Lockdown Newsletter 3
Once more we're sending you our collective ramblings with the hope that reading them will entertain you for a few moments. I have to warn you that there are several mentions of Pineapple Jaffa Cakes and also references to the beautiful sunny weather which has since departed.
Enjoy our wittering, we miss all our lovely customers and look forward to one day reopening the shop doors and dusting o! the poor old books.
Take care for now,
Angus: On certainty, or the lack of it.
That title is as close as I shall ever get to being Montaigne, apart from my rather stilted writing style, for which I apologise.
I shouldn’t be surprised that people have been asking for book recommendations - and they have (yes, you know who you are), but I am quite hesitant to give them. I see no reason why everyone would want to read the same thing. Nor should they. However I do think that there are books that read well at the moment more than others.
Debby told me of an article in The Sunday Times recently about this very subject which recommended that rather than Tolstoy you should be reading Lee Child. And I think I know why. As chance would have it I read my first Lee Child just over a month ago and loved it. There are several reasons why I did; he writes very clearly and is especially good at documenting the different geographies of America and very good at describing a setting, a scenario - never be fooled that this is an easy thing to do so well, and so economically. The main strength of the books however - which becomes apparent after a few of them - is the certainty of outcome. There are several things you know when starting a Jack Reacher story and they are the following: he will humiliate and hurt some bad people, he will get the girl, he will survive victorious and he won’t stick around afterwards. This may seem to devalue the purpose of the books but of course it doesn’t. It is exactly the point of them. It means that, although the narrative is tense, you remain calm in the knowledge that all will be well. The question is just how? No question of all not being well. There are very few ‘great’ novels which don’t, at the very least, make you question your place in the world or the way you live your life; that make you understand that all lives are different and complex. The famous first line of Anna Karenina tells us all:
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
This is fine but at times like these the most enjoyable, nay unusual thing is certainty. This is what a good thriller delivers I think. Resolution is worth its weight in gold.
So, if I were to recommend reading anything it would be a thriller or two. If not Lee Child - even a good old-fashioned adventure yarn, a la Wilbur Smith, will do very well (his early books are exactly the kind of thing). Simple, straightforward storytelling is the key. I love Tolstoy (booksellers are trained early to mention him as often as possible to keep doubts as to their capabilities at bay for as long as possible) so don’t not read War and Peace or Anna Karenina if you were planning to. Please remember however that even if you love both Wilbur Smith and Tolstoy, don’t be fooled into thinking they are trying to do the same thing.
Let me tell you a story. I was a huge fan of Wilbur Smith growing up. As a thirteen year old I would read and re-read his books almost constantly. They are magnificent adventure stories, light on psychology but heavy on character and when I say character I mean big, bold, unsubtle - straightforward but satisfyingly so. They are also rich in history, well researched, generally good hearted and tremendously engaging.
Wilbur came to my shop in Windsor to do a signing in 2001. Had I still been a teenager I would have been beside myself with excitement. In fact I had envisaged this very scenario many times. I can report with great pleasure and relief that he was delightful and very attentive to his fans. He sat at a table and as each person came towards him he would stand, o!er his hand and say ‘Very nice to meet you, thank you so much for coming’. I have always remembered that. Classy. After the crowds had gone we went to my office for him to sign the reservations. I took this private moment to ask him a question that had rattled around my head for some time:
‘Wilbur, there is a scene in A Sparrow Falls - the long, two man horse race between the hero and the villain - which pays great homage to a similar scene in Anna Karenina. Was that your intention? Is it a favourite book of yours?'
Wilbur paused and turned towards me, looked me in the eye and replied in a matter-of-fact way ‘I have never read Anna Karenina’ and turned back to the pile of books. I got a copy of A Sparrow Falls signed to me anyway which I have just found and which says: ‘Dear Angus, thanks for a knockout signing’. A personal treasure.
Should you want something with a bit more intellectual depth then all I can recommend at the moment is The Moviegoer by Walker Percy which I am currently half way through. On cue, as if to contradict myself as quickly as possible, I have to confess this book has a purpose which comes entirely from its lack of certainty. Written in 1960 it won the National Book Prize in that year, even though it wasn’t officially nominated - winning ahead of Catch-22 among others. Critics have said that it was the first of what is now called the ‘Contemporary American Novel’. I don’t think this is true as John Fante, amongst others, was writing in a similar vein a good twenty five years earlier. What is certainly true though is that it is a novel of thoughts and questions rather than certainties and outcomes. Set in New Orleans and narrated in the first person, not unreliably but with a lack of an obvious agenda, by a wealthy stockbroking thirty year old of dubious worth. He is on a quest for meaning in the world and, like any normal person, is not really prepared to do much or to go far to find it. As I say, I am only half way through but it is streaked with some of the finest sentences and paragraphs I have read in some time. Here is one:
‘She nods and presently begins to notice the waitresses, watching with her lips parted and drying, like a boy who has come into a place with his father or brother and so is given leave to see without being seen.’
