Christmas in London

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Living in London for the first time in years has given me a fresh appreciation for the festive delights that pop up as soon as December 1st arrives. I work just off Oxford Street, and depressing as it is that I arrive at and leave school in the darkness, this is made much more bearable by the suspended orbs of light that dangle like baubles from the trees along Tottenham Court Road. The shops are all full of fancy window displays, there are Christmas trees everywhere you look, the banks of the river are swarming with the wooden huts of a German Christmas market, and the shrieks of skaters and the scent of mulled wine float gently on the air. Yes, it’s unbearably crowded in the shops and I wish that people would stop hitting me with their enormous shopping bags, but it’s worth it to experience the way in which London comes shimmering to life at Christmas time.

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A few weeks ago I went to Kew Gardens to experience their Christmas light show; it was incredibly impressive, and I particularly loved the ‘Fire Garden’, which was a section of the grounds filled with sculptures that were lit by hundreds of burning candles. It’s hard to get across in a photograph, but it transported me to another world; it felt practically pagan, and I imagined that this was perhaps what our Stone Age ancestors did on the Winter Solstice, thousands of years ago. There were plenty more lovely sights to see, with all sorts of creative blends of lights and flowers that took my breath away. It’s well worth a visit if you can make it before Christmas.

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Somerset House and the Natural History Museum have the most impressive ice skating rinks in London, and though I am no ice skater, I always appreciate their beautiful decorations and love stopping by to watch the people skate. The enormous Christmas tree at Somerset House is a real beauty, though it’s nothing compared to the colossus that has been erected at Covent Garden, which truly is a tree worth a special trip to see. This year Covent Garden has been decorated with giant mistletoe leaves and berries, and looks absolutely gorgeous; whoever is responsible for the designs is clearly a real talent, and I think it’s a wonderfully inventive take on Christmas lights.

There’s plenty to look forward to for me, yet; I’m off to Westminster Abbey for carols on Thursday, the Royal Albert Hall for carols on Saturday, and the ballet at Sadler’s Wells on Sunday, before heading back to Kent to spend Christmas in the countryside with my family. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and New Year; thank you so much for reading my blog and I hope next year to be a less sporadic presence…


Disappointments in Reading


I’ve been reading quite a lot lately, but not with much success. It’s always a disappointment when you slog your way through a book, hoping that you’ll reach a point where suddenly a clever sleight of hand will be performed by the author, elevating what has been a hum-drum story into something sublime, only to find yourself reading the final chapter with a sinking heart as you become only too aware that the past week of your life has been spent reading something that was never going to be anything other than distinctly average.

I was so excited to read The Lake District Murder by John Bude, which is one of the gorgeously designed British Library Crime Classics. I thought it would have just the right mixture of a lovely setting, period detail and criminal intrigue to keep me occupied during my commute without requiring much intellectual engagement, as I can hardly be expected to try and work out the solution to a complex mystery while also trying to stay upright in a packed tube carriage. It started well; I loved plucky Inspector Meredith, whose suspicions about the supposed suicide of a garage owner lead to a murder investigation, I enjoyed the Boys-Own style voice of the author, and I was much amused by the depiction of the average life of a police officer in the 1930s, when much of the working day seemed to involve popping home for a ‘good lunch’ or smoking a pipe with one’s superior in a hotel lounge while chatting over the confidential facts of a case in full hearing of the rest of the local population. However, it soon deteriorated into a rather dull, incredibly technical exploration of just how the criminals, who are spelled out from Chapter One, managed to conduct their crime, which involves lots of measuring of time and distance and cubic square metres. This goes on for chapter after chapter, while everyone is stumped by what can possibly be happening, and I was becoming increasingly annoyed by how dense they were, because even though I am no mathematician, it really was quite obvious that they were barking up the wrong tree. By the time I got to the end of what had become a very far fetched story, I was left with the impression that if I had been alive in the 1930s I could evidently have been Head of Scotland Yard judging from the efficacy of the police force at the time, and I was also reminded that choosing a book based on how much I like the cover is not always the best way to find something that sets my heart on fire.

