Another exhilarating Endsleigh Salon last month and one that has catapulted me into thinking about the past in a way that cannot now be denied.
Age creeps up and what's gone before recedes slowly, perhaps all in a bit of a jumble and then suddenly, wham, you have a clearly defined historical perspective on a chunk of your life that you have never had before. You realise you've finally entered the realms of the primary historical source.
The bookish theme was The Test of Time and the plan was to revisit a book that you had read and worshipped years ago and just see what joys it held now.
That all feels relevant with talk of rereading on here too.
The choices were wide-ranging and the discussion was fascinating.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot passed the test and perhaps that surprised us. I had quite forgotten that we all read the books long before the TV series and their impact as funny if not altogether true didn't seem to spoil them one iota. The reader had first read them as an eleven-year old and could still recall the impact of the humour and the life, they still felt well written and readable. Much debate about how a TV series can spawn tourist trails and how the characters infiltrate our thinking, who can have forgotten Mrs Pumphrey, the pampered Pekinese dog Tricki Woo and his regular bouts of flop-bott.
Next some very early Maeve Binchy short story anthologies, Central Line and Victoria Line about life in London in the 1970's, unexpected territory for Maeve Binchy, we're much more familiar with her Irish family sagas these days. The stories revolved around stations on the London Underground and were staunchly early feminist. They had inevitably dated but remained readable providing a good fictional account of the times and we all then had a wallowing nostalge about life in London flatshares in the 1970's when the rent was £2.50 a week each. I only earned £12 a week as a student nurse so the budget was tight but we seemed to do a lot with it. Those of us who'd been there agreed that it felt as if we'd been part of a special era in London life.
Katherine by Anya Seton passed The Test of Time with distinction and there was a flurry of 'do you remember Dragonwyck?' etc.
The Plantagenet Prelude by Jean Plaidy was less fortunate but as it had been given to the reader by her husband of many years as a 21st birthday gift, and he'd written in it very nicely, it can't go to Oxfam. Laboured and dull was the verdict but was that years on and as a result of good deal more reading on the subject ? We debated long and earnestly about it all and since then I've read Anne Fadiman's thoughts on the subject in Rereadings and she has this to say
'The problem with being ravished by books at an early age is that later readings are likely to disappoint...you become harder to move, frighten, arouse, provoke, jangle. Your education becomes an interrogation lamp under which the hapless book, its every wart and scar exposed, confesses its guilty secrets : " My characters are wooden ! My plot creaks ! "...'
As always it was lastminute.com here so I had to choose a slim novel but my efforts at The Millstone (1964) by Margaret Drabble left me surprisingly disappointed, yet this had been a real favourite in the 1970's.
I've always waved the flag for early Margaret Drabble in the face of personal failure with some of her more recent books and am now left hoping that my theory hasn't been been blown out of the water. But we had interesting discussions about historical context and the unacceptability of single motherhood then versus the norm it has become, as well as shifting writing styles. I just couldn't get back into The Millstone at all and I couldn't quite define why.
Writing style ? Plot ? Context ?
I had much better luck with The Triple Echo by H.E.Bates which was my successful and equally slim replacement offering. I still have the pile of tatty old 30p early Penguins that signalled my love of all things H.E.Bates and The Triple Echo had me gripped to the final sentence yet again. To my delight a bookmark fell out of the book which dates my reading more precisely, 1974 when I was on secondment from Gt. Ormond Street to Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital, Hackney Road. As well as neonatal intensive care, this is where I did my twelve week stint in theatres and there we worked to two extremes. Either plenty of time to read and knit (I remember the tank top well, Wendy pattern, three shades of blue) or spent my days and nights hair frizzed in front of an autoclave or scrubbed and counting swabs.
Set in World War II, a deserter hides on an isolated farm with a woman whose absent husband is a Japanese prisoner-of-war, what happens next is an atmospheric evocation of life disrupted by war in the 1940's, and The Triple Echo a story that is both mildly humourous and tragic in equal measure.
I'm only sorry that in my detailed, dramatic and nail-bitingly gripping account to the group, and thinking no one would want to read it, I gave away the stunning ending to a communal groan of spoiler and cries of 'oh no, I was going to read that.'
Next month's theme is The Far East and I'm pondering.
Meanwhile our ongoing Classics read has gone on apace and a clear and popular Victor Ludorum is emerging from the four authors we selected to read. A small clue and the Latin teacher will confirm, it should probably be Victrix Ludorum so that rules out Dumas and Hardy, but more of all that soon.