The world is becoming a strange place, isn’t it? I walked to work this morning along almost traffic-free streets; I could actually hear a glorious cacophony of birdsong, as if I were on a country lane rather than one of London’s main arteries. Bloomsbury’s squares were empty; on any other freshly-washed-sky day in March, with the sun shining and the air sweet with the smell of blossom, these little oases of green would be thronged with workers and students enjoying the longed-for warmth and light after so many weeks of rain and cloud. The huge courtyard in front of the British Museum was desolate as I wandered past at lunchtime; usually packed with snaking lines of tourists and school children, a mere handful of hardy visitors trickled up the steps to enjoy what I am sure must have been the rather surreally empty galleries. Everywhere is so devoid of people that London is starting to look as lonely as an Edward Hopper painting. I’ve often wished for a bit of peace, fewer crowds, less bustle – but now I’ve got it, it’s not blissful, but merely disconcerting.
As of tomorrow, school is closing, and the children are all going home – for how long, we don’t know. I’ve told them to keep a diary; their own Journal of a Plague Year. It will be something to look back on, a story to tell a future generation, perhaps. A time to reflect on what we value most, what we miss, what we can actually do without. A time to realise that actually, our day-to-day lives are full of privileges and choices and freedoms we take phenomenally for granted, and really are not, as much as we might like to think of them as being so, guaranteed. I’m no scientist; I don’t pretend to understand the statistics and the risks and the rights and wrongs of government strategies. All I know is that at times like this, rather than panicking, and obsessing over things I can’t understand and can’t control, I prefer to look outwards for what I can learn, how I can adapt, and what I can do to help others. And one of the things that always helps me when the world seems to be falling down around my ears is reading; nothing heavy, nothing too complicated or intellectual, but instead good, well-written yet undemanding prose that sweeps me away into another world and makes me forget about this one. So one way I would like to help all of my lovely readers out there who might be worried – for many of us have friends and relatives who are ill or vulnerable or lonely who we have good reason to worry about, me included – is to give you a list of books you can hopefully find comfort in over the next few weeks, and perhaps share them with your friends and family, too. Maybe you could start a facetime/whatsapp/skype book club as a way to connect with friends or family who are self-isolating, or feeling lonely if they live alone and are now working from home. Books have always been such a wonderful way to bring people together, and even if we can’t be physically together, they can still spark conversations and provide shared experiences, making us all feel a little more connected, and a little less discomfited, I hope. Anyway, here they are – my top five comfort reads. I hope some of these will bring you joy and peace at this time of world-wide trouble.
- The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard – this marvellous collection of five novels tells the story of the various members of the multi-generational Cazalet family from the pre-war 1930s to the post-war 1940s. Every character is brilliantly drawn and wonderfully multi-faceted, every plot line is utterly compelling, and every setting is evocatively realised. You’ll find yourself so drawn into the pages that the hours will pass by like seconds as the world Howard conjures casts its spell.
- The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield – one of the funniest and most heartwarming books there is, Delafield’s witty and warm account of the various trials and tribulations involved in navigating the many hurdles of 1930s middle-class life are as comforting as a cup of tea and a plate of hot buttered toast. You’ll laugh out loud and grin delightedly with recognition at the awkward conversations, wardrobe malfunctions and domestic disasters that dog the Provincial Lady’s well-meaning attempts at keeping up appearances!
- Emma by Jane Austen – definitely the most cerebral of my choices, I know the story and the characters like the back of my hand and yet every time I read it, something new strikes me and I marvel afresh at the brilliance of Austen. Sinking into the world of Highbury is like going off to visit a group of old friends, and I never fail to giggle mercilessly at the ridiculousness of Mr and Mrs Elton and to whoop with joy when all comes right at the end. This is pure pleasure from start to finish – perfect balm for the troubled soul.
- Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher – my mum has a huge collection of Rosamunde Pilcher books and when I was a teenager and had run out of my own books to read one stormy night, my mum gave me Coming Home to try. I was instantly hooked and I very quickly read my way through them all, though Coming Home has always remained by favourite. Set in a beautiful stately home in Cornwall and telling the stories of childhood best friends Loveday and Judith, it’s an addictively good story with plenty of surprises, romance and tragedy to keep you absorbed for hours. Plus there’s a wonderful TV adaptation to enjoy starring a very young Emily Mortimer – well worth watching afterwards!
- Thrush Green by Miss Read – I discovered this book a few years ago when staying in a holiday cottage, and was surprised at how well-written, insightful and just downright lovely it was. The comfort in the whole series of Thrush Green books is that everything always turns out just as you think it will, and everyone gets just what they deserve, but beneath the simplicity and predictable nature of things, there’s a subtlety and a perceptiveness in the handling of characters and their emotions that gives them far more weight than other novels in this genre. I have grown to love the characters over the several books in the series I’ve read, and whenever I need something to make me feel that all is right with the world, I reach for a Miss Read.
I’ve illustrated this post with photographs I took today, on my walk to and from work, of the beautiful blossom that is coming out on the streets near my flat. It lifted my spirits to think of how, amidst the madness, nature continues in its usual rhythms. Spring is still coming, the world is still turning, and all will come right in the end.