Lyn over at I Prefer Reading mentioned Miss Read the other day. It reminded me that I saw her obituary (she was the writer, Dora Saint) and was mildly surprised. I remembered reading her years and years ago, when I was at school and had assumed that she was elderly then. I wondered if it was time to have another look. I got Village School (first published 1955) out of the London Library, and it came in very handy earlier this week when I was feeling groggy with a virus. Perfect comfort reading, but also food for thought.
What I hadn’t realised fully as a child was how similar Miss Read’s school was to my own village school in Ampleforth, North Yorkshire. Perhaps I thought all schools were like that. Just two classes for the whole school, and quite often only one, when one of the teachers was ill, outdoor lavatories (though I think ours did flush) inhabited by spiders that seemed truly monstrous. I don’t remember head lice, but I do remember ringworm. And what a relaxed regime compared to today’s children, tested and measured to the nth degree as they are. I don’t remember a struggle to read, it seemed to happen quite naturally and quickly. I wasn’t conscious of the class divisions so evident in Miss Read’s Fairacre, but I don’t doubt they were there. My father was the village policeman and it now occurs to me that this is one character who is missing from Village School for there surely would have been one.
As the village schoolteacher, Miss Read is part of the community, but her attitude is a little detached, a little ironic, more than a little amused. It is a conservative community (though one that can absorb a dark-haired child born into a fair-haired family when the husband is away during the war) and Miss Read doesn’t on the whole question the status quo. I admire the skill with which she brings a whole little world to life and the book is beautifully illustrated by J. S. Goodall.
When I graduated in the seventies from Leicester University, Doris Lessing was the guest speaker. I don’t remember much of what she said, something about how we should make the most of the privelege of our education comes vaguely to mind. Only now do I connect that with the fact that she herself left school at fourteen. I do too that she seemed ill at ease, not a confident speaker.
I see that my copy of The Grass is Singing is inscribed with a date a month before the Degree Congregation, which I guess was what prompted me to read her work. The book is falling apart now: it’s been well read. What a remarkable debut that was. But, as for many other women, I imagine, The Golden Notebook is the novel that has meant the most to me. Looking through it again just now, I am reminded of why it gripped me so much when I read it in my thirties, the same age as Anna in the novel. I flicked through until I found the section that has most stayed in my memory, Anna’s diary entry for the day she decides to leave the Communist Party and realises that a love affair is over. Those events are woven into the details of her everyday life, planning meals, caring for her daughter. Lessing is so brilliant at laying bare the way people deceive themselves both in love and politics, the way it’s possible to both know and not know, the way we can be taken by surprise by our actions and emotions.
Her two volumes of biography, particularly the second, Walking in the Shade, shows how much she drew from her own experience and offers fascinating insights into her life as a writer. I’d recommend it to any woman writer.
Some writers become part of the texture of your life and for me she is one of them.
The other day I got The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen down from the shelf to check something. It must be years and years – maybe even decades – since I opened it and I got a surprise when I saw written inside the front cover the name of a boyfriend that I’d gone out with for a few months when I was eighteen. Above it was written ‘formerly’ and next to it my own mame in the turquiose ink that I used to favour in those days. I had completely forgotten that Chris had given it to me and I still can’t remember the occasion. The sight of his strong and rather elegant hand-writing brought back a flood of memories. We met at the folk club in Redcar – he was a talented amateur singer – just before I went to university. He was a bit older than me and working. He gave me Miss Dior perfume for my nineteenth birthday: so sophisicated! And we went together to Whitby Folk Festival and stayed in a house high up in the town full of light and the cries of seagulls. The relationship didn’t last much beyond the first term, but he was a lovely bloke and we stayed friends until he got a job that took him away from Redcar. A few years later I met his mother in the street and she told me was getting married.
I wonder if young people today give each other books to the extent that my friends and I used to. Somehow I doubt it. And convenient though ebooks are, they won’t be lying on bookshelves to be discovered years later, so that someone can smile and sigh and shake their heads as I have just done over The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen.
So at last it’s over. After twenty-four years David Suchet’s magnificent run as Hercule Poirot came to an end last night – and what an end. The last few episodes had been a bit disappointing, but last night’s was a return to form and I loved it. It had an appropriately elegiac and autumnal feel. The script-writer was Kevin Elyot, who did a fine job, sticking fairly closely to the book with most of the story seen from Hastings’ viewpoint. The cast included some stellar names and Hugh Frazer as the loyal, grieving Hastings was pitch perfect and it was touching to see how the end of their friendship was played out.
