Running For The Hills

Running for the hillsI love reading books when I’m sat in the place they are set in, mixing the pleasure of being transported to a different time whilst staying in the same geographic location. I feel like I’m slipping between the universe’s folds, watching a story play out in front of me somewhere between the time it happened in and now. Last month my husband and I were on holiday in the Welsh borders, and whilst he headed out to bag some hills I took myself off to Brecon to amuse myself in bookshops and cafes. It was strange day, the day after the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU, and I found myself listening to the lilting Welsh accents around me to hear local reactions to the vote. After an hour or two pouring over the papers in the library and feeling cross, I hopped across the road to The Hours, a lovely little cafe bookshop with wooden beams and an upstairs full of secondhand books. My eyes soon alighted on a gem, a just-my-type of gem, Horatio Clare’s Running For The Hills (2006). A self-proclaimed ‘family story’, it follows the Clares as they struggle with, and settle in, to life on a Welsh farm in the 1970s and 1980s. I went downstairs to part with £3 for it,  but got lured in by delicious smells coming from the cafe’s kitchen, so settled down to read it over lunch – I didn’t end up paying until the food was long gone and I was several chapters in.

The Clares, well, Miss Williams and Mr Clare Senior as they are at the time, acquire the farm in the days of their courtship, bought by him for her as a symbol of their love and in response to her need for space to be outside of London. It’s bought at auction for £11,000, out-dated and wild and full of mice and romance. Jenny and Robert marry soon after, and two boys are born within a few years – heroically named Horatio and Alexander. The marriage begins to disintegrate under differences of personality, the pressures of depression and distance, and in the end it’s Jenny living there by herself with the boys shuttling between Wales and London. For all this domestic instability the book isn’t a depressing read: Jenny’s love of the landscape is beguiling and easy to share, and anyone who has every longed for the space and freedom of living up in the hills will share her affection of this little corner of Wales, hunkered down by the Black Mountains.

For me it was an especially delicious read, as a few days before we had walked to remote Llantony Priory and along the way had come across a couple of farmhouses high in the hills, one derelict and empty of human life, the other in the process of transformation from ruin to homstead. The former was a tiny cottage hiding away in the woods, smelling of mould and mice, the latter a great late mediaveal manor lying at the valley’s head, painted a warm butternut yellow. No doubt the Clare’s house lay somewhere between the two: habited but gently crumbling, returning to the earth decade by decade. P1010077

What is unusual about the story is that it is told in the third person, with Robert and Jenny at a slight remove, but that it also moves into the first person as Horatio becomes sentient: what were Jenny and Robert’s becomes ‘ours’, and ‘I’ appears. Clare has drawn directly from his parents’ letters and diaries, combining this source material with his own memories of childhood, and it must have been a curious process, moving between what you could remember doing, seeing and feeling and what your parents recorded as having happened at the time to construct a narrative. You might expect a certain amount of navel-gazing too, but Clare is too wise a storyteller for this, and keeps his audience enthralled in the haphazard world of a London family making a go of it on a Welsh hill farm. Although the Clares’ marriage fails, the farm falls further into disrepair, and money runs away like water, I finished the book with a strengthened desire to do it myself, to live remotely and farm a small piece of land.

Ceres Fife RCAHMSI’m making a small step in this direction later this month, moving from the bustle of Edinburgh to the rolling hills of Fife. We’ll be taking on the lease of a small cottage in the village of Ceres, and I can’t wait to have a garden to tend again and a kitchen bigger than a cupboard to cook in. The house (the middle one in the picture above) is older than most of the places we’ve lived in and we’ll have to walk over an ancient footbridge to get home each day. There’s no farm to tend, but I can’t wait to have space to roam in the evenings, and leave the omnipresent drone of cars and the wailing sirens behind. Edinburgh, you’ve been grand – but my heart’s in the country.

 

 

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The Year of Living Danishly

Today’s review is of Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, published in 2015 by Icon Books. Perfectly timed to pique the interest of this generation of woolly jumper fanciers and Nordic Noir obsessives, Russell details her 2013 move to Denmark from London with her husband in the quest for a happier life. A magazine editor and journalist, she decides to go freelance and challenges herself to ‘live Danishly’ for a year, whilst her husband works for that iconic Danish toy company, Lego. Her book catalogues the journey of their new life together as they adjust to the Nordic work-life balance, freezing weather, and Scandinavian attitude towards baked goods. The baked goods bit is pretty important. It is a contemporary take on the age-old conundrum of being an ex-pat: would my life really be any better if I lived in a different country, or would it be infinitely harder and more difficult?

