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.
This 1924 novel by F. M. Mayor was chosen by listeners to Radio 4 as a neglected classic in response to an appeal by OPEN BOOK and it is currently being serialized as A Book at Bed-Time. This got me thinking and I got my paperback copy – a Penguin Modern Classic – down from the shelf. It was a book that really spoke to me when I first read it in the 1980s (I see that I bought it in September, 1982 in Birmingham) and I re-read it several times. I think this was because I so much identified with the principle character even though she was different to me in so many ways. But in one respect I was like her. I was in my thirties, wasn’t married, didn’t have children and didn’t know if I ever would – or how much I’d mind if I didn’t. Maybe after my husband and children arrived and the question was settled, this wasn’t a book I needed to go back to. And it occurs to me to wonder how much having children changes you as a reader. I don’t just mean that you get to read some wonderful books that you didn’t read in your own childhood (CHARLOTTE’S WEB, for example), or that you have so much less time for reading (the rest of Proust will have to wait until my old age), but that certain books just don’t appeal to you anymore. This is the case with Iris Murdoch whose novels I used to devour and re-read frequently. Those books gave me so much pleasure and consolation. But now they are like friends that you don’t have much in common with any more. In Murdoch’s novels there aren’t many children and I don’t remember any babies. This is such a large part of life for so many people (including me) that I feel it as a lack in a novel of this sort (I don’t mind in crime fiction. With their love affairs, their violently oscillating emotions and their lack of responsibilites for others, so many of her characters seem to belong to a phase of life that I’ve left behind. Having said that, I do still like her early novel, UNDER THE NET, which I still find very amusing.
As for F. M. Mayor, I have a feeling, flicking through THE RECTOR’S DAUGHTER, that I’d still find plenty here to engage me. Perhap it’s time to revisit it.