On Wednesday the train I caught from Sheffield to Oxford went through Solihull and I felt a deep sense of relief even after all these years that I didn’t have to get off the train and go to work there. It was a long time ago – so long that people were still allowed to smoke in offices – when, struggling to finish my MA thesis, I decided to take a civil service exam and get a proper job. Coming out of the exam I was aware that I had probably got full marks for the literacy paper and had barely scrapped a pass – if that – on the maths paper. So I still can’t quite understand how I ended up as an Executive Office (Higher Grade) in the Inland Revenue at the Solihull office. I am inclined to think it was a simple administrative error. I was fine on the training course, but when it came to doing the job . . . I had my own allocation of tax cases – you learned on the job under a supervisor. The nadir came when I was out at lunch one day and my supervisor took a call from an unfortunate man whose tax code I had altered. Instead of spreading the extra tax deduction over several months, I’d taken the whole lot out of his pay packet in one fell swoop – and it was a couple of weeks before Christmas, too. It wasn’t long after that that I handed in my notice. Altogether I was there just over four months, but really I had known pretty much from the start that it wasn’t for me.
What miserable months they were (though my boss and my colleagues couldn’t have been nicer). I was living with my boyfriend in Sutton Coldfield and every morning he would drive me into central Birmingham and drop me off at a station where I caught the train to work. It took every ounce of will power that I possessed to get off that train at Solihull, and not be carried on to Leamington Spa.
There was a bookshop near the station and that was where I bought the copies of Trollope’s Palliser novels that carried me through. I worked my way through the whole lot. One of the other novels that I remember from those days was Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. I was hungry for narrative and for richly textured worlds that I could escape into. I read in every possible spare moment.
I went back and finished my MA, then did a Ph.D and embarked on my career of museum work and university teaching and writing. I don’t often think of those days when I was a square peg in a round hole – but on the rare occasions that I go to Oxford and the sign saying ‘Solihull’ flashes past, what a wonderful feeling that it is. I say a silent thank you to Trollope for saving my sanity.
Time for another list! My good blogfriend, Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/and I are sharing our choice of eight books set in churches or cathedrals. I don’t claim that mine are the best books, but they are all books I’ve loved and read more than once.
My first would have to be Trollope’s Barsetshire novels: all six, beginning with The Warden (1855) and ending with The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire (1867). By the time you get to the end, you know all the characters so well: the flawed but loveable archdeacon, the gentle and unworldly Reverend Harding, the wonderfully insufferable Mrs Proudie. I love Trollope for his sympathetic understanding of human nature.
Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (1958). One of her very best, I think. The church is the Anglo-Catholic church, St Luke’s, in north London. It does play an important role in the novel, though this is really a sparkling comedy of errors rather than any sort of depiction of church life. It begins with Wilmet, the rather naive protagonist, hearing a phone ringing in the middle of a service (long before mobile phones)and ends with the induction of a new vicar at another church. It’s funny and touching. I especially like the jumble sale.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, The Humbler Creation (1959). I don’t think she is read much these days, and that’s a shame, because she was a very good writer. This also features a London church in the 1950s, but the tone is altogether more sombre, perhaps even a little Chekhovian. Maurice is the vicar of St Lawrence’s and is married to the idle and narcissistic Libby. With them live Libby’s ailing mother and Libby’s widowed sister Kate (who runs the household) and her two sons. Maurice is resigned to the situation until Alice Imber moves into the neighbourhood . . .
Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders (1946). Churches make very good settings for crime novels. They are closed communities, there’s the contrast between godliness and human frailty, and ideas about sin and judgement are ready to hand. Murder and mayhem of course follow the redoubtable Gervase Fen’s arrival at the clergy house of Tolnbridge Cathedral.Great stuff. I must read it again and soon.
Dorothy L Sawyers, The Nine Tailors (1934). A classic. Fenchurch St Paul is a magnificent East Anglian wool church. The delightful Reverend Venables is its vicar, his wife Agnes the power behind the throne. Lord Peter Wimsey fetches up there when his car runs into a ditch on a snowy New Year’s Eve. The church is almost a character in its own right and plays a part in a mysterious death in ways I won’t describe just in any case there is anyone who hasn’t read it.
Michael Gilbert, Close Quarters (1947) and The Black Seraphim (1983). I’m sneaking two crime novels in here, but with some excuse as these are set in the same cathedral close. Close Quarters is very much in the Golden Age mode. It even contains a map and a crossword puzzle. The setting is Melchester Cathedral, which also figures in The Black Seraphim thirty-six years later. Dark deeds in the cloisters: both are hugely enjoyable reads.
J. Meade Faulkner, The Nebuly Coat (1903). A young architect goes to the remote town of Cullerne to supervise restoration work on Cullerne Minster. There is a mystery surrounding the claim to the title of Lord Blandamer, whose coat of arms in the Minster’s great transept window is the nebula coat of the title. The story comes to a most tremendous climax. I’ve read this twice, the second time while staying in the cathedral close at Salisbury: a perfect combination of book and place.
J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980). It’s 1920 and a shell-shocked young man arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to uncover and restore a wall painting in the local church. A marvellous novella that I have already reviewed here: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/category/a-month-in-the-country/
So that’s it. I can’t wait to see what Moira has chosen – and here it is: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/. Do please add your own suggestions to our comments sections.