It is safe to say that I am pretty much this book’s ideal reader. In my early 30s, middle-class, working in a job which is intellectually stimulating but sometimes stressful, I frequently daydream about what it would be like to have more time in my life to do the things I love: hiking, reading, writing and spending time with my husband and friends. I live in a city which boasts two Swedish coffee shops within 10 minutes’ walk of my house, and I have just learned how to knit my own Scandi-style gloves: friends, be prepared to receive some Nordic knitwear from yours truly come Christmas.

2016-01-26 19.56.30

My Scandiknit handiwork..

My husband even works in a field which is ideally suited to living in Scandinavia: as a glaciologist, you gotta go where them glaciers are, and countries with a polar border have more than the average amount. In fact, he is currently considering a job in deepest darkest (and I really do mean darkest) Tromsø, so a book about upping sticks and moving to a new Nordic life is really, really up my alley. I couldn’t wait to find about how another blonde British women in her 30s, whose career is in the world of books and words, finds the transition between British and Scandinavian living in the early 21st century.

Russell’s writing style is chatty, gently humourous and very much belies her background in lifestyle journalism. Individual works of poetic beauty they may not be, but her sentences are highly readable and trip along merrily as Russell is amazed by immaculate Danish interiors, learns the life-affirming importance of mood lighting, and struggles with the unspoken rules of flag flying. I say unspoken, but Russell is actually presented with a typed and laminated set of guidelines by her neighbours when she accidentally contravenes the strict code of the Dannebrog. Her husband is depicted as the true Scandiophile, whilst Russell’s relationship with her adopted homeland alternates between self-deprecating British skepticism and giddy enthusiasm for its excellent pastries. She paints herself very much as the girl-next-door, worried about her weight and her lax approach to housekeeping and how she’s going to cope with the notorious Nordic winters. She’s likeable, pally and just the sort of person you’d love to have on hand to help you get through life in a strange new country.

20160208_202821As the title suggests, the book charts one calendar year in Russell’s life in Denmark. Each chapter ends with a summary of the things about ‘living Danishly’ that Russell has learned during that month. January is for ‘hygge and home’, hygge being that fashionably Danish concept of wood-fired candle-lit cosiness, during which we learn that Denmark is cold in January, owls are loud, and immigration is not for the faint-hearted. By June Russell’s in the middle of a hormonal three-to-six month nosedive on the culture shock curve, and it’s time for a cold hard look at Danish feminism. But twelve months after arriving, Russell and her husband decide to stay for another year and the book ends with a list of twelve excellent ways to ‘live Danishly’, wherever you lay your hat. Trust more, get hygge, use your body, make your home nice, streamline your options, be proud, value family, be equally respectful, play, and share.  These are the things that Russell identifies as being at the root of Danish happiness, and I have to say they make pretty attractive reading: I wanted to move to Norway more than ever after reading her book.

Russell also presents a beguiling possibility of earning a crust as a freelance writer living abroad. As someone who has been toying with the idea of taking her writing more seriously, it is reassuring to know that someone from a similar background can earn money and continue to work in their chosen field from abroad. Admittedly Russell’s experience is a lot more commercial than mine, but not only does she write lifestyle and comment pieces for a number of UK publications but she also – obviously – pens the book about her daily experiences. If she can do it, might I? Only time will tell…

Want a second opinion? Check out what PD Smith has to say about the book over at the Guardian.

Want to find about more about the current vogue for all things Nordic? Hop on over to AA Gill’s 2012 piece in Vanity Fair.

A Larsson Love Affair

One of the first biographies to fully transport me to a different world was a book belonging to my best friend. Her family were a bit of a rarity for Suffolk in the 1990s: they were half-German,  my friend’s mother having been brought up by her Berliner grandmother. The family spoke little bits of the German she learned as a child, peppering their conversation with words like ‘Bäuchlein’ meaning tummy, instead of the standard German ‘Magen’ for stomach. This caused no little embarrassment when it came to learning German at  secondary school; at the age of twelve nobody wants to be saying things like ‘My favourite animal is a teddy bear’ to their stern and rather austere teacher.

