Autumnal Reading

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Golden Autumn by Sir Alfred East

Despite saying on the last Tea or Books? podcast that I don’t read several books concurrently, I’ve found that this autumn, I’ve been doing exactly that. Perhaps it’s the change in the season, the return to the busy and fractured school day or the fact that I’m back at university and thinking about various research projects, but every time I start something, I find myself somehow craving something else. I’ve been dipping in and out of all sorts, and I’ve actually been enjoying the feeling of holding several different narratives in my head all at once. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the pile of half-read books in my flat, which, for someone who loves the notion of completion, is more than a little unsettling.

So, what have I been reading? Emily Eden’s The Semi-Attached Couple, an early nineteenth century social comedy set amidst the upper classes, explores the marriage of two young and inexperienced aristocrats, who should be perfect for one another but whose immaturity and inability to communicate with one another leads to disaster. The supporting cast of various family members, neighbours and friends are wonderfully drawn, with Eden’s sparkling wit dancing off the page. It’s a light and frothy confection – perfect for curling up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon – yet beneath the surface there is a wry truthfulness about the shortcomings and shallowness of the society in which Eden lived. Even though all ends well – how could it not in such a novel? – Eden makes it clear that the marital complications suffered by the hero and heroine are due to the upbringing of children in a world where everything of value is kept secret, and women leave the nursery to be married with no more preparation than a trunk full of beautiful new clothes. I loved every minute, and I already can’t wait to read Eden’s other novel, The Semi Detached House. 

John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature and the Great War was an impulse buy for me after I saw it on display in Waterstones; I love anything to do with natural history, and having never read much about soldiers’ responses to their natural environment while fighting at the Front, I was keen to find out more. Lewis-Stempel’s prose is beautiful, and his premise fascinating. The young men who had been to school in the Edwardian era were well-versed in the classics and poetry, but also the natural world; it was a given to be able to identify different types of birds, their nests and eggs, as well as flowers and trees. In a country that was then far more rural than it is now, most people grew up surrounded by nature, and hobbies centred around the natural environment were commonplace. I had no idea that it was not unusual for battalions to create their own gardens outside their billets, for units to have their own pets, often rescued from abandoned homes, or for there to have been bird watching (and unfortunately bird shooting) expeditions enthusiastically organised by bored young soldiers. The most interesting anecdote for me was learning that the unfortunates who found themselves working or holidaying in Germany at the outbreak of war and were imprisoned for the duration, created their own garden in their camp and became self-sufficient with the amount of vegetables they grew. So passionate were they about their gardening that they even became associate members of the Royal Horticultural Society and held their own flower competitions, for which the RHS sent them over ribbons and certificates to award! (Surely that would have made a brilliant Blackadder episode!) It seems that amidst the devastation and darkness, nature remained steadfast and a source of hope and inspiration for many, and Lewis-Stempel’s fascinating account of soldiers’ communion with the natural world around them is definitely a must read for anyone interested in the First World War.

A new coffee table favourite accidentally fell into my hands when I was ‘just browsing’ in Foyles the other day: The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920 – 1970 by Martin Salisbury. It is an absolute treat; Salisbury profiles just over 50 artists, from famous names such as Vanessa Bell and John Piper, to those whose talents have been left largely unsung, and the high quality colour reproductions of their dust jacket art work are gorgeous to look at. It’s been a real education to learn about the evolution of design from the heady days of the art deco movement to the abstract styles of the 1970s, and to understand how the importance of the dust jacket has changed over time, from mere protective wrapper to key marketing tool.  I’ve been flicking through with delight every evening, and I’ve now got a list as long as my arm of books I’ll be looking out for when second hand book shopping. This is definitely a must have for book lovers!

Finally, I’m finding myself craving the comfort of a mindlessly pleasant read when I get home these days, after the mental exertion of spending all day teaching; something as warm and comforting to slip into as a pair of flannel pyjamas, where nothing bad happens and the world is an uncomplicated, peaceful place. I discovered Miss Read earlier this year after buying the first in her Thrush Green series, and her second, Winter in Thrush Green, arrived on my doorstep this week after I snapped it up on ebay. It has been such a joy to be reunited with the various inhabitants of the sleepy village of Thrush Green, and to read a novel that demands nothing of me other than to switch off and enjoy myself. I think we sometimes all need a hot water bottle of a book, and Miss Read has definitely become my go-to for when life gets too busy. I now need to stockpile all the rest of her novels to ensure I have enough to get me through the winter!

