Week 116: The Pause Button

European-FlagsWe are living through a freeze-frame here, as Thursday 23rd June creeps towards us.  Some of us remember being asked, way back in 1975, whether we wanted to be part of Europe.  Yes, we said – especially we the young, voting for the first time in our lives.  We are the post-war generation: blessed with the astonishing gift our parents and grandparents gave us of being the first Britons in history to feel confident that we would not be at war with our fellow Europeans in our lifetimes.  We have children born as European citizens, part of a forward-looking, joyfully international community that looks back at a world shaped by mediaeval boundaries as a primitive past that we have matured out of.  Fragile, endangered and vulnerable though it is, we are the generations that are comfortable with our multiple identities.  We belong; to our families, our friendship groups, our communities, and also to the long histories written into our DNA that we choose to respond to – as Scots who have never been north of Watford, fifth-generation Latvians, descendants of Africans, Norsemen: we all know who we think we are.  And we have the right to feel part of the European family, too, not waifs pressing our noses to the glass from our off-shore island.  We can drop by, move in, invite others to pull up a chair: Europe is our home and we live here.

So you will appreciate that I was already living under a cloud of apprehension as this hateful, ridiculous referendum slouches ever nearer, and the rhetoric and the propaganda became ever more unhinged.  I think this must be a little like living through the summer of 1939, and it is horrible.  And then Jo Cox was murdered. rose

At times like this, when the world seems to teeter on its axis and faith in the essential wisdom and goodness of humans feels quite hard to hold onto, I need books to give me backbone and to give me solace.  This might be a very good moment to curl up into a little ball with The Wind in the Willows (the NorthernReader Ultimate Comfort Book) and stay there until it has all blown over.  Not long enough? How about all twelve Arthur Ransome novels? Or Winnie The Pooh with its extremely pertinent reminder that ‘everyone’s alright really’ (unfortunately I am not nearly as nice a person as Pooh and, even as I try reciting his helpful observation, my Inner Unpleasant Person – never very far beneath the skin – is thinking about one or two of the least savoury of the present campaigns and muttering ‘well not him, obviously’).

Perhaps I need the long view.  Norman Davies’ Europe: a History has much to commend it.  No-one could accuse Professor Davies of short-changing the reader – one thousand pages taking us from the Ice Age to the end of the twentieth century – a breadth that might encourage a sense of ‘this too will pass’.  Oxford and Cambridge University Presses both have their multi-volumed Histories, of course, and offer plenty of opportunity to specialise as well, with histories of Early Modern, Enlightenment and Modern Europe jostling for consideration.  But there is more to life than non-fiction, and there is useful perspective to be gained by a re-read of Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty greeksDead, or Seamus Heaney’s marvellous Beowulf , both salutary reminders that we  come from a long line of marauding chaps who like fighting.  We tend to buy into the whole hero thing a teensy bit uncritically, it seems to me.  How much nicer the world might be if we lost no opportunity, when reading these tales out loud, to point out that heroes (and the gods of hero cultures) are a bunch of intellectually-challenged thugs who have neither the brains nor the courage to give debate, compromise and consensus a whirl.  Mothers, tell your children.

So much of European history has been a sorry narrative of fighting to the death over little indistinguishable bits of muddy ground.  The role of the Captain in Hamlet is barely a dozen short lines, and no actor yet besieged his agent to get him the part, but in his brief moment on the stage he captures all the hopeless futility of war between neighbours:

Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.

Hamlet predicts

The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds

Hamlet was written four hundred years ago.  Shakespeare’s audience recognised the tragic idiocy of war as age-old then, and we still respond to the play today because we still live in that same world, in thrall to mediaeval notions of boundaries.