As well as giving us a head start in German baby talk, my friend’s mother also passed on her fascination with Northern European culture. She was a great appreciator of art and antiques, filling the house with books, pictures and other objet d’art with a distinctly European flavour. Once, rather thrillingly, she took us out of school for a day to help haul the family’s paintings and trinkets to a nearby stately home to be valued on the Antiques Roadshow. Alas, nothing was found to be of great financial worth, but her status as a connoisseur of culture was firmly established in our minds.

One of her favourite artists was the Swede Carl Larsson, not only because of the lifelike skill of his drawings but also for his idyllic depictions of family life. When visiting, I loved to sit with the family’s big hardback illustrated Carl Larsson biography,  spending hours pouring over the pictures. The book took the form of roughly chronological life-writing interspersed with beautiful reproductions of Larsson’s paintings. Larsson had a large, messy, happy, creative home and family, both of which provided the inspiration for almost all his work. It was always difficult to choose a favourite picture as I always wanted to be living inside his world, but three strong contenders were:

  1. Namnsdag på härbret, 1898 (“Name-day at the storage house“)

Namnsdag_på_härbret_av_Carl_Larsson_1898

Larsson’s picture highlights the Swedish traditions associated with ‘namnsdagen’ or name-days, the origins of which lie in the mediaeval calendar of Christian saints. Name-days are an important part of Nordic culture and are still celebrated in Denmark (navnedag), Finland (nimipäivä), Sweden (namnsdag) and Norway (navnedag).
If you look to the left of the picture, you will see a tray being carried into the name-day celebrant’s bedroom. On it would typically be coffee – look closely and you’ll just see the top of the pot – and a special cake, just as we would have for a birthday. The children are dressed in traditional costume and bear flowers and greenery and at the very bottom corner is a man accompanying the procession on a violin. I also love the lay-a-bed on the right-hand side: are they a guest who over-indulged the night before, or a teenager reluctant to rise? Either way, I’m very envious of their wooden recessed bed.
You can read more about how name-days came to be at My Little Norway and Watching The Swedes, and find your own Swedish name-day at Dagens Namnsdag. Mine falls on 31st March, a satisfying half-year from my actual birthday.

 

2) Krebsfang (“Crayfishing with the family”)

Krebsfang
Outdoor crayfish parties are a big part of Swedish culture. For hundreds of years, friends and family have gathered together to catch and cook crayfish during August, when the summer sun starts to wane and the beginning of the new school year draws close. These parties take place in the late afternoon and early evening, sat outside those seasonal summer houses beloved of many Swedish families during the long white nights.
Larsson’s watercolour leaves no detail unrecorded: on the table is a pile of freshly-cooked crayfish, which have just been boiled in the big cauldron leaning against the tree by the water’s edge. A bottle of schnapps and a little glass for this strong liquor is to hand, and in the background the whole family is involved in catching the crustaceans with nets, line and pots. Mamma makes a pot of fresh coffee over an open fire, and there is an enticing loaf of bread ready to soak up the liquid in which the crayfish have been cooked. Who wouldn’t want to crack open a claw, raise a glass of schnapps and while away a few hours at the Larsson’s outdoor table?

If you want to get a better sense of what Swedish crayfish parties are like today, then take a look at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s visit to Sweden in his excellent Scandimania series http://www.channel4.com/programmes/scandimania/videos/all/s1-ep1-crayfish-party.

3) Julaftonen, 1904 – 1905 (“Christmas Eve”)

Julaftonen_av_Carl_Larsson_1904

‘Christmas Eve’ provides a seasonal counterpoint to ‘Crayfishing with the family’: everyone is gathered for a celebration, but this time the party is inside and lit by candles and firelight. As with other European countries including Poland, Christmas Eve is the main day for family Christmas celebrations in Sweden.

At the front of the picture is a young woman, her clothes covered with a maid’s apron and cap, holding out a lidded stein full of what looks like foaming ale. On the table are more jugs, mugs and glasses, ready to be filled from the ale cask on the right of the picture. Behind these is the smörgåsbord: a rich feast of dishes which includes a large glazed ham, ready to be sliced, boiled potatoes and what could be a plate of lutfisk, a dish made from dried ling – the cat under the table is raising her paw to signal her interest!

