The Reading-Gassing Challenge

I spent rather an uncharacteristic weekend up in Scotland, shooting.

Well, admittedly, I didn’t actually do any actual shooting. That was left to the men, while we women either hovered nearby, covering our ears and watching them miss the startled pheasants, or did things like cook and sit around chatting. My friend and I were set our own little challenge of being sent home to fetch thermoses of sausages and Bullshot for elevenses. We managed to fail abysmally and abandoned the hire care in a field, only to be laughed at for being too London to understand how to open a gate and then discovering that we’d manage to cause a traffic jam for a rather unimpressed shepherd.

The other main challenge of the weekend was achieving the perfect reading-gassing balance. One of my favourite things about weekends away in lovely houses with drawing rooms and fireplaces is the inevitably large proportion of time spent semi-supine on a sofa, drinking tea or booze and gassing away. It is such fun. I can’t think of a better way of getting to know people, or a better way of whiling away an afternoon.

Yet, in such circumstances, I often get a little nagging pulse in my head telling me that I should be doing something useful. Sometimes this can be mollified by making another pot of tea, or fetching a packet of biscuits. But sometimes I feel a bit like time is slipping through my fingers and I should be spending it writing, or, failing that, at least reading something.

So, for me, the only thing better than sitting around and gassing, is sitting around and gassing while reading. This, as you might imagine, can pose various problems. Some books are too engrossing, so it really is impossible to read them, whilst even occasionally engaging in conversation. It’s just too rude to sit there in the midst of a lively conversation with ears closed off, thoroughly ensconced in one’s own private book world. Besides, it makes one feel as though one’s missing out. There’s nothing worse than being startled out of a paragraph by hearing gales of laughter and not being able to discover what’s so funny.

Conversely, if a book doesn’t hold one’s attention quite firmly enough, then it’s hard to read any of it while conversation is going on, as one’s mind is too liable to graft onto the latter. Rereading a book can be a good option. Or else, a book with short chapters or several section breaks, so that you can slip back into the conversation every page or two.

I had a brief flick though Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling, which in many ways would have been the ideal thing to read. All about shooting in Scotland, I could move between the book and the conversation almost seamlessly. I more than empathised with the bit when the girl gets told off for wearing black. ‘Whoever heard of black on a hill?’ she’s asked, more or less. Well certainly one isn’t supposed to wear yellow on a hill. For the first time ever, I was rather ashamed of my bright yellow wellies, which I rather feebly tried to pass off as camouflaging with a patch of gorse. (Luckily everyone was too polite to be all that mean about them.)

Yet I wasn’t really in the mood for Nancy Mitford. Perhaps I’d had old-school overload with the blissful Mariana – see my last post, here. In any case, I ended up reading a very new book, made up of conversation-dipping-friendly short sections, by a bright young thing of today.

Landfall by Helen Gordon follows Alice, a thirty-four-year-old art critic, who abandons her painfully trendy life in Shoreditch and moves back to her childhood home in the suburbs. It’s a very good book, but I have to say, the opening section in painfully trendy Shoreditch was nothing much other than quite painful. There were a lot of clichéd lines about silly haircuts and living in cold warehouse units and ending up accidentally in bed with artistic wastrels after drinking too much. Nothing new there. I’d rather watch an episode of the – genius – Nathan Barley.

But once Alice gets back to the suburbs, the book becomes quite brilliant. And luckily I’d already got through the Shoreditch bit on the way up to Scotland, so by the time I undertook the reading-gassing challenge, my attention was sufficiently grasped.

At the heart of the novel is a feeling of entropy. Here is a successful young woman, with opportunities offered to her on a plate, who chooses to walk away from everything. She feels like she has nothing left to say, ‘as if her imagination had emptied itself out’. Alice lets her life unravel. She withdraws, cuts her ties, watches herself become increasingly introverted, a recluse. She abandons her friends, her career, her appearance, and watches everything spiral undone.

It’s not long before the trauma at the heart of Alice’s desire to withdraw becomes clear. Seventeen years ago, her sister Janey disappeared. Disappearance is central to the book. As Janey’s haunting voice in Alice’s head says, ‘Everyone has a right to be lost.’ Janey’s disappearance is refracted in other examples scattered throughout the book. Danny, the strange boy next door, nearly drowned as a child. He has no friends, no school, and no job, drifting around silently, almost invisible, almost disappeared from society. A Scandinavian artist, who Alice eventually agrees to write a book about, has become a ‘seaside recluse’, having stopped making art and disappearing from the art world’s consciousness so successfully that Alice’s friend thinks she is dead.

Key to all this disappearance is the idea of the edge. Alice retreats from the false edginess of Shoreditch to the real, geographical edge of the suburbs – ‘the edges of the A–Z’. I expect you’ve noticed the edge on the cover image above. Alice is told, when she leans over the parapet of a multi-storey carpark:

‘You’re making me nervous … Come back from the edge now.’

What happens over the edge? Can someone really step off the edge and disappear? How can someone disappear in today’s densely-populated England of CCTV and mobile phones? This is a book about vertigo. About peering over the edge, feeling dizzy, and letting go.

I suppose there shouldn’t really have been any similarity between this cool young novel about moving from Shoreditch to the suburbs and a rather old-fashioned weekend of shooting in Scotland. But in some ways going up to Scotland, to a remote place with no internet or mobile network was a way of disappearing. Certainly, climbing up big hills, looking down on vast beautiful glens and seeing nothing but reddy-brown space stretching for miles, felt like being on the very edge of the world. So the two ended up striking rather an eerie chime. Landfall is a great book, thoughtfully written and thought-provoking. Best of all, it let me complete the reading-gassing challenge with great success.

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