A couple of weeks ago, I spent an absolutely blissful few days in Lisbon. Escaping from grey and drizzly London to the blue skies and bright sunshine of Portugal was such a treat, and I was completely enchanted by the beauty of the city, which is built over seven hills and tumbles scenically down to the water’s edge in a cascade of colourful and historic buildings.


Unusually for me, I did very little planning or preparation before going away, and had nowhere in particular that I wanted to visit. I just wanted to walk the streets and soak up the atmosphere, and rather than making a beeline for specific sites, I wanted the spontaneity of stumbling across places that attracted me as I made my way around the city. This worked perfectly at making it a fantastically relaxing and fulfilling trip, as I found so many wonderful things that I would never have come across in a guide book. I loved the architecture of Lisbon; the streets are lined in genteelly dilapidated, very Italianate buildings, often covered in beautiful patterned tiles, there are dozens of extravagantly decorated churches, and there are also some very interesting examples of modern architecture, such as the impressive bridge that spans the Tagus river, and the lively LX Factory complex of shops and restaurants that wouldn’t have looked at all out of place in Shoreditch.


My favourite spots in the city were the impressive Ler Devagar bookshop in the LX Factory, which is a huge space filled from floor to ceiling with books and features a wonderfully whimsical collection of automatons that whizz about above your head, the National Pantheon in Alfama, which was right behind our apartment and a former church turned into a mausoleum with a magnificent roof terrace that offers brilliant views across the skyline and over the water, and the Jeronimos Monastery in the Belem district, which is an absolutely breathtaking piece of very Islamic influenced medieval architecture that I spent several happy hours wandering around. I also loved getting the commuter ferry across the river to the other side of the bay, from which you get spectacular views of Lisbon. I went over just before sunset and watched the sky turn a glorious coppery pink, bathing the city in a golden hue that was truly breathtaking. It was a sight I would not have missed for the world.


Just outside of Lisbon is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra, a historical town and wooded mountainous area that features dozens of 19th century palaces and villas as well as an incredible 9th century castle. I took the 45 minute train journey out to Sintra and had a wonderful day exploring the sites, particularly enjoying the incredible, far reaching views across the countryside and the glimpses of fairytale castles and palaces as the road twists and turns up the mountain. It is a magical place, that feels completely unreal; I don’t think a visit to Lisbon would be complete without a trip to see this magnificent piece of Portuguese history.


I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more in Lisbon; the people are so friendly and hospitable, the food is wonderful, and incredibly cheap for someone used to London prices, and the prettiness of the city, clustered around its beautiful piazzas and parks and waterfront, was a wonderful surprise. If you’re looking for a location for a relaxed European city break, Lisbon should definitely be at the top of your list!


The Chateau by William Maxwell


Every time I read one of William Maxwell’s books, I find myself in awe of how utterly beautiful his writing is. He always manages to find just the most perfect combination of words to express a thought or experience, suffusing my mind with the senses and emotions of that moment in time and enabling me to feel as if I were that character, and this story my life. He weaves an entire living, breathing world on the page; not much of one for event and incident, he is a master of making the everyday and unremarkable utterly absorbing. So much of what happens in Maxwell’s novels is internal, and it is these fleeting thoughts, these uncomfortable silences, these covert glances, that make his stories so full of tension and emotional intensity. He is an utter realist, and when I read his writing, I find that he so often puts into words my own feelings and experiences in a way that speaks to me with a profundity my own words could never hope to express.

The Chateau, his longest novel, was just the most wonderful reading experience. It is the story of Harold and Barbara Rhodes, a young American couple who travel to Europe for an extended holiday in the late 1940s. After a complicated journey through a French countryside that is pockmarked with the craters of destruction left behind by the war, they arrive in Paris and are enchanted. Their childish joy in the beauty and novelty of what they find is enchanting, and reminded me of the continual delighted astonishment I felt during my first visit to Paris. It is clear that France is not what it was, but Harold and Barbara fall in love with the French people, their culture, their food, their language, their architecture – and they are keen to see and experience as much as possible. The story really gets going when they arrive at the eponymous chateau in the countryside, where they have booked to stay for two weeks. The owner, Mme Vienot, is a charming but guarded woman, forced to open her family home to guests after having fallen on unspecified hard times, and it is the interaction with Mme Vienot and their fellow guests at the chateau that forms the narrative impetus of the novel. Each character is fascinating in their own way, and has depths of capriciousness, eccentricity and secrecy that perplex Harold and Barbara, who only want to like and be liked, but the vagaries of human personality make this a far more complex aim than they had at first anticipated. They have never met people like this before, never had to struggle to make themselves understood. Is it a case of culture clash, or have Barbara and Harold realised an essential truth about humanity that American society has never been able to teach them?

