Week 105: All You Need is Love (all together now)

valentines_dayGoodness me, one minute it was New Year and now it’s Valentine’s Day. It would be fair to summarise what is known of St Valentine as ‘nothing’. Mmm, our favourite sort of saint, a tabula rasa upon which splendid amounts of stuff can be projected; including, since at least the fourteenth century, stuff about love. Chaucer is commonly credited/blamed for coming up with the link between St Valentine and what I’m afraid I tend to think of as ‘lurv’, but as any fule kno, ‘first surviving mention in writing’ is not necessarily the same as ‘first mention.’ Actually, I’d go a bit further here and bet you a fiver that Chaucer is definitely not the inventor of St Valentine as a mini-love god. Chaucer (like Shakespeare) is a user of snippets and trifles that his audience already knows. His genius lies in what he makes of his material, not in the originality of his sources (originality being an uninteresting and dubious commodity to the mediaeval mind).

But right now we are stuck with Valentine as the patron saint of tacky cards, scentless roses and supermarket meal deals involving fizzy wine and chocolate. Pausing only to wonder why everything has to be pink, I think we can do better. If all will go ill for you should you not mark February 14th by a display of devotion – passion, even – then let me recommend the seductive power of words. Here, then, is the NorthernReader Indispensable bookshelf for lovers.

john-donneLet’s start with the master. I have been promising for a very long time now to try to persuade you to love John Donne, and now the moment has come. I do not have a hard task on my hands. Try the first line and a half of ‘The Good Morrow’:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?

Lovers take note: there is no-one alive who would not give their eye teeth to have you gaze at them across the breakfast toast and marmalade and say that. Before you, nothing; since you, the whole world. Or as Donne puts it:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest
Or try this, from ‘The Sun Rising’:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.

It’s the fabulousness of those thumping slowed-down syllables in the second line that catches at the heart. Shakespeare of course, and others too, could put into words that overwhelming realisation that everything, from climate change and global terrorism to putting the bins out and the cap back on the toothpaste, fades into invisibility in the face of all-absorbing love: but no-one but Donne could do it in four spare beats (a trochee and a lovely, stretched-out, lingering spondee should you be feeling metrically inclined). One more, although I know you must – couldn’t possibly not be – hooked already. This is from ‘The Anniversary’:

Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

Add some Marvell, some Auden, some Browning (her and him) and, yes, Shakespeare’s sonnets too, and our Bookshelf for Lovers will have made a fair start.

And prose? The difficulty, as we noticed way back in Week 27, is that the course of true love, should it happen for once to run smooth, does not tend to run particularly grippingly. Boy meets girl, boy and girl settle down happily, The End, while lovely in real life, is frankly dull in fiction. Literature abounds with tragic entanglements – Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, Dido and Aeneas – but they scarcely set a tactful note for Valentine’s Day. Even romantic comedies depend upon near-misses with catastrophe to drive their plots onward and keep their readers turning the pages. We can definitely add an Austen or two to this week’s shelf, but bear in mind that they range from the long hard road to realising that he’s not the one to the equally stressful trek towards second chances (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion: I invite you to compose one-phrase summaries of all of her novels should you be at a loose end). Colm Toíbín’s Brooklyn is enough to give the genre ‘romantic novel’ a good name: come on boys, be brave and read it even though it has a girl on the cover. And of course, one perfectly good way of countering all the slush of the Valentine’s Day industry is to settle down with any of the sweepingly, swooningly, lavishly romantic novels that categorically side-step the happy ending. How about Kashuo Ishiguro’s haunting, buttoned-up The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s searing Atonement and Rose Tremain’s pitch-perfect Music and Silence? And there are gorgeously-cast films for the first two (the BBC seems to have been in talks since God was a boy to bring Music and Silence to the screen, but without results so far), so all those chocolates could come in handy after all.

indexAs for tales of long-enduring domestic bliss, I see problems. Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man? Two minds with but a single thought, I grant you, but that thought is usually ‘where’s the next cocktail coming from?’ which is bound to take its toll in the long run. Better, perhaps, to take Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane as our ideal detecting couple, as brought to life by Dorothy L Sayers and kept in robust marital health by Jill Paton Walsh. But for a quiet celebration of the mundanities of married life, we could do an awful lot worse than a joyful re-read of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, in which Jane and the Reverend Nicholas Crampton muddle along just fine.

