Pandemic books – my 2020 reading list

2020 started where 2019 had ended – half way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-1872). That was a bit of a struggle in places, but I finally got there. And, on reflection, I did quite enjoy it.

Feeling at a loss as to what to turn to, I decided to quickly devour a couple of Arnold Bennett novels. Last year, I’d downloaded the ‘complete works’ to my Kindle.

First it was The Pretty Lady (1918) set at the outset of the First World War in 1914, and progressing through the war years as protagonist Gilbert (GJ) Hoade, a fiftyish bachelor of independent means, progresses in his relationship with French courtesan Christine who escaped to London from the German Army advancing on Ostend in Belgium.

Then it was back to the Five Towns at the end of January for The Price of Love (1914), a tale of lost money.

I finished that by mid-February, so decided to return to George Eliot and Daniel Deronda (1876). But I didn’t get very far. I’d been listening to some fine music on Classic FM one morning while lying in bed drinking my early morning cuppa, when I began to ask myself questions abut the development of music.

That got me into Howard Goodall‘s The Story of Music, that I finished at the beginning of April.

Then I decided to tackle the two books by Hilary Mantel about Tudor Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell that both won the Man Booker Prize (in 2009 and 2012, respectively): Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In March she published the last part of her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, but because of the library closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I wasn’t able to get hold of it. Until later in the year.

During the pandemic I had expected to read more. But by the beginning of May I’d run out of steam. So it took me almost two months to finish re-reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar. It was fascinating to understand something about perhaps the greatest Roman (often based on his own words, as he was a prolific writer, ever keen to make sure his place in history was secure). I bought this book around 2007, and first read it while I was working in the Philippines.

Here’s a review that appeared in The Independent when the book was first published in 2006. It’s not an easy read, and I found myself constantly confused by Roman names, as so many individuals had the same or similar name. I couldn’t help being reminded of the Biggus Dickus scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Anyway, during the first week of July as we were preparing to move to Newcastle upon Tyne once our house sale has completed, I decided to return to the novels of Thomas Hardy, which I had first enjoyed in the 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica. A re-run of the 2008 adaptation by David Nicholls of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was screened on BBC4, so I decided to tackle that novel first to see just how true to the original the screenwriter had stayed. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t find Tess as easy a read as I had imagined. Somehow, Tess just didn’t click with me this time round. Maybe it was because I had so much on my mind. During August and September things were becoming rather fraught with regard to our house sale and move. I wasn’t sleeping well at all. Feeling anxious and stressed all day, every day.

Anyway, I eventually finished Tess and on 30 September the sale of our house went through and we moved north. Settling into our new home (a rental for six months until we found a house to buy – which we have), we registered with the local North Tyneside library, just ten minutes from home. And there, on the new books shelf was Hilary Mantel’s magnum opus, and the last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Highly tipped to take the 2020 Booker Prize, The Mirror & the Light didn’t even make the shortlist.

Much as I enjoyed The Mirror & the Light, I don’t think it was the masterpiece that The Guardian reviewer Stephanie Merritt claimed. It was a long read, just over 900 pages. I think Hilary Mantel was being somewhat self-indulgent. She does have an accessible writing style, and although it took me over three weeks to finish, I almost never felt as if I was struggling with the text. It was only when she had her main protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, reminiscing in his own mind that the pace of the novel tapered off.

I finished The Mirror & the Light just before we went into our second national lockdown at the beginning of November, so I hurriedly returned it to the library, and searched for a couple of local histories. The first of these was Tyneside – A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, by Alistair Moffat and George Rosie, published in 2005 (and made into a TV documentary, which I haven’t seen).

This was an ambitious history of the Tyneside region over the past 10,000 years. Ambitious, indeed! But remarkably accessible, with usefully placed boxes which went into greater detail on aspects related to the main narrative. Often, boxes such as these can be a distraction from the narrative, pulling the reader from the points at hand. But the authors have cleverly drafted their text such that the narrative came to a sort of conclusion just before a box, and picked up again afterwards.

I certainly have a better appreciation of the origins and history of Newcastle, and look forward to exploring over the coming years, especially those relating to the Roman occupation of the region between AD43 and AD410.

Next, I picked up A Man Most Driven, by Peter Firstbrook, about ‘Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America’ in the early seventeenth century. Now, I’d heard about Captain Smith since I was a child. Just the other day I talking (via Zoom) about him and Pocahontas with my 8 year old grandaughter, Zoë, in Minnesota, just as I was getting into Firstbrook’s biography. Zoë had been reading all about Pocahontas for one of her remote schooling assignments, and reminded me that Pocahontas did not marry Captain Smith (as I actually believed), but another Englishman named John Rolfe.

