As part of my mission to explore more of the UK, this year I decided my summer holidays would not involve taking any planes. I might be kissing goodbye to any chance of a tan, but at least I would finally see the places (practically) on my own doorstep, that really I had no excuse not to have visited. So, an airbnb in Inverness booked (this wonderful place – so highly recommended), a car borrowed from my generous mother, and a friend recruited, off we went on our very long car odyssey from London to the Highlands. We stopped off at a lovely BnB in Ripon and in a hotel in Glasgow on the way, making the trip to Inverness over three days. I’d never been to Glasgow before and was excited to see the city, but, perhaps rather typically, it was pouring it down the entire evening, so we didn’t want to spend much time outside looking around. We did have a nice ramble around the amazing Victorian necropolis though – definitely a sight worth seeing! The drive up from Glasgow to the Highlands takes you through the Cairngorms, which is a breathtaking mountain range offering incredible vistas of heather-covered mountains, glittering lakes and green valleys at every turn of the road. Even though the drive was several hours long, we were so enchanted by the scenery that it went by in a flash, and soon we found ourselves driving along the edge of the River Ness and up to our cottage, which was perched atop a hill with magical views across a valley to the mountains beyond. Perfect!



I could bore you with a blow-by-blow account of all the things we did, but I’m going to let the photos speak for themselves. If you’re interested in following in our footsteps, we went to Cawdor Castle, Culloden, Eilean Donan, Glenfinnan Viaduct (famous for being where the Hogwarts Express steams over in the opening to the Harry Potter films), Dunrobin Castle, Brodie Castle and Glamis Castle, as well as Loch Ness and general Highland countryside. We had a marvellous time and utterly fell in love with the wild, unspoilt beauty of the Scottish landscape. When you are standing amidst the heather, seeing your reflection ripple in a loch by your feet as the sun chases over the craggy slopes that soar above you, you really do feel the weight of the immensity of time, and your own insignificance, which I always find strangely comforting. This is how Scotland has always been, and will always be, long into the future; what I saw is what someone a thousand years ago would also have seen, and that sense of connection over unfathomable breaches of time is something that can’t help but be a balm for the soul.






News of the World by Paulette Jiles

san antonio.jpg

When my wonderful friend Ellen, who took me under her wing many moons ago during my time living in New York, recommends a book to me, I never hesitate to read it. She introduced me to Marilynne Robinson, which is a gift I’ll forever be grateful for, as well as countless other authors and novels I’ve loved. Even if initially I’m not sure, I know she won’t be wrong, and so when she recommended News of the World a couple of months ago, I headed straight to Foyles and picked up a copy.  I was storing it up until a time when I could immerse myself in it, and last week I had a long train journey that proved to be the perfect opportunity. A slight volume, it holds a story that transported me utterly to the lawless, dust-baked valleys of post civil war Texas, where black-clad men toting pistols haunt the lonely tracks between rawly constructed pioneer towns and communities live in fear of raids from Native American tribes. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an old man, who, having lost his wife and properties in San Antonio, is now living a rootless, itinerant existence that brings him a kind of happiness. He travels around Northern Texas, moving between its rough-and-ready towns to entertain locals with live readings from the newspapers, which earns him enough money to stay fed and clothed. After a life spent fighting for his country and working hard to support his family in his printing business, he is enjoying the sense of having no responsibilities, and only himself to please. However, when he bumps into an old friend who offers him 50 dollars to take a young girl who has been kidnapped by the Kiowa, a Native American tribe, back to her family several hundred miles away in San Antonio, he reluctantly accepts out of a sense of obligation. Little does he know that this encounter will go on to transform his life.

