Faint lights at sunset… or on the horizon

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Random Harvest, James Hilton

From 1941, James Hilton’s novel Random Harvest… a really excellent cover with just the credit ‘Reeves’ in the corner. It’s the book of the film which I mentioned here. It was a best-seller in the forties (second on the New York Times list of bestsellers for the year). James Hilton is another of those authors unfairly lost in time because of a mis-informed assumption that the work is simply reinforcing bland, reactionary values. He’s actually analysing class and small-mindedness as well as anyone. For example:

“Have you ever been going somewhere with a crowd and you’re certain it’s the wrong road and you tell them, but they won’t listen, so you just have to plod along in what you know is the wrong direction till somebody more important gets the same idea?”

Hilton worked in Hollywood from the 1930s and was involved with some of the most well-loved films of the era such as Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon. I saw the latter at my grandma’s house as a small child, fascinated as Ronald Colman rescued the love of his life from a magical Himalayan valley. I remember my grandma telling me to wait and see what happened. It was worth it, as she knew, because the rescued girl shrivelled into a 200-year-old crone the moment she stepped from the magic valley, which had us in fits.

Hilton also created the story and the film Mrs Miniver from Jan Struther’s diaries, which along with Went the Day Well is a classic wartime morale-booster.

Road Through the Woods, Pamela Frankau

Road Through the Woods (1960) was bought for the cover initially (not that I didn’t check it was worth reading) but I soon discovered another once well-known and regarded author in Pamela Frankau. J B Priestley wrote that her work ‘just gets better and better… with every word she writes her pen is sharper’. Frankau was also part of Rebecca West’s circle. I want to know why she disappeared, so she’s a name I look out for when browsing the unloved and forgotten in second-hand bookshops.

The Distant Horns of Summer, H E Bates

And finally H E Bates, from 1967. His time will come again without doubt. Just now, those horns of summer seem way behind us. Britain has just had the most beautiful summer in years, so autumn is a little more melancholy this year. Pan has gone away for now…

After London: dreaming Wild England

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I was born in a small town not far from the New Forest. Now and again in the evenings, as a family, we would go and watch the deer from a viewing platform. It was like theatre, and we were in the dress circle, looking with binoculars at a sun-dappled herd lazing under a canopy of oak trees, or an antlered monarch stood on ceremony. There was also the Rufus Stone – a memorial to King William II, slain in 1100 while hunting.

Deerhead

A deer’s head made from plastic, circa 1970, made in France (oddly). There are four cow bells which go with it and a plastic beater for chiming. This was in our 1970s house until a bad taste purge sometime in 1981 in which it was replaced. I’ve since rescued it: for one thing, nothing died to make it, and he has a certain presence (as long as the bells stay in the attic).

I loved stories of Robin Hood, dreamed of living and waking among trees, and later devoured the wild landscapes covered in Roger Lancelyn Green’s stories of King Arthur. Winchester, home of Edward I’s recreated round table, seemed magical, and one summer I watched my brother’s girlfriend in a play at the Great Hall. It was inspired by Richard Jefferies’ book After London: Wild England, in which the country is ‘returned to nature’ by a great flood. In the final scene she took a white mouse from a small box, which ran over her hands as she spoke… the last living creature?

Wild England

On reading After London: Wild England, William Morris made these dark comments: “I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of civilisations: which I know now is doomed to destruction, probably before very long – what a joy it is to think of! And how it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world and real feelings and passions taking the place of our wretched hypocrises”.

Earlier, I had inherited Enid Blyton’s Country Walks with Uncle Merry from my brothers (I doubt Uncle Merry would pass many checks these days). One day a supply teacher entranced our class of six-year-olds with Edith Holden’s Country Diary. (Nothing was as fascinating as the beetle who had crawled into the pages and been reproduced in the facsimile.)

I took anything by BB (Denys Watkins Pitchford), author of Brendon Chase and Bill Badger. Otters were my favourite animal – Philip Wayre’s The River People was rarely left in the local library. As an eight-year-old member of his Otter Trust my heart stopped at the line in the newsletter: ‘It’s time to renew your subscription – don’t let the otters go hungry!’

