Advent Activities

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One of the joys of getting older is getting to know yourself more. Last year I had the realisation that the horrible, crushing sadness and restlessness I feel every winter is nothing to do with my life being rubbish and in need of an overhaul, but is simply my body’s reaction to reduced daylight. In previous years, I’ve pushed through the fog by signing myself up for all sorts of things to make positive changes to my life, and only ended up making myself more exhausted and no less miserable. This year, I’ve recognised it for what it is, and am being kind to myself. I am, as the self-help books would say, listening to my body. I’m going to bed earlier, staying in to curl up on the sofa and read, eating lots of vegetables, and watching terrible Netflix Christmas movies. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying hibernating, and avoiding the chaotic crush of Christmas shoppers.

By making sure I make time to do nothing, I conserve my energy for the things I really want to do at Christmas time. The theatre is magical all year round, of course, but in the winter, I love being cocooned inside its womb-like darkness to watch a story unfold before my eyes. Over the last couple of months I’ve seen Lungs at the Old Vic, Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre and The Ocean at the End of the Lane at the National, all of which have been fantastic, and I’m off to see Master Harold and the Boys at the National this week, which I’m really looking forward to. The William Blake exhibition at the Tate is so utterly magnificent I’ve already been twice and will go back again before it closes; there’s nothing better on a grey, rainy Saturday morning than being closeted with beautiful, otherworldly images that you have all the time in the world to gaze at, followed by a lovely cup of tea and a slice of cake, is there?

Yesterday I had a lovely evening walk around London, going to look at the Christmas lights. I also wanted to look at some of the streets in Westminster that are still lit by gas; I had no idea that there were whole swathes of the city that retain gaslight until I read an article about it in Country Life magazine (article not available online, though this different one is, and it’s very good!). Once I read about it, I was determined to go and investigate whether there really is a pronounced difference compared to electric light, and now I know that there certainly is! Carlton Gardens is a wonderful example; just off the Mall, and home to the Royal Society, it’s a beautiful corner of stucco houses that, as soon as dusk settles, glows gently through the gloom in a haze of soft gaslit luminescence. However, just around the corner, the darkness is illuminated with the harsh, garish splendour of Christmas lights festooning a neighbouring street of shops. Turn back, and it is as if you have crossed a fault line into the past; on the gaslit pavement, you can almost hear the horses’ hooves and the squeaking of carriage wheels. It was enough to give me the shivers!

Reading wise, I’ve been doing my best to motor through the piles of books I’ve bought and not read over the last few months. I devoured Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Olive, Again, in one sitting; she is such a revelation. What makes her characters so compelling is their utter ordinariness, and in their ordinariness is revealed the extraordinary nature of all our lives. Behind every door are quiet tragedies, gnawing disappointments, aching regrets – but also the glorious joys of unlooked for love, of receiving forgiveness, of an awareness of the freedom that comes with accepting who you are. It’s a glorious, life-affirming book – a true celebration of what it is to be human. You must read it. I’ve also finally finished Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s wonderfully strange novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which is my first foray into modern Polish fiction, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. A murder mystery with a brilliant, eccentric main character and plenty of twists and turns along the way, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I must also say, the translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, deserves considerable praise; this is a superbly written translation. If, like me, you love a good vintage mystery to get stuck into during these cold winter evenings, then the British Library Crime Classics’ compilation of short detective stories that take place on or around railways, Blood on the Tracks, is fantastic. I was particularly delighted to find a lesser known Dorothy L Sayers story inside, as well as a wonderful short story by F Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to See the Peepshow, is a spectacular account of the real-life Thompson-Bywaters case. Non-fiction wise, I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by Catherine Bailey’s Black Diamonds, a doorstopper I’ve been meaning to read for years; the story of the fortunes and tragedies of the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam family and their enormous house, Wentworth Woodhouse, that was built on the money made from their coal empire, reads like a novel, it’s that eventful. From heirs being born in Canadian log cabins to tragic deaths in plane crashes (alongside Kick Kennedy, JFK’s sister), this family had enough skeletons in their closets to pad out several volumes. Thankfully, since the book has been written, Wentworth Woodhouse has been saved from ruin, and can now be visited; I shall definitely be dropping by next time I go up north! The only disappointment I’ve had in my reading over the last few weeks was Salley Vickers’ new novel, Grandmothers; I shouldn’t have been seduced by the beautiful binding. Rather pedestrian, I was bored by the half way point and struggled onto the end. Such a shame!

Over the holidays, I’m going to be thinking about how to take this blog forward. It’s been ten years (!) since I started, the blogging world has changed enormously, my life has changed enormously, and the way in which I use the blog and what I want to write about are entirely different to when I began. I don’t plan on going anywhere – but I do plan on making some considerable changes. Any suggestions welcome. If I don’t have time to post again before Christmas, I wish all of you – old and new readers alike – a wonderful holiday with your loved ones.

23 Comments

  1. Please keep blogging in some format…have been reading your blog for ten years. Love the book reviews and travel accounts. Happy Christmas

    1. I’m so glad. I just love Elizabeth Strout’s writing and I keep forcing other people to read her! Thank you for reading for so long – I appreciate it so much!

