Since reading Roy Preece's book, The World is a Bundle of Hay, I have been sifting through my shelves looking for more reading about Somerset and the Levels.
John Caple's book Somerset is rarely on the shelf, one of those I keep out and open on a bookstand and turn a page to a new painting every so often...
My copy of Somerset arrived courtesy of Nell Leyshon who wrote the Foreword, but was sent as thanks for writing about her novel Black Dirt on here many years ago. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to receive the thanks, and the introduction to John Caple's work, this book has been a treasure ever since.
That leads conveniently onto Black Dirt... sometimes going back and revisiting earlier book thoughts, I persuade myself that I want to read a book again, and this one I do...
Set in the flooded Somerset Levels around Glastonbury Nell Leyshon has immediately chosen a geographical location that can readily support a story laced with myth and legend, I was cut off from the rest of the world by the rising water along with the family until the story had been told, and with a sense of privilege to be listening in on the remaining days in the life of Frank....
Hovering in the picture is a chap of about fifty with learning difficulties called George. It's a while before we learn who George is but you realise all the implications of the situation very very quickly and I could sense myself getting worried by about page ten and panicky for George very soon after.There is no question, you can't read this book without loving George and worrying for him, books that make such simple but very clear emotional demands on the reader feel few and far between.
The analogies of layers of peat being peeled back like layers of time is wrought to perfection. All the memories preserved and waiting to be revealed, layer upon layer of Frank's life slowly disclosed and when I reached the final revelation my heart really did miss a beat.
Nell Leyshon captures the inane and often awkward bedside conversations with a practised ear.The time-fillers, the silence-breakers all detailed with intense and fascinating realism and all contributing to a book which is living with me long after the final page.
There was some hilarity here as I turned the house inside out looking for my copy. I have had a start of year clear out, but surely I would never have parted with Black Dirt, it's in my pantheon of Great Reads. Scouring the shelves and feeling slightly panicky I suddenly remembered... Nell is on the new shelves devoted to The Pantheon, and there she was, tucked up in between The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. Ammonites and Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively and well-buttressed by dearest Hilary Mantel.
Incidentally, and in case you were wondering, gathering the Pantheon together in one place (the revolving bookcase) was about having a selection of books to hand for that moment whenever anyone asks me for reading suggestions. It's just not good enough to say ...um...er... well nothing comes to mind right now, or always saying Wolf Hall or more recently The Goldfinch. It was a glorious sorting exercise and I knew instantly which books merited their place... maybe I will share some more of them once in a while.
Talking of Penelope Lively and Somerset I am also reading A House Unlocked, an earlier memoir about a much-loved family home in the county...
Penelope Lively has turned her considerable literary talent to non-fiction with A House Unlocked, a marvellous, meandering collection of memories inspired by Golsoncott, the Somerset country home occupied by her family for the greater part of the last century. By walking around the rooms of the house (in her mind) and looking at fondly remembered objects and furniture, she recalls the events, customs and people that together paint a slowly shifting picture of English country life in the 20th century. It is at once personal and social--a diary of the house and its occupants, and a memoir of the historical landscape.
While seemingly remote tragedies such as the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust and the Blitz all leave their mark, closer to home the house bears witness to important changes in the domestic and social nature of the surrounding countryside and its residents. Lively's memoirs are eclectic and fascinating, whether exploring changing fashions in dress, leisure pursuits, household management and gardening, or looking at the wider implications of changes in attitudes towards social class, women's role and marriage. While photograph albums chart the pictorial history of the family, a weathered picnic rug acts as a prompt for a wider discussion on the early hiking habits of the Romantic poets in that part of the Somerset countryside, the rise in popularity of rambling generally and the advent of the Great Western Railway and with it the opening up of the West Country as a hot tourist destination.
Drove House has always loomed large over village life. Boarded-up for years, it is reputed to be brimming with ghosts, and is shunned by the locals – all except Billy, for whom it has been the site of childhood dens and secret adolescent adventures. When the captivating Muriel moves in with her bohemian mother, they sweep out the ghosts and breathe new life into both the house and Billy’s quiet rural existence. After an idyllic summer, though, Muriel returns to her life in London, and the newly empty Drove House becomes the backdrop for Billy’s struggle to reconcile the vanishing agricultural lifestyle he has inherited with the glimpses of a baffling new way of life Muriel seemed to offer. Charting the conflict between these two competing worlds, Peter Benson’s award-winning first novel is at once a lyrical portrait of the landscape of the Somerset Levels and a touching evocation of first love.
Any more suggestions for Somerset and the Levels reading very welcome..