Greengates by R C Sherriff

metro-land-34

When Persephone Books announced that they were reprinting another R C Sherriff this year, I was delighted. The Fortnight in September, a wonderful novel about a family’s trip to the seaside and the quietly transformational effect of a holiday away from their ordinary lives, is one of my absolute favourite Persephones, and the promise of another Sherriff along similar lines filled me with anticipation. As it turns out, I was right to be excited, as Greengates is a lovely, life-affirming book that I could hardly bear to put down. It’s just the sort of thing to curl up and read on a cold winter’s evening, and I can see it becoming a perennial favourite.

When Tom Baldwin retires from his insurance clerk job in the city, and returns to his sooty semi in Brondesbury Park, he is initially filled with joy at the prospect of no longer having to form one of the homogenous mass rushing to and from suburban stations and trudging their weary way through the streets of the city, forever bound by the ticking hands of the employer’s clock. As he sits in the train on his final journey from the office to his home, clutching the meagre retirement gift handed to him by his colleagues, he has wonderful visions of years stretching ahead, full of a new epoch of purpose and achievement. At not yet sixty, he thinks, there is still so much he could do. Not for him the pipe and slippers by the fire that the office seems to think he will be sloping off to enjoy; no slow, gradual descent into the grave with nothing to show for himself. No, indeed; Tom intends to become a historian, discovering new ways of interpreting England’s fascinating history for the masses. He and his wife Edith will go on tours of historical sites, spending their days rambling across the countryside and having enlightening conversations on all manner of subjects. When not immersed in his writings, Tom will also enjoy the healthful occupation of tending his garden, and finally get around to all of those pesky jobs in the house that he has been ignoring for years. Retirement, he is sure, will be the making of him. By the time he returns home from the office for the last time, Tom feels a changed man; a man for whom retirement holds nothing but glorious promise.

It is not long before this vision proves to be far from reality, however. Tom soon finds that his dreams of becoming a historian are nothing but a fantasy, and he becomes irritable and argumentative as he broods on his failures. Edith, her tranquil routines upset by Tom’s presence in the house all day, despairs at the prospect of spending the next twenty years with a man with whom she now seems to have nothing in common. The cosy chats they used to enjoy at the end of their respective days, sharing the news of their separate worlds, have disappeared, and with little else to tie them together, all seems lost and utterly hopeless. That is until Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside they enjoyed on weekends before the war. The fresh air and happy memories of times past invigorate them, and they are thoroughly enjoying themselves until they are shocked and appalled to find the magical valley views they were so looking forward to spoiled by the building site of a new housing estate. Indignant, they go down to take a look at the works, and find themselves convinced by an eager young sales assistant to take a look at the sparkling show home. Unexpectedly entranced by the clean, modern lines of the house and its blissfully peaceful setting, they find themselves starting to dream of a different life. But will they have the courage to take the plunge, and will this dream offer them the meaning to their later years that they have so far sought in vain?

This is a truly wonderful book that I raced through, so caught up was I in the lives of Tom and Edie. They are both very real and sympathetic characters, whose ordinariness makes them recognisable and irresistibly endearing. I loved the descriptions of life in their suburban semi; Sherriff is excellent at finding the perfect turns of phrase to capture the pleasures of quiet, comforting routines and the smells and sounds of domesticity, and the details of 1920s furniture and home decoration fashions are fascinating to read about. Sherriff is a remarkable creator of characters who are well rounded and touchingly true to life; his sensitive exploration of the disappointments and disillusionments that can crush the spirit are quietly moving, just as the moments of sheer joy and exhilaration when inspiration strikes and all seems golden send a thrill down the spine.I couldn’t bear it when I got to the end; I felt that I was being forced to say goodbye to dear old friends. Greengates is such a truly delightful story; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Lake District

IMG_0305.jpg

IMG_0424.jpg

Over half term, I finally achieved a long held dream of visiting the Lake District, which I have somehow taken thirty years to get around to doing. I absolutely loved every minute and already can’t wait to go back; I have never seen such beautiful scenery and met such friendly people. Though I will never tire of the view of the London skyline from my window, there is something truly profound about the rise and fall of mountains, the deep luxuriousness of glistening lakes, of blazing autumnal woods and hillsides covered in rust coloured bracken and the smell of peat and smoke and animals that somehow speaks to your soul and takes you utterly out of yourself in a way that manmade scenery never can. We were talking on my MA course about the cult of the sublime in the late 18th century a few weeks ago, and that idea of nature providing you with a transcendental and almost, in some ways, destructive experience, felt quite pertinent when I was standing on the shore of an enormous lake and contemplating my own insignificance in the grand scheme of the sands of time.