As the years together mount up, I have come to realise that the best advice Mr NorthernReader and I have ever received was not anything red-lipped and passionate (now you come to think about it, can you imagine Romeo and Juliet, irritating adolescents as they are, ever having made it to middle-aged settled-downness?). No, I hope that our guiding light has always been the long-married chap who said, ‘the secret of a happy marriage is to lead parallel lives. She goes her way and I go her way.’ That’s the way to do it.  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

You know what they say: nobody's perfect

You know what they say: nobody’s perfect

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Week 100: Silence, Solace and Defiance

untitled (18)On Friday November 13th, Paris, my beautiful Paris, was assaulted. What words are there? What you have no words for, you cannot talk about, Wittgenstein said. Rage, fury and fear can strip us of words, so that like Hamlet we splutter in a cry of outrage and pain. But our silence, as we stand bare-headed to remember and to grieve, is itself a response to the barbarity and cruelty we have witnessed. A tiny handful of people around the world take it upon themselves to play monstrous god with the lives of others. They devastate whoever they touch, but they have no power to corrupt the human spirit. We, the humans of the world, have language that brings us together, shares our sorrows and our joys, and outshines the darkness. ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.’ Dylan Thomas said that; and he was right.

So this is a moment for us to let words give us solace. Now is the time to hear again Seamus Heaney reminding us that ‘The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.’ Now is the moment to be comforted by the Mediaeval poet of Deor, translated into modern English by Simon Armitage: as he recounts episodes of sorrow, his constant refrain is ‘As that passed over   may this pass also.’ The Persian Sufi poets who gave us the phrase ‘all things shall pass’ come to our aid with some perspective; and the aggrandising megolamania of would-be tyrants everywhere is cut properly down to size by Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’: you remember the line, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ and its immediate absolute rebuttal; ‘Nothing beside remains.’ The history of humankind shows us that it is not possible for evil to hold sway for more than a moment, because we always turn to what is good. I find myself back at John Donne, of course. At a moment when the unwise are rushing to turn away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free, we need more than ever to calm ourselves with Donne’s affirmation that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. […] any man’s death diminishes me …’. Or in other words (those of Charles Kingsley, in fact), do as you would be done by.

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

As for defiance: the problem with answering violence with violence is only too drearily obvious. Resistance, yes, and an implacable adherence to the moral values of the Enlightenment – yes, our old and dear friends, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but let us know, and live by, what we are for rather than enormous lists of what we are against. So the stories of triumph over wickedness are what we need today. How about CS Lewis’s Narnia tales, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark? But ‘triumph’ is the wrong word here. I don’t want the swaggering and trumpets that it evokes. Rather, let us have the quiet proclamations that the human heart cannot be broken. Remember Galileo – like us, flawed, understandably intimidated by fear, but always and for ever stating ‘and yet it moves.’ Let Antoine Leiris be spokesman for us all in his refusal to dignify his wife’s murderers with ‘the gift of hate.’ ‘Even though that is what you were hoping for,’ he goes on, ‘responding to hatred with anger would be to fall to the same ignorance that made you the people that you are. You want me to be scared, to distrust my fellow citizens, and to sacrifice my liberty for security. I will play on.’

That’s the way to do it.   As Auden says, ‘We must love one another or die.’_86701381_86701380

Week 77: Boxes

Only one! I dream of having only one

Only one! I dream of having only one

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

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

… answered some

Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

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

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

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

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

Week 73: ‘All I Have is a Voice’

 

charlie-hebdo-coverWhen I was a little girl, there was a playground chant that went:

Sticks and stones

May break my bones

But words will never hurt me

And it was right, and the world would be a better place if we all got together and repeated it every day. We have no right not to be offended. Here is a short random selection of some of the things that I find offensive:

Sneezing without a handkerchief

Mindless and unimaginative swearing

Selfishness

Tattoos

Competitive parenting

Racism

Misogyny

Bigotry

Belligerent Stupidity

The options available to me to deal with these ghastly things are to walk away/turn off the television or, if the circumstances allow it, to engage the offender in rational debate about why what is loathsome to me is just fine with him or her. Call me British (I am), or call me the product of the Enlightenment (please), but I do not have the right to resort to weapons. And (politicians take note) I do not want more and more laws rushed into place to make life more and more restricted, regulated and unbearable. Take Nigel Farage, for example (in fact, do take him, please, as far away from me as possible). I think his views are repulsive: I think he is a rabble-rousing demagogue who cynically rides upon fear and unease to peddle straight-forward racism. I think that everything he and his pathetic party stand for is vile. But I am extremely glad that we have a (just-about) free press and the notion of free speech, because I would far rather hear from him and his like than wonder if they are lurking in the shadows. With freedom comes responsibility. No, I do not mean that we should pussy-foot about and be very careful about what we say. Quite the opposite. I mean we who have the enormous privilege of free speech have the duty to keep it alive and kicking. Keeping quiet is often the easy option and sometimes the safer one. We owe it to the dead of Charlie Hebdo to waive our right to cowardice and to stand and speak together. And remember Martin Niemöller’s warning, that if we stand back and do nothing when others are persecuted, there will be no-one to speak up for us when they come, as they will, for us.

 

james-gillray5So this week I am in need of books that affirm the greatness of the human spirit, the largeness of the human heart, and the profundity of human courage. And above all, perhaps, this is the week to celebrate the power of satire.

John Bunyan wrote at least part of The Pilgrim’s Progress when he was in prison. His crime was to be a non-conformist preacher in one of the depressingly many times when we have gone out of our way to make windows into men’s souls, usually using a blunt instrument, and dictate what someone else should believe. There are, you do not need me to point out to you, insuperable difficulties with trying to police beliefs and ideas, and now might be a very good moment to raise a glass to Mrs Patrick Campbell if indeed she really did say, ‘I don’t mind what they do as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.’ Believe what you like, in other words, but let your actions be kindly and socially acceptable. If it cheers you to believe in fairies, or the Jedi, or even (poor deluded you) Scientology, well, fine. I will resort to Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies and make sure that I am Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By and not the loathsome Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did: for which of us could bear very much of being treated as we deserve?

This brilliant cartoon is from The New Yorker and we should all be grateful to them for it

This brilliant cartoon is from The New Yorker and we should all be grateful to them for it

What balm is there today for our sickened hearts? Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ gets it exactly right, including, I’m afraid, the phrase, ‘a low dishonest decade’, which should certainly make us pause and reflect: and the poem’s great commandment, ‘We must love one another or die’ must be our watchword. This week’s title, ‘All I Have is a Voice’ is from the same poem. Do please read it and ponder it in your heart.

And now for a celebration. Let’s hear it for the satirists. Belwethers of their society, satirists let us know something is rotten by their very existence. When times are good and the people are, more or less, content, satire is a thin and lame thing with trivial targets in its sights. The great satires are tragic landmarks pointing to terrible things. Voltaire’s Candide, for example: and now is definitely the time for you to make your acquaintance with that work of savage genius if you have not already done so. And no, Voltaire (Franҫois-Marie Arouet if you are feeling pedantic) didn’t say, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’: that was his early-twentieth-century biographer, Evelyn Hall. But he did say, ‘Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them’, which is at least as apposite and should encourage us all into making 2015 the year we discover philosophy. Greater even than Voltaire was Jonathan Swift. You know Gulliver’s Travels, of course, although it is possible that you had it as a gutted and filleted book for children: go back now and savour its fabulous savaging of the way states are run. Better still, read A Modest Proposal and face the fact that, in a world where one in nine does not have enough to eat, we still need to find our Swiftian outrage and to take action. Positive, life-affirming action. Now that would be a fitting tribute to brave satirists everywhere. Nous sommes Charlie.charlie-hebdo

Week 58: A Fanfare for the Makers

braveheartThis Thursday will be National Poetry Day. I don’t think the nice people at the Forward Poetry Foundation who came up twenty years ago with the idea of an annual celebration meant ‘national’ to conjure up images of flag-wearing, face-painted groups of nationalists chanting poetry at each other across the barricades, but close, forensic attention to words, singly and together, is the essence of poetry. You know, of course, Coleridge’s throw-away line that poetry is ‘the best words in their best order’. Good old Coleridge, a hoot to be with, I suspect, especially after a glass (or a sniff) or two, and showing great mastery of the political art of saying something that sounds good until you start to examine it closely. The antithesis, in fact, of good poetry. But he could write it. Never mind Kubla Khan and his stately pleasure-domes: try ‘Frost at Midnight’ and feel that Coleridge is there in the room with you, talking.