Disappointment number two was my second attempt at reading Toni Morrison. I’ve had Song of Solomon on my shelves for ages, as I thought I’d have to teach it at my last school but never actually did, and as I am trying to reduce the pile of unread books I own, I decided I’d take the opportunity to be able to read it for pleasure rather than with my teacher’s hat on. I studied Beloved for A Level and hated it; I found it a profoundly disturbing and unpleasant book, and while I can appreciate the skill of Morrison’s writing, I did not enjoy the process of reading her at all. I hoped Song of Solomon would be different, but sadly, it wasn’t. Once again I could admire her skill as a craftswoman, and the power of her imagination, but I was left cold by the characters and their stories, and could not feel emotionally involved in what was happening at all. The only pleasure I got from reading it was in mentally analysing the literary techniques, metaphors, Biblical allegories etc that I found as I went along, because Morrison does write beautifully and she is undoubtedly a phenomenally intelligent woman, but I struggled to find any emotional connection to the tale being told, and I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. I think it’s because I find Morrison’s stories so deeply pessimistic that I don’t enjoy them; I know she is exploring the traumatic and unjust experiences of African Americans throughout history, so it’s hardly going to be sunshine and rainbows, and rightly so, but there is a profound misery in her books that leaves me feeling utterly depressed. These days we are surrounded by so much negativity that I suppose I just don’t want any more of it; I want to be inspired and uplifted by what I read, not pulled into the depths of despair. But that’s just my opinion, and it’s clear that plenty of people don’t feel the way I do about Morrison, otherwise she wouldn’t be as lauded as she is. It’s strange how some authors can just not work for you, as much as you can appreciate their skill. I have pressed the remarkable Marilynne Robinson on some people, convinced that they will love her as much as I do, and they have had much the same reaction to her as I do to Toni Morrison. I can’t understand it, but there it is. There is just, I suppose, no accounting for individual taste.

So, next up on my reading list is going to be something I know I’m definitely going to love. Whilst in Daunt Books the other day, I treated myself to the wonderful Alexandra Harris’ new book, Weatherland, which is an exploration of how British writers and artists have used the weather as creative inspiration over the past thousand years. I can’t wait to get stuck in; it’s a beautifully produced book, with loads of illustrations, and if it’s anywhere near as amazing as Romantic Moderns, I know I’m going to be in reading heaven. I think I deserve it after my month of disappointments!



A couple of weeks ago, I spent an absolutely blissful few days in Lisbon. Escaping from grey and drizzly London to the blue skies and bright sunshine of Portugal was such a treat, and I was completely enchanted by the beauty of the city, which is built over seven hills and tumbles scenically down to the water’s edge in a cascade of colourful and historic buildings.


Unusually for me, I did very little planning or preparation before going away, and had nowhere in particular that I wanted to visit. I just wanted to walk the streets and soak up the atmosphere, and rather than making a beeline for specific sites, I wanted the spontaneity of stumbling across places that attracted me as I made my way around the city. This worked perfectly at making it a fantastically relaxing and fulfilling trip, as I found so many wonderful things that I would never have come across in a guide book. I loved the architecture of Lisbon; the streets are lined in genteelly dilapidated, very Italianate buildings, often covered in beautiful patterned tiles, there are dozens of extravagantly decorated churches, and there are also some very interesting examples of modern architecture, such as the impressive bridge that spans the Tagus river, and the lively LX Factory complex of shops and restaurants that wouldn’t have looked at all out of place in Shoreditch.


My favourite spots in the city were the impressive Ler Devagar bookshop in the LX Factory, which is a huge space filled from floor to ceiling with books and features a wonderfully whimsical collection of automatons that whizz about above your head, the National Pantheon in Alfama, which was right behind our apartment and a former church turned into a mausoleum with a magnificent roof terrace that offers brilliant views across the skyline and over the water, and the Jeronimos Monastery in the Belem district, which is an absolutely breathtaking piece of very Islamic influenced medieval architecture that I spent several happy hours wandering around. I also loved getting the commuter ferry across the river to the other side of the bay, from which you get spectacular views of Lisbon. I went over just before sunset and watched the sky turn a glorious coppery pink, bathing the city in a golden hue that was truly breathtaking. It was a sight I would not have missed for the world.