Johanna Leonberger was kidnapped by the Kiowa after a raid on her family’s homestead four years earlier. Her parents and sister were brutally murdered, and she was taken as a prize, being brought up as a member of the tribe by a new mother. Now ten, she only speaks the language of the Kiowa, and is a wild thing, terrified by the civilised world she has been brought back to. Unable to communicate and longing to be back with the only family she remembers, she initially resists Captain Kidd’s kindness and repeatedly tries to run away. Kidd, with a dangerous road to travel along lonely, lawless territory, soon wishes he’d never agreed to taking the child. Danger is lurking everywhere, and they are set upon frequently throughout their trip, with their lives often at risk. Johanna proves to be a fearless little fighter, with plenty of pluckiness and skill picked up from the Kiowa. Captain Kidd, calm and resourceful, and fiercely protective of Johanna, finds a new lease of life in this constant state of battle. Gradually the two grow to love one another as they find a way to communicate across the divide of years and experience, and both will arrive in San Antonio very different people, with a bond that will prove impossible to break.

This is a truly beautiful story that slowly, tenderly and insightfully unravels the stories of Captain Kidd and Johanna to reveal two damaged and lonely people who yet have a deep, innate capacity for love. The rendering of Texas at this unstable time in American history is so vivid and colourful, and I could almost smell the horses and gunpowder as images of streets filled with clapboard saloons and boarding houses, and orange, cactus-studded valleys came alive in my head. There is plenty of action and excitement, but at its heart this is a story of people, and how wonderfully courageous, loving and adventurous we can be if we allow ourselves to live ungoverned by fear. It’s beautifully, sensitively written, and I loved every moment. I can’t wait to read more of Jiles’ work, and even if you think the subject matter or setting isn’t your sort of thing, I really encourage you to give News of the World a try. You won’t regret it!



My recent addiction to the BBC TV series Poldark made me desperate to go to Cornwall and see the beautiful scenery that forms the background to the characters’ lives for myself. For those of you who don’t know, Poldark is set in the late 18th century, in the tin-mining community of south west Cornwall. This area is now a World Heritage site, thanks to the historical significance of the remaining mine workings, which are scattered along the cliff edges. Into the early 20th century, they provided a livelihood for many locals, and have shaped the landscape, with most of the towns and villages in the region built by tin miners for themselves and their families. When my best friend and I discovered that we could go and visit the mines where they filmed Poldark, we were sold on our summer holiday destination; booking ourselves a lovely airbnb in the old mining town of St Just, we packed up and headed down for a blissful week of exploring. We’d both been to Cornwall frequently as children, but never as adults, and we couldn’t wait to rediscover the dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches and rolling countryside we remembered so fondly.





It’s a long drive to Cornwall from London: much longer than I had remembered, but we were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day for our journey, and made two lovely stop-offs at National Trust properties in Dorset and Devon on our way, Montacute House and Castle Drogo, which are both fantastic places that deserve posts of their own. We arrived in St Ives in the early evening; this fishing harbour is one of the most popular destinations in Cornwall thanks to its history as an artists’ community, and it’s easy to see why when you arrive. The light there is incredible, and the sea wraps around the town’s sort of H shape formation, giving it two broad, sandy beaches and grassy cliffs to climb for fantastic, far-reaching views. We were too late to visit the St Ives branch of the Tate, but we were definitely right on time for a fish and chip supper on the beach, and we tucked in while watching the sun start to go down on the horizon. It was a perfect start to our holiday, and we thought we couldn’t do any better until we started driving to our cottage, and began spotting the ruins of mines on our way. When we walked into the cottage and looked at the view from the window, we were in heaven; not only could we see the sea, but directly in front of us was the chimney of a mine. We couldn’t have picked a better location!