Once the Referendum votes have been cast and counted, one way or the other, the Pause button will be double-clicked.  Whatever the result, we must not let hatred and fear have any resting place.  We will play on.hands

Week 115: ‘Honour is Purchased By the Deeds We Do’

WP_20150803_16_37_18_ProOur dog Bingo shares an official birthday with HM Queen.  His, admittedly, is a date arrived at for slightly different reasons: less in need than Her Majesty for a date when the sun might be presumed to shine (ha!) on the public outpourings of congratulation, Bingo has rather more in common with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, who has an official birthday to make up for the fact that he has mislaid his own in his long travels to a new life.  While we, of course, feel honoured to have been adopted by this small and determined cocker spaniel, it is the Queen’s privilege to bestow honours from the sweetie-jar of the British array of knighthoods, dameries, and orders of this and that.  This year’s little lot have attracted the opprobrium of the ranting Brexiters, who, glittery-eyed as the madness takes hold, see evidence in the Birthday Honours that everyone’s being horrid to them and you have to be pro-EU to get a medal around here.  Well, it’s a point of view, I suppose, but it does rather miss the point that you have to earn honours by achieving something.  Unlike, for example, the drear lists of the aeons-before-yesterday third-raters driven by grudges, arrant xenophobia and an inability to comprehend (or indeed to think it worth teaching) the basics of history or economics.

So, having got that off my chest (thank you: there will undoubtedly be more despairing pro-twenty-first-century bleatings from me as we move ever more swiftly to the referendum clifftop), how does the Honours system fare in books?

Once upon a time, it seems, things were much simpler.  Some chaps were knights, principally because of their prowess at killing other people in a very sporting manner, and others were lords, principally by dint of being the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of other chaps who had not only been awfully good at killing people but who had impressed some king or other (himself a chap awfully good at killing people but with the added finesse of getting other chaps to do at least some of the killing for him) and been given a slightly casually carved-off chunk of  Britain to go and be mini-me in – sorry, make that ‘go and hold in the name of King Whoever’.   Presumably on the grounds of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’, many of these lords were brothers or younger sons of kings.  The whole thing is the teeniest bit testosterone-fuelled – girls only got to be ladies by marrying, or being the daughters of, knights and lords (which is one in the eye for all those mothers who told their daughters that being a lady is all about good manners and having a hankie on you at all times).  And what all this leads to, in bookish terms, is of course Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (read the fabulous translation by Simon Armitage) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (now I come to think about it, that’s a knight and a lord doing the writing: come on, Ma’am, a knighthood for Mr Armitage please).  It does not take a social commentator of genius to spot that the whole world of Arthurian legend is really frightfully County, where, darling, absolutely everyone knows everyone else and is titled, has a huge country estate and enjoys blood sports.  Oh, and the girls hang g and laround in inappropriately flimsy frocks and lust after the brawny chaps rather than the infinitely rarer thoughtful ones (Gawain, for example; brave and handsome and with an IQ struggling towards a whole number on the evidence of the text; or indeed Arthur himself, the last man on the planet to spot what is going on between his wife and  —  Freud-thou-shouldst-be-living-at-this-hour —  Lancelot).

All this land-owning brings us to Shakespeare.  William himself didn’t have much of it, but what he had he held, grimly moving boundary stones to gain an extra few inches on his fields in Stratford and buying the biggest house in his old home town.  But knights, lords and kings were his stock-in-trade, and his English history plays are awash with people called Suffolk, Warwick and York.  A moment’s inattention at the theatre and one can feel high and dry in a sea of people addressing each other as Leamington Spa or Chipping Sodbury, bringing about strong feelings of solidarity with Winnie the Pooh, who querulously enquired, ‘Three Cheers for Pooh! For who? Why, what did he do?’.  When you add into the heady mix the fact that there were very few Christian names to go around, you can see what a social nightmare living in Mediaeval England must have been, as exemplified in the snappy little dialogue between Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York in Richard III (it’s Act 4 Scene 4 if you’re dying to read on):

QUEEN MARGARET

Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;

DUCHESS OF YORK

I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.

QUEEN MARGARET

Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.

The Queen is cheating at this point, because the Duke of Clarence (the one who gets drowned in a butt of malmsey) has a perfectly good first name, George, which has the unique selling point of being unbagged by anyone else in the play (although to be honest there are so many bit-parts for Lord This and Lord That, any one of whom might have been known to their friends and relations as ‘good old George’, that I’m afraid I did not go and look them all up for you.  Sorry).

