Posts Tagged ‘Jane Gardam’

Last Friends

May 28, 2013

Last FriendsFor all the wit that flashes brilliantly through its pages, Last Friends left me with a feeling of sadness. Sadness is a vague term, and I suppose it was a vague feeling. A malaise. Nostalgia. A sense of things that have gone, lives that have passed, ended, and how little survives them.

Last Friends is the final book in Jane Gardam’s magnificent trilogy about Raj orphan-lawyer Eddie Feathers, affectionately known as Filth – Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Gardam began with Old Filth, continued with The Man in the Wooden Hat (in which she looked at the story from the point of view of Filth’s wife Betty) and now she concludes with the story of Terry Veneering, Filth’s great rival in law and in love.

Gardam has a brilliant method of capturing the lives of her characters, building them up through flashes of memory, instances in the past that haunt them in the present. In Old Filth, Betty’s death prompts Filth ‘to flick open shutters on the past’, and so we learn about his life, from his childhood in Malaya, to his foster parents in Wales, to prep school and his early years at the Bar.

In Last Friends, both Filth and Veneering are dead. Who remains to flick open the shutters on their past?

Nobody really knows a thing about another’s past. Why should we? Different worlds we all inhabit from the womb.

So reflects Dulcie – one of the last surviving friends of Filth, Betty and Veneering. Her thoughts accompany us through a great deal of the book. The other ‘last friend’ is Fiscal-Smith, who begins as a tedious hanger on, but ends up coming across as quite endearing.

Do we all inhabit ‘different worlds … from the womb’? This question seems to me to be at the core of Gardam’s Filth novels. In each book, she looks at the same characters but takes a different angle. With this new slant, all sorts of alignments and symmetries, previously unseen, are revealed. It is the same world, and yet that sameness is made to feel alien; it is a different world, and yet it is revealed to be essentially the same.

In Last Friends, Gardam turns her authorial eye to Terry Veneering – Filth’s ever-present rival. She does this with tremendous skill, for throughout the other books Veneering has been cast with little sympathy. He is the antithesis to Filth, so we can’t help but dislike him. He is brash, drunk, loud, uncivilised. Added to which, he had an affair with Betty. What a genius Gardam is to turn this on its head and make us now understand Veneering, sympathise with him, even a little at the expense of our sympathy for beloved old Filth.

Veneering’s childhood seems indeed to be in a completely different world from Filth’s. He was born in the Northern village of Herringfleet to a coal woman and a Russian spy, disguised as an acrobat. And yet, these worlds aren’t so different after all. Veneering has a surprising meeting with ‘Sir’, Filth’s influential prep-school teacher. Indeed it is Sir who gives him his Dickensian name. There is also Veneering’s first glimpse of Betty – then Elizabeth Macintosh. And, just the day before this glimpse of Betty, he has his first case against Filth. Different worlds, but the same world; these lives were destined to cross with each other from the very beginning.

While Gardam looks back on Veneering’s beginning, this is really a novel about endings – and what comes after the end. These lives are over, and yet the novel is testament to the way Filth and Veneering live on in the memories of other characters. So long as Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are around, we feel that Filth and Veneering haven’t quite disappeared.

Although they are far from reliable memories. There is a poignant moment when Dulcie realises she can’t quite remember what her dead husband looks like:

Oh Willy! She tried not to think of Willy in case, once again, she found that hse had forgotten what he had looked lie. Ah – all well. Here he came up the stairs, his fastidious feet, balancing teacups. Deeply thinking. Oh, Willy! So many years! I haven’t really forgotten what you looked like. ‘Pastry Willy’ – but you grew quite weather-beaten after we came Home. It’s just, sometimes lately you’ve grown hazy. Doesn’t matter. Changes nothing.

Memories fade and then what are we left with? Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are painfully old too and not long for this world. Who will survive them? What will survive of this generation of wonderful characters?

To this end, Gardam brings in a younger generation. Anna and Henry have moved into Veneering’s old house, and plan to turn it into a B&B. They rifle through the attic, finding his old things, wondering at the stories which lie behind them. They also look after Dulcie very well.

Then there are moments like this, when Dulcie decides to get some eggs from the local farm:

There was a wooden box hung on a field gate. It had been there fifty years. You took out the eggs and left the money. Beautiful brown eggs covered in hen shit to show how fresh they were. Today she opened the flap of the box and there were no eggs and no money but a dirty-looking note saying, Ever been had?

She was all at once desolate. The whole world was corrupt. She was friendless and alone. Like Fiscal-Smith she had outstayed her welcome in the place she felt was home.

It is terribly sad. Living has changed from being a triumph of survival to a case of outstaying your welcome. Dulcie is so old that perhaps she’d be better off dead like Filth, Betty and Veneering. The world today is too ‘corrupt’ for these marvellous old creatures, who’ve lived such long extraordinary lives. These ‘last friends’ are the very end of that generation, and we are left thinking that once they perish, there will be nothing left of them.

Yet we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we have Jane Gardam, who preserves these lives with warmth, humour and respect. I long to re-read the other books now, and am quietly hoping that she might be persuaded to turn the trilogy into a quartet.

Jane Gardam

Just a little coda to say that I will – I hope – be survived by little Daphne, who has spent her first week chez EmilyBooks being particularly sweet. For those of you who are itching to see more of her, here she is attempting to eat my wellies. What can I say, we both share a love of all things yellow!

Daphne eating my wellies

Old Filth

October 8, 2012

I find that when I really love a book, it’s very hard to talk or write about it. I can gush away about just how much I love it, and how it’s soooooooo good, but these are hardly incisive or acute comments. Indeed, all that happens is that I come across like an overexcited toddler.

Jane Gardam is one of my very favourite writers (see here and here for more posts about some of her other books), so I worry that this post will turn into fluffy gushiness, in which case I can only apologise, beg your forgiveness and assure you that I have tried very hard indeed to ungushify it.

I first read Old Filth a year or so ago, shortly after reading The Man in the Wooden Hat. The two books go hand in hand – Old Filth is about Eddie Feathers and The Man in the Wooden Hat is about his wife Betty. Together they make a fascinating portrait of a marriage, covering much of the same ground but shedding remarkably different light upon it.

Jane Gardam wrote Old Filth first, in 2004, and The Man in the Wooden Hat didn’t appear until 2009. In the interim she published a book of short stories, The People on Privilege Hill, which also featured Eddie Feathers. This man has evidently intrigued Gardam. Evidently, Eddie Feathers reaches beyond the pages of his book, a character too lifelike to be contained by his fiction – this is surely a novelist’s greatest achievement.

Eddie Feathers is also known as ‘Old Filth’, standing for ‘Failed in London Try Hong Kong’, and throughout his life is given various other names – Teddy Bear, Fevvers, Sir Edward Feathers QC – as though, just like he won’t be contained by the pages of the book, he resists a single label of a name.

We meet Filth in his old age, ‘ostentatiously clean’, his ‘ancient fingernails … rimmed with purest white’, wearing his ‘yellow cotton or silk socks from Harrods’ and his shoes shining ‘like conkers’. The book follows Filth in the wake of his wife’s death – attending her funeral, responding to letters of condolence and undertaking a peculiar roadtrip down memory lane. But Gardam interjects this with various scenes from Filth’s past – from his infancy in Malaya, his miserable childhood with foster parents in Wales, his time at public school, his aborted attempt at evacuation, his early years at the Bar – and in these vignettes, she paints a wonderful, affectionate and idiosyncratic portrait.

What is it about Filth that makes him such a remarkable character? He is a relic – ‘a coelacanth’ – something prehistoric, extinct, utterly incongruous to the present day. This is conveyed not just in his predilection for yellow silk socks from Harrods, but in the way he doesn’t know the name of his cleaning lady – who he refers to as ‘Mrs-er’ – and in exchanges like the following, when he is pulled over by the police for driving erratically and made to do a breath test:

‘You see. Perfectly clear,’ said Filth.

‘Could we help you in any way?’

‘No. I don’t think so.’

‘Your licence is in order?’

‘Yes, of course. I am a lawyer.’

‘It doesn’t follow, sir. I see that you are eighty-one?’

‘With no convictions,’ said Filth.

‘No, sir. Well, goodbye sir.’

‘There is one thing,’ said Filth, strapping himself back in his seat with some languor. ‘I do seem to be rather lost.’

‘Ah.’

‘I don’t suppose you know this address. Hainault?’

‘We do, sir. But it’s not Hainault. That is in Essex. It’s High Light. Not High Note. A house called High Light. And we know who it belongs to. We know her. It’s five miles away. Shall we go ahead of you?’

‘She is my cousin. She can never have had any Christmas cards. Thank you. And thank you for your courtesy and proper behaviour. A great surprise.’

‘You oughtn’t to believe the television, sir.’

‘Who the hell was he?’ one policeman asked the other. ‘He’s like out of some Channel Four play.’

Filth is so extraordinary that the policeman can only compare him to a fictional character – which, in a nice post-modern twist, of course he is. I love this little exchange, in part because it’s quite dottily funny but also it captures so much about Filth. He adamantly believes in proper behaviour – in decorum, in politeness, in the Law, in Christmas cards. And yet he also refuses to be bossed around, insists on having his own way, is very reluctant to ask for help.

Behind this eccentric, old-fashioned, funny old man is a terribly sad childhood. His mother died soon after he was born, he had barely any contact with his father, who sent him away to a foster home in Wales, where he was beaten. He had a brief happy time at school, largely thanks to a great friendship with a boy, who was then killed in the Second World War. His childhood is one sad episode after another. As Filth sums up, shortly before the end of the book:

‘All my life … from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me.’

His life has been one of terrible loneliness. Perhaps it is this lack of affection, love, and even easy friendship that has led Filth to rely on formal, correct behaviour.

This mixture of Filth’s eccentric behaviour in his old age, and his terribly sad childhood is what makes Gardam’s book so wonderful. There are hysterically funny moments but built upon an aching sadness, a heart-wrenching poignancy. And all is delivered with such a light hand. Gardam gives us glimpses of Filth’s life, as many allusions to happenings as descriptions of them. It is a novel of suggestions, of blanks that the reader must fill in, dots that we must join up. No wonder Gardam couldn’t resist going back to it and filling in a few of these off-stage moments herself in her subsequent books.

But Old Filth is not just about Edward Feathers. The novel is dedicated ‘To Raj Orphans and their parents’ and Filth is emblematic of all Raj orphans, sent ‘Home’ from the East, brought up away from their parents, struggling through a later life based on this core of emptiness. Filth is extinct now. So are the other Raj orphans, so is the Empire. It is a novel about a way of life – a substantial strand of Englishness – that has now gone, but was still felt anachronistically recently. Like Kipling, Gardam has captured this life and preserved it, preventing it from vanishing without trace.

It is also a book about memory, a word that sits so close to ‘memoir’, which Filth sits down to try to write at one point. This is Filth’s memoir – his memories, tiled together to show the many sides of his life. Now he is old, and has been left by everyone who was dear to him, all he has left are these memories, which let him ‘flick open shutters on the past’. Memories sustain Filth through the end of his life, thickening what would otherwise be an empty present with layers of his past. So when the book closes with the words that Filth died ‘quite alone’, there is a double meaning in that ‘quite’. Yes, Filth has been utterly alone for much of his life – the fate of many a Raj orphan – but he has his memories for company, meaning that he is only ‘quite’ alone, not completely. In the very moment before his death, he sees his wife Betty beside him, ‘grinning away’.

I suspect this won’t be the last time I reread Old Filth, for I shall miss Filth and want to spend time with him again. Certainly, Gardam has left me with a strong, shining memory of this remarkable character that refuses to perish.

Good Behaviour

September 3, 2012

I really was shocked by Molly Keane’s novel, Good Behaviour.

It bobs along, all hunting, gardening and dancing, but then, just as you begin to sink into the relaxing comfort of this old-fashioned, grand way of life, out thrusts a hideously dark, utterly shocking occurrence. But the reader is not allowed to dwell on this horrible thing. Indeed we can scarcely process it before the narrative forces us to return to the shimmering surface of grand country life. It happens again and again, thrust after horrible dark thrust disrupting the frothy surface, until the two fall into an uneasy co-existence. The narrator, Aroon, now middle-aged and looking back on her youth, insists on focussing on the surface, but the reader can’t ignore the sinister goings on underneath.

I read Good Behaviour with the unnerving sensation of feeling my jaw actually drop when the first of these dark moments erupted. It was all the more shocking thanks to the way Aroon refuses to let the narrative even so much as pause to let us give these moments our full attention. I blinked in disbelief. These hideous occurrences scream out at you as you are ushered past, instantly vanishing under the carpet as your attention is pulled away to the next hunt or dinner.

It’s hard to write about these dark moments without giving away the plot and taking away the element of surprise. But here is one instance that happens early on and doesn’t give much away. Aroon’s father has returned from the First World War without a leg. A page or so earlier he has written back from the front about the death of Ollie Reilly, one of the servants of the house, who had fought with him and – back in Ireland – had had a romance with another servant, Rose. In the letter he wrote: ‘Tell Rose he died instantly; he never knew what got him’. A little later, we get this:

This was an interval in his recovery; later in the year he was to have his wooden leg fitted. In the meantime he must rest, he must eat. He did both, and drank as well, growing every day more irritable and rather fatter. He followed Mummie about the garden at first; he even sat in the studio and watched her painting, after he had absorbed the small amount of racing news in the daily papers. All the time he seemed sadly unoccupied, as indeed he was. He couldn’t ride. He fell into the river when he went fishing. Long afterwards I knew things were on his mind then. Reeking, new, they must have been terrible. He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying; when he talked to Rose, Ollie’s death seemed quite enviable, here and gone, out like a light.

Such things were so near and so apart from the honeyed life in Ireland. Every day was a perfect day that April. The scrawny beauty of our house warmed and melted in the spring light.

So we get the shimmering ‘honeyed life in Ireland’ full of ‘perfect’ days and beautiful spring light. We get a young woman observing her father following her ‘Mummie’ around like a lost puppy, seeming ‘sadly unoccupied’ because he can’t ride or fish, and growing plump and crochety. But snuck into the middle of this, contained in just a single sentence is the horrible fact that ‘He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying’. It is obvious to the reader that Aroon’s father isn’t ‘sadly unoccupied’, but that he is dwelling on the horror of war, of having shot his mutilated servant to put him out of his misery. Yet this awful thing which so preoccupies him isn’t spoken about, is scarcely even mentioned. The narrator wants to believe – and wants us readers to believe – that her father was only irritable because he couldn’t hunt.

In this disparity between the shiny ‘honeyed’ surface and violent undercurrent, Molly Keane has quite ingeniously pulled off the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.

This gap between the false surface and the dark thrust of tragic reality is why the narrator – and indeed the whole family – relies upon the ‘good behaviour’ of the title. When a tragedy occurs, everyone does their best to behave perfectly – to see who can cry the least, never mention it, ignore it and return to gardening or reading the Tatler. By forcing themselves to live in the surface, they try to make the surface cover up and suppress the underlying tragedy.

In Jane Gardam’s elegant introduction to this beautiful Folio edition, she tells us about an episode when Molly Keane’s six-year-old daughter wanted to weep at the death of her father. Apparently Molly Keane told her child, ‘We mustn’t let [the butler] see us crying.’

Evidently this rule of ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘not in front of the servants’, always acting in accordance with social mores, was experienced, and to some extent, followed by Molly Keane. Perhaps this is why she examines it quite so expertly in this novel. It is from first-hand experience that she has created these characters who adhere so impeccably to the code of ‘Good Behaviour’, and yet, by creating these dark jolting interruptions to the otherwise well-behaved narrative flow, she challenges the code. The reader can’t help but see that some things deserve to be spoken about, ought to be grieved over, mustn’t be swept under the carpet.

As the novel progresses, we see that Aroon has spent her youth learning, however uncomfortably, how to behave as socially impeccably as her parents. We can see how appalling the parents’ behaviour actually is – the mother cruel beyond belief to Aroon, and the father sleazing on to every woman in sight – and yet this is masked with their fantastically ‘good behaviour’, gliding along and looking the other way. Feat after feat of horrible cruelty is disguised and excused by good manners. It is like a more literary incarnation of that nightmarish character from Harry Potter, Dolores Umbridge, inflicting cruel pain from a fluffy pink frilly smiling exterior. And so we gather from the main body of the novel, the excuse for what must be one of the most shocking opening scenes in all literature.

Good Behaviour begins with middle-aged Aroon murdering her mother. She does this, however, in such a polite, well-mannered way – insisting on feeding her sick mother, who she has propped up on a million soft pillows, rabbit mousse – that you almost can’t believe it.

This polite murder is startling at the beginning, but by the end of the book you realise that really it is the very pinnacle of ‘good behaviour’. Aroon has developed manners so finessed, so smotheringly good that they really will allow her to get away with murder.

Good Behaviour is an extraordinary book. It is dark and lethal, but deliberately frothed up into something that appears to be comforting and palatable. I suppose it is like that fatal rabbit mousse which Aroon serves to her mother.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year that Midnight’s Children won. I can’t think of two more different novels. Good Behaviour is so restrained, so poised, so preoccupied with what is unsaid; Midnight’s Children is a splurging explosion, madly exuberant, bursting on to the page with a million highly-charged words. Each novel is a masterpiece. While Good Behaviour might appear to be the less remarkable of the two, in fact it is just understated – a mark of really very good behaviour indeed.

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

There but for the

June 6, 2011

I find there is often an uncanny play between what I’m reading and what’s going on in my life. I suppose that’s one of the things that led me to begin writing this blog …

For instance, as you saw in this post a couple of weeks ago, it was while I was overexcitedly in the grip of wedding fever that I read Diana Athill’s fantastic memoir (yes, VS Naipaul, you are very wrong indeed) about being jilted by her fiancé. Or, last week, I saw Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne, only to then start reading Jiri Weil’s Mendelssohn is on the Roof, in which Don Giovanni features rather heavily.

So, while reading Ali Smith’s brilliant There but for the, which centres on a man who locks himself in a room and, for several weeks, refuses to come out, I couldn’t help but see the parallel between this man, Miles, and my fiancé, who has refused to leave the flat for a similar period of time. Perhaps I exaggerate a little. I try to make him leave the flat once a day, for twenty minutes or so. But it’s not easy. He’s got his final architecture exam next week, and has been working so incredibly hard, feeling that each moment counts for so much, that even taking twenty minutes off feels like an eternity of potential Rhino clicking time wasted.

Miles is the strangely absent centre in There but for the, the lynchpin that holds the novel together. We are told little about him, but each of the, otherwise disparate, main characters knows him in some way. Yes, the fiancé is most definitely strangely absent at the moment, existing mostly in a world of 3D modelling and shortcut keys. Perhaps it would have been a more intriguing period if I’d come into contact with lots of peculiar people with whom he has a tenuous link, like the characters in Ali Smith’s book. I would certainly have liked to meet someone like Brooke Bayoude, a funny, precocious, inquisitive girl, who free-puns her way through the book. She reminds me a little of Jessica Vye from Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona – geeky and cheeky, filled with exuberance. And yet, with a hidden thread of unhappiness and loneliness that fuels their non-stop performance.

There but for the is quite a mad book. In a good way. In that, the whole premise is a bit bonkers – a man going to a dinner party and then locking himself in their spare room for a few months. Another character, Mark, is haunted by his dead mother, who he can hear aggressively hassling him in rhyming couplets:

He couldn’t remember, but the writer, whoever he was I hate to be reminding you again / that writers are not fucking always men described Queen Elizabeth the First quite unforgettably …

(Yeah – boo sucks VS Naipaul.)

It’s funny. It’s mad. It’s playful. And this wayward style, the energy from it, the life, makes for incredible, highly-charged, exciting writing. What a feat.

Yet I think Alex Clark in the Guardian nailed it when she described There but for the as ‘seriously playful’. For underpinning all the word play and puns and silliness, are quite chilling reflections on society and character. ‘Reason in madness’ as Shakespeare put it.

The petty, sniping meanness of the middle classes comes into play at the vile dinner party, from which Miles retreats into the spare room. (The dinner party, incidentally, is hosted by Jen and Eric – generic – good one.) There is the loneliness of little Brooke, who is seen as being too clever for her own good. And the quiet rebellion of old May Young, who is in a nursing home and refuses to take her medication:

She could prove for sure she was not dead yet because there, sweaty in the old claw of an old hand, whose old hand? her old hand, her own, go on open it, proof: the balled-up tissue which held what she’d managed to get out of her mouth of the stuff they gave her to make her forget to remember the day, the month, the prime minister, make her drop her bowl with the custard in it, stuff which she had not swallowed, would not swallow, which she’d held under her tongue when the nurse, Irish-Liverpool, always a cheery word, gave her, and if it wasn’t Irish-Liverpool it was Derek the male nurse, lovely boy from the Caribbean, with May nodding and sending them on their way with a friendly eye.

May’s spirit of defiance – ‘she had not swallowed, would not swallow’ – is all the more affecting due to her age, her ‘old claw of an old hand’, her difficulty in opening it, in getting the stuff out of her mouth. All this text, all these thoughts of May’s are hidden to the nurses, the outside world, masked behind her seemingly innocent ‘friendly eye’.

As well as, obviously, making me think of the fiancé, There but for the reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, another masterpiece which revolves around an absent centre. Her absent centre is, rather more heroically, called ‘Percival’. He is the only character who isn’t given a voice, yet he is the one who holds the other characters together: ‘without Percival there is no solidity’, and:

We are drawn into this communion by some deep, some common emotion. Shall we call it, conveniently ‘love’? Shall we say ‘love of Percival’ because Percival is going to India?

Perhaps Miles is Ali Smith’s Percival. And perhaps There but for the is today’s The Waves. The Waves is a remarkable distillation of modernist writing, and There but for the is a similar achievement for our time. For There but for the seems to me to be everything a novel of today should aspire to be – intelligent and insightful, provocative and critical, yet also witty, playful and, above all, wonderfully, self-consciously wordy.

A Literary A-Z

May 31, 2011

G

Just over a year or so ago, I’d have found G a bit tricky. There’s Graham Greene (of course) and also Amitav Ghosh – I was mildly obsessed with his books, when I was at university. And, thinking back to children’s books, there’s also Ursula le Guin, who wrote the absolute classic Earthsea books, featuring Sparrowhawk, a wizard with whom, as a ten-year-old, I was completely in love.

But all this was before I discovered Jane Gardam. It was before a strange two weeks, last March, when I was recovering from having my tonsils removed – a time spent moving between bed and sofa, alternating between severe pain and being smacked out on Codeine, when it took half an hour to nibble a piece of toast. A colleague had recommended reading A Long Way from Verona. She said it was one of her favourite books – comforting, funny, and brilliant enough to make anyone want to become a writer. Indeed, she gushed about it so much, I felt like I couldn’t very well say no. (Now, I worry that I have the same unnerving effect when recommending Jane Gardam to unsuspecting customers.)

Reading A Long Way from Verona was absolute bliss. It was everything I’d hoped for and more – silly and clever and touching and altogether brilliant and, best of all, utterly eccentric. Set in wartime Yorkshire, it’s written from the point of view of Jessica Vye, a rather precocious thirteen-year-old girl, who is determined to be a writer. (For more, see this earlier post.)

Subsequently, I read The Man in the Wooden Hat (see this post) and then Old Filth, both of which confirmed my view of her as one of the finest writers I’ve ever read. (And these two were read without any codeine at all.) Jane Gardam manages to be so terribly clever in such a light-hearted, delicate, precise way. Everything is very funny yet also quietly poignant; it all seems slightly mad, yet is so perfectly observed. I cannot recommend her highly enough. G is definitely for Gardam.

H

I cannot resist bringing in a terrific tale from the bookshop. Somebody’s favourite author is Roger Hargreaves, he who wrote the Mr Men books. I say ‘somebody’, because until last week we didn’t know who he or she was. We have a recurrent problem in that every couple of months, ALL our Mr Men and Little Miss books – so that’s around a hundred of them – would disappear. Despite our most vigilant efforts, no one had managed to catch sight of the thief. Until last week, that is, when my colleague and I were involved in a pretty exciting car chase.

Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. I came out of the stock room and instantly noticed that the Mr Mens were gone. I told my colleague – I shall call him, enigmatically, ‘C’ – and C said, ‘Oh my god, it was that woman, she’s only just left.’ He raced out of the shop, accosting her, asking her about the books, asking if he could look in her, suddenly rather suspiciously capacious, bag. She refused to stop, hurried across the road, with him in hot pursuit, and jumped into her getaway car. Yes! She really had a getaway car, with a driver inside. Quick-thinking C, wrote the number plate down on his hand, as they sped off towards the horizon. We phoned the police. We got to use the funny Charlie Foxtrot Tango code. The police said they’d try and catch em. But they didn’t. They just suggested we got CCTV. And that was that.

But, Mr Men thief, if you were to happen to read this. BE WARNED. We know who you are now! Don’t ever come near our shop again.

There are some good Hs. There’s Joseph Heller of Catch 22 fame, Hemmingway and Siri Husvedt. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read anything by her. I must put that right, as several people have told me how fantastic she is. I suppose the correct choice should be Hemmingway, but, for some reason I’ve never been quite as wild about him as I feel I ought. My favourite Hemmingway moment is that really naf bit in the film City of Angels when Nicolas Cage asks Meg Ryan to describe a pear like Hemingway:

Sweet…juicy. Soft on your tongue. Grainy … like sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth.

I suppose it’s actually quite good, but watching it feels cringingly terrible.

But for my real favourite H I’ve got to hop over to non-fiction and say Alexandra Harris. What a hero. Her book, Romantic Moderns, is completely wonderful. (I’ve written about it here and here.) She shares Jane Gardam’s eccentric tone and lightness of touch. What comes across more than anything in this beautiful book, is quite how much she knows, yet quite how lightly she wears her knowledge. Rather than wading through millions of dates and dry facts, the book is a feast of gleeful anecdotes. My favourite one is in her chapter entitled, ‘An Hour in the Garden’, when she writes about how flowers became a kind of protest against the utilitarianism and rationing of war. In 1943 The Transport of Flowers Order (yes, really!) banned the transit of flowers by rail and, consequently, tales of flower smuggling bloomed. People used to scoop the hearts out of cauliflowers and fill them with anemones. Extraordinary!

Harris has a magpie’s eye for the sparkling anecdote that brings an idea brilliantly to life. Romantic Moderns is a marvellous book that has got to be in my non-fiction Top 3, and definitely the winner for H.

I

I is a troublesome letter for an author’s surname. I haven’t read anything by John Irving, which makes me feel, rather resignedly that perhaps, just by default, due to the paucity of authors whose last names begin with I, it might have to go to Ishiguro. Even though I think he’s not really all that. Izzo is supposed to be a great French crime writer, but I haven’t read him either. I suppose I could be precocious and a bit witty and say, aha, ‘I’ am my favourite writer. But that’s, frankly, a bit too nauseatingly self-satisfied.

I was about to give up on this one and just say ok, Ishiguro’s good enough, but, by a tremendous piece of luch, I’ve been saved by a splendid theatre trip on Saturday night. I’m not sure if I’ve yet mentioned The Rosemary Branch on EmilyBooks. It’s a sweet little theatre pub, just round the corner from me, which happens to be playing rather a large part in the novel I’m writing. By happy coincidence a friend has been acting there in I am a Camera – a play based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

First of all, let me just say, that there are few things better than a night out at a theatre pub, especially if it’s local. It feels a bit like going back to the fifties. All the punters are very friendly and jolly. The landlady knows pretty much everyone by name. There’s a lot of sitting around, drinking and gassing in the interval and afterwards, that you definitely don’t get in a theatre that offers only an expensive, crowded bar, rather than a spacious, welcoming pub.

And the play itself was fantastic. It’s had brilliant reviews, which is not particularly common for Fringe theatre. The acting was top notch, and the story was brilliant, following the escapades of Isherwood and Sally Bowles – two English expats – in 1930s Berlin. The title is from the first line in Isherwood’s book:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

Good first line.

I know that a play based on a book by an author is somewhat tenuous ground to claim that he’s the best author for I, but well, sorry, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. (I have seen the film of The Single Man, based on another of his books, too.) Anyway, I fully intend on reading Goodbye to Berlin as soon as poss – then I’ll have something a bit more solid as backup – but, even in the meantime, Christopher Isherwood wins for I.

‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night’

March 7, 2011

Saturday night was World Book Night. For those of you who missed it, the main event revolved around a huge giveaway of a million books. Well actually, 40,000 copies of 25 books. (I’ve written a piece about it for the Spectator Arts Blog, which you can read here.)

The title of this blog is a quotation from Nicola Morgan, who suggested a ‘complementary World Book Night‘, for which you’d buy just one book and give it away. Inside the book you’d write ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.’

Well, World Book Night made me think about the art of giving away a book.  It’s rather an important thing to think about as books are, as often as not, bought as a present for someone rather than for one’s own pleasurable consumption. I have even become a rather more accomplished wrapper-upper due to the vast number of books I’ve wrapped for customers in the shop.

The Guardian did a great piece about which books various writers like to give and receive as presents. Several seem to like giving away books of poetry – AS Byatt, Andrew Motion (funnily enough), David Nicholls, Jonathan Raban, Rose Tremain.

And book tokens are surprisingly divisive. PD James loves them – ‘I never give books, only book tokens, which I give frequently for birthdays and at Christmas to young and old members of my family.’ Anthony Horowitz has always hated them – ‘If there was anything I hated receiving as a child, it was a book token. I had a couple of namby-pamby aunts who always gave me book tokens, a present almost purposely designed to remind me how thick and illiterate I was.’

But, most importantly, several wise writerly souls realise that, as David Mitchell puts it, ‘Choosing the right gift-book is the art of the matchmaker – it must be tailored to the individual.’

As a bookseller, I’d like to think I’m quite good at choosing the right book for the right person. Recommending books to customers always involves asking what they like rather than forcing your favourite book of the moment on them. Although there was a rather sad instance of failure recently. A good customer of ours came in, going on and on about how much he liked Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace etc. When he asked me for a recommendation, instead of suggesting someone as obvious and perfect as Paul Auster, some spirit of perversity in me made me suggest Jane Gardam. Whoops. He read Old Filth, came back and said he’d give it 7 out of 10. ‘It’s a bit like meeting someone on a train,’ he said. ‘Quite interesting, but not very.’ On seeing my crestfallen expression, he remarked, palliatively, ‘I think I’ll give it to my mum though. I’m sure she’ll like it.’

I had hoped that he might find something remarkable and unusual in reading a book by an old eccentric English woman, rather than all this male American novelist stuff. But obviously not. Next time, I’ll suggest Paul Auster.

Point being, books are harder to give away than one might suppose. But here are three suggestions for next time you want to buy someone a book. And it’s not really too late to give it in the spirit of World Book Night, if you get your skates on.

1. Buy a book that’s really beautiful.

You could get a lovely edition of a classic, such as one of these particularly resplendent F Scott Fitzgeralds. Or one of those little Slightly Foxed books, which I think are best described as old-school. If something’s a limited edition (as with the Slightly Foxed) all the better. Of course, if money and time aren’t issues, then going for a first edition of a seminal work is always going to be a winner.

And there are also new beautiful books. They’re could be from small publishers or a beautiful art book. My favourite is still this Ravilious one (which I first wrote about here). The thing about art books is that people feel less pressured to sit down and read them cover to cover, they can leaf through them and put them out on display somewhere. Like a coffee table. They can be rather dear, though.

2. Buy a book that’s really new.

If you know what sort of books they love, or what sort of thing they’re interested in, then find out what’s really new and really good and buy them that. Chances are they won’t have got round to buying it for themselves yet. And there’s always a bit of a buzz about good new books that makes it feel rather exciting when you’re given one. The big new book of the moment is probably Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, or for those more novelistically inclined, Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar.

3. Buy a book that you absolutely loved.

Now there is a caveat to this one. They may well not love the book as much as you did. This will be doubly upsetting for you because 1. You’ll think they’re ungrateful and 2. You’ll either think they’re stupid for not loving it, or else you might wonder if your taste isn’t as impeccable as you’d assumed.

I’d suggest only doing this for someone who’s rather special to you, because they’ll probably understand how much that book means to you so, most importantly, they’ll preserve your feelings and tell you they love it (even if they don’t), and also, even if they don’t love it, I expect they’ll still feel rather special to have been given something that meant something to you. Of course I can’t advise on this one, other than to try to pick something relatively obscure. If it’s not a new book, there’s a good chance they’ll already have it. And if it’s not a beautiful edition, then they probably don’t want another copy. It’s a very personal choice – and I’d love to know what you’d all give. My choice would most probably be A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam (which I’ve written about here.)

And the best book I’ve ever received as a present? That would be the set of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and Letters – first editions! – that my mum gave me for my twenty-first birthday. I was writing a dissertation on her and was absolutely obsessed. And, even in my rubbish photo, you can see that they’re perfectly beautiful.

The Joy of Jane Gardam

January 24, 2011

I wish that we could all be more like Jane Gardam.

I finished her most recent book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, with utter delight. I absolutely adore her writing.

If I see anyone so much as glance at it in the bookshop, I can’t help but gush, ‘Oh I’ve just finished that book and I absolutely loved it. I adored it. It’s so wonderful. It’s just so brilliant.’

They look slightly alarmed. Calm down missy, their expressions seem to say, no need for histrionics.

Sometimes they are so alarmed that they buy a copy (keep the crazy girl happy, she might get dangerous). Sometimes they smile and nod, until I back away. And sometimes they ask me why I love it so much.

But it’s terribly difficult to pin it down precisely. It’s hard to work out quite why Gardam’s writing is so appealing. Is it her sense of humour, her old-fashionedness, her sympathetic characters, her astute observations? Why is it so very funny?

What it all boils down to, I think, is that it is exceptionally honest. Sentences are short, sharp, to the point. Each word is the most accurate, the most fitting, the most perfect word. Her main character, Elisabeth, is admirably no-nonsense. She doesn’t waffle. She sees through difficult situations and gets on with things. And all this pared-down honesty makes it really rather funny.

Take this scene, for instance, in which Elisabeth is getting a haircut in Hong Kong:

The hairdresser preened above her head.

‘Is it for an occasion?’

‘I don’t know. Well, yes, I’m going out tonight.’

The hairdresser smiled and smiled, dead-eyed. Elisabeth had the notion that somewhere there was dislike.

‘Would you like colour?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Would you like to be more seriously red?’

‘No. No, not at all.’ (Am I making sense?) ‘Just wash my hair, please. Take the aeroplane out of it.’

Aeroplane out of it.’ Silly giggle.

Elisabeth knows exactly what is going on, exactly what the hairdresser’s thinking, behind her preening and questions and smiles. She can sense the dislike, yet she remains polite; she doesn’t get exasperated, but retains her composure, takes charge of the situation, and issues clear instructions: ‘Just wash my hair, please.’

It’s very understated and I find it very funny. The humour simmers away through the short sentences, a little bubble escaping every now and again but never really having a chance to burst through. It reminds me of having the giggles in a Maths lesson – holding my breath, pinching my arm, trying desperately hard to think of something else, stifling the laughter as much as is humanly possible. But knowing that at some point, it will explode.

And so here is a rather different scene. Much later in the book, Elisabeth has an encounter with her husband’s clerk, who happens to be a dwarf, and who happens to know about a rather incriminating love affair she had just before she married her husband:

‘No! Get out! Go away!’

He took off the broad brown hat and sat down on the red chair and looked at her from across the room.

‘Go away. I hate you.’

He twirled his shoes, regarded them and, without looking at her, said, ‘I’ve come to apologise. I dealt you the Five of Clubs. It was a mistake. I seldom make a mistake, and I have never apologised for anything before, being of a proud nature.’

She watched him.

‘The Five of Clubs means “a prudent marriage not for love”.’

She watched him.

‘I am very much attached to your husband. I saw only your faithlessness. It affected the pack. I was wrong.’

‘You were always wrong. You stole his watch once.’

He became purple in the face with rage and said, ‘Never! He gave it to me when I had nothing. It was all he possessed. He trusted me. It was to save my life.’

‘You are cruel!’

‘Here is a telephone number you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’

‘I don’t need your help.’

He sighed and put out a hand to his hat and she thought, He may have a knife. He could kill me. He is a troll from a stinking pit.

But he brought out of the hat only the pack of cards, looked at it, then put it away.

This time Elisabeth loses her calm. Her hysteria might be childish and over-the-top but it is still honest. Her sentences remain short and to the point: ‘I hate you. You are cruel. I don’t need your help.’

And Gardam manages to balance, perfectly, Elisabeth’s anger with the dwarf’s placidity. Until, that is, he becomes ‘purple’ with rage. Perhaps this is when a little bubble of laughter might escape. The tension builds and builds, and then I find I am in complete hysterics at the climax:

He is a troll from a stinking pit.

Ha ha ha ha ha. (I actually really did just choke quite painfully on some water I was half-way through swallowing.)

Elisabeth is often in situations in which she is confronted by a certain code. The code of the hairdresser, for instance, in which the hairdresser fawns over her – preening, asking so many questions, giggling in a girlish ‘silly’ way. Or the code of the dwarf, ‘I dealt you the Five of Clubs.’ ‘Here is a telephone number that you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’ All very cryptic. All hinting about something that isn’t said, some information that is missing. Whose phone number is it? Why will it be to her advantage? What on earth does he mean by the Five of Clubs? (Well that, at least, he explains.)

Gardam tells us that Elisabeth was at Bletchley Park during the war. She is particularly adept at cracking codes. And it is this knowledge of codes that carries her through life. It enables her to see through situations and people. She can tell that the hairdresser’s smile is fake, ‘dead-eyed’. She cuts through all the questions with her clear instructions. She can’t be bothered with her giggles and preening. And likewise with the dwarf, in spite of being scared of him, she doesn’t indulge his cryptic messages, she merely ‘watched him,’ and then tells him, ‘You are cruel.’

It is as though she cracks their codes and at the same time chooses not to use them. She will continue to speak plain English and just jolly well get on with it.

And there is the honesty. The piercing through all the waffling, distracting codes. Elisabeth doesn’t mess about. She gets straight to the heart of things. And perhaps it is this juxtaposition between Elisabeth’s matter-of-factness and the other character’s complex codes that makes it so very funny.

I read an interview that Jane Gardam did for the Guardian, six years ago. It begins with a story of her childhood dream of being a writer.

‘I just knew I would be a writer,’ she says. ‘It just seemed the only sensible thing to do.’ As a child, she scribbled secret stories which she hid in the chimney in her room. ‘Then I got chicken pox. In those days in Yorkshire, you never had a fire in your bedroom unless you were very ill. They lit a fire. My hand went up and I brought down cinders. Never mind. It wasn’t much good, I shouldn’t think.’

This is so utterly Jane Gardam. She knew she would be a writer because ‘it just seemed the only sensible thing to do’. And when she encounters her first major setback – all her stories going up in smoke – she doesn’t dwell on it, angst over it, pine and long for what has been lost. ‘Never mind’, she says. Better just get on with it.

‘Never mind’ is the philosophy that seems to underlie all her writing. ‘Never mind all this,’ Elisabeth seems to be thinking all the time. ‘Just cut my hair, please.’ ‘Go away.’ ‘Never mind all this fussing,’ she seems to be saying. It’s chin-up, soldier on. It’s very British.

But sadly, it feels like that attitude belongs to a Britain of the past. Wartime Britain. Make-do and mend. It belongs to a grandparent, rather than a teenager. How I wish it could be a bigger part of Britain today! Wouldn’t it be terrific? Wouldn’t we all be terribly brave and good and nobody would read any ghastly misery memoirs?

But there we go. Best not to dwell on it. Never mind. I shall just have to start reading another Jane Gardam novel straight away.

In praise of eccentricities

August 23, 2010

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.