Terms and Conditions

December 7, 2016

Or should I say term and conditions…

40 weeks came and went on Sunday – and the baby is now officially overdue. I think I would be feeling more relaxed about this had the past few weeks not been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Firstly, this whole waiting around thing is new for me. Vita was a week early, which took us by surprise and also meant that I was expecting this one to be early too. It’s odd how vague ‘feelings about’ things can soon cement themselves into indelible fact in one’s head. After Vita’s lovely birth, thanks to hypnobirthing, we are doing the same thing again (although this time we’re hoping for the added plus of a home birth). When the hypnobirthing lady came over a few months’ ago for a refresher evening, she, somewhat mystically, asked me when the full moon was nearest the due date. Babies have a habit of coming around the full moon, she said. I raised an eyebrow. It’s because, she said, there’s so much energy around then. The husband’s eyebrow remained raised. The labour wards are always busiest around the full moon anyway, she said, noting the eyebrows and then changing tack. Of course, then I had to look up the lunar situation, and discovered that the full moon was two weeks’ before the due date. Right, I decided, that’s when the baby will come. I stopped even thinking of the due date being 4th December, and instead it was fixed to arrive on the 14th November.

The weekend came and went, and on the following Monday I went for a routine appointment with the midwife. I think I might be having a few mild contractions, I said. Probably just Braxton Hicks, but they have been going on most of the morning. I stopped myself from saying anything about the full moon. She prodded my tummy. Humm, she said. Either the baby has got extremely low down in your pelvis and labour’s about to kick in, or it might have turned sideways. Would you mind popping down to the hospital for a scan, um, now? Nothing serious? I asked. Oh no, I’m sure it’s fine. Should I bring my hospital bag? Oh no, don’t worry, it’s just to check the position’s right.

I called the husband on the way to the tube. Just popping in for a scan. It could all be about to happen, they just want to check the position’s ok. What shall I do about the builders? he asked. I should say here that we have been getting cupboards put into our bedroom (so that when I spend most of the forthcoming nights in the bedroom, not asleep, it will be a nicer environment), and the building work ended up dragging on and on… None of us wanted them to be around during the home birth – least of all the builders, who looked increasingly pale every time they saw me. I don’t know, I said, you’re the architect.

At the hospital, the scan was done straight away. Thanks, I said – it’s amazing of you to squeeze me in like this. The doctor was unsmiling and had tattoos all up her arm. On went the cold jelly and up came the picture of the little one. The baby is transverse, she said. You are now a high-risk pregnancy. You cannot leave the hospital. If your waters break, the cord could be prolapse and you wouldn’t get here in time to save the baby. You must stay in the hospital until Sunday, when you will be 39 weeks, and then we will give you an emergency C-section. This was on Monday afternoon.

It was not a good moment. And the next few days weren’t good either. The first night was spent in the waiting room, as there was no space on the ward. (Presumably because of the full moon.) The antenatal ward, once I got there, is not a fun place to spend time. Aside from the fact that you are confined to a windowless purple-curtained cubicle, all day and night you listen to people doing one of the following things: arguing with their partner loudly; snoring loudly; watching telly loudly; or, worst of all, going into labour extremely loudly. Try to enjoy the rest, the husband said, as I grumbled tearfully on the phone to him after the second night of listening to labour screams going on from 3 to 8 a.m. He was running around manically trying to deal with his work, the builders (who had been dismissed then re-summoned), the washing machine, and ferrying Vita about.

Anyway, in the end, the clever baby managed to turn back into the right position all by itself. The doctors’ plan changed daily, as the baby slowly wriggled itself around, and by Friday I was released, and told we were back on for the home birth. No C-section, no induction, no turning by the midwife, no forced breaking of the waters, but back to the sanctuary of our living room and plan A. HOORAY!

Which brings me, at last, to books. For this was ten days ago, and – when not looking after Vita – I have been doing rather a lot of sitting around waiting, trying not to think about the baby not being here yet. The real worry is that if it is too late, I will have to be induced, and then I will have to go back to the wretched antenatal ward. And also, weirdly, the contractions have a habit of suddenly ramping up and then disappearing again, so that last week, early in the morning, the midwives arrived, the birth pool was semi-inflated, and Vita’s granny summoned to collect her, only for everything to return to ‘normal’ a couple of hours later.

So I have been in need of a good book: one that’s easy for my extremely distracted brain to dip into, and that will hold my attention. Having also finished all my work, this was to be the first book I would be reading entirely for pleasure for quite some time.

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And so I came to pick up the beautiful object that is the latest hardback published by Slightly Foxed: Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I know and love Ysenda’s writing from her Spectator columns and also from her very wonderful book The Real Mrs Miniver, which I wrote about here.

Her new book is all about girls’ boarding schools, from 1939 to 1979. Weirdly, I think this might be all the more interesting for readers who, like me, didn’t go to boarding school, for it is an astonishing anthropological study of a certain species, evident now as a grown woman who:

sleeps with the window wide open; feels homesick on Sunday evenings even though she is now at home; never touches cauliflower cheese; keeps an old address book in which most of the addresses have been there for so long that they don’t have postcodes; knows the Matins Collects by heart; fears unpopularity even among fully grown women in middle age; and still associates Friday with the smell of fish.

While of course there are moments of empathy, reading the book is more of a case of fascination with all the differences – there really was a time when girls woke up to find their hot water bottles had become blocks of ice, when they rebelliously – ravenously – tried to heat cans of baked beans over a candle flame in the dead of night, when they could choose between ‘cricket in the nets or dusting’ for their morning activity, and career prospects were known as ‘jobs’ in inverted commas because they were regarded as trivial, optional, and primarily a means to get a husband.

Ysenda has interviewed dozens of women about their boarding school experiences, and renders their stories largely verbatim, giving the book a documentary edge which makes it stranger than fiction. Listening to the stories in the words of these women makes you feel like you are there with Ysenda, having a cup of tea with them in their lovely kitchens, and hearing these treasure troves of memories which are solid gold to anyone with a curious bone in their bodies.

For instance, Maggie Fergusson recalls the snobbery of Mother Bridget, the headmistress of St Mary’s Ascot from 1956 to 1976. Ysenda reports that:

Mother Bridget … kicked off the first Latin lesson of the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: ‘Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.’ ‘Quite a few hands did go up,’ remembers Maggie Fergusson, ‘and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin … When my eldest sister Kitty came to look round,’ Maggie said, ‘it was pretty clear that Mother Bridget didn’t think much of us as we actually lived in Ascot, which wasn’t really good enough. She was saying to my mother, “Well, I can’t promise that we have a place for your daughter …” when one of the mothers with a big country house came into the school and flung her arms round my mother, as they were cousins. That changed everything. Mother Bridget said she would take Kitty after all.’

I found myself entranced and gripped by the book, in spite of the fact that there is neither plot nor main character. Gosh it’s such a weird world, I kept on thinking, as the pages seemed to turn themselves. Ysenda is extremely clever at finding the crucially revealing detail time and again, laying it out with such grace and skill, and then – rather then telling us what to think – just letting it speak for itself.