To find out more about Christmas celebrations in Sweden today, take a look at https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/christmas/

These pictures highlight a couple of aspects of Nordic culture which really appeal to me: a strong sense of the importance of family (and a work culture which supports this), traditions which reflect the Nordic seasons, and a love of a good party with plenty of food, drink and fine company.

One day I’d love to visit Larsson’s home Lilla Hyttnäs at Sundborn, but until then I’ll have to content myself with looking at Larsson’s pictures and the Larsson museum’s website (in English): http://www.clg.se/enstart.aspx

This piece was originally published on nordicnarratives.wordpress.com

Hannah Hauxwell

A few years ago I was holiday in Shropshire with a group of friends from university, having a cheeky free holiday in a cottage belonging to one of their aged relatives. Hannah HauxwellOne wet day we went in to Shrewsbury, intent on warming ourselves up with the finest Shropshire ale. En route to a boozy establishment, we could not resist the lure of a charity shop (two of the group are ardent bargain rootlers) and there I found Hannah, a biography of Yorkshire woman Hannah Hauxwell. Although I had no idea who she was, a quick flick through told me that this was a rural history biography, a genre of which I am inordinately fond, so I parted with £2 and Hannah was mine.

Having grown up without a television in the house, popular cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century generally passed me by. This included Hannah Hauxwell’s landmark appearance on Yorkshire Television’s Too Long A Winter. If you too were similarly culturally deprived, or simply too young to remember 1973 (actually, this includes me), you can meet Hannah here:

Hannah’s life is unimagineable demanding by today’s standards, and even by those of the 1970s. No running water, no electricity, complete isolation, food hung in bags to keep the rats off: then in her forties, she looked decades older. But what charmed her audience, then as now, was the deep calm and sense of almost childlike wonder with which she viewed the world. She is almost Wordsworthian in her lyric connection to the landscape, her inflection and gentle turn of phrase belonging to a different era.

The book itself is a compilation volume written by television producer Barry Cockcroft over the thirty years that he worked with Hannah. It is interspersed with photos from Hannah’s family albumn, but also contains some wonderful images from Beamish, the living museum of the north, showing life in the Yorkshire Dales.

Walker children at Briars Dyke, Baldersdale (Beamish Museum's People's Collection)

Walker children at Briars Dyke, Baldersdale (Beamish Museum’s People’s Collection)

Many of them have been digitised in their ‘People’s Collection’ project – have a look for yourself here: www.beamish.org.uk/collections/. You can also see a selection of photographs of Hannah published by the Yorkshire Post on the occasion of her 85th birthday, and read about her in People of Yorkshire, volume 7.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the hardship she endured for most of her life, Hannah is still alive and has just celebrated her 89th birthday. She now lives at Cotherstone, a few miles from Baldersdale, and has travelled all over the world in the years since she moved there. But Hannah’s name lives on in Baldersdale, for when she sold her farm a conservation charity was able to buy some of the meadowland. They realised that because Hannah’s family had never used artificial fertiliser on the land, it was a haven of wild flowers, unusual grasses and rare animals.

Hannah's meadow, Baldersdale by Ashley Columbus

Hannah’s meadow, Baldersdale by Ashley Columbus

They called it ‘Hannah’s Meadow’ and you make a pilgrimage there thanks to the Durham Wildlife Trust: durhamwildlifetrust.org.uk/visitor-centres/hannahs/

I went a year or so ago, on a wet grey autumn day – and even then it was beautiful.

Rooted in the distant past

Shepherds: not a group of people we often hear from, not a group of people many of us really know. The term is an archaic one, as there are few people in the UK who simply look after sheep these days, yet they crop up again and again in our culture and language. Our word ‘pastoral’ is taken directly from them (the Latin pastor meaning ‘shepherd’); they can be faithfully found draped in tea towels every December in school and village hall nativities; we make pies named after them; and those of us who are that way inclined are familiar with a drop of Shepherd’s Neame to boot.

