Last week I went to the opening of Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy 1860-1960 at the National Portrait Gallery. I haven’t been to an opening in quite a while – I’m not really part of that world anymore – and it was fun. But more than that: it reminded me of why I love Morris so much. He has played an important role in my life. It was a break for me as a struggling young academic when I became curator of the William Morris Society in the late 1980s and led to my first book, a short illustrated biography of Morris. Later I edited a collection of his writings on art and design. After I’d moved on to a teaching job in Cambridge, I stayed on the committee of the Society, became vice-chair and then chair. Though I’m not actively involved now, I’m still a member and always will be.
Morris was a great designer, but if that was all, I wouldn’t admire him as much as I do. A lot of people grow more right-ring as they get older, Morris got more left-wing, and damaged his health working for the Socialist cause. He cared about every aspect of life and this lovely exhibition shows how far-reaching his influence was, right up to the Festival of Britain and beyond. There are textiles, jewellery, ceramics and clothing, books and more. Morris’s ideas about art and society and conservation are as pertinent as ever they were. I can whole-heartedly recommend this exhibition.
The design above is for Morris’s wallpaper, Trellis.
. . . than J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country? Earlier this week I took my friend Sue Hepworth (writer of excellent romcom novels) out for a birthday treat. We went to see an adaptation of A Month in the Country performed in the upstairs room of a local hotel by North Country Theatre. This magnificent little company performs a different play every autumn in village halls, arts centres and the odd theatre all over the north of England. It is run on a shoestring. Nobby Dimon is the artistic director, writing, adapting, acting and directing. On this occasion the small cast were fed and accommodated by one of my neighbours. Sue and I sat on the front row and lapped it up. It was so skilfully adapted, so well acted and there was something magical in being so close to the actors.
Afterwards I went home and reread the novella. In the summer of 1920 two men meet in the depths of the Yorkshire countryside. Tom Birkin is a shell-shocked survivor of WWI, who has come to uncover a medieval wall-painting in the church. Charles Moon, also a ex-soldier, traumatised in a different way, is engaged in an archeological dig in the neighbouring field. It’s a story then about the effects of war, but also about love, memory, community, religion, the power of art and of landscape and the changing seasons. It is a little bit Hardyesque, but it’s funny, too, and all in around 100 pages.
To be worth rereading a crime novel has to have a little extra something other than the plot. If the puzzle element is uppermost, then once is enough, unless of course you have managed to forget whodunit.
The plot twist was about all I remembered of The Ingenious Mr Stone by Robert Player, which I first read a very long time ago, but it turned out to be well worth revisiting. Moira over at ClothesinBooks.com brought it to my attention and commented on how few people have read what she felt was a crime classic. I agree.
It is dark, funny, and highly original. A large part of it is narrated by Miss Sophie Coppock, bursar of a dreadful second-rate girls’ school and a wonderfully Pooter-like figure, blissfully unaware of the effect she is having on other people. The novel was published in 1945, but there is something rather contemporary about the way the different viewpoints are handled, and perhaps above in all the character of the person who finally gets to the bottom of mystery, one of the most unlikely sleuths in crime fiction – and one of the least attractive.
Last week I was on a writing retreat at the Hirst, the wonderful newly renovated Arvon centre in Shropshire (my room was top left). I took a couple of hours off one afternoon to visit Ludlow. It is one of the loveliest small towns in the country with streets of exquisite Georgian houses, the sort of place that used to be stuffed with second-hand bookshops. And yet it doesn’t have a single one (though funnily enough there are two binders!). There are shops to gladden the hearts of foodies, loads of restaurants, posh clothes shops, even a pottery, but no second-hand bookshop. I am quite sure of this, because after some time wandering fruitlessly around I went into the Tourist Information office and asked. Only charity shops, I was told, and sometimes stalls on the market.
How can this be? Although I am all for raising money for charity I still think it’s sad that charity shops have taken over from second-hand bookshops. They are just not the same. They don’t have the same range of books, or the same smell of old paper, or knowledgable staff, or eccentric owners. They just don’t feel the same. I did go and look at the market and found mostly new, discounted books. I bought a jar of home-made marmalade for my husband and came sadly away.