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London Open House

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This weekend was London Open House and despite already suffering from back to school lurgy, I was determined to make the most of it and have a look at some places I would never normally have access to. Top of my list was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has a fantastic late Victorian interior, and was, unbelievably, almost demolished in the 1960s after falling into considerable disrepair. Thankfully sensible people stepped in and it has now been fully restored. We were allowed to see all the formal state rooms, including the impressive, glass ceilinged Durbar Court, part of the old India Office, which is a real monument to Victorian Imperial values and a truly breathtaking space, and the amazing Grand Staircase, with beautiful wall murals and ceiling paintings celebrating Britain’s virtues. It’s a real feast for the eyes, and there was also the added sense of excitement and interest in knowing I was walking in rooms where so many significant decisions and treaties have been made throughout history. I also really enjoyed reading the information panels on the realities of diplomatic life; I once had notions of being a foreign diplomat myself, but now I’ve read what it’s like to live in a hut in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rats and kept awake by mangoes falling on my head in the night, I think teaching was the right choice!

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After spending a good hour at the FCO, I walked a little further down Whitehall to see the Banqueting House, the last surviving wing of the once great Palace of Whitehall that largely burned down in the 17th century. It’s not particularly much to look at – it’s an early example of Palladian architecture and has some lovely ceiling paintings, but it’s not heavily decorated or filled with treasures. However, what makes it special is that it was the place from where Charles I walked to his execution, and as I have always had a bit of a soft spot for poor Charles, it was quite special to be in the place where he breathed his last. There was also lots of information on masques at court in the 16th and 17th centuries, which was very interesting, and the Banqueting Hall certainly does look like an amazing place for a party.

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I then walked up to Piccadilly, where I wanted to visit two of the scientific societies, the Linnaean Society and the Geological Society. Having of late become fascinated by the history of botanical and geological history in the nineteenth century, I wanted to see the places where the fascinating people I’ve been reading about read out their lectures and debated their theories and deposited their specimens, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Standing beneath the portraits of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in the meeting room of the Linnaean Society where these men’s papers on the theory of evolution were first read out was awe inspiring, as was seeing some of their belongings in the beautiful library upstairs. Even more thrilling was my visit to the Geological Society, where I got to see the famous specimen of Mary Anning’s icthyosaur, as well as the very first geological map of Britain made by the now unjustly forgotten William Smith. It was a wonderful experience to be in these halls of learning where many of the now common knowledge understandings we have about the world around us were first made public by the pioneering scientists of the nineteenth century. I can highly recommend a visit, and both of these societies do have quite frequent public lectures that are open to everyone.

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My last Open House port of call was to a location a mere twenty minute walk from my own front door, and that I didn’t even know was there until I saw it listed on the Open House website. Walking along a busy road lined with modern flats and houses, you suddenly come across a bridge with steps that takes you down to the Limehouse Cut canal, which runs through East London from the Lea river to the Thames. It is a straight canal that largely takes in an industrial landscape, but it’s lined with gaily painted narrowboats and willow trees, and is a lovely place for a sunny afternoon stroll. I’ve walked parts of it before, but I’ve never gone as far East as I did today, and to my surprise, as I turned a bend, I came across the Open House location I was heading for: House Mill, the world’s largest tidal mill, and a 17th century gem. Like the FCO, it was almost demolished in the 60s to make way for a car park, but thankfully it was saved and is now a wonderful community space with a gallery, cafe and rooms to rent for all manner of activities. I missed the tour, unfortunately, but I still had a lovely time walking around and feeling as if I had just gone back in time by 300 years. I love that even though I’ve lived in London for practically all of my life, I can still come across new places to surprise and delight me!

ps. Simon and I have just recorded our first podcast after our summer hiatus – you can listen to it here!