So, yes, Coleridge is a must for a poetry bookshelf. I expect that, tattered and much read or pristine and never opened, you have a Complete Works of Shakespeare and quite possibly some sort of an anthology as well: Oxford, Norton or Penguin? If you are at a loose end as the evenings grow longer and the nights stiller, by the way, you might like to curl up and read Shakespeare’s sonnets as one continuous narrative. Go on, try it. The famous ones – ‘shall I compare thee’; ‘let me not to the marriage of true minds’ ‘my mistress’ eyes’ – will crop up like buoys in the current, but you will be swept along by the fabulous ribbons of words, images and ideas, at once playful and deadly serious, that weave their way through the sonnet sequence. And use that anthology as a bran tub: dip in and read wherever the page opens.

Celebration-Britain-Spirit-Coin-HumourBut here for National Poetry Day are four poets, one from each of the nations that make up this country.

One of the lasting pleasures of poetry is its habit of twining odd lines and phrases into the deepest recesses of your mind, ready and willing to volunteer themselves when the need –or the mood – arises. As a coiner of sonorous phrases, Dylan Thomas knew few equals. An English-speaker with, as far as I know, little or no knowledge of or interest in Cymraig, the language of Wales, he nonetheless resonated with the sound patterns, the rhymes, half-rhymes and repeated sounds that are the cornerstone of Welsh poetry. His poetry is almost obsessively lyrical, meant to be heard, meant to be responded to almost viscerally, in sharp contrast, perhaps, to the dryly intellectual modernism of his contemporaries. Give yourself a treat and listen to Richard Burton begin Under Milk Wood, read (aloud) ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem on His Birthday’ and agree with Thomas that ‘the world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it.’ And remember that, impossible person to live with that I’m sure he was, he had the grace to say, ‘Someone’s boring me. I think it’s me.’ You could love him for that alone.

Flying the Saltire, let us have our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Hers is a still voice dropping into the dark. She can be funny, passionate, dry and reflective, as the need arises. The shipping forecast – a beacon of loveliness on the radio in the small hours – may have changed the area names, but her poem ‘Prayer’ inscribes them on your heart:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

 

Yes, even Auden was a young man once

Yes, even Auden was a young man once

If we’re thinking about poetry that speaks of a sense of nation, then let’s have Auden for our English poet for this week’s shelf. ‘Look, stranger, on this island now’ is as good an injunction as any, and the poem, with its celebration of ‘the leaping light’, the small fields and the ‘swaying sound of the sea’ that surrounds us – for Auden, no little Englander, encompassed all Britain – puts a quiet finger on one aspect at least of a sense of this place. You will of course have noticed that Duffy’s poem is a sonnet, and Auden wrote them too – read, if you haven’t, his sonnet sequence ‘In Time of War’, sadly as apposite now as when he wrote it. In fact, he wrote poems in pretty much all the shapes and forms available to him. He argued that a poet should be able to ply his trade across all the structural forms available to him, and he scorned the sonnet-only (or the free verse-only, or the ode-only) poet as he would have scorned a plumber who only did radiators or an electrician who stayed away from ring mains. I wish I knew what Auden thought of Chopin.

And for Northern Ireland? Well, we should most definitely include Louis MacNeice, not least because he gave us this week’s title (and they are from his poem, ‘Autumn Sequel’, which we can slip onto the end of last week’s shelf). A friend of Auden, who was warmly encouraging of his poetry, and of Anthony Blunt – who knows how hard Blunt tried to encourage him down other, more political paths – and a drinking companion of Dylan Thomas, McNeice is perhaps too easily overlooked today, but his poetry, like his character, is subtle and sensitive with an intellectual backbone and a definite twinkle in the eye.

So, a Fanfare for the Makers it is. Never mind National Poetry Day: make this the year you read at least one poem every day.

Goodness me.  We haven't had a non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

Goodness me. We haven’t had a non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

Week 47: Books for the Summer

British-summer-in-Blyth-N-001Summer might have taken a little while to be coming in, but loudly sing cucku now it’s arrived. Here in what our soft southern friends think of in their secret hearts as the frozen north (as a friend of KatePonders said, getting off the train at Newcastle, ‘I had no idea there was anything north of Manchester!’: ah, just like George Osborne), we are garden-watering and lazing in the sunshine with the best of them – and of course we have daylight until almost midnight, making late-night al fresco reading a real possibility. What to read?