In 1980, en route from the New Forest to Devon, through Tolpuddle and Dorchester, you could still imagine Thomas Hardy’s heart fluttering past the cottages, the window-frames layered with paint from his lifetime.

Whatever our experience of nature and landscape, it becomes part of us. It’s not something we might acknowledge until there are some years behind us. The realisation comes through a growing susceptibility to pain at seeing it fade and become unfamiliar. And it’s different for each generation; what is still beautiful to a 20-year-old today might be wrecked in the eyes of someone who knew it decades ago.

Some passing things might be rescued in the only way our age seems capable of doing – over-analysing, creating niches to attract like minds and consolidate exactly what it is we want to perpetuate: unaltered landscapes, timeworn buildings, to preserve an ancient thread over centuries and keep in check our ability to modify and obliterate within a few minutes.

Eldridge Hardy

A beer mat from 1980.

But we cannot picture ‘the countryside’ as existing outside the trends of our century. I’m typing this in a cottage with walls eighteen inches thick. You would barely hear a dog bark from next door, and yet I can hear incessant bombing from an Xbox, and when they’re not obliterating war-torn cities, it’s Formula 1 racing. There will be a huge hyper-real screen, the key point of interaction for the now and future, unless you disconnect, edit your life and put a shepherd in your garden like Marie Antoinette. I can, however, walk out on the moor and see the sheep, see the ponies, think of how many were recorded as neglected and emaciated earlier this year. It’s not so unlike urban life.

Since the Industrial Revolution our national consciousness has bred art and writing attempting to capture the essence of the countryside. Generally we’re told that this vision exists only in our imagination. It’s not long since there was derision in many quarters that the Olympics ceremony should draw on our ‘green and pleasant land’: how old-fashioned, how twee, how backward.

But perceptions are remoulded as the years pass.

Over the last decade a particular appreciation of the natural world has grown up: the fashionable face of nature-loving. Cooler record stores stock books from Caught by the River, music festivals are entwined with food and literary festivals… it is traditional non-corporate life as we might imagine it, restyled in a way palatable to lifestyle media. Fashion became obsessed with images of a stark, skeletal nature – animal heads, something dark in the forest. Chuck out your Beatrix Potter, to paraphrase Ikea.

In the 2010 preface to David Pinner’s Ritual, the book which inspired the 1971 pagan film classic The Wicker Man, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley writes:

“It is easy to take nature for granted in the 21st century, to see it as tamed by an increasingly urbanised world. We grow plants in pots and perch them on sills, herbs thrive on our balconies, parks and gardens are open air nail bars of plucked hedges and manicured rose bushes. But a trip to the countryside can soon remind you who’s boss, and of how small you are in the scheme of things, as soon as your jumper gets caught by a thorn or your bare leg grazes a thistle. The further west of London you go, the more this seems to be the case. It isn’t that the countryside there is any wilder than in other parts of Britain, just less known, and it becomes less and less familiar until its otherness dwarfs you. People don’t take nature for granted here. Here be monsters… behind the photogenic wildlife skirting the unseen bogs of the New Forest; ultimately, on Dartmoor.”

Whether this rings true depends on your circumstance, but it captures a moment, a place where the new godhead is Robert Macfarlane, who took the authenticity of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas et al and washed away sentiment.

Caught by the River

One of Stanley Donwood’s beautiful ‘holloway’ illustrations which appear in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book.

This is all far from a knitted, unfashionable image of walking holidays in the countryside. But at the turn of this century, the nearest the lifestyle media might come to indulging such pursuits was a photo of Alison Steadman as Candice-Marie in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May.

Of course, that quiet, ancient thread was always there and had never faded: the small publisher reissuing work by BB; people like Jack Hargreaves (as a child, he was a regular at 7pm most evenings on Southern TV – an elderly chap in a garden shed intoning about country pursuits with all the manner of a leisurely mull over beer in his village pub); the bench thoughtfully positioned in the unfashionably-termed ‘beauty spots’ on some unsung track – Frank loved this view and this seat was put here by his wife; the plethora of ornaments featuring wild animals in immaculately-crafted detail, endless prints of badgers, foxes or kingfishers in faux-gilt frames; Watership Down; Alan Titchmarsh enthusing about something or other… the solid dark green livery of the National Trust, set in stone and as yet uninterpreted; unflattering waterproofs before a testosterone-fuelled industry kicked in, now entreating us to ‘take all nature can throw at you and throw it back’.

