A Month in the Country by J L Carr

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This beautifully written novel, set in the depths of the Yorkshire countryside in the summer of 1920, was the perfect follow up to Cider with Rosie. Told from the perspective of a now elderly man, it captures the fleeting but unforgettable month he spent in the village of Oxgodby as a lonely, defeated and shell-shocked survivor of the trenches, hired to uncover a medieval wall mural in the local church. His absorption in his task, alongside his growing relationship with the residents of this sleepy backwater, will gradually heal him of the horrors of war, and give him the freedom to move on with his life.

Thanks to an eccentric spinster’s stipulation that the local church would only receive a handsome sum of money from her will if they hired someone to uncover the long-lost medieval mural hidden inside its unprepossessing exterior, Tom Birkin is given a much needed break from his London life. His wife has left him, and he is still suffering from the embarrassing facial twitch he developed during his time in the trenches. His sleep is disturbed by nightmares of bombing and gunfire, and he is struggling to find his purpose, feeling cast adrift in his life. Arriving in Oxgodby, he is instantly befriended by the station master and his daughter, but the young vicar in charge of the purse strings is not so welcoming, and is clearly displeased at having him there. Tom is thrilled, however, with the opportunity to live simply for the summer; he has been given the bare boards of the church’s bell tower to sleep on, from which he is afforded a lovely view of the surrounding countryside, as well as the archeological dig below that is also part of the will’s terms. Running the dig is the jovial Moon, a fellow trench survivor, with whom Birkin will strike up a friendship rooted in a mutual understanding of the horrors they have survived. Within a couple of days of arriving, Birkin finds himself already assimilated into the local community, and all this before he has even really begun to unearth the hidden treasure beneath the church’s white painted walls.

Birkin’s absorption in the work of uncovering this mural is rewarded by the exquisitely beautiful painting he discovers; the work of a master, this is a discovery of national significance that Birkin is thrilled to have had the opportunity to find. His excitement builds day by day, as does his affection for Oxgodby and its people. One person in particular captures his heart; the intelligent, serene and gorgeous Alice Keach, unlikely young wife of the unpleasant Vicar, who, like Birkin, seems trapped in a life that should not be hers. Birkin is mesmerised by her, but afraid to speak of his feelings. As the heat of the summer builds, the true scale of the mural is revealed, and Birkin’s passion quivers on the edge of revelation, the story climbs to its magnificently apt, poignant conclusion. Birkin’s shattered spirit is slowly rebuilt through both marvelling at the work of a craftsman dead for some 600 years, and the warmth and affection of the villagers living in this perfect distillation of England. Brief but rich in emotion, poignancy and glorious descriptions of a countryside filled with the heady scent of a long-gone summer, this is perfection. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

London Strolling

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There is nothing better than London in the sun. Suddenly, everything becomes rather European. Restaurants spill out onto the pavements. Markets and stalls pop up out of nowhere. The streets are thronged with people leisurely strolling along, with no one in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. The Thames sparkles and shimmers and the time-mellowed bricks of the old buildings are softly radiant in the sunshine. To be free to walk and explore at a leisurely pace, without being cowed underneath an umbrella or muffled in a coat, is a rare joy indeed in these parts. As soon as the sun comes out, therefore, I channel Virginia Woolf and become a street walker, eschewing public transport and finding my way on foot. There is no better way to explore a city; you can trace the edges of neighbourhoods, see the subtle architectural distinctions between this street and that, and find no end of previously undiscovered nooks and crannies to delight.

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On Saturday, I met friends for brunch in the beautifully decorated Balthazar, which has just popped up in Covent Garden and is almost an exact replica of its namesake in New York. We had a lovely time chatting inside the French bistro-themed interior while the sun streamed in through the windows. I enjoyed a lovely hazlenut waffle (though it was served with fake maple syrup – big no-no!) and I felt like I had been transported back to the Big Apple. I’m looking forward to trying it for a proper meal; it would be the perfect spot for a pre-theatre dinner. On exiting the restaurant, we briefly popped into Balthazar’s bakery and coffee shop next door; I was sorely tempted by the delicious looking pastries on display, and I’d recommend it for people wanting to grab breakfast on the go while shopping or sight seeing. We then enjoyed wandering round the cobbled market, watching a few of the performers, before we parted ways, with two of us remaining to enjoy the London sun.