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat

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I love childhood memoirs. As someone who often rhapsodies about the sun-soaked halcyon days of childhood summers, spent lying spreadeagled on the cool grass beneath the trees in my garden, dappled light spotting across my nut-brown limbs as I turned page after delicious page of Malory Towers books in a heavenly haze of seemingly endless days, I find it a wonderful leveller that all of us seem to remember only the golden moments of our youth. Childhood to me is inherently seasonal: waking up to my pink-suffused bedroom in spring as the sunlight shone through the cherry blossom trees outside; running barefoot around the garden in the summer, the smell of the barbecue lingering in the air; crunching through the piles of leaves on my way to school in the autumn, constantly on the lookout for fallen conkers to pickle in vinegar and thread onto a string; curling up on the sofa with hot chocolate on dark winter afternoons. I don’t remember the boredom, or the fear, or the anger, though I’m sure I must often have felt all of those things. As I get older, my childhood becomes ever more a jumble of delights, and I find that most memoirs (other than the misery type, of course) tend to present childhood in just such a way too. I hoped for this view of childhood when I picked up Period Piece in a second hand bookshop a few weeks ago, as I’ve long heard of it being wonderful. What I didn’t realise until I started reading is that Gwen Raverat was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and so the childhood she describes, moving between the large houses in Cambridge populated by a myriad of Darwin uncles and aunts and cousins, London homes of more well known aunts and uncles, and the Darwin family home in Downe, Kent, is made even more fascinating by its proximity to the intellectual great and good of the Victorian age. What makes it so successful, though, is not this touch of stardom, nor the vanished world of servants and horses and carriages she depicts, but Raverat’s incredible eye for detail, her wonderful sense of humour, and her ability to choose the moments of childhood joy and rebellion that we can all relate to, no matter when we were born.

Raverat grew up in a huge house on the river in Cambridge, which still stands and is now part of Darwin College, with several siblings, a flighty American mother and a much older father, who was the son of Charles Darwin. Most of her father’s siblings, along with her father, were involved in university life in some way, and so much of the Darwin family were neighbours, and lived closely intertwined lives. Known for marrying late, the Darwin sons had their children at about the same time, which made a merry gang of cousins with whom young Gwen could rampage freely about the streets of Cambridge. She describes a city that seems an impossibility now; still largely rural, surrounded by fields and meadows filled with sheep and cows, streets lined with tumbledown cottages, large mills and granaries, and all of it connected by the river, which many people still used as the most convenient way of getting around rather than taking a horse and carriage into the congested centre, clogged with chattering crowds of gowned students. However, it was the descriptions of the minutiae of daily life that delighted me the most, from the specifics of just how many underclothes people used to wear to the etiquette of dinner parties, to what was eaten at lunchtime to how often people went shopping, this is an invaluable resource for understanding the everyday lifestyle and attitudes of the late nineteenth century middle class. What is so amazing about everything that Raverat describes is how alien it is, and yet still within living memory for someone alive in the middle of the twentieth century. To have grown up in a world where aunts regularly died in childbirth, where women did nothing but pay calls all day, where there was nothing to do in the evening but read or sew, where there was a different type of servant for every household task and unmarried women had to be chaperoned everywhere and yet live an adult life amongst cars and televisions and telephones and aeroplanes must have been utterly amazing.

With a wry and affectionate sense of humour, Raverat brings the eccentric members of her family and their circle fully alive. Her accounts of family picnics in the meadows, idyllic summers at Downe, listening to the plop of mulberries falling from the tree outside her bedroom window, endless hours of playing on the green-tinged river under the canopies of willow trees, sitting in fire-lit drawing rooms listening to the talk of bearded uncles and the rustling dresses of extravagantly attired aunts and watching the horse-drawn world pass by in front of her windows are totally charming and a truly fascinating and enlightening glimpse into a forgotten world. It reminded me very much of Dorothy Whipple’s frustratingly hard to get a hold of autobiography, as well as Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie; all beautifully written, magical tales of the wonders of childhood, which remains timeless in its delights and disappointments. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Scotland

 

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As part of my mission to explore more of the UK, this year I decided my summer holidays would not involve taking any planes. I might be kissing goodbye to any chance of a tan, but at least I would finally see the places (practically) on my own doorstep, that really I had no excuse not to have visited. So, an airbnb in Inverness booked (this wonderful place – so highly recommended), a car borrowed from my generous mother, and a friend recruited, off we went on our very long car odyssey from London to the Highlands. We stopped off at a lovely BnB in Ripon and in a hotel in Glasgow on the way, making the trip to Inverness over three days. I’d never been to Glasgow before and was excited to see the city, but, perhaps rather typically, it was pouring it down the entire evening, so we didn’t want to spend much time outside looking around. We did have a nice ramble around the amazing Victorian necropolis though – definitely a sight worth seeing! The drive up from Glasgow to the Highlands takes you through the Cairngorms, which is a breathtaking mountain range offering incredible vistas of heather-covered mountains, glittering lakes and green valleys at every turn of the road. Even though the drive was several hours long, we were so enchanted by the scenery that it went by in a flash, and soon we found ourselves driving along the edge of the River Ness and up to our cottage, which was perched atop a hill with magical views across a valley to the mountains beyond. Perfect!

