RECENT READS

Compared with the relative famine at the start of the pandemic, I have enjoyed a feast of fiction this year. My latest pile of books – two bought and two borrowed – have seen me travelling around Ireland, with a brief sojourn in Brighton.

Marian Keyes can be relied upon for a good family saga that will take one’s mind off the restrictions imposed by the current pandemic. Grown Ups contains the right interesting ingredients for this: two brothers and their families, lots of money (and not so much), social manipulation, individual desires – and secrets. There are other aspects such as the desire to lose weight: “But Cara was afraid of wine – not just the calories but how it weakened her resolve.” This makes her easy to identify with, but what about the murder-mystery weekend? The various events lead to the realisation that we all need to take charge of, and lead, our own lives. This is a fun way of finding out why.

I have not come across Faith Hogan before, but was intrigued enough by the cover of What happened to us? to purchase this Irish story. The by-line “Sometimes the end is only the beginning…” draws one quickly to the travails of a couple dedicated to running their restaurant. One cannot help sympathising with Carrie when her partner is bowled over by their new waitress from Brazil and leaves her. Predictable? Not really, for in her determination to salvage what she can, Carrie finds herself helping others and a delicious sense of community develops – shocking us again with the intrigue wrought by the Brazilian interlopers. There are opportunities to smile, such as when Carrie’s former partner complains “How in God’s name can you spend a thousand euros on a pair of shoes?” when the level of his girlfriend’s spending reaches a peak. Rituals, such as Christmas, have to change as the dynamics between the characters shift. This is a quick, light, yet satisfying read.

Not as light is The Brighton Mermaid by Dorothy Koomson, another new author for me. The narrative begins in 1993 when two teenagers find the body of an unidentified young woman on the beach and continues through the next twenty-five years. It is the determination of one of the teenagers to discover the identity of the woman that leads us into more family secrets, intrigue, and the changes in relationships that follow until the rather fast-paced and thrilling end. I will be looking out for other novels by this author, who knows how to bring loose threads together without leaving her readers wanting.

Talk about being left wanting: I raced through The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley, having followed the saga of the seven sisters from the beginning. Some novels in this series have been more authentic than others; all have alluded to a mystery relating to Pa Salt that readers ‘know’ must be revealed at the end. It isn’t, and with the death of the author in June, I wonder if it will be. This is nonetheless a quick and interesting read that moves quickly from New Zealand to Ireland via some quick visits to other places. The identity of the ‘missing sister’ proves to be curious and, perhaps, unexpected; the backstory of Ireland’s turbulent past is intriguing; the healing of relationships is fairly satisfying … yet the novel ends with an array of pressing questions still waiting to be answered.

ARE BOOKS STILL RELEVANT?

To most of my readers this question may seem irrelevant. I nonetheless ask it after having attended a meeting of mostly young parents about the need or otherwise of creating a school library at a relatively new primary school. Naturally, the cost of both this and the future role of technology in the school were foremost in the minds of those present. You might not consider these aspects mutually exclusive, but here are a selection of comments aired in the meeting:

Books are too costly, referring to text books, non-fiction and fiction, you can download them at a fraction of the cost whenever you need them.

Books take up far too much space and quickly become outdated. [I know my home is groaning under the weight of books we have collected over many years, yet I have fond memories of books we have referred to over and again – even some we have reread for the sheer joy of doing so – and of the many books our children enjoyed and have been enjoyed all over again by their children. Each of our grandchildren have expressed wonder at seeing the name of their parent, uncle or aunt emblazoned on the inside of the cover … “Wow!”].

Children need to use the technology available to get the information they want. Books are no good for that.

One of the parents, who works in the telecommunications industry, was adamant that primary school children should be shielded from ‘too much’ exposure to computers in any form: I, of all of you here, know the dangers of radiation, she announced boldly. Books are there to be treasured and to be loved [a woman after my own heart]. Some stories never date and if they do, donate them to children for whom they will be new.

The real shocker for me was the confident confession from a mother of a three-year-old boy: I have never unfolded a book, she declared. I could see that some of the slightly older parents in this particular discussion group were as taken aback by this statement as I was. The woman could sense the negativity around the table and spoke more loudly: What? I’m a Millennial, what do you expect? She went on to explain that she has never introduced her son to a book, but assured us that she has several stories suitable for him stored on her iPad. He can see the menu, clicks on the one he wants and then the story is read to him. The words are even underlined as they are spoken, so he can follow them! She sounded so proud of this achievement.

I cannot help thinking of the special feeling of reading stories to my children and later on to my grandchildren; of turning back the pages or pausing so that they could have a good look at the illustrations; of reading the same story over and again; and the delicious feeling of a small child cuddling ever closer to me while I read.

Presentations were made by the various discussion groups to the parent body as a whole as the meeting drew to a close. No firm conclusions were drawn as this was part of an ongoing discussion about changes to and the expansion of the school. During the hubbub of tea and sandwiches, a mother approached me with I have only read books to my two children, she confided quietly. Some of them have become really tatty, but the stories are favourites.

I drove home that night thinking of the book waiting on my bedside table; of our vast home library; of my grandchildren’s enjoyment of bedtime stories; and was left wondering if that Millennial’s sentiment is one that is gaining traction.

Do you think books are still relevant?

AUNT BETTY’S CORNER

My late father was an avid reader of The Farmer’s Weekly and once I could read well I enjoyed reading the articles too, gathering quite a lot of incidental information along the way! A column called The Hitching Post delighted the older me – tickled by the messages posted by people seeking companions. This column is still going strong: advertisements claim that ‘hundreds of couples have found love’ or companionship as a result of submitting their profile to the magazine. There was also a supplement aimed at women that was called The Homestead and in this was a page devoted to the interests of young children. This was called Aunt Betty’s Corner. I must have been around five or six when I became a member.

I was very interested in the Corner and it was there that I found addresses for pen-friends – which fed my abiding joy in writing letters. I also loved entering competitions when the opportunity arose. During my primary school years I won about three writing competitions – the prize was usually a postal order for about two shillings. This ‘success’ spurred me on to write ever since – though I don’t earn a cent from it, although ‘scribbling’ gives me a lot of joy.

AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND

My grandfather gave me a copy of At the back of the North Wind by George MacDonald when I was about eleven. I read this Hyperborean tale with some difficulty at the time for I could not relate to it well enough to understand and appreciate the story. As I never saw fit to either read it to my children or recommend it to them, I was rather surprised to find it nestled on my current bookshelf 58 years later. The national 21-day lock down to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus does odd things to one: I decided to reread this story, which has endured since it was first published in 1871.

The story follows Diamond, the son of a poor coachman, through the travails of his life as well as his innocent, yet wise, relationships with other people; his acceptance of his lot; as well as his natural desire to help others in need. In this, he is aided by the embodiment of the North Wind.

George MacDonald uses Diamond to draw an interesting parallel between the grim reality of working class life and the ethereal beauty of the landscape “at the back of the North Wind”, where Diamond climbs a tree every day to wonder at it. It is a kind of never-never land where one wants for nothing. The sad reality of it only becomes evident at the end.

In what I regard as a typically Victorian fashion (based on the way my grandfather spoke and behaved towards children) the story is clearly meant to both entertain and instruct its young readers – not that I can see young readers of today being able to cope with the level of the language used or the verbosity of the narration. The author/narrator intrudes too often for modern tastes.

MacDonald’s story would probably be severely edited if it were presented for publication these days: he digresses, tells stories within the story, pontificates, and includes pages of verse – the latter I admit to skimming over as I doubtless did when I was eleven. There is a lot of moralising (the instructive parts of the tale) along with numerous examples of the moral goodness of Diamond. One being when, as small and weak as he is, he bravely intervenes in a fight between Nanny, the street sweeper, and some ruffian boys.

My grandfather must have enjoyed – and better appreciated – the story because he was closer to the background of horse-drawn cabs, street sweepers and the obvious disparity of the living conditions of the poor and the wealthy during the nineteenth century. It was a world away from any context I could understand in rural South Africa and is virtually out of reach for today’s young readers.

Diamond epitomises goodness and carries a mystical air about him. Nanny and Jim call him ‘God’s child’ and openly declare he ‘has a tile loose’, dismissing his views on life as being fanciful. As alluded to earlier, during the course of the narrative one cannot help but link Diamond’s adventures with the North Wind with bouts of illness and, later, even death.

The arrival of the corona virus (COVID-19) has impacted the lives of millions of people around the world, much as tuberculosis still does, and other diseases we don’t pay too much attention to now, would have been a scourge among the poor and working classes of the nineteenth century. I don’t know if this parallel was in the back of my mind, or if it is simply a case of me being older and wiser, but I enjoyed rereading this children’s classic with its foxed pages and delighted in the line drawings and colour plates by E. H. Shepard – who originally illustrated Winnie the Pooh SO much better than any Disney hand could!

It is Lock Down Day 8.

JETTISON

I find it interesting the way certain ideas take hold and weave their way into magazines, newspapers and even into blogs. During the course of last year, for example, it appeared as if taking stock of what is in our homes and at least thinking about getting rid of items that have accumulated over the years was the order of the day. Articles abounded in the press (mostly encouraging the general public to ‘downsize’, to ‘minimize’, or to ‘declutter’ by ‘getting rid of stuff’) and blog posts regularly appeared (some exalting in the ‘freedom’ resulting from having done so, and many more contemplating both the necessity and the pain associated with getting ‘rid of stuff’). What was the driving force behind it – not that it is a new concept: the annual spring cleaning, so beloved by some, sees to a general clearing out. The decluttering drive appeared to be more strongly motivated. What, for example, will happen to my collection of photograph albums?

It was difficult to avoid the topic. Nonetheless, there appeared to be a general consensus among bloggers that it is a good idea in principle to clear out cupboards or garages, to unpack shelves and boxes, and even to clear out rooms! All of these boxes  in my study contain letters, first day covers and papers that are probably only of value to me.

There has been an acknowledgement too that the books and items of furniture we hold dear appear to have little appeal among the (perhaps more mobile) younger generation.

“None of my children are interested in owning my collection of silverware,” a friend told me ruefully. “They don’t want to have to polish it – and the cutlery can’t go into a dishwasher!” What will happen to it? I recall having tea in a lovely place in Mpumalanga and being appalled at the use of beautiful silver teapots (all tarnished and crying out for a polish) filled with succulents and used as centre-pieces for the tables.

Another friend mourns the fact that neither of her children is interested in inheriting any of the beautiful furniture she and her husband have collected. “They both live overseas – in different countries – so it would probably cost them a fortune to ship any of it over anyway.” What is to happen to it? It breaks my heart to see lovely old furniture being covered with paint – often with a ‘distressed’ look to make it appear old – used as outside tables or garage cupboards, all in the name of ‘upcycling’.

Most homes have items that are no longer needed, or which have become burdensome, and need to be discarded. Many of us put off doing so both because it is time-consuming and we don’t actually know how to get rid of items that might be useful to others. I read of organised recycling or redistribution programmes in countries other than where I live. A number of charities make worthy recipients as do schools and community projects. There is a limit to what they can absorb though. Also, while there may be recycling centres in large cities, here it has even become risky to enter the municipal dump on one’s own.

Feeling the need to get rid of accumulated possessions brings to mind the original meaning of jettison, which referred to the act of throwing goods overboard to lighten the load of a ship in distress. Some might argue that our homes are ‘ships in distress’ requiring us to jettison material possessions from time to time. I quake at our collection of books that fills almost every room in our home. I have given many away to charities and rehomed some children’s books – what will happen to the rest once we are no longer here to curate them?

Some bloggers have stated categorically that they love being surrounded by the accumulation of things that hold a lifetime of memories, so are not prepared to jettison anything. Others say it is not fair to burden our children with the task of sorting through our belongings. I agree with both views, although lean towards the latter. The main problem is where to begin!