I haven’t finished it so can’t comment on the resolution but I am pretty sure that it won’t answer any questions. Or at least not with any certainty.
Stay safe and well.
Debby : A quiet week
Remember Garrison Keillor - “It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon”? Well, it's been a very quiet week in Maison Guest, and I've been racking my brains to try to think what to write for this latest newsletter. One of the (many, kind) comments on our last issue was from someone who appreciated that it wasn't all 'smiley stu! about knitting our own lettuce'. I know exactly what she means, and I can assure you that no salad was handcrafted in the manufacture of this newsletter. In fact not much has been crafted at all; I did say at first that I felt I should use this time productively, but I didn't hold out much hope.
However – I did make nettle soup! I carefully picked the young green leaves, and washed them thoroughly before adding them to the pan in which an onion had been sweated in (quite a lot) of butter. Treating the nettles like spinach, I added cumin and nutmeg, then poured in a pint of stock, and simmered it until the nettles were tender. Then I blitzed the resulting goop until it resembled the sludge you find at the bottom of a monsoon ditch, and chucked it down the drain.
Joke! Of course I didn't throw it away. I ate it, and it was ....not delicious. I mean, you could live on it, but you really wouldn't want to. Fortunately, I had a packet of Pineapple Ja!a Cakes as a palate cleanser. I love anything pineapple-y* (Why yes – how clever of you! I'd love a pina colada, how kind). The Pineapple Ja!a Cake is one of the best things to come out of 2020 so far (pretty low bar, I admit) and I had a worrying couple of weeks when I couldn't buy them anywhere. I kept getting emails and texts from Edwina, reporting in a frankly gloating fashion that she had a stash of them, and relations between us were becoming a touch chilly. But now I have a little stockpile of my own, so have risen above petty jealousy and rivalry.**
Um – I did tell you there wasn't much to report. The weather continuing to be glorious I have been in the garden all day every day, sometimes constructively weeding (then re-planting what turns out not to be a weed after all), but mostly sitting under the lilac tree, reading. I haven't read Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven, and I don't intend to in the near future (it's about a pandemic), but I very much enjoyed her new novel, The Glass Hotel, about crime, compromise, ghosts and deception. Lionheart by Ben Kane is fun, well researched, pacy historical action. I say 'fun' – it's mediaeval blood and guts, and every bit as readable as his Roman novels. Ben was due to come and talk about it at the shop in May – I'd like to hope it could still happen.
Otherwise I'm raiding my shelves for re-reads, as I'm quite happy without too much new stu! at the moment. Fear of the real unknown means I'm happy to know what's coming in the books I read, I can do without cunning plot twists and nasty surprises. I keep looking at The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies, which I remember loving 30-odd (yikes!) years ago. The Penguin website says it “lures the reader down labyrinthine tunnels of myth, history and magic in one of the most beguiling, clever and cunning trilogies ever written”. So that should keep me occupied. That and Georgette Heyer, and the shortlist for the Richard Je!eries/White Horse Bookshop Nature Writing Prize.
I'm also going to search YouTube for “How To Cut Your Own Hair With Kitchen Scissors” videos. I'm beginning to look alarmingly like Mrs Ben Gunn.
* Not on pizza, obviously. I mean, yuk.
** Had a minor relapse*** when Amelia texted to say she'd heard the cuckoo, but now I've heard it too, so that's fine.
*** It's just possible that isolation is not improving my character.
Amelia: Lockdown Gardening Project
As many people know, I'm busy with the fun, the challenge and the hard labour of creating an almost entirely new garden. Just prior to the lockdown I had the skeleton of a living wall built to replace a rather boring retaining wall, so my most recent garden project has been filling it with soil and then planting it up.
The skeleton is made of pairs of half circles with a back that interlocks with the next level up. They stagger (a bit like me after working on it all day) back, allowing for planting. As there is no ‘bottom’ to each pot each level has to be filled before going up to the next level. Firstly i put several centimetres of gravel in before filling with topsoil. A quarter of a tonne of gravel and three quarters of a tonne of top soil later, job done! So ready for the next stage, the fun part – the planting.
I needed 120 plants to fill the wall, and some nimble footwork to plant the higher levels. I have used a mixture of alpines, sempervivums, strawberries, bellis and herbs. Alpines are tough, drought-resistant and low maintenance, and so are sempervivums, or house-leeks – 'sempervivum' means 'always alive'. Bellis are strong, colourful little daisies, so once planted the living wall shouldn't need too much care and attention, and as the wall is immediately outside the kitchen door, it's just the right place for herbs and strawberries.
It is still very much in its infancy, but I am delighted with the result, I hope you are too. Next project is recycling a boat shaped sandpit into a wildlife pond, as inspired by Matt Baker on Countryfile this week!
Kate: Managing (just about)
Home schooling has restarted after the Easter holiday and it is hard work...
Admittedly four weeks ago I was being very blasé about the whole situation. ‘Let them relax and enjoy themselves’ I thought, especially as my own nerves were wound up rather tightly and didn’t need any further twanging. But now the summer term has o"cially begun I have realised that at least two of my three children have inherited my whopping procrastination gene, and without steady application of parental guidance (a.k.a. nagging, threatening and bribing), they would be lying on the sofa, watching TV with their mouths open all day. So now we are all trying hard to do a little maths, spelling, reading and writing during our days - or perhaps, my husband and I are trying hard, the children are being dragged along in our wake.
At the same time we’re still enjoying the fact that Spring has sprung, birds are cheeping, there’s frog spawn in the pond, and my clematis, planted last year, is flowering beautifully. The sunshine has its downside; every beautiful morning I am reminded that I thought lockdown would mean I'd finally get round to cleaning all my windows, and the streaming daylight shows up the dust balls floating round the hall. Why can’t I just get on with these jobs? I think - whilst simultaneously trying to encourage (a.k.a. force) the children to put pen to paper, to tidy up the general detritus that collects all day every day, and to cook yet another meal - don’t they roll round quickly?!
I know I shouldn’t complain, so many people are trying to work full time whilst also dealing with the educating, cleaning and feeding. Or are going out and risking their lives looking after people. Or may not have so much to do but are feeling very lonely and sad. Or think of those who have been affected because someone they love has died sooner than they should have done. But everyone has their own struggles, and I’m sure we should all be sympathetic to each other’s griefs and woes whatever they might be. In book news, I have read Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel about Shakespeare and his family, I found it good on the subject of passion, parental love and tragedy, but not as atmospheric as Wolf Hall etc. I specialise in children’s fiction at the shop so I have finally got round to reading Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy which I think is absolutely brilliant and is recommended for anyone over 12. Finally Reasons to be Cheerful is a fun story by Nina Stibbe, set in the 1980s. Definitely a light distraction from current affairs, the heroine is a dental nurse in her first job dealing with a misogynistic boss and a slightly batty mother. So wish me luck as I carry on sort of managing things (and procrastinating wildly; I really could have done the windows if I’d had a mind to) - I hope you’re sort of managing too.
Freddie the Westie's Lockdown Newsletter - as told to Edwina
I’m all better now after that “Little Op” she insisted I had five weeks ago. What a relief to have that “cone of shame" removed. I got quite a shock when I looked down under and saw a bare patch; seemingly it was for my own good! Huh!
Mind you I did get lots of cuddles and even had some roast chicken one day for lunch, so I suppose it wasn’t too bad.
I’m enjoying my daily walks although some people are giving me a wide birth and forgetting to say “Hi Freddie”. Sometimes we go up into the Savernake, it’s great, and you can run around in any direction. Jumping over sleeping trees, being told to be quiet so she can hear the woodpecker, whoever he is? Maybe he’s someone who comes into the shop when I’m not there during the morning? I’ve no idea. She stood staring upwards the other day saying something about how beautiful he was, all I could think was what is he doing up a tree, is he scared of her or just escaping her constant chattering?
Oh how I wish I could climb a tree some times. Life in the house can be a bit tedious, I’ve realised she talks incessantly all day long. You will be glad to know I’ve found a quiet spot in the garden to escape from her chatter, a dug out bunker beneath the privet bush. Sometimes she even answers her own questions. Like the time I heard her say “Shall I have a biscuit with my co!ee?” then she replies in a di!erent voice saying “Yes, why not have two as no one is looking”.
I was looking. I will quicken the pace on our walk tomorrow to help her use up all those calories. I can tell you that four Pineapple Ja!a cakes are the norm when it comes to her snacking.
We walked past the shop last week, the front door was shut and Angus wasn’t outside having a fag, not sure where he’s gone. I tried pushing the door open with my nose, it wouldn’t open, I couldn’t see Debbie or Gabby either. I wonder where they’ve gone?
I’ve taken up gardening, this new hobby started just after she banished me indoors whilst she mowed the lawn. Seemingly chewing the cable to the mower isn’t allowed! There’s this little woody stump against the fence which I have had my eye on for a while. Whilst she went inside to make a coffee and have another biscuit or two, I thought I would see how chewy that stump was. I was quietly sat there chewing on my new toy, minding my own business and not upsetting anyone. She was pretty quick on her feet, I didn’t even see her shadow approach, but she was on me like the police. “Get o! my Nelly Moser” came her shrill voice. I legged it indoors with a little bit of Nelly in my mouth, she might find it later if she goes behind the settee. It’s a safe place to stash my treasure, there’s a sock and a tea towel I snuffled last week back there.
I do wonder if the Queen or Boris are coming to visit, as the house is being kept very tidy, there’s a constant waft of lemon flash in the kitchen and the wood floors are getting a bit slippy, lacking that dust which gives me grip when I’m running around. Even the cushions change colour weekly, she’s turning into a Clean Freak. If Boris does come for tea, I do hope he brings some biscuits as I’ve noticed there are four, yes four empty JC packets in the recycling bin. I’m missing going into the shop in the afternoon, seeing everyone. I do hope Angus is ok, maybe he ran out of cigarettes and he’s gone to buy more? I will check next time I walk down the High Street.
Love from Freddie.
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