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I could bore you with a blow-by-blow account of all the things we did, but I’m going to let the photos speak for themselves. If you’re interested in following in our footsteps, we went to Cawdor Castle, Culloden, Eilean Donan, Glenfinnan Viaduct (famous for being where the Hogwarts Express steams over in the opening to the Harry Potter films), Dunrobin Castle, Brodie Castle and Glamis Castle, as well as Loch Ness and general Highland countryside. We had a marvellous time and utterly fell in love with the wild, unspoilt beauty of the Scottish landscape. When you are standing amidst the heather, seeing your reflection ripple in a loch by your feet as the sun chases over the craggy slopes that soar above you, you really do feel the weight of the immensity of time, and your own insignificance, which I always find strangely comforting. This is how Scotland has always been, and will always be, long into the future; what I saw is what someone a thousand years ago would also have seen, and that sense of connection over unfathomable breaches of time is something that can’t help but be a balm for the soul.

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News of the World by Paulette Jiles

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When my wonderful friend Ellen, who took me under her wing many moons ago during my time living in New York, recommends a book to me, I never hesitate to read it. She introduced me to Marilynne Robinson, which is a gift I’ll forever be grateful for, as well as countless other authors and novels I’ve loved. Even if initially I’m not sure, I know she won’t be wrong, and so when she recommended News of the World a couple of months ago, I headed straight to Foyles and picked up a copy.  I was storing it up until a time when I could immerse myself in it, and last week I had a long train journey that proved to be the perfect opportunity. A slight volume, it holds a story that transported me utterly to the lawless, dust-baked valleys of post civil war Texas, where black-clad men toting pistols haunt the lonely tracks between rawly constructed pioneer towns and communities live in fear of raids from Native American tribes. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an old man, who, having lost his wife and properties in San Antonio, is now living a rootless, itinerant existence that brings him a kind of happiness. He travels around Northern Texas, moving between its rough-and-ready towns to entertain locals with live readings from the newspapers, which earns him enough money to stay fed and clothed. After a life spent fighting for his country and working hard to support his family in his printing business, he is enjoying the sense of having no responsibilities, and only himself to please. However, when he bumps into an old friend who offers him 50 dollars to take a young girl who has been kidnapped by the Kiowa, a Native American tribe, back to her family several hundred miles away in San Antonio, he reluctantly accepts out of a sense of obligation. Little does he know that this encounter will go on to transform his life.

Johanna Leonberger was kidnapped by the Kiowa after a raid on her family’s homestead four years earlier. Her parents and sister were brutally murdered, and she was taken as a prize, being brought up as a member of the tribe by a new mother. Now ten, she only speaks the language of the Kiowa, and is a wild thing, terrified by the civilised world she has been brought back to. Unable to communicate and longing to be back with the only family she remembers, she initially resists Captain Kidd’s kindness and repeatedly tries to run away. Kidd, with a dangerous road to travel along lonely, lawless territory, soon wishes he’d never agreed to taking the child. Danger is lurking everywhere, and they are set upon frequently throughout their trip, with their lives often at risk. Johanna proves to be a fearless little fighter, with plenty of pluckiness and skill picked up from the Kiowa. Captain Kidd, calm and resourceful, and fiercely protective of Johanna, finds a new lease of life in this constant state of battle. Gradually the two grow to love one another as they find a way to communicate across the divide of years and experience, and both will arrive in San Antonio very different people, with a bond that will prove impossible to break.

This is a truly beautiful story that slowly, tenderly and insightfully unravels the stories of Captain Kidd and Johanna to reveal two damaged and lonely people who yet have a deep, innate capacity for love. The rendering of Texas at this unstable time in American history is so vivid and colourful, and I could almost smell the horses and gunpowder as images of streets filled with clapboard saloons and boarding houses, and orange, cactus-studded valleys came alive in my head. There is plenty of action and excitement, but at its heart this is a story of people, and how wonderfully courageous, loving and adventurous we can be if we allow ourselves to live ungoverned by fear. It’s beautifully, sensitively written, and I loved every moment. I can’t wait to read more of Jiles’ work, and even if you think the subject matter or setting isn’t your sort of thing, I really encourage you to give News of the World a try. You won’t regret it!