Sunday, November 28, 2010

It really is quite cold outside...

And to prove it good old radio 4 unearthed some Norwegians tonight who were happy to confirm all our suspicions and state that it is indeed chilly out. I’m inside and it’s chilly here too, I’ve been at the Scottish ones place in the country most the weekend sitting by his nice warm radiators drinking mulled wine and the idiosyncrasies of my central heating means that now I’m home I’ll have to wait for hours for the heaters to heat. I’ve washed up for the pleasure of having my hands in warm water, baked to heat the kitchen, and am even considering ironing something when I give over huddling around my laptop for warmth.

In fact it’s so cold indoors that I was forced to go shopping this afternoon (bread, milk, extra hot water bottle...) and suddenly I’m feeling like I might be winning against Christmas. Today’s purchases, a trip to Nottingham yesterday, and a whole lot of stuff turning up in the post and my mindset has moved from panic to the sort of pride in my organisational skills that normally comes before a fall. I do apologise if I seem Christmas obsessed, but I’ve not really thought of anything else for the last month, and for now can’t see much beyond the big day. It’s a feeling that wears off but if I don’t do the preparation now I won’t be ready (or able) to enjoy myself when I actually get to stop. I think on the whole this is just how I want it – retail at Christmas can be as exhilarating as it is exhausting, any lack of a leisured Victorian idyll of Christmas is more than made up for by being part of the madness of so many people’s real Christmases.

And now I’ve got that of my chest – today festive cheer is being bought to me via Michel Faber’s 'The Crimson Petal and the White' (and that extra hot water bottle) as you can see from the picture I’ve amassed quite a collection of these – unusually it’s a one book fits all affair. I loved ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ when I read it earlier this year, am quite excited about the upcoming adaptation, and think it’s the perfect present. Looking back I’ve read books over the last year which were probably better and which have certainly touched me more deeply, but none which has absorbed me so much or which I’ve been as keen to share.

A gripping story about a prostitute’s rise from the gutter (very festive) it’s an absolute page turner which should allow any grateful recipient to escape into Faber’s extremely believable version of Victorian London. There’s just a hint of salacious trashiness about it – enough at any rate to make it feel like a guilty pleasure (In the same way that ‘Peyton Place’ or ‘Valley of the Dolls’ are) but also, and like that pair, more than enough substance to justify the amount of time that needs to be spent reading it. Winter is the time for stories and the more epic the better so anybody out there who gets a copy of this is very lucky indeed!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Something Old, Something New

So far I’ve confined my online book buying activities to amazon. I’m not really a fan of internet shopping, believing very strongly that money (on the rare occasions I have it) should be spent in ways which promote choice and help people keep jobs... But back in the real world choice on the high street is already severely limited and when times are tight price matters.

Cutting a long story short I’ve discovered the book depository, now obviously I’ve heard of it before nevertheless I’m brand loyal so I’ve always stuck with amazon, but things have changed thanks to Canongate Classics. Canongate in partnership with creative Scotland and the The Book Depository have released just over 100 titles from their back list. They’re available as e books or print on demand (As an aside am I the only one who’s a bit hazy about what print on demand means? Quality, presentation, time before available – it doesn’t half vary.) And until March they’re only available from the Book Depository who have a special little shop for them.

Anyway I’m guessing there are plenty of books printed without much demand as all the titles I looked at were available for dispatch within 24 hours. I’ve looked out for Canongate Classics for years – they do a fine line in Scottish literature from the really quite old to the early 20th century and I’ve found some great books through the imprint (and notice in an incidental sort of way looking through this current list that they share a few titles and authors with Virago).

The end result is that as an early birthday present to myself I ordered some books which turned up promptly and cheaply – which is the sort of thing I like and just generally I’m really quite excited by them. I got ‘Highland Lady In Ireland’ (I have the highland lady diaries already, though shamefully unread, but these diaries cover two minor obsessions of mine – what could be more tempting?) Book number two is Annette Hope’s ‘A Caledonian Feast’ (the widely acknowledged definitive history of Scottish cuisine no less) it’s hovered on the edge of my wish list for a while and now seemed like a good time. I also got Duncan Williamson’s ‘The King of the Lamp’ which is a collection of Scottish travellers’ tales. It was a bit of an impulse purchase and is either going to be a great find or something I’ll wonder why I bought for ever more.

