Reading on trains – Bluebird Book Club – Reviews May 2012

Are you a descendant of the Oscar Wilde school, who dictated that he always read his own diary on the train so as to be assured of something sensational?  Are you a railway magazine trash glutton, or one of those who seek to impress with a folded Observer crossword on your lap, as you gaze out into muddy fields ruminating over 7 across?  Or, one of the really unbearable people, who bring out a HUGE book, make peculiar sounds by exerting the energy just to get the thing onto the train table you are sharing with a salesman from Doncaster who has a goatee that looks like ladyparts, and then start sighing at the size of the book, and cynically rolling your eyes at the idea of just having to trawl through “War & Peace”.  For the third time?  Oh, look at me!  these people seem to be saying.  I am literate!  Big slap on the back for me, eh?   I was always taking books onto public transport, and then forgetting to take them away with me when I left the train.

Reading whilst travelling is time out.  When I started driving I read less, reading at the wheel being ill-advised.   What did you last read on a train?

I once left a biography of Lady Emma Hamilton (Nelson’s mistress) on an 82 bus.  It was in a plastic bag that also had in it half a packet of chocolate digestives and some business cards for a small business I was unsuccessfully starting up and attempting to promote.  Thinking it was lost for ever, I promptly went out the following week and bought another copy.  About three days after that I got a telephone call from a chirpy lady from Transport for London who was also called Emma who said she had correctly identified my telephone number from the failing business card and would I like my book back?  I suggested she keep it instead as I had another copy.  We had a ten minute conversation about Lord Nelson, which was nice – but I think this was actually a foil to avoid me asking her what had happened to my chocolate digestives.   She’s probably still chomping them somewhere, whilst reading about Nelson’s poop deck.  Situating yourself in a place whilst reading a book changes your memory of the book.  Patrick Hamilton’s wonderfully grim Hangover Square is set in the boarding houses of post-war West Kensington.  But to me the half light on the platform for the Circle Line at Baker Street always reminds me of Hangover Square.  I used to read it whilst standing there waiting for a train west to where I once worked on the letters page of the Daily Mail (don’t ask). Great Expectations, set in Central London and Kent, makes me think of Finchley Road.  Mrs Dalloway set in usually florid Virginia Woolf prose in sunny Westminster, makes me think of coffee in Caffe Nero in rainy Holborn.

Here is my review of books read in May, along with my usual comments regarding how, when and with what drink you ought to read them :

Beryl Bainbridge, ‘Harriet Said’

In an interview, shortly after her mother’s death, Bainbridge’s daughter spoke about how her mother was obsessed with the “tum-de-tum” of her prose; the rhythm of her language.  She would write a page of writing in longhand and then repeatedly distill it until she had the perfect paragraph of lilting prose.  There is something hypnotic about Bainbridge’s style.  Harriet Said was her first novel, which languished in a drawer for several years until she finally got it published.  This lilting prose, which is slightly hypnotic, brings the pace of her writing into an exquisite place, whereby the horror and strangeness of the tale is rendered more peculiar by the sensible, regular practical rhythm of the line in which it is encased.  Her powers lie in telling extraordinary stories, bound by ordinary words.   This is the story of two 13 year old girls in provincial Lancashire, locked in a mutally manipulative relationship.  Psychological disturbances are not hinted at but rather exhibited by the bald statement of action.  There is little thought or description or explanation.  Bainbridge was an excellent technician and understood that characters are action.  Men, in Bainbridge’s world are not only the weaker sex, but the stupider and damn sight more bestial, too.  An older man is pulled into the girls’ intrigue.  But whose strings is Harriet really pulling?  It builds to a terrifying climax. Is it murder?  Is it sexual manipulation?  Which of the two girls is to blame?

To be read : Preferably not in a house on a beach, but on a greyish day with lamps burning in the living room.  Be cosy.  Do not read if chasing for certainty or comfort – Bainbridge doesn’t always give that.  Eat with luxury biscuits and/or cakes, to make up for the spartan coldness of orange-lit North West England in the winter.   Drink: Yorkshire tea, perhaps with dash of brandy.  Do not read in bed.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Discovered through an article in The Observer, asking writers what their favourite novels were.  This one appeared in Zadie Smith’s list and another writer’s list (whose name escapes me).  The central female character is an intriguing construct.  Lily Bart is a well-bred, impoverished orphan, who lives a decidedly comfortable life amidst the high class society of New York but who is financially on the brink of destruction.  She must marry for money in order to survive.  However, each marital opportunity that presents itself is rejected; she will not marry solely for money.  She is doomed to seek nobility in an ignoble, material world and – well – you know what happens to people in novels who are like that.  Unfortunately, I find Wharton’s flowery, adjective-heavy, American prose slightly irritating.  After 150 pages I was close to quitting. Lily veers between understanding she must marry a rich man, to deciding she simply cannot do so.  Wharton, however, is so brilliant at describing Lily’s inner mental processes that you are prepared to forgive the awkward, hefty plot points.  But, this is still a marvellously written book. The degradation that ensures her downfall depends on the vast, social structure of New York society.  Futility in the struggle against this society is a theme of Wharton’s works (see Age of Innocence). It is the only world she has been bred for, the only world that can serve her and ensure her survival – and, ultimately- the world her heart tells her she must reject.  Lily is a character who lives and breathes on the page.

To be read: In the sun, in the garden, or on holiday.  If you happen to be in a New York State of Mind.  With cool drinks, and – I’m afraid – a bit of patience.  I found it a long read – although also an indulgent one.  Eat: Cucumber sandwiches, dark chocolate and cake.  People are constantly having afternoon tea in this novel, and you will want to join them, and eat food that make you feel rich.  Drink: Cool, bright lemonade, or the Earl Grey tea of early American afternoon tea parties.

 Francesca Segal, The Innocents

This is a reworking of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, relocated to the Jewish community of present-day Temple Fortune, a north western London suburb that was lucky enough to house this ‘ere Bluebird for 8 years.  It’s the story of the perfect young man (Adam) betrothed to marry a perfect young Jewess (Rachel).  But one day at a Yom Kippur service, Rachel’s errant cousin, Ellie, appears.  Cue kosher tug of sexual war.  Adam veers between loyalty to his fiancee and loyalty towards his community, but has to admit to spending some time resenting the power and presence of both.  It is, of course, a brilliant slant to relocate the famously anti-semitic Wharton’s plot into a Jewish community.   Aspects of the appearance, fashions and structure of the Temple Fortune community are executed so accurately I laughed out loud with recognition at several points.  Ultimately the warmth, the loyalties, the niggling disagreements and the potential for love and war in Jewish families is captured perfectly by Segal.  The plot, oddly, becomes braver as it moves towards its conclusion, which keeps you waiting until the last chapter.  Terrifically told, I think this book is a wonderful achievement and happily recommend to Jew and Gentile alike.

To be read: At a bus stop in Golders Green, preferably next to a terrifically large Israeli woman with bright aubergine hair shouting at her husband on the phone.  You won’t be able to concentrate on the narrative, but the experience will be rendered authentic.  Not to be read if you have misgivings about anyone’s upcoming marriage (including your own).  Great book for swift enjoyment.  You can read it in a couple of days.  Eat: why, bagels and smoked salmon, salt beef, latkes and halva to follow, of course.  No pork or shellfish please. Drink: Drink?  DRINK?  Jews don’t drink.  Oh all right then.  You can have a cherry brandy. 

Elizabeth Jenkins, ‘Harriet’

Don’t ask me why but this is the second book in a month I’ve read with the word ‘Harriet’ in the title. Originally published in 1934, and now resurrected in this beautiful Persephone publication, this is a fictional telling of a true story of the death of a woman called Harriet in 1875.  It was known as The Penge Mystery.  It’s beautifully told, and rather chilling.  A man marries a wealthy young woman who is not entirely of sound mind but not mad enough for the courts to intervene.  Within two years she is dead, having been apparently starved to death by the man’s family over a period of time.  Jenkins has told a story that has many unanswered questions, but then the real life case of The Penge Mystery seems to have some gaps in it. Jenkins mastery is to be able to fictionalise the story whilst not claiming knowledge of the interior motives of those involved.  Was she killed on purpose?  Or simply neglected?  Who, of the family, instigated the starvation?  A grisly tale, of calculation and deceit, excellently told. Jenkins is particularly good at using the efficacy of dialogue to develop plot, in this very sad tale.

To be read: As all Victorian, grisly stories should be – in a velvet armchair, safe in your townhouse, a blazing fire in front of you to stave off the horrid fear, and a brightly lit reading lamp being administered by the housemaid. Eat:  You won’t be that hungry, trust me.  Drink : Wine, red and warming, or hot milk with a dizzy dusting of nutmeg.

Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing

My second Bainbridge, and whilst not quite as gripping as the first, it’s still beautifully told. It’s the tale of an outing from a Italian-owned bottle factory in North London, with it’s mix of Italian and English workers.  As always with an English folk tale something horrid happens to someone in a wood.  I found it too long, and the tension was not quite as taut as the subject demanded it should be.  But this is early Bainbridge.  You can see her muscles being stretched and flexing for the fantastic, historical narratives she bashed out in later life.  All the pieces that made her the writer she was are there – particularly when the tragic is rendered comi-tragic by Bainbridge’s dialogue.   I found it ultimately unsatisfying, however.  If I were you, I’d give this one a swerve and read her novel The Dressmaker instead.

To be read: Anywhere except a safari park. Ideally, read in student accommodation.  Not good for bus reading.  Haven’t quite worked out why.  Eat:  warm roast chicken sandwich or soup.  It must be warming.  Drink : It’s set in an Italian wine factory, so pour yourself a Montepulciano. Avoid the sherry.  You’ll see why. 


Lettice Cooper, ‘The New House’

This is another of the Persephone reprints.  Cooper published this in 1936, and Persephone have just brought it back into print.  Persephone paperworks weigh in at £12.00 each, so in my case it’s better to get the Persephone reading list and take the lot out of the London Library, which is the only place I am guaranteed to find a huge range of the most underread and neglected of early twentieth century fiction.  This story is set in the course of one day.  The three sections are simply titled “Morning”, “Afternoon” and “Evening”.  One family is moving from their old, big family house, to a new build in a different part of town. Cooper takes us into the interior lives of the family members of this upper middle class family from the provincial, industrial North.  She is like a less florid, more exacting Virginia Woolf.  I admire Woolf as much as anyone, but even I get tired of sentences that are eight lines long.  Cooper is precise, and incredibly perceptive, particularly regarding the relationships between the women of the family. It’s not often I write out sentences and phrases from books, but I did this several times with ‘The New House’.  Her strength lies in her brevity.  Favourite quotes include : “Maurice was less unhappy than that tale of his own life which he told himself” and, “I’ve slipped behind Time, and if you do that once you’re all wrong.  If you’re wrong with Time you’re wrong with everything.” 

To be read: Whilst wearing red lipstick in the library, in thoroughly sensible shoes, away from distractions, mobile phones, work and those irritating family members that Cooper is about to mercilessly dissect in front of you.  Eat:  Rich tea or digestives, a thoroughly English snack for a thoroughly English read.  Drink : You’ve waited until the end of the blog for a 1930s cocktail, haven’t you?  Go on, have a pre-dinner gin fizz or dry martini.  Happy reading.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s