Author: bookssnob

Reading from my shelves: June

Books started: 14

Books finished: 8

Books abandoned: 2

Books kept on the shelf: 5

June. Half way through the year. It doesn’t seem possible, somehow. Life continues in a sort of semi-suspended animation; freedom is returning, but with so many restrictions that much of the freedoms don’t feel particularly like freedoms just yet. It is a marker of the smallness of my world at the moment that my highlight of the month was being able to go to a bookshop again. The first day non essential shops reopened, I went skipping off down to my local high street here in Islington, full of excitement at being able to wander at my leisure amongst the shelves of treasure once more. I became rather anxious as I walked through the main shopping area and saw the queues outside the sports shop and H&M; would I have to wait for ages to get into Waterstones? Well, even here in intellectual North London, I needn’t have worried; evidently people were far more interested in buying trainers than books (not necessarily a bad thing!) and I was able to waltz right on in to a practically empty shop.  I was delighted to find the usual enthusiastic and friendly staff, who were keen to reassure everyone that they could do exactly as they liked – pick books up, flick through them, ask staff for help and recommendations and so on – as long as we put anything we’d picked up and decided we didn’t want on a special trolley so it could be taken off for quarantine at the end of the day.  I had a wonderful time wandering about and feeling almost like life was normal, and as I strolled out into the sunshine with my bag of new books, I felt a glimmer of hope that all of this nightmare was coming to an end, at last.

For most of June, the weather was gloriously mediterranean; endless sunshine, cloudless skies, hot, bright days and bleached, balmy evenings. Every spare moment I spent outside, and I spent many an evening with a glass of something nice on my balcony, catching the last rays of sun with a book. I slowly became a pleasant shade of bronze, and people kept commenting that I looked like I had been on holiday. And it really did feel rather like one; very far from my usual experience of June, which is usually mired in the stress of getting my students through their public exams and the frantic, frenetic pace of finishing the school year. It’s been lovely to not have to worry about all that for a change, I must admit. As I write, it’s the beginning of July, and of course it’s raining, and has been for the last week, because I now actually am on my summer holiday, and this is the way things always go.

But enough about the weather, and back to the books. What did I read in June?

I decided to tackle some of my unread tomes on the Victorians, which I bought in abundance when doing my MA in Victorian Studies a couple of years ago, and obviously never actually had time to read. Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House was very popular when it came out well over a decade ago, and for good reason, because it’s absolutely fascinating. I can’t think why I haven’t read it before. It takes a novel approach to social history by exploring what everyday life was like for middle class Victorians through the different rooms in their houses. She looks at the construction of houses in terms of their decoration and furnishing, architecture and layout, as well as the functions of each of the rooms and what this can tell us about mid to late Victorian life. I loved learning so many little intriguing details that you just don’t come across elsewhere, such as how it was a common afternoon activity for women and girls to cut up newspapers and letters to be made into little stringed packets of toilet paper before actual toilet paper was invented; that carpets were so expensive that when they were considered too worn for public spaces downstairs, they were cut up and refitted to bedrooms, where they would be out of sight to visitors; that most middle class people ate a diet during the week that entirely consisted of inventive leftovers refashioned from their Sunday joint of meat. I also found the details on how interior design fashions changed over time fascinating; images of festooned and frilled mantelpieces and tables, with every surface draped in fabric and ribbons and lace, shows how an interior would have looked in the 1870s, for example, and as the century wore on, the dark and heavy decoration schemes of the earlier years lightened as electricity began to replace gas and rooms became brighter and cleaner without all of the fumes and smoke associated with candles and gas lighting to dirty the walls. Flanders writes with a lovely wry tone and a keen eye for detail, and I sped through the book in a couple of days; it’s a wonderful piece of social history and I highly recommend it!

