Week 113: Flat

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

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

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

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

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

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

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

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

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

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

Week 104: Vain Trifles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 81: All at Sea

WP_20150304_026Thalassa! Thalassa!, Xenophon tells us thirty thousand Greek soldiers cried out when they came over the ridge and saw the Black Sea, The NorthernReader does not quite match that for volume or intensity of feeling, but it is our ritual cry on spotting when the horizon becomes all watery (pretentious? Moi?). Close to Britain’s very best coastline (tell nobody), we give ourselves the opportunity for this egregious showing-off at least once a week. Walking on empty sandy beaches, accompanied by romping dogs, with the early spring sunshine on your back and a breeze so fresh you wish you’d put heavier boots on, is one of life’s great pleasures. Is it just me (and that horde of Ancient Greeks), or have writers thought so too? Yes of course they have. And at least a couple of them know their Xenophon too (try the Penguin History of My Times and The Persian Expedition: he has a wonderfully clear and straightforward style and is full of vivid description): Buck Mulligan exclaims – or shows off to Stephen Dedalus, exclaiming in Ancient Greek and showing off never being very far apart – ‘Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look’. I have no idea whether James Joyce kept a copy of Xenophon under his pillow and liked nothing better than to read a little Greek every day, but here in Ulysses it is clear that he knew this ancient visceral response to the sea. And of course Iris Murdoch – how out of fashion she is now but once she was, more or less single-handed, England’s intelligentsia – finally collared the Booker Prize with The Sea, The Sea. If you are unfamiliar with Murdoch, be warned: her heroes are profoundly slappable and you may be as irritated as you are entranced. An ability to remain calm in the face of barrowloads of cod mysticism is a requirement for reading pretty much any Iris Murdoch, especially her later novels, but go on, give it a go.

WP_20150221_021More fun, perhaps, is some poetry we can chant as we stride along the beach. John Masefield takes some beating: not only ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) but ‘Trade Winds’ and the deliciously exotic ‘Cargoes’, where every word is gorgeous to read and – important to Masefield – to say aloud. Oh, go on then, let’s have Coleridge as well, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And after all that lurid story-telling, let’s pause to reflect with Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. I love it: I come back to it after years away and I still love it. There’s a direct simplicity with which it looks you in the eye and takes you on a journey which engages your intellect as well as your heart. And Arnold’s view of the world, that ‘hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light’, stands delicately balanced between the metaphysics of John Donne and the terrible nihilism of Edward Thomas. Worse places to be, provided you are only visiting.

But there is something about the rhythm and pulse of the waves beating upon the shore that draws novelists as well as poets into lyrical writing. John Banville’s The Sea WP_20150304_022(another Booker winner) shifts its moods as fluidly as the tide. And we must have Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; an astonishing thing, woven of multiple soliloquies, shot through with the changing light of the coast across a single day. One to read while we listen to Britten’s haunting ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes – a Desert Island Discs choice if ever there was one. We could add Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to this week’s shelf, too. Not only is it a perfect gem of Modernism, but it also conjures up a sense of summer on the Isle of Skye that will have you yearning for the Hebrides (To the Lighthouse is almost the only book I can think of that sets itself in the Highlands and Islands without wallowing in clans, tartans and generalised Brigadooning). Even normally-to-be-trusted Arthur Ransome goes a bit goodness-aren’t-they-quaint on us in Great Northern?, his last novel, set in the Outer Hebrides, where all the locals hang around in kilts and beards and mutter in uncouth tongues. It’s worth reading, nonetheless, even if only to give yourself the pleasure of one last trip with the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums. Ransome’s love of the sea and passion for sailing makes him unequalled by anyone other than Joseph Conrad for giving us landlubbers a sense of life on board: try We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Missee Lee and feel that you have sailed across the English Channel at night and met with pirates in the South China Seas. And then settle back in your safely land-locked chair and immerse yourself in the pleasures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We all think we know it – The Muppets, the current National Theatre version (the opera, the ballet and a musical with Tim Minchin as Long John Silver can only be a matter of time), but there is so much more to Treasure Island than adventure and derring-do. Its subtle exploration of the very fluid nature of morality, for a start, makes it a book for our time. Ah, hoarders of gold who will stop at nothing to avoid paying taxes. There are more, and uglier, faces than Johnny Depp’s to be the poster boy for pirates these days.

