Friday, 23 September 2011

The Plashy Fens

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The Younger Niece sets off for university. I displace any empty nest sadness into a hysterical concern that she has not read Brideshead Revisited. I prepared for my own first term at university by reading Brideshead and Zuleika Dobson, because I have never been afraid of being a big, fat cliché. Then, when I got there, I felt ashamed that there were still so many great novels I had not read, so I sat down to War and Peace and Les Misérables.

I decide not to over-face the Niece, so I send her off with nice Penguin Classic editions of Vile Bodies and The Great Gatsby, and a warm scarf so she will not get a chill. She seems quite sanguine about the whole thing.

The Man of Letters calls and I tell him all this.

‘Do you think the young people have no idea who Evelyn Waugh is any more?’ I said. ‘Do they still read?’

‘Oh,’ he says, quite blithe. ‘They read.’

There is a pause.

‘Possibly not War and Peace,’ he says.

I wonder where my reading habits came from. My father famously did not read anything apart from Timeform and The Sporting Life. When I told him, in high excitement, that I was reading Middlemarch for my O levels, and that I was entirely in love with George Eliot, he said: ‘Oh darling, has he written any other good books?’

Even though I did English for O and A level, I realise now that our reading lists were quite limited. There was a bit of Keats, a bit of Jane Austen, the usual Shakespeare and Chaucer, George Herbert, Robert Lowell, and Joseph Conrad. I really think that was about it. Where on earth did my obsession with Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald come from? My adoration of Virginia Woolf appears to have sprung, fully formed, from the depths of my funny little head.

I have no recollection of any adult I knew having any interest in Waugh, but it was because of Vile Bodies that I decided I wanted to write novels. I think I actively wanted to be bookish, that somewhere along the line I decided this was a good and desirable thing.

One writer would lead to another. I am almost certain that it was because of the Anthony Blanche scene in Brideshead, when he sobbed lines from The Wasteland to the meaty rowers returning from the river (‘they are all Grace Darlings to me’), that I went on to become entranced by TS Eliot.

I can’t really imagine a day without reading. My life is furnished with the lovely papery artefacts that are books. When I went south a while ago, I decided to give the Kindle for iPad a whirl. I was trying to pack light, and this seemed the perfect time to carry ten books in one small electronic device. There is a brilliant thing where you can download unlimited classics for zero pence. I loaded up with free Trollope and felt rather smug.

When I got to London, I actually panicked. I needed a real book in my hands; the flat screen turned out to be no substitute. I ran into Blackwell’s in the Charing Cross Road and got a copy of Hitch 22 and felt the panic subside. I almost kissed the lady at the till. I was grinning at her so madly that I could see her wondering whether she should call security.

I think one can overdo the reading thing. It is a bit of a holy grail for me, but really it is just a pleasure like any other. Because it is one of my keenest delights, it does not follow that someone else’s life would be thin and poor without it.

I hope the young people do go on reading, but I’m not going to call it the end of civilisation if they do not. Although I do think it would be a little bit sad if they never get to read the line: ‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.’ We all need questing voles in our lives, especially in these troubled times.


Now for the photographs:

Last of the lavender:

23 Sept 1

Hydrangea still flowering like crazy:

23 Sept 2

Blueberry bush:

23 Sept 3


23 Sept 4

These little phlox were all eaten by rabbits in July. Today, like a little miracle, they are suddenly flowering again. I love them very much for that:

23 Sept 6

The cyclamen just go on and on and on. They may be the best value plants I ever bought:

23 Sept 7

The little blue geranium:

23 Sept 8

This shot of my rowan tree has the focus all over the shop, but I rather like its abstract effect:

23 Sept 9

The dear old pot table:

23 Sept 1023 Sept 11

And now for the special Friday Pigeon. These two pictures were taken at different times of day, and from different angles. It amazes me that the colour and the light is so different. In this one, she looks midnight blue:

23 Sept 12

And in this one a deep black with shades of chocolate:

23 Sept 13

Her real colour is somewhere between the two.

And today’s hill, also rather out of focus, I am afraid. There are some days when, however much I concentrate and squint my eyes, I can’t quite get the photographs to come out. Lucky I’m not a perfectionist or anything:

23 Sept 14

Oh, and here’s a lovely piece of serendipity. I thought I had just better check the questing vole line, as I could not remember if it was fen or fens. As I was in front of my computer, I googled it, and, in the way of the internet, I stumbled upon this quote from gloomy old Dostoevsky, having a most uncharacteristically sunny moment:

‘Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.’

Good old Fyodor. I’m taking that as my maxim for the week.


  1. I'm 28 and love reading and my wonderful fiance is never without a book, and as he loves them so buys them for all his younger brothers (there are 5) all the time. Not all of them read but young men can be more difficult to get into books.

    I loved reading as a child. I was so proud to learn to read. I think the love burns deep inside. All my friends tend to love books too, but maybe us bookish types flock together.

    I've only recently discovered Waugh (I am slightly ashamed of this) but am hungrily devouring as much turn of the century fiction as I can in between recent novels. It fills me with joy.

  2. Siobhan - what a lovely comment. Always so heartening to hear from other bookworms. And you will have a wonderful time with Waugh. :)

  3. Oh Tania - you know how sometimes a blog post just takes you back to something you have not thought of for years? That is what this post of yours has done! Reading books - I owe my mother for that. She says to me still 'being well read is one of the most important things' and I say the same to my daughter. I heard myself say this week as Boo started on her fourth Michael Morpurgo in quick succession: 'nothing like a good book'. And there really isn't. I too sprang interests in other authors outside of the literary canon of A level and degree level English. Oh but a book - a classic even - nothing better. This is untapped joy for me. Reading is all. I have an eccentric English teacher to thank for introducing me to Brideshead Revisited. In retrospect he had a definite Waugh thing - as he did for Greene too. We waded through altogether too many catholic/homosexual guilt novels in sixth form. But still - books - in almost any form - are my thing.

    You continue to write stuff I love every day. Thank you. Lou x

  4. I cant remember not reading,family history is that i started reading age 3 from cereal packets and have continued.I had thought that i wouldnt enjoy reading with a kindle as much as a book,there is nothing like a new book with that new book smell.However,now i have a kindle i am finding that i am reading so much more than before ...both with a kindle and also books.
    Best wishes amanda

  5. Yet another subject that evokes much emotion - I cant imagine life without my books and, indeed, being asked what is my favourite book is like being asked who is my favourite child! I miss my books when i travel and always seek out the nearest bookstore in whichever city i find myself. In fact, i underwent lasik treatment a few years ago and my biggest fear was not being able to read whilst healing (answer: audio books - strangely soothing!). I feel really great sadness for people who cannot pick up a book and lose themselves in it.... xx ps Did you enjoy Hitch 22?? I loved it.... pps heard a quote that the lowest form of misery was a rainy sunday afternoon for someone who did not read!!

  6. I have always read obsessively too, although in my (and my sister's) case, there was a home full of books and parents who were always reading. In the last year or two, I have read much less, however. I've been too disappointed by too many overrated novels, highly rated by critics but not much good. I mostly read classics or non fiction at present. And I ordered your book, by the way; it arrived yesterday. It will be my bedside reading for the next few days, I'm looking forward to it.

    I distinctly remember the first book I was able to read by myself, and the wonder at every single word being intelligible. It was a Ladybird book called "The Farm."

  7. To reassure you, my beautiful 11 year old son was late to bed tonight, yet implored..PLEASE Mummy, can I still have reading time? All is well with the world x

  8. Lou - you always say the loveliest things. Smiling at the thought of your Boo racing through Michael Morpurgo. Hurrah for her.

    Amanda - oh, oh, I remember the cereal packets, and wondering what riboflavin was.

    Anon - I too rush straight to the bookshop in any strange city. Loved Hitch 22.

    Z - so agree about hyped novels. One particular one at the moment I am furious about, and rather long to moan about on the blog, but the author seems so nice that I don't want to bitch him up. Getting rather wet in my old age.

  9. Thank you! I've always loved books. In third grade my book of the moment was constantly open beside be on the seat and I read between spelling words, arithmetic problems and every lesson going on in the front of the room. Mrs. Schultz never reprimanded me; I guess we were soul mates.

  10. Joanne - Mrs Schultz sounds absolutely tremendous.

  11. I am another obsessive reader who started out on cereal packets. I am deeply delighted each time I discover an excellently written book, knowing that I have made a friend for life. My first memory of being in a library is of me sitting in a window seat, my feet only part way down to the floor, and breathing in the lovely scent of the book in my hands. Pah, Kindle! Match that, if you can!

  12. Life without books is unimaginable. My bookworm habit is inherited from my father's parents. His father retired to his bedroom every day after lunch to sleep, read and write. His mother read in bed into the wee early hours every single night.

    If i don't have a pile of books to delve into beside the bed, i start to feel quite jittery. Backwards in High Heels has a permanent place there now, for those moments when i need cheering up, some steel in my spine and some reassurance that i'm on the right track.

    Here is a link to a lovely book story

  13. I forgot to add, I started out on cereal packets too, and I still resort to them if there is nothing else to read at breakfast.

    We have a rather dreadful family habit of knicking another person's section of the day's newspaper when they are not looking, for want of something to read. It took us years to realise we could solve the problem by buying two copies instead of one.

    What a wonderful quote from dour old Dostoevsky. It has changed entirely my view of him.

  14. i think Christopher Hitchens has a new book out now - essays - he has lost the power of speech due to cancer (a terrible thing for a writer but is coping magnificently)-
    my favourite part of hitch -22 was the section of his friendship with martin amis.. Mr Hitchens contributes to Vanity Fair and the kind and heartwarming comments fron the readers gave, i hope, some sustenace to him....

  15. I come from a family of readers and I didn't think for a minute that my own daughter wouldn't love books. Thankfully she does; I don't know what we would have done with her otherwise. I remember the night I first heard the silence that was her reading to herself for the first time. At the moment she is reading Anna Karenina even though she is supposed to be studying.

  16. So - obsessive readers ALL have a tendency to cereal boxes if there is nothing else! Lovely to know that I'm not the only one :) And that others have the same deep delight and absolute need for volumes upon volumes, the different and entrancing smell of books and the magic of other worlds and times, all transferred via ink and paper, across time, across space.

    May I also add Aldous Huxley, Noel Coward, Damon Runyon and Saki to the list of "should be much more widely read"? And Maurice Walsh, Algernon Swinburne, Anton Chekhov, Seigfried Sassoon (both prose and poetry), Alec Hope, Michael Dransfield, Edith Sitwell...far too easy to keep going on.

  17. Books, yes, books! My mother was the first of many inspirations where the classics were concerned, weaning me smoothly from Dr. Seuss to Anne of Green Gables and then Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, etc.

    I must take gentle exception to your phrase "the usual Shakespeare"... as he is, to me, the best author in the world. There is nothing so wonderful as soaking myself up to the eyes in Hamlet... Othello... and the sonnets, of course.

    Have never read Waugh, but now will set myself to remedy that.

    Read on!

  18. Razinah - so agree about the lovely scent.

    Lou - so touched to think of Backwards by the bed.

    Anon - it is wonderful to see Hitch soldiering on.

    Em - love the thought of the daughter reading Anna Karenina. I remember my first time reading it as if it were yesterday. (And I was supposed to be studying too.)

    Erika - love your list. Saki was one of my childhood favourites.

    Marcheline - oh, no, did not at all mean usual in a derogatory sense. It's just that when I was young Shakespeare was taught in all British schools as a matter of course. I started off on The Tempest when I was nine. The syllabus would pick and choose among other British writers, but Shakespeare was always there. If you are starting Waugh, I would begin with Vile Bodies; it's the easiest and funniest, I think. :)

  19. My primary school teacher described me as a "voracious" reader (not to mention my strange tendency to hide books under the shelves so no-one else could borrow them before I finished reading them). I'm 27.

    Still, I find that with a demanding job the most I manage these days is fifteen minutes before bed. It makes me sad - I almost wish for a longer commute so I could catch up on my reading time! I took a transcontinental flight recently and didn't touch the little TV in the seat, just caught up on all my reading - think I managed six or seven books in all the time I was on the plane.

    And, okay, shameless blog plug because I couldn't resist :) It's a book review blog so relevant I promise!!


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