A Man Most Driven is a fascinating story of a really driven man who, from his own (and very possibly exaggerated) accounts had certainly had some scrapes all before he was thirty, and lucky to escape with his life on more than one occasion. It also describes how close, and many times the Jamestown colony came to failure, and Smith’s role (from his own and some independent accounts) in ensuring the early survival.

Did Pocahontas (a daughter of the paramount chief of the Powhatan, named Wahunsenacawh) really save his life as Smith wrote in his The Generall Historie? She was just a young teenager when this happened just as Smith was about to have his brains bashed out by hostile Powhatan tribe members near the early Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia. After marrying John Rolfe, Pocahontas came to English and was presented to Queen Anne (wife of James I & VI). But she took sick before she could return to America and died (aged about 21) in Gravesend where she was buried. Unfortunately the site of her grave has been lost.

I then turned my attention to local Newcastle history once again, by former Northumberland county court judge and one-time MP for Newcastle Central from 1945-1951), Lyall Wilkes called Tyneside Portraits. It’s a short anthology of eight men who contributed to the artistic and cultural life of Newcastle since the seventeenth century, as well as its physical appearance through the buildings they designed and built. Among them was William Bell Scott, and Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet whose exquisite murals grace the walls of the central hall at Wallington Hall near Morpeth in Northumberland, a National Trust property we visited in August 2013.

This was the third and last book I had borrowed from the local library before the most recent pandemic lockdown and then Tier 3 restrictions locally. The library has not yet re-opened and I was unable to replace these books. So it was back to the Kindle and a touch of Rudyard Kipling once again: The Light That Failed, first published in January 1891 (his first novel, and not critically acclaimed).

With a number of things to occupy me during December (including my daily walk whenever the weather permits) I reckon The Light That Failed will see me through to the end of the month. I’ll include a summary in my 2021 reading list compilation a year from now.

So that’s another year’s reading accomplished. And what a year 2020 has been. Who could have imagined, as the clock was about to strike midnight on 31 December last, just what we would be facing in the coming months. We’ve made it through the pandemic so far, and having access to books, good music of every genre, and daily fresh air have been key to that achievement.

Keep safe. And let’s hope for a better 2021.


 

There were three persons in his marriage – William Bell Scott’s ménage à trois

I’ve just finished reading Tyneside Portraits, a 1971 book written by Lyall Wilkes (1914-1991), former MP (1945-1951) for Newcastle Central and a county court judge for Northumberland.

It’s a collection of essays about eight men (!) who had a profound on the cultural and artistic life of Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as its physical makeup. They were painters, silversmiths, engravers, architects, and an author.

Among the eight was Edinburgh-born William Bell Scott (1811-1890)—painter, poet, and Pre-Raphaelite—who became principal of the School of Art in Newcastle for two decades from 1843. When I was half way through this particular chapter I realised that I knew about William Bell Scott, at least had personally seen some of his work, although from the outset had not drawn the connection.

Pauline, Lady Trevelyan

Anyone who has visited Wallington Hall that lies 12 miles west of Morpeth in Northumberland will know exactly what I’m referring to. Between 1856 and 1861 Scott painted a series of murals on the walls of what had been the central courtyard at Wallington. Victorian art critic and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin had persuaded Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, first wife of the 6th Baronet to enclose this space with a roof.

What’s particularly interesting about these murals is that local personalities, including Lady Trevelyan, are depicted in some. Indeed, painter Alice Boyd, Scott’s former pupil who became his longtime ‘companion’ figures in the scene of Northumberland heroine Grace Darling.

Alice Boyd (L) and Christina Rossetti (R)

Now I say ‘companion’; the relationship was undoubtedly more intimate. Scott had, apparently, a natural attraction for women. At a relatively young age he married Letitia Norquoy, whom he treated shabbily for the rest of their married life. In 1847, Scott became acquainted with the Rossetti family in London, after receiving a letter from a young Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His sister Christina, also a renowned poet, fell in love with Scott. It was more than two years after they became acquainted that the Rossetti family discovered that Scott was already married. It seems Christina pined all her adult life for a relationship that could never be, although she did visit on occasion with Scott and his wife, and the significant other, Alice Boyd. As Princess Diana once famously said: “There were three persons in this marriage“. Scott lived openly with Alice Boyd for more than 30 years, and she and Letitia became friends.


 

Our Northumbrian adventure begins . . .

