I walked down the empty Broad to breakfast, as I often did on Sundays, at a tea-shop opposite Balliol. The air was full of bells from the surrounding spires and the sun, casting long shadows across the open spaces, dispelled the fears of night. The tea-shop was hushed as a library; a few solitary men in bedroom slippers from Balliol and Trinity looked up as I entered, then turned back to their Sunday newspapers. I ate my scrambled eggs and butter marmalade with the zest that in youth follows a restless night. I lit a cigarette and sat on, while one by one the Balliol and Trinity men paid their bills and shuffled away, slip-slop, across the street to their colleges.
– Brideshead Revisited
It was its comparative proximity to Milford Hill that induced Lord Peter to lunch at the Minster Hotel rather than at the White Hart or some other more picturesquely situates hostel. It was not a lunch calculated to cheer his mind; as in all Cathedral cities the atmosphere of the Close pervaded every nook and cranny of Salisbury, and no food in that city but seems faintly flavoured with prayer-books. As he sat sadly consuming that impassive pale substance known to the English as “cheese” unqualified (for there are cheeses which go openly by their names, as Stilton, Camembert, Gruyere, Wensleydale, or Gorgonzola, but “cheese” is cheese and everywhere the same), he inquired of the waiter the whereabouts of Mr Crimplesham’s office.
Whose Body? Dorothy L Sayers – a sense of humour and the quirky akin to Wallace Stevens’ “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”
There was a great throng of people pouring up the street, in their gayest holiday clothes, shouting and singing as they came, and carrying great branches of flowering May and armfuls of bluebells and golden Mary-buds, so that the whole street seemed full of the spring and sunshine and happiness. On they came, laughing, singing, shouting and waving their flowering branches, and at each door people dropped out of the throng and began to set up the May branches above the lintel. Some of the May branches had knots of spring flowers tied to them, some were sparkling with silver ribbons, some had only their own scented curds of blossom for beauty; but they were all lovely.
I’ve mentioned Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Armourer’s House here before, but this passage (which turns into an exciting day out with sugar pigs, the prentices’ riot and some Morris dancers) is just right for today. Feeling particularly nostalgic for May Morning in Oxford this year.
“I was going to observe, sir”, said Frank Churchill “that one of the great recommendations of this change would be the very little danger of anyone’s catching cold – so much less danger at The Crown than at Randall’s. Mr Perry might regret the change but nobody else could.”
“Sir,” said Mr Woodhouse with some heat “you are very much mistaken if you suppose Mr Perry’s to be that sort of character. Mr Perry is extremely concerned when any of us are ill. But I do not understand how the rooms at the Crown can be safer for you than your father’s house.”
“From the very circumstances of it being larger sir. We shall have no occasion to open the windows at all – not once the whole evening; and it is that dreadful habit of opening windows, letting in cold air upon heated bodies, which (as you well know, sir) does all the mischief.”
“Open the windows! But surely, Mr Churchill, nobody could be so imprudent. I never heard of such a thing! I am sure that neither your father nor Mrs Weston (poor Miss Taylor that was) would permit such a thing.”
“Ah! sir – but a thoughtless young person will step behind a curtain and throw up a sash without it being the least expected. I have often known it done myself.”
“Have you indeed sir? Bless me! I never could have supposed it. But I live out of the world, am often surprised at what I hear!”
Emma – Jane Austen
“Bless me, what is that beastly boy doing?”
Alexander sprang up guiltily from just behind his uncle and made for the trees. But Uncle Vanya’s long arm shot out too quickly for him and in a flash yanked him back by his ear.
“This is an outrage!”, thundered Uncle Vanya.
“Let me see”, said Father, hurrying forward; we all crowded round and followed the direction of Uncle Vanya’s infuriated gaze. Am astonished cry went up.
There, on the surface of the rock, was Uncle Vanya’s shadow, faithfully outlined in charcoal pencil. It was unmistakably Uncle Vanya’s shadow: nobody could mistake those huge bent shoulders, those hairy half-flexed knees and shaggy buttocks, those prognathous jaw – above all that simian arm extended in a typical gesture of denunciation.
“What is it?”, demanded Uncle Vanya in a terrible voice, though there could be but one disastrous answer.
“R-representational art”, squeaked Alexander.
The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis, a comedy about prehistoric man relocated to an eccentric E Nesbit-style Edwardian family.
The wedding ceremony was over and the rabbi lowered himself into an armchair, then he stepped outside and saw the tables set up all along the courtyard. There were so many of them that they stuck their tail right through the gate onto Gospitalnaya Street. The velvet-draped tables wound through the yard like snakes with patches of every colour on their belly, and they sang in rich voices, those patches of orange and red velvet. Three cooks, not including the hired help, were preparing the wedding feast, and over them reigned the eighty-year-old Reyzl – tiny, humpbacked and traditional as a Torah scroll.
Isaac Babel, Odessa Stories
On a blustery autumn day a galley was nosing up the wide loop of a British river that widened into the harbour of Rutupiae.
The tide was low, and the mud-banks at either hand that would be covered at high tide were alive with curlew and sandpiper. And out of the waste of sandbank and sour salting, higher and nearer as the time went by, rose Rutupiae: the long, whale-backed hump of the island and the grey ramparts of the fortress, with the sheds of the dockyard masses below it.
Rosemary Sutcliff – The Silver Branch. A recent very good read in Warsaw, and recently republished in a stunning edition by Slightly Foxed books.
So, for any other romance novel lovers out there (no pun intended), you need to get your headphones on and download the Sentimental Garbage podcast.
It takes a favourite book each week, but also discusses such gems as the importance of very specific snacking in chick lit, why it is that women are the ones always expected to change in a straight relationship (key quote: “it’s not another woman’s job to sort your sons”) and why a dominating lover probably appeals to younger readers,
along with discoveries like Julian the Loaf (an idea I’m totally stealing), spoilers and musings on who writes the most enjoyable – as in the characters having the most enjoyment – sex scenes.
One of my favourite reads recently has been a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Uzma Jalaluddin set in the Toronto Muslim community, “Ayesha at last”. Unlike the original you get to see inside the heads of both protagonists, and there’s also a delightful twist at the end where you get a glimpse of the Darcy-character living his new, more mischievous life. Add to that some excellent side characters and the fact that the Kindle edition is only 99p and it’s a must buy. I’m just sorry that the publisher seems to have underestimated the print run as paper copies have sold out nothing in the states and here in the U.K.
Uzma also writes a column in the Toronto Star called “Samosas and Maple Syrup”. Here are a couple of examples, one on feminism and her sons and one on the interaction she between children and their grandparents.
When she woke up the next morning, Maria found to her great surprise that her riding-habit had not been put ready for her. Instead there had been laid out a very decorous dark-blue gown with plain white linen collar and cuffs, a dark-blue cloak and a dark-blue straw hat with delphinium-blue ribbons.
Maria was not very fond of this costume. In spite of the ribbons, it was rather a sombre and serious outfit, and it made her feel as serious as itself. However she knew better than to put it away and get out her habit, for she realised now that what she did day by day was not left entirely to her own choice. She was more or less under orders. And it seemed that her orders for today did not include riding.
The Little White Horse – Elizabeth Goudge. The dress here actually is a rising habit and from about 40 years later than The Little White Horse is set, but as soon as I saw it it reminded me of this passage. Photo from @katestrasdin