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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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I’ve been meaning to try Kate Atkinson for years, ever since her first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, came out, and everyone was talking about it. But all her books are quite long, and I never felt sufficiently compelled to make the effort to pick one up. However, with my new not-buying-any-books policy firmly in place as a New Year’s Resolution, I am determined to work my way through my fiction shelves and finally read all the books that have been languishing there unread – in some cases for more than a decade! Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life just so happened to be the first unread book on my alphabetically organised shelves, so down it came last week to have its long-awaited moment in the sun. And am I glad it did, because I found it so addictive that the almost 500 pages just flew by. I feel rather bereft now that I’m finished!

The book is centred around Ursula Todd, who is born on a snowy February evening in 1910. In one version of her life, she is born dead, the cord wrapped around her neck. In another, she lives. The baby who lives goes on to grow up in an affluent, middle class home in the idyllic countryside of the Home Counties. A summer holiday one year ends in disaster; Ursula drowns when at the beach. But then the narrative simply returns to 1910, and in this new version of Ursula’s life, someone rescues her on the beach, and her life continues, albeit down a slightly different path. The novel begins with a scene of Ursula in Germany in 1930, shooting Hitler dead; this version of her life doesn’t appear again until the middle of the book, and is dependent on her having chosen to study foreign languages at university. Another version of her life sees her making a different decision, trapping her in a nightmarish marriage in a depressing suburb that completely robs her of her identity.  In another existence, she moves to London and lives through World War Two there, in another, she lives through the war in Germany,  in another she works until retirement, in another she marries, in another she remains single – and all of these threads remain interconnected, the possibilities of one life becoming another simply a hair’s breadth apart – the choice between buying a new dress or not, going to the shops one evening or not – the most minor, insignificant choices we make on a daily basis shown to be as significant, in some ways, as the major ones, in forming the eventual paths our lives follow.

Ursula is a marvellous, vivid character, whose rich inner life and complex relationships with her family members make her various existences endlessly fascinating to read about. It is heart stopping at times to see her walk into disaster, and such a relief to see the darkness fall and know that she will simply begin again, that this doesn’t have to be her life, her ending – there can be a different path. Atkinson is superb at bringing her historical settings to life, and I particularly loved her atmospheric evocation of London in the Blitz, as well as the halcyon, sun-splashed days of Ursula’s Edwardian childhood in the flower strewn meadows of the English countryside. The whole conceit of the novel is incredibly inventive and a constant reminder to us that we are reading a work of fiction – in many ways one can see Life After Life as an experiment in writing a character, in seeing what stories can be made from one persona, and which are worth pursuing and which not – but what makes this truly impressive is that despite the artificiality of its structure, it still gives us characters we can fall in love with, and care for with the kind of unreasonable affection that sees you choking back tears at their fate (I’m hoping that wasn’t just me!). I found it a revelation, and now I can’t wait to read more. Thank goodness for the library, because I’m not waiting a year to be able to dive back into Kate Atkinson’s world!

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Night Walking

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One of the things I love the most about living in central London is how I can walk home from wherever the day takes me. I have always been inspired by the way Dickens and Woolf wrote of their night ramblings through the streets of London, using the cover of darkness to see the city that was so familiar to them, in an unfamiliar light. In the nineteenth century, the advent of gaslight made walking at night a possibility, while also shedding a romantic, hazy glow onto formerly inky, shadowy streets. Artists such as John Atkinson Grimshaw depict how wonderfully atmospheric gaslit streets were, and when I look at his paintings of London at night, I feel a sense of magic in the softly shimmering orbs of gas lamps he shows to be floating above the pavements. While gas lamps are now largely a thing of the past, there are parts of London that still look exactly as they would have done when Grimshaw was painting them; the streets of Bloomsbury that the restless feet of Woolf and Dickens once tramped during sleepless nights are certainly nearly identical to what these illustrious night walkers would have known.

Living close to Bloomsbury myself, and walking through it every evening to make my way home, I am becoming very familiar with the ways Dickens and Woolf would once have wended, and often find myself stopping and wondering whether they once stood here too, or looked up at that window, or noticed that spire poking between two buildings. I wonder which paths and routes they took; whether they preferred Grays Inn Road or Theobalds Road, whether they would have walked through Bedford Square and down Charing Cross Road to the river, or down Farringdon Road to St Paul’s and the City. I walk all these streets myself, taking in how the blanket of darkness that covers the streets once the clock strikes five transforms the experience of walking within them. Cobbled alleyways that charm in daylight become sinister, almost frightening, when they are cloaked in shadows. Main roads that offer little to delight the eye in the bustle and rush of the day become beautiful in the absence of crowds, their buildings more majestic, their proportions more grand. Strings of sparkling streetlights give even the ugliest roads a festive air, and I love nothing more than looking at the shifting lights on the deep, surging blackness of the Thames by night.