Our first day saw us heading straight to explore the mines at Botallack, which is where Poldark was filmed and is now owned by the National Trust. There is a very interesting display in the visitor’s centre to get you acquainted with the history and suggested walking routes, and then you’re free to wander around the cliffs at your leisure. A word of warning – it is wise to have sensible shoes. My friend and I didn’t, and it was a bit tricky negotiating the paths which can be steep and rocky in places, so if you’re planning on going, bear that in mind! We were enchanted by the old mine buildings hugging the cliffs, with the sea pounding so fiercely against the rocks below, and the sheer number of them in such close proximity revealed how busy and thriving this area must once have been. The cliffs would have been swarming with workers and the air filled with the clanging of tools; hard to imagine now when all we could hear were waves and seagulls! The walk along the cliff top to see all of the mine ruins offers truly spectacular views and is worth doing even if you’ve no interest in the history of the area. We loved every minute, and could hardly bear to tear ourselves away. However, we had an itinerary to stick to, and so on we drove to Porthcurno, a beautiful cove just around the coast, which is famous not only for its beauty, but also for the Minack Theatre, which is carved into the cliffs above. The sun was blazing when we arrived, and so we lay on the beach and sunbathed for a while before hiking up the cliff path to the theatre in order to see the beautiful views. It is one of the loveliest places I have ever been to, and I highly recommend it; we were utterly entranced! Later that evening, however, we got a lesson on how unpredictable the Cornish weather can be after checking the news; while we were sunbathing, just a few miles around the coast it was pouring with so much rain that a village experienced a flash flood and its roads got washed away. We couldn’t believe our luck, especially as we had planned on going that way but decided against it as we wanted tea and cake instead!



Our second day was a little cloudy and cool, and threatened rain, so we decided to opt for an indoor activity. We drove into the middle of Cornwall to visit Lanhydrock, a National Trust property with some fantastic Victorian interiors. Nestled in beautiful gardens and amongst gorgeous countryside, it was a brilliant place to visit and we loved exploring the cosy, welcoming rooms and finding out about the tragic history of the last owners, who saw their prominent heir killed during WWI, another son made so traumatised by what he saw at the Front that he killed himself afterwards, and their daughters remaining unmarried thanks to losing much of their generation in the trenches. We had planned on making it a short visit, but actually spent all day there, as there was so much to see and do, as well as the opportunity for eating plenty of cake!



Our final day in Cornwall saw us visiting St Michael’s Mount, which is a tiny tidal island joined to the pretty town of Marazion by a causeway that becomes impassable at high tide. Perched atop its rocky tip is a castle, still lived in by the St Aubyn family, who have owned the island since the 17th century. The castle isn’t massively exciting inside, largely because much of it is inhabited by the family and so not on show, but what is worth visiting are the incredible terraced gardens that contain an amazing array of exotic plants, as well as the castle roof, which offers stunning panoramic views. We had a brilliant time wandering around before the weather suddenly changed and the rain came down. The tide being in, we had to take a tiny boat back to the mainland, and then, amidst lowering clouds, we drove out to Gunwalloe beach, which features in Poldark and offers magnificently dramatic views across the cliffs. It was very windy, so we didn’t stay long, and managed to make it back to the cottage before the rain set in. Later that evening, before the sun went down and while it looked dry, we went out for a walk to Cape Cornwall, which is a lovely piece of cliffside by our cottage. The views were amazing, but the heavens opened, and we were drowned rats by the time we made it back to the cottage – the only thing to do was warm up with lots of tea and some Poldark on the laptop! We had such a fantastic time, despite the weather not always being on our side. Cornwall offers so much beauty and history, and yet we only had time to explore a tiny patch – I know I’ll be back again soon to see more!



Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik


The beautiful, Ravilious-style cover of this debut novel is what initially compelled me to pick it up when I saw it sitting on the shelf in Daunt Books. From the illustration, it looked just my cup of tea; rural setting, vaguely middlebrow in tone  – and when I read the blurb, about two women coming together in unusual circumstances to work on a farm during WWII, I was sold. Last week I read it in two sittings, devouring the unfussily lyrical prose, and finding myself utterly absorbed in the world of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, two unconventional women brought together by the chaos of war and somehow finding within each other the peace that had eluded them all their lives.

