Question Time

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For those of you who don’t know (where have you been?!), Simon at Stuck in a Book and I have been doing a podcast called Tea or Books? for a whopping 49 episodes…and to celebrate our super special 50th episode, we are going to open ourselves up to questions from listeners (and readers who have not yet listened!) on any aspect of our reading lives (though personal questions are welcome too!). If you’ve got a burning question for either or both of us, please do pop it (or them- you can ask more than one!) in the comments below (or email me at booksnob at hotmail.com) – we’ll answer every one!

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, because I heard a lot of hype about it back when it won the Booker in 2011, and then when the film came out this year, I thought there must be something in it to warrant a read, as there’s not many Booker prize winning books with plots good enough to make a decent film, being as they are so frequently style over substance (see mine and Simon’s Tea or Books? podcast on precisely this issue here). So, when my university was giving away a pile of these for free thanks to an upcoming talk by Julian Barnes, I thought now was my chance. I snapped up my free copy and proceeded to read, and found something quite different to what I expected. A wry, thoughtful, interesting voice unfolded on the page, and I found myself strangely absorbed by the tale of sixty something Tony Webster, and the memories of his unexceptionable and yet life-shaping school and university days. However, as the book progressed and it became clear that the promises of intrigue hinted at earlier on were not going to come to anything I would term remarkably realistic, satisfying or surprising, I became increasingly frustrated. As I finished the last page, I wanted to throw it across the room. Was that it? A google search proved that many others had felt the same way, and some, unsatisfied with the prosaicness of the most logical conclusion to the story, have woven all sorts of interpretations, from the events of the whole novel being a figment of the narrator’s imagination, to everything that happens being a lie and so serving as a metaphor for the fact that we all create the version of our lives we wish others – and ourselves – to believe – and so on. Either way, whether the ending is what it is or whether it is a meditation on the fallacy of all our lives, it was still a rubbish ending. Let me tell you why. Be warned: this has spoilers.

The book starts with Tony reminiscing about the friends he had at school, and one of them in particular, Adrian, who was ridiculously intelligent and far more mature than the rest of their group. Tony was fascinated by him, and a little possessive, too; though when the boys all went off to different universities, gradually they drifted apart and contact was reduced to occasional letters and a few reunions during the holidays. While at university, Tony dated a girl called Veronica for about a year; she was enigmatic, elusive, difficult to understand. Tony’s most vivid memory of her is a visit to her parents’ house for the weekend, where he was fascinated by her cryptic, beguiling mother, and unsettled by her boorish father. Not long afterwards, they broke up; a letter from Adrian came some months later, letting him know that he was now dating Veronica, and asking for his permission to do so. Tony says he wrote back to say that of course he did; there were no hard feelings. They didn’t meet again; Tony went to America after university on a gap year and on his return found out that Adrian had committed suicide. Ever the philosopher, he had simply decided that life was not worth living. Tony has been somewhat haunted by this ever since, and when he receives a letter from a lawyer some forty years later to tell him that Veronica’s mother has died and left him £500, along with a letter telling him that she owes him an apology, and Adrian’s diary. However, Veronica still has Adrian’s diary and doesn’t want to give it up. This starts Tony off on an obsessive desire to reconnect with Veronica and claim back the diary, though Veronica is intent on making life difficult for him, and as he begins to reconnect with his past, he realises that the version of his younger self he has believed for so long might not be quite as accurate as he would like to believe.