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

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)

allendale

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 48: In Praise of Elizabeth Bowen

All great writers are great readers

All great writers are great readers

It’s confusing stuff, this modernism. In music, it seems to mean Mahler, Richard Strauss and Debussy (and they can happily go on the tracks list for a Modernist Desert Island Discs). In the sometimes arcane worlds of art and design, Modernism means angles and an austere rejection of ornament. For us literary types, Modernism came and went and we are all Post-Modern now: a topic for another day. Literary Modernism can be broadly dated from the First World War up to the beginning of the Cold War. Yes, I know you want to quibble, and say ‘but what about …?’, but to give us some boundaries to get hold of in our minds, the Somme and the Iron Curtain will do nicely. So, our Modernist bookshelf has probably already got TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce propping each other up. But I wonder if you’ve read Elizabeth Bowen, and if not, why not. It is the NorthernReader contention that she is one of the greats of English Modernism. Much more to the point, she is a joy to read: dry, witty and piercing. As the brothers Gershwin (great Modernists themselves) put it, who could ask for anything more?

Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin, thus giving her a place in the Irish pantheon together with Joyce and Beckett, but brought up in England. She was (one is tempted to say ‘of course’) friends with the Bloomsbury Group, and she had the almost obligatory affairs. Having inherited Bowen’s Court in County Cork, she and her husband lived there on and off from the 1930s to the 1950s and held a sort of literary salon to which pretty much anyone who was anyone – Woolf, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch – flocked. She died in 1973.

Her second published novel, The Last September, which appeared in 1929, is a haunting and sparely told story of love amid the Irish War of Independence. It is my everlasting sorrow that someone with actual, as opposed to Monopoly, money got there before me, bought the film rights, and made a complete hash of it. Alright, I am not an impartial witness, because I had cast it and directed it so perfectly in my mind.  Please, don’t see the film, read the book. And then you can join me in my Ancient Mariner impersonations, stopping people in the streets to tell them that they should read it too.

I’m going to implore you to add her next novel, Friends and Relations, to your bookshelf too. We could call it a comedy of manners, but it unflinchingly notes every tiny detail, every opportunity missed, every road not taken, as it tracks the constrained lives of two young couples. It is also the best-observed depiction ever written of the turmoils of being a teenager in bourgeois society. If you enjoyed EM Forster’s Howard’s End – and of course you did ­– this is definitely one for you. We could club together for the film rights.

TheHouseInParisOur Elizabeth Bowen collection must include (possibly my very favourite in a crowded field) The House in Paris. One of the tenets of Modernism is that it challenges the idea of a linear narrative – you know, one damn thing after another. Well, The House in Paris starts on a particular day, skips back for its central chunk to a narrative that may be entirely imaginary, and then catches up with itself exactly where we left off at the end of Part 1 – and oh, as Wordsworth would undoubtedly have said, had he been lucky enough to be around in 1935 to read a first edition, the difference to us! We return to the House in Paris, but we are now in the position of the person who says, ‘Well, if I’d known then what I know now …’. Only it’s cleverer, and more unsettling, than that, because we’re not sure that we know anything more than we did. All we know is that time, and places, and narratives, and – most of all – people, can’t be trusted. Elizabeth Bowen seems to have been incapable of writing a sentence that wasn’t graceful, lean and elegant, and The House in Paris will wind itself round you like an Hermès silk scarf. Only sadder.

Bowen's Court

Bowen’s Court

Just two more. She wrote almost a dozen novels, many short stories, essays, biographies and memoirs, including Bowen’s Court, the best biography a house ever received, but it is my purpose to whet your appetite, not give you a potted digest of every book she wrote. To you, the joys of browsing, especially as (unaccountably in my opinion) several of her books are out of print. So I am going to pick out another novel and a book of short stories. The Heat of the Day, first published in 1948, can sit beside Waugh and Manning who, you will recall, we have elected as the writers of the greatest fiction to deal with the Second World War. Set in London after the Blitz, it weaves together ideas about personal and national loyalty and betrayal. It makes us question our certainties about identity and truth. In true Modernist style, its narratives overlap and contradict each other. But don’t for one moment run away with the idea that Elizabeth Bowen sat down to write a Modernist Novel: not even, perhaps, The Modernist Novel.  No, like all the very best writers, she has something to explore and she found a way to do so.

The book of short stories I am going to recommend to you is A Day in the Dark (and part of me is shouting ‘No, wait! If you can really only have one, have [insert name of today’s favourite] instead!’ You can see I’ll be rubbish when Kirsty asks me which book I’m going to take with me to that island of hers). A Day in the Dark was published in 1965 and brings together nearly forty years of short-story writing. It is a selection made by the author, who prefaced it with the graceful disclaimer, ‘If this selection of stories does not please, I can blame nobody but myself – in the first place, for not having written better ones; in the second, for choosing wrongly from those there are.’ Dear Miss Bowen, no blame attaches: no-one has written better ones, and a selection made in the dark would be as pleasing.

Week 43: Woof Woof

 

The newest NorthernReader

The newest NorthernReader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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