IMG_8518 I decided I fancied a trip to the Tate, and I wanted to walk along the river. So, my friend and I set off, strolling along Southbank and across Westminster Bridge, drinking in the beautiful view of a sun dappled Houses of Parliament. I rarely walk into Westminster these days, so I loved being so close to Parliament, Big Ben and the Abbey, looking closely at the decorative details on the buildings and peering down the alleys and side streets that are filled with history and impressive architecture. As we walked along Millbank, the buildings become more Art Deco, and the river is lined with shady trees and gardens with spots to sit and enjoy the view. It was quiet and peaceful; a real contrast to the throngs of people along the Southbank, and if I didn’t have an exhibition to see, I could have sat and whiled away my afternoon watching the boats bob past on the river.

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The Tate is my favourite London gallery; there is always an exhibition I actually want to see, and the permanent collection is varied and interesting. Since they reorganised everything by year of painting, I have found it an even more enriching place to visit, as I feel that each time I go, I become more appreciative of and knowledgeable about the development of art over time through being able to compare and contrast groups of paintings. I also love being able to make connections between periods and see clearly how history repeats itself as the fashions of earlier times reappear a few hundred years later. In a normal gallery, with paintings separated by country of origin or by painter, these links are much harder to make, and the Tate is definitely on to something by rehanging its collection in this way. Their new exhibition of British Folk Art was the main draw for me this time, though; I was a keen visitor of the American Museum of Folk Art when I lived in New York, but I know very little about folk art in Britain and I was eager to learn more. The exhibition, while fairly compact in terms of the number of objects, is absolutely fantastic and displays a huge breadth of exhibits, from shop signs to enormous ship figureheads, to paintings and patchwork quilts. I was enthralled by all of them, and was particularly pleased to see many a Kentish artist featured, including someone who painted a lovely picture of Groombridge Place, which, as some readers will know, was the inspiration for Vita Sackville-West’s beautiful novella The Heir. I came away with both a good basic knowledge of folk art in Britain and a keen desire to discover more, which is exactly what an exhibition should deliver, in my opinion. I highly recommend it, and it was the perfect stopping point for my sunny London walk.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

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I somehow managed to get through school, university and most of my twenties without reading Lee’s seminal memoir of everyday life in early 20th century rural Britain. When Penguin sent me this beautiful new Mark Hearld designed edition of all three of Laurie Lee’s memoirs, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discover such a classic piece of British literature. I imagined rather quintessential scenes of romping in hayfields and picking berries in hedgerows during long, drowsily hot summers, and idyllic snow-bound Christmases spent huddled around the fire. There is an element of this, but there is so much more, and by the time I closed the pages I felt extraordinarily moved as well as educated by Lee’s vividly poetic realisation of a vanished world.

Cider with Rosie opens on a heady afternoon amidst the fields of the tiny Gloucestershire village of Slad, just before the end of WWI. Lee was three, and he, his mother and crowd of siblings had just moved into a rambling, tumbledown cottage that soon became filled with the chaos of family life. The family, dominated by girls, was close and loving, especially as Lee’s father abandoned them after the war, sending only a few pounds now and again to support his eight children, four of whom were with his previous wife. Lee’s imaginative, adoring and eccentric mother was the centre of his world, creating a warm and safe if not rather chaotic environment for her children. His older sisters, Marge, Doth and Phyl, were ever present sources of comfort, and his brothers, Jack and Tony, lively playmates. As he grew up, Lee began to leave the cocoon of home and edge out into the wider world of the village. School was the stuff of legend; crammed into one room with a hodge-podge of village children carrying their lunch in buckets, lorded over by a Victorian didact of a teacher and with nothing to do but memorise letters and numbers, Lee found the experience largely uninspiring. The rest of the local community were a mixture of hardy young terrors and black dress and bonnet clad old women from a time impossibly distant, who still referred to people as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and spent their days making dangerously potent wine from whatever could be found in the fields. The Squire of the village was the local benefactor, opening up his house and gardens for fetes and fancy dress parades that caused excitement for days. Sundays were spent at church, Christmas was always freezing and snowy, filled with the sound of bands of boys roaming across the whitened fields, carol singing. This was a small world, bound by tradition and community, and untouched by any of the modern conveniences we now take for granted. The boundaries of their existence were measured by the speed of their legs or their horse; many had never been further than Stroud, the nearest town, and nor did many want to.