Having a good old browse through the Canongate list has also made me look out the unread classics I already have with a definite view to reading in the nearish future, which in way that probably only makes sense in my own mind makes me feel like I’ve got far more than three new books. This promises to be the highlight of the week – which means I’ve had far worse weeks and that I’ll be going to bed happy tonight.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christmas comes sooner than you think

The twinkly lights and irate shoppers are making Christmas hard to ignore and it’s time for me to face up to the fact that I’m even less organised than usual this year. Number of Christmas cards to send – 60ish, number of cards bought – 0, number of presents to give – not even calculated, number of presents already procured 2 ½ , number of days off left – 8, and it’s all complicated by quite a few birthdays (including mine – number of years I’ll be reaching to remain undisclosed).

It seems likely that I’ll be doing my bit for festive cheer via books and wine (again) and if I mean to order online it should happen before the post goes crazy – so probably by the end of the week, but goodness knows I’m finding it hard to raise any enthusiasm for the idea. My online excursions have resulted mostly in book orders for me (well I do have a birthday coming up) and very little in the way of hard present buying. In truth I want to spend my money on the high street where the cash is really needed but I’m struggling to find much that inspires in the book direction. Finding wine is a lot easier but feels a bit cheekier because it’s also work.

Presents (giving and receiving) are important to me – getting things, even things I’ve ordered for myself is hugely exciting, choosing things for people is even more thrilling but it takes time to do it properly. Hmmm time – this could get tricky... especially when budget requirements call for some imagination and creativity. Still despite feeling (and knowing that I look like) a limp dishrag, being busier than I’ve ever been in my life (this year is something else entirely), and getting a fresh coating of bruises and grime every day this is still by far and away my favourite time of the year. I think it’s a combination of thinking about the people I care about and being surrounded by sparkly things.

I’ve got a proper break coming up in January and can hardly wait; I’m already planning a stack of reading and even more baking. It should be good, now all I have to do is make those lists and source something fabulous for the blond, make mince pies, get some cards, tidy the flat, decide on a tree....

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blink and I miss the weekend

I’m feeling a bit fed up with the world in general this evening – having not finished work till 7 on Saturday night and having to be back for 8am on Monday morning I’m wondering what on earth happened to the idea of a weekend (it doesn’t help that I don’t get paid until the end of the week and am feeling the pinch). Today has gone by in a blur and I’ve still got so much to do, when I need to be at work keeps changing so I can’t make plans (sulking because a projected theatre trip on Tuesday is going to have to be ditched) and the Scottish one might as well be in Scotland for all the time I’m getting to spend with him.

Christmas – and in retail terms it’s full on Christmas now – is not the easiest time in my line of work, it gets very hard to carry on being nice to people day in day out. I’m frankly dreading the coming week when we’ll be shorthanded and there’s a lot (A LOT) to do – what I want to do is stay on bed and read ‘Dr Thorne’ for Decembers Trollope classics circuit because obviously that sounds a lot nicer than earning a living, but now it’s time to stop grumbling, grit my teeth, keep my mouth shut and get on with it. After all Christmas comes but once a year.

To cheer me up (or conceivably just to keep me quiet) the Scottish one took me to see the first part of ‘Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows’ this morning. I’m an unashamed Potter fan; I’ve loved the books and the films and will be just a little bit sad when the last film comes out and I know that’s the end of it all. I climbed on the Harry Potter bandwagon back in 1998 when I was working in a bookshop and everybody kept recommending ‘Philosophers Stone’. Eventually I gave in and read it, bought the second one 24 hours later and then had to wait a couple of months for book 3 to come out which was the first one that had a bit of an event attached to it. After that it became a bit of a tradition between me and an English teaching friend to get the books at midnight on the day of release and to go and see the films.