Elsie Boston has been left alone to run the family farm, Starlight, after her large family of brothers and sisters has disbanded. Her sisters have gone to live in towns and cities, stultified by the boredom of country life, and her brothers are dead, killed in the first war. An odd fish, uncomfortable in the company of others and unsure how to relate to them, Elsie is considered an eccentric by her neighbours, and largely left to herself. However, the farm is large and help hard to find with a war on, and so pushed to act against her will by sheer necessity, she applies for a Land Girl to come and live with her. Widow Rene Hargreaves signs up to be a Land Girl for a chance to escape her life in Manchester. When she arrives at Starlight, she throws herself into the work on the land, and quickly makes friends in the village with her warm, open and friendly manner. Rene seems to have a way with Elsie, unlocking her from her prison of shyness, and the women quickly form a deep friendship built upon a seemingly innate understanding of the other. They settle into a comfortable domestic routine, relishing their days working in harmony with one another on Elsie’s beloved land, and their cosy evenings listening to plays on the wireless. The war raging in the world outside seems too far away to touch them, and for a while, their friendship seems to have woven a protection about them, giving both the peace and satisfaction they were unknowingly searching for. However, in the background, storm clouds are brewing. Rene is not all she says she is; the past she has left behind in Manchester is far more complex than she had led Elsie to suspect. And a neighbour, keen to take revenge on Elsie for spurning his advances, is looking to get his hands on Starlight and push Elsie and Rene off the land altogether.

I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of ruining it, as there is a surprising twist half way through, but this is a truly wonderful novel that is unexpected in so many ways. There is much left unsaid, and unexplored; glimpses are given of the women’s pasts and their relationship with one another that can be interpreted as the reader wishes. Were Elsie and Rene lovers, or was their contentment grounded in the satisfaction of a deep platonic bond? There is plenty of evidence for both readings, and it is up to us to decide what we feel best fits their characters. The period details are marvellous, and the depictions of countryside life and the characters found there are beautifully and realistically drawn. It is a thoughtful, intriguing and unusual tale of two women who fought against social and moral expectations to live a life that gave them the fulfilment their hearts longed for, carrying the weight of guilt, sorrow and blame along with them as they navigated a path through the barriers that stood in their way. What makes it even more powerful is the knowledge that Rachel Malik based this tale on the story of her own grandmother’s life, which can be read here (warning – this article does provide plot spoilers). It makes you wonder how many more extraordinary stories there are, hidden within families, buried beneath layers of shame and embarrassment. A few newspaper clippings and a clutch of certificates can hint at so much, and yet still tell so little. It’s made me want to go digging into my own family history once more, and I already want to read this remarkable novel all over again. I can’t wait to see what Rachel Malik will write next!

On being wrong


Eating humble pie is not something I enjoy doing, but when I’m wrong, I’m willing to admit it. As an English teacher, one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most is the opportunity to reread texts and look at them from fresh perspectives as I prepare to teach them to my students. It’s vital that I can put my own personal opinions aside and present the novel as a blank canvas where any interpretations can be valid; I can illuminate the text and offer suggestions, but I strive to never influence students with my own reading of the characters or authors’ intentions. So, when I am reading with a mind to teaching, I force myself to read more carefully, more considerately, more thoughtfully. I immerse myself in the context of the novel’s period, to place the character’s actions and thoughts within the norms of their time. I refrain from judgement and strive to be dispassionate. And when I do that, I start to see things differently than I did before, and the text comes alive in whole new ways.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading Mansfield Park. I have to teach it to my GCSE class next year, and initially, I wasn’t happy about it. As some of you may remember from when I reread it a few years ago, Mansfield Park has always been my least favourite Austen. When I first read it, I couldn’t understand how Jane Austen could have written such an insipid heroine when she had created so many fabulous ones in her other novels. Where was the wit, the sparkiness, the sass? Where was the striding across muddy fields, the arch looks, the independence of spirit? Fanny Price was just pathetic, Edmund Bertram the least romantic hero ever, and Mary and Henry Crawford, who were clearly supposed to be unlikeable, were the best characters in the novel. As well written as Mansfield Park is, I thought it was deeply unsatisfying on many levels, and definitely not a book I could ever love as I do Austen’s others. I knew all of the context, I understood Fanny’s position as a poor dependent, I could see objectively why Fanny was the way she was, but I just couldn’t care less. And, as I knew I wasn’t alone – there have been actual Fanny wars fought (this actually exists! Though it sounds hilariously naughty to an English ear) – I felt totally justified in my negative opinion. Everyone hated Mansfield Park, so I didn’t need to try and like it. That is, until I needed to prepare it to teach.

