The leaves have turned, the nights have drawn in. The air smells different; peaty and smoky, suffused with the slight mustiness of mouldering leaves. Already I find myself wanting to hibernate; I’d rather be burrowed under blankets with books and biscuits and tea rather than out and about in the wet and cold, but as ever, there is far too much to do and see than allow myself such a luxury.

This time of year, I find myself drawn out of the centre of town and to the suburbs, where the air is fresher, the leaves are more coppery, and a slightly longer tube journey makes me feel like I’ve had a proper day out. A friend and I went to see Marble Hill in Richmond at the beginning of the month; newly renovated and reopened by English Heritage, it’s the last complete survivor of a group of 18th century grand houses that were once clustered along the Thames in this part of London. It’s quite compact, but beautifully decorated and furnished inside, with an excellent array of inventively displayed visitor information and very knowledgeable volunteers. The grounds aren’t much at this time of year, but there’s a nice bit of parkland to walk around that takes you down to the Thames, where there is an art gallery owned by the local council, the Orléans House Gallery, which tells the story of when the French royal family once lived there, and has a fascinating collection of work by local artists. They also have a fabulous cafe serving divine cake and very good coffee, and a quirky gift shop – highly recommended! If that wasn’t enough fun for one day, you can jump on the tiny passenger ferry that stops right outside, and be taken across the river in a couple of minutes, where you’ll get off in the gardens of Ham House, a gorgeous 17th century National Trust property that has also recently been renovated and has some outstanding interiors. And another very good café! I loved the fact that the original owner of Marble Hill – Henrietta Howard, who was a remarkable woman – was best friends with the then owner of Ham House – I can imagine they must have had many lovely afternoons together picnicking and messing about on the river. Best of all, most of this day out was entirely free – Marble Hill and Orléans House Gallery will cost you absolutely nothing to visit. Perfect in our times of austerity!

As the month has drawn on, the rain has become relentless, and on a hideously wet Sunday a couple of weekends ago, an American friend asked me to come and see the Winslow Homer exhibition at the National Gallery. To my shame I had no recollection of ever hearing Homer’s name, but I could think of no better way to spend such a miserable day, so I very happily went along regardless. However, once I was actually inside the exhibition, I realised I had seen plenty of the paintings before in American galleries, because evidently, he is incredibly well known and loved in his country of origin. My friend and I had a fascinating discussion afterwards about how much your knowledge of the world is shaped by where you grow up – one country’s cultural household name can mean nothing to someone else who may have grown up just feet away across a border. I loved watching the exhibition video (you can view it here), which explains all about Homer’s fascinating life and his explorations of the American and British landscapes, and his engagement with the debates around the Civil War and slavery. Homer has never had a solo exhibition in Britain, despite his fame in the US, and I think the paintings in this exhibition represent his very best work. If you can manage to see it, do; Homer has a remarkable ability to capture the movement of the sky, and sea, and make what might seem to be quite a humdrum subject extraordinary. The selection of paintings is very well chosen and displayed to tell the story of his development as an artist over time; perfect for someone new to his work. I might even go back to see it again, I enjoyed it that much.