One of the sources frequently quoted in The Victorian House is The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, which originated as a satirical series of articles in Punch magazine about a bank clerk, Charles Pooter, and the trials and tribulations of his suburban middle class life. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and the extracts quoted in The Victorian House were so funny that I picked it up immediately after finishing. Charles and his wife Carrie live in a new semi detached house in North London, and when Charles isn’t trying to impress his boss and sort out the cheeky young clerks at his office in Holborn, he’s busy making his house a home by indulging in a little DIY. Charles and Carrie take great pride in their home, and are keen to try all the latest in decorative trends. They also have great ambitions for their lazy, wayward son, Lupin, whose arrival mid way through the book causes them great embarrassment due to his failure to apply himself at work and poor choice of female companions. Both Charles and Carrie are very endearing, and their small hopes and ambitions – a promotion at work, an invitation to a prestigious party – and everyday disappointments feel remarkably current for a novel written over one hundred years ago. Judith Flanders was particularly interested in The Diary of a Nobody for its focus on the domestic interior and domestic life, and it is indeed excellent for this, but it’s also a hilarious exploration of the many ridiculous, wonderful and annoying elements of everyday existence, and I loved every minute. The original illustrations from Punch are also brilliant, too!

Zipping forward in time to the present day, my friend lent me a copy My Friend Anna, which is the true story of how Anna Delvey, a middle class Russian twenty something, managed to fool a whole host of social climbing New Yorkers that she was a billionaire heiress. Delvey is now in prison, and the book is written by her so-called friend Rachel Williams, who was working for Vogue when she met Anna through mutual ‘friends’ and somehow ended up becoming her closest confidante. Rachel was having a great time benefiting from her friendship – free lunches, free designer clothes, free personal training workouts, free holidays, access to amazing hotels and clubs –  until everything unravelled on an all-expenses paid trip to one of the most expensive hotels in Morocco, when Anna’s credit card got declined and Rachel was forced to put the $60,000 bill on her own card. Over the next few months, Anna evaded paying her back, despite constant promises that she would, and gradually Rachel began to realise that Anna wasn’t all she said she was, and that she wasn’t the only one who had been duped. This book is just the best kind of wonderfully trashy nonsense. Rachel Williams is a truly loathsome individual who represents everything that is wrong with our current society. Entitled, selfish and shallow, she attempts to present herself as a sweet family-loving Southern girl who became a victim of Anna Delvey because she was just so gosh-darned nice, but the reality is, Rachel became friends with her because she enjoyed the perks of the friendship and the lifestyle Anna gave her access to. The worst part of the whole affair is that Rachel shopped Anna (clearly a very mentally unwell individual, who Rachel tries to demonise without any attempt to understand what might have made her want to live a double life) to the FBI because she wanted her money back – the stress of the debt apparently was ruining her life, giving her panic attacks, etc, etc – and yet she made no attempt to economise – she refused the offer of  sharing an apartment with a friend so that she could stop paying her $2k per month rent, she kept going out to expensive restaurants for brunches and dinners (during which she couldn’t stop crying about her debt), she kept flying off all over the US for friends’ baby showers and honeymoons, etc – making it very clear that she knew she would never have to pay that money back in the first place. Of course she wouldn’t – with wealthy parents (her father was running for Congress at the time), she was never really going to be held responsible for that debt, and her attempts to portray how she suffered – despite not having to make any material changes to her life – are incredibly insensitive to anyone who has ever experienced genuine crippling, life destroying debt they don’t have anyone to call upon to help them pay back. Rachel is a privileged young woman, living like many people do in New York – I saw it for myself when I lived there – a life consisting of being seen in all the right places, with all the right people, that leads to shallow ‘friendships’ and an expenditure that far outstrips their means – and when everything goes wrong, they don’t change their lifestyle, they just make a quick phone call to Daddy. Rachel Williams’ remarkable lack of self-awareness is the most entertaining part of this unintentionally ironic portrayal of the shallow emptiness behind a life that values people solely according to their social and financial status. In my opinion, Rachel deserved everything she got – though, the most tragic thing about the whole affair is that she has been amply rewarded – not only has she got this book, but also a deal for a Netflix series. I suppose that says everything about the world in which we live!

Elizabeth Jane Howard

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When I started reading my way through the unread books on my shelves in alphabetical order, someone asked me what I’d do when I had more than one book to read by the same author. Would I read them all in one go, or would I let myself just read one and come back for the others later? I wasn’t sure of my answer at the time, and hadn’t actually needed to worry about it until I got to Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose books it turns out I am very good at buying, but not very good at reading. The Cazalet Chronicles, five marvellous books written in the 90s and early 2000’s, about various generations of the upper class Cazalet family in mid century England, are some of my most favourite books of all time, and yet I didn’t know much about the rest of her oeuvre until I took a good look at the other books of hers I have on my shelf. As luck would have it, I had three of her early books, The Long View, The Sea Change, and After Julius, which were all published in the 50s and early 60s, and I decided that it would be interesting to read them in chronological order of their publication to see her development as an author at this stage of her career, and to compare them with the Cazalet books she wrote almost a lifetime later, with the last in the series being published just before her death, in 2013.