Well. What a different book I found! Mansfield Park is the poster child for critics countering the claims that Austen ‘merely’ wrote domestic novels (because obviously what happens in the domestic interior is of no importance at all), as the characters live on the proceeds of slavery; Sir Thomas Bertram owns a plantation in Antigua. The luxurious life in the ‘modern’ built mansion of Mansfield Park is only possible thanks to slave labour, and with slavery forming the background of the novel, the fact that the Bertrams have a niece living in the battered former schoolroom in the attics who is told that she needs to remember ‘who and what she is’ at all times makes for uncomfortable reading. As I began to consider that Fanny is, to all intents and purposes, a slave in the Bertram household, I started to see her entirely differently. While not treated unkindly, she is subject to the whims of all around her, and has no control over her own life. She cannot ask for anything, cannot complain, cannot refuse. She is enslaved by the need to show perpetual humility and gratitude, forever aware of the fact that she is only at Mansfield Park thanks to the kindness of her uncle and can quite easily be returned from whence she came should she prove herself to be in any way undesirable, or undeserving. How can she be spunky and sparky and cutting and witty when she has no right to anything or anybody and lives in a house where she has no certainty of being able to remain? How on earth could I have expected her to be anything but meek, and how could I not have recognised her bravery in standing up for herself when pressed to do things against her conscience, knowing that in doing so she risked everything that she held dear? And goodness me – how on earth did I think Mary and Henry Crawford were so wonderful? They are utterly shallow, insensitive, cruel, mercenary – they might be funny and independent and utterly outré, but they are all of those things to the detriment of those around them. They are horrible people. Horrible. The scales have fallen from my eyes.

I am not backing down when it comes to Edmund Bertram – I still think he is totally useless – but I can forgive Austen that. What I can’t do is forgive myself for having been such a blinkered reader. In looking for something in this novel that Austen never wrote into it, I missed its point entirely. Mansfield Park isn’t like Austen’s other novels, but that doesn’t make it any the worse for it. This is a fascinating novel, so rich and complex, so well written and so fantastically characterised. Two hundred years old, its characters and their emotions and motivations still ring absolutely true to a modern day audience. Edmund Bertram’s total inability to see Mary Crawford for who she really is is a brilliant depiction of how blind love can be. Henry Crawford’s callous delight in making women love him, only to blithely discard them when he is bored, is a perfect portrait of narcissism. It’s going to be so much fun to teach this book, bringing the characters and their world alive for my students. I can’t wait to see what they make of it.

So, readers, I was wrong, and I am glad to have been so. This experience has reminded me of what is so amazing about the written word; come at it on a different day, at a different time of life, in a different mood, and you can see something entirely different in the exact same letters that left you cold before. I’m now considering where else I could have gone so spectacularly wrong in my past reading…I feel there’s got to be a lot of literary humble pie out there for me to eat, as there are many classics I’ve hated…Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, Wuthering Heights…the list is endless!

p.s. In preparation for teaching Austen, I’ve been reading a lot about her, as well as her novels, and I very much enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s new biography, Jane Austen at Home, which was an informative as well as entertaining read, with a particular focus on Austen’s relationships with her domestic environments. I highly recommend it!