On Studying

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I signed up for my MA degree last year on a bit of a whim. I’d been thinking about doing an MA for years, but circumstances always got in the way of me being able to make the commitment. Last year, however, I finally felt in the right place at the right time, and thought, why not just do it now? So, without giving myself time to doubt the decision, I filled in the form and sent it that very same day. Within just a couple of weeks, I’d attended an interview and accepted my place. It all felt very sudden, and when the idea actually became reality, I panicked. What if I wouldn’t manage to fit all the work in? What if I would be the idiot at the back of the room, with everyone else already being experts? What if I couldn’t write MA level essays and ended up failing the course? What if I didn’t enjoy it and found the research I would have to do completely boring? What if this was all just a terrible mistake?! After a night of crippling self-doubt, I pulled myself together, pushed the nagging fear of not being clever enough to the back of my mind, enthusiastically bought all of the books on the reading list, and embraced the idea of becoming a mature student, going to the pub after lectures with my fellow students and spending my weekends in the library. This was going to be an adventure. And just like a rollercoaster, even if parts of it were going to be terrifying, and a little bit unpleasant, I knew, deep down, that I would love the experience. I’d already done the hardest part by getting on the ride in the first place.

One term in, and I can report that I have absolutely loved every second so far. I chose my course carefully, and it has exceeded all of my expectations. The difference between my MA and BA is enormous; my BA course was large and many of the texts we studied were not my cup of tea. I often felt disinterested and demotivated by having to study periods or genres of literature I found boring or impenetrable, and it was frustrating to have to skate over the surface of the things that really interested me because we had to gain a broad knowledge of a huge subject area in a relatively short amount of time. Doing an MA gives you the luxury of specialism, and I have found every week fascinating, as I am learning about the precise period I am interested in: the nineteenth century. I am having my eyes opened to so much, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn, and each seminar leads me down so many paths of interest that I take such pleasure in pursuing in my own time. Having very small seminar groups is also a considerable change from my BA, where groups were often pushing 20 students. Now there are less than 10 of us in each group, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to share their ideas and for us to bounce theories and interpretations off each other, creating fascinating and enlightening discussions. As all of us are mature students and have made the decision to pursue this qualification at no small sacrifice to our finances and leisure time, everyone is committed and engaged, and there are not the silences I experienced so often in my undergraduate seminars, when it became very obvious that all of us had been far too busy partying that week to read the assigned text! What’s more, we get to choose our own essay topics, and I’ve had such fun picking my topics and hanging out in the gorgeous University of London library, Senate House, which has an amazing rare book collection and incredible art deco architecture. Getting lost in books, finding undiscovered gems and spending evenings doing research has been brilliant. I love the experience of finding something that then leads to something else and then something else, sending me deep into a labyrinth of Victoriana that I could happily wander in forever.