But to end on a bright note.  The NorthernReader household has long presumed that Penelope Wilton’s Damehood must have been lost in the post.  Today, hurray and hurrah, it arrived.   To a truly great actress, congratulations.Dame Penelope Wilton

Week 111: The Festive Reader (and its prey)

hexhamThis week and next sees the Hexham Book Festival strut its stuff on a stage/in a café/gallery/library/cinema/Abbey near the NorthernReader stronghold: o joy, o rapture is a not unreasonable response, especially for James Naughtie devotees (as who could not be?) who have a  BBC Radio 4 Book Club session with Tony Harrison and the launch of Mr Naughtie’s own novel to look forward to. Wherever you are, certainly in Britain, it seems increasingly unlikely that you will not find yourself within sauntering distance of a literary festival of one sort or another between now and October.  Authors have become the new strolling players, ever on the road smiling bravely and often, answering the same question from Ashby-de-la-Zouche to Stromness and signing their little paws off.  Woe betide the plain, the recalcitrant and the reclusive: the modern author can forget the luxury of anonymity.  Should you happen to have a warm, engaging personality as well as a flair for writing fiction, your book sales can only be enhanced, but sadly the converse also holds: there are one or two writers whose dour demeanour and brusque absence of good manners has forever tainted my enjoyment of their writing.

Which is extremely unfair of me on two counts: a) because authors, no less than other more ordinary mortals, have the right not to be judged on their appearance and b) because such discrimination can only be applied to writers who post-date photography.  Yes, yes, I know that there are writers immortalised in pastels, watercolours and oils, but even setting aside the objection that only the wealthy, the famous in their own lifetimes or the writers with artistic siblings qualified for being captured on canvas, one glance at, say, the Droeshout engraving of William Shakespeare is enough to remind us that a good likeness can be hard to find.  But even though it undoubtedly shouldn’t donnematter, does it matter?  Are we drawn to or repelled by John Donne’s uncanny resemblance to Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy fame?  Is Philip Larkin’s reputation for unpleasantness bolstered by his frankly lugubrious mugshots?  And how would our reading of Chaucer change if we found a portrait which showed him to be a ringer for Shrek?

The idea of the author as celebrity, ever on the road promoting his or her work, is scarcely new.  Indeed we have an illustration of Chaucer himself reading his work to the chaucercourt of Richard II, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to hear him doing all the voices and keeping his audience enthralled.  Perhaps the greatest performer of his own work was Charles Dickens.  He toured the country, and the United States as well, giving readings of his novels so dramatic that people in the huge audiences fainted.  Dickens was clearly a brilliant actor: think what it must have been to be his parlourmaid, walking past the study door and hearing Bill Sikes and Nancy rather startlingly slugging it out, with pauses while their new-minted words were written down.  Now it is rare for the author to be the wisest choice of reader, but goodness me the pleasure of the perfect reading.  Alan Bennett, for example, clearly put upon earth to give us Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner and The Wind in the Willows (among much else, Bennett has also recorded Alice in Wonderland which is also sublime but somehow never quite made it onto the NorthernReader Truly Indispensable list).  The BBC’s Radio 4 is the source of much realewisding-aloud perfection:  I have recently much enjoyed listening to Damien Lewis reading John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth, not least because I am at heart shallow  (it should come as no surprise to learn that I am eagerly awaiting the film of Our Kind of Traitor).

But deciding which famous actor should be tasked with reading your favourite book, or indeed your own first novel, for posterity is perilously close to deciding who should play you when they make the biopic (not that there’s any harm in Being Prepared, of course: who does not have their list of eight records, a book and a luxury ready just in case Kirsty phones?)  The fact remains that most writers today, including the ones who only became writers as a by-product of their Badger-like aversion to Company, have to pitch up at endless events where a brightly anticipatory audience demands insights into the creative process, answers to questions about how much you fancy your own main character, and a preview of your latest effort read, falteringly and woodenly, by you, aware as you are that you have either not explained who these characters are and what the hell they are doing sitting in an empty ballroom/on an upturned boat/in the Sistine Chapel discussing the death of someone else the audience has never heard of, or that in the depth and complexity of your introductory explanations you have killed off any need for purchasing your book together with, judging from their frozen glazed expressions, much of your audience’s will to live.

