Hemlock and After

IMG_1754I haven’t posted anything on this site for months and months – I need to start adding a blog post more regularly!  And I also need to talk more about books on the website.  Spurred on by these two failings, I decided to write about the book I finished this morning, Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson.

I read the book because of a brilliant podcast, which you must check out if you haven’t listened before.  I have only been listening for about six months, and still have lots of back episodes to catch up on, but it’s the best thing – the kind of thing we need on national radio, or national television – even better – why are there no book programmes on television?  Today’s programme makers no doubt think a few people sitting around talking about books does not make good television, without some sort of vote each week to eliminate someone; but it would.  Just like this podcast, with bookish people talking about books – no celebrities, no ‘journalists’ asking questions (the quotation marks are there because I’m really not sure about the current crop so described on television today; I am always sensitive at using quotation marks, I hear the voice of my old university tutor Dr Parkin – Professor John Parkin these days and for many years – who actively discouraged their use).  The podcast I’m referring to is called Backlisted, and is hosted by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller.  I think John M. and I must have been colleagues at Waterstone’s (as it then was) in London in the late 80s.  My first job after leaving university (two years after leaving university…but that’s another story!) was at Waterstone’s in Charing Cross Road; John Mitchinson worked at another London branch, but sometimes mentions people I knew back then.  It was a lovely time to work for them.

Anyway…listen to the podcast, it’s amazing.  Lively, intelligent discussion about a particular book each time (it’s fortnightly) plus what the two hosts are reading, with two guests joining them each time.  Always really good and inspiring.

They discussed this book by Angus Wilson, so I ordered it from the library – and got a lovely hardback copy with a wonderful Ronald Searle illustration on the cover.  I had read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes some years ago, having first watched Andrew Davies’ excellent TV adaptation, and had enjoyed that very much, but didn’t know this novel at all.

Published in 1952, it is the story of illustrious writer Bernard Sands, who has acquired a nearby dilapidated country house in order to set up a sort of colony for young writers.  He has local opponents led by the ghastly Mrs Curry, who wanted it for a hotel – though as the novel goes on, we realise the sort of hotel she had in mind.  Bernard has an ailing wife, two rather distant grown-up children, and a desire to use his wealth and renown to help younger writers.  We also discover that despite his conventional family life, he has had a relationship with one male friend, and is currently involved in another, with a much younger man.  Mrs Curry and her friend Hubert Rose, it transpires, run a coven of pimps, pornographers and paedophiles.

So beneath the veneer of mid-century respectability, there are undercurrents of forbidden love and outright crime.  I won’t say more about how this pans out, but pan out it does, and by the end of the novel everyone’s life has changed.

I love Angus Wilson’s writing.  I love mid-20th-century writing generally: it often has a sort of muscularity – I am still not sure what the right word is – that is of its time, a way with words that it is both matter of fact and very expressive.  There is a lot of focus in many of those books on subtleties of character and relationships, more than on plot.  It is essentially the same story as Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (which was his next novel, so that should be the other way round).  Bernard is very like Gerald Middleton, the chief protagonist of the later novel, and having seen the TV series of that, I could only hear Bernard as sounding – and looking – like Richard Johnson, who played Gerald.  I don’t know all that much about Angus Wilson, but have the impression that both characters are versions of himself.  Both have difficult wives – and one of the things that irritates me a bit about Wilson’s two books is that women generally are portrayed as pretty awful; but Ella Sands is not nearly as awful as Gerald’s ex-wife Inge in the later book.  She’s not awful at all, in fact, but for most of the novel is ineffective; to soothe my irritation about Wilson’s women, however, she actually becomes heroic by the end of the book.

Both books end with a kind of resignation; a sense of good things achieved but acceptance that some things will not be resolved.  I had a conversation about it with someone just the other day, saying I enjoyed it but didn’t think it was a *great* novel; but last night I had about 20 pages to go and deliberately didn’t finish it as I didn’t want it to end.  I do think it’s a wonderful book.

I was trying to think about why I love the writing in those mid-century novels, and I think it’s partly the slightly formal literary style, even of the dialogue; I am now reading Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, which has me completely drawn in, but made me realise that it’s not just the writing of those older books that I love, it’s the way people talked.  The phrases they used, the more complex sentences…  I love films from that period too.  Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films of all, and while its cut glass accents have been mocked, I find the way the characters talk utterly beautiful.  I remember reading Adam Thorpe’s marvellous novel Ulverton, which follows life in a village from the seventeenth century to the present day, and one of the most notable things is how spoken language deteriorates.  Of course we  have no idea how people talked in the seventeenth century!  We only have written language to go on.  But that written language is sublime.  I also recall AS Byatt saying she liked to write historical novels because they enable her to use words that have gone out of common usage.

So those are my rambling thoughts on Angus Wilson’s 1952 novel Hemlock and After.  Thank you to my county library for supplying it.  Thank you to Backlisted for choosing to discuss it.  John and Andy are directing many of my reading choices these days!

Europa

th2Tomorrow, the UK goes to the polls to decide whether or not we will remain part of the European Union.  I really hope we stay in, but whatever happens, we will always be a part of Europe, whether or not we belong to the EU.  There will be difficulties to overcome either way, but I read this article by Clive James this morning, and it conveys so beautifully why I so strongly want to stay.  Clive James is, of course, Australian, but has spent most of his adult life in Europe, and this essay is a glorious study of what it means to be a part of European culture and enriched by it, and it’s the cultural ties that make me want to stay more than any other issues.  It takes a lot of work to make a union successful, but some unions are worth working for.  This article is just beautiful – and engaging and witty in a way that only the great Clive James can be.  The reason I am not a writer is that I can’t write like this, and it doesn’t seem worth doing anything less.

So do read it – click on the photo below. Regardless of the referendum, it’s a brilliant study of European culture and what it means both to be a part of it and to be inspired and influenced by it.  Amidst all the posturing and painfully superficial internet memes, this piece shines like the sun.

clive james
Clive James and his wife Prue – click on the photograph to read his beautiful, witty, brilliant celebration of European culture and literature.

Dickens, films, Shakespeare and more

dickensToday is Charles Dickens’ birthday (b.1812).  One of the things I need to do more in the bookshop is celebrate literature!  One of the things that seems to get lost in all the furore of trying to make ends meet is the purpose of having a bookshop at all – to promote, enjoy, share, explore and honour the literary creative process and its importance to civilisation.

As a small gesture towards promoting one of our very greatest novelists – our greatest? – anyone who buys a novel by Dickens today can choose another novel up to the value of £2 free.

In other news – I have decided that for the next few weeks the Film Club will meet on Sunday afternoons only.  Attendance on Thursday evenings has been very low, and with the weather persisting in its evil ways I think it might be better to establish the Sunday afternoon films and wait until the evenings are a bit more inviting before attempting a regular weekday evening screening.  We may still have the occasional film!  And the selection of films on Sundays may broaden slightly, though the emphasis will still be on classics or gentler films – with the odd challenge thrown in!

We now have a little pile of books wrapped in brown paper with a nice red ribbon – the start of our ‘blind date with a novel’ feature.  I have chosen a few paperback novels to wrap, and written a few words on the paper to give a very general indication of the kind of book hidden within.  For those times when you can’t decide what to read, or are in the mood for a surprise or a literary adventure.  A bit of fun, great for a wet weekend!

In the pipeline: more music, with some excellent local bands keen to come and play as well as those from further afield, some more storytelling, some adventures with exotic animals, and a week of celebrations for Shakespeare‘s birthday in April.  And more!

Lots more Tree House ideas

treehouselogo-copy6.pngStill no premises, but I’m developing lots of lovely ideas, building on the launch of the Film Club in May.  There are two or three potential venues in the town centre, and I am hoping that the article in this week’s Kenilworth Weekly News will have aroused some level of interest, however small.  These ideas are a way of establishing the project even in the absence of a physical shop.  It may even be that the best thing is to use other venues for these clubs and activities, and then I will only need a small site for the bookshop – maybe there is a business in Kenilworth that has some space they would like to sublet, even temporarily until I can find suitable permanent premises!  That would be great.

Here are some of the events I am thinking of setting up:

The Tree House Story Club – afternoons of stories and bookish activities for pre-school children

Tree House Talks  – talks and discussions mostly on art and its history, though volunteers for talks on other subjects always welcome

The Tree House Senior Citizen Book Swap – afternoons for sharing books and chatting over tea and cake

The Tree House Film Festival – a day at the movies, a mixture of short films and feature films, including talks and discussion

The Tree House literary festival – talks, writing workshops, book discussion

Student equivalents of both the above, to engage university students with The Tree House

All of these could be accompanied by book sales – I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the main aim is to open a second-hand bookshop!

If any of this sounds good, do get in touch – good to gauge support, also good to have any offers of voluntary help!  victoria@treehousebookshop.co.uk