When I started telling people about my decision to sign up for the MA, a lot of people asked me why I was doing it. The assumption from most was that I was doing it for a promotion, to improve my qualifications so that I could get a job in a more prestigious school. When I said no, I was doing it purely for pleasure, I received some interesting reactions. The concept that education was something to be pursued purely for pleasure, rather than for some sort of economic or practical advantage, seemed to be a novel idea. Why on earth would I spend so much time and money on something that offered me nothing of tangible benefit in return? This was something I thought about before I began the course; unlike my BA degree, an MA is not a requirement for me to be able to pursue my chosen career path. The teaching profession doesn’t really reward higher education beyond BA level, largely because the subject knowledge you gain doesn’t really get used on a day to day basis, unless you happen to be able to teach the texts you have studied. Having an MA in Victorian Studies wasn’t going to propel me up the career ladder. It wasn’t going to get me a promotion, a pay rise or any kudos from the kids I teach, who already roll their eyes and sigh the minute I begin the sentence ‘actually, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but did you know that in the nineteenth century….’ In a world where so much value is placed on what we can measure economically, the concept of investing a lot of time and money in something that has no intrinsic value beyond enjoyment, is, for a lot of people, a waste. But for me, this MA course has been the best value for money I have ever received. It has given me so much more than I have paid out. It has revealed whole swathes of subjects I had not known about before, and that have inspired, excited and given me enormous pleasure in the pursuit of their discovery. It has set my brain on fire, reigniting the embers of interests I have had to dampen over the years thanks to not having enough time to look into them properly. It has opened my eyes more fully to the rich layers of history around me, and made me stop and think and question and not take things at face value. It has also surprised me by how much it has taught me about myself. With every passing week, I have grown a little more confident, a little more bold, a little more self assured. I have come to believe in the value of my own voice, and to trust in the value of my opinions. As someone who is constantly telling their students to believe in themselves, to trust in themselves, to have confidence in themselves, I was surprised by how little confidence I had in myself at the start of the course. I was convinced I would find it too hard, and that I would have nothing insightful to say, and that everyone else would find me stupid. Going back to an academic environment after so long sent me right back to my unconfident eighteen year old self, convinced that I wasn’t clever because I didn’t get into the university of my choice. Though I have no problem standing in front of a class of children and talking about my subject, being with an audience of my peers terrified me. But from the very first seminar, I found that my passion for my subject overrode my lack of confidence; to my surprise, I found myself initiating discussions effortlessly, so keen was I to share my interpretations, or to point out particular lines I had found interesting. As each week went by, I spoke up more and more, enjoying the experience of talking and debating and developing other people’s ideas. I was so focused on the subjects we were discussing, I forgot to think about what I thought about myself. And that has probably been the greatest gift this course has given me so far: freedom from the limitations I had placed upon myself.

For anyone thinking about studying as a mature student, I would say, go for it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t focus on the logistics, because you’ll be surprised by how much time you can find to do something you love, even if your schedule seems overloaded as it is. As long as you prepare in advance, use your time wisely and don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations, you’ll be absolutely fine. It’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time, and I love that I still have over a year and a half of it left to enjoy!

My Books of the Year 2016

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Happy New Year! I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year break, and are feeling ready and raring to go for 2017…which must surely be a cheerier year than 2016, otherwise we’re all in trouble!

Sidestepping neatly away from wider world issues to discuss gentler pursuits, it’s been an interesting, and varied year in reading for me. Starting my MA course in Victorian Studies in September added a huge amount of non fiction and nineteenth century literature to my reading pile, and I also developed quite an addiction to detective fiction, aided in no small part by the fantastic reprints produced by the British Library. I received a six month gift subscription to Persephone Books in the summer, which led to me rediscovering their wonderful back catalogue, and mine and Simon’s attempts to find common reading ground for our podcast, Tea or Books? (if you haven’t listened yet, where have you been!? Come and find out what you’re missing here) has led me to branch outside of my usual preferred authors and genres. I have found new favourite novels, discovered new authors, and come to really enjoy reading non fiction. I have also failed to whittle down my pile of unread books and not read many books I meant to get around to, but that will be for 2017, especially as I’ve decided to join in with Simon’s Project 24, and restrict my book buying from the seeming hundreds I purchase every year down to just 24…

So, without further ado, here is my top 10 books of 2016, in reverse order:

10. The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

One of the British Library Crime Classics, I loved this murder mystery that had so many potential endings to choose from, and an intriguing crime to solve. Clever, stylish and full of period detail, this is one of the best of the many Crime Classics I’ve read. A wonderful light read for when you need a couple of hours to escape!

9. A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

This is another novel Simon asked me to read for the podcast, and having only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I was keen to explore more Spark. This witty, wonderfully wry novel set in the publishing world of post war London had me laughing out loud, and the characterisation is second to none. A much more acerbic Barbara Pym, Spark is a fantastic observer of human behaviour, and this is a book I could hardly bear to put down. I can’t wait to read more Spark in 2017.

8. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Simon asked me to read this for Tea or Books? and knowing it was going to have a fantastic element to it made me not overly keen on picking it up. However, what I found inside its pages was not at all what I expected; a brilliantly, lyrically written exploration of the life of a spinster in early 20th century Britain, which surprises the reader with an intriguing and utterly unique source of escape from her narrow, stifled existence. A daring, powerfully feminist novel, it is half a richly detailed glimpse into the world of the early 20th century middle class, and half an almost dream-like invention of an alternative state of being for those who have been excluded from the normative structures of polite society. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would, and it reminded me how important it is to step outside of my reading comfort zone in order to discover such gems as this.

7. Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton

Another Persephone, this novel about the life of an architect in 19th and early 20th century London was a real discovery for me. Helen Ashton’s writing is stylish and evocative, and her eye for architectural detail is wonderful. This, like Sherriff’s Greengates, is very much a chronicle of an ordinary life, where moments of wonder, fulfilment and immense joy are intermingled with petty frustrations, deep griefs and quiet despair, drawing the reader in to the world of the characters and leaving you richer for the experience as you ponder on similar experiences in your own life. I couldn’t put it down; Helen Ashton is an author I definitely want to read more of in future.

6. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I was totally shocked by the ending of this brilliant murder mystery, which had me hooked right up until the last moment. A real jewel in the crown of Christie’s oeuvre, it’s perfect Sunday afternoon reading.

5. Greengates by R.C.Sherriff

A fairly new Persephone Book, this reprint of a 1930’s novel by Sherriff, who is mostly well known today for his First World War play, Journey’s End, is an absolutely enchanting account of a retired couple who find a new lease of life after a buying a house in the country. Sherriff is the master of making the ordinary extraordinary, and drawing wonderfully realistic, everyday characters whose stories open your eyes to the magic hidden in the reassuring routines of our workaday lives. This was pure and simple comfort reading; the best kind for troubled times, and a book I know I will delight in sinking into any time I want to be reminded of the many wonders of my distinctly ordinary existence. Don’t let it pass you by!

4. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, so when I found a copy in a charity shop, I finally picked it up and gave it a go. I hadn’t expected what I found at all; an intriguing postmodern take on the Victorian novel, which was both incredibly literary and fantastically entertaining, alongside being a brilliant, impeccably researched evocation of the nineteenth century. The characters are subtle and compelling, and both sympathetic and maddening, making you want to jump into the book and give them a good talking to. Moreover, the structure of the novel itself, with the frequent insertions of the authorial voice to remind us that we’re reading a fictional construction, adds a pleasurable novelty to what could have otherwise been a straightforward historical novel. If you’re looking for a more intellectually challenging read in 2017, this would definitely be my recommendation.

3. The Victorians by A.N.Wilson

If you thought history books were dull, then let this be the one that disproves your theory. Though it’s long and incredibly detailed, this fascinating account of the Victorian period, taking in the great and good as well as the insignificant and trivial, opened my eyes to so much and had me glued to its pages. I thought I knew so much about the Victorians before I opened this book; by the time I had finished, I realised how little I had truly understood about them.

2. London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

Prewar London comes vibrantly alive in this rich, almost Dickensian account of the lives of the various tenants of 10 Dulcimer Street. The private triumphs and tragedies of these individuals are played out against the seedy glamour of a world on the brink of war, and Collins weaves you effortlessly into the inner lives of each of them, their voices completely distinctive and so vividly drawn. I loved every second of reading it, and particularly enjoyed Collins’ marvellous sense of place in bringing to life a not often recorded period of time in London’s history. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

1. The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

It would be impossible for me to choose between the five wonderful books in this series, which chronicle the lives of the various members of the Cazalet family from the 1930s to the 1950s. It’s fantastically well written, brilliantly characterised, and utterly addictive. I can’t imagine why it hasn’t won every prize under the sun; to manage as many characters as Howard does, over so many years, and make each of them so completely alive, and their world so realistic, is truly awe-inspiring. If you want to get lost in another world, and forget your own completely; if you want to enter into a vanished society that yet still feels real enough to touch; if you want to laugh out loud and cry your eyes out, you will find everything you need within these five remarkable, irreplaceable books. I am devastated to have finished them, and already can’t wait to read them all over again. If you read nothing else in 2017, these have to be the books you choose.

