A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

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While chuckling away quietly to myself as I read this book, I kept wondering why I don’t read Barbara Pym more often. She writes with a dry, well observed wit that is eerily reminiscent of Jane Austen; I can completely see why Philip Larkin so famously made the comparison between the two. Though her novels are usually set in upper middle class communities that revolve around churches and their congregations, there is nothing old fashioned or elitist about them; the voices of her narrators feel fresh and modern, and many of the situations her characters find themselves in are hilariously recognisable. This being my third Pym, I have to say that I probably enjoyed it the most of all I’ve read so far; there are so many brilliant characters that it is hard to not spend the entirety of the reading experience laughing out loud.

Wilmet Forsyth is an attractive and literate woman in her early thirties, who lives in Kensington with her perfectly nice husband and intellectual, witty mother in law Sybil. Wilmet lives a rather shallow existence; comfortably housed, well off, and with no children or job to occupy her time, she often finds her days empty and rather aimless. Her closest friend Rowena, who lives in Surrey, is preoccupied with her children; Sybil has an all-absorbing interest in archaeology, and Rodney, no longer quite as handsome as he once was, is busy with his unspecified job at the Ministry, and their marriage lacks passion. Naturally, therefore, Wilmet finds herself gravitating towards the local church, where there is always plenty of minor intrigue with which to become involved. A new, handsome priest arrives, much to the joy of the female congregants; Wilmet helps to find a new housekeeper for the clergy house, who turns out to be quite the eccentric, and Mary, a put upon spinster of Wilmet’s age, is crying out for the guidance of a more wordly woman. Amidst all of this drama, Sybil suggests that she and Wilmet attend the Portuguese lessons taught by Rowena’s dashing brother, Piers, and Wilmet finds herself rather more interested in Piers than Portuguese…

There is so much richness to the plot of this novel, so many fascinating and hilarious characters, and plenty of surprises to delight  the reader. I particularly loved the Mr Collins-esque housekeeper, Mr Bason, whose attempts at haute cuisine at the clergy house often go unappreciated, and Keith, Piers’ flatmate, who takes a very passionate interest in home decoration. This is the sort of book you can sink into, get lost in, and laugh out loud at, being reminded all the time of similar incidents and people in your own life that add to the piquancy of Pym’s always so apt observations. Wilmet is an intriguing narrator; she is blind to much of what goes on around her, and cannot always see her own privilege, but this only serves to make her pleasantly flawed, and she is very likeable indeed. I loved every minute in her company, and I already can’t wait to read my next Pym. I think she may have become one of my favourite authors; if you’ve never given her a try, you really are missing out!

Sorrento and Capri

bay of naples

I have just returned from a glorious week in Italy, exploring Naples and the Amalfi Coast. What could be a more perfect way to spend the summer holidays? I had never been to Italy before, and was delighted by everything I saw; it was all I had imagined and yet also so much more idyllic, beautiful and atmospheric than I could possibly have dreamed. I stayed in the hills above Sorrento, with a breathtaking view of Mount Vesuvius and the entire bay of Naples from my balcony. There could not possibly be a finer view to awake to every morning, and, coupled with the sound of church bells and braying donkeys, it really did feel like I was in a timeless landscape where the worries of the modern world had dissipated entirely.

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Below me was the resort town of Sorrento; a marvellous maze of alleys lined with aesthetically pleasing, slightly decrepit buildings, bustling piazzas and lavishly gilded churches, all perched precariously on a cliff top above the sparkling Mediterranean sea. The main street is lined with fancy shops and gelateries, the air is filled with the smell of pizza and lemons, and everywhere you go, you can see tantalising glimpses of the sea or Mount Vesuvius in the distance. There are palm trees, umbrella trees, colourful flowers and beautiful cloistered gardens everywhere you look, giving it a wonderfully verdant, luscious quality that makes for a vivid backdrop against the faded ochres of the buildings. Down in the marina, a mixture of fishing boats, yachts, ferries and enormous cruise ships bob in the bay, and every inch of the strip of beach is teeming with people eager to soak up the sun. Sorrento is packed with delicious restaurants and amazing food shops, so all of your Italian culinary needs can be fulfilled; I loved getting to eat so much pizza and gelato, both of which are specialities of the region, as well as the rich and tasty local tomatoes and sharp lemons that are often grown in the gardens of the restaurants themselves. Whether shopping in the lanes, gazing up at an intricately painted church ceiling, hiking down the steep steps to get to the marina, having a drink in the piazza or sitting on a bench watching the sunset over the bay, Sorrento provides endless opportunities to people watch, soak up the Italian culture and feel utterly immersed in the slow place of Italian life. I adored every minute.

