It’s many years since my career took a surprising, not to say wrong, turn and I found myself catching the train from Birmingham to Solihull every day to my job in the Tax Office. This was in my early twenties and it was so long ago that smoking was still allowed in the office – though only just. I was training to be an Executive Office (Higher Grade). I had taken the civil service exam and, given that I had barely scraped a pass in ‘O’ Level Maths, it’s strange that I was sent to the Tax Office, especially as I had asked for Social Security. I am inclined to think that it was simply a mistake. I lasted four months before deciding that I had better return to academic life. It was a difficult time, and Trollope’s Palliser novels which I read on the train, at lunch-time, and at every spare moment, were a great consolation. I had a parallel life in the world he had created and I loved his authorial voice, so measured and humane. He was like a wise, older friend. Over the next few years, I read nearly all of his forty-seven novels (and have since re-read quite a few). I almost chose to work on Trollope for my PhD.
It’s 200 years since he was born and there was an item in the Guardian a few weeks ago in which various writers discussed their favourite Trollope novel. It set me thinking about mine. It’s not an easy choice. I love the Palliser novels with dear old Planty Pall and the flighty Lady Glencora, a marriage which somehow against all the odds does work. I much admire the stand-alone, The Way We Live Now, sharper, darker in its analysis of various kinds of corruption in both private and public life. I like The American Senator with its merciless dissection of the workings of the marriage market. For pure humour, there’s Barchester Towers and the oleaginous Mr Slope’s hapless courtship of Mrs Bold. Perhaps I could cheat and have all the Barchester novels bound into one volume, but failing that, I think I would have to go for The Last Chronicle of Barset, where lots of old friends appear and so many stories are wound up and Mrs Proudie meets her nemesis. That was the one I slipped into my case on my trip to China as insurance against my Kindle conking out. Trollope himself regarded as his best and who am I to disagree with the master?
Yesterday I went up to York for the day to meet my friend and web designer, Madeleine, for lunch. My train got in an hour before hers so I wandered around the shops, feeling nostalgic for the days when I met my mother there. Some of the places we used to go to don’t exist anymore: the lovely Blakehead bookshop and cafe on Michelgate where we used to have lunch has gone, and so has Droopy and Brown’s, where we chose my wedding dress. So I was especially pleased to see that a shop I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog, Burgin’s Perfumery, established in 1880, is still going strong. It sells every perfume you can think of (and only perfume): that and the discounted lines must be the secret of its longevity.
And also still there is the Minster Gate Book Shop, which was where I began to wonder if I was going to escape without adding to my book collection. They have a great collection of remaindered books in the basement and I was tempted by Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, her novel set in a convent in the 14th century. I read a couple of pages and was gripped, but reminded myself that I could get it out of the London Library, and the same was true of the biography of Sydney Smith that beckoned to me. And then I spotted The Way We Write: Interviews with Award-winning Writers, edited by Barbara Baker, reduced from over £40 to £4.95, and that was my downfall. I love reading about writers and thinking ‘oh, so you do that, too, do you?’ or conversely, ‘I couldn’t possibly write like that.’
And then after lunch I passed another second-hand bookshop and was drawn in. Nothing really spoke to me, but the place was so empty that I wanted to buy something out of solidarity. Luckily I spotted a World’s Classic edition of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage for £4. I’d noticed a few days ago that it was the only one of the Barchester novels that I hadn’t got, so I snapped it up. Luckily at that point I realised that I would have to hurry for my train, so I was saved from further tempation.
More news about my own books: Invisible is now out as a paperback, for those who prefer to read the good, old-fashioned way. It’s available here: http://amzn.to/RiFbPI or you could order it at your local book shop.
I don’t want to read Catcher in the Rye again – or Salinger’s short stories – though I was impressed by them when I was around twenty. Nor am I tempted to reread Wuthering Heights (though Jane Eyre is another matter). I won’t be returning to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, all cult novels when I was a teenager (taking the Peake trilogy down from the shelf I see that they were given to me for my 21st birthday – and I haven’t opened it for, ooh, I’d rather not say how many years). Are there novels that it is best to read when you’re young as I did with all these? And conversely are there novels that one should keep for middle-age or old age?