Say what you will about J.K Rowling (and I have only good things to say about her) the fuss and fun over those book releases created some really happy memories. Before it happened it would have been hard to credit that much excitement over a book release, it’s also hard to imagine it happening again anytime soon so I’m glad to have been part of it.

My Potter books are well read – they’re perfect for retiring under the duvet with when colds or flu strike and generally when I feel in need of something familiar, absorbing, and easy to read. (Anyone surprised now that I didn’t take to ‘Hawksmoor’?) The films are much the same – perfect Sunday viewing even given the increasing darkness of the story and this one was a cracker. I cried 3 times - when the owl died, when the elf died, and when Hermione makes her parents forget they have a daughter (an emotional episode of Home and Away will set me off though if that gives a guide to how susceptible I am to tears). The best thing about this film though – the mounting and believable tension all the way through, and that it makes a pretty good stab at showing how complicated life is even when you’re not being chased by a demonic wizard, oh and quite a nice bit of animation too. So really my weekend’s been okay.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd

This book came with a weight of expectation attached to it – one of the Penguin decades series, the Scottish one loves it, Will Self gave it a good write up, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years because of the architecture connection. On the other hand it is that bookish beast – something written by a contemporary man – that I tend to avoid.

Both the Scottish one and Will Self (care of the introduction, we’re not acquainted) told me that this was a dark and frightening book so what with the dark and scary weather and a train journey down to London to get through I thought what the hell now’s the time. I wasn’t scared which has disappointed me a bit, I was confused (but that’s hardly unusual) and I didn’t actually dislike the book in any way, but nor am I feeling any particular passion for it.

The confusion came with the plot which goes round and round in circles, the same things happening to different, or possibly the same people, at different, or possibly the same times. A notebook might have helped (okay would definitely have helped) because there are certainly things I’ve missed which might have been significant. Of course they might have been quite insignificant and just things that happen but that doesn’t feel like Ackroyd’s world.

The Hawksmoor of the title is a present day detective investigating a series of child murders. The bodies are turning up by churches – churches built in real history by Nicholas Hawksmoor, but in ‘Hawksmoor’ built by Nicholas Dyer (who’s living the real Hawksmoor’s life and who has a mysterious link with the modern Hawksmoor). Dyer’s system of architecture favours the arcane and shadowy; his buildings demand sacrifices – generally a child...

This felt like a very masculine book to me, not many women, lots of action, not so much introspection, and a lot of visceral detail. I was fascinated by the repetition and the way Ackroyd plays around with ideas of time and reality but for the most part I just didn’t click with this book. In the end I want a character I can empathise with even if I don’t particularly like them and in this case I couldn’t find that character in either Dyer or Hawksmoor. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a deficiency on my part and at the very least I should have been a bit more horrified by ‘Hawksmoor’, but to me it felt like little more than an academic exercise with more style than substance.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Desert of the Heart – Jane Rule

One question that came up on Saturday was “What books won’t you read” which is one I find hard to answer. The fairly flippant reply was “anything written by contemporary men” which is sort of true because I don’t read much contemporary fiction (by men or women), I suppose I should really have said I just won’t read anything that doesn’t appeal to me (I’ve been thinking about this a lot since) it’s not a very specific response but it’s accurate.

It’s something I’m still thinking about because as I come to write up my thoughts on this particular book I realise I have quite a collection of books about lesbian relationships. This is a theme that clearly appeals to me probably because of the way roles are worked out between protagonists who generally start from a point of unambiguous equality. (Or something like that.)

The back blurb for ‘Desert of the Heart’ reads thus
“Evelyn Hall, an English professor, is in Reno to obtain a divorce and put an end to her sixteen year marriage. During her six weeks’ stay at a boarding house, she meets Ann Childs, a free spirited casino worker and fifteen years her junior. Evelyn is about to be overwhelmed by more than just the staggering, spare beauty of the Nevada desert...”
Which is basically what happens, Sarah Waters says ‘A significant novel by any standards, and an undisputed lesbian classic’ but for me the big thing about this book is the way it talks about work.