Reading wise, I’ve managed to pack in a lot, as I was fortunate to have a run of excellent books on my to read pile that kept me reading at a cracking pace. I absolutely loved the genius that is Kate Atkinson’s new book, Shrines of Gaiety – I don’t think the title does it many favours, nor the jacket design, if I’m perfectly honest – but the contents are brilliant. Loosely based around the life of Kate Meyrick, who owned several of London’s most famous nightclubs in the 1920s and made an absolute fortune off the back of them, it’s a wonderful, kaleidoscopic dive into the underworld of the Jazz Age. Those of you who are familiar with Kate Atkinson’s work will find several threads from her oeuvre combining in this; her interest in history, in detective fiction, in women’s lives, in the exploitation of the vulnerable and in fractured and multi-voiced narratives. There are many characters, all of whom are wonderful, and I’ll say no more other than that you ought to read it, and soon. A very different novel was Elizabeth Jenkins’ Brightness – some of you may know her as the author of Harriet, reprinted by Persephone Books, or The Tortoise and the Hare, reprinted by Virago. Her other novels are very hard to get hold of, so when I came across Brightness going for a song on eBay, I snapped it up. I’m so glad I did; a quiet, fascinating novel about the rivalry between two suburban women in 1960s Britain, it says so much about post-war social upheaval, as well as about women’s lives, the gulf between generations, and the corrosiveness of jealousy. It’s beautifully written, very evocative of its time and place, and also horribly sad – I had a proper cry at the end. If you can get hold of a copy, I highly recommend it, and I must say I’m surprised it’s not been reprinted yet. I need to also say a big thank you to Barbara, who commented on my last post about reading The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey – you encouraged me to finally pluck it off my shelf and I loved every minute of it. It unravels the mystery of Richard III and whether he really did murder his nephews imprisoned in the tower – and now I’ve read it, I can understand why Philippa Langley, who was the driving force behind getting Richard III dug up from underneath a car park in Leicester a few years ago and reburied with dignity, developed such a passion for his rehabilitation. I am sensing a research project coming on! Perhaps I’ll start with watching The Lost King, though the reviews have not been that complementary!

Finally for the big news of the month, which is that I have now reentered the workforce, and it has been quite the adjustment; I had forgotten how tiring a whole day at work is, and have been collapsed on the sofa most evenings since, utterly drained of any energy. I am having to get used to a new rhythm, but I’m enjoying the challenge of my work, and the opportunities it’s presenting. For I am no longer in a classroom every day, but a theatre; still working in education, but in the extracurricular side of school life, managing part of the schools programming at Shakespeare’s Globe. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to wander through the Stage Door in the morning, and wander in and out of the theatre all day. It’s such a privilege to work in a space which is, for many children, their first experience of a theatre, and to get to be part of a team who is working to ensure that experience is as exciting and transformational as it possibly can be. I feel very fortunate to be here!


I’ve been thinking about how I can become a more regular blogger, while moving away from dedicating entire posts to book reviews. As much as I love writing about the books I’ve read, often I find myself wanting to talk about so many other things besides the book that I find the format of a review restrictive. I also am often half way through another book by the time I get around to sitting down and thinking about the book I thought I might like to write about, and so then I just give up and end up posting nothing at all. So I thought I’d experiment with a sort of ‘musings’ once every fortnight or so. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. You’ll tell me either way, I’m sure.

So to start off this first attempt, I must say how absolutely devastated I am at the death of the remarkable Hilary Mantel, whose ability to express the human condition in just the right beautifully placed words is unsurpassed in our contemporary literary world. I remember vividly reading the last of the Wolf Hall trilogy in those early days of the pandemic in 2020, when life was suspended and none of us knew what fresh horrors tomorrow would bring. The book had come out just before the country went into lockdown – it was probably the last book I bought from a physical bookshop before the shutters on everything came down. As an unseasonably lovely Spring descended on us and I remained stranded at my sister’s house in the countryside, it being illegal at the time for me to travel back home (it seems utter madness now that this could possibly have been true!), I spent afternoon after afternoon of those endless days filled with nothingness, lying in the hammock underneath the apple tree in my sister’s garden, immersed in the court of Henry VIII. Blossom blanketed me unheeded as I breathlessly turned the pages, the worries of my own world forgotten as I lost myself in those of Cromwell. The Mirror and the Light was a gift to me amidst that time of darkness, and though I sobbed uncontrollably at the end with a grief that I’m sure wasn’t really about Cromwell at all, it was probably the most intensely enjoyable reading experience of my life. I was so excited to see what would be coming next; to know there will be no more words from her pen is truly devastating.