Our new century is growing up but are we still living by illusions? Is our search for wild nature, the individual and the independent any different to the 1930s retreat to Olde England in the face of modernity? We like to think so. Perhaps we’re just the same as any age, hankering after Utopia, but won’t admit it.

Let’s be cynical for a while.

You can no longer drive through England and pass rows of cottages that would be familiar to their generations of owners, sun-faded with wrinkled render, mossy roofs and watery window panes. Well, you can, now and again, but it will be so beautifully preserved and Farrow-and-Ball’d that it’s a stage set without a cast. Yet the metal-embossed road sign at the cross-roads is at ease and true, a little rusted. Stand in the village square and choose your century. Not so long ago, it seemed we would always be able to come here and reconnect.

Tempted by practical comforts, low maintenance and rewards for environmental friendliness (or beaten by blanket-bombing marketing) the buildings in our villages and towns have been given make-overs with flawless float-glass double-glazing, immaculate shadowless render and plastic doors holding just an echo of beaded moulding to remind us what a timber door looked like. Shop signs are sheets of plastic screwed to the wall with the freedom of any font, any colour and any clipart the software allows. The signpost at the crossroads has Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s carefully-constructed Transport font condensed and squashed to fit the space on the standardised reflective board. This is life lived with care for immediate practical needs, even survival. These villages will not age gently and fade into the landscape anymore, or admit eccentricities, but they are no less authentic than the badger in his sett.

Exmoor

It’s OK, they’re part of a stuffed display, but this is confusing for dogs.

Preserved cottages are more often empty, the 19th century hovel a 21st century luxury from coffee table books. In off-track villages they’re part of the idyll, reassuring visitors that somewhere things are running in computer safe-mode, waiting for a some-day-soon.

They are stage sets, and outside showtime life is still reduced to the comforting essentials: no shop, no pub, no jobs, refuelling with coal or damp wood on the hour to keep a radiator working, no salt or grit for frozen roads, no privacy.

Decimated, the last of generations remain knowing they cannot make a living from the land like their fathers and mothers and yet struggle on. It’s in their skin and has been there since birth, every nuance of weather, every flutter of wing. Those dependent on the countryside know it as the rabbit knows the fox or the sparrow knows the hawk. This is becoming nature, where survival is king.

Are the rest of us able to say we really know the countryside? Or are we indulging the luxury of being able to consider a longing for nature’s otherness, a reminder that we are part of something truly beyond humankind’s control, the pull of the primeval? We might infuse our responses with modernity, a scrabble for authenticity: ultimately, it’s a privilege to be able to do so. We are looking to ideals, a pursuit of beauty, the antidote to over-sophistication, a dream of Utopia, a return to Eden.

No matter whether we express this with a well-placed bench, a faded print or bestselling literature, it’s an illusion that belongs to us all.

Setting the graphic equalizer with Virginia Woolf and Stella Gibbons

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I hear you’ve been going out a great deal,” said Lady Waters, with that air with which lesser women prefix: ‘A little bird told me’ – but her confidante would have been an eagle.

From To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, 1932

To the North 1

The wood engraving is by Joan Hassall (I think).

This is one of the touches that make Elizabeth Bowen really enjoyable. Although she experiments with form, it’s the natural result of efforts to capture nuance. She’s quite willing to dip swiftly down to earth with an honest quip like this… there’s no desire to set the gentle reader adrift in a pond of preciousness and self-regard.

Of writers with a heyday in the twenties and thirties, I put Virginia Woolf at one end and Stella Gibbons at the other. I imagine this as a little like the treble and bass dial on an old stereo, and with a little balancing at the centre you’ll get Elizabeth Bowen.

I don’t believe there’s a great deal of difference in the ability to observe in either Woolf or Gibbons, though of course the presentation differs, and perhaps Woolf was observing herself a little more. (Woolf famously dismissed Gibbons’ literary prize for Cold Comfort Farm with ‘Who is she? What is this book?’.) My enthusiasm for Stella Gibbons is not based on Cold Comfort Farm, good as it is, but the other novels such as Westwood, Nightingale Wood and The Bachelor. There’s a lightness and modernity, a spirit decades ahead of the 1930s. A cool intelligence wants to escape mundanity, but it will not countenance the smugness and complacency of those who might think that they’re not.

Westwood Gibbons

Vintage have reissued most of Stella Gibbons’ novels, and this illustration is by Pep Montserrat for the recent reissue of Westwood.

There’s a scene in Bowen’s To the North, where the office secretary finally turns on her employer, that could be one of Gibbons’ finer moments:

“She stared at the fatal letter from Malaga, her mind recording a quite superficial astonishment: one had not expected Tripp to go off like this. What had one expected? Little – punctuality, bridling diligence, the impassable patronage of the educated young female towards employers who had respectively failed at the wrong university and attended none. She had been cheap, she wrote the King’s English, absented herself at teatime, and did not sniff… But all this time in Miss Tripp the juices of an unduly prolonged adolescence had violently been fermenting: now with a pop they shot out the cork from the bottle. The effect on Tripp, certainly, did not appear catastrophic: the bottle remained intact. Tripp’s outline (at which Emmeline stole a look) was once more placid, as though some natural process had reached conclusion. Doubtless she felt much better.”

But these moments are the light sparkling on a dark river. Bowen’s skill is in never placing us at the heart of one perspective – she writes with a hand-held camera thrown from character to character, most of them adrift. We’re carried along in the chatter of familiar comforts but it’s a sly deception, for the destination is cold and distant: dislocation.

The World My Wilderness Revisited

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Savagery waited so close on the margins of life; one day it would engulf all…

Wilderness Revisited

The World My Wilderness isn’t the book I was expecting now I’ve read it. We’re told this is Barbary’s story: a girl transposed to post-war London from a life shared with her mother’s villa in Southern France and bands of French resistance fighters. In England she lives with her father (a well-known lawyer), attends the Slade school, but spends most of her time in the ruins around St Paul’s.

There’s something about the urban wilderness scenes with Barbary and her stepbrother I find quite sketchy and detached: like Ealing film reels filed among the substance of her mother’s story.

Helen is widowed after the death of her second husband. She paints, drifts, gambles, plays chess with an abbé, and is working on a fraudulent collection of 12th century poetry while maintaining a sex life. “The days slide by like fruit dropping from a tree,” she tells her grown-up son. Helen echoes the well-worn theory that du Maurier’s Rebecca is the modern woman repressed and demonised by much of the 20th century; we even have her ex-husband remarried to a nice uncomplicated girl in a tweed suit.

Hitchcock Rebecca poster

Helen’s son Richie is “one of those returning warriors whose hang-over was not toughness, but an ardent and delighted reaction towards the exquisite niceties of civilisation. He liked luxury… mulled claret drunk in decorative rooms lit by tall candles, the sparkle and glitter of good talk and good glass, the savour of delicate food”.

He and his friends would be less happy “without the sense of there being massed against them a philistine, vocal army, terrible with slogans, illiterate cries and destructive levelling aims”.

Perhaps this is Brideshead Revisited syndrome, still reaching far into British culture today. It’s seductive and alluring, as novelist after film-maker rehashes the outsider on the fringe of this world, lusting after Arcadia, days of fine wine and strawberries by ancient fountains.

Years after it was plastered over by Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, it’s as alive as ever. The early 2010s has seen fashion chase a pre-war English idyll, dreams which unite even some Guardian and Telegraph readers. (It’s fascinating that new generations of the anciently well-heeled are now ‘artisans’, dressed as 1930s farm labourers, while marketing teams talk of ‘heritage lifestyle’ and package Sebastian Flyte fashions for Debenhams.)

Rose Macauley

Rose Macaulay… or a young Hugh Grant.

Macaulay uses Richie and his frontline experiences to verbalise some intense cries of pain at what the modern era could mean. It’s not necessarily the author’s voice here, but she stares direct and unwavering into the abyss for an incredible and almost biblical passage, unleashed and at odds with the tame synopsis the novel is given:

“Richie, himself trapped into barbarism for three long, unbelievable years, shrank back from it, reacted towards gentleness, towards bland tolerance, towards an excessive civility. The rich elegances of life, now so little probable, the fine decoration, the exquisite glow of colour and grace and structure, the beauty that wealth and knowledge can bring, the ivory tower of aristocratic culture, that war and peace had undermined, had set tottering, had all but brought down with a crash, to replace by pre-fabs for the multitude, by a thin, weak tainted mass culture – it was towards these obsolescent things that Richie nostalgically turned, pursuing their light retreating steps as one chases beloved ghosts. In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors, of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some continuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered or lost shape in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner – during all this frightening evanescence and dissolution the historic churches kept their improbable, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.”

Blake

William Blake: Rose Thou Art Sick

“No civilisation lasted more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what it would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on. We haven’t finished, Richie protested; we have scarcely begun, give us a little more time for beauty… but beauty vanishes, beauty passes, and he saw only her receding back, menaced and to die.”

At the heart of The World My Wilderness is the fear that effects of war and ‘the century of the common man’ will destroy art and beauty. The privileged classes are making sense of a new world where they might not fit. The life of Helen’s daughter Barbary is outside their circle and so viewed as ‘uncivilised’ – even her name suggests barbarism.

But if art is a part of civilisation (which is a theme that appears in the novel) then Barbary carries it with her wherever she goes. The London she paints is post-apocalyptic, but it has not derailed from its past and the train will call at the same stations of the class system forever more. Barbary’s will not.

It’s a book that could work from many perspectives, from the reactionary bigot to If…-style revolutionary. When first published, the conventional view might have called Helen lazy and immoral, but she emerges as the compass of the novel. Her time has come, and her daughter is surely a proto-beatnik. They’re carrying art and beauty into the future while convention withers, but whether the art and beauty is for all is another question…

Timepiece

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WhistlesintheWind (I think that’s a place rather than myself) began with looking at things that made an impression on me as a child and the resonances I could pick up today. It also became a little deeper than that: mainly because I was keeping it at a time when my parents were either moving into a nursing home or dealing with failing sight and hearing. That’s a stage when, as a younger generation, you move into the front line: over the border, we’re getting older, heaven only knows what’s on its way to quote a Saint Etienne song.

Over the border

There’s an idea that every seven years we move into a new phase, which seems fairly accurate: 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42… Not long ago I was reading an article about stages of happiness as we go through life. It involved firstly the old cliché – and unlikely claim – that in youth we are free from care, worry and responsibility.

Once in our mid-30s we have enough experience for a realistic sense of the possibilities or outcomes of any given situation, and with the human need to predict and pigeon-hole and order, fall prey to any number of prejudices or assumptions that hinder contentment. Over time the predicting wears away and we settle down: we know all that may happen but have trained ourselves to keep it out of mind (which is not the same as burying it). We know life is fragile but there’s little sense in thinking of it.

That’s all my paraphrase and interpretation, but fair enough. In all this there’s the need for somewhere, some thing to keep us anchored: people, places, something ancient and unchanging – perhaps in nature or a faith. And a sense of who you are and what you look for, which is fraught with nostalgic complications, if you want to trace it back or think about it seriously.

Watch 2

My first proper watch: a Christmas present from my dad aged 10, overhauled, new strap, proper wind-up mechanism and worn today after its 20 years or so in the wilderness. Sentiment? Nostalgia? A part of me?

This post from http://albaartstudio.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/nostalgia/ explores the word nostalgia in some depth:

“I have just read Staying Put: Making a home in a restless world by Scott Russell Sanders – a really interesting/great read – in it there is a passage on the meaning of the word nostalgia.

To paraphrase and quote – “Nostalgia was coined in 1688 as a medical term to find an equivalent for the German word meaning homesickness. On our lips, nostalgia usually means a sentimental regard for the trinkets and fashion of an earlier time, for an idealized past, for a vanished youth.  It is a shallow use of the word. The two Greek roots of nostalgia literally mean return pain. The pain comes not from returning home but longing to return.”

Sorting out boxes and cupboards and things from the past is a strange exercise these days. There’s a vague popular notion that we’re only as good as our latest new thing; a bit like an actor saying they’re only as good as their latest film.

But then there are classic films, books and music which are made new as people discover them over the decades – and these things live at that moment of discovery, not just in the moments they were first created. And as time moves everything is fallow and unnoticed for a while. Even Elizabeth II.

Kaleidoscope

Bits and pieces of our history retreat and sleep and others come forward over time, different ways of seeing, feeling, being and living. But certain places, images and objects will connect us directly to any of these moments, or spots of time – whatever you want to call it.

I remember a kaleidoscope I once had. Turned to the light, endless small sparkling grains turned over and over into new arrangements of the same pieces.

There is a lot of dust (and a little mildew) that could gather as we get older, but some things will always remind us of who we are, and also of being alive in the present moment. Ancient things in the landscape give us a sense of continuity and stability. If we need these in our landscape, might we need them in our lives?

The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.

William Morris

Morris and Burne Jones

William Morris, Burne Jones and families

I know with certainty that a [person’s] work is nothing but the long journey to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to [his or her] heart.

Albert Camus (apologies for this one: complete affectation to quote Camus, but it’s good. And I found it in the notes of a film I was watching).

These comments in an interview with Natasha Khan (of Bat for Lashes) brings up the ‘N’ word again, almost apologetically…

“…exploring the Sussex Downs and the countryside was a big soothing, nurturing aspect of being at home, and when I felt everything was too much I’d definitely go for walks in downs and check out Alfriston and Rye and Glynde, small villages and I just really love that countryside. It just makes me so happy, and there’s something really romantic and it reminds me of The Snowman – when you’re little and all those rolling hills and little cottages and stuff. I feel like there’s something very wild and romantic about that landscape…”

“… I was reading Patti Smith’s book Just Kids about her and Robert Mapplethorpe which I found fascinating and really inspiring. I did life drawing classes and illustrating for children’s books… I’ve re-read a lot of my childhood books like The BFG, Goodnight Mr. Tom and Ring of Bright Water… I think probably what that’s to do with is going back and rereading things that were a massive part of my childhood, and looking at them from an adult perspective. I think there’s something quite healing in that; immersing myself in my roots and my English childhood and the countryside and the history, coming to terms with my history, working through it and loving it and appreciating aspects of it. And letting go of some aspects helps you come fully into adulthood and put some of those things to rest, so maybe it was a bit of a nostalgia trip, in some ways.”

(From The Line of Best Fit.)

Ring of Bright water

Any excuse…

In sorting through anything – and recently I’ve been clearing my father’s house for new owners – there’s a pile of things that are indeterminate, that speak of no direct need to keep or throw away. And that’s the difficult area… what in that pile is lying fallow?

Take those fateful steps up the metal scaffold to the recycling skip, with cars below circling in and away to the goal of ‘now’, and what fragments of a kaleidoscope might be lost forever?

But there’s a blunt thud and tumble and they are gone. And that is as it should be.

South Riding and Winifred Holtby

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South Riding

An edition of Winifred Holtby’s Yorkshire novel from 1938.

Testament of Friendship

And the memoir by Vera Brittain from 1940. The Observer said at the time: “The tale of a life which combined a candle’s briefness with a beacon’s challenging flame has its own strong fire, and is itself a challenge to posterity, lest it forget”.

There was a fairly recent BBC version of South Riding, but the 1974 version, albeit epic and long-winded, is more authentic. Dorothy Tutin is headmistress Sarah Burton, and there is one particularly effective episode with Joan Hickson as a ‘difficult’ member of staff.

South Riding, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Hickson

“Have you never thought of getting a post in the south of England?”: Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite (left) with Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton

There used to be lots of such ‘character’ actors – and some of these TV dramas feature top-notch acting in the briefest roles. I think back then TV was an extension of the stage, because most actors had a long history there. In a theatre you aren’t expecting slick editing to hold the attention, simply the skill of the cast.

I’m fascinated by these DVDs of things being screened when I was just old enough for Tom and Jerry. Perhaps it’s because they once belonged to what seemed a privileged and unknown world of adults, who once children had gone to bed, could safely indulge in secreted stashes of chocolate in peace and quiet, have a drink and talk freely. A friend told me that when he was small, every Sunday night two Walnut Whips would appear on his parents’ sideboard in readiness. Perfect.