Merry Christmas!

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Well, another year has flown by, and once again I haven’t been as regular a blogger as I’d like, but I very much appreciate each and every one of you who takes the time to read my posts, and also those of you who listen to Simon and I rambling away on our podcast, Tea or Books?. Thank you so much for your support! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures in life and reading, sporadic as my postings are. Next year I am going to do my best to give you a little more variety; I want to write about some of the topics I’ve been learning about as part of my Victorian Studies MA, and also return to my ‘Notes from the Classroom’ series. I’m also thinking about experimenting with posting some excerpts from my fiction writing…but we’ll see how brave I’m feeling!

For those of you wondering about the picture I’ve used to illustrate this post – as always, London has provided a cornucopia of beautiful Christmas displays, but my favourite this year was Liberty’s gorgeous Nutcracker inspired windows. The above image is a glimpse of one of them, but they are all marvellously inventive and if you have the chance to pop by and have a look over the holiday, make sure you do!

I hope you all have a marvellous Christmas, eating lots of delicious food, reading plenty of exciting new books, and spending quality time with your family and friends. See you in the New Year!

Greengates by R C Sherriff

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When Persephone Books announced that they were reprinting another R C Sherriff this year, I was delighted. The Fortnight in September, a wonderful novel about a family’s trip to the seaside and the quietly transformational effect of a holiday away from their ordinary lives, is one of my absolute favourite Persephones, and the promise of another Sherriff along similar lines filled me with anticipation. As it turns out, I was right to be excited, as Greengates is a lovely, life-affirming book that I could hardly bear to put down. It’s just the sort of thing to curl up and read on a cold winter’s evening, and I can see it becoming a perennial favourite.

When Tom Baldwin retires from his insurance clerk job in the city, and returns to his sooty semi in Brondesbury Park, he is initially filled with joy at the prospect of no longer having to form one of the homogenous mass rushing to and from suburban stations and trudging their weary way through the streets of the city, forever bound by the ticking hands of the employer’s clock. As he sits in the train on his final journey from the office to his home, clutching the meagre retirement gift handed to him by his colleagues, he has wonderful visions of years stretching ahead, full of a new epoch of purpose and achievement. At not yet sixty, he thinks, there is still so much he could do. Not for him the pipe and slippers by the fire that the office seems to think he will be sloping off to enjoy; no slow, gradual descent into the grave with nothing to show for himself. No, indeed; Tom intends to become a historian, discovering new ways of interpreting England’s fascinating history for the masses. He and his wife Edith will go on tours of historical sites, spending their days rambling across the countryside and having enlightening conversations on all manner of subjects. When not immersed in his writings, Tom will also enjoy the healthful occupation of tending his garden, and finally get around to all of those pesky jobs in the house that he has been ignoring for years. Retirement, he is sure, will be the making of him. By the time he returns home from the office for the last time, Tom feels a changed man; a man for whom retirement holds nothing but glorious promise.

