After what can only be described as the world’s longest staff inset day, following a 14 hour school day with Open Evening, I met up with Paul in London for a Saturday of doing lovely, relaxing, bookish things. From a leisurely train ride with a new Persephone book to climbing into bed in flannel pyjamas warmed on the radiator, it was possibly the most therapeutic thing I could have done.
We braved the downpour for a lovely brunch at Giraffe, did a bit of umbrella shopping, stopped to admire the leaves in Russell Square Gardens and get very wet indeed. We made our way to The Folio Society bookstore where Paul had one of the limited edition Odes of Horace manuscripts illustrated by William Morris. It was boxed and wrapped and rewrapped so it wouldn’t get wet, so I haven’t had a chance to peep at it, but it looks to be one of the most exquisite books I have ever seen.
And that is one of the loveliest bookstores I have ever been into; wall-to-wall of stunning books, comfy chairs to have a sit-down, and being offered a glass of port and toffee apples on a steamingly rainy day. I have now added about a dozen more Folio books to my Must-Buy list.
We made our way to Mayfair and to one of my very favourite places in London, Heywood Hill. Part of my love for this shop is because Nancy Mitford worked here during the war, and I love treading the boards and picking up books from the same shelves she once stocked. (I still need to read the collection of letters she wrote with Heywood Hill…may need to go back just to snap that one up!) Paul found one of Nancy’s books with her autograph inside, and I had a lovely, ghostly encounter when one of the beautiful cupboards opened on its own while I was browsing the shelves. I like to think it was the kind of tease one of the Hons might get up to. I snapped up the most delightful looking book, Christmas with the Savages, by Mary Clive. It’s just the kind of read for this time of year and I’m trying to save it for when I don’t have controlled assessments to mark! The bookseller mentioned that she was one of the Pakenham family and now I’m eager to find some of her other books.
It was especially lovely to go into the Chesterfield Mayfair for a luxurious champagne tea after all the darting about in the rain. We had gone earlier in the summer for a tea in the conservatory while staying for my friend Kat’s gorgeous wedding, and while I like the beautiful dining room, I love the open and airy conservatory. I indulged in my love of cucumber sandwiches, nattered on and on to Paul, and tried to get him to look at my new book. It took me a few hours of thinking he was a weirdo for not wanting to see it, only to realise he’d slipped another book I had been looking at while at Heywood Hill into my bag. Lovely boy, he is.
You would think that after that enormous tea we would be ready to roll back out. But no. We were both attracted by the lovely Terrace Bar next door, so we settled into a comfy booth and sampled the range of Gin and Tonics. Paul tried Hendricks, and another I can’t remember, while I discovered that Tanqueray 10 is a bit of magic in a bottle. Needless to say, I slept very well.
While it’s back to marking and lesson planning and prosaic things like cleaning and laundry, it’s lovely to have had a day out with my favourite person. And waking up to the lovely things he surprised me with just made it even better. Truly, the most lovely and relaxing day out I could ask for.
When I was a sophomore in college, still just majoring in English and government, I took a cross-curricular English/History class on the female voice. I was already leaning towards adding another major, always wistfully eyeing the history courses. In the end, it was one class and one text that pushed me to make that move, to add another major to an already busy schedule. One of the texts on the syllabus was Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’. It was a hefty text, and trust me, I was used to buying enormous law books and English tomes. But I loved the course, and about 10 minutes into reading my assigned pages for class, I was utterly engrossed. I stayed up reading the whole book, in spite of having an early class the next morning, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to do so. To try to sum it up is impossible, so I can only say what it was to me: empowering, heartbreaking, formative, and defining. Vera Brittain’s story is, of course, the story of a particular generation, but it’s more than that. It is a seminal work that should be read so that we do not forget the lessons learned from in the Great War, but it’s also a beautiful and perfect picture of a life, a time, and a beautiful mind working its way through big questions.