As I night walk, I experience the city afresh. Streets that are filled with people and traffic and noise all day become empty and silent, my footsteps echoing against the buildings I never normally have the chance to properly look at. Lights come on in people’s homes, and peering through their windows, I see glimpses of lives I would never otherwise encounter. As I move from the centre, where the streets are filled with rowdy crowds being ejected from bars and clubs, their neon flashing doorways pulsing with the beat of the music within, I gradually find the city starting to settle and sleep. The shops on Regent and Oxford Streets stare blankly back at me as I pass, their windows dark, their products sleeping. The British Museum looms proudly out of the shadows, its columns lit up so that it seems to float, gracefully, in mid air, free from the crowds that press into its courtyard and up its steps during the day. Streets of soot-blackened brick terraces stand sentinel as I hurry past, throwing long shadows across the pavements. I find myself in a world of timelessness, and I can almost imagine turning a corner to find Virginia Woolf just ahead of me, always tantalisingly out of reach.

The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood

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I’ve been having a marvellous time over the past couple of weeks slowly reading this delightful book a chapter per day before I go to bed. I have always been fascinated by stately homes, and particularly how they fared in the early years of the twentieth century, after and between the wars, with so many families struggling financially, servants hard to come by and a large number of heirs being killed while fighting. The National Trust came to the rescue of many stately homes that were at risk in these years, but many were dismantled, destroyed or left to become ruins, as another book I have been very much enjoying leafing through as a companion volume, England’s Lost Houses, details in heartbreaking photographs. However, The Long Weekend shows that the country house was certainly not dead after 1918; far from it. The chapters explore different aspects of the actual upwards trend in buying, renovating and building country houses in the interwar years, with author Adrian Tinniswood arguing that the wars caused an upswing in the purchasing of country estates, renovations of castles and crumbling Jacobean piles by enthusiastic antiquarians, and the building of large new homes in the countryside thanks to tumbling land prices and a swelling of patriotism and renewed interest in the traditions of rural life after the First World War.

The country house buyers, owners, inheritors and renovators of these interwar years fell into distinct camps. There were those who wanted country life but with all mod-cons, transforming old piles into sleek, modern party palaces complete with infinity pools and striking, racy interior décor, or building startling white and chrome Art Deco mansions to replace unfashionable, draughty Victorian piles that needed too much work doing to make them suitable for contemporary life. Then there were those, such as Lord Astor, with a romanticised view of the past, buying up tumble-down castles and Tudor and Jacobean mansions and restoring them brick-by-brick, taking delight in hunting for architectural salvage taken from the many houses being torn down during these years to recreate a historically authentic look. Most often, however, there were people looking for a slice of country life on a pared-down scale, building manageably sized bolt-holes that allowed them to be lord-of-the-manor without having to look after tenants and keep half their rooms draped in dust sheets. They went to architects like Lutyens, who built some marvellous smaller stately homes in the inter-war years, in a mixture of Arts and Crafts and Neo Georgian styles that suited the nostalgia of the time.

From how country homes were designed and decorated to how the people who lived in them travelled, partied and adapted their pre-war ways of life to the post-war world, The Long Weekend covers every area of perceivable interest, in lavishly illustrated detail. Of course, it wasn’t all glitz and glamour; for all those people who were doing up and living it up in the inter-war years, there were plenty who were just about hanging on, making do with freezing rooms, no electricity, mould running down the walls and having to sell a painting every few months to pay the bills. I always find it fascinating when I go to a National Trust or English Heritage property, to see how properties were modernised – or not – during the twentieth century, and it’s always the bathrooms of the unmodernised ones that fill me with horror. Invariably absinthe green, with water-stained, chipped cast iron baths, toilets that look like something out of a horror movie, and a damp chill oozing from the walls, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to get up on a cold January morning and have to get ready in one of them! As lovely as some of the places Adrian Tinniswood describes must have been, I remember reading in Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels about how impossible it was to sleep in most stately homes at the time, with central heating being largely nonexistent, and bedrooms so cold you could see your breath. If you weren’t one of the stately home owners in the pre-war period with bags of cash, I can imagine life was actually rather miserable!