It is not long before this vision proves to be far from reality, however. Tom soon finds that his dreams of becoming a historian are nothing but a fantasy, and he becomes irritable and argumentative as he broods on his failures. Edith, her tranquil routines upset by Tom’s presence in the house all day, despairs at the prospect of spending the next twenty years with a man with whom she now seems to have nothing in common. The cosy chats they used to enjoy at the end of their respective days, sharing the news of their separate worlds, have disappeared, and with little else to tie them together, all seems lost and utterly hopeless. That is until Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside they enjoyed on weekends before the war. The fresh air and happy memories of times past invigorate them, and they are thoroughly enjoying themselves until they are shocked and appalled to find the magical valley views they were so looking forward to spoiled by the building site of a new housing estate. Indignant, they go down to take a look at the works, and find themselves convinced by an eager young sales assistant to take a look at the sparkling show home. Unexpectedly entranced by the clean, modern lines of the house and its blissfully peaceful setting, they find themselves starting to dream of a different life. But will they have the courage to take the plunge, and will this dream offer them the meaning to their later years that they have so far sought in vain?

This is a truly wonderful book that I raced through, so caught up was I in the lives of Tom and Edie. They are both very real and sympathetic characters, whose ordinariness makes them recognisable and irresistibly endearing. I loved the descriptions of life in their suburban semi; Sherriff is excellent at finding the perfect turns of phrase to capture the pleasures of quiet, comforting routines and the smells and sounds of domesticity, and the details of 1920s furniture and home decoration fashions are fascinating to read about. Sherriff is a remarkable creator of characters who are well rounded and touchingly true to life; his sensitive exploration of the disappointments and disillusionments that can crush the spirit are quietly moving, just as the moments of sheer joy and exhilaration when inspiration strikes and all seems golden send a thrill down the spine.I couldn’t bear it when I got to the end; I felt that I was being forced to say goodbye to dear old friends. Greengates is such a truly delightful story; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Lake District

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Over half term, I finally achieved a long held dream of visiting the Lake District, which I have somehow taken thirty years to get around to doing. I absolutely loved every minute and already can’t wait to go back; I have never seen such beautiful scenery and met such friendly people. Though I will never tire of the view of the London skyline from my window, there is something truly profound about the rise and fall of mountains, the deep luxuriousness of glistening lakes, of blazing autumnal woods and hillsides covered in rust coloured bracken and the smell of peat and smoke and animals that somehow speaks to your soul and takes you utterly out of yourself in a way that manmade scenery never can. We were talking on my MA course about the cult of the sublime in the late 18th century a few weeks ago, and that idea of nature providing you with a transcendental and almost, in some ways, destructive experience, felt quite pertinent when I was standing on the shore of an enormous lake and contemplating my own insignificance in the grand scheme of the sands of time.

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Aside from self indulgent philosophical thoughts, I also had a marvellous time exploring the huge range of historic homes and pretty towns and villages that are scattered throughout the Lakes, which has been a place of artistic inspiration for centuries. You can’t go anywhere in the region without finding connections to Wordsworth or Beatrix Potter, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ruskin spent his last days here, and that the Arts and Crafts movement had a real stronghold, inspiring people artistically as well as domestically, with plenty of very fine Arts and crafts houses to be found nestled on the shores of the Lakes. We went on a real whistlestop tour of all the sights, starting off in Cockermouth, right at the northerly tip, where we visited the birthplace of Wordsworth. There isn’t an enormous amount to see, but just being where he grew up was amazing, and the drive through the Lakes to get there, taking in the magnificent scenery, was absolutely incredible. I was gasping at every turn of the wheel, and it was actually a pain to be the one in the driving seat, as I just wanted to stop and stare at the mountains and the beautiful, vibrant autumnal colours that were so much more vivid than anything we get in the south. On the way back from Cockermouth we stopped at Lowther Castle, a wonderful mock Gothic ruin that has beautiful gardens and an amazing tea room, which was much needed after our long drive.