Amidst the long, lazy days of a trip several months long, the Rhodes’ come to understand more about themselves and the world around them through the people they interact with, and the quiet dramas of their navigation through French society and attempts to befriend those they meet are beautifully evoked. Post war France is so poetically, hauntingly drawn, and I longed to be there, lying on the sun-dappled lawn of a chateau shimmering against the deep blue of a summer sky. Maxwell creates a rich, sensitive and beautiful canvas that explores, through its characters and their reactions to what they experience, what it is to be human – the joys, the disappointments, the loves, the losses – and though for some, who enjoy a plot driven novel, it might appear that nothing happens, for me, this book contains all of the action that makes up a life, and I found it brilliant and surprisingly moving. I particularly liked the theme of searching for something that runs throughout the novel – the Rhodes’ visit has been inspired by a childhood trip of Barbara’s, and they spend their entire holiday looking for a chateau Barbara remembers but can’t recall the name or location of. They never find it, and this sense of incompleteness, the idea of something never fully realised or grasped, is the undercurrent of the text, raising complex questions about the reasoning behind our actions, and whether any of us is truly knowable, and perfect understanding between people ever possible to find. If you’ve never read any William Maxwell, you are missing out enormously. I cannot recommend him highly enough!

Regeneration by Pat Barker


I had to temporarily abandon my reading of Armadale after it disintegrated in my bag – rest assured, it has been repaired with lots of sellotape and will be finished soon – and after seeing the first poppies starting to be sold in London, I decided to pick up Regeneration, the first in Pat Barker’s trilogy about the psychological impact of WWI, featuring the real life figures of writers Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, as well as Dr William Rivers, who treated shell shocked soldiers at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. I went through a huge phase of reading WWI literature a few years ago, and absolutely loved the experience, yet somehow I never got around to Regeneration, which was a real oversight. I couldn’t bear to put it down, and found myself thinking about it all day while I was at work. The characters, in particular Dr Rivers, are so vital that I almost felt as if they were alive, and the intensity of the psychological trauma suffered by both patients and doctor is brilliantly, heartrendingly drawn. The novel is a mixture of fact and fiction, but the lines blur seamlessly to create a realistic, powerful and incredibly moving exploration of the effect of war on the psyche.

The story opens with Siegfried Sassoon’s admission to the hospital in 1917, after writing his famous declaration against the war, in which he acknowledges his ‘wilful defiance of military authority’: an act tantamount to treason in the eyes of many. In order to save him from a court martial, therefore, his friend Robert Graves pulls strings to ensure that Sassoon’s sanity is called into question, and has him sent to the comfortable surroundings of Craiglockhart, where the pioneering Dr Rivers has been treating soldiers with a variety of symptoms of mental illness caused by their war experiences. Sassoon is obviously not mad; he is simply disillusioned and horrified by what he has seen. Dr Rivers knows this from the outset, and seeing the deep conflict and trauma beneath the surface of Sassoon’s aloof exterior, over a period of several weeks, the men develop a close bond as Sassoon is helped to reconcile his fervent pacifism with his sense of duty, and decide on his future path.

There are many other fascinating characters, such as Prior, a working class officer ashamed at the fact that he has broken down, and conflicted between his desire to stay alive and his desire to do his duty. There is also the tragic ‘fossilised schoolboy’ Burns, who can’t eat after a traumatic experience with the dead body of a German soldier. Many of the men struggle with feelings of shame and guilt and failure, taught as they were that real men do not feel fear, and duty must always come before self. To have found the war unbearable is to have become emasculated, feminine, weak; to no longer be a man. With sensitivity and intelligence, Pat Barker explores the ideological aspects of war and how closely attitudes towards it were (and perhaps still are) interlinked with societal expectations of accepted masculine behaviour. Of particular interest to me was how many of the men at Craiglockhart were classified as being ‘mad’ when they were simply just sad. Their experiences had revealed the horror of inhumanity to them, and shown them the vulnerability and futility of human existence in a shatteringly visceral way. However, feeling a profound sense of hopelessness or melancholy was not an approved response to war; having any emotional response at all was simply not expected nor acknowledged. A man’s job is to do his duty; his feelings about it are utterly irrelevant. Gradually it is this barbaric approach that Rivers begins to see might be the true madness around him, and he struggles with the concept that he is ‘healing’ these patients only to send them back to the battlefield, where society says they belong. For, what is madness, the novel prompts us to consider – surely it is war that is insane? And perhaps the only sane response to such insanity must be to break down emotionally, otherwise what does that say about humanity, if we can look destruction in the face and not be moved by it? This is such a fantastic and thought provoking novel, and if you haven’t read it, i highly recommend it. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequels next.