marina grande, capri

capri from chair lift

One of the reasons why Sorrento is such a popular resort is because it is a transport hub for the entire region. Trains, buses and ferries can take you as far as Naples on one side of the bay and Amalfi on the other, and one of the most pleasurable trips is the ferry to the legendary island of Capri. Capri has been popular with the rich, famous and artistic since the 18th century, and it is easy to see why. Approached from the Bay of Naples, it rises from the sea unexpectedly; a sheer wall of rock and greenery, it initially appears entirely deserted, like something from a Greek myth. As you round the bend, the island lengthens and its craggy slopes reveal hundreds of white houses cascading down the rocks and into the pretty harbour. To get from Marina Grande, the harbour town, up to Capri Town itself, you board a charming funicular railway that takes you up the steep cliffside and deposits you in the town’s main piazza, which has stunning views across the bay and over the island. The winding, cobbled streets of Capri Town are filled with designer shops and expensive restaurants, as befits Capri’s status as a chic holiday resort, but amidst all of this glamour and opulence is plenty of lovely historic architecture, much of it Moorish in style, and absolutely astounding natural beauty, which is added to by the luscious and colourful gardens of residents. My favourite part of Capri, however, was Anacapri, a town perched even higher up on the island, and accessible by the public buses, which are tiny orange tin cans that trundle merrily up and down the island all day like mechanical toys and threaten to plunge you into the sea at every turn. Anacapri is a pleasant maze of much quieter streets, filled with more affordable shops, relaxed restaurants, historical buildings and pretty houses. This little town was once the home of many writers, including Graham Greene, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Anacapri is absolutely idyllic, and one of its greatest assets is the chairlift that takes you up to Mount Solaro, the highest point on the island. Dangling over rooftops with the sea sparkling infinitely beneath you, it is an experience I will never forget. Capri certainly captured my heart, and I only wish I could have spent more time exploring its wealth of history and natural beauty.

moorish architecture, capri

 

 

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

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When Vintage republished a large proportion of Stella Gibbons’ back catalogue a couple of years ago, I was delighted. I’d read and loved the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm as a teenager, but it was impossible to get hold of any more of her novels and I was very keen to try more. Vintage’s jazzy, retro cover designs promised fun and plenty of 1930s period detail, and I snapped up Westwood as soon as it came out. Obviously because I am a book hoarder, it has taken me two years to get to it, and I was quite surprised by what I found. Westwood couldn’t be further from Cold Comfort Farm: rather than arriving in the depths of the countryside, I was transported to wartime London, and the world of a troubled young woman with a heart full of desire.

Margaret Steggles is a twenty something teacher living in Highgate with her unhappily married parents during WWII. She is earnest and romantic, and longs for a life more exciting than the dull and often disappointing one she lives. Plain and unattractive to men, as her unsympathetic mother often tells her, she despairs of finding the joy and happiness her idealistic and sentimental soul seeks through its love of music, literature and art. She is mocked for her seriousness by her pretty, free spirited and fun loving best friend Hilda, who has a queue of boys outside her front door and is batting off proposals like flies. Margaret, however, can’t help but feel things too deeply, and she can’t face life with the unquestioning and simplistic viewpoint Hilda adopts. Desperate for something more than the miserable existence of her parents, Margaret tries to channel her energies into teaching her students, but this just isn’t enough. She longs for adventure, for glamour, for excitement…but where can someone like her find such things?

On Hampstead Heath, it would transpire. For, one misty afternoon, while enjoying a walk over the Heath, Margaret happens to find a lost ration book belonging to Alexander Niland, a famous young painter who Margaret much admires. Full of all sorts of fantasies of what might happen when she meets him, Margaret goes to his house to deliver the ration book, but finds only his pretty and capricious young wife Hebe at home, who then promptly leaves for a party, asking Margaret to stay and babysit the children. She is relieved by Grantey, Hebe’s mother’s maid, who then asks Margaret to come and have tea with her at Westwood, Hebe’s parents’ mansion in Highgate.