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The following day we began our adventures at Wray Castle, a recently opened National Trust property that is rather unique in being a Victorian attempt at building a medieval castle. It is unbelievably hideous, but has magnificent views of the lake in front (sadly it was foggy when we were there!) and is good fun to explore. It is also, interestingly, where Beatrix Potter had her 16th birthday, and apparently inspired her love for the Lake District, which she would go on to make her home and use as inspiration for her books, so even though it was considered by some when first built to be a blight on the landscape, it certainly wasn’t considered to be so by Beatrix! After Wray we drove on to Ruskin’s house, Brantwood, which has been kept much the same as when he lived there, and has stunning lakeside gardens looking over Coniston. It’s packed with fascinating objects and paintings, and was a real feast for a Victorianist like me. I was also delighted to actually be allowed to play Ruskin’s piano – I love historic properties that don’t rope things off and enable you to truly experience them as the former inhabitants would have done. We then finished our day by popping into another quite unique National Trust property, Townend, which was the home of the same farming family for generations and is remarkable for containing four hundred years’ worth of ordinary possessions and one of the country’s most valuable libraries in representing what middle class people would have read from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It’s a fascinating insight into how more normal as opposed to aristocratic people would have lived and has some wonderfully quirky features that were brought to life by the very knowledgable local volunteers. Even though it’s not a typical National Trust property, it’s well worth the visit for the social history it contains, and I loved it.

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Our adventures continued the next day in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived for the early part of his married life. It’s now a bustling town that caters very well for tourists with a wide range of shops and cafes, but you can still get a sense of what it would have been like in Wordsworth’s day. The views across the countryside are breathtaking, and we loved the walk to Allan Bank, which is a beautiful Georgian villa nestled in the folds of hills, with amazing vistas from its huge windows. It was nearly destroyed by a fire a few years ago, and so the National Trust has now made it a ‘home from home’ – a place where people can come and paint, read, knit, play and relax in the most beautiful of surroundings, and it really is a wonderful, magical place. The gardens run down to the lake, and the trees are full of red squirrels, which was the first time I had ever seen them, as they don’t live in the south of England at all.Wordsworth rented the house for a short time, but it is most known for being the home of one of the founders of the National Trust. I adored it and wanted to move in instantly; I don’t think I’d ever tire of its views! From Allan Bank you can walk to Grasmere church, where Wordsworth is buried, and then you can walk on a little further to Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth wrote much of his early poetry, including Daffodils and The Prelude. It’s a tiny, dark and rather claustrophobic cottage and reveals the reality of early 19th century country life – certainly not the idyll you’d imagine! I can’t say I felt particularly inspired by it, but Wordsworth apparently adored it, so there must have been a magic to it I could not detect.To round off our literary day, we drove on to Hill Top, home of Beatrix Potter, which was charming. As it is exactly as she left it, it’s possible to really see how she lived and also to see what she was copying when she drew images for her books; the house and its furniture are possible to spot in several drawings that have been placed around the house, and it was wonderful to see the images I loved from childhood literally come alive around me, including Mr McGregor’s vegetable patch! As the sky darkened we began to make our way back to Lancaster, where we were staying, and we stopped off in Morecambe, a seaside town, to visit the Midland Hotel, famous for its art deco building that was once decorated by Eric and Tirzah Ravilious. Sadly the Ravilious mural is now long gone, but the Ravilious Rotunda Bar was a lovely place to sit and have tea and cake while watching the sun go down over the mudflats.

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Our final day in the Lakes was taken up with visiting a wonderful Arts and Crafts house, Blackwell, which was built by Baillie Scott for a prominent Manchester businessman. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful house where everything is still in place despite it having been a school for much of the 20th century, and the detailing is magnificent. The views over to the lake are also stunning, and I could have curled up in one of the window seats and stayed there forever if I had the choice!

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I was absolutely overwhelmed by how wonderful the Lake District is, and how much there is to see and do. For many people it is a place to go walking and hiking, and while I would love to be of that disposition, sadly I am more of a stroller than a hiker. If you are more like me and enjoy a cup of tea while looking at beautiful mountains rather than climbing up them, then there is plenty of inspiration to be found in the architecture of the Lakes as well as its natural beauty, and you’ll be spoiled for choice of things to do. I already can’t wait to go back and if you haven’t visited, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

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