Tea or Books? is back!

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Here’s the link to our latest podcast, back after my internet-less hiatus; I hope you’ll enjoy it! This time it’s on rural vs urban novels and Sense and Sensibility vs Pride and Prejudice. You might be surprised by what we choose!

In other news, I now work dangerously close to Charing Cross Road, home of London’s best loved book shops, and I have taken to ‘popping in’ to Foyles quite frequently on my way home, as it is such a pleasure to browse the shelves. I am not really one to buy new books, as I tend to just pick my books up cheaply in charity or second hand book shops, but Foyles has started to make a convert out of me. I find books in there that I would never otherwise hear of or notice, and they have a very clever knack of producing displays of related books so that people with rather niche tastes such as myself can discover new authors in the same vein as their old favourites. I love unwinding after a busy day by wandering through all of the different departments, and I like the fact that when I buy something, I am contributing to the survival of an independent book seller, which obviously completely justifies my expenditure. This week I was delighted to find the British Library Crime Classics series on special offer, so I picked up The Lake District Murder by John Bude, and Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon, largely because they had the prettiest covers, but the stories also sound brilliant, I promise! I also came across a William Maxwell novel that I haven’t yet read, The Chateau, which sounds wonderfully atmospheric, and just the sort of thing to curl up with now it’s getting colder and the nights are drawing in.

As any teacher will know, I already can’t wait for half term, and I’m very excited to be going on my first holiday since my trip to Scandinavia over Easter. I’ll be spending a few days in Lisbon, which is a city I’ve wanted to visit for years, so I’m so looking forward to exploring its streets and trying some authentic Portuguese cuisine. If anyone has any Lisbon tips, I’d love to hear them, and any recommendations for books set in Lisbon or in Portugal in general would be much appreciated!

I promise I’ll be back with a book review soon…Armadale is quite the doorstopper, so I am taking a while to wade my through it!

London Life


Sorry I disappeared for a while there. I didn’t mean to. I just didn’t have any internet in my new flat until yesterday, which meant that I spent the entire summer practically ignorant of the goings on in the world around me, which was actually rather restful, when I come to think about it. I’d love to say that I got loads of reading done, but I didn’t; I stayed in London for my holidays this year, and was so busy exploring and enjoying the city that I barely had the opportunity to sit down with a book.



I’ve moved to one of the only remaining unfashionable areas in this rapidly gentrifying part of the city; you won’t find any artisan coffee shops, flower markets, pop up vintage shops, art galleries or zinc-ceilinged New York style bars round here. The local market is filled with stuff that clearly came off the back of a truck, the only coffee you can buy is from Greggs (Brits will know what that means!) and the most exciting shopping experience can be found in the local charity shop. But I love it here because of all this; it’s real London, with real Londoners, living real lives. It might not offer many instagram-friendly photo opportunities, but actually, when you look closely, what appears to be a bit of a dump is actually an amazing receptacle of London’s history, largely unseen and unvisited because it’s completely off the beaten path.


My new neighbourhood is intrinsically linked to the water, and walking along the canal path, peering into the windows of the brightly painted houseboats and picking blackberries off the bushes that grow in a tangle along the water’s edge, are some of my favourite ways to pass an idle afternoon. The cobbled streets and weathered brickwork on the old wharf buildings by the river, along with the few remaining pubs and houses from the 17th and 18th century that crouch like elderly gentlemen between the shiny new blocks of flats, sweep me right back to Victorian London, and make me feel like I’m in a Dickens novel. I love wandering through the leaf strewn grounds of the majestic Georgian Hawksmoor churches, whose spires can be seen from miles away, and whose lofty architecture speaks of a time when this now rather down at heel spot was once home to London’s elite. And I love the searing brutalism of the midcentury high rise blocks of flats that pierce the skyline and whose sides are often decorated with some interesting examples of street art. So, you might not come here for a culinary, cultural or sartorial day out, but you’d be hard pressed to leave without having seen something beautiful or surprising, reminding you of just how diverse and ever-evolving London is.



I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of my new patch; I’ll be back soon with a book review, and Simon and I will definitely be recording a new podcast this week, so keep your eyes peeled for that!