But be not afeard, as Shakespeare so comfortingly reminds us; the isle is full of noises, and many of them at this time of year are the sounds of polite audiences applauding before they queue to buy your book.  Never mind that when they ask you to dedicate their copy you are pretty sure they asked you to write ‘To Dirty’  and it is only later – much, much later – that it occurs to you it is more probable that the name was Bertie.  Yours, dear author, are the sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.  And only three or four readers out of ten at every festival will unfailingly assure you that they will get your new book from the library.books

Week 110: Happy Birthday William Shakespeare

obamaglobe-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumA‘Yes, we can.’  Dominic Dromgoole, director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, says Barack Obama’s words inspired the fabulously ambitious plan to take Shakespeare round the world on a tour that has visited 197 countries and gripped and enthralled more than one hundred thousand people.  Today, give or take a day or so, William Shakespeare might be celebrating his 452nd birthday, should there happen to be an afterlife and, if so, should it incline towards cakes and ale.  Rather less cheerily, today is also the day (again, give or take a day or so) that Shakespeare left us for that party in the sky four hundred years ago.

We have talked before about the little we know about the life, and about the books that people have spun out of it.  Today I think I want to tell you a story.  This morning we held a party in our village hall here in NorthernReaderLand.  People of all ages came together to drink coffee, eat cake and enjoy each other’s company.  I had advertised this shindig as Shakespeare’s Birthday Party, and what I have found thrilling, wonderful and infinitely moving is the number of people who have come up to me in the street during the last couple of weeks and said, ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’, or ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’, or ‘rough winds do shake the darling buds of may’.  We have Shakespeare wrapped around the beautiful double helix of our DNA.  Our tables this morning were festooned with snippets and quotes, and I wish you had been there with us to hear the joy and sense of ownership with which we read them out.  ‘This is our voice,’ is what I heard, ‘and these are our words.’  Small wonder, then, that my new very small friend Emily, who helped blow out the candles, started us singing Happy Birthday to William and we all joined in.

So what is it about Shakespeare that grabs us, heart and soul?  Well, for a start, there is so much of him.  I bow to no-one in my admiration of his chums, but if we turn to John Webster, there are only two towering masterpieces, one other play and a handful of collaborative works.   Thomas Middleton was more prolific, but again we really only have a handful of plays that are solely or principally his.  Middleton, by the way, is particularly good for deflating the Romantic notion of Shakespeare as some sort of back-lit demi-god, penning his deathless lines alone and in a clean white shirt: among the plays for which we know Middleton to have been a co-writer we can list Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well, and probably Measure for Measure and Macbeth while we’re about it.  Shakespeare is nonetheless very unusual indeed among his contemporaries for being credited with so much solo work.  This was a time of astonishing demand, when the playhouses needed a new play every few days in the precious weeks when the weather, the plague and the powers-that-be allowed them to open.  Get the public mood wrong, come up with a play that no-one wants to see, and ‘chaos is come again’ (Shakespeare’s good on chaos, on the wafer-thin line we teeter on between survival and oblivion, on the tiny gossamer wisps of hope that flicker past us).  No wonder most of the acting companies went for the productivity – and the collective responsibility – of an in-house script-writing team.