The summer holidays in children’s books were always uniformly warm and sunny, paving the way for endless picnics. Enid Blyton’s children have gone down in legend and song for their lashings of ginger beer (I wonder if the phrase actually appears in any of the books?), and the Swallows and Amazons, thanks almost entirely to Susan but with Peggy as sous chef, feast on pemmican and grog: but the best of all picnics is Ratty and Mole’s. Whose mouth does not water at the thought of all that cold chicken and ‘cold​tongue​cold​ham​cold​beef​pickled​gherkins​salad​french​rolls​cress​sandwiches​potted​meat​ginger​beer​lemonade​soda​water’? Although I do hope there is finely chopped hard-boiled egg in with the cress, and I notice their manly omission of cakes and chocolate. We Freudian critics (such fun) have long noticed that food in children’s literature offers much the same sorts of thrills as sex in books aimed (we hope) at a more adult readership – and can’t help thinking that poor old Constance Chatterley would have been so much happier had she taken a nice wicker hamper into the woods with the gamekeeper. Lawrence had a bit of a penchant for picnics, sending the Brangwen sisters off on various al fresco jaunts in Women in Love. Good old DH, never one to hint subtly at what can be made hugely, glaringly obvious (all that nude wrestling! All that drowning! All those frozen mountains!). But do read/re-read Women in Love. It is the best of him and will remind you that we were not wrong to think of him as a major novelist.

Deliciously, we can put Jane Austen next to DH Lawrence on this week’s shelf, because we cannot be without Emma being rude to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In fact, the Box Hill picnic can sit shoulder to shoulder with the outing into the Italian countryside in EM Forster’s A Room with a View – and yes, do watch the Merchant-Ivory film again, because it really is as perfect as you remember it. Kiri Te Kanawa is singing somewhere inside your head right now, isn’t she? Let’s add the gorgeous score for Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisited while we’re at it: it’s by Geoffrey Burgon, who also composed the haunting Nunc Dimittis for the BBC Tinker, Tailor,Soldier, Spy. That lush, over-ripe trumpet music for Brideshead takes us to Sebastian and Charles eating strawberries and drinking champagne in heady mid-summer.

But there is more to summer than food. No, really there is. If you are of a holidaying disposition, this is the time of year to load the car with a change of clothes and forty books each as you head off for the joys of motorway, ferry and autoroute on your way to the Dordogne/Tuscany/wherever is fashionable at present. Hilariously, the lighter magazines will advise you to take a selection of impossibly irritatingly badly-written chick-lit with you, presumably on the grounds that you will be leaving your intellectual faculties behind to watch the house while you’re away. Equally preposterously, what used to be called the broadsheets will earnestly admonish you to take twenty or so of those classics you always meant to read. Lounging by a pool with a drink in your hand? An obvious moment to get stuck into Ulysses. No, just take lots: you’ll read each other’s, anyway, won’t you (which is just one of the reasons why you should choose your holiday companions, or indeed life partners, with such care).

We make our own entertainment in the country

We make our own entertainment in the country

We will need some poetry. For a sense of that heavy, shimmering heat that gets into your bones, we can have some more Lawrence. ‘Snake’, which he wrote in Sicily in the early nineteen-twenties, lodges in your heart: once read, never forgotten. And this is the time of year for Edward Thomas’s evocative ‘Adelstrop’. Shakespeare’s sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ may seem too obvious, too clichéd, but read it again. Far from being a simple cheery piece of sunny flattery, the poem reminds us how much we would like to be young and lovely for ever and how inexorably old age, decay and death will overtake us – and, just when we might be hoping for the comfort of assurance that we will always be loved, the poem twists round to its real subject – the author – and promises him immortality. He got it, too. The bee-loud glade allows us to have Yeats’s ‘Lake Isle at Innisfree’ as well. And now is the moment for Auden’s ‘A Summer Night’. It’s far from his best, but Auden not-at-his-best still outranks pretty much everyone. The stanza, ‘Now north and south and east and west/ Those I love lie down to rest; The moon looks on them all,/ The healers and the brilliant talkers,/ The eccentrics and the silent walkers,/ The dumpy and the tall’, is irresistibly Auden. What could in other, lesser, hands, be doggerel is transfigured by some special alchemy into a blessing, an incantation that we can whisper as we lie on our backs in the grass and marvel at the night skies.Pleiades-from-Kielder-1

Ah yes, that reminds me. Above all, this is the time of year to get outside. Go for a walk. Go fishing (if the light is right). Go and sit on the grass. Take a picnic, by all means. And – of course – take something to read.

Week 9: Men’s Books

Oh dear.  This week (like most weeks) the news has been full of chaps behaving like a bunch of three-year olds while the rest of us stand by with our jaws dropped.  Whether the American Republican Party, in a pet because democracy hasn’t given it the answer it wanted, or British police Chief Constables – um, ditto, the wonder is that they haven’t been sent up to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.  They could read a book or two while they were there and find some grown-up male role models.

Although they might have to wade through some depressing stereotypes first.  Bookshops (not brilliant ones such as Cogito Books in Hexham, obviously) are filling up with the Boys’ Own Book of Crash, Thud, and Tying Knots (or something like that) in time for Christmas.  What men want, if you believe the publishers, is facts.  Lots of lists, preferably, and detailed instructions on how to do something they’re never actually going to do (fish, mend something, make a pipe-rack).  Now, I am not disputing the need from time to time for instruction books and clear explanations of how to do something, and I am quietly thrilled that reference books such as Wisden are holding on despite the internet: but the assumption that chaps can’t handle fiction seems a tad depressing.

I don't think this is gratuitous, do you?

I don’t think this is gratuitous, do you?

There is fiction aimed at men, of course.  William Boyd has just done a bang-up job on replicating the dreary, list-laden, unsubtle humourlessness of the original James Bond books.  It sits most easily with the derring-do military anecdotes of Andy McNab, Chris Ryan et al. The most interesting thing I know about Ian Fleming, by the way, is that he may well have been the back-room boy at SIS who came up with the ‘Major Martin’ wheeze: Ewen Montagu’s  The Man Who Never Was discreetly tells the tale.  Spying is a popular topic, too: the best, of course, is John Le Carré’s Smiley and his descendants: if you enjoyed that, try Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six – and, while we’re talking about good spying books, Robert Harris’s Enigma brings a very believable Bletchley to life.

But does the y chromosome have to debar you from Jane Austen? Is Mr Darcy only fit for the company of women?  Well, perhaps he is a bad example, because his creator was female, but an awful lot of fiction has been written by men: not only novels, short stories and plays, but even (whisper it) poetry.  So if chaps are considered too – well, blokeish – to be expected to read stories, how is that they are dab hands at turning the stuff out?  And, it must be said, doing it to quite a high standard – you know, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Auden, that sort of thing.

Rising above the comment of my friend that Wolf Hall is really a girls’ book because it’s full of conversation (well, obviously the casual violence is just there for the male reader, but it clearly didn’t work in my friend’s case), what books am I going to lend out eagerly to men? And which am I going to tuck quietly away onto a special pink shelf with frills on it?

First thoughts are to segregate Bridget Jones and her like (but I’m damned if I’ll protect my male friends from the astute precision of Jane Austen).  It might even be that some of the more introspective evocations of female emotional experience might not grab some male imaginations (to be fair, I can’t stand football, so I am prepared to concede that there might be a chromosomal tendency towards finding different things tolerable).  So, chaps, not for you the water-colour perfections of Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym.  If Salley Vicker’s Dancing Backwards is not your cup of tea, try Where Three Roads Meet instead.  If you find Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart elliptical, read The Last September (if you find the heroine of Wuthering Heights tedious, on the other hand, welcome to my world).

But if we are to go along with the idea that only the tough and the hard-boiled will do for the male reader, then who more perfect that Raymond Chandler?  Philip Marlowe’s heart does get broken, but in true hero style, he doesn’t go on about it.  Peter Wimsey’s heart, we are told, was broken during the War by a girl called Barbara.  He morphs during the novels from being a Wooster-ish fop, through being an embarrassingly drooled-over object of desire in his creator’s eye, to emerge as a middle-aged married man with –gosh, how brave! – sensitivities.  No-one could ever call Wimsey hard-boiled.  Inspector Morse is infinitely duller in Colin Dexter’s hands than in John Thaw’s.  Dan Starkey, the rather unlikely hero of Colin Bateman’s books, might be better off if he could only harden his heart a bit.  If you haven’t read any, try the film of Divorcing Jack, and not just because Jason Isaacs is in it: although that doesn’t hurt, does it?  And he was spot-on as Jackson Brodie in the television adaptations of Kate Atkinson’s multi-layered, poignant novels about loss, starting with Case Histories (don’t worry, chaps, there’s detecting, some violence and even the odd chase there too).  Donna Leon’s detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, on the other hand, is unusual in being kindly, deeply uxurious, happily long-married and a caring father: now there’s a male role model.  Can we have Colin Firth for the film please?