John Clare portrayed their lives in the 19th century in The Shepherd’s Calendar; a few years earlier, Wordsworth had taken a early punt at popularising the pastoral way of life as he saw it, on the cusp of being subsumed into those infamously satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Not that either poet was a farmer himself, though Clare was far closer to the land, having worked as an agricultural labourer.

Newland's Valley. shaped by 100 years of farming

Newland’s Valley. shaped by 1000 years of farming

As the son of a lawyer, Wordsworth preferred to spend his time wandering about the landscape on which his fellowmen worked themselves to death, but Michael shows that he understood the yeoman farmer’s deep tie to the land. Their life and work utterly rooted them, and once that tie between themselves, their land and the next generation had been broken then something would be lost for ever.

Shepherds today, whilst being fewer than ever, are certainly much more vocal. Alison O’Neill has carved out a niece as The Shepherdess, and top of the Times best-seller list a few weeks ago is The Shepherd’s Life, the tale of the life of Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks. If you haven’t read it yet, you can listen to it on BBC 4 (albeit in abridged form). It is a fascinating read (or listen), being much more than simply the life story of 21st century man. Rebanks is well aware of his historical and cultural place as a shepherd: Wordsworth and ‘those tourists’ both get a nod as he stands ‘daydreaming like a bloody poet or day-tripper’.

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

He effortless elevates the language of his farming life to a quasi-religious state: ‘making good hay is like a commandment from God’. He follows those ‘threads of understanding’ which link him not just to his own forebears but to a thousand years of history and culture relating to the land which he farms. It is the book of a lifetime and no doubt will be as popular with those who have never met a shepherd and those who spend every day heaving sheep around alike.

I am intrigued by the book because one particular shepherd had a definite influence on my life. When I was five my father’s business collapsed and we had to move from our own heavily-mortgaged house to a rented cottage, tied like a tired balloon to the edge of an old family estate. In years gone by one half of it had been a dairy, and the house still had two front doors, one for the milk and one for the people. The whole house was only one room wide: a single stroke of flint, bricks and mortar. My bedroom was directly over the old dairy, now used as a kitchen, and on winter days the wind rustled up through the floor boards, which had nothing but newspapers packed below them for insulation. The house was called Farm Cottage: for that’s what it was, a cottage on a working farm.

In this cottage, the kitchen might now hold an abandoned or orphaned ‘pet’ lamb, one so tiny that it needed the warmth of our cooker and milk dispensed from a grubby bottle. Whilst I made my breakfast it might urgently head-butt my leg until I fed it, and would then proceed to pee all over the floor, carefully missing the newspaper laid down for soaking up these torrents. I loved these lambs because they needed me.

Herdwick sheep, raddled

Herdwick sheep, raddled

I was scared of the huge cows which ambled past the window every day, shit streaming from their tails, and I wasn’t too keen on the adult sheep with their vacant eyes and propensity to drop down dead at any given moment, but the lambs I adored. I would get up in the night to help with the lambing, trudge through thigh-high snow to feed them in the winter, and stripped down to my vest to helping out with the shearing (the men did it topless but I wasn’t encouraged to follow suit.)

My parents did not run the farm; it was tenant-farmed by an old Herefordshire farmer who seemed absolutely ancient to me at the age of 5, but since he is still farming 21 years later he can’t have been all that old at the time. He had an almost impenetrable accent: in Suffolk, one didn’t meet many (nearly) Welsh people and I couldn’t understand why he sounded so odd. (I had a similar problem with my uncle who was from Yorkshire. We didn’t travel much at that time: holidays were invariable taken on the Norfolk coast.) He smelt funny, his clothes were covered in holes – I was sure I could see his underpants through a tear in the seat of his trousers – and his trousers were held up with a knotted piece of thin orange string. I was soon to realise that holding up trousers was only one of the many uses for the ever-present bailer twine!

We have never once, in all the years our family has known him, called him by his first name. We know it, of course, and his middle names too, which were carefully printed inside his glasses case, held together with sticking plaster. No-one else I knew had any one of those names, let along all three – they were imbued with a sense of spell-like strangeness and we steered clear of speaking them. He had had three wives (two simultaneously, we were told), was a Mormon, and saw women as inferior to men, so that when my brother was big enough to help out on the farm he was paid £5 a day, whereas for the last three years I had done the same work without a penny. This didn’t bother me at the time, but it infuriated my mother!