I first visited the northeast of England in the summer of 1967. I was 18. And then, a couple of years later, I joined a group of Northumbrian pipers and dancers from Newcastle upon Tyne to perform at a bagpipe festival in the Czech town of Strakonice. Before heading for Czechoslovakia (as it was in those days) we met up in Newcastle to get to know one another, and form Morris and rapper sword dance teams. And get some practice!

In 1998, Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, the county immediately south of the border with Scotland, and one of England’s largest counties. Until 1974, Newcastle was part of Northumberland, but then the metropolitan county of Tyne & Wear was created.

Northumberland is a magnificent county. There are awe-inspiring landscapes, beaches that stretch to the horizon, and millennia of history, including remarkable Roman remains dotted across the county, the world famous Hadrian’s Wall in particular.

Most of the county is rural. Settlements grew up on the coast, exploiting the once-abundant fishing in the North Sea, or mining ‘black gold’—coal seams that stretch for miles under the sea. Fishing stocks declined, coal pits closed. The once prosperous coastal towns and mining villages are now looking beyond tourism for a brighter future.

In 2000, our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at the University of Durham (16 miles south of Newcastle) so we would visit her there over the next three years when back in the UK on home leave from the Philippines where I had been working since 1991 in rice research.

In 2005, Philippa returned to the northeast and took a research post in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. Between then and when we retired back to the UK in 2010, we visited her in Newcastle on several occasions, and have traveled there a couple of times a year once we had resettled in Bromsgrove.

Steph and Philippa on the banks of the River Tyne in the center of Newcastle in July 2007. That’s the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in the distance, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to the right, and the shiny building (top right) is the culture hall, Sage Gateshead.

In 2010, Philippa married Andi and they settled in the Heaton district of Newcastle. Elvis and Felix were born in September 2011 and September 2013. She completed her PhD in 2010 and joined the faculty of Northumbria University.

Family get-together in Bromsgrove in mid-August 2019.

Our elder daughter Hannah and her family—husband Michael, and Callum (10) and Zoë (8)—live in St Paul, Minnesota, and since 2010, we have traveled to visit them each year (as well as having a video call every week). But not this year, unfortunately.

For several years, both Philippa and Hannah have been encouraging us to sell our home of 39 years in Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle. Well, as you might imagine, we were comfortably settled, it was hard to even think about such a move. But the more we did, weighing up all the advantages of being closer to family since we’re not getting any younger, and while we are still in good health, moving to Newcastle didn’t seem such a crazy idea after all.

In November 2019 we decided to take a look at the housing market in Newcastle, and again when we visited over Christmas. We made the decision. We would move in 2020, so put our house on the market in January this year. The Covid-19 pandemic almost scuppered our plans, and although we didn’t make our original deadline of mid-year to be in Newcastle, we have now arrived. Just two weeks ago, and have taken a small rental property for the next six months.

What’s even more remarkable is that we have already found a house to buy, made an offer that was accepted, and have begun the conveyancing to purchase. It’s actually not too far from where we are currently living in the northeast of the city, towards the coast.

Last week (the day before Steph’s birthday), and it being a bright sunny day, we headed to Seaton Sluice just five miles away on the coast to enjoy the sea air. I’ve never lived by the sea (if you discount the time I was a student in Southampton, which is a major seaport, and not close to any beaches). Steph hails from Southend on Sea in Essex, and grew up just stone’s throw from stretches of beach where the Thames estuary meets the North Sea.

Now we have the opportunity of walking along the beach any time the fancy takes us. And that’s just what we did on the 7th, and yesterday. We have walked the beach at Seaton Sluice in the past with Philippa and the family. But these were our first walks as residents, so to speak.

I still have to pinch myself that we can hop in the car, and in just over ten minutes can be walking on the beach. On the 7th we couldn’t park at the usual carpark; it was occupied by maintenance workers who were doing some engineering work on the beach. So we parked further south on Rocky Island, and walked along the beach. On our second visit, we headed further north.

What an exhilarating feeling, watching the waves roll in and crash on the beach. The strong breeze blowing the cobwebs away. We even saw an Atlantic grey seal enjoying an early lunch during our first walk.

These are just the first two of many more walks to come and enjoy. Thus begins our Northumbrian adventure. Watch this space . . .

Moving on . . .

Steph and I moved to Bromsgrove, a small market town in northeast Worcestershire in the English Midlands, in July 1981. We had just returned to the UK after a little over eight years working with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica in Central America.

In January that year I flew back to the UK to interview for a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham, and was successful. Since I was scheduled to begin there on 1 April, we (and three year old Hannah) returned from Peru in mid-March and moved in with Steph’s parents near Southend-on-Sea in