In the days after her death, several interviews were circulated online, and I found one in which she said the book she considered to be her inspiration and the finest example of writing she had come across was Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. I hadn’t known she was a fan; I’ve loved Molly Keane ever since I read a lovely old green Virago edition of Full House years ago, but I’d never got around to Good Behaviour. It just so happened that it was sitting on the shelf in the charity shop I visited the very afternoon I read the article. Book serendipity – or was Hilary watching over me? We’ll never know. I snapped it up and started reading immediately, and was utterly entranced by the voice of the narrator, Aroon St Charles, who tells us the story of her childhood and early adulthood at Temple St. Alice, a crumbling pile in pre-war Ireland, alongside her beloved father, cold mother and adored brother. This world of manners and appearances, facades and pretences, is peopled by a fabulously realised cast of eccentric characters, all of whom we meet through Aroon’s deluded and entirely untrustworthy eyes. It’s a masterpiece of self-deception, and a haunting portrait of repression. I loved every minute, and you must read it. It’s reminded me that I must revisit so many of the gorgeous green Virago Classics I collected and read twenty or so years ago when I first discovered them, but have neglected since. Incidentally, Carmen Calill, who founded Virago Press, died this week – you can read her obituary here.

Last weekend I visited Birmingham for the first time; I was presenting at a conference on the research I and the organisation I volunteer with, End Sexism in Schools, carried out into the shocking bias against female writers in the English curriculum in schools (you can read the report I wrote here, if you’re interested!). I was so excited to finally visit Birmingham’s art gallery, which has the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world – but to my great disappointment, when I arrived, I was told the gallery is under such comprehensive refurbishment that most of the collection is currently in storage. There was only one – one! – available for me to see, Rossetti’s Proserpine, which was gorgeous, of course, but I had so wanted to see all of the paintings together, in conversation with one another in the same room. However, my disappointment was somewhat assuaged by coming across this gorgeous painting by Joseph Edward Southall, which is painted directly onto the wall of the gallery, at the head of its main staircase; a wonderful depiction of women going about their daily lives in 1914, I felt as if I had been transported into a scene from a Persephone novel. I was transfixed by it; the buttons on the boots, the fur stole and muff, the tiny little handbags – it’s such an arresting snapshot in time, and I could have stayed and looked at it all day. Later on, in the midst of a torrential downpour, I ducked into what I thought was a church, only to find I was actually in Birmingham Cathedral. As I pushed open the door, I was arrested by the shimmering, jewel-toned beauty of the glorious stained glass windows – all by Edward Burne-Jones, and in my opinion, the finest work of his I have been fortunate to see. I had no idea they were there, and so I got my pre-Raphaelite fix in Birmingham after all.

Today I popped into the Guildhall Art Gallery in London to see their exhibition called Inspired!, which brings together mostly nineteenth century works of art inspired by music, theatre and literature, to explore how culture influences art and ask the question what value this art has when the culture it references no longer has popular currency. I found it very interesting, but I definitely got more from it having watched the curator Katty Pearce’s incredibly informative video tour beforehand – if you can’t make it to London to see it, do watch the video and be delighted at the random facts you’ll learn about the now forgotten celebrities of the nineteenth century!

Finally, this time of year in Britain, with the leaves turning, the weather becoming damper and chillier, and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, always makes me think of Mrs Miniver, and this wonderful evocation of a leisured afternoon of cosiness:

Tea was already laid:  there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets.  Three new library books lay virginally on the fender-stool, their bright paper wrappers unsullied by subscriber’s hand. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed, very softly and precisely, five times.  A tug hooted from the river.  A sudden breeze brought the sharp tang of a bonfire in at the window. 

I have been unemployed for the past few months – finding a job has taken me longer than I had hoped! – but of late, rather than feeling guilty and anxious about being at home with nothing of any worth to do, I’ve decided to let myself enjoy these precious weeks. Autumnal afternoons curled up in a chair, a new book to be read, tea to be drunk and biscuits to be crunched, while life goes on in the street below, are Mrs Miniver-esque pleasures I have never been able to enjoy on a week day before. I used to stand by the window of my classroom, watching the leaves change on the trees, and often long to have an afternoon off to do nothing, so I need to appreciate this time while I can, before I am back at a desk somewhere. After getting back from the Guildhall gallery this afternoon, I sat and had a cup of tea while reading the new Persephone Biannually, which reported on the publication of the final Dorothy Whipple book, her wonderful autobiography The Other Day, and I decided then and there that before I go back to work, I shall re-read every single one of her books in the order in which they were written. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my last few weeks of unemployment. If anyone would like to join me, I’d be delighted to have your company!