There’s a new film version of ‘Testament of Youth’ coming out this year, and while I will actually make it to the cinema to watch this one, what I really hope is that it will cause a new generation of people to pick up this remarkable book. Also , doesn’t Jon Snow clean up well?
While I do love autumn, I have to admit that I’m finding November more trying than I remember it last year. It’s dark when I’m headed in to school, it’s dark when I’m headed home, and the darker it gets, the more I think of the sunshine at home. I find myself turning on all the lights I can, and when I find a sun patch, staying there and basking in it until it goes away. My cats would be proud of me.
I think there’s just something about this month that makes me homesick. This is the month of Thanksgiving dinners with family, Thanks+Giving potlucks with friends, the Macy’s parade, massive shopping sales, crispy red and gold leaves, Red Cup Day at Starbucks, and when Target puts out their Archers Farm mint hot chocolate.
Since that line of thinking leaves me nowhere, I’m doing my best to warm up November. Today I stayed near the stove, basking in its warmth, making some pumpkin chocolate chip muffins to make my lunch box a bit more cheerful. I watched a sunset and picked a few apples from the tree in the back garden. I commiserated about the dark with one of my housemates, who is Australian and also missing the sunshine. I strung fairy lights in my room for the first time since college, broke out the good tea from Fortnum & Mason, investigated my book haul from over half-term, binged on Bach, and lit all the candles I could find.
This weekend I buy cocoa and make a batch of soup, collect some more acorns and leaves for my window bowl, and hopefully begin my annual reread of Mrs Miniver. What do you suggest to warm up November?
I spent the past few weeks actively counting down to half-term. And I do mean literally counting down; I had a running tally of days that I ticked off before my week of freeeeeeedom.
After two days in Stratford spent enjoying hotel breakfasts and the biggest shopping mall in Europe, we caught the train back to Cambridge for a quiet week. It was absolutely lovely to have time to bake again. There’s something incredibly relaxing about standing in a kitchen, going through the motions of a familiar recipe, watching raw ingredients turn into something golden and warm. While I am trying to eat proper dinners these days, not the hurried sandwiches I had last year, I don’t have that much time in the evenings to think about or prepare meals, and almost no time to bake. So it was an incredible luxury to just stand in a kitchen and think about what I wanted. In the end I made a plum cake, and a few days later, made another to leave in the freezer for Paul to pull out when he needs a nice cup of tea and slice of cake. I also made more molasses cookies, again with black treacle instead of molasses, but this time browning the butter and adding the treacle before mixing, which created a crisper, almost toffee-like texture. I was going to bring some of those back with me, but got carried away buying books, and ran out of room in my bag, drat it.
I also spent my usual amount of time mooning around the garden. I’m lucky to live in a green and leafy suburb, but I do miss Paul’s garden. I went out to inspect the changing leaves, admire the hardy white roses which are still hanging on, eavesdrop on the fat birds that hang out around the feeder, and sniff at the cold air. It’s already starting to get dark early, so it also meant I was on hedgehog patrol most evenings, popping up to peer outside and see if I could find the resident hedgie who lives under the shed. No luck this time…
…and that was pretty much my half-term. Nothing exciting, just peace, quiet, music, books, bubble baths, big cups of tea, spending time with Paul, feeding him stodgy winter food, getting my incredibly long mane of hair chopped off, and the occasional trips into town to do some shopping and revel in the autumn colours on every corner. It was exactly what I needed.
I also made a point to go to evensong. I grew up listening to King’s College Choir and, although I’d passed the college multiple times over the past year, never managed to make it before. I almost didn’t make it this time, but in the end, found myself joining the long queue waiting in the dusk. King’s is always awe-inspiring, but there is something rather magical about seeing the lights go on in the quad and the slow ringing of the bells. The music was glorious, and the chapel, lit by candles, was dazzling. It’s impossible to be in there without thinking about all the people who have passed through over the years, and equally comforting to see the choristers, who look and sound like angels behind their golden lights, pushing and jostling each other on their way to communion. I gave one my patented Teacher Look until he piped down and then I went back to thinking about church mice (as you do).
Knowing I’d be in Cambridge for the half-term, I’d been making a list of things I needed to buy. I ended up getting quite a few things on my list, necessary things like a hair dryer, fun things like new nail polish and perfume, household things like candles and holiday decorations, and even some new clothing. It was also an opportunity to get some of the teachery things that run out quickly, like marking pens and stickers, and the things you don’t know you need, but inevitably do…like foam, sequins, and sparkly paper. There will be an English crown in my classroom.
And, unsurprisingly, I left Cambridge with a huge stack of new books. You know you have a problem when you arrive with one bag and have to buy a small suitcase just to get home. Paul brought me some book finds from the market, a copy of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”, which I would not let myself open for fear of getting nothing else done, and then I went mad at Heffers, The Haunted Bookshop, and various other stores. And the worst thing is, I now have nine new books on my wish list that didn’t buy.
Basically, the perfect half-term.
I was ridiculously excited this morning when I heard that Virago Press, one of my favourite publishers, will be reprinting L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books. I have to admit, these are not the Montgomery’s that I return to again and again for a good comfort read – that would be either the Anne series or the totally under-appreciated Pat series. But I know I’ll be snapping up these gorgeous books this autumn and having a lovely time rediscovering them with a steaming cup of tea.
I know that the new year starts for most people on January 1st, but for me, it’s always been the first day of school. Now that I’m teaching, this feels even more the case. I’m in a new place, in a new town, in a new school, with new students, and all kinds of new things to learn and teach. It’s all very exciting, except when it’s also a little “aaaaaaghh-ish!”. Fortunately, there’s always a weekend right around the corner when that happens. This past week was a bit rocky, so it was lovely to just flop on Friday night and not have to deal with anything that smacked of newness!
By Saturday, I was already feeling more myself, and a day spent shopping and walking around a rainy London only helped. It takes an hour to get into London from my new home, so I wanted to cram as much shopping as I could into the day. I walked up and down Oxford Street, browsing through the enormous John Lewis, popping into shoe stores, walking into anything that looked interesting, getting a few things at Boots, and eventually ending up at Gap, which seems both weirdly familiar and yet very different to the store I know from home. I eventually found some really lovely things for my home, so I walked into Marylebone to visit Daunt Books, something I’ve been wanting to do for ages. The store is beautiful and temptingly stacked full of enticing books, but it’s the travel section that bowled me over. I love how it has been arranged by regions and countries, with biographies and memoirs stuffed into their relevant countries. I snapped up a small book on Copenhagen and ran through the rain to the Nordic Bakery for a warm and spice-filled cinnamon bun and an enormous latte, and read my book and munched while I sat out the worst of the downpour. (Many thanks to Miranda who first recommended the bakery!)
I’ve spent the rest of the weekend just trying to relax and clean and get ready for the week ahead: lots to do. Fortunately, so many of the new things in my life are also quite lovely. Like my generous, apple-donating neighbours.
I had heard about The Haunted Bookshop long before I decided to move to the UK, and I have to say, the bookshop is one of the many reasons I love Cambridge. You step down a narrow passage that smells of coffee beans (I really must try the coffee shop next door), into a small store with a red door, and suddenly you are surrounded by beautiful old books.
The store is small but jam-packed with the most amazing books. Until last week, however, I’d only seen the ground floor. There was always enough there to entice me. However, some friends kindly pointed out that the best books are upstairs and I needed to have a look pronto.
Look at that bookshelf. LOOK at those Chalet School books! I’ve never seen so many Chalet School books in one place, and these were cloth editions, many with the original dust jackets. There were also Girls Gone By editions, including out of print titles, and the old Armada paperbacks. The room was stuffed, floor-to-ceiling, with Girls Own books. As well as Elinor Brent-Dyer, there was Enid Blyton, Josephine Elder, Elsie Oxenham, and so many more. There were even American authors like Susan Coolidge and Louisa May Alcott. It was basically paradise for anyone who loves girls school stories. I had gone upstairs with the intention of looking for an Angela Brazil I’ve long coveted, but I was so dazzled that I just wandered about finding more and more books to read. I must go back soon to find the last Fun in the Fourth book to complete my collection and to stand in that small room full of stunning books.
My friend Bex, whose house and cat I watched while she was on vacation with her family, mentioned that bookish people should go on holiday at other bookish friends’ houses. This is an idea I can fully endorse, and in fact, began immediately while there!
The Brontes Went to Woolworths is a book I have at home. I tried reading it, having loved the other books in the Bloomsbury Group series, but put it down after about 2 chapters. I managed to make it slightly further this time, getting about 5 chapters in, but I still didn’t finish it. The story, about three sisters who are so immersed in their own made-up world that the intrusion of reality shakes them, should be my cup of tea. I just can’t seem to make it past the brittle tone and, well, the silliness of the girls. Oh well, my copy is still at home if I want to try again.
Bex also had a Nancy Mitford that I hadn’t read before, Highland Fling. While not quite as good as Love in a Cold Climate or The Pursuit of Love (and is anything that good, really?), it was still amusing. It was Nancy’s first work, and follows two bright young things as they get married on ‘nothing’. As their nothing involves plenty of creature comforts, including borrowing a castle in Scotland, they’re not exactly suffering. Frothy and fun, and ultimately forgettable.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop was a reread, mostly because the night I read it it was hot and I couldn’t be arsed to go downstairs and find another Persephone to read. If you haven’t read it, though, you should. The story of a widow who opens a bookstore in a small coastal town, and the resistance she gets from the very people who claim to love books and art. A beautiful book.
Part of the joy of house/cat-sitting for a friend while she is on holiday is browsing her collection of books. Fortunately, she has both excellent taste and has several Persephones that I don’t own. I brought books with me, I have books on my iPad, I’ve bought books since I’ve been here, but I’m never able to resist those dove grey covers.
The endpaper is beautiful. The Persephone website says it “could have been worn by any of the three sisters but perhaps most especially by Vera.” I would say it was more likely to be worn by Lucy, as Vera was probably too smart for something so delicate, and Lucy would have appreciated the gentle pattern of flowers.
While the endpaper is lovely, the book itself is deeply unsettling. Like the only other Whipple I’ve read, the wonderful The Priory, the novel concerns the life choice of sisters. Lucy, the eldest, takes care of her family from an early age, and provides a constant base of support that is only truly appreciated by the next generation of her family. Vera is a beauty who is used to having her own way, and her lack of imagination and selfishness make her unable to see the lasting effect she has on people until that effect begins to fade. Charlotte is a wife and mother who, after being emotionally abused by her husband for years, decides to be neither and self-destructs in a world of drink and drugs.
While it can be difficult to watch Charlotte and Vera awake to the effect their actions have had on others, it is the slow destruction of their children that is painful to read. While the novel is ostensibly about an abusive husband, what lingers is the emotional abuse that this small group of adults inflict upon their children. Vera’s daughters are made pawns in their parents’ unhappy marriage. Charlotte’s children, who find unconditional love in the shape of a beloved dog, are witnesses to the most unspeakable and unforgivable act of violence against him. The book, in spite of all of this, never feels melodramatic or revels in misery. The novel is saved by Lucy, who is able to see what’s happening and tries to help, even if she doesn’t always succeed. Whipple’s depiction of children is astonishingly good; she neither sentimentalises them nor ignores the effect they have on others. While some of the children get swallowed up by the actions of their parents, two are rescued by Lucy, who gives them the home and family they’ve never had. But even more than that, she shows them a wider world where people can be kind and love can be healthy.
I’m currently spending the week in Wimbledon, which is proving rather dangerous on the book front. There are two bookstores directly facing the station. The added danger is that both have air conditioning, making it very easy to justify popping in for just a moment. Clearly, I’m going to have to buy another bag to get back to Cambridge.