The Christmas holidays is perfect for kicking back and escaping into the home library, which sounds rather grand but is, in fact a few piles of books that I haven’t had time to read yet, placed strategically on bedside table, kitchen dresser and the corner of the room which contains all those things which are in transit between house and recycling centre, the ironing and numerous cardboard boxes. Most of this year’s Christmas books have been a treat.
I loved Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles. In fact the lovely Mr Slater is living my life of cooking, pottering round the garden and shopping locally but without the mothering and the demands of having to be part-cheerleader, part-parent, part-mentor and fount of knowledge on how to achieve a decent examination grade to a few hundred teenagers. He writes with joie de vivre shot through every sentence and is the master at conjuring up the essence of a life lived simply and well. Monty Don is similar in his approach and desire to impart the tips and tricks of soulful gardening in tune with the seasons. Mary Beard’s witty and erudite musings on women’s place in society, a couple of classic detective yarns and an interesting commentary on helping adolescent boys avoid the pitfalls that modern society lobs at them almost filled my fortnight. I’ve just started to re-read David Wood’s playscript of a classic wartime story which I am directing in July along with some useful historical research on the experiences of evacuees. And bringing up the rear is Susan Hill’s latest ‘book of books’.
I’m always curious about other people’s bookshelves and really enjoyed Hill’s last foray into the genre ‘Howards End is on the Landing’. She is strongly opinionated, drops names liberally and has a rather disconcerting habit of hopping between topics – but I’ve learnt to expect that from Hill. It’s refreshing, revealing but too much to take on Twitter where I find myself getting irritated by what I regarded as some of her ill-informed opinions. At a supper party I would thoroughly enjoy a frank exchange with her but Twitter is not the forum for that. In the book however I loved the mash-up of nature notes, book recommendations and anecdote. Her comments about J B Priestley will form the basis of some useful discussion with my GCSE class and there are some memorable one-liners (Has Donald Trump ever read a book?). Describing Coleridge as being shot through with “a streak of lightening” is clever and I’m always grateful for a booklist from which to choose some that I would never have considered without a steer.
There is an underlying sense of discontent which pervades this book however – not just an element of grumpiness about some aspects of life. Maybe the move to Norfolk from the Cotswolds has thrown her out of kilter and it does have aspects of a book which was dashed off to a deadline. On several occasions Hill repeats herself almost word for word. A more considered approach and judicious editing would have smoothed this out but these are small niggles. Whilst it is not as The Times reviewer said of her previous volume in a similar vein “totally beguiling, utterly persuasive” I was informed, entertained and made to reconsider my own opinions of the books and authors she mentions. A few hours well-spent, after all.