For instance, in her chapter about ‘pashes’, Ysenda notes how romantic girls used to be:

‘Oh, yes, pashes,’ Sal’s sister Georgina Hammick said to me when I reminded her of those long-forgotten schoolgirl adorations. ‘I do remember. You wrote poems to their eyebrows.’

She doesn’t need to point out how far a cry from today’s schoolgirl sexting this is.

The past has rarely felt like such a different country as it does in this book – mostly because the attitude to girls’ education has changed so much. The happiest school seems to be Hanford because girls could bring their ponies and there were such things as ‘galloping matrons’ who took them riding. ‘The entry of all examinations is purely optional’, states one prospectus, as a positive. In fact, a complete lack of academic ambition or concern is shown to be the rule everywhere except for Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which gets its own chapter. This results in endless funny moments: ‘Miss Fleming taught History and didn’t know any,’ said Amanda Vesey. Or, when Ysenda asked a group of Old Girls from Hatherop Castle if there’d been a lab in those days, she receives nothing but a blank look:

‘A laboratory?’ I expanded … ‘Oh that kind of lab!’ one of them said. ‘I thought you meant a Labrador.’

Smiles, laughs, gasps, frowns … My face has been well and truly exercised by the observations and recollections woven together in this extraordinary book. (Perhaps a good warm up for the labour to come.) It has been a lifesaver for this weird hanging around time, and I highly recommend it as something to occupy oneself during the similarly weird Christmas period which fast approaches. The only thing is, I’m not sure if someone who did actually go to boarding school during this time would find it a pleasant trip down memory lane, or an unwelcome return to a banished nightmarish world. Are any of you boarding school Old Girls? If so, please will you read it and tell me what you think? Finally, it goes without saying that any other tips for distracting myself over the coming ten days from the looming threat of induction and return to the antenatal ward would also be most welcome.

A pre-baby update

November 10, 2016

It has been a particularly long silence since my last post in July. JULY! It is hard even to think back to then – to warm sunshine and long evenings, and all the leaves being green.

‘The pram in the hall’ has long been to blame for women finding it so hard to find time to write. This has to be less of an excuse for me, now the pram is very much a pushchair and Vita is two (unbelievably) and we have a considerable amount of childcare. I wasn’t, however, prepared to find being pregnant again such a struggle. Due to some wonderful combination of luck, naivete, and spending a heavenly couple of months in Italy when Vita was ripening in my tummy, being pregnant first time round was pretty straightforward. Yes, there were a few aches and grumbles and moments of exhaustion, but there was always the chance to rest, and life seemed to go on pretty much as normal.

Not so this time round.

I suppose, once you come to think about it, it makes sense. Leaving aside the exhaustion of looking after a two-year-old (and childcare, wonderful though it is, doesn’t cover all the extra things like laundry and cleaning and nightmares and illnesses and sicking things up and throwing breakfast all over the room and refusing to nap and ripping off nappies …), there’s also the fact that I’m a couple of years older, and those couple of years have been relatively sleepless and physically draining. But I thought it would be like last time. So it has been shocking to watch my life, which had found a very happy new balance, turn, well if not quite upside down, then certainly sideways.

black-rainbowHave any of you read Black Rainbow by Rachel Kelly? It’s her memoir of suffering from post-natal depression, which she experienced soon after her second son was born. Rachel Kelly was a high-powered journalist at The Times, but soon spiralled into the depths of a terrible, utterly debilitating depression from which she was, somewhat miraculously, rescued by reading poetry.

Reading her book not only made me wish I had more patience and skill with poetry, but also made me think how dangerous it can be to try to do too much. Women today are lucky to be able to have careers and children. We all know that, for sure. We are less lucky, however, in that trying to do both – and trying to do them both well – can all-too-easily push us towards a nervous breakdown.

For me, what was already a bit of a juggle, with pregnancy thrown in too, became impossible. Things began to spiral, but luckily before the bad moments loomed too large, the husband succeeded in bossing me about into a much better place. This has meant that I’ve had to let some things slide. Social engagements have all been cut. Cooking has been swapped for Deliveroo. Writing the novel has been temporarily shelved. Work in the bookshop ended rather earlier this time round. And, alas, this blog has also been put to one side. Please forgive me?

Thank god, I have still been managing to read and to write. I hope you might have seen some of my bits of journalism? I always try to update the sections on the Emilybooks homepage with links, but in case you missed them, here are a few of the pieces of which I’m most proud. I would, of course, love to know your thoughts on any of them.

THIS piece in the Spectator about a mobile library for homeless people. I am especially interested in using books as a way in to challenging situations – if we can talk to one another about what we’re reading, then we can soon talk about so much more. I suppose I’d like to think of this piece as the third in a ‘series’ of sorts, coming after this piece for the Guardian about reading in prisons, and this for the Spectator about reading in the Calais migrant camp. I hope there will be more pieces to come.

waking-lionsTHIS interview for lovely website Five Books with author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen about contemporary Israeli fiction. She was brilliant at talking about how novels were so tied to politics, while remaining remarkably positive and inspiring. I really enjoyed, by the way, her novel Waking Lions.

While I’ve not been reviewing on here so much, I have been reviewing elsewhere, which has been wonderful. I was thrilled that both these books I reviewed for the Spectator went on to make the Man Booker shortlist – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. I’ve also been doing some paperback reviews for the Guardian Review. I should say that this is my absolutely favourite bit of newspaper, and so to be amongst its rustling pages has brought me an amount of pleasure wildly disproportionate to the modest length of my reviews. There should be a couple more coming out in the coming weeks, but here is my review of the especially brilliant novel Last Things by Jenny Offill. It’s also been really fun reviewing for Country Life magazine. Again, there are some more in the pipeline, but here is my review for them of the new Elizabeth Jane Howard biography by Artemis Cooper.

giving-up-the-ghostMeanwhile, Emily’s Walking Book Club has been thriving. Our last meeting of 2016 was last Sunday, when we discussed Hilary Mantel’s weird and really wonderful memoir Giving up the Ghost. We talked a great deal about ghosts, and childhood, and memories, and illness. We all loved Hilary Mantel’s amazing prose style – how clever she is to keep us so gripped, while inspiring daydreams and recollections of our own childhoods too. We were still in full flow as we came to the end of the walk, and I almost wished we could have set off for another loop of the Heath (though I think that might also have nudged the baby out…). It’s a knotty book that doesn’t offer a neat resolution or easy distillation of truth. You don’t get that ‘aha’ moment, where everything  neatly slots into place. As Mantel writes about her blotchy school essays, held together with bits of her mother’s embroidery silk:

Truth isn’t pretty, I thought, and the pursuit of it doesn’t make pretty people. Truth isn’t elegant; that’s just mathematicians’ sentimentality. Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts, in the cellars and sewers of the human mind.

It’s a book full of truths, and therefore a messy one that inspired a great deal of discussion.

Other recent meetings have been to discuss Barbara Pym’s poignant but witty novel about getting old, Quartet in Autumn, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which everyone seemed to love revisiting just as much as I did. Getting out into the fresh air – especially when feeling so huge and cumbersome, being surrounded by friendly faces, and discussing such excellent books has been a real lifeline. I shall miss it over the coming months, while I have a break for the new baby, and am looking forward to taking it up again in the new year. There will definitely be a meeting in March, and perhaps even February – we shall just have to see how the new balance works out, once the baby arrives.

And I think the same ought be said for Emilybooks. While I would love to imagine finding the time to write about the many books I hope to read while feeding the new baby, who knows how it will all work out? It’s more likely that the baby will be latched to one breast while I am trying to control Vita, who’ll be marauding around the living room throwing her toys at us, or else my eyes will be too glazed from sleeplessness to be able to focus on print. I remain optimistic, but I must ask you to remain patient, and forgiving, while I navigate through such an uncertain, but ultimately very exciting, time.

 

My Grandmothers and I

July 27, 2016

It strikes me as a surprisingly common, though little remarked upon, fact that one’s grandparents form two very different pairs.

I suppose this seems especially pronounced if I think of my daughter Vita’s grandparents – one side Jewish and the other side descended from the Fascist Oswald Mosley. I can see it too with my own grandparents – one grandmother fled Vienna as a child in the 1930s, whereas the other came to London from a family long-established in Plymouth. It seems astonishing that time and again two people can come together from such different backgrounds, thus giving their progeny two very diverse sets of grandparents. A walking book club member informs me this is due to the psychological inevitability of shunning one’s own background and seeking its opposite in one’s partner. I would be intrigued to see if you too, dear reader, have noticed this phenomenon.

My grandmothers and IDiana Holman-Hunt wrote brilliantly about her childhood in which she was parcelled between her grandparents in her very charming memoir My Grandmothers and I, beautifully published as a neat little paperback by Slightly Foxed. There is a stark contrast between life in the Freemans’ well-staffed comfortable country house, and the Bohemian squalor of the Kensington abode of ‘Grand’ – the extremely eccentric widow of the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman-Hunt.

Diana’s life with Grandmother Freeman seems relatively happy, if lonely. For friends, she has to turn to the servants, and ‘Cherub’ – the statue on the fountain – with whom she imagines flying across the gardens. When the servants club together and give her a teddy bear for her birthday, ordered especially from Selfridges, Diana’s affection for it is transformed from sweet to moving when we realise it’s not just because she has no real friends to play with but because her other presents are so inappropriate: her father, who is away in India, sends her a leopard skin, and her grandparents give her a string of pearls, whose beauty and value will turn out to be of help in years’ to come, but are far too sophisticated for a little girl to appreciate.

Life at the Freemans has certain quirky downsides – such as the torturous brace which Diana must wear to improve her posture, and the list of daily tasks which is pinned to her curtain every morning. We are also treated to Diana’s glimpses of the more adult world in which she inhabits – the butler is always drunk after lunch, and one of the maids gets pregnant. There is the added humour of the clash of her childish perspective and our adult understanding, such as when she writes about her uncle’s friends, the ‘jolies laides’ – she discusses them with the servant Fowler, who remarks, you can hardly ‘call her jolly and I doubt if she’s a lady’. The real sadness here, however, lies in Diana’s early understanding of the fact that she will only be appreciated if she is sufficiently entertaining, being urged to ‘utter’ and regale her grandparents with stories, or else be banished from their company.

When she’s sent off to stay with Grand, however, we realise how lucky Diana’s been. Though she immediately flings her terrible brace into the fire, she has entered a world where breakfast is usually a rotten egg, and where she has to sleep curled up on a tiny scratchy sofa – examples of Grand’s despising ‘Brother Ass’, the body, in favour of nourishing the mind.

Grand’s eccentricities are extraordinary. For instance, before bed, the maid lays out a complex trap of trip wires and bells, to catch any thieves after all the great works of art, and, Grand adds, to stop them being murdered in their beds. Terrified, Diana asks, then what?

‘You will spring out of bed and twirl this large wooden rattle, round and round, out of the window, and I will blow several short sharp blasts on that whistle tied to the end of my bed.’

Grand is horribly stingy, and Diana relates the horror of having tea at the Tate:

I always felt embarrassed with Grand asked the waitress for two cups and saucers and a jug of boiling water.

Grand would then produce her own bag of tea leaves and envelope of powdered milk. But her generosity to pavement artists is even more embarrassing:

If she spotted one, she would never pass him by, but would retire discreetly to a doorway, or press against the railings with her back turned to the passers-by. Then, to my confusion, she would lift her skirts to find the chammy-leather pouch of money which she wore concealed, suspended from her waist. Flushed with effort, she would at last approach the artist and hand him a piece of silver, saying ‘If you are ever desperate and need to earn a shilling, you can come and sweep the leaves out of my area and scrub my front door steps. My cook will give you a cup of soup. You need never starve, I am your friend.’

In showing her grandmothers’ many oddnesses, Diana Holman-Hunt is so good at capturing their exact manners and cadences of speech that this memoir of what must have been a very difficult childhood is transformed into a comic masterpiece. Moments of poignancy remain, however, such as when Diana’s train pulls into London and she sees a man standing beside her Grand, waiting to meet her:

‘That must be my Papa!’ I said, jumping up and down.

The train guard dispels her excitement by revealing it is in fact the Station Master.

As the book progresses, and Diana grows up, the balance in tone shifts. The funny, mad and charming portrait – albeit with glimpses of terrible sadness and loneliness – is abandoned as Diana begins to see the growing desperation of her situation. There is a garish flash of an episode where her father visits, rescues her from school and takes her out on the town. She has nothing to wear but her confirmation dress. Next, we see Diana on her return from a year in Germany; her father – seemingly bankrupt – was unable to pay the Baronin with whom she stayed and sent her a note advising her to return to Grand and get a job. Grand, meanwhile, has lost her mind. Diana, ever resourceful, sells her pearls, sleeps on the cold attic floor, and attends secretarial school, with scarcely enough money to eat. As no one has paid for her to be presented and ‘come out’, she is shunned by her other relations, and it becomes clear there is no one who can look after her and she has no means of survival. Salvation comes eventually when Grandfather Freeman writes to tell her she must come and stay with him (Grandmother Freeman has died). When she returns to their Sussex home, Diana gets drunk and falls into bed.

This drunkenness seems to me to be such a sad, bleak ending. It is as though Diana longs to return to the naivete of that childhood world of imagination and innocence, playing with Cherub and the servants, but now – as an adult, with her place in the world shown to be so precarious – the only way she can return to this state of oblivion is getting blind drunk. Not that the ending detracts from the book, rather it saves it from being all charming nostalgia and eccentricity, tempering it with the bitter note of tough adult reality. Those who want to know what happened next might find this obituary in the Independent enlightening (and reassuring).

Emily’s Walking Book Club greatly enjoyed My Grandmothers and I. One walker said they would have loved to listen to it on the radio, read by someone like Maggie Smith, which we all think would be brilliant. So, does anyone know a radio producer who might be intrigued? If so, please please send them a copy.

Diana Holman Hunt

Here she is, looking extremely glam.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

June 27, 2016

The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieI have an extremely clear memory of reading this book, one school summer holiday, sitting on a train and looking out of the window as we passed through Dawlish in Devon, where the train tracks seem almost to run over the sea itself. I remember enjoying the book, feeling a kindred spirit with the six schoolgirls of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’, all madly obsessed with finding out about sex, and under the spell of their teacher, Jean Brodie, who is forever telling them that she is in her prime.

Reading it again, in my thirties, it is a completely different book, and even better than I remembered.

This time round there seems to be a horrible poignancy to Spark’s portrayal of the schoolgirls. The narrative is extremely sophisticated, moving about in time (but she does this easily, not joltingly) so that we get little flashes of what will happen to the girls when they grow up. Mary’s innocent vagueness and clumsiness, we soon learn, will one day get her killed in a hotel fire:

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. She ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils. ‘Who has spilled ink on the floor – was it you, Mary?’

‘I don’t know, Miss Brodie.’

‘I dare say it was you. I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl. And if you can’t take an interest in what I am saying, please try to look as if you do.’

These were the days that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest days of her life.

The year is 1936; Miss Brodie tells us: ‘The age of chivalry is dead’. Chivalry is dead, and so are all the young men killed by the First World War, including Miss Brodie’s fiancé. And, of course we know that many more will die in the Second World War, which isn’t far off. But Spark shows us this little glinting corner of life – the six girls of Miss Brodie’s set, at this moment of their unconventional education, before their innocence is extinguished, and in the case of poor Mary Macgregor, her life too.

And yet what exactly does Miss Brodie, in her prime, achieve with her girls?

In her lessons, Miss Brodie tells the girls to hold up their school books, ‘in case of intruders’ before regaling them with stories about her lovers and her holidays, which are usually in Italy:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

I read this last week, pre-Brexit, and kept on trying to reassure myself that good old Miss Jean Brodie would have voted Remain, as she is forever proudly telling her girls that they are Europeans. But whatever comfort this provided was rather undermined as Miss Brodie is also a great admirer of Mussolini, telling her girls that he:

put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets.

Miss Brodie is perenially at odds with the rest of the school, claiming that this is due to her differing ideas about education, which she sees as nurturing individuals rather than forging clone-like teams – though in fact the school’s disapproval of her is largely due to her inappropriate sexual liaisons. Moreover, it becomes clear that in actual fact Miss Brodie is just trying to create clones of herself in her ‘crème de la crème’. She succeeds to some extent, when the art teacher, after kissing her, paints portraits of her girls – all of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Miss Brodie.

There is a lovely review of the book on Book Snob’s blog (here), in which she questions why Miss Brodie is so driven to make the girls in her image:

I do think there is something more than just a criticism of Fascism in Miss Brodie’s methods of creating clones of herself; I think Spark was also creating the idea of Miss Brodie wanting to build a legacy, leaving a part of her personality and world view behind through the children she taught. They became the offspring she never had the opportunity to have. It is, after all, rather symbolic that Miss Brodie dies of a ‘growth inside her’ – but not a child; instead, a malignant cancer, destroying her from the inside.

It’s a nice point and makes the book all the sadder. For this is the clever, weird, slippery thing about this brilliant slim book: I read it and found myself laughing and laughing all the way through – at the brilliant observations, the sharp turn of phrase, Spark’s ingenious wit and skilful brevity – but all the while, it also made me extremely sad.

Miss Brodie, for all the force of being in her prime, achieves very little. Her girls go off in the directions they would have taken anyway, and the one she thinks is the most loyal is the one who eventually betrays her. Her love affairs are unsatisfactory and she remains essentially alone, and all the more so for being so misguided in her fervent political beliefs.

I suppose Spark is asking: what can a woman in her prime do? And when is a woman in her prime? What about poor Mary Macgregor and her all-too-brief life, did she ever reach her prime? It’s a question which is ever relevant – as we battle our way through the exhausting minefield of balancing children and careers, surely we’re thinking: here we are, in our prime, and what on earth are we actually achieving? (Please tell me it’s not just me who is always worrying about this!)

Anyway, thank God, Miss Brodie did achieve something in her prime. Even if it wasn’t especially tangible, she made an unforgettable impression on her students – and on her readers. Sandy speaks for everyone when, in later life, she is asked about her main influence. She says, in the closing sentence of the book:

There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.

How I hope that in however many years’ time we won’t be doomed to looking back on the main influence on our lives and reflect, ‘There was a Mr David Cameron, in his prime… ‘ I suppose we just have to hope that the future holds something brighter than that faced by Miss Brodie’s girls in 1936.

220px-Muriel_Spark_1960

Brodeck’s Report

May 16, 2016

Spring must be here, because when we were on the Heath yesterday my yellow wellies were wonderfully redundant. In spite of the recent rain, the Heath was dry, the grass long, the air heavy with pollen, and the sunshine bright, and I rather wished I’d flung off my boots and run around barefoot.

walking book club brodeck

Emily’s Walking Book Club was discussing Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel. This novel came out in 2007 – not so long ago – and yet already it has all but disappeared from our cultural radar. Nobody in the book club had even heard of it, but, pleasingly, everyone was very glad to discover it. This is exactly what I want to do with the book club, and with this blog: bring people’s attention to really good books, which, for whatever reason, have been somewhat forgotten. Often these books are quite old, but Brodeck’s Report shows that even a decade can bring relative obscurity.

Brodeck's Report

The novel is set in a village somewhere around the Franco-German border, at a time which is hard to pin down: the blurb says ‘post-war’, and it certainly could be read as taking place after the Second World War, but Claudel is deliberately vague about this, and – as the book club noted – the only technology in the book is a typewriter, people travel on foot or by horse and cart, so it certainly has the feel of an older, somewhat mythical world. The book begins with our narrator, Brodeck, being tasked to write a report. His job is writing reports about the wildlife surrounding the village, collecting data on things like flowers and foxes. Only this particular report is on the murder of the Anderer, ‘the other’. This mysterious, flamboyant stranger recently arrived in the village: he was a man of few words but who talked to his animals, he wore strange clothes, carried old books, was always making notes and sketches of village life … and the people of the village have just killed him. In his account of the murder, Brodeck reveals a great deal more: both about his own life – including his survival of a concentration camp, which he calls the kazerskwir, or ‘crater’, and also how the village has struggled to survive enemy occupation.

It is easy to read Brodeck’s Report as a novel about the Holocaust. Brodeck’s Jewishness is alluded to, although most of the time he, and the other people who were taken to the camps, are referred to as Fremdër – which Claudel explains means ‘foreigner’, but:

… is ambiguous, as it can also mean “traitor”, or more colloquially, “gangrene”, or “filth”.

Claudel has chosen, however, not to make his story specifically about the Holocaust. His vagueness about time and place gives the story something of the feeling of a myth, fairy tale, or parable. When we were discussing it, many members of the book club referred to Rwanda, the current migration crisis, and also the book’s religious connotations. ‘Is the Anderer,’ someone put forward, ‘a Christ-like figure, who has to die to absolve the village for its sins?’

The point is that making the book only about the Holocaust and post-war France would be letting the rest of the world off the hook. Claudel’s novel examines what happens to humanity when it is pushed to the edge – and while the Holocaust is a powerful instance of this, it is not the only one.

Claudel also resists making the characters entirely good or bad. Brodeck’s first sentence tries to absolve him of any responsibility for the murder of the Anderer:

My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.

But we discover it’s not quite so straightforward as that. Even a man as good as Brodeck has done things of which he is ashamed. There is a terrible moment when he was crammed into the wagon being taken to the concentration camp and he drinks a flask of water belonging to a sleeping young woman with a baby, thereby saving himself and causing their deaths. He still feels terrible guilt for this act:

…this perpetual feeling of inhabiting a body I stole long ago thanks to a few drops of water.

Just as no one is wholly good, no one is wholly bad: the innkeeper who is complicit in the murder of the Anderer tells Brodeck of his haunting grief over the death of his own infant son. One of the most sinister figures in the book is the commandant’s wife at the concentration camp, or: ‘Die Zeilenesseniss “the woman who eats souls”’, who is ‘inhumanly beautiful’. Every day one of the prisoners was chosen to be hanged. The woman never missed a hanging, and she always came with her baby in her arms:

The baby was always peaceful. He never cried. If he was asleep, she would awaken him with small, patient, infinitely gentle gestures, and only when he opened his eyes at last, waved his little arms, wiggled his little thighs and yawned at the sky would she signal to the guards, with a simple movement of her chin, that the ceremony could begin. One of them would give the stepladder a mighty kick and the body of the “Du” would drop, his fall abruptly cut short by the rope. Die Zeilenesseniss would watch him for a few minutes, and as she did so a smile would appear on her lips. She missed nothing and observed everything: the jumps and jolts, the throaty noises, the outthrust, kicking feet vainly reaching for the ground, the explosive sound of the bowels emptying themselves, and the final immobility, the great silence. At this point the child would sometimes cry a little, I dare say not so much from fright as from hunger and the desire to be suckled, but in any case his mother would plant a long kiss on his forehead and calmly leave the scene.

It is such a disturbing image, this beautiful mother and child – clean, peaceful, calm, happy – watching this terrible ritual death. Claudel juxtaposes birth and death elsewhere in the novel too, with Poupchette, the joyful child of Emilia, Brodeck’s wife, born of a terrible act which has all but killed Emilia.

In Brodeck’s Report, we get everything: birth and death, good and evil, the very edges of humanity and all that comes in between. It was a very difficult (if also rewarding) book to discuss because there is so much in it, and all the ideas and issues are so big and bound together: guilt, responsibility, survival – huge questions of morality. But I think what makes the book so brilliant is that while it asks difficult questions, and scrutinises our behaviour so cleverly, it is not all bad and all bleak: Claudel shows us that however much evil there is in us, there is also – always – some good, some love, and some hope.

In other news, I hope you might like this piece I wrote for the Guardian about a very inspiring book club in a prison. And there was also this piece for The Spectator about why books are dangerous, and mustn’t be underestimated: I suppose they’re two articles looking at the power of books from opposite ends of the scale.

 

The Other Elizabeth Taylor

April 11, 2016

The reason (yet again) for my lengthy blogging absence is due to the dreaded lurgi. When people tell you about the many tricky things that come hand in hand with having children (lack of sleep, abundance of mess, inability to enjoy a flight ever again…) why don’t they tell you about nursery bugs? More often than not, Vita goes to nursery, comes home, and a day later gets ill. Then follow a hellish few nights of fever and not sleeping, and then, just as she’s turning the corner, down falls the husband, and – soon after – me! Somehow, three weeks disappear and all you’ve done is either try to occupy the child, or try to get someone else to occupy the child while you are confined to bed.

In these instances, I feel it is best to disappear into some kind of other world. The husband and I watched all the Harry Potter films, and were practically talking to each other in spells by the end of it. I also managed to do a bit of reading and a tiny bit of – albeit rather feverish – work:

Here is my review of Deborah Levy’s powerful new novel Hot Milk for the Spectator. Here is my interview with the brilliant Tracy Chevalier about her favourite fictional trees for lovely website Five Books. And my review of Helen Oyeyemi’s bizarre and beautiful short stories What is Not Yours is Not Yours should be coming out in Country Life in the next couple of weeks. Watch this space, as they say. Also, a reminder that Emily’s Walking Book Club is meeting this Sunday to discuss Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, which is the most heavenly book– all about gardening, and marriage, and trying to evade one’s responsibilities.

When I last wrote here, I was on my way up to Moniack Mhor, a writers’ retreat in Scotland in order to take the writers on an Emily’s Walking Book Club special.

Moniack Mhor walking book club

We wandered through a beautiful beech wood and along a mossy glen, while talking about Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, which is about a girl who becomes a rather ridiculous writer.This is what prompted me to read Nicola Beauman’s biography of the writer, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

The Other Elizabeth TaylorNicola Beauman founded Persephone Books, whose gorgeous grey-covered books include such gems as Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, Mariana by Monica Dickens, The Far Cry by Emma Smith, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (and many more). So I was rather in awe of this biography – not only is it about a great writer, it is written by a very amazing woman!

One of its great joys is that you can hear Nicola Beauman’s voice, very distinctly, throughout. It is full of asides and parentheses which make her opinion absolutely felt. It can be something as slight as: ‘At one the speaker goes on talking for too long, as speakers do …’ or, when discussing the somewhat unconventional name of Elizabeth Taylor’s first son, noting that it ‘must have caused comment at Atlast’, the home of her very middle-class in-laws.

Occasionally Beauman takes us off on a longer personal digression. Particularly moving, is when she writes about going to visit Ray Russell. Elizabeth and Ray had an affair which lasted for many years. In the Acknowledgements, Beauman notes that ‘she believed it was inappropriate to publish the book’ until after the death of John Taylor, Elizabeth’s husband, who authorised the biography. Then, ‘following his death, she submitted the manuscript to John and Elizabeth Taylor’s son and daughter: They are, alas “very angry and distressed” about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.’ One suspects that this is largely due to Beauman’s writing about Elizabeth’s affair with Ray, but surely a biographer is supposed to unearth these things? Not least because the hundreds of letters that Elizabeth wrote to Ray not only ‘chart an extended love affair’, but – crucially – ‘they reveal the development of a writer’s art over the decade that Elizabeth would call wasted because she was not published’.

I’ll quote Beauman’s aside about going to visit Ray at length, because I think it’s so powerful:

(Reading the letter Elizabeth would write to Ray only minutes after she had parted from him seems embarrassingly if not callously intrusive. Reading the letters in an upstairs room in Hull with the elderly Ray sitting and watching me copy them out, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes producing photographs, sometimes sketching me, was exhausting and depressing: exhausting, obviously because of the sheer physical labour involved in getting to Hull and then copying, copying, copying; depressing because one knew the sad end of the affair, yet one of the lovers was sitting there, his sadness written in every line of his body … I only rarely glimpsed the exhilaration that a biographer is meant to feel when he or she stumbles on a cache of papers; mostly I muttered over and over, “life is so sad”. How can one reconcile Elizabeth’s writing to Ray that “there were never two people so near to one another as we” with the sadness of what would then happen to the two of them?)

I’ve not read many biographies, so can’t say if this is the norm or the exception, but I loved how personal this one is. I had the same feeling as when I read The Hare with Amber Eyes and felt that I was on the journey of discovery hand-in-hand Edmund de Waal; or when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters, in which she writes about her awful struggles with L.P. Hartley’s family for her attempted, eventually abandoned, biography. I could almost see Ray sitting there with the ‘sadness written in every line of his body’, and absolutely shared Beauman’s ambivalence on discovering this cache of letters.

Another of the book’s great pleasures, is that we are taken on a tour of all Taylor’s work – her novels, and also her numerous short stories. Little synopses are given, and we are also informed as to where the story was published, how much was paid for it, and any gossipy ins and outs of the correspondence between Elizabeth and her editor. This is all fascinating. Again, Beauman’s personal angle is a treat – lovely to know some of her own favourite lines, to be told when she thinks something is influenced by E.M. Forster, and informed of possible real-life inspirations too. I particularly liked Beauman’s argument for Taylor to be appreciated as a modernist writer, pointing out that she writes ‘in scenes, in “moments of being”,’ rather than the traditional narrative of ‘and then and then’. She argues that critics have struggled to call Taylor a modernist because of her domestic subjects:

Virginia Woolf was a modernist but because she eschewed the domestic she could be labelled as such: Elizabeth, because she wrote about women and children and housework and dailiness, could not be.

Later, she makes a nice point:

When Elizabeth said, as she often did, that she wrote in scenes not narrative, perhaps she was suggesting that women have to write in scenes because narrative needs leisure and an uninterrupted run of time to write it.

She calls upon the example of Taylor’s character Beth in A View of the Harbour:

Because she has a pram in the hall her work has to be stitched together, it cannot flow uninterruptedly. When she looks at her books she knows that: “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”

Reading this, while my own writing was so interrupted by family illness, I could only agree! (I also rather wished I had the help of a Mrs Flitcroft, even if I were to run the risk of her forsaking me …)

I loved The Other Elizabeth Taylor, just as much as I loved the two Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read. It left me longing to read more, and as soon as I finished it, I whizzed off to buy Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Game of Hide and Seek. Heaven to have these two treats in store even if they will probably be read, alas, when we’re next all ill.

Elizabeth Taylor

Three things

March 7, 2016

Last week was an exciting one, because THREE pieces of my work were published in various places.

Spectator

Here is my piece about book thieves in the Spectator. Bookshops might seem like sanctuaries, but they are in fact full of thieves pocketing everything from Mr Men to Ottolenghi… And you can also hear me talking about it on the Spectator’s podcast here. I come in at 18.50, just after all the men have finished talking about the much more minor issues of Donald Trump and the EU.

Cockfosters TLS review

Then here is my review of Helen Simpson’s absolutely amazing collection of short stories Cockfosters, published in The Times Literary Supplement. Apologies for the pay-wall avoiding low-quality photo.

The Fishermen by Obioma

Last, but by no means least, I am thrilled to be writing for this lovely website Five Books. They have the ingenious idea of asking people to recommend Five Books on a certain subject, relevant to their own work. I talked to the very charming and intelligent Chigozie Obioma – whose debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – about boyhood and growing up. You can read it here.

I’d love to know what you think of them!

Now I am on a train on my way to Scotland to walk through the beautiful highlands while talking about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel for an Emily’s Walking Book Club special at writers’ retreat Moniack Mhor. Heaven. Happy March everyone. More soon.

Moniack Mhor

Reading Lolita in Tehran

February 22, 2016

Whats the story morning gloryWhen I was about twelve, I bought (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. I was a massive Oasis fan, and did all those classic pre-teen things like headbanging while jumping on my bed, sticking posters up all over my walls, and writing out lyrics in swirly patterns on pads of paper. As all true fans know, Definitely Maybe was a much better album, but I have a particular memory of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which is the point of this (otherwise, you might think, rather peculiar) preamble.

I always used to beg to play my music in the car (sorry Mum) and I remember listening to this CD on one particular journey – we were just approaching the Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout – when my brother told me that (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had sold so many copies that something like one in thirteen people in the UK owned it.

This fact blew my twelve-year-old mind as we drove past the wasteland where Westfield would one day be built. I thought of all the cars I could see, all the cars we’d passed during our journey, and considered the likelihood that the same album was playing in many of them. I thought of all the people in England who’d bought it, and wondered how many were listening to Wonderwall right then at the very same moment as I was. After that conversation, whenever I pressed play to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, I would imagine other fingers pressing play for the same CD all over the world.

This feeling of being overwhelmed by everyone everywhere doing the same thing as you, which happens to be something that you love, is how I feel now about book clubs. It works on two levels. Firstly, there is the joy of thinking of your own book club, and the various members reading the same book in time for the next meeting. As I read a wonderful sentence, I wonder what another reader will make of it, a reader who is possibly encountering it at the same time. Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, there is the feeling of people all over the world being part of book clubs: the feeling that while Emily’s Walking Book Club strides across Hampstead Heath, a bunch of people are, say, sitting around a crackling fire in Derbyshire, or at a dinner table in Calgary … or around a coffee table in Tehran.

Reading Lolita in TehranThis is why I picked Reading Lolita in Tehran for the most recent meeting of the walking book club. I was intrigued to read about a book club meeting in very different circumstances.

Azar Nafisi is an Iranian academic, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran as a memoir of her time teaching American and English Literature during the Revolution in Iran. It begins by focussing on the ‘book club’ of sorts she set up. Having resigned from the University, Nafisi invited her seven favourite female students to discuss literature every Thursday in her home. We are introduced to her students and the book begins with their discussion about Lolita. As Nafisi guides us through other works of literature – by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen – she steps away from the book club setting, and reflects on her time spent teaching, and reading more generally. An especially dramatic moment is when she puts The Great Gatsby on trial in her university class, and she writes movingly about holding vigil reading Henry James outside her children’s bedroom while bombs from Iraq drop nearby.

It’s an extraordinary period of history and fascinating to read Nafisi’s account of Iran at this time, to discover how exactly it came to be that the women found themselves having to wear headscarves, to read of the terrible ‘morality squads’, as well as details like the homemade vodka in which her husband indulges. Then there is the horror of reading about the suffering endured by many of her students and friends: various combinations of arrest, imprisonment, abuse, torture, rape, and execution.