In my grandmother’s footsteps

I am not a particularly sentimental person, and neither am I a royalist. But I am not ashamed to say I had a cry yesterday when the news of the Queen’s death was announced. I may not agree with the concept of a monarch, but I have always had the utmost respect for the Queen’s dedication to what she believed was her duty to this country. To give your life – to lay down your own hopes and dreams and desires – to do something you believe in absolutely is a true act of sacrifice. She was a symbol of a vanished age, of a generation who knew what it was to give their lives for their country, and amidst so much flux, she was the constant calm, collected cornerstone holding the nation together. I’ve never been one for watching the Christmas speech, or going in for the pomp and glory around Jubilees and so on – but the Queen’s devotion to duty gave her words and actions a meaning no other influential figure could command. Her constant presence was benignly reassuring. I always felt, rather childishly, that the Queen wouldn’t let anything bad happen to us. It feels impossible that she can be gone.

Her death has caused the rather strange phenomenon of reawakening personal grief at the loss of a family member from the same generation. As I cried into my cup of tea last night, I realised that what I was really crying for was a world that was gone, and the people who had gone with it, and mostly my grandmother who was a little bit older than the Queen, and who died a few years ago at the grand old age of 95, without me having had the chance to say goodbye. It dawned on me yesterday that I had never really dealt with the complex and complicated feelings I had around her death, and the Queen’s death caused me to feel like my grandmother had died all over again.

Today I woke up and felt very strongly that I wanted to do something to feel close to my grandmother and say a proper goodbye. As it happens I’m currently staying in Devon for a few weeks for a change of scene – taking advantage of being temporarily unemployed! – and so I’m not too far from where my grandmother grew up, in Dorset. I drove to Corfe Castle through lanes offering amazing panoramic views across the undulating patchwork of countryside that rolled down to the sea. I parked up in the National Trust car park – Corfe Castle is a thousand-ish year old ruined castle on top of a hill, with its ancient village – where my grandmother was born and spent her childhood and young adulthood – nestled at its foot – and walked up the footpath that led beneath the castle and into the centre of the village. As I walked, a steam train whistled past, sending up an atmospheric puff of smoke that billowed across the horizon. It could have been 1920 again, the year of my grandmother’s birth.

Corfe Castle village is so ridiculously beautiful, so quintessentially chocolate-box English, that it could quite easily be mistaken for a film set. Its honey-coloured thatched cottages are strung along two streets – East Street and West Street – that fan out in a V formation from the main square, where a handful of shops and pubs are clustered around the impressive towering presence of the church. Behind the square rises the hill formation on which the ruined castle sits; all around the village, the unspoiled countryside ripples down in folds to the sea, sparkling in the distance. It is a little bit of heaven, even on a rainy day, but my grandmother hated it with a passion so intense she never set foot in the village again after she left it to join the WAAF during WWII. Now the village is highly sought after; the cottages are beautifully kept, the gardens and windows filled with flowers, and many are holiday lets. However, when my grandmother was a child, it was a place where many, she and her family included, lived in abject poverty. Her parents lived in a tumble down cottage that was running with damp, and her father, the village blacksmith, was struggling to make ends meet as people increasingly moved away from horses to engines. For a while my grandmother was sent off to live with her grandparents, as her parents couldn’t afford to keep her. While she often spoke of the close community, of the fun she’d had with her friends in the village, and the school she had loved, she said life in the country for the poor was nothing but hard work, hunger and misery, and if people knew what it had taken to keep a cottage sitting on a damp, muddy lane with only one smoking fireplace clean and warm, they’d never want to set foot in the countryside again.

Walking down that same road today, lined with pretty cottages, it was hard to imagine the world my grandmother would have inhabited. Arriving outside her old home, I was surprised to see a for sale sign; a quick google told me it would cost almost £700,000 to own. How times change. I went into the church, wondering what sorts of services and events my grandmother would have attended as a child. I saw her brother’s name on the war memorial; he was one of several men from the village who never made it home. A walk up the lane and to the cemetery took me to his commonwealth war grave; standing alone, with no family resting nearby, I quickly picked some wildflowers to place at his feet. My nan had been devastated at his death; he was only 25. I can’t imagine waving my brother off and never seeing him again.