The Long View is the story of a disastrous marriage told in reverse, beginning in 1950, when the protagonist, Antonia Fleming, is preparing for a dinner party to celebrate her son’s engagement. A beautiful, intelligent woman, still only in her only forties, Antonia is exhausted and diminished by the years of being dominated yet utterly ignored by her husband. He is a selfish, arrogant and emotionally incontinent man, for whom other people exist only as a means to further his own desires. He hangs like a spectre over Antonia’s life, which has been defined by her relationship with a man who has no understanding of the concept of love. It seems incomprehensible that Antonia can ever have seen anything in him to love, but as the novel moves back to key points in time in their marriage, the reasons for their situation in 1950 slowly become clear. We see them during the war, on a holiday Conrad is desperate to escape so he can be with his mistress, on their honeymoon, and then finally just before they meet, with a depiction of the then-nineteen year old Antonia, at home in the countryside with her parents. There were times during the middle of the novel when I became disengaged; Conrad is such a horrific person, and Antonia’s acceptance of his behaviour so frustrating, that I struggled to be able to feel any real interest in their lives. However, as the novel progresses and the story goes further back in time, Howard reveals elements of the characters’ personalities and past experiences that enable their later actions to be better understood, making the significance of events in the earlier sections of the novel come powerfully into focus. The last section of the novel, seeing Antonia’s crushing first experience of love and the destruction of her innocence as she realises her parents’ marriage is based on deceit, was particularly brilliant, and brought the events of the entire novel together in an almost unbearably heartbreaking way. The final line of the novel is incredible – and made me want to start all over again. Thinking about it as a whole, it is a rather brave way to go about the writing of a novel, because the entire first section of the book, which deals with June, the fiancee of Antonia’s son, and Deirdre, her unhappy daughter who is pregnant by a man who doesn’t love her, is fantastic, but these characters are never revisited, and as events move further back in time, the decision to ask the reader to begin the reading experience by spending so much time with these people who don’t seem to have any place in the overarching narrative is hard to understand. However, when you reach the end, you understand entirely – you are seeing the beginning of Conrad and Antonia’s marriage all over again in the disastrous mistakes their children are about to make – and the whole thing becomes an awful, claustrophobic circle. It’s not a pleasant novel, by any means, and neither is it perfect – but it’s brilliantly, beautifully written, incredibly insightful, and so innovatively structured. It left me quite stunned by the end, and the characters have certainly stayed with me; if you’re willing to persevere through the somewhat stodgy middle, I can promise that you’ll find it a highly rewarding experience.

Next in line was The Sea Change, her third novel, which is about Emmanuel, a jaded playwright in his sixties, his sickly, frustrated younger wife Lillian, his live-in manager/assistant Jimmy, and his innocent young secretary, Alberta, who spend the novel travelling between London, New York and the Greek island of Hydra, in the pursuit of casting an actress for Emmanuel’s new play. Told in chapters of alternating viewpoints, the troubled past of Emmanuel and Lillian’s marriage is revealed, marred by the death of their daughter at a young age, alongside both Emmanuel and Jimmy’s growing attraction to Alberta, who remains blissfully ignorant of her appeal, and simply revels in the joy of travelling for the first time beyond her much-loved childhood home in Dorset. The peripatetic life Emmanuel and Lillian have always led, never living anywhere permanently, and always travelling, initially seems glamorous, and yet it gradually transpires that this has nothing to do with glamour, and everything to do with grief. When Jimmy and Emmanuel decide to train Alberta for the part in Emmanuel’s new play, the whole party decamps to Hydra for six weeks, where, in close proximity with one another and with nothing in particular to do, the fault lines in their relationships are painfully torn open and none of them will leave the island the same. This was my favourite of the three novels; I loved how vividly Howard draws the settings of a vibrant, glamorous midcentury New York and a blissfully unspoiled, white sugar-cubed Hydra, and each of the characters was so well-drawn, intriguing and sympathetic, and so utterly different from the other. The ending certainly isn’t what you expect, considering the premise of the novel – Howard can’t be accused of cliché – and I wished there had been more by the time I closed the pages. Always a sign of a good book!