Meanwhile the relationship element rings true to me, especially the intense conversations between Ann and Evelyn - they talk about philosophy and feelings in a way that feels clunky but at the same time realistic, however the way Rule talks about work, and Ann’s work particularly is something else entirely. Ann is a change apron in a casino. A job that seems to entail carrying a massive weight of cash around for hours at a time (my estimate is about 25kilos) whilst keeping a watchful eye on the gaming floor.

The thing with Ann is that she’s a clever and able young woman working in an apparently dead end job which she clearly gets both satisfaction and inspiration from. For the time being what she does provides her with a kind of family albeit a dysfunctional one, and a rhythm to her life that has nothing to do with earning money. Most of her friends including the work ones, disapprove of what Ann does but not Evelyn who has a ‘respectable’ profession so perhaps has a better idea of what a bear pit any job can lead you into, and who can see the skill that Ann needs in her work especially when it comes to handling people. What fascinated me were the details of how the apron is worn; that if you turn round to quickly the weight will swing out of control and is enough to knock you down, how tired Ann is at the end of a shift – tired enough to cry and to struggle to function, how break patterns work, and how she justifies her job both to herself and others.

Work and relationships are the two things we’re most likely to define ourselves by – to me Ann’s need to justify what she does suggests that she’s not the free spirit her sexuality suggests. She’s neither proud of nor indifferent to her job, and the job itself seems to be used as a challenge to convention where I might have expected her preference for women to be.

In fact the more I think about it the more I think this would be a great book group read; there’s a lot going on and a lot to talk about – my book about work and identity will be someone else’s love story, and another’s tragedy so in conclusion I can only agree with Sarah Waters and repeat ‘A significant novel by any standards...’

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tea, Cake, and a Great Day Out

First of all I feel honour bound (after having, though with considerable help from the Scottish one, eaten most of it) to share the details of Mondays very successful cake. It’s basically the chunky Fig Prune and Apricot cake from River Cottage Every day. It was baked on TV Thursday night and the link to the recipe is here. I used ordinary self raising flour and as I’m not overly fond of figs (which is why there’s been a packet at the back of the cupboard in need of use for a while now – I wish I could remember why I bought them in the first place) when I make the cake again, which will be soon, I think I’ll use dates instead. Prunes on the other hand are something I love to cook with and I’m very pleased to have another use for them because there always seems to be half a pack hanging around.

Anyway not for the first time, and most likely not the last, I’m singing the praises of a book from the River Cottage stable though I do think I need to break out and do more than bake cakes – there’s a venison stew that looks good...

Saturday was a day I’ve been looking forward to for a while – a planned day in London where I got to go not only to the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the RA but also meet up with some other book bloggers. We made the pilgrimage to The Persephone bookshop (one small purchase, which would have been very virtuous if it hadn’t been coupled to a few more extravagant acquisitions earlier in the day – all necessary I assure you) and then headed to the British Museum for afternoon tea which was extremely proper (cucumber sandwiches, scones, a choice of tea’s, and little cakes all on a stand – very pretty).

The catalyst for the occasion was a UK visit from the very charming Thomas of My Porch. He bought presents which was unbelievably exciting (as well as extremely generous); and had in fact chosen appropriate American books for everyone; I got Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening and Selected Stories’ which I’m delighted with. I’ve read ‘The Awakening’ before but none of the other stories, and have been looking out for more Chopin. Paperback Reader personally recommends one of the stories so all in all it comes with glowing testimonials.

This is the second time I’ve met up with like minded bloggers and it’s been great both times. Normally meeting new people socially is something I’m a poor hand at. For some reason I can never think of anything to say and so generally hang around feeling uncomfortable, fellow bloggers are an interesting mix of total strangers/people I feel I already know. Most of the conversation was about reading which didn’t leave much time for anything else but learning more about the people behind the screen was a pleasure – even the very real possibility of being trapped in a lift with these people wasn’t as awful to contemplate as I would normally fear (don’t use the British Museum lifts, they don’t behave well.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11th

Leicester’s war memorial is on the edge of a park just out of the town centre. It was designed By Lutyens who seems to have been the go to guy for war memorials and for 364 days of year it’s a fairly imposing archway sitting at the top of a slight rise with a nice–ish view over the city but on November 11th it has it’s moment. The moment is sunrise because our war memorial is solar aligned – sadly this doesn’t seem to be widely known (I’d hoped to find a picture to illustrate but can’t see any online and don’t have any myself because this is the third year in a row it’s rained). I’ve only managed to catch one sunrise but it was quite an experience and unless it’s actually blowing a gale and raining (today) it’s a good place to be at 7.22 am on a November morning.