The first Hamlet

The first Hamlet

What it must have been to have Shakespeare in the company!  How quickly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – who became the King’s Men when James VI/I pitched up in London – must have realised they had something special among them: a little goldmine who could be relied on to come up with the goods.  We can see and hear that band of brothers in every line he writes for them.  We know when they have a couple of boy actors, one noticeably tall and one noticeably small: you’ll find them playing Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing.  We know when a new and different sort of comic actor arrives; once the playwright and musician Robert Armin joins them, Shakespeare’s clowns become philosopher-poets, melancholics who can sing – Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night.  And, goodness me, we know they had a simply terrific actor who must have fired Shakespeare’s imagination, driving him to produce ever bigger and more complex roles that shape and define the modern English-speaking theatre.  Imagine what it was to be Richard Burbage; to be handed the slips of paper, to be the first to give the lines sound, to make the writer hear what worked and what needed tweaking, what needed re-working, what needed scrapping.  Imagine being the first Hamlet, the first Othello, the first Richard III, the first King Lear.  Branagh, Olivier, Irving, Kean – they all trace their lineage on the stage back to Burbage.

sonnetsAnd all this is to forget Shakespeare’s extraordinary other life as a published writer of poetry.  It’s an odd and slightly paradoxical position that he occupies: writing elegant love poetry was seen as a gentlemanly or aristocratic accomplishment, but no gentleman would be seen dead publishing his work commercially.  Your loss, of course, if a too-nice sense of social distinction lost you the astonishing pleasure of reading Shake-Speares Sonnets.   The very form that he adopts, adapts and takes to unimaginable heights we now think of as the Shakespearean sonnet: four lines setting up an idea –

 

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate

 

Another four lines exploring that idea and taking us down a particular path within it –

 

Wishing me like one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Now, here it comes, the twist, the turn, the moment when Shakespeare uses one of his battery of huge ‘little words’: but, and, then, for, yet.  It’s ‘yet’ in this one, which is Sonnet 29, by the way.  So here come four lines which turn the corner and tell us what the poem is really talking about –

 

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

 

Oh hurray! It turns out, dearest reader, that it’s all about you, the person at the heart of this poem and this poet.  Drive on now to the final couplet; two rhyming lines that say it all:

 

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

 

Now that, friends, Romans, countrymen, gentles all; that’s the way to do it.

shakespeare picasso

Week 108: Hair Days

images We touched last week on the irresistible draw experienced by the bad at heart towards eccentric and baffling hairstyles. ‘By their works shall ye know them’ still holds good, and the best indicator of a person’s moral worth remains his or her actions. So, President Assad of Syria, a surprisingly normal short back-and-sides does not make you a good person. But hair can serve as a sort of early warning system in life (Donald Trump, the little chap making people’s lives unbearable in North Korea, the unnerving brazen helmet that a former Beloved Leader of our own adopted). How about in books?

Richmal Crompton deftly spotted the reassuring nature of the tousled hairdo (only up to a point, Boris Johnson) and contrasts William’s pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards trademark style with that of the unnervingly smooth and glossy Hubert Lane. It is tempting to see Crompton’s inspiration for this nastiest and creepiest of horrid little boys in the slicked-down Adolf Hitler, but in fact Hubert predates the rise of the brylcreemed dictator. It could just be that, should she have had anyone in her sights as a target for parody, the press baron Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, might fit the bill; ‘pioneer of tabloid journalism’ is a damning epitaph, don’t you think? Even more aptly, perhaps, Harmsworth’s brother Harold, later known to us yokels as 1st Viscount Rothermere, another media magnate and an enthusiastic admirer of Nazism, richly deserves the mockery of being thought of as Hubert Lane’s prototype. Chilling, though, to think of William and his gang and the Hubert Laneites growing to adulthood in time for the Second World War (a fate they avoid by remaining forever eleven as the decades pass). I feel the same sad shadow hanging over the Swallows and the Amazons, by the way: while it is quite cheering to think of Nancy as one of those WRNS pushing the model boats about on charts, John and Roger, clear and obvious naval officers both, would have been lucky to come through the war untorpedoed. How comforting of fiction to suspend them all in a nostalgic glow of everlasting holiday (for a sense of what it was like waiting for news of loved ones on active service during the war, Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn takes some beating).