Howard’s fourth novel, After Julius, has a really interesting and unique premise – Julius, a character we never meet and only learn about through the other characters – was killed in the D-Day landings, having piloted a small boat he had no idea how to sail to try and do his bit for the war effort. Middle aged, unhappily married, with a career in his family’s publishing firm and a penchant for poetry, his heroic act baffled those around him, and twenty years on, we meet his wife, Esme and grown up daughters Cressy and Emma, all of whom are unhappy and unfulfilled. It transpires that Esme was having an affair with a much younger man, then-trainee doctor Felix King, at the time of Julius’ death; having never loved her husband, he was the love of her life, but he left her after Julius’ death, and she has lived a sort of half-life ever since. Cressy, a stunningly beautiful war widow in her late thirties, lives in a messy flat with her much younger sister, and has spent the last two decades in between various disastrous relationships and fitful attempts to make a music career. Emma, quiet and capable, has closed herself off from relationships with others and merely exists, her life a comfortable yet limited world of ordered routines. The novel opens on a perfectly ordinary Friday for all of them, and yet the weekend ahead, when both girls go to Sussex to see their mother, will prove unexpectedly life altering for everyone in ways I can’t mention otherwise I’ll ruin the entire plot; suffice to say Felix turns up for the weekend, and everything goes downhill from there. I did enjoy After Julius, but I found it the least accomplished, character and plot wise, of the three novels I read. She uses the same alternating viewpoint narration as in The Sea Change, to good effect, but some of the characters – namely Emma and her bizarre, rather Stella Gibbons-esque boyfriend Dan (who she meets on Friday and decides to marry on Sunday!) – seemed rather unnecessary to the central plot, which really only revolves around Cressy, Esme and Felix, and it would have been better to stay focused on them, in my opinion. There is also a glorified rape scene at the end of the book, which I found incredibly distasteful and made me question Howard’s own attitudes towards consent when it comes to sex. This left a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth and coloured my response to the entire book. In fact, both girls, Cressy and Emma, are presented as basically in need of a good seeing-to and then a nice wedding and some babies to sort them out – rather regressive for a novel being published in the 60s. This was the only one of the novels that felt dated to me, and while it’s just as beautifully written as the others, it is definitely flawed in many respects and doesn’t stand up as well in comparison to the rest.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading my way through Howard’s backlist – it’s amazing to think that she wrote over a period of 60 years, and the Cazalets, which are quite different in tone and style to these more acerbic earlier works, were written when she was in her 70s and 80s. In my opinion, she very much improved with age, but her early novels are still excellent, beautifully written and insightful reads about women and their motivations, and they are also an intriguing window onto the middle years of the twentieth century, a period whose literature I haven’t really read in any great depth. Howard has certainly been confirmed for me as one of the great underrated female authors of the twentieth century, and I can highly recommend seeking her out.

Notes from the City: Lockdown, continued

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May was a record breaking month in the South of England; the hottest and sunniest since records began. Day after day, week after week, London basked under a baking sun, the sky a bright, fresh cornflower blue and the air filled with the sweet scent of drowsy flowers. I felt like I had been transported back in time to the long, lazy days of childhood summer holidays, lying on sun-scorched grass in my back garden, reading, aware that all the time in the world stretched before me and there was nowhere I needed to be other than here. Gorgeous weather has made lockdown really rather pleasurable; it’s far more bearable to know you can’t go anywhere exciting when you can enjoy endless afternoons tanning in a deckchair in the garden with a book, or lovely walks along the canal and through the parks in a deliciously balmy heat, able to take your time and enjoy the surroundings rather than being cowed under an umbrella or forced to walk briskly in order to stay warm. It has been a true gift to have such surprisingly lovely weather, and has boosted my mood enormously. It’s also encouraged me to go further afield than usual, and last weekend I completed a walk I’ve been meaning to do for some time; walking the length of the Regent’s Canal between King’s Cross, near where I live, to Regent’s Park.