All this is quite intriguing, as the question of why Veronica’s mother had Adrian’s diary and what on earth any of this has to do with Tony is one that keeps the pages turning in quest of an answer. However, as the plot develops, Veronica’s behaviour becomes more and more maddeningly incomprehensible, and as the pieces begin to click into place, the disappointment starts to settle, slowly at first, and then thicker and faster as the absurdities pile ever higher. Veronica keeps telling Tony that he doesn’t get it, and he never will get it, but the problem is that she’s given him absolutely no information to enable him to get ‘it’, and when we finally get it too, at the end, which is that Veronica’s mother had an affair with Adrian and bore his child, which apparently is Tony’s fault because he wrote a nasty letter to Adrian (which he had, incidentally, forgotten all about writing until Veronica showed it to him) telling him to go and see Veronica’s mother in order to get the measure of Veronica, we don’t really understand why Veronica is so angry with Tony about it. Essentially, Veronica blames Tony for Adrian’s death and her own presumably unhappy life, because if he had never advised Adrian to visit her mother in the aforementioned nasty letter, the affair would never have happened. Because obviously he would never have met the mother of his long term girlfriend otherwise. So this is not only totally unconvincing as the premise for a plot, but also, from a rational basis, utterly nonsensical. I couldn’t believe that any normal person would hold themselves accountable for such a chain of events, and Barnes doesn’t convince us why we should. I completely understood his points about the unreliability of memory, of the consequences of our actions and so on, but to suggest that Tony was in any way responsible for decisions other people willingly made and would believe himself to be so is ridiculous, and choosing to base his philosophical ponderings on such a paper thin plot was rather a mistake, in my opinion.

So. Another Booker Prize winner, another feat of style over substance. This book purports to be far deeper than it really is, and the ideas it contains are far too heavy to be held by the flimsily constructed story and characters. It’s well written, of course, but the writing can’t atone for a cast of characters I couldn’t care less about and a plot that was ultimately absurd. I’d love to hear what other people thought. If I missed the point, please do tell me!

Autumnal Ambles

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I love autumn. It’s my absolute favourite season. Nothing beats kicking piles of golden, crunchy leaves, watching the sky fade from watery blue into pearlescent pinkness as the afternoon light ebbs away, the smell of woodsmoke and leaf mulch, and the softening of the landscape into the burnished bronzes and browns that make the world seem as it if is slipping into a haze of sepia. When not frolicking amidst the glories of a nature raging brilliantly against the dying of the light, the natural tendency to hibernate as the weather gets colder and the days get shorter suits the introvert in me very nicely as I hunker down indoors with plenty of tea and books, pies and crumbles, duvets and Netflix. It is a time for winding down, for relaxing, for the pursuit of comfort.

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I always ache to get to the countryside in autumn, for London, wonderful as it is, cannot quite provide the sights and smells of nature I crave at this time of year. I love the tunnels of golden leaves made by the overhanging trees in the lanes around my sister’s house, and foraging in the woods for conkers and acorns with my nephews. I love seeing the piles of leaves burning gently in the newly shorn fields, sending up great puffs of delicious smelling smoke into the air. I love kicking my way through enormous drifts of crisp leaves, and wandering across fields full of hay bales, admiring the subtle shifts in colour palette of the surrounding trees, smouldering away at the edges of the horizon. I was invited to spend a weekend with a friend who’s moved to the countryside in Hertfordshire a few weeks ago; we had a marvellous time walking all around the fields and lanes, taking in the beautiful range of brightly coloured maple trees and accidentally wandering onto the grounds of an amazing Elizabethan house, whose mellow red bricks seemed perfectly suited to the autumnal surroundings. Last week I was in the Lake District, which was fittingly damp and misty, its beautiful red and gold hills reflected smudgily in the flat grey surface of the lakes. I could hardly bear to tear myself away from the landscape, which so takes me out of myself and fills me with a sense of peace and awe.

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Back in London, the air is smokier, the sky greyer, the pavements littered with leaves. At the edges of the roads and in the parks, the trees are yellow, amber, bronze, softening the surrounding buildings with their golden glow. At night, the sky is always lit up with some form of fireworks display; we love celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night so much that one night just isn’t enough! Though I know some hate the fact that they leave work in the dark now the clocks have gone back, I love it – the comforting glow of neon and the brightly lit-up shop windows take on a festive air, and walking around London on a crisp, dark evening makes me feel wonderfully Dickensian. In the evenings of late I’ve taken to curling up in my armchair with a very nice new anthology of ghost stories, published by Vintage, which has plenty of Victorian favourites inside – there’s nothing like a spooky story to make me feel ready for the onset of winter.

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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!

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!