eb046724349a66c2c58b8ddd47576a44Victorian literature, and in particular male Victorian novelists, fetishised long, luxurious female hair to such an extent that it came as quite a surprise to me that not only did many women in the nineteenth century not have hair like Rapunzel but also that short hair was in fashion in the early nineteenth century among radical dissenters and democrats. In the heyday of the Great Victorian Novel, women’s hair is a shortcut (sorry) to character. Dark, flowing locks, untrammelled by pins and an up-do? Think passion, rebellion and (gasp) intelligence. Fair hair, timidly framing the face? A sweet if rather vapid young woman such as Laura Fairlie, heroine of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, where she is contrasted with her black-haired, sallow-skinned half-sister, Marian Halcombe, with her mannish looks and propensity for action. It’s a code that lingers even into the works of Enid Blyton, in which the drippy Anne is blonde and passive while dark-haired Georgina is such a victim of the girls-have-to-simper rule that she breaks out by exploring androgyny (this is just possibly not how I read the Famous Five books when I was small).

Earlier, Jane Austen knew her readers were attuned to the semiotics of hair, and gives us plenty of telling detail. One of the very many things that Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility gets exactly right is the difference between Elinor’s neatly confined hair and the tumbling wind-blown tresses of her sister Marianne. Much of the plot depends upon our understanding that to touch or stroke woman’s hair is an intimate and erotic gesture, so that when Elinor sees Marianne allowing Willoughby to cut off a lock of her hair as a keepsake she takes this as absolute confirmation that the two are engaged to be married. It is this fondling of someone else’s hair that gives such a decadent and disturbing edge to the scene in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in which Miss Havisham – she whose own hair is macabrely decked with withered flowers – ties jewels in Estella’s hair and on her breast before poor Pip’s helpless gaze. Remember Pip is British: it is a wonder that he didn’t just die of embarrassment on the spot (note to readers who are not British: there is something in the British DNA that makes watching an older woman suggestively stroking a young girl not titillating but utterly, toe-curlingly, mortifying).

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Marianne’s lock of hair has literary precedent, of course, and if you have unaccountably not yet got round to reading Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the moment has arrived. Pope’s mock-heroic poem arose out of an incident which threatened to escalate to Capulet/Montagu proportions: an aristocratic young man took it upon himself to snip off a ringlet from the head of his distant cousin, a celebrated beauty whom he was courting. In life, the story does not have a happy ending: Lord Petrie married someone else (great wealth proving even more attractive than great hair) and died of smallpox two years later, aged only twenty-three. But Pope’s poem sparkles and breezes along, joyfully skipping from one hyperbole to the next. His aphorism, ‘Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul’, continues to have much to recommend it and should be on every young man’s reading list before he a-courting goes.

That young man should also bear in mind the good example set him by Shakespeare. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,’ Will tells us, and carries on to say,’ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.’ Oh, you might think, a bit blunt; but that’s the point of glorious Sonnet 130: Shakespeare shuns flattery and shows it up as the empty mockery that it is. Love everything about who your beloved really is, he tells us, and it’s priceless advice. The reference to wires is a technological one, by the way: the fashion of the day was to compare the ideal woman’s hair to finely-spun golden thread or wire. Shakespeare’s is the time when to be blonde is to be, in every sense, fair. Marina Warner’s scholarly study, From the Beast to the Blonde, examines the world of fairy tales and is completely fascinating about our cultural response to hair colour. Long or short, black, brown, red, blonde, green or blue or violet if you really must, grey, silver or white, other people are reading our hair. When you come across descriptions of hair in fiction, just ask yourself why.

You have to admit, a great hairdo

You have to admit, a great hairdo: and we haven’t had an entirely non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

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

Week 96: On With the Motley

846361_5ffeed6b6ec847d7a305acdd3116dedf.jpeg_srz_p_198_276_75_22_0.50_1.20_0Last week, the theatre came to town – or to our village at any rate. We were delighted to welcome Paddleboat Theatre to our village picnic, and even more delighted when the sun came out especially for them. Their show, According to Arthur, enthralled an audience of all ages and you could have heard a pin drop – no mean achievement with an age range of three to ninety-three and a splendid Northumbrian propensity for chat. After supper, beds for the night, a frighteningly early breakfast, and advice on how to put oil in a car (should you win the lottery this week, you might like to consider buying them a van), we waved them on their way to the Edinburgh Festival where, I am happy to report, they are taking the infant world by storm (so make sure you go and see them if you are in Edinburgh this month).