  2. I look forward to the new Strout novel – it is on my Christmas wish list. I look forward to your posts and hope you continue in 2020. Best wishes for the holidays and a bright New Year.

    1. I hope you’ll love it as much as I did! Thank you so much – have a wonderful Christmas and New Year too. I hope you’ll have a lovely time with your family and friends.

  3. Happy Christmas. Please keep blogging. I’ve been reading without comment for over 5 years. You gave me inspiration for places to visit on my OE and books to read which might otherwise have passed me by down here in NZ. Change is inevitable but please don’t disappear.

    1. Thank you so much for reading for so long! I’m so flattered! I’m delighted to hear that I’ve been able to inspire you in your reading and travels. Don’t worry, I’ll still be blogging in some form – I love being able to be part of this community of readers. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

  4. Don’t think you need any changes! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your recommendations. Especially R C Sherriff, Dorothy Whipple, Elizabeth Taylor. I have always refused to join a reading group as I can’t bear it if people don’t like the books I do! (More than slightly intolerant I know!) However, I would certainly join your reading group as I have loved every book you have recommended. Thank you so much!

    1. Thanks so much Gillian! I am so flattered! I’m delighted to hear you’ve loved my recommendations. I’d love to have a book club – a virtual book club is actually something I’ve been thinking about creating on here! Thank you for reading along with me for so long and have a lovely Christmas!

  5. Can’t say how long I’m reading here but I think it’s a good eight years? I have always loved your blog as it is, especially your book/Persephone reviews, also the glimpses into teaching. As I’m not happy with how the online word developed – away from real essays and writing to instagram and twitter – I was a bit anxious reading your wish to change. I just hope you won’t succumb to the lure of quick and easy pics or tweets in order to get clicks, but I’d say you’re not that person. I wouldn’t mind less posts, but in the same word-heavy quality as in your first days. I’m a reader, after all! So, for me, as little changes as possible would be fine. (I know that’s not really helpful…)

    I always love your London/ England posts!

    Speaking of travels (I hope I’m not offending you now): even working full-time, I never could afford the last hotel in Florence you mentioned. I was taken aback a bit by that, so much so that I didn’t comment even if I loved your article. I feared you’d turn now unexepectedly into the luxury version of yourself and was a bit afraid of where your blog might go from then on… I have always liked your sensible approach to life. I had the impression you knew what mattered and valued what is dear to me also: substance over appearance, true content instead of a shiny package. I don’t mind you enjoying staying in places like that, don’t get me wrong, but please don’t turn into an inaccessible life-style blog! And this is said lovingly and from my heart, I don’t mean to offend you, all right? (But if you changed and that’s your vision for your blog – go ahead, I’m sure you’ll do fine also. I just like your writing!) 💜

    1. Hi Martina – thank you so much for reading for so long. I’ve always appreciated your thoughtful and insightful comments and am delighted to have you reading along with me. Please don’t worry – I am not technology savvy enough to go down the instagram route! Writing will always be the core of my posts on here, I’m just thinking that writing occasional reviews is becoming a bit static and isn’t really what I want to use this space to do. So there is much to ponder on. And thank you for your honesty – please don’t worry about that either. A lifestyle blog is certainly not my intention- my life is very far from luxury, and I’m not interested in that type of thing at all! The only thing I do occasionally splash out on is a nice hotel – the Florence one was the result of some considerable saving up! – and I live so cheaply otherwise I like to sometimes treat myself. My travel plans for next year will certainly be more budget – rest assured! Thank you for such a lovely and thoughtful comment and I wish you a wonderful Christmas!

  6. Yes, Rachel, please keep blogging! I want to know more about the lost country house that you discovered last year near where your relatives live. when spring comes again, please take us back to that lost abandoned (possibly enchanted) place! I also loved hearing about the gaslit areas in London, I must put that on my list for my next trip.

    1. Thanks so much Gina! I will go back to the house this spring, I promise – this time with a little trowel to see if I can uncover anything interesting! Have a wonderful Christmas!

  7. Happy Christmas, dear Rachel, and the best to you as you move forward.
    I am so anxious to read Olive, Again – and as always, your other books intrigue me.
    I’ve learned, over the years, to be kinder to “me” and, if nothing else, make sure I take time for a late afternoon tea (or coffee if I’m out and about).

    1. Thank you so much Penny – and thank you for being such a loyal and lovely reader for so long. I hope you’ll enjoy the Strout – and a lovely Christmas where you get plenty of time for you!

  8. Rachel, Merry Christmas from halfway around the world here in Santa Barbara, California! I have been a loyal reader of your blog almost from its inception; you are such a thoughtful writer, and the fact that you are a teacher endears you to me (I’m a secondary-school teacher too). All teachers know that our work, our devotion to the texts and the kids, usually goes unrecognized and unpraised, so I’m taking this opportunity to tell you how good you are at what you do here on Book Snob, and how much you are appreciated.

    Make site changes or stay the same, but keep on keepin’ on!

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