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The work done to restore this canal over the last twenty or so years is nothing short of extraordinary, and is a real testament to the power of community campaigners, who were the driving force behind cleaning up what was, just a couple of decades ago, an unusable eyesore at risk of being filled in and lost forever. Now the canal, with its restored footpaths, parks and flower beds, and new waterside homes replacing run down old warehouses and factories, is an absolute treasure for so many Londoners. There are several canal networks in London that provide miles and miles of scenic walks and in non-lockdown times, there are plenty of lovely pubs, restaurants and cafes along the route, so that you can enjoy a waterside meal or drink at leisure, and feel a million miles away from the city. I always recommend a canal walk to friends who are visiting London; it’s not a common feature of travel guides to the city, but if you want to get a feel for what London is really like to live in, and understand more about its history and development from a series of rural villages to heaving metropolis, then the canal is the place to be.

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King’s Cross has become unrecognisable over the last decade; as a child, I remember it being a no-go area, as London’s red light district, and certainly no-one would willingly hang around the area after dark. It was sleazy, grimy, run-down – a real stain on London’s reputation. But a huge regeneration programme has taken place here, and central to that has been the restoration of the canal. It is now a bustling, beautiful waterside neighbourhood, filled with new homes and offices, art studios and performance spaces, and restaurants, shops, bars and cafes, clustered around the myriad waterways that used to bring coal and other goods to King’s Cross Station. Old coal stores and other warehouses have been imaginatively repurposed, and it feels very modern and sleek, though if you look carefully, you can imagine a little of what it used to be like in the nineteenth century. Taking the canal walkway around the edge of Granary Square, the centre of the new development, you find yourself walking past the old loading bays to the coal warehouses, the enormous water-side openings into the buildings behind you now bricked in. Ahead is the lock to manage the entrance and exit of the loading and unloading boats; still beside it is the beautiful little lock keeper’s cottage, and a pretty community-tended garden. Keep walking and you find yourself amidst sleek new waterside flats jostling alongside huge old warehouse buildings as you wend your way through Camden Town, but moving further along the canal into the smarter neighbourhood of Primrose Hill, the large Georgian and Victorian houses backing onto the water offer a glimpse of the suburban idyll nineteenth century city workers created here. I love seeing all of the lovely stained glass windows, fancy wrought iron verandahs, and pretty gardens that run down to the canal, and there are many beautiful willow trees bending their boughs into the water and forming a softly verdant backdrop to what seems an impossibly pastoral scene. As I turned one corner, I saw the spire of a church peeking up between trees, and as I stood and gazed across the still waters of the canal,  admiring the gaily painted boats moored there, I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone standing in the same spot one hundred and fifty years ago would have seen exactly the same scene as me.

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At the end of my walk, I exited the canal and wandered through leafy, meadow-like Regent’s Park, before coming out in Marylebone and wending my way home through Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury. This slice of London offers wonderful scenes for the Georgian architecture enthusiast, and Fitzroy Square has to be one of the most beautiful off-the-beaten path places to sit and while away a few minutes on an idle afternoon. Virginia Woolf once lived here; there is a plaque on her house, and I can only imagine she must have loved watching the world coming and going in the square below from her tall drawing room windows. I took Tottenham Court Road as the most expedient route back home. The emptiness of its hot and dusty pavements was striking, and gave me the opportunity to really admire its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, most of which was built to house furniture warehouses and shops, as this was where the middle classes bought their furniture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a tradition that continues to this day. Behind Tottenham Court Road lies Bloomsbury and the British Museum; I walked through leafy Bedford and Russell Squares, their gardens lavishly green with hardly anyone to enjoy them, took a detour past lovely Persephone Books on Lambs Conduit Street, sad I couldn’t pop in to buy a book, and then past Charles Dickens’ house on Doughty Street, before wending my way through the back streets to Clerkenwell, looking up with interest at my surroundings as I went. There is so much beauty and so much variety to enjoy in the jumble of London’s streets, and so many surprises you can stumble across when you take a street you don’t usually, or take the time to look at a building you normally just hurry past on your way to somewhere else. Even though there is nothing to ‘do’ at the moment, walking through London on an idle afternoon offers far more interest, education and beauty than many an exhibition I’ve seen in a gallery. How wonderful to not have to ‘do’ anything to enjoy what’s on my own doorstep!