What I found most striking about this memoir is the sheer difficulty and effort of everyday life. Lee’s mother spent all day fighting to keep her fire going, cleaning, sweeping, cooking and shopping for food. She had no time for anything else. With no central heating, the Lees were often freezing in winter, and huddled together in their beds for warmth at night. There was never any money, never much variety in the food that was available to eat, and the only extravagance for the children was a once-yearly outing to the sea organised by the church. Childhood illnesses were frequent and often deadly, with the houses having such poor heating and ventilation and the community having limited access to medical help. The community was close, and looked after one another, but I was surprised by how many older people were left living alone, with no family to help them. The rural location of the village meant that there were not a huge amount of jobs available, and so many young people moved away from their roots, something that Lee mentions towards the end of his memoir. With the development of industry and technology, people’s eyes had been opened and horizons had been widened, and so Slad gradually became dominated by the old, unrecognisable from the lively village of all ages it had once been when the world was a smaller and more isolated place.

Lee paints a beautiful, haunting picture of a lost England, as well as an affectionate and loving portrayal of his wonderful family. This is no look through rose tinted glasses, though; Lee is clear about the hardships of living at a time when poverty was the norm for many, and domestic life was a constant struggle to maintain comfort and order without any help from technology. As my grandmother, who grew up in a similar setting, always says, if people really knew what it was like to live back then, they wouldn’t be so keen to hark back to the ‘good old days’. However, Lee’s memories reveal the many pleasures in a simple existence without the constant distractions and pressures of our modern life, when family and community were paramount, and children could find plenty to amuse themselves in their natural surroundings without needing an iPad to keep them occupied. I was absolutely swept away by his gorgeous prose and wry, warm voice; I loved every minute of Cider with Rosie and can’t wait to read Lee’s other memoirs.

 

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

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When I worked at the V&A, I met Edmund de Waal in passing several times. If I had known he had such a fascinating family history to tell, I would have engineered an opportunity to have a proper cup of tea with him, but alas, I did not. The Hare with Amber Eyes is one of those books that everyone was reading a couple of years ago; it was even sold in Tescos, which is a sure-fire sign that your book has become a hit. Therefore I, as usual, refused to join the bandwagon and assumed that it probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea anyway. However, I am currently in the process of forcing myself to read all of my unread books, so a couple of weeks ago I decided to pluck this from dusty oblivion and give it a try. I’m so glad I did, because this is an absolutely absorbing journey through the lives of several generations of de Waal’s remarkable family, and I feel richer for having read it.

The story is told through the conceit of following the journey of a collection of netsuke, or Japanese miniature figurines, from its first owner, de Waal’s great-great Uncle Charles Ephrussi in 19th century Paris, to his Great Uncle Iggie in 20th century Tokyo. This would probably be largely uninteresting if your family was from bog standard farming folk like mine, but when you consider that the Ephrussis were akin to the Rothschilds; phenomenally wealthy Jewish bankers with large families, even larger houses and a penchant for beautiful things, the premise suddenly becomes far more thrilling. I loved being transported to the world of the Belle Epoque in Paris, where Charles, an art historian and avid collector, was an intimate of such luminaries as Renoir, Monet and Proust. He had a long standing affair with a beautiful Countess, Louise Cahen-d’Anvers, whose children sat for now-famous portraits with Renoir, and hung his walls with the Impressionists before they had made their names. He is the man in the top hat at the back of Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party, was one of the inspirations for Charles Swann in Proust’s famous novels, he knew everyone worth knowing and all of these great and good bastions of 19th century culture handled Charles’ display of netsuke that sat in his art-filled drawing room. Quite the relative.

On his cousin Viktor’s marriage at the turn of the century, Charles gave a generous wedding gift; his netsuke collection. Viktor lived in Vienna, in the phenomenally massive Palais EphrussI on Vienna’s newly built Ringstrasse. He, his wife Emmy and their children lived in palatial splendour, with hordes of servants and masses of beautiful objet d’arts. Amongst the most prominent of Jewish Viennese society, they hosted huge parties and had an enviable lifestyle, spent travelling between family estates in Switzerland, France and Czechoslovakia. However, WWII destroyed their entire way of life, and de Waal’s description of the horrific violations suffered by the Ephrussis and other Jewish people in Vienna at the hands of the Nazis were so moving that I found myself blinking back tears. Amidst the pillaging of the Ephrussi’s belongings, miraculously, some of their objects managed to survive, including the omnipresent netsuke. Rescued by Viktor and Emmy’s daughter Elisabeth after the war (the author of Persephone’s The Exiles Return) they then found their way into her brother Iggy’s apartment in post war Tokyo, back in their country of origin. This is where de Waal finds them on a visit to his beloved Great Uncle’s home, and determines to trace their history back to their first entrance into his colourful family.