Just outside of Lisbon is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra, a historical town and wooded mountainous area that features dozens of 19th century palaces and villas as well as an incredible 9th century castle. I took the 45 minute train journey out to Sintra and had a wonderful day exploring the sites, particularly enjoying the incredible, far reaching views across the countryside and the glimpses of fairytale castles and palaces as the road twists and turns up the mountain. It is a magical place, that feels completely unreal; I don’t think a visit to Lisbon would be complete without a trip to see this magnificent piece of Portuguese history.


I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more in Lisbon; the people are so friendly and hospitable, the food is wonderful, and incredibly cheap for someone used to London prices, and the prettiness of the city, clustered around its beautiful piazzas and parks and waterfront, was a wonderful surprise. If you’re looking for a location for a relaxed European city break, Lisbon should definitely be at the top of your list!


The Chateau by William Maxwell


Every time I read one of William Maxwell’s books, I find myself in awe of how utterly beautiful his writing is. He always manages to find just the most perfect combination of words to express a thought or experience, suffusing my mind with the senses and emotions of that moment in time and enabling me to feel as if I were that character, and this story my life. He weaves an entire living, breathing world on the page; not much of one for event and incident, he is a master of making the everyday and unremarkable utterly absorbing. So much of what happens in Maxwell’s novels is internal, and it is these fleeting thoughts, these uncomfortable silences, these covert glances, that make his stories so full of tension and emotional intensity. He is an utter realist, and when I read his writing, I find that he so often puts into words my own feelings and experiences in a way that speaks to me with a profundity my own words could never hope to express.

The Chateau, his longest novel, was just the most wonderful reading experience. It is the story of Harold and Barbara Rhodes, a young American couple who travel to Europe for an extended holiday in the late 1940s. After a complicated journey through a French countryside that is pockmarked with the craters of destruction left behind by the war, they arrive in Paris and are enchanted. Their childish joy in the beauty and novelty of what they find is enchanting, and reminded me of the continual delighted astonishment I felt during my first visit to Paris. It is clear that France is not what it was, but Harold and Barbara fall in love with the French people, their culture, their food, their language, their architecture – and they are keen to see and experience as much as possible. The story really gets going when they arrive at the eponymous chateau in the countryside, where they have booked to stay for two weeks. The owner, Mme Vienot, is a charming but guarded woman, forced to open her family home to guests after having fallen on unspecified hard times, and it is the interaction with Mme Vienot and their fellow guests at the chateau that forms the narrative impetus of the novel. Each character is fascinating in their own way, and has depths of capriciousness, eccentricity and secrecy that perplex Harold and Barbara, who only want to like and be liked, but the vagaries of human personality make this a far more complex aim than they had at first anticipated. They have never met people like this before, never had to struggle to make themselves understood. Is it a case of culture clash, or have Barbara and Harold realised an essential truth about humanity that American society has never been able to teach them?

Amidst the long, lazy days of a trip several months long, the Rhodes’ come to understand more about themselves and the world around them through the people they interact with, and the quiet dramas of their navigation through French society and attempts to befriend those they meet are beautifully evoked. Post war France is so poetically, hauntingly drawn, and I longed to be there, lying on the sun-dappled lawn of a chateau shimmering against the deep blue of a summer sky. Maxwell creates a rich, sensitive and beautiful canvas that explores, through its characters and their reactions to what they experience, what it is to be human – the joys, the disappointments, the loves, the losses – and though for some, who enjoy a plot driven novel, it might appear that nothing happens, for me, this book contains all of the action that makes up a life, and I found it brilliant and surprisingly moving. I particularly liked the theme of searching for something that runs throughout the novel – the Rhodes’ visit has been inspired by a childhood trip of Barbara’s, and they spend their entire holiday looking for a chateau Barbara remembers but can’t recall the name or location of. They never find it, and this sense of incompleteness, the idea of something never fully realised or grasped, is the undercurrent of the text, raising complex questions about the reasoning behind our actions, and whether any of us is truly knowable, and perfect understanding between people ever possible to find. If you’ve never read any William Maxwell, you are missing out enormously. I cannot recommend him highly enough!