I wandered back through the village and up to the castle, enjoying the panoramic views across the countryside and wondering whether this was the place where the youth of the village used to come and hang out back in my grandmother’s day. I liked to imagine her up here with her girlfriends, gossiping, or maybe with a young sweetheart. But as much as I found it a beautiful spot, I could also understand how isolating, how restrictive, it must have felt to a woman of my grandmother’s ambition and intelligence. She wanted more than two streets and a weekly bus to the local market town. She wanted the bright lights of a big city, and to be anonymous in a crowd.

So much of the village is exactly the same as it was in my grandmother’s childhood, due to the fact that it is protected by the National Trust. Of course subtle changes have happened over time – the everyday grocers, bakers, and butcher shops my grandmother remembered are now tea rooms and gift shops, the tiny school she attended has doubled in size, and there is a general air of cleanliness and prosperity that certainly doesn’t marry with my grandmother’s description of village life. Ultimately, however, it is still what it always was – a sleepy little slice of the English countryside. As I walked its streets today, I felt I truly was walking in my grandmother’s footsteps, and it made me feel immensely comforted. Thinking of how the Queen’s death had brought me to this place to remember an entirely different woman, the closing lines of Middlemarch came to me; “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” As Eliot so wisely put it, both historic and unhistoric lives have an equal role to play in the shaping of our own, and to both those lives I am grateful, and both will be much missed.

J B Priestley

Nowadays J B Priestley’s literary legacy largely rests on his play An Inspector Calls. A perennial favourite in the UK, it’s on the school curriculum and frequently revived. While it’s certainly not subtle, it’s very entertaining with a brilliant final twist that never fails to send shock waves through a classroom (I used to love teaching it, waiting for the penny to drop on the kids’ faces as they realised what had just happened). Priestley was a prolific dramatist, and though some of his plays are definitely what I would classify as period pieces that don’t have a huge amount to offer to audiences today, there are several that have stood the test of time and demonstrate Priestley’s passionate belief in socialism and the importance of community.

I hadn’t really registered that Priestley was also a novelist until a couple of years ago, when I picked up Festival at Farbridge in a second hand book shop, mainly for its gorgeous dust jacket rather than its content, I must confess. It took me a while to get to it, but when I did, I was surprised by how utterly immersed I became in its world of small town politics. Set at the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951, a nationwide attempt to raise the spirits of a beleaguered post-war nation, it tells the story of a group of disparate people, all down on their luck in some way, who get involved in the organisation of a Festival event in the small Midlands town of Farbridge. Through many trials and tribulations, personal and political, this motley crew of men and women, young and old, successfully pull off their own Festival, transforming not only the town, but themselves in the process.

Priestley’s message, as in An Inspector Calls, might not be subtle, and there may be plenty of sentiment, but his ability to bring characters to life is extraordinary, weaving a rich tapestry of living and breathing individuals whom a reader cannot help but fall in love with. His postwar world of smoky pubs, dilapidated Victorian boarding houses, dingy offices filled with clacking typewriters and steamy tea rooms is rich with period detail, and yet the humanity of his characters feels as fresh, real and relatable as the day they were written. Festival at Farbridge is an absolute joy of a novel, and despite being a little baggy around the edges, with plenty of extraneous detail, I loved every minute. They just don’t write them like this anymore.