De Waal writes very well, and the Ephrussi family is a gift to write about. Their role in history is now largely forgotten, but their eventful journey to riches, taking them from a modest background in the then Russian city of Odessa to the heights of their wealth and influence in Edwardian Vienna is a story that fully deserves to be told. I had no idea that so many wealthy Jewish families lived in the same, largely newly built, luxurious neighbourhoods in Europe’s cities during the late 19th century, and I had no idea that they were treated with such contempt by non Jewish contemporaries, with so many of them going on to lose their fortunes, and their lives, during the war. I felt truly educated and enlightened by the time I closed the pages of The Hare with Amber Eyes, and determined to find out more about this period of history and the prominent families who lived during it. However, I did feel that the inclusion of the netsuke was slightly self indulgent; de Waal makes it very clear that he doesn’t want to write ‘another’ book about wealthy European Jewish families, and that this is really a story about the journey of the netsuke, but let’s face it – it isn’t. It is a story about a wealthy European Jewish family, and the pages about the netsuke actually feel rather tacked on and unnecessary. I wonder why de Waal felt he couldn’t just write about his family, and that he would have to dress it up in the concept of being merely part of a wider narrative about tracing a selection of objects back to their original source. I would much rather have spent more time with the Ephrussis than the netsuke; perhaps I am alone in this, but when you have such a fascinating set of subjects to write about, why try and bury them beneath the story of a collection of inanimate objects? Yes it’s very moving to think that Proust and Renoir once touched them, but no more so than the fact that your great-great Uncle is in a famous Renoir painting, surely? Nevertheless, overall, I thought this was absolutely marvellous; it made a very pleasant change from my usual reading material and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford

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When I saw this on display in Daunt Books, I knew I had to have it. For starters, the cover design is absolutely beautiful, and I couldn’t resist such a pretty book. Secondly, after reading the first couple of pages, I was entranced by Sybille Bedford’s lively and poetic descriptions of her glamorous travels across Europe. Knowing what a wonderful writer she is, also thanks to Daunt Books, who republished two of her marvellous and criminally underread novels a couple of years ago, I knew that this collection of travel essays would be pure joy from beginning to end. I spend far too much time imagining myself in sunnier and more elegant climes, lolling by pools or sitting in scenic cafes, being wonderfully mysterious and enigmatic in my dark sunglasses and palazzo pants. Reading these essays, I realised that I should have had Sybille Bedford’s life, as she seems to have spent most of her time in the company of fascinating people, exploring remarkable places and having plenty of thrilling adventures. If someone wants to pay me to be a flaneur and write about it, do get in touch…

The collection opens with a wonderful essay describing Capri in 1948; after the long, hard war years, Europe is open to explore as a traveller again, and Bedford is enchanted by the beautiful, timeless scene she finds. While the war has caused much damage, Bedford also raises the very valid point that war has briefly arrested progress, leaving Capri as yet unspoiled by the race to build hotels and resorts that had started to blight the traditional landscape of fashionable holiday spots in the interwar period. In typical Bedford style, she happens to be staying with famous war reporter Martha Gellhorn, and the sheer exhilaration of luxuriating in Capri is mingled with the glamour of being with such an enigmatic host, and they have a marvellous time soaking up the sun, enjoying the scent of jasmine and drinking coffee in the piazza. Not a bad life.

This vein of leisurely glamour continues in Bedford’s other vignettes of mid 20th century travel across Europe; from Italy to France, Switzerland, Denmark and Yugoslavia, her keen eye takes in the landscape, culture and cuisine with her lyrical and effortlessly atmospheric pen. I particularly enjoyed her description of Croatia and the Dalmatian Coast; I wanted to get on a plane to Split then and there and roam the ancient Venetian streets and turquoise waters Bedford was so enchanted by. The trip Bedford takes in this essay is almost exactly the same as that of Grace Kilmichael in one of my all time favourite novels, Illyrian Spring, which has also been republished recently by Daunt Books. I couldn’t help wondering whether Bedford had read it and been inspired to follow in Grace’s footsteps…I know I certainly have!

If you want to be spirited away to a world of beauty, colour and glamour, then this is the book for you. Alongside being a brilliant series of inspirations for fabulous European holidays, it’s also a fascinating insight into pre-modernised Europe and the early days of the motor tourist. Sybille Bedford is such a remarkable stylist, and her ability to capture the essence of a place is second to none. I can’t recommend this enough for a highly pleasurable summer read; enjoy!