their consenting partners. Much too much interest in who does what to whom, especially if that happens not to conform with what the majority are doing to whom, has been a degrading part of the British legal system (not that many other countries can lay claim to primeval soggy liberal enlightened tolerance or – my ideal – utter indifference). It took a thoroughly shaming ten years for the centuries-overdue Wolfenden Report to amble into law as the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts. To get a sense of what it was like to be one of the thousand or so men imprisoned each year, now might be a good moment to read Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law, remembering as we do so that his unspeakable experiences in Wormwood Scrubs (Wildeblood was one of the defendants in the notorious Lord Montagu case of 1954) were as nothing compared to some of the punishments enthusiastically supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new best friends. Your Grace, might I recommend a thoughtful study of Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, or David Faber’s Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis? It was Churchill, you will recollect, who pointed out to Chamberlain that ‘you were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war’.newsappeasement-tl

Something optimistic is needed. ‘Only connect’, said Forster. It is what fiction does: gives us the chance to empathise. All great writers have known this. It is easy to be unmoved by statistics; the vast army of unwanted waifs, the hordes of tiny children invisibly cleaning chimneys, the sea of women who were their husband’s or their father’s property. Harder to turn your back and close your mind on the pathetic protagonists of Oliver Twist, The Water Babies and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. So my readerly response to the outrage of the 2016 Anglican Primates’ Conference is to settle down to re-read the works of EM Forster. Starting with Maurice.untitled (3)

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 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 60 Careers for Girls

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

When I was little, there was a book knocking around our house called The Girl’s Companion. Among much that was thrilling, such as how to cover a lampshade and how to punch leather (I am not making this up), there was a very slim section called ‘Careers for Girls’. We could aspire to be nursery assistants, it seems, or kennel maids, air hostesses or nurses. Mmmm. It turned out that we were the generation surprisingly well-equipped for the social changes that have happened in our life-times. We may, it is true, have nurtured the secret hope that we could marry a scientist, an astronaut or a company director rather than going to all the trouble of actually being one ourselves, but we had one huge advantage over our male contemporaries. We did not grow up in the expectation that we would step onto the career ladder at Point A within company B and progress steadily upwards towards retirement. The lives we have actually lived, stitching together what hindsight grandly allows us to call a portfolio, changing tack with a panache that would warm Ellen MacArthur’s heart, came more easily to us, with our absence of expectations of anything more structured, than it did to the chaps. But today’s bright young things, emerging soggy-winged from university, know in principle that they must be prepared to duck and weave to forge themselves some sort of money-earning path through life. I think it must be perfectly miserable. They are hedged in by former class-mates on one side, glittery-eyed in the pursuit of telephone-number salaries and strapping themselves blindly to the unstable raft of financial service sector jobs as they head for thewhite water ahead: on the other, by dire warnings that they have missed the boat if they

No it isn't

No it isn’t

haven’t yet picked an outfit to which to sell their soul. The idea that you might find your own way through the forest, guided by ethical values and quiet pleasure rather than naked greed, seems to have little currency at present. Time, I think, for some books to come to the rescue.

I was a great admirer of Sue Barton, the heroine of Helen Dore Boylston’s series, without ever feeling the slightest tug towards nursing as a vocation. The Sue Barton books – Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Rural Nurse – you get the idea – are in fact set in the American hospital and nursing world of the Twenties and Thirties, but what impressed me as a child was the comradeship, warm friendships and selflessness of the central characters. They worked hard, overcame difficulties, and went at life with zest and passion: not bad as role models. Helen Dore Boylston was following that age-old advice , ‘write about what you know’, having been a nurse in Massachusetts and New York. I am only sorry that she did not also send Sue Barton off to re-enact her extremely action-packed life as a nurse on the Western Front in the First World War and later as an American in Paris – and Warsaw, and Albania.

If not medicine, how about teaching? Governesses in fiction very rarely lead lives of beer and skittles (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, the very peculiar governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw), but the life of a country schoolmistress had its charms once upon a time. How about the gloriously-named Miss Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree? Or, indeed, that NorthernReader favourite, the shrewdly perceptive Miss Read, heroine and pseudonymous author of a wonderful series which, beginning some sixty years ago, is already taking its proper place as an important contribution to English rural social history. Most villages now, alas, have The Old Schoolhouse, along with The Old Post Office and The Old Bakery, and few and lucky are the children who can run across the green to school

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

There’s always office work, of course. George Bernard Shaw (oh blast! We really must talk about the lure of the middle name one of these days) simultaneously examines, celebrates and undermines the new and few opportunities for employment available to women at the turn of the last century in Mrs Warren’s Profession. While Mrs Warren’s career choice has been what has long been coyly referred to as the oldest, her daughter rejects her mother and her business empire in order to begin her own, more legitimate, business. But, this being Shaw – in other words, clever, thought-provoking and dancing with wit – the play questions our whole notion that one career might have a greater or lesser moral value than another or be more or less freely entered into. This seems as good a moment as any to notice that the dreary trajectory of job-related sexism across the ages has been for a career to be exclusively male and high status – teacher, secretary – and, once women have won the hard-fought battle to gain entry, to be largely deserted by men and become lower-paid and lower status. It is going to be grimly interesting to see what happens to the public perception of doctors now that more than 50% of medical students are female.

But at least there are now no jobs that women cannot consider. Goodness, even the Church of England has got over itself and agreed that God might not be revolted by women bishops after all. The world of my childhood, in which all taxi-drivers, lorry drivers and pilots (civilian, military or sky) were male seems now as remote as the age of chivalry.  That Girl’s Companion proved a false prophetess: I never did become a hairdresser, a beautician or a florist. Nor, in truth, did I become an engineer or a lion-tamer, but at least I was barred from all these occupations only by lack of talent and interest rather than gender. No, better by far to follow the career advice given, perhaps unsurprisingly, by so many books. Sometimes, as in life, we’re not sure if it’s ever going to work out – Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – but deep down, don’t we all want to be writers?writer

Week 41: The Book List

crack on, chaps

crack on, chaps

A student’s life, in English Literature anyway, is beset with book lists. These come in two varieties: the Bibliography (books we have read) and the Recommended Texts (books we jolly well should read). Compiling bibliographies can be a misery of the first water and there is in the end no getting away from the heart-breaking realisation that no other approach will do, you are just going to have to develop a Tidy Mind. In other words, you really are going to have to buckle down and work on getting into your muscle-memory the sequence ‘pick up book, make note of author (surname COMMA first name) title (italicised) place of publication (oh help!) COLON publisher COMMA date of first publication COMMA date of the copy you’re handling with increasing loathing. And it has to become as automatic to you as breathing to note the page number of any content, no matter how tiny, you might at any time in the next millennia contemplate quoting or referring to. Because if you don’t do all this EVERY SINGLE TIME, it follows as night follows day and as hangover follows a good single malt that at the very last moment, with deadlines looming, you will want to quote or refer to something which you now realise underscores the entirety of your sublime and original thesis: and all you can remember is that it was in a blue book. This is a true story and as far as I know that particular student is still roaming the stacks of the university library, an academic Flying Dutchman. Remember, too, that all academic readers will turn to your bibliography first, where they will unerringly spot your failure to have read something blindingly obvious and/or their own master-work. They will also immediately notice that you have spelt their great friend Blenkinsop incorrectly. Neither of these lacunae set you up for the easy ride that you were craving.

The Recommended Reading List, in comparison, is a doddle, but it can intimidate. For a start, it is usually, at first glance at any rate, several thousand pages long, and is unnervingly separated into helpful sections such as ‘primary texts’, ‘secondary texts’ and ‘periodicals and journals’. Fear not and do not be down-hearted. Here are some tips.

Read these ...

Read these …

First, it is important to take on board that these lists are neither prescriptive (you don’t have to read everything) nor proscriptive (you are allowed to read other things). Well, alright, I suppose they are quite prescriptive, but their breadth, once they have got the absolutely mandatory set texts out of the way, is meant to cater for a range of tastes. Something for everyone. Behind their rock-like masks of learned indifference and inscrutability, academics do have some sort of a heart, and they are not really seriously suggesting that you settle down and read every page of every tome on that list. Whisper it not, but there is just a chance that not even the compiler of the list has read every text on it. Not cover-to-cover. But they are giving you some pretty hefty clues that your spirit, your world or your degree (pretty much the same thing, I’m sure you’ll agree) would be immeasurably improved if you were to humour them and have a crack at quite a few on the list. It is neither funny nor clever to pitch up to discuss your thesis on Jane Austen and have to declare (because it is becoming distressingly obvious) that you’ve only read Pride and Prejudice (this is another true story. I was there). A booklist for a course on the novel that lists, say, eight texts, which the course then considers week by week in the order printed, is not just a useful checklist for you to be certain when you have been to enough lectures to not bother to go to any more or read any more. Just because you know the exam will ask you to write about two of the texts does not mean that you will show yourself to best advantage by having to write only about Sons and Lovers and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which just happened to be the subjects of Weeks 1 and 2 of the course. Remember: some poor sod has to mark your essays and yours might by the one hundred and ninety-eighth on those two. Imagine the cry of glee, the sparkling eye, and the willingness to give a good grade out of simple human gratitude, that befalls the essay on Moll Flanders in those circumstances (yup, that was me, too. All one hundred and ninety eight of them. And they all spelt D’Urberville wrong).

So what if you’ve taken a quick peek, like a horse in the show-ring, at the set texts and decided they’re not your sort of thing? Well, there are two answers to that. The first is, why are you cluttering up a perfectly good place at a good university reading English Literature when someone else could have been there instead of you and enjoyed it? The other answer is, trust them. Go on. Go out on a limb. It’s really not going to kill you. The very, very worst thing that can happen is that, after a few hours that you’ll never get back (but nothing like the sum of the hours you’ve spent playing Call of Duty or watching Game of Thrones), you’ll close the book knowing what happens, knowing it didn’t do it for you, and –crucially – being able to put WHY into words. What, apart from it was long and you have the attention span of a crisp, kept you from engaging with this book? The subject? The setting? The prose style? You may be right, don’t forget: it may be awful: mind-numbingly, toe-curlingly, skin-crawlingly awful (The Da Vinci Code is my nomination here for illustrative purposes). But think about what exactly made you so cross (the terrible, endless adjectives, and the relentless, entirely predictable plot, in my case). See? You are now an accomplished, articulate literary critic.

Try it. You might love it.

Try it. You might love it.

Or, of course, you might surprise yourself. I had lunch earlier this year with the man who made me read Joseph Conrad when I was a raw and tender undergraduate. Yup: all one million pages of Nostromo. I can still recall the exceedingly ill grace with which I embarked upon this enforced labour. And I also still remember the shock of pleasure as it dawned on me that this was great. Thank you, Anthony.