IMG_0345.jpg

Aside from self indulgent philosophical thoughts, I also had a marvellous time exploring the huge range of historic homes and pretty towns and villages that are scattered throughout the Lakes, which has been a place of artistic inspiration for centuries. You can’t go anywhere in the region without finding connections to Wordsworth or Beatrix Potter, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ruskin spent his last days here, and that the Arts and Crafts movement had a real stronghold, inspiring people artistically as well as domestically, with plenty of very fine Arts and crafts houses to be found nestled on the shores of the Lakes. We went on a real whistlestop tour of all the sights, starting off in Cockermouth, right at the northerly tip, where we visited the birthplace of Wordsworth. There isn’t an enormous amount to see, but just being where he grew up was amazing, and the drive through the Lakes to get there, taking in the magnificent scenery, was absolutely incredible. I was gasping at every turn of the wheel, and it was actually a pain to be the one in the driving seat, as I just wanted to stop and stare at the mountains and the beautiful, vibrant autumnal colours that were so much more vivid than anything we get in the south. On the way back from Cockermouth we stopped at Lowther Castle, a wonderful mock Gothic ruin that has beautiful gardens and an amazing tea room, which was much needed after our long drive.

IMG_0400.jpg

The following day we began our adventures at Wray Castle, a recently opened National Trust property that is rather unique in being a Victorian attempt at building a medieval castle. It is unbelievably hideous, but has magnificent views of the lake in front (sadly it was foggy when we were there!) and is good fun to explore. It is also, interestingly, where Beatrix Potter had her 16th birthday, and apparently inspired her love for the Lake District, which she would go on to make her home and use as inspiration for her books, so even though it was considered by some when first built to be a blight on the landscape, it certainly wasn’t considered to be so by Beatrix! After Wray we drove on to Ruskin’s house, Brantwood, which has been kept much the same as when he lived there, and has stunning lakeside gardens looking over Coniston. It’s packed with fascinating objects and paintings, and was a real feast for a Victorianist like me. I was also delighted to actually be allowed to play Ruskin’s piano – I love historic properties that don’t rope things off and enable you to truly experience them as the former inhabitants would have done. We then finished our day by popping into another quite unique National Trust property, Townend, which was the home of the same farming family for generations and is remarkable for containing four hundred years’ worth of ordinary possessions and one of the country’s most valuable libraries in representing what middle class people would have read from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It’s a fascinating insight into how more normal as opposed to aristocratic people would have lived and has some wonderfully quirky features that were brought to life by the very knowledgable local volunteers. Even though it’s not a typical National Trust property, it’s well worth the visit for the social history it contains, and I loved it.