The Great Gatsby strikes me as a young person’s novel, yet I could happily reread that. And it’s the same with To Kill a Mocking Bird. In fact I didn’t read that until I was middle-aged and loved it, but I think the optimum age for reading it is probably mid teens. On the other hand Proust is surely a writer for later life. You need to have been through the mill a bit yourself really to appreciate Swann in Love.
There are some writers who have something new to offer as you return to them through life. Tolstoy is one. As a young woman I thrilled to Anna Karenina’s tragic love story, but it wasn’t until I reread it as a mother that I understood Anna’s anguish at being parted from her son. Jane Austen I can always go back to, though it’s more often Mansfield Park or Persuasion now, rather than Pride and Prejudice. Dickens was often pushed onto the young reader when I was young, but I think that was a mistake. You should be an adult to read him. Trollope with his generous sympathies and his understanding of human relationships is evergreen. And Middlemarch is the perfect novel for any age. We have chosen that for our book group’s annual big read and I am looking forward to.
Are there books that you loved when you were young, but couldn’t bear to reread? Is there anything that you are saving for old age?
It’s always hard to know which books to pack when space is at a premium. Recent holidays have been spent in Northern France so it has just been a matter of slinging a bag of books in the boot of the car. But this time we were going to China so there was a real danger that I might run out of reading matter if I didn’t plan carefully. My husband is easy to cater for: he is not a fast reader so my World’s Classics editon of Trollope’s THE PRIME MINISTER kept him happily occupied right through the fortnight, but I needed more than that, much more. In the end I decided to take mostly paperbacks – some new, some from the Oxfam shop – that I could discard as I read them so as to leave space for presents and souvenirs on the return journey. I took five crime novels, two of which I won’t name as, though readable, I wouldn’t recommend them, but the other three, all by authors I hadn’t read before, were crackers and I’ll be looking out for these writers again.
The first was DEAD OF WINTER by P. J. Parrish. There was something piquant about reading this book, set in a small lake-side community in the middle of winter in Michigan while we were sweltering in subtropical heat. I thought it was first-rate: good characters, nicely drawn setting, and intriguing mystery.
The next, R. J. Ellory’s THE ANNIVERSARY MAN, was in a category all its own. There sometimes comes a time for me on a trip like this, when I start to suffer from sensory overload, too many new sights, too much to take in, and I need to have some time out. When that point came I let my indefatigable husband and daughter head off on their own, while I ordered a bowl of noodles and wonton from room service and settled down with R. J. Ellory. This novel really was electifying – not perfect – but I don’t remember being so gripped by a crime writer new to me since I picked up someone’s discarded copy of Michael Connolly’s THE CONCRETE BLONDE in a hotel in Greece years ago.
The last novel, which I kept for the long flight from Shanghai to Helsinki, was Anne Zouroudi’s THE MESSENGER OF ATHENS, a complete contrast. This is the first in a series set in Greece and though at first I found it a little hard to get into by the end I was loving it. Full of atmosphere and wonderful characters, it’s beautifully written and offers pleasures of a quieter kind.
As well as crime novels, I also read Balsac’s EUGENIE GRANDET, the current choice of my book group, and re-read Willa Cather’s THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE. I timed it just about right, finishing my last paperback on the plane. As back-up I had World’s Classics editions of EMMA and THE LAST CHRONICLE OF BARSETSHIRE. After all, what we had been stranded by an ash cloud – or, as very nearly did happen, grounded by a typhoon?
And now here I am back in dank, dark, rainy Derbyshire with jetlag and a blocked up ear. Still, as Raymond Brigg’s Father Christmas says, I had a blooming good holiday and at least there is no danger of running out of things to read.