Reading from my shelf: May

Books started: 14

Books finished: 9

Books abandoned: 4

Books kept on the shelf: 3

It’s been a long, sunny month, filled with lazy afternoons in the garden and leisurely evening strolls by the river in a balmy heat that has reminded me of my days in New York. Lockdown has become less strange and more just life, now; I seem to have somewhere inside myself accepted that the limits of my world have been drawn much smaller, and no longer rail against their restriction. I make the most of what I can do, and try not to pine for the things I can’t, though of course I have days when I long to escape for a weekend by the sea, to spend an afternoon pottering through a gallery followed by a slab of cake and a proper cup of coffee, or to enjoy the thrill of a night at the theatre with friends and wine and gossip. One day, these things will be possible again; in the meantime, I am experiencing as much of the world as I can through books.

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag this month, and my bookshelves are grateful for the fact that not many of the books I started made it back onto the shelf. Unless I plan on re-reading it, using it for teaching, or lending it out to others, I’m not keeping it, and only three books this month met those criteria. There was an unintentional Scottish theme to much of my reading; I started the month with O. Douglas’ A Proper Place, my first of her books, which is set in the Borders and East Coast of Scotland, and tells the story of a once-grand family forced to sell up their estate and move to a small house in a fishing village, and of the nouveau-riche Glaswegian family who take their place. I love Scotland, and being able to go there in my imagination, as I lapped up the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and coastline, was such a treat. I also very much enjoyed the gentle, undemanding and entirely predictable storyline, with its almost-perfectly- tied up, ever-so-slightly melodramatic ending that left a very satisfying taste in the mouth. It’s very much a light, sweet, life-affirming Sunday afternoon read; perfect for when your attention span is limited. The Scottish theme continued with Compton Mackenzie’s The Monarch of the Glen, which was a birthday present, and so I wanted to read it straight away to let the giver know what I thought of it. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, and I wasn’t disappointed. The hilarious tale of a reactionary Laird fighting against the cruelly lampooned National Hiking Union, while simultaneously trying to marry his son off to an American heiress who’s fallen in love with a Scottish Nationalist illegally camping on his land, The Monarch of the Glen is a wonderful, witty, and very clever paean to the culture and traditions of the Highlands. Mackenzie was Scottish himself, and so his mockery is not afraid to slice very close to the bone, and his characterisation is superb. I was in fits of laughter throughout – this one is definitely staying on the shelf! Sadly, Jane and Mary Findlater’s Crossriggs, much lauded on the back of my Virago copy as being an unjustly neglected Austen-esque tour de force, was not a success. Set in the small town of Crossriggs, just outside of Edinburgh, in the late nineteenth century, it starts excellently, but it soon becomes apparent that the feisty and independent main character, Alex, is going to continue to make totally martyr-ish decisions that condemn herself to a life of unhappiness right up until the end, and all of the predictable things that happen in nineteenth century novels – terribly timed accidental deaths, men and women who don’t tell each other how they feel but pine away in misery for years, etc. – happen, just exactly when you might expect them to. It’s all so very predictable, and I gave up at the half way point, annoyed at everyone. Though apparently Virginia Woolf loved it, so, you can take from that what you will.

Rather topically, I borrowed Pale Rider by Laura Spinney from the library; an account of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, it’s a fascinating, compelling read, and rather frightening in how similar the mistakes that were made then were made again in our own times. By the time the world realised what was happening, the horse had already bolted, and the consequences were horrific for a world just emerging from the deadliest conflict yet known to mankind. Spinney goes through all the evidence available to explain where it came from (we still don’t know), how and why it spread so easily, its legacy, and what lessons we can learn for our own world today. I genuinely couldn’t put it down; if you can bear to read about a pandemic at the moment, then I really recommend this.

Lastly, my great disappointment of the month was discovering that not all of Susan Glaspell’s output is, for me, anyway, still readable. Having adored her two novels republished by Persephone Books, Fidelity and Brook Evans, I was looking forward to finally getting to the stash of other books I’ve found of hers during various trips to second hand bookshops in the US. However, her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered, is sentimental, mushy claptrap, which I abandoned after 50 pages, and a later novel, Prodigal Giver (also known as Judd Rankin’s Daughter) was utterly uncompelling and very difficult to get into; I gave up after 100 pages. Thankfully, a volume of her short stories, Lifted Masks, contained some brilliant, thought-provoking and moving stories, so there was some solace, at least. I’d love to know of any novels of hers readers can recommend, so that I know what to look out for when book shops open again!