IMG_0394.jpg

Our adventures continued the next day in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived for the early part of his married life. It’s now a bustling town that caters very well for tourists with a wide range of shops and cafes, but you can still get a sense of what it would have been like in Wordsworth’s day. The views across the countryside are breathtaking, and we loved the walk to Allan Bank, which is a beautiful Georgian villa nestled in the folds of hills, with amazing vistas from its huge windows. It was nearly destroyed by a fire a few years ago, and so the National Trust has now made it a ‘home from home’ – a place where people can come and paint, read, knit, play and relax in the most beautiful of surroundings, and it really is a wonderful, magical place. The gardens run down to the lake, and the trees are full of red squirrels, which was the first time I had ever seen them, as they don’t live in the south of England at all.Wordsworth rented the house for a short time, but it is most known for being the home of one of the founders of the National Trust. I adored it and wanted to move in instantly; I don’t think I’d ever tire of its views! From Allan Bank you can walk to Grasmere church, where Wordsworth is buried, and then you can walk on a little further to Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth wrote much of his early poetry, including Daffodils and The Prelude. It’s a tiny, dark and rather claustrophobic cottage and reveals the reality of early 19th century country life – certainly not the idyll you’d imagine! I can’t say I felt particularly inspired by it, but Wordsworth apparently adored it, so there must have been a magic to it I could not detect.To round off our literary day, we drove on to Hill Top, home of Beatrix Potter, which was charming. As it is exactly as she left it, it’s possible to really see how she lived and also to see what she was copying when she drew images for her books; the house and its furniture are possible to spot in several drawings that have been placed around the house, and it was wonderful to see the images I loved from childhood literally come alive around me, including Mr McGregor’s vegetable patch! As the sky darkened we began to make our way back to Lancaster, where we were staying, and we stopped off in Morecambe, a seaside town, to visit the Midland Hotel, famous for its art deco building that was once decorated by Eric and Tirzah Ravilious. Sadly the Ravilious mural is now long gone, but the Ravilious Rotunda Bar was a lovely place to sit and have tea and cake while watching the sun go down over the mudflats.

IMG_0428.jpg

Our final day in the Lakes was taken up with visiting a wonderful Arts and Crafts house, Blackwell, which was built by Baillie Scott for a prominent Manchester businessman. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful house where everything is still in place despite it having been a school for much of the 20th century, and the detailing is magnificent. The views over to the lake are also stunning, and I could have curled up in one of the window seats and stayed there forever if I had the choice!

IMG_0459.jpg

I was absolutely overwhelmed by how wonderful the Lake District is, and how much there is to see and do. For many people it is a place to go walking and hiking, and while I would love to be of that disposition, sadly I am more of a stroller than a hiker. If you are more like me and enjoy a cup of tea while looking at beautiful mountains rather than climbing up them, then there is plenty of inspiration to be found in the architecture of the Lakes as well as its natural beauty, and you’ll be spoiled for choice of things to do. I already can’t wait to go back and if you haven’t visited, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

IMG_0379.jpg

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

a-window-in-st-johns-wood

I am loving my Persephone six month subscription; it’s such a treat to have a surprise book dropped through my letterbox once a month (as I’ve completely forgotten which books I chose!) and if anyone is already starting to think about Christmas presents, I can highly recommend it as a gift idea. You can find more information about it here.

This month’s book was Princes in the Land, and I sat and read it in one indulgent reading, utterly absorbed by the life of Patricia Crispin, who begins the novel a wayward, impish child, romping across the countryside on a horse and caring nothing for the opinions of others. After the early death of her useless, aristocratic father, her snobbish, small-minded mother is invited to take her two daughters to live with her father in law, Lord Waveney, in his Norfolk stately home, Hulver. Patricia, who is everything that her mother deplores, is her grandfather’s favourite, and she grows up wild yet indulged, with every whim catered for against the background of thoughtless Edwardian privilege. When Patricia comes to marriageable age, she rejects all notions of marrying well, as her sister has done before her; she will not be shackled to a brainless young aristocrat who cannot share her own restless, curious soul. One day, she meets awkward young scholar Hugh Lindsay on a train, and falls hopelessly in love at once. He promises to be everything her heart longs for, and they are quickly married, despite her mother’s disapproval. Patricia, despite knowing she will have little money, is not fazed at the thought of a change in the only life she has ever known; confident in her love for Hugh, she looks forward to a life of adventure with the man she adores.

However, as time passes, it becomes clear to Patricia that her marriage is not going to be the adventure she had hoped for. Hugh, embittered by his impoverished childhood and ever conscious of the gulf between his and Patricia’s backgrounds, is obsessed by appearances and finances, and constantly criticises Patricia’s attempts at housekeeping, for which she has never had the slightest training. Absorbed in his academic career, the two drift apart, with Patricia focusing all of her energies on her three children and slowly learning to forget the life she had once dreamed of, and the passions she once had, as she takes on the role of the urban housewife. When Hugh finally achieves his dream of a professorship at Oxford, Patricia takes her chance to go back to the rural life she longs for; they buy a house in the countryside, and she is once more able to have a horse, and introduce her beloved children to the rural pursuits she loved as a child. She brings them up to love nature, simple pleasures, adventure and romance. She pours everything into them, considering them her life’s work; they are her inheritance, her ‘princes in the land’, as the Bible tells her. Despite the disappointments life has dealt her, her children are her solace and her recompense; she may have few friends, few interests, and a husband who is practically a stranger to her, but her children give her life meaning and purpose, and she holds on to them as to a life raft in an increasingly stormy sea.

However, as the children grow up and develop interests of their own, Patricia realises with great sadness that all she has done for them, all she has given up for them, has been largely fruitless. None of them take the paths she had hoped for, and none of them appreciate what she has done for them. She is a stranger to them, and as they drift off to live their lives, leaving her behind, Patricia cannot help but wonder what it was all for, and whether there is any semblance of the old Patricia  left inside of her to reclaim as she looks to a future where there is nothing to hold on to but herself.

This is a beautifully written novel that is really rather searing in its brutality towards its protagonist, and is remarkably interesting in its treatment of the role of motherhood. The cult of the mother has been in place for a good couple of hundred years, and there is still a widely held belief in society that a woman who is not a mother is something less of a woman for not having brought a child into the world and nurtured it. Here, Joanna Cannan questions this belief, by showing how Patricia actually becomes less of a woman for becoming a mother; her true self is stripped away in the process of giving herself so fully to her children, and it is only at the end, when she accepts that her children have gone from her and will never be coming back, that she can begin to recover her true identity. For there is a great danger, Cannan seems to suggest, in a woman placing all of her hopes and dreams onto her children, who are not, after all, ‘hers’, but their own people, with their own dreams and desires, who will not necessarily become the people their mothers had hoped they would become. Children can disappoint, hurt and betray you; if everything you are is built around them, then as they move away from you, your life falls away with them. At the end of the novel, when a surprising event changes Patricia’s perspective on life, she realises this, and decides it is time she stopped living for her children and started living for herself. As such, Cannan is calling for women to not blindly subsume their selves beneath the role of mother, to not be content to sacrifice their dreams and desires in order to become nothing but a bland, benign presence in their children’s lives. For, in my reading of the novel, Cannan is not criticising motherhood; she shows clearly what a joy it is to have children, and how wonderful the experience of bringing up a child can be. What she criticises is Patricia’s style of motherhood; she is disappointed in her children not because they are cruel or unkind but because they are not what she wanted them to be, and this matters so deeply to her because she allowed her life to become too dependent on what her children chose to do with theirs. She becomes, in many ways, her own mother, who she as a child could also never really love, but there is hope in the knowledge that Patricia can see this by the end of the novel, and is determined to change her future, knowing only too well that there is no opportunity to go back.

I found Princes in the Land a truly thought provoking novel, that questions and challenges and isn’t afraid to raise the quiet fears that lie in all of our hearts about the decisions we have made and the people we have allowed ourselves to become. It’s the sort of book that would be perfect for a book club, and I wish I had a group of people from different stages and walks of life to discuss it with, and be able to see whether Patricia’s experiences echo their own. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I’d love to know what other people who have read it thought of it, so please do share your opinions!

Lyon

IMG_0176.jpg

Goodness. September went by in a flash, and I didn’t even have the chance to finish showing you the glories of my summer in France!  Though it now seems years ago, I was utterly enchanted by the south of France and all  it has to offer. Provence was like going back in time to a simpler and slower-paced world, where life revolved around lunch and afternoon naps to escape the blistering afternoon sun. I felt I could have stayed forever, but at the same time, I know I would have been bored after about two weeks. However, a couple of hours on the train whisks you to one of France’s largest cities, which benefits from a sunnier climate and a smaller population than Paris, and yet has just as much history and charm. Lyon was definitely a place I felt I could happily live, spending my weekends wandering through the perfectly preserved medieval streets of the old town, riding the funicular railway up to Fourvière to enjoy the breathtaking view, strolling in the glorious Parc de la Tête d’Or, with its free zoo, and eating my way around the many delicious restaurants, famous for their hearty cuisine.

IMG_0135.jpg

Much like Paris, Lyon has three distinct sections, with the Rhône splitting to form a central peninsula that can only be reached by bridge. On one river bank you can find Vieux Lyon, which is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval city centres in the world, with some fantastic architecture, winding cobbled streets and hundreds of tempting restaurants and shops. From Vieux Lyon you can either climb up or take the funicular railway to the top of Fourvière, one of Lyon’s two hills, which is crowned by the amazing nineteenth century Romanesque cathedral. A short walk from the cathedral are the very well preserved remains of two Roman theatres, and an excellent Roman museum, and the views from the top of Fourvière across the city and its surrounding landscape are remarkable.

IMG_0223.jpg

On the central island is nineteenth century Lyon, looking much like Paris with its grand Hausmann style apartment buildings. leafy shopping boulevards and spacious squares. Here you can find Lyon’s wonderful Musée des Beaux-Arts, housed in a gorgeous former convent, and the Opéra, Théâtre and Hôtel de Ville. This area gives an excellent sense of what life in nineteenth century France must have been like, and this is the place to be for people watching, fine dining and shopping. You can also have lovely strolls along the river bank, taking in the marvellous views of the city.

img_0166

The other bank of Lyon is more residential, with streets of modern apartment buildings, the large centre commercial, the main station, and the jewel in Lyon’s crown; the magnificent Victorian public park, botanical gardens and zoo. This is called Parc de la Tête d’Or, so called because there is supposedly a golden head of a statue of Jesus buried within the park grounds somewhere, and it is, unlike most French parks, a true English style landscape, with rolling green lawns bordered by avenues of trees, flower beds, rose garden, a boating lake, gravel paths and greenhouses. What makes it so magical is the free zoo at its heart, one of the first in the world, and I loved the fact that you could spend all day in the park doing all manner of different activities and feel a world away from the bustling city at its edge. It’s a glorious place!

IMG_0155.jpg

Lyon is a real gem of a city, and somewhere that is definitely worth a visit. It’s accessible directly from London via the Eurostar, and would be a wonderful place to spend a long weekend. Lyon is known for its hearty, cheap cuisine in its ‘Bouchon’ restaurants, and for those who love classic French dishes, it’s a foodie heaven. There is also much to feast the eyes on, from medieval churches to nineteenth century townhouses, and for those interested in history, there is a rich past to explore within the streets of the city. I already can’t wait to go back, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

IMG_0238.jpg

Summer Reading

IMG_2358

I’ve been steaming my way through books this summer; there’s nothing quite so conducive to reading as hot weather, I find, and in my almost two months of generally lazing around France and England, I’ve had plenty of sunshine under which to lie down and lose myself within the pages of a book. I’ve read so much that it would take me forever to write reviews of them all, so I’m going to cherry pick the best to tell you about.

Probably the best book I read was the enormous non fiction tome, The Victorians, by A N Wilson. At 600 pages long, it does seem quite intimidating at first glance, but it’s so entertainingly written that the time speeds by. Wilson discusses the political, social, scientific and religious debates of the day, alongside the cultural life of the Victorians, the press and its influence, overseas wars and their reception on British soil, and the notion of the Empire. He places the nineteenth century in Britain in its wider historical and global context, making it clear how British people at the time viewed the recent past as well as their place on an ever-increasing world stage. Wilson is a highly intelligent, wry and stylish writer, regularly inserting his tongue in his cheek when passing judgements on various absurdities of the time, and choosing excellent quotations to bring the great and good of the era to frequently pompous life. His greatest skill, however, is in revealing the modernity of the Victorians, and showing how very similar they were to us. Their concerns may have been different, but their attitudes certainly were not, and Wilson makes excellent parallels between modern day British society and the nineteenth century equivalents we are apt to dismiss with smugness as corrupt, prejudiced or nepotistic. I loved every minute, and closed the pages feeling incredibly educated and eager to learn more. This is a good thing, as I am about to start my Master’s degree in Victorian Studies part-time this autumn, and this book has given me an excellent head start!

The piece of fiction I most enjoyed was Anna Hope’s new novel, The Ballroom. I thought her debut, Wake, about the aftermath of WWI, was excellent when I read it a few years ago, and I am pleased to say that her second novel is equally engaging and well written. Set in an asylum in Yorkshire during the long, hot summer of 1911, it tells the story of John and Ella, who are both very far from being insane. Ella finds herself in the asylum after her frustration at being trapped inside a hot, noisy, hopeless factory boils over one day, and she smashes a window to let in some air. Her fury at being treated like an animal, day in day out, is, of course, taken as madness by the male overseers, and she is carted off to the asylum in the blink of an eye. John, broken by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent rejection, finds himself in the asylum after he sinks into depression. Both are desperate to escape, and it is during Ella’s first failed attempt to flee that the two meet. They go on to form an intense relationship, made possible by the weekly balls for the inmates that are held in the cathedral-like ballroom, its beautifully painted stained glass a painful symbol of the beauty of the world they are no longer allowed to be a part of. As they dance, they dare to dream of a future outside of this place, but the doctor in charge of their care, Charles Fuller, has other ideas. Obsessed with his own insignificance, and slowly growing disgusted by the inferior quality of humanity he sees in the inmates, his dreams of transforming them through the power of music erode as his own sanity starts to ebb away. As the summer grows ever hotter, the tension inside the asylum builds to boiling point, promising tragedy for all involved. There is much more to the novel than just this brief description, and it is a fascinating exploration of the treatment of the mentally ill in the early 20th century, as well as a brilliant piece of characterisation in its portrayal of Charles Fuller, whose troubled upbringing and repressed homosexuality have made him a far more broken man than the patients he is supposed to be looking after. Though I found the ending a little twee, I thought it was a wonderful, involving book with none of the creative writing course shenanigans I so often find irritatingly distracting in modern novels. I highly recommend it, and I’m looking forward to what she writes next!

Finally, I was the delighted recipient of a gift subscription to Persephone Books this summer, after the parents of my form class clubbed together to buy me one as a thank you present. I was shocked at their ability to find something that suited me so well, not knowing that I was already a Persephone fan, and I pored over the catalogue with excitement at finally being able to get to some Persephones that I had been meaning to read for a while. The first book arrived last month, and it’s also the first ever Persephone book published; William – An Englishman, by Cicely Hamilton. Set in 1914, it tells the story of William and Griselda, two middle class, politically active Londoners, whose shocking ignorance of the world and everything in it does not stop them from being strident campaigners for the most fashionable of unfashionable causes. Easily swayed and with limited intelligence, they repeat the words of others with fervency and delight in the busyness of their committee-attending, pamphlet-waving lives. William is a socialist, Griselda is a suffragette; they agree on everything as they share each others’ limited worldview, and read of nothing that does not agree with them. As such, when they marry in the summer of 1914, they see nothing wrong with going to a secluded countryside village in Belgium for their honeymoon, and proceed to spend many days of leisure hiking and reading political literature, before a longing for their London lives takes over and they make plans to return home. However, the woman that does for them is nowhere to be found on the morning they wish to depart, and her hastily scrawled note is written in French, which neither understand. Horrifyingly, they find a freshly dug grave in her garden, and her house is turned upside down; when they are confronted by aggressive soldiers on the road to the station and taken prisoner, the reality of their situation becomes horribly apparent. The war they have dismissed and mocked for months has actually happened, and they are now in the midst of it. Their honeymoon becomes a terrifying ordeal as they are taken to a captured village and trapped as it comes under fire. Suddenly, the causes William and Griselda believed in seem entirely irrelevant in the face of reality, and their ignorance will prove to come at a terrible price. This is an incredibly shocking book, of the type that haunts you for a good while after you read it. I’ve read a lot of war literature, but this is unique in its perspective and incredibly powerful in showing the sheer cruelty, pointlessness and devastation of war. It’s not an easy read, but it is a necessary one, and I can see why Persephone chose it as their first book. I highly recommend it.