At that time of day there’s hardly anyone around – a few dog walkers, people like me on their way to work and a few people on their way home – a good time for reflection and for wondering what it might have felt like at sunrise on November 11th 1918. How can a war end at 11am? How do you go on being at war for those last few hours knowing it’s for nothing very much anymore? Still there’s something hopeful about sunrise – new beginnings and all that, and it strikes me as such a fantastic touch to a memorial – a way of bringing stone to life and making it really demonstrate what all that sacrifice of life might have been for. It’s uplifting without being sentimental and I can heartily recommend it even if it does mean getting up ridicoulously early on cold dark mornings.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Domestic Bliss – Even if it’s for only ten minutes

Today was the day I wanted to start Christmas shopping...and then I looked at my bank balance. By the time the shock and despair lifted my afternoon off had all but disappeared, and by the time I’d had a restorative glass of wine courtesy of a kind wine shop keeping friend the afternoon and part of the evening was gone too. Getting home to a cold flat – it’s definitely time to put the heating on – wasn’t the most welcoming experience but now I have a nice cup of tea (in a beautiful mug) and a cake in the oven courtesy of things found at the back of the cupboard. It’s chunky spicy fruit cake from and if it turns out well I’ll let you know.

Thinking about things domestic, or at least thinking about the domestic things I like rather than the things I probably should be doing, has reminded me that I’ve got a book I should have written about an age ago. Patience Gray’s ‘The Centaur’s Kitchen’ from the incomparable Prospect Books has been my tea break book for a while now and I’m going to try and tell you how good it is. I knew of Patience Gray from the Persephone Books edition of ‘Plats du Jour’ (which I’ve got and should have a proper look at) but know very little about her. The introduction to this little book has made me want to seek out the rest of her work because she sounds fascinating. It seems she upped and left her life in Hampstead and North London, which included two children and a career in journalism, to run off to Carrara with the artist and sculptor Norman Mommens. I think it must be quite a story because the voice that comes across in ‘The Centaur’s Kitchen’ is an uncompromising no nonsense one and I want to reconcile the different impressions I’ve gathered of Patience Gray.

The Centaur’s Kitchen’ is one of the jobs she took on to make ends meet and fund an expedition to the Greek Cyclades. It’s a cooking manual that only appeared in typescript designed for the use of the Chinese chefs on board the Blue Funnel Line ship ‘Centaur’ as she plied her trade between Freemantle and Singapore. The theme is basically Mediterranean, the recipes are to serve 8, and forget Delia Smith this should have been the first cookbook I ever got because everything in it is useful and everything is explained. For example on butter:
I have made no extravagant recommendation for the use of butter, but would like to remind chefs that only unsalted butter should be used in sauté-ing or cooking fish in the oven. Salted butter inevitably burns in the pan. And nor do I think in any circumstances that margarine can be substituted in these recipes for butter.

These are the sort of instructions I like – explicit with no room for doubt. The kind of kitchen equipment to use is discussed, essential storeroom ingredients are covered, basic sauces and salad dressings essayed, and a full repertoire of recipes for five courses and side dishes are naturally included. All of this fits into 124 pages with room for illustrations. Amazing.

The recipes are (very) good, but for me the best thing about ‘The Centaur’s Kitchen’ are the instructions and the Why’s. Why to add dressing to warm potatoes when making salad and then cool them, why to use copper or enamelled cast iron pans, why it’s better to use coarse rather than refined salt, why salad should be dressed in the bowl... These are things I’ve picked up along the way but I can’t help thinking how useful it would have been to have understood them properly when I first learned to cook in the bad old days of assuming margarine and butter were interchangeable.