Once they had gone, we were happy to fall back on some favourite books to indulge our theatrical leanings. Not, on the whole, actors’ biographies and especially not autobiographies, although they can provide a great deal of unintentional humour. There seems to be an immutable law of the universe that dictates that the greater the acting ability, the blanker the canvas upon which it starts. The ‘my thoughts on acting’ genre can also provide some gems: vying for first place for making the NorthernReader household cry with laughter are Anthony Sher’s The Year of the King and Harriet Walters’ Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting. Most enjoyable of all is Nigel Planer’s sharp-eyed spoof, I, an Actor, purportedly by Nicholas Craig. I would quite like to see this as the end-of-term commemorative volume given to every graduate from drama school.

untitled (11)A love of theatre can – should – start when very small and depends upon grown-ups taking every opportunity to ensure that their darlings experience the immersive joy, fear, wonder and awe of live performance. TAKE THEM TO THE THEATRE. The worst thing that can happen is that they, or you, or even they and you, will be bored for a couple of hours; and there is very little better preparation for adult life that some practice in coping with being bored. And if they should learn to sit still, quietly, for the greater good, you will have done your bit to ensure that posterity is a better-mannered place. And, in between the theatre trips, read books. Here are some.

The Swish of the Curtain is now more than seventy years old, but the story of the Blue Door Theatre Company still engages young readers and makes them urge the characters on to success in the drama contest on which so much depends. Do not watch The Apprentice, which is dreary, soulless and predicated entirely upon the bleak worship of money: read this instead. And if you love it, hurray! There are four further books about the same group of young people. Pamela Brown wrote The Swish of the Curtain when she was fourteen, so the book is also a useful reminder to your offspring that they could be making better use of all this spare time in the summer holidays. And we must have Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes on this week’s shelf. Fear not, loathers of ballet and all things pointy and pirouetty: this deservedly classic tale is about determination, striving and achieving your heart’s desire, whatever that might happen to be.

Get in quickly before the school syllabus ‘does’ – what a doom-laden verb – Shakespeare and puts young people off, sometimes for ever. I loved Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, in which our young hero time-travels (so very much more interestingly than the creepy chap with the wife in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel) and finds himself in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We have talked before about how very good I thought Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare. If for some unaccountable reason you have not yet taken my advice and read it, now is the time. Morgan pulls off that almost impossible trick of populating his story with famous people without making it feel like a Wikipedia extract with added conversation.

They made a film of it

They made a film of it

For a taste of a theatrical world that we have now lost, two books: Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure. Smith’s novel, which, like her completely essential I Capture the Castle, is aimed at young adults (and upwards), is mainly set in the small-company theatrical world in the nineteen-twenties: Bainbridge’s, which draws upon her experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse, is set just after the Second World War. Several of Ngaio Marsh’s murder mysteries are set in the world of the theatre as well, and like Smith and Bainbridge, her books now have a period flavour as well as an assured and detailed understanding of the back-stage world. Try Enter a Murderer, Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin (for some reason that completely escapes me, the last two were published in America as Night at the Vulcan and Killer Dolphin, which, while hilarious, does make me wonder whether her American publishers were involved in a bizarre plot to sabotage her career by ensuring no sales at all).

But to end where we (more or less) began, in Edinburgh at the Festival: do not go without reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Oh wait; I could have ended that sentence sooner: go nowhere without reading Kate Atkinson. But One Good Turn is set at the Festival. It also revisits her compelling detective hero, Jackson Brodie. This has two beneficial consequences for you, dear reader: once gripped, you might as well settle down and read the four novels in which he features (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog). And then you could watch the television dramatisations, starring Jason Isaacs. You can thank me later.

Well, it's been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture

Well, it’s been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture