In praise of eccentricities

The other day, a muggy drizzly grey London Saturday, the fiancé and I went for a swim in the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath. As I was breast-stroking as fast as possible, trying to stop intense burning pain squashing my lungs and hoping that soon I might get some feeling back in my near-frozen limbs, I said to the fiancé (who was calmly, happily, paddling about) that this was rather an eccentric thing to be doing.

After what turned out to be rather a refreshing swim, we shambled along the Heath, bath towel-wrapped swimming costumes under one arm, books section of the newspaper under the other, quite exhaustedly dragging each other up the hill en route to the nearest place that would serve us a burger. My outfit of sundress, cardigan and trainers was proving rather too optimistic for the post-swim chill and my lips were rapidly turning blue. The fiancé was wearing one of his shirts with several holes in.

We passed several other Heath walkers.

Some were wearing sports kit and jogging along or power walking with fearful determination. There were also dog walkers, groups of friends going for picnics, kite-flyers, kids skipping along beside tolerant parents. But nobody looked like us.

Gosh, we both thought at once. We are an eccentric pair.

Now I actually feel rather pleased about this. I have long ago come to terms with the fact that I am quite an eccentric girl. (See this post, for instance, for my childhood belief that I was a prophet.) It is such a relief to have found someone who will put up with my eccentricities, even allow them to flourish, and occasionally indulge in them himself. Really, what are the chances?

And I think that perhaps now is the time to praise a book which I’m particularly fond of, which is particularly eccentric.

I first read Jane Gardam’s A Long Way From Verona on a colleague’s recommendation when I had my tonsils removed back in March. It is one of the most charming books I have ever read, and goes up there in my Top Five books of all time. It is even as good as Edmund du Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. Praise indeed.

It is one of those books that I deeply want everyone that I care about to read, because it is so utterly wonderful. In fact, I have started rereading it with the fiancé – now we take it in turns to read bits aloud to each other. A fittingly eccentric way for it to be read.

A Long Way from Verona is, strictly speaking, a children’s book. Although the publishers have packaged it up in the same style as Jane Gardam’s adult novels, like the highly-acclaimed Old Filth, so perhaps they think particularly highly of it too.

It is the story of Jessica Vye, a rather precocious thirteen-year-old girl in wartime Yorkshire, who is certain, ‘beyond all possible doubts’, that she is a writer. The book is indeed written as though it is by Jessica herself, and is full of such quirks as occasionally spelling out the way a teacher says her name (‘Jessie Carr’), and self-conscious pointers such as ‘I will now proceed in letters. For a time.’ These letters, incidentally, are extremely funny – full of phrases like ‘You are a clot.’

I often try to sell this book to customers – parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles searching for something for their eleven-year-old daughter/granddaughter/niece (who is often called Florence) to read. (‘She’s really extraordinarily bright, a very good reader, far above her peers …)

‘I’ve got just the thing.’ I say, thrilled at the prospect of passing this gem of a book into receptive hands.

‘Ah, right. What’s it about then?’ they ask when I fish it down off the shelf, slightly perturbed by the fact that it’s a) not about Vampires, or b) not 1984, or c) that they didn’t read it when they were eleven.

I try to explain the basic plot and they look nonplussed. And then I say that really it’s just such a wonderful book because it’s so charming, it’s so funny, it’s so quirky, it’s so …

Well it’s just so perfectly eccentric.

And the good ones buy it, and come back and tell me that Florence did indeed love it. And the bad ones raise their eyebrows and buy something as unimaginative as Pride and Prejudice instead.

I do hope that you might be a good one and endeavour to get hold of it, not for Florence, but for you. It might even encourage you to do something as eccentric and enjoyable as go swimming in a muddy pond, in the rain.

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