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

What I instantly recognised in the shepherds in Rebanks’ book were the same complicated contradictions and inherent antagonistic behaviour that I’d seen in this farmer. The passionate love of animals (one oft-repeated phrase my whole family still use is ‘if I see a sheep, I have to have it’) combined with a hard-edged realism when it came to life and death decisions. The intense competitive need to rear sheep which were better than everyone else’s, juxtaposed with a huge amount of fellow-feeling displayed both at market day over a cup of tea and a greasy bacon roll and whenever another farmer was down on his luck. The desire to be right, to have the courage of your own convictions, but also to take the losses and hardships of the farming life philosophically, to recognise that there is a power beyond the individual when comes through farming that land. Farming allows strong characters to shape their own world, to immerse themselves in the physical rough and tumble of life. It certainly seems to be more than just a way of earning a living; it is a chosen path, and one that cannot be easily turned away from.

Sherlock, Invictus and pirates galore

Having finally settled in to the flat, unpacked the last box and had our first guests round for dinner, the time has come for a little literary update on my new surroundings. On Sunday the husband and I decided to go on a walking tour of literary Edinburgh, partly to get our cultural bearings and also because I had a job interview with UNESCO City of Literature Trust on Tuesday.

Edinburgh's iconic streets

Edinburgh’s iconic streets

Nothing like a bit of interview prep that can be done whilst having a sunny city stroll! The tour was a fascinating 90 minutes of anecdote threaded through the city’s south side, and galloped through the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling – with a fair sprinkling of bookshops and publishers to boot.

My husband has spent much of the last five years working in the Geosciences Building on Drummond Street and was amazed to discover from our guide that not only had it once been a hospital but that W.E. Henley had spent nearly three years of his life there under the watchful eye of a certain Joseph Lister. Now, when we first heard the name Henley neither of us recognised it, but the guide soon brought it to our attention that this was the man behind the poem ‘Invictus’:

Henley had had his leg amputated as part of his treatment for TB, and together with his beard and crutch was the inspiration for literature’s most famous pirate, Long John Silver – Stevenson had apparently carried an armchair on his head through the streets of Edinburgh to sit at his friend’s bedside. But he wasn’t the only member of his family to be immortalised in literature: his daughter Margaret, who died at the tragically young age of five, was the self-anointed ‘Fwendy-Wendy’ to a certain J.M. Barrie – and thereby Peter Pan’s ‘little mother’ was born. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more made by of these connections by the university – how great would it be to have ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’ emblazoned on the gates of the building that hundreds of students and staff use every day?

Behind the Geosciences school lie the Old Infirmary buildings, ranging round a quiet and almost entirely hidden courtyard providing little more than bicycle storage for today’s university students. But 150 years ago this had been the haunt of Dr Joseph Bell, the renowned surgeon and medical lecturer – and was the alma mater of a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, who (like Stevenson) took direct inspiration for his fictional characters from the people he saw in that corner of Edinburgh. Sherlock Holmes, his characteristic coat and hat and his incisive diagnostic skill, were based on Conan Doyle’s old lecturer.

At the end of the Drummond Street we come to two further literary links: the bar Hispaniola (named after the barque in Treasure Island), which until recently traded under the name Rutherford’s Bar, and had done so since at least 1836. Just over the road from Edinburgh University Law School, it provided a handy watering hole for such eminent alumni as RLS (him again!), Conan Doyle (and him), and Walter Scott.

And then on to J.K. Rowling, William Topaz McGonagall, Alexander McCall Smith, Paperback Books: it seems like every corner of Edinburgh teems with literary life past and present. The tour is a great romp through Auld Reekie’s history, but it really only has time to scratch the surface: what of Burns, Ferguson, and those Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine boys?

And, just so you know, I got the job – so that’s a pretty good recommendation for the effectiveness of the tour!

Memoir, Men and Madness

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence has sparked a million copycat narratives of the idyllic and sometimes riotous (only ever hilarious rather than destructive) life English ex-pats can un/reasonably expect if they decamp to la belle France. From time to time I am a sucker for this type of jolly escapism, but as a genre these stories often leave one with a curious feeling of jealous disillusionment: jealous of the vin, pain et campagne, disillusioned with the idea that this could ever be one’s own reality.