A Reading Year

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This year, I read 60 books. A nice round total. I read a hodgepodge of all sorts of different things, ranging from literary criticism, fat historical volumes and weighty classics to popular fiction, modern plays and young adult novels, reflecting the fact that I spent most of the year doing an MA in Victorian Literature part time, spend my days teaching English to teenagers and am a member of a book club and record a podcast that require me to read books chosen by other people. In fact, when looking closely at the list of books I’ve read throughout 2018, there are surprisingly few that I actually chose to read, or that were plucked from my existing collection. I buy a phenomenal amount of books, I’ve realised, with excellent intentions, of course – yet probably read only about 10% of the books I read within the year I buy them – only really those that I’ve bought because I’ve got to read them for whatever reason. That means I have shelves and shelves of books that have been sitting there, waiting to be read, for years, and the total of unread books is growing every year.

Now I have my own flat and have been reunited with all of my books, most of which have been in storage for some years, the reality of this excess of unread books is surrounding me on a daily basis, taunting me. It is weighing on my conscience, I must say. I don’t have a wardrobe full of unworn clothes, so why bookshelves of unread books? And why do I keep buying more when I already own so many I’ve not read? Obviously it’s the pleasure of being in bookshops, the thrill of the chase, the delight in finding a longed-for edition, an overlooked treasure, the final volume in a long-amassed collection – but, breathless joy aside – the reality is, I need to actually take stock and enjoy what I have. I have made three new year’s resolutions for 2019 – reduce the amount of plastic I use, reduce the amount of stuff I buy, and go swimming twice a week. My book habits fall neatly into the second category. I really don’t need to buy any more books. I have enough unread ones to last me for years as it is. So, this new year is going to be the year of reading what I already have. If I’m desperate to read a new release, I’ll get it from the library. I want to finally read all those classics I’ve been avoiding, as well as the cult classics I pretend I’ve read. I also want to make the time to re-read old favourites. I’m excited about it. It’s going to be great. During the year, I’m going to make a list of all the books I’ve been tempted to buy but haven’t, and then if I still really want them by 2020, I can buy them then. It’ll be interesting to see how many books I thought I wanted weren’t really that necessary to my happiness after all!

Well, enough about 2019. What about 2018?

The book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading:

Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pierce. Oh, I was so excited about this book. It had a beautiful cover, was about a magazine agony aunt during WWII, and was set in London – it promised to be a delight. Instead, I found it cloyingly, clumsily written, with an irritatingly fey narrator and a painfully predictable plot that ticked every cliché about WWII. Definitely something I wish I hadn’t wasted my money buying!

The book I recommended most often:

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I had so much fun reading this brilliant, complex, thrilling murder mystery with such a unique plot that I couldn’t help but force everyone else I know to read it. I’ve even got one of my classes at school reading it for their holiday homework! If you love a good murder mystery and want to be kept up until 2am because you can’t bear to stop reading, this is definitely a book you want to get to sooner rather than later!

The book I was most glad about having read:

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. Goodness me, it was a slog. But having finished my MA in Victorian Studies in September (whoop!), I couldn’t in all conscience call myself a semi-expert in the Victorian era if I hadn’t read one of its most famous novels. Plus there was a new TV series of it that I wanted to watch, so I had to read the book first. I did enjoy it, and I am very glad I’ve read it, but I certainly won’t be in a rush to read it again!

My favourite new author discovery:

Definitely Dorothy L Sayers. I love a good vintage crime novel, and I thought Agatha Christie couldn’t possibly be bettered, but then I found Dorothy. I’m never looking back! I love the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, who is much more three dimensional than Poirot, and someone the reader is encouraged to care about and feel a connection to through the way we are given access to his past and to the wider members of his family. I also love Sayers’ prose, which is elegant and stylish, far more so than the more functional writing of Christie. I’ve bought up most of her books and have them waiting on my bookshelves – I can’t wait to read more in 2019!

My biggest reading surprise:

I was dreading teaching Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton to my Year 11 class this year. I didn’t know very much about South Africa and its history, I knew nothing about the author, and the first few chapters I found oddly stilted and confusing. I couldn’t see myself being able to teach it with the enthusiasm and passion I would like. But as I read more, and then studied it with my class, I found myself falling in love with this beautiful, heartfelt novel that is so skilfully and passionately written. It is a true classic: a book that creates characters who will stay with you forever, and that teaches you something profound about the human condition. Most surprising for me was that my students loved it too. Probably because it meant they got to laugh at me getting tearful whenever I talked about particular characters, but…for a book to get through to a group of reluctant readers, it’s got to be something special. If you’ve never read it, I really encourage you to give it a try.