This unlikely event causes Margaret to become drawn into the world of the Nilands and the Challises, Hebe’s parents, who happen to be famous playwright Gerald Challis and his celebrated beauty of a wife. Margaret admires Gerald’s work enormously and can hardly bear to be in the same room as him, so great is her awe. She cannot believe her luck at being welcomed into the Challis’ home, and when she becomes firm friends with their eccentric Jewish emigre maid, Zita, a whole new world of colour, culture and vibrancy is opened to her. Margaret begins to neglect her former life entirely, dropping everything to spend as much time at Westwood as possible, which seems to her the epitome of the life she has always dreamed of. However, the arrogant and philandering Gerald is not as perfect as he seems, and neither are Hebe and Alexander. The more time Margaret spends at Westwood, the more she realises that this world she always longed to be a part of might not be an idyll after all…

This is an absolute doorstop of a book, at around 500 pages, and there are so many sub plots involving a whole maze of characters that it would take me far too long to unpick and explain them all. However, Margaret is at the centre of it all, and it is her journey from ingenue to experienced woman of the world that provides the narrative arc throughout, and she is a fascinating and highly empathetic character to follow. Gibbons is marvellous at character portraits, and the world of the Nilands and the Challises in all of its arrogance and eccentricity is marvellously drawn. The real star of the show however is London, which is beautifully and atmospherically described amidst the background of the Blitz. I loved the focus on my old stomping grounds of Hampstead and Highgate, and Gibbons manages to capture the unique charms of these two neighbourhoods perfectly. Her opening description of a mistily autumnal Hampstead has to be one of the finest depictions of London I’ve ever read.

Westwood is not a perfect novel; it is over long, over complicated, and contains some very questionable morals, especially considering the context of when it was written. It is no Cold Comfort Farm, though it is certainly very funny, and while entertaining and enjoyable, it lacks the gravitas it could have had were it a little more focused. I was pleased to read it and experience a different side to Gibbons, but I’m not sure if I feel particularly compelled to read more. Was she a one hit wonder? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions of her back catalogue!

Notes from the Classroom

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It’s been a challenging year. For much of it, I had utterly fallen out of love with teaching and decided that it wasn’t for me. The crushing workload and constant onslaught of soul destroying government changes to the system made me feel like I was on a hamster wheel: constantly exhausted, stressed and completely unappreciated. Paperwork and observations took up increasing amounts of my time as the prospect of an Ofsted inspection loomed (and never eventually came…roll on next term!). I always had marking to do, always had a lesson to plan, a new text to read and work out how to teach, a new scheme of work to create, a parent complaint to deal with, some paperwork to fill out, a student to console or chase…there was never a moment of rest, reflection or completion within a day. There was always more to do and never a tidy desk to look at and feel a sense of achievement. I often found myself wondering why I was putting myself through it all.

I had plenty of dark days, beating myself up for making yet another bad career decision, for ruining my twenties with aborted career plans, for being a failure at everything I set my hand to. I cried myself to sleep, wondering what I was going to do with my life, where I could go next, when all I had ever wanted to do was be a teacher and now that had all turned to dust.

But slowly, as the evenings grew lighter, the weather grew warmer, and the exams loomed, I began to emerge from my despair and view things from a different perspective. Putting aside the paperwork and the pressures, the actual act of teaching itself is extraordinary. It is endlessly creative, exciting, interactive and full of possibilities. Every lesson is an adventure; a journey of discovery not just for my students, but for me, too. I get to experiment, to try out new methods, to hone existing skills and to develop my own knowledge of literature through listening and responding to the insights of the young people in my classes. Every day I learn something new, and every day I am exposed to fresh ideas and intellectual challenges. In the process of doing this, I get to build relationships with hundreds of fascinating and utterly unique young people, who all come to my lessons with entirely different perspectives. Over time, I get to know them individually and find out what makes them tick. I enjoy teasing out their personalities and being welcomed into the turmoil of their lives. I can see when they’re not happy and need a quiet word of encouragement or commiseration. I take pride in their achievements and give them the praise some of them will never get at home. I laugh with them and cry with them and have a bloody good time with them. They are my joy, my pride, my inspiration and my reward. They are worth every tear I have shed this year, and it took me nearly leaving them behind to realise it.

It makes me sad that teachers have so little respect in our society. It makes me sad that the government treats us with contempt, and treats our children like cogs in a machine. It makes me sad that our pay system is based on the results our children achieve in their exams, as if that is the only worthwhile measure of what we do on a day-to-day basis. It makes me sad that our curriculum is constantly being tampered with to suit the whims of an unqualified and unexperienced government minister who thinks that teachers can’t be trusted to use their expertise and experience. It makes me sad that so much of my time is taken up with pointless paperwork that has nothing to do with giving children a good education. There are so many things that make me sad about our education system and there are so many things I wish I had the power to change.

However, ultimately, I can choose to let these things ruin teaching for me, or I can choose to focus on why I became a teacher in the first place. I became a teacher to make a difference to childrens’ lives. I wanted to be a positive influence. I wanted to open their eyes to the wonders of the written word, and empower them to use language to express themselves creatively. All of these things I get to do on a daily basis, plus so many more wonderful things that I never even imagined would be part of my job description. Yesterday I received a card from one of my most talented pupils, who wrote ‘thank you for teaching me that anything is possible.’ It made me cry because when I read those words I knew that despite all of the difficulties I have faced this year, I have still managed to achieve what I set out to do in my classroom. I couldn’t ask for anything more, really. Being a teacher was never going to be an easy option. That’s why all those people who say teachers are slackers and they wish they got our holidays aren’t queuing up to train to be teachers themselves. But something I have learned this year is that sometimes taking the hardest road is the most rewarding. As my summer holidays start, I am exhausted, mentally and physically, but I already can’t wait to do it all over again.

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

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Furthering my mission to read the many unread books on my bookshelves this summer, I plucked the very seasonally appropriate The Greengage Summer out of its dusty oblivion last week. I bought it for mere pennies a few years ago in a tiny secondhand bookshop in Woodstock, Oxford, after being enchanted by its lovely cover. I know plenty of bloggers love Rumer Godden, but I’ve never read anything by her, so I was excited and intrigued to find out whether she was going to turn out to be an author I liked. I knew from the very first page that I had found something wonderful; atmospheric, lyrical and exquisitely written, the novel launched me directly into the oppressive heat of a glorious French summer ninety or so years ago.

This is a fascinating coming of age story, narrated by Cecil, who, at the time of the events, is 13 years old. Cecil and her gaggle of siblings live in a dull British seaside town, supported by their equally dull Uncle William, as their father has turned out to be rather a failure and spends most of his time abroad on expeditions to find rare horticultural species. Their vague and often harrassed mother is pushed to make the sudden decision to take the children to France on a holiday she can’t afford when their ungrateful behaviour makes her determined to teach them a lesson by showing them the battlefields of WWI.  However, the trip is doomed from the start when the childrens’ mother gets septicaemia from an infected insect bite, and is clearly dangerously ill by the time they arrive at the coolly glamorous hotel, Les Oeillets, in the heart of the Marne’s golden countryside. With their mother taken to the local hospital and the oldest of the children, sixteen year old Joss, incapacitated by ‘the curse’, Cecil and her three younger siblings are left to their own devices, much to the annoyance of the hotel’s proprietors, Mademoiselle Zizi and Madame Corbet, who resent having to be responsible for them. However, Mr Eliot, an enigmatic and handsome British guest, who is in a tempestuous relationship with Zizi, agrees to step in and oversee their care, much to the horror of Zizi, and the delight of Cecil and her easily awed siblings.

Lazy days of pleasurable picnics, bathing and roaming the local medieval town with Eliot follow, with Cecil and her younger siblings forgetting their poor mother entirely in their happiness at such freedom. They adore the charming Mr Eliot, who is so smart and handsome and indulgent, and speaks French with such flair. His mysterious trips to Paris and his volatile relationship with Zizi only add to his air of glamour, but everything changes when Joss recovers from her week of illness and appears one night at dinner, radiant in her delicate beauty. Mr Eliot cannot take his eyes off her, and soon makes every excuse to accompany the children on lavish days out, revelling in the opportunity to be close to Joss. The other adults at the hotel are quick to notice Mr Eliot’s evident admiration of Joss, and Mademoiselle Zizi can hardly contain her fury at being supplanted by a teenager. With the temperature rising both inside and outside of the hotel, the children begin to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the position they are in. Mr Eliot’s behaviour becomes more suspicious with every passing day, and he displays moments of anger that are highly unsettling. The children begin to wonder whether Mr Eliot is really who he says he is, and whether Les Oeillets is the safe haven their Mother imagined…

This initially seems to be a novel about every child’s secret dream; the opportunity to run free without any adult supervision, spending all day simply pursuing your own pleasures. However, as the plot develops, it becomes increasingly clear that the adults at Les Oeillets cannot be trusted, and their intense, secret and passionate lives impress themselves strongly upon Cecil, whose innocence is slowly eroded by seeing the baser side of human nature. Alongside this, the reader is treated to an intriguing mystery in the form of Mr Eliot, who is an absolutely fascinating and appalling character in equal measure. Rumer Godden writes with such style, perfectly evoking the languor and faded beauty of post-war provincial France, and the emotions of an impressionable teenage girl. An entirely absorbing world is created on the pages, and I was transported effortlessly back in time through Godden’s ability to write with such vivid detail of the dusty, pastel coloured French streets, flower filled gardens, crisp linen, silver cutlery, and cool shaded rooms that form the setting of this remarkable tale. It really is a must read, and should be a classic of young adult literature. I think it’s definitely time for a Godden revival.