When I picked up Gully Wells’ The House in France (2011) from a charity shop in Penicuik for the princely sum of 50p, I was expecting just such a narrative. Gently seductive, a little mild lifestyle pornography: the word ‘memoir’ in the title bespoke as much as the subject matter. But Gully’s life, ramshackle and chaotic and tinged with anger and violence and love, certainly wasn’t cosy – though the vin and pain are copious, along with the bouillabaisse, ormandes and the huitres. Money must have been plentiful – the Wells/Ayers household certainly seemed to live like it was.

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The book, or Gully’s life – however you see it – has a stellar cast: Martin Amis as a first boyfriend, the philosopher Professor Sir A.J. Ayer as a step-father, politicians and diplomats and journalists and senators popping up all over the place. Almost everyone in the book is famous, or slept with someone famous, or famously didn’t sleep with someone famous. Affairs are commonplace; ‘fate’s chance-lings’ likewise: arguments and debates pepper the book like chilli truffles, tempting and mouth-burning in equal measure.

Gully herself comes across as something of a cipher: the outrages and actions of others are very much centre stage, and although she doesn’t self-censor – tales of lost virginity, affairs with married men and taking acid with Martin Amis are cheerily told – any deeper emotional analysis of her own motivations always lies at a cool remove. She obviously adores her mother and multiple father figures for the fun and daring and excitement they bring in to her life (boredom is the greatest sin in Gully-world), but any more dark and dangerous feelings seem to be sublimated, lurking so far beneath the surface that barely a turn of phrase betrays them. Maybe she simply didn’t feel them: but it is difficult to believe that a life so shaped by her mother’s furious rages that she ran away to New York did not contain anger, bitterness and hurt and all those other less-than-glamourous feelings which don’t make for such riveting tales.

Not that our narrator is disingenuous: the tone is upbeat even when the subject’s bleak, and it seems that Gully knows that she simply must be able to find and cherish the good in any given situation in order to survive. For example, her attitude towards men, for Gully: ‘men were created to amuse me, love me, tell me interesting things and generally give me pleasure’ (p.19). When she meets a friend who takes this to its next logical step, believing that ‘all men had been put on this earth to do things for her’ (p.109), it is clear that (even with hearts broken and bruised), this type of attitude buoys up Gully and her friends, and gives them the impetus to throw themselves into that social whirl with joyful abandon.

This is not something I’ve ever managed to achieve, but I have watched in open-mouthed amazement (and not a little hint of envy) as a friend from university effortlessly surrounded herself with a group of boys all desperate to help her, wine and dine her, and generally be willing acolytes in her entourage. A couple of years later, as she valiantly battled through the vicissitudes of law school with a young son in tow, I watched her do it again: crowds of men to go out for a drink with on any night of the week; always someone delectable (physically or intellectually) to have dinner with. Blonde, witty, petite, aristocratic – I shared with her only the first characteristic, and surmised that it must be my lack of the other three charms which excluded me from this kind of ménage. This may indeed be true, but reading this book made me realise that my own ideas on what men are for were entirely different (there to be impressed, compete with and make laugh), and that the idea of wanting someone to do something for me that I could easily do myself was anathema to me: independence is all very well, but people like to be needed, love to be useful, and above all need to feel like a welcome part of one’s life.

The book delights in its ability to pick out all the lovely, daring, funny stories without slavish adhering to the plodding chronological structure so common to life-writing. Although the book does – roughly – follow Gully’s life, the more tedious elements (like getting a job) are just tossed into the narrative whenever they are needed to provide the context for an interesting story. When we meet the dishevelled husband of an equally dishevelled friend (who turns out to be the author Alice Thomas Ellis), he declares ‘I’m not fucking George Weidenfeld, you know.’ And that is how we find out that Gully’s job is in the publicity department of this notable publisher. It is also a book about a particular social class of people: wealthy London-centric socialites of the mid-twentieth century, and reminded me of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s Spilling the Beans (2008) – full of jolly romps (in every sense of the word), long boozy London lunches, plenty of scandal, and people we recognise: authors, philosophers, politicians, the lot. Not quite the ‘escape to the country’ plot I had imagined, but a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle none the less.

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream