At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you’re speaking with that you’ll come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes quickly after that.
I went on a massive reading jag on holiday – catching up on not having time and energy to read much earlier in the summer, and excited by new books and voices.
At the perfect time, I discovered @sophia_stories, an Instagram feed for a PhD student studying modern Palestinian authors, and just #readingoutsidethebox generally.
Poetry, rap, novels of childhood memories and observations of modern life all fill her feed. What I especially like are the double posts: Sophia will flag a book when she starts reading it, and then post again in a few days with her impressions – very different from the usual Bookstagram feeds where you sense that the book was read for its cover or compatibility with some flowers and never actually read.
And the quotes…
“Instant coffee with slightly sour cream…”
“The English newsreader told me / home was a broken man, holding / a dying child, with flies round its mouth:
A story that didn’t tally”
“home begins with the spoon knocking against the rim of the pot of lentil soup”
Starting stocking your bookshelves now…
Everybody except the baby had brought a present for Jane. Mrs Jimmy John gave her a lambskin dyed red for a bedside rug. Miranda brought her a little fat white jug with pink roses on its sides, Punch brought her some early radishes, Polly brought her a rooted geranium slip and the twins brought her a toad apiece for the garden.
“You have to have toads in your garden for luck,” explained Punch.
LM Montgomery does peak hygge. This one has lots of sowing flowers, swimming in the sea and frying potatoes, as well as a fairytale ending – perfect holiday reading.
As you can tell, I like to read, so a blog all about reading will always be a winner with me. Macdonald is actually an academic who has published several fascinating-sounding journal articles and a book about the conservatism of John Buchan and Dornford Yates’ writing.
Since browsing her blog’s backlist, I’ve come across the autobiography of the man who painted the most famous portraits of Lawrence of Arabia, and who’s writing in 1940s Morocco decided to recall his Victorian life in Aberdeen, an HG Wells war book published in 1916 that criticised the generals and the public’s unthinking jingoism – despite possibly inspiring some of Churchill’s later speeches of WW2 – and has a very sympathetic portrait of a young German, a bizarre novel of post-civil war America that firmly upholds social and racial segregation (Macdonald compares it to being wowed by a 1930s German novella and then finding out that the author was seriously pro-Nazi), and the links of Buchan and WonderWoman. Her podcast sounds a blast too. Read all about it here.
(Shelfies of my own book collection, July 2017 / October 2013.)
Flora went into the kitchen, where a lamp already burned on the table. Its soft light fell into the heart of a bunch of pink roses in a jam-jar. There was a letter from Charles propped against the jar too, and the roses threw down a heavy, rounded shadow onto the envelope. It was so pretty that Flora lingered a moment, looking, before she opened her letter.
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons. Photo from @elfredapownall.
Really enjoyed both this interview with Bridget, and Rachel Harrell’s illustrations for Bridget’s book The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up.
It covers everything from reasonable expectations to how to open champagne to going to bed on time (yes, it works).
Everyone would have their own list of life wisdom, but I liked Bridget’s calm tone and witty illustrations.
I’m still completely absorbed by Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio, and these passages (dinner; setting up a hotel) show why. If it fuels your fever, you really must see Ben Pentreath’s blogs here and here. Normally I dial in to Ben’s pastoral idylls on Mon mornings, but these posts from his travels carry some heat.
We had lunch at half past twelve, and the food was rather different from what we usually had – we had fish instead of meat, and cake instead of pudding. I don’t quite know what the point was, but it helped me to feel excited and rather sick. Then our luggage was carried down. I had an immense trunk with a rounded top and straps, and Marguerite had a brown tin box tied up with cords.
Travelling today, sadly without fish and cake first, so thought this passage from “Christmas with the Savages” fitted. It was written by Antonia Fraser’s aunt, so a nice piece of serendipity to read it just after AF’s own account of her father and aunts’ upbringing.
Painting by Henri Fantin-Latour
1930s and 1940s Cairo, Alexandria and Paris mingle with elegance and sadness. I was reminded of it partly by Amy’s photos and partly by my latest book, Antonia Fraser’s memoir of wartime and post-war Oxford.
Reminded by Beth Bonini’s cheerful Instagram feed of these delightful books (I’ve posted about their companion volumes here and here before), I think I’m getting ready for a re-read.
Lots of commentators compare these books to Meet Me in St Louis, and as well as the period details (the hairstyles! the dresses! the slang! the excitement over a telephone!), what I love most is the inherent optimism – progress is always good, and friends and family remain stable whilst welcoming new developments – but also the complete acceptance that a job, writing, singing, making your own mind up, are all important to a girl and in no way conflicted with the rest of her being.
I find it depressing that a modern book wouldn’t show this, or would have to make a big point about it. Written in the 50s about the 1900-1910s, Betsy, Emily and Carney are in fact far more progressive than any characters today.
“I climbed three rickety flights to her flat to share her gulls’ eggs, and as soon as I reached the door, I knew that Amy’s home was not as other homes. Instead of a bell push or door-knocker, a Persian scimitar was attached precariously to the door, and you had to announce yourself with that…Amy herself let me in, wearing an exotic deshabille consisting of flimsy Turkish trousers, a short embroidered velvet jacket and masses of jangling gold bracelets. Her hair was hidden under an enormous Russian fur hat, with blonde curls escaping here and there… I squeezed into the narrow hall, nearly smashing a blue Victorian lustre with my right shoulder…Having negotiated this hazard, my left elbow banged into a china jardiniere holding a castor-oil plant which sprouted to the ceiling. My head just grazed a small chandelier which hung from a hook, and the feather on my hat tickled a row of china jugs hanging on a shelf on the wall… “Wait a few minutes,” said Amy, “and I’ll bring in the lunch.”
Lesley Blanch (photos above),sketched by her colleague Anne Scott-James in her memoir In the Mink. Cunningly, Lesley’s pseudonym recalls Amy in Little Women, and Lesley’s own adventuring was certainly wrapped in similar levels of fantasy, coquetry and almost overpowering femininity as Amy March. Later on Anne remarks that she always liked to appear in public swathed in masses of veiling, but she also accurately recalls how within a few days of “Any” leaving for Tunis or Helsinki, her friends were writing to her begging her to come back. Whilst I don’t think I could have stood her in person, Blanch’s own writing is irresistible and her fluttering exterior hid a great deal of determined toughness.