I’ve been trying to read the new Hilary Mantel, but at the moment my mind just can’t stay focused on anything for very long, and The Mirror and the Light is the sort of novel that requires full concentration. I read a few sentences, find my mind wandering, then I read a few more, then I get to the end of the page and realise I’ve taken nothing in whatsoever. So I’ve given up for now. Everything is so strange at the moment, isn’t it? There is the constant worry and sorrow about coronavirus nagging away at the back of my mind, the compulsion to be constantly checking the news even though I don’t want to know any more statistics of misery, the fact that my life has been utterly transformed overnight and I have no idea when it will go back to something resembling the old normality…I know you all know exactly how I feel. However, I am comforted by the fact that communities are pulling together, and people are caring for others in a way they would never have done before. I am comforted by the fact that pollution is reducing, air is becoming cleaner and healthier to breathe, and the Earth has a chance to start doing some healing. I am comforted by the thought that hopefully, amidst the stress and worry and financial difficulty, we are getting the chance to take life at a slower pace for a while. I am comforted by the hope that these positive changes will last; that people will see that they can do without constant consumption, that working environments will permanently become more flexible, that people will take more time to check on their neighbours and friends, that community groups formed to support those who are isolated will remain active, and reduce the chronic loneliness so many people feel. And another comfort this week has been reading a book that wraps you up in a blanket of cosiness, where no difficulty is insurmountable, everyone gets their happy ever after, and the world is all as it should be. This is exactly what Fresh from the Country is, and I relished every minute. The story of newly-qualified primary school teacher Anna Lacey’s first year teaching in the rawly built, rough-edged Essex suburb of Elm Hill, it is a lovely insight into the world of teaching, as well as a thoughtful commentary on the quality of life in post-war suburbia, and a witty and heartwarming exploration of the challenges of young adulthood.
Anna Lacey is the product of a hearty, happy farming home in the Essex countryside, but her first teaching job on leaving training college is in the depressing, half-built suburb of Elm Hill, where she lodges with the parsimonious Mrs Flynn in her flimsy new-build semi. Everything about Elm Hill is depressing; the constant rumble of bulldozers, the lack of trees and flowers, and the sad looking straggles of raw-brick new build houses scattered around the remnants of an earlier village. However, the primary school where Anna is working is brand new and state of the art, is presided over by an admirable headmistress, and is staffed with a motley crew of entertaining teachers. As such, Anna finds her work enjoyable enough to keep her in the sullen surroundings of Elm Hill, despite the fact that managing a class of over 40 students in a room designed for half that number is an uphill struggle. Amidst the day-to-day triumphs and tribulations of learning to teach, over the school year Anna grows in confidence and understanding of herself and others, makes new friends, discovers what really matters to her, and even begins to fall in love. It’s an absolutely charming tale of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery as she learns to strike out on her own, and though elements of it are rather dated, it’s still a lovely and perfectly recognisable depiction of the first heady and confusing days of newly-adult independence.
This is unusual for a Miss Read in that it’s a stand alone book, so if you haven’t tried her yet, you might want to start here. The Dean Street Press, which republishes middlebrow novelists (check out their blog, Furrowed Middlebrow), has thankfully just republished it in paperback and kindle editions, so it’s very easy to get hold of. I enjoyed it mostly for the description of teaching life; it made me incredibly grateful that it is no longer acceptable or legal to have a class size larger than around 33 (and even that is far too many really) and that I have technology to use in the classroom these days rather than having to do everything by hand. But so much of teaching hasn’t changed: the excitement of September and meeting your new children, the fun of planning interesting and engaging lessons (and the disappointment when they go terribly wrong!), the joy of watching children grow and develop over the school year, and the pride you take in their achievements. There’s also the horrific accidents they manage to have when you turn your back for one moment, as poor Anna discovers during a PE lesson from hell!, and the hideous moments when everything descends into chaos the moment your headteacher/Ofsted inspector enters the classroom…but the less said about that, the better! Overall, if you want a light, heartwarming and thoroughly enjoyable read to distract you from everything…this will be an excellent option. Enjoy!