Although it is Poirot’s last case, it is mid-period Christie, as she wrote it in the war and didn’t allow it to to be published until 1975, when she knew she wouldn’t be writing any more Poirots. What a gift to her readers. It is a brilliantly audacious plot, and reminded me of what she could do at her best. The Crime Writers Association recently voted her the best crime-writer ever, and really there is no-one like her.
Poirot has a special place in my heart. When I first met my husband around twenty-years ago, and got to know his children, one of the things we did as a family was to watch Poirot on Sunday evenings, all snuggled up together on the sofa. Happy days.
Meyer Landsman, the policeman protagonist – hero woud be pitching it far too high – has a drink problem, a failed marriage, and is inevitably taken off the case after maverick behaviour. But that’s where Chabon’s novel parts company with classic noir. Because the mean streets in question are not those of Los Angeles, but of Sitka in Alaska. This is an alternative history novel, and asks the question, what if, as Franklin Roosevelt once proposed, Alaska – and not Israel – had become the homeland for the Jews after the Second World War? What if the homeland was on a sixty-year lease that is about to expire? Although I enjoyed this novel in the end, it took a while to pick up speed and I did struggle a bit with all the yiddish terms which Chabon so lavishly employs. Still, comments like ‘Even the most casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken’ amused me so much that I kept going. To be honest, I lost track of the plot a bit, but as with Raymond Chandler, the plot is not that important. Really it’s the exuberance of Chabon’s writing that is the charm of this novel. When Landsman’s gun is returned to him, he ‘weights it like a Shakespearean hero contemplating a skull.’ Open the book at practically any page and you’ll find some startling,yet somehow apt, metaphor or piece of description and it is often very funny.
A crime novel like no other.
This morning a book arrived in the post, another Michael Gilbert, Body of a Girl, which I ordered through Abebooks. Once I have read this, I think I’ll have read all of his. It was sent from Green Earth books, Auburn, Washington State, not very far from Seattle. Including postage, this cost me only £4.96, less than the price of a new paperback, and it’s a nice copy too. It took two weeks to get to me. I didn’t know anything about Auburn, so I looked up it up on Wikipedia and was delighted to discover that it had originally been called Slaughter, after a Lt William Slaughter, who had died in skirmish there in the 1850s and the main hotel had been called ‘The Slaughter House.’ A great place to set a crime novel! I wonder if anyone has? Later on it was renamed and the name was taken from the first line of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village. Present Day Auburn sound like a a pleasant place, with some original Craftsman’s houses, and I liked the sound of River’s Bend, described as ‘a small residential neighborhood nestled along the Green River.’ I imagine it raining rather a lot. I don’t suppose that I’ll ever visit Auburn, but I have enjoyed this brief exploration online.
On another subject entirely, readers sometimes ask me when my next novel will be coming out. It has been a while coming, but I’m very pleased to able to say that today I signed a contract with Accent Press, a lively independent publisher based in Wales. They’ll be bringing out my new novel next year.
I’m am admirer of Barbara Kingsolver’s work, and think The Poisonwood Bible is a masterpiece, so a copy of her most recent book, Flight Behaviour, was a welcome present last Christmas. I took it on holiday with me last week, and it got off to a good start. It begins with the main character, Dellarobia, on her way to meet a lover for the first time. She lives in rural Tennessee and got married at seventeen, because she was pregnant. She has two small children, an uneasy relationship with her farming in-laws, and her husband is decent, but dull. Her life is about to change – but in an unexpected way. She is saved from adultery and disgrace by what seems a miraculous vision of a valley on fire. It is actually millions and millions of orange monarch butterflies and this unprecedented event brings scientists and TV reporters flocking to her small town. There’s a lot to enjoy about this novel. Kingsolver is so good on the details of rural life – the sheep-sheering is beautifully described – and on small-town communities, supportive, but also stifling. She’s good on family life too, the way that small children are both wonderful and exhausting. And yet I put it down half-way through and have no desire to pick it up again. I will confess though that I did flick through to see how it ended.
So what went wrong? I see on Amazon that lots of people have loved it, though one or two, like me, have reservations. One thing, I think, is that the novel is seen from Dellarobia’s viewpoint and for me this didn’t always come off. Her thoughts and reactions didn’t always seem to be those of the poorly educated woman she was supposed to be – and there was a didactic element that wasn’t properly blended into the novel. A major theme of the novel is climate change, and though I am with Kingsolver on this, I felt it didn’t quite sit comfortably in the novel. But I could have overlooked these things, if only I had been gripped. But I never forgot that I was reading a novel. Maybe this is partly an occupational hazard in being a writer. I found I was noticing how she had contrived an event, or used a conversation to convey information. Somehow that forward tilt, that hook that pulls you into the novel and makes you forget about the world around you wasn’t there for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that I had so recently read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Almost anything might seem rather thin after that monumental and absorbing novel.