Regeneration by Pat Barker


I had to temporarily abandon my reading of Armadale after it disintegrated in my bag – rest assured, it has been repaired with lots of sellotape and will be finished soon – and after seeing the first poppies starting to be sold in London, I decided to pick up Regeneration, the first in Pat Barker’s trilogy about the psychological impact of WWI, featuring the real life figures of writers Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, as well as Dr William Rivers, who treated shell shocked soldiers at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. I went through a huge phase of reading WWI literature a few years ago, and absolutely loved the experience, yet somehow I never got around to Regeneration, which was a real oversight. I couldn’t bear to put it down, and found myself thinking about it all day while I was at work. The characters, in particular Dr Rivers, are so vital that I almost felt as if they were alive, and the intensity of the psychological trauma suffered by both patients and doctor is brilliantly, heartrendingly drawn. The novel is a mixture of fact and fiction, but the lines blur seamlessly to create a realistic, powerful and incredibly moving exploration of the effect of war on the psyche.

The story opens with Siegfried Sassoon’s admission to the hospital in 1917, after writing his famous declaration against the war, in which he acknowledges his ‘wilful defiance of military authority’: an act tantamount to treason in the eyes of many. In order to save him from a court martial, therefore, his friend Robert Graves pulls strings to ensure that Sassoon’s sanity is called into question, and has him sent to the comfortable surroundings of Craiglockhart, where the pioneering Dr Rivers has been treating soldiers with a variety of symptoms of mental illness caused by their war experiences. Sassoon is obviously not mad; he is simply disillusioned and horrified by what he has seen. Dr Rivers knows this from the outset, and seeing the deep conflict and trauma beneath the surface of Sassoon’s aloof exterior, over a period of several weeks, the men develop a close bond as Sassoon is helped to reconcile his fervent pacifism with his sense of duty, and decide on his future path.

There are many other fascinating characters, such as Prior, a working class officer ashamed at the fact that he has broken down, and conflicted between his desire to stay alive and his desire to do his duty. There is also the tragic ‘fossilised schoolboy’ Burns, who can’t eat after a traumatic experience with the dead body of a German soldier. Many of the men struggle with feelings of shame and guilt and failure, taught as they were that real men do not feel fear, and duty must always come before self. To have found the war unbearable is to have become emasculated, feminine, weak; to no longer be a man. With sensitivity and intelligence, Pat Barker explores the ideological aspects of war and how closely attitudes towards it were (and perhaps still are) interlinked with societal expectations of accepted masculine behaviour. Of particular interest to me was how many of the men at Craiglockhart were classified as being ‘mad’ when they were simply just sad. Their experiences had revealed the horror of inhumanity to them, and shown them the vulnerability and futility of human existence in a shatteringly visceral way. However, feeling a profound sense of hopelessness or melancholy was not an approved response to war; having any emotional response at all was simply not expected nor acknowledged. A man’s job is to do his duty; his feelings about it are utterly irrelevant. Gradually it is this barbaric approach that Rivers begins to see might be the true madness around him, and he struggles with the concept that he is ‘healing’ these patients only to send them back to the battlefield, where society says they belong. For, what is madness, the novel prompts us to consider – surely it is war that is insane? And perhaps the only sane response to such insanity must be to break down emotionally, otherwise what does that say about humanity, if we can look destruction in the face and not be moved by it? This is such a fantastic and thought provoking novel, and if you haven’t read it, i highly recommend it. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequels next.