Woven together with this portrait of Iran, are Nafisi’s readings of the various texts. A theme that runs throughout is the play between reality and fiction – Nafisi’s ‘active withdrawal’ from reality and escape into fiction, and literature’s power to help one cope with difficult circumstances by offering its different worlds.

She emphasises the importance of empathy, how a novel is ‘a sensual experience of another world’, in which you ‘hold your breath with the characters’, and that evil in literature is blindness: ‘the inability to “see” others, hence to empathise with them.’ Nafisi makes the point that:

What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert).

Elsewhere, she uses Elizabeth Bennet’s blindness to great effect. A student kept on following her to her office and telling her that Jane Austen was anti-Islamic and a colonial writer. Then:

One day, after a really exhausting argument, I told him, Mr. Nahvi, I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you, to be sure – you are different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquaintance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much her feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the West. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute – decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!

There is an added irony here, because once Reading Lolita in Tehran was published and became such a success, it received some flak for exactly this – focussing so much on Western literature rather than Persian. (You can read more about this in this Slate article here.)

There is a third strand of the book, alongside the readings of literature and portrait of Iran – Nafisi’s own life, and the people in it: her family, friends and students. And I’m afraid I thought (and so did the rest of the walking book club) this was the book’s failing. We all confessed to finding it very hard to differentiate between Nafisi’s students, or indeed to ‘see’ any of the characters in the book. When there is a memorable instance of a student’s response to a novel – like Mr. Nahvi’s above – it is usually a student who is otherwise incidental. (I don’t remember Mr. Nahvi featuring elsewhere.)

The real flaw here lies with Nafisi’s seven students who come to the Thursday literature discussions. We are introduced to them in the opening pages of the book, but they don’t really develop. Various things happen to them: one gets married in Turkey, another has her engagement called off, one has a brother who is horrid to her, another a husband who abuses her, one of them has painted fingernails … but none of us could remember what happened to which woman, or any of their names. Nafisi makes a big point of her girls being able to take off their loose black robes and head scarves when they enter her home to reveal the individuals beneath, in jeans and t-shirts, with their own hair styles and colourful nails. Somehow the book doesn’t quite achieve this derobing, and the women remain swathed in vague blackness.

This is especially problematic as Nafisi makes such a good point about the importance of being an individual:

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes … My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress.

She draws a comparison with the scene in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, when Cincinnatus is made to dance with his jailer, and waltzes with him in a circle around a prison guard. This complicity is the ultimate cruelty:

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other … There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

Finding the strength, courage and determination to remain an individual is vital for survival. This is exactly what Nafisi encourages her students to discover in literature: a private world where you can be free to think what you like. Only, Reading Lolita in Tehran is full of Nafisi’s own thoughts on literature, rarely are her students given a voice. And if their thoughts occasionally spill onto the page, then so little else is told about them, that it’s hard to see individual characters emerge from such few words.

Nafisi writes well about the terrifying feeling of ‘irrelevance’ which took hold of her under the new regime. Perhaps this book is too much a statement of her own relevance, rather a record of the voices of the many other women who were forced into silence.

Having said all that, I still think it’s a very thought-provoking and important book. I especially liked Nafisi’s comparison of Pride and Prejudice to an eighteenth-century dance. As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on it. (Or indeed, on a teenage love for Oasis.)

Azar Nafisi

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

January 25, 2016

The Tiger who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

A very belated and very happy new year to you, dear reader. Today, the daffodils in the roundabout at the end of the road have burst into flower – Vita, in her pushchair, looked rather puzzled as I manically pointed to them in joy. Hooray, spring is on the way… and so, I hope you’ll be pleased to hear, are some thoughts on The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

I have been reading proper grown-up books – promise! – but I couldn’t resist writing about this children’s book. I think it haunts me so much because of a conversation I had in the bookshop, back before Vita was even thought about.

An elderly lady came in one day and asked me to find her The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Then she asked me to look up what year it was published.

I told the lady 1968, which felt slightly odd, because I suppose I’d always thought of it as sort of timeless – aren’t all classics? – and I briefly wondered what on earth children read before Judith Kerr created her tea-taking tiger.

The lady said that was the year she came to England from Czechoslovakia. A lot happened in 1968, she said. Then silence, as the full weight of her words sunk in, and I thought: what can I possibly say to someone who fled The Prague Spring? So I commended her on her choice of children’s book, telling her it was one of my favourites. The lady smiled and said it was one of hers too.

The Tiger who Came to Tea has become one of Vita’s favourites too. I have spent hours reading it to her over the past fifteen months, sitting together on the sofa, in bed, on the floor, usually in a static fuzz of exhaustion. In these peaceful moments of turning the pages together, I often think of the lady in the bookshop arriving in England in the same year that the tiger first arrived for tea.

Judith Kerr was a refugee too. She left Berlin in 1933, fleeing the Nazis with her parents – a journey she wrote about beautifully in her autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Children’s author Michael Rosen is not the only person to posit that her tiger could symbolise the Gestapo, who were likely to turn up at The Kerrs’ front door, unannounced and threatening. While the tiger certainly turns everything upside down, eating all the food and drinking all the drink, he also lets Sophie cuddle and stroke him, which makes me feel he is too friendly a tiger to be a Nazi.

Sophie cuddling tiger

Instead, I have come to think of the tiger as an outsider, like Kerr, and like the Czech lady in the bookshop. If the tiger does stand for a refugee asking to enter the country, then Kerr has picked a significant moment for his arrival, for surely there is no more quintessentially English tradition than that of tea?

T380 IM AW 21

Most of the book happens inside and the pages are white, pleasingly bright, as we move from Sophie’s kitchen to the bathroom, hall and living room. When Sophie’s Daddy decides they should go out for supper, however, we suddenly enter the world outside.

Tiger outside

It is always a shock when we turn this page and the background changes from white to black, as the world expands from Sophie’s home to the length of a street, but – crucially – the street is not scary. Though the world outside is dark, it is also full of light: there is the soft yellow glow of the street lamps, the lit windows of the houses, and the warm circle of the moon (you can’t quite see it in the pic above, sorry). There is a jolly red bus, and the colourful shop fronts of the High Street – a toy shop, a fishmonger, butcher, florist and dress shop – most of them with the proprietor’s names inscribed above. There is also a cat, stripey like the tiger, only shrunk down to a normal, less frightening, size. The world outside in 1968 – the world of the tiger and other outsiders – is shown to be not such a terrible, terrifying place after all.

If only the High Street today were such a cosy, comforting spot, lined with independent shops with pretty awnings. Instead we’d be more likely to find the cold strip-lighting of a supermarket, charity shop and a nail bar – not so rosy a scene. Similarly, at the start of the book when the doorbell rings and Sophie’s mummy wonders who it could be, the possibilities seem almost ludicrously outdated: the milkman, or the boy from the grocer on his bicycle with a basket. When the doorbell rings today, it’s probably a courier with an internet-ordered package, or the Ocado man, who is different every time.

In a way, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is about the wonder of shopping – for resolution only comes when Sophie and her mummy go shopping and replenish their supplies. Only Kerr’s portrait of consumerism in 1968, with its milkman, the grocer’s boy on his bicycle and independent High Street shops, is rather a lovely one, showing that shopping then wasn’t just about buying things, it was also a means of creating a community. (Where on earth, though, did they buy that tin of tiger food? Is this some weird forecasting of the online ‘everything store’ that was to come?)

When I read the book with Vita on my knee, nearly fifty years after Kerr wrote it, I mourn the loss of the feeling of safety and community which lights up the world outside. I think what a wonderful welcome the tiger is given in 1968, when he turns up to tea … and I think of the Czech woman who came to England then, and Kerr who arrived thirty-five years before, and the welcomes they received.

Next time the door bell rings, once we get over our disappointment at no longer having a milkman, we ought to wonder what sort of welcome we’d give a tiger who came to tea today.

Judith Kerr

Emilybooks of the year

December 23, 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read over the year. And, of course, as I look back over the books, so I remember the circumstances in which they were read: grabbing half an hour on a park bench while Vita snoozed in her pushchair, snatching a few pages in the bath before falling asleep from exhaustion, sitting in a cafe round the corner from the nursery trying to distract myself from thinking about her ‘settling in’ a.k.a. screaming her head off. I suppose these are all rather fraught circumstances for reading, and so it’s to be expected that I’ve read and posted far less than I would have liked. But when I think that the lack of books has been due to an abundance of Vita, I don’t feel quite so sorry about it as I might do otherwise. Besides, at least I’ve got to read such delights as Peepo, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Meg and Mog and Lost and Found again, and again, and again.

The Fishermen by ObiomaWhile I may not have written about books on Emilybooks quite so much, I have at least been writing about them elsewhere. I adored Melissa Harrison’s nature-novel At Hawthorn Time, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, and I also enjoyed Lucy Beresford’s compelling novel about India, Invisible Threads, which I wrote about for The Spectator. I also read two books by Thomas Harding – Hanns and Rudolf, which I wrote about here, and his recent history of a house outside Berlin, The House by the Lake which I reviewed in the Christmas edition of The TLS here. (Quite a big piece!) I hope to have a review of Helen Simpson’s beautifully observed, funny and life-affirming new collection of short stories, Cockfosters, in The TLS early next year too. The best newly published book I read of the year was Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – an extraordinary debut novel, with such a powerful mythic voice. I wrote about it when it first came out, and then was pleased as punch when it went on to be first longlisted and then shortlisted for The Booker Prize, hurrah!

The Good DoctorEmily’s Walking Book Club has become something of a reading lifeline to me. Knowing that I will read one good book a month and then talk about it with such clever, kind and interesting people while stomping across Hampstead Heath – while all thoughts of nappies and bottles etc. are blown away for an hour or so – has been invaluable. Particular highlights have been Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – a beautiful Persephone Book about a father searching for his missing son after the Second World War in France; Iris Murdoch’s The Bell about a load of endearing oddballs living beside an Abbey; The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – about life in a defunct hospital in the wilds of South Africa, and optimism versus cynicism, lies, race and gosh SO MUCH; and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld –  a horrible book about a very damaged young woman and what she’s running away from, which is also horribly good.

A Christmas Party by Georgette HeyerFor our last walking book club of the year, we discussed Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party (originally published with the title Envious Casca), and it seemed at first to split people into two camps – those who loved it for all its silliness, and those who found it too silly to love. Within about ten minutes, we were comparing it to Downton Abbey, but our discussion then moved on to encompass Shakespeare, acting, family and much more and by the end of the walk we had all grown rather fond of the book and its cast of eccentric characters. It’s a vintage Christmas murder mystery, one of many which have been republished this year – I wrote about this publishing phenomenon and what it tells us about our reading habits (and ourselves!) for Intelligent Life here.

There have been other excellent older books that I discovered this year. Fred Uhlman’s Reunion – which takes about five minutes to read, only that five minutes will be one of the most intense five minutes of your life; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years – sheer bliss for when you need something a little indulgent; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown – ballsy and loud and inspiring; and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which was funny and brilliant and clever and actually made me hold my breath for an entire page and a The Uncommon Readerhalf. I also jumped on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon – is there actually anyone who reads, who hasn’t read her? – and read the first book in the Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend. It was brilliant, of course it was. I can’t quite place why though – Was it that the town was so well described, and the characters so recognisable? Was it that we all relate to the pain and the joy of that kind of intense unequal female friendship? I don’t know, I hope to read the rest of them in 2016, then think hard and then write about them altogether, but in the meantime the LRB bookshop has a podcast of a ‘Ferrante fever’ event which looks potentially illuminating – you can download it here. Also, I must urge everyone to read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett over Christmas – it is a true delight, short, funny, life-affirming: all about The Queen discovering a love for reading. It will make you chortle while you sit there on the sofa groaning after too many mince pies, and apparently laughing is basically the same as exercise, so there you go, it’s a certain win.

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtI shall skip through the two real disappointments of the year. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – the first and worst book of the year, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Booker Prize in 2014, which certainly wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t as good as all that, certainly not as good as Ali Smith’s How to be Both which was on the shortlist, and I suppose maybe I feel childishly cross about that. (Incidentally, Ali Smith has a fantastic new collection of short stories out this year too – Public Library.) Anyway, plenty of people disagree about both of these, so no doubt they are good books, just not good Emilybooks. Should you get stuck on a similar big long boring book, and find your reading slowing down as you begin to dread picking it up – JUST GIVE IT UP! Life’s too short. There are so many other better books you could be reading, rather than essentially not reading. To get back on track, I would suggest picking up a very addictive and exciting children’s book, such as one by Tonke Dragt: Pushkin published The Secrets of the Wild Wood this year and it is terrific – the husband adored it too.

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeSo, fanfare please, what is my Emilybook of the Year, if I had to pick just one? A difficult choice, but I think I would have to opt for Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge, recently republished by Daunt Books. It is wonderful escapism, but has bite too – a dark edge that stops it being too airy and daft. Set in 1930s Peking, our heroine, the marvellous Laura Leroy suffers from acute ‘inhalfness’ – torn between the glamour of her life in China as a diplomat’s wife, while thinking about her children growing up without her in England. Though she seems wistful at first, she is in fact a dab hand at using a brick as a hammer, surprisingly realistic about love, and expert a cool head in a crisis, even a life-threatening one. Top heroine; top book!

 I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these books, or indeed your own books of 2015, if you feel like commenting below. So, what will I be reading over Christmas? Alas I won’t be curling up by the fire with a Christmas murder mystery (though to be fair, I have just read half a dozen of them for the Intelligent Life article) … but I will be seeking help in civilising the ahem ‘spirited’ little one from Pamela Druckerman’s life-changing (let’s hope) parenting book French Children Don’t Throw Food. Wish me luck!

French Children Don't Throw Food