My favourite book of the year:

Little by Edward Carey. I first discovered this when looking through the list on Amazon of new releases coming up in the months ahead, and though I’d never heard of the author, was fascinated by the premise. A novel about Marie Tussaud’s life in 18th century France, told from her perspective, it is a beautifully written tale of one woman’s indomitable spirit, and also a novel about love, artistry and self-reliance. I loved every page, and I also loved the illustrations. Edward Carey is a very unique literary voice and I’m really looking forward to reading more by him in future. I’m currently reading Alva and Irva, his earlier novel, for Tea or Books?, and probably, if I were to finish before midnight, that would have been my joint favourite book of the year!

Thank you so much for reading along with me in 2018 – I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

History Lessons

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I went for a walk in the woods by my sister’s house this morning. The sky was a bright, brittle white and the air crisp and cold. Tall trunks of bare, rain-blackened trees towered up around us as we squelched through the mud, showers of droplets scattering as we brushed through the bracken and evergreen bushes that encroached onto our path. I love exploring nature in every season, and I’ve walked in these woods many times before, but this time, I was on a special mission. My brother-in-law has recently found out that these woods hide the remains of an enormous stately home that was destroyed after the war, and I was determined to see what had been left behind.

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Ducking underneath fallen branches and wading through piles of leaf mulch, we left the well-trodden path and headed off-piste. My brother-in-law knew that there were the remains of a swimming pool somewhere, and before long, we found it, complete with its largely intact pool house, still lined with its white ceramic tiles and its roof trimmed with rotting gingerbread fretwork. The pool’s sides were crumbing, and its base clotted with a decades-thick layer of muddy sludge, but the curve of its ends could still be seen, and with eyes half-closed, you could imagine how magnificent this place must once have been: a pool, hidden in a glade in a lush garden, with a fairytale cottage alongside as a changing room…what parties they must have had there, what long, sunny afternoons. Just visible, when we scraped away some of the mud from the pool house floor, was an intricate mosaic pattern; I can’t help but wonder if the base of the pool would have had a similar mosaic design, now hidden by so much vegetation that it would take a team of people with a digger to unearth its treasures.

Dotted around this area are bits of walls, and intriguing curved trenches with pipe work poking out that promised an irrigation system for what once must have been a magnificent garden. For, even if you don’t find the ruins, what reveals the former presence of a grand mansion are the plants and trees that are nestled in this rapidly re-wilding wood, plants that could never have arrived here except for having been brought by human design. There is an enormous redwood tree, rhododendron bushes, and a huge variety of different trees that were once planted to create colour and variety in a landscape that was designed to delight and amuse its owners. I don’t know enough about plants to spot the unnatural interlopers from the indigenous species, but my brother-in-law does, and he was showing me all sorts of plants and trees that didn’t belong in the local landscape. Once you spot these, you can start to work out which plants have grown up and smothered the original layout since the garden’s destruction, and how lovely, colourful and full of delicious scent this landscape must have been. It is also rather sobering to see how quickly what has taken decades to create by human hands is utterly obliterated by nature.

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According to my research, a silk merchant called James Vavasseur bought what was a quite attractive large house and garden in the rural Kentish village of Knockholt in the late nineteenth century, and decided to rebuild it entirely, creating an enormous and incredibly ugly barn of a house with a tower that offered spectacular views of London (the village is the highest point in Kent, and you can see the London skyline, several miles away, on a clear day). The locals thought it was hideous, apparently, and called it Vavasseur’s folly, and photos I’ve been able to find show they weren’t far wrong. Vavasseur and his wife died at the turn of the century, leaving their two maiden daughters to live in the house that was already becoming very difficult to keep up. When the last of the daughters died in 1940, the house was in a bad state, and it was eventually dismantled in 1942, after having been damaged by a bomb during the war.

Even though the house was not an example of the finest architecture, I’d still love to be able to find out more about what it looked like. I’m already imagining myself in the summer holidays next year, dungarees and wellingtons on, trowel and brushes strapped to my tool belt, running my very own Time Team style archaeological dig. What kinds of treasure might be sitting beneath the surface of the woodland here, ready to help reconstruct the lives that were once lived in Vavasseur’s ridiculous folly? Maybe, in a few months, I might just be able to find out…

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Knockholt House