A few weeks ago, I took myself off on my first ever solo holiday, to a little cabin in a fern filled valley by the sea in North Devon. I wanted isolation and relaxation, and I got both in abundance. I took a selection of long books with me that I knew I would never read if I were at home and surrounded by the endless distractions of my day to day life, and amongst them was Priestley’s The Good Companions, his most celebrated book during his lifetime. I bought this copy – a lovely old 1960s Penguin papberback – because a previous owner had written ‘heavenly’ in capital letters across the back of the book, and I thought there could be no better recommendation than that. I am pleased to report that this person was absolutely right in their choice of adjective, and I was similarly transported to celestial plains while reading it. It just so happened to be one of those brilliantly serendipitous reading moments when a book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment you need it. As I was sitting by the sea, contemplating making a big change in my life, feeling at a crossroads, not sure where to turn, and thinking about whether working in a theatre would be the right path for me, here came, as in Festival at Farbridge, a motley crew of people, all at a crossroads in life, looking for change, not knowing where to turn, and finding themselves joining forces with a travelling theatre. The Book Gods certainly knew what they were doing when they prompted me to take The Good Companions on holiday!

I honestly don’t have enough superlatives to describe how much I absolutely loved this book. When I finished, I felt bereft. Everything that I loved in Festival at Farbridge was here, yet even better – the structure is very similar in using alternating chapters to give each of the main characters’ perspectives, but it being an earlier book – written in the mid twenties – gives it a greater sense of hopefulness and joy in its tone. Nowhere but in a novel by Priestley could Jess Oakroyd, a factory worker from a grim Northern town in late middle age, dissatisfied in his work and his marriage, Elizabeth Trant, a thirty something well to do spinster recently liberated from life long caring duties upon her fathers’ death, and Inigo Jollifant, a mediocre public school teacher fresh out of university with a hidden genius at the piano, cross paths on the same day that they all decide to chuck in their lives and go on the road. Also, nowhere but in a J B Priestley novel could they all end up in the same café as a travelling theatre troupe whose manager has just run away with their main attraction, leaving them rudderless and in debt. The three wandering travellers naturally decide to join forces with the troupe and give the theatrical life a go, with Elizabeth using the inheritance money she has just had land in her lap to revive their fortunes, and Inigo using his skills at the piano to make them a roaring success. As they travel around the country, they have enormous highs and crashing lows, and gradually all of their priorities change and their time together will come to an end, but not without all being transformed and finding the confidence to seek the lives they truly want.

As with Festival at Farbridge, each character is exquisitely drawn, and despite plenty of meandering around the main story, none of it feels superfluous, because this world is such a wonderful place in which to dwell. I could have kept reading this book forever, so delighted was I by every word. I think what I love the most about Priestley’s writing is how strongly his love for humanity and its potentialities comes through his words; his vision of how people can be enabled to be their best selves when they feel they are a productive part of a community is so powerful and still so true. All of the characters only truly blossom when they feel purposeful to others – when they feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. In a world of increasing insularity and division, I really do think a dose of Priestley is what we all need to remind us of what really matters.

Thankfully there is a small press that has kept Priestley in print, and most of his novels are available on kindle if they’re not in paperback. In the UK at least, his novels are very easy to find in charity and second hand book shops, too, so there’s no excuse not to give him a go. If you have any recommendations of what I should read next from Priestley’s backlist, please do let me know!

Better Late than Never

It’s strange to think it’s a year since I last wrote a blog post – it feels like the time has gone in the blink of an eye. I didn’t mean to disappear for so long, but somehow, I felt like I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say. Studying seems to have that effect on me – the more I learn and the more I am immersed in other people’s words, the less I feel I have to contribute.

I’ve spent the past year writing and creating works for performance, hanging out with people mostly a decade younger than me, and generally living a life that is about as far away from my old one as possible. Walking away from the path of ‘supposed to’ has been incredibly freeing, exciting and not a little bit unsettling. My peers all have big and important jobs, and impressive salaries. They’re all moving out of London, buying houses, getting married, having babies. We’re in our late thirties now – the time for experimentation is supposed to be over. While I’ve chucked in my secure job and gone down a path of uncertainty and precarity, everyone else I know is settling into security. It’s been hard, sometimes, to be so out of step with everyone else. Going against the grain isn’t easy. But I can’t deny it’s also a lot of fun!

So here I am, embracing the artistic life, and totally uncertain about what the next year will bring. But one thing I do know – I’ll be back in this space, documenting my thoughts, discoveries and adventures – and I’m looking forward to sharing them all with you. Thank you for waiting for me.