Notes from the City

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I’ve always loved living in London for its vibrancy; its streets throb with life, in all its strange and wonderful variety, and every outing, no matter how prosaic, offers the promise of some sort of adventure or new discovery. There is always so much to see and do, and so much to be distracted or entertained by. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but most of the time, I find it a delight; the various views across the city from the many bridges never cease to take my breath away, and I can still never walk past St Paul’s without stopping to admire its beauty. Despite having lived here for most of my life, I have never taken it for granted that I am lucky to live in the greatest city in the world.

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Now the shutters have come down on the theatres and museums, shops and cafes, offices and universities and schools, bars and restaurants, a quietness has settled. There is an almost pastoral air of a summer Sunday over the city; the blank-eyed shops sleeping, the offices shut up, everything holding its breath for a moment until the machinery of commerce begins to slowly creak back into life again. The majestic bridges spanning the river are empty of traffic, and the Embankments, normally thronged, have just a few people strolling along, leaving plenty of room for wandering and thinking. I have enjoyed walking up and down the abandoned thoroughfares of Regent Street and Oxford Street, Piccadillly and Shaftesbury Avenue, actually being able to stop and marvel at the beautiful architecture I normally can’t see through the crowds. There are so many ghost signs and old shop fronts that reveal the history of how these streets evolved over the past couple of hundred years, and it makes for a fascinating study as you walk along – far more interesting than actually shopping, if you ask me! I’ve also loved looking closely at the amazing jumble of buildings, from medieval to modern, in the City, sitting cheek by jowl in a wonderful historical melting pot. Like the rest of central London, normally it’s so crowded in the streets around Bank that you’d have to walk into the middle of the road to get a good look at any of the architecture, so I’ve taken the opportunity to stand and wander where I please to get a good view of the spires and sculptures that ordinarily go unappreciated by the hurried passer-by.

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I’ve enjoyed walking through parks I normally avoid due to the tourist crowds; St James’ Park is looking particularly bucolic at the moment, with its swathes of sweet-smelling  meadow flowers and flocks of geese wandering around at will, and Clissold Park and Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington are positively alive with blossom and flowers and birds. Around my own flat in Clerkenwell, the birdsong is so loud that I could be living in the middle of a field in the countryside, and at night, I can see the stars clearly for the first time in what seems like forever. This is one glorious consequence of an otherwise terrible situation for so many – the world is healing itself, and many people who had never given it much thought, seem to have developed a new-found love and appreciation for nature. I have never seen so many people enjoying the parks and gardens in London, and so many people out in their own gardens and allotments, actively growing things and taking joy in it. If there were one change I would like to see made permanent in London after all this, it would be a genuine recognition by the government of the importance of nature within cities. I’d love to see more trees planted, more parks created, all new build homes having to have gardens and balconies and communal growing spaces, and more clearly signposted and maintained walking routes across the city, with flowers planted along these routes to make them beautiful, wildlife- rich spaces for everyone to enjoy. What this pandemic has shown more than anything is that people need access to nature for their wellbeing; they don’t need access to fancy coffee and expensive sandwiches. There are so many people trapped in poorly built high-rise flats with no access to outdoor space, and the impact on their mental health of being stuck indoors for weeks with not even sight of a tree or flower from their window has been disastrous. How can we have allowed this to happen?

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On my birthday this week, I went for a mammoth walk through London as the sun set, stopping to do a little mudlarking at the foot of the Millennium Bridge as I did so. My flatmate and I had a lovely time poking about on the shore, picking up some old pipes and bits of blue and white crockery, before walking along the river, past the Southbank cluster of theatres and concert halls – I had a pang of great sadness as I saw my beloved National Theatre steeped in darkness – and back across the river at the other end, all the time barely seeing another soul. We wandered through Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and then Bloomsbury, and marvelled at the beauty of the moonlit streets. We wondered when was the last time London had been this empty, and whether it ever would be again. The weight of history seemed to settle upon us. And then, as we turned onto our street, I smiled at the thought that my block of flats was built in 1949, on top of the rubble of a Georgian terrace flattened by a flying bomb. London has stood for centuries, and endured all sorts of disaster. Each time it has emerged from the ashes and been rebuilt, even better than before.  I hope that once this is all over, it will enable us to see what we do and don’t need, what we want to keep and what we want to change. I hope it will serve as an opportunity to make this city an even greater place to live, if we take the chance to rebuild our lives around the pursuit of people’s happiness, rather than profit.