Oh and please do have a quick look at Prospect Books, they have a great offer on and the books are brilliant.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Sunday Road Trip

I’ve only had one day off this weekend (finished at 6pm on Saturday, start at 8am on Monday – so early to bed tonight to get up even before the crack of bloody dawn tomorrow) but one way or another it’s been a good one and what’s more has felt like proper time out. The Scottish one came and picked me (and quite a lot of wine – Christmas is coming...) up from work, took me out to the countryside and set me down with Fortnum and Mason's latest catalogue (unbelievably sumptuous, terrifyingly expensive) whilst he cooked. That man is a treasure.

Last night was clear and frosty – the first time I’ve seen stars in weeks - and all the way we drove back out from town to the countryside there were wreaths of smoke from fireworks accompanied by a wonderfully sweet autumnal aroma; quite romantic, and very nice to be indoors by the fire with wine (and Fortnum’s catalogue). Today was equally clear and sunny and far too nice to stay indoors, I could have tidied the garden but we got itchy feet and decided We Should Go Somewhere And Do Something. Given the beauty of the day with its opportunities for getting the last of the sloes for gin making, or a few late apples, or just a simple walk through all the fallen leaves admiring the colours of the landscape we decided we’d go to Stoke-on-Trent.

Whatever else Stoke has going for it, it really isn’t a pretty town, but again the drive up (yes I’m talking about the A50) was lovely with a fantastic sky full of sunlight and clouds (and Ratcliffe on Soar power station but we worked hard on ignoring that). Mum and I used to regularly visit the potteries where she gathered a formidable collection of china, and where we both developed a slight obsession with Emma Bridgewater... Poor Scottish one, no idea where he was being directed and probably no interest in trawling through shelves of mugs, but he dealt with it all manfully. I might have mentioned my love of overpriced, middle class mugs before – but what the hell – here’s another picture because they’re just so nice, and tea clearly tastes much better out of one of these than out of a lesser mug.

After Bridgewater we went to Burleigh Pottery – the really remarkable thing about today was the fact that we didn’t really get lost (just one very minor detour which hardly counts at all...) because all these places are tucked away down side streets behind housing estates, or empty bathroom shops and the like; it’s almost impossible to believe your anywhere near where you want to be. Burleigh was fun too, a big warehouse full of intensely coloured and decorated plates, bowls, jugs, and who knows what else, the overall effect is definitely overwhelming but leaves you in no doubt that there are treasures to be unearthed.

I had a great time and he didn’t complain, so I like to think we both enjoyed ourselves, and I actually feel like I’ve had a holiday which is a bonus because work is going to involve a mountain of stuff to move around tomorrow – anybody would think Christmas was coming.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Postman Bringeth...

And then generally returns with my parcels to the collecting office and I have to wait 48 hours for access - such is life. Be it a timely delivery via the agencies of the royal mail, my dodgy flat intercom, and a late start to work, or the delayed gratification of waiting for 2 days before trudging along to a small room tucked down a dodgy side alley near the train station (that’s where the collecting office is, it’s not just somewhere I go to hang out) I just love getting post.
Since letter writing has become an all but dead art my personal post has dwindled – I get very occasional postcards, equally occasional greetings cards and fairly frequent suggestions from the bank that I might want to plunge myself deeper into debt, and of course books. Books are easily as exciting as letters even if I’ve bought and arranged for their delivery myself – the element of surprise which comes with a letter is replaced by the element of relief when the desired item turns up.

Anyway my most recent postal goodies comprise the rest of the Barsetshire Chronicles and I’m feeling ridiculously pleased with them so thought I’d share a picture. I also got a shower hose from my dad. I wasn’t expecting it, am not entirely sure I need it, and when I put it together with last year’s spanner have to wonder what he’s trying to tell me...

Actually a quick inspection of the existing shower whatsit suggests that dad might have a point, although when I (try and) fit the new one I’ll clearly have to give the taps a good seeing to with some anti lime scale stuff - my bathroom is clean and welcoming honestly, or at least I thought it was but now I’m finding lots of jobs that need doing. I wonder how susceptible dad would be to the suggestion that on his next visit he does the bathroom tiles anew? He’s generally pretty good about these things never leaving home without his tool box, I don’t think he’s trying to turn me into a D.I.Yer though – he’s always (and with good reason) very dismissive of any attempts I make in that direction.

And now that the sound of fireworks has died back a bit - it’s Diwali as well as Guy Fawkes tonight (Leicester has the biggest Diwali celebrations outside of India, or at least that’s what all the publicity stuff says) and we have a lot of fireworks which due to rain and poor organisation on my part I can hear but haven’t seen. It honestly sounds like I imagine the Western front did in 1916 with the likelihood of constant barrages from nightfall to about 3am for the next few days, the smell of gunpowder is perfuming the air, and I’m likely to develop a nervous twitch if I walk home at night but I love all of it – this is absolutely my favourite time of year to be in this city.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Barchester Towers – Anthony Trollope

My Trollope obsession continues apace I’ve read ‘Barchester Towers’ and loved it all, the rest of the Barsetshire chronicles have arrived (I’ll worry about paying for this latest book splurge after Christmas...) and I’m frankly drooling over them, but also trying to exercise a little bit of restraint. If I go full steam ahead I’ll get distracted by something else new and shiny and it’ll take me years to finish the series, that or I’ll end up talking like a Victorian and wearing very long skirts.

The thing I loved about ‘Barchester Towers’ is that nothing very much happens, but it doesn’t happen in the most absorbing way. Things change, feathers are ruffled, and situations are resolved until everything ends more or less happily for everyone. It’s just what I needed over the last week with work being so hectic and it’s a book that I’ve found hard to leave behind. I think ‘Barchester Towers’ would stand alone as a read, but clearly reading the series in order is the way to go because the action follows hard on the heels of ‘The Warden’ (just in case I’m not the last person to the Trollope party and there’s someone reading this who feels in need of such advice).

Mr Harding, his daughter Eleanor, Archdeacon and Mrs Grantly – they all make reappearances, Eleanor has become a widow (this isn’t a spoiler – at least I don’t think it’s a spoiler if the back cover blurb gives it away) and the old Bishop is breathing his last as the book opens. The new Bishop is a Low Church man in the High (and dry) cathedral close, worse than that the diocese now contains 4 protagonists who would be Bishop, the least of which is the actual Bishop. Archdeacon Grantly who was very much the power behind the throne when his father ruled the diocese hopes for the best, but in the Bishop’s wife Mrs Proudie, and his private chaplain – the abominable Mr Slope - he has more than worthy adversaries. Pity the Bishop who has such housemates as these.

Meanwhile Eleanor is now a highly desirable widow, with not the least of her charms being the handsome income she inherited from her husband. It seems she’s destined to be pursued for her money by various suitors including the oily Mr Slope, but will she find a knight in shining armour to protect her? And if she doesn’t will her family accept Mr Slope – not likely if the Archdeacon is to be believed, in his eyes Mr Slope might as well be the devil.

The book is around 500 pages long so I’ve only just scratched the surface of what does (and doesn’t) happen. There’s speculation and rumour, misunderstanding, intrigue, deceit, ambition, power struggles, and high ideals as well as Trollope’s particular brand of gentle humour and keen observation of character and situation. It’s this that I love about him, someone suggested that he was like a male Austen, and whilst I would agree that they have something in common Austen is faster paced and far more romantic. Trollope seems more interested in moral dilemmas, even the unspeakable Mr Slope has redeeming features of sorts, and Mrs Proudie who’s a terrific villain in the making isn’t exactly bad to the bone – which makes her all the more easy to believe in, and all the harder to defeat.

I know I’ll read this book again and probably enjoy it more each time precisely because not so very much happens apart from people going about their lives. I can’t think of anything better to have with me for a long journey than ‘Barchester Towers’ (or hopefully other as yet unread Trollope’s) and with any luck I’ll find more passages like this: “
The baby was really delightful; he took his food with a will, struck out his toes merrily whenever his legs were uncovered, and did not have fits. These are supposed to be the strongest points of baby perfection, and in all these our baby excelled.”

It might not look like much out of context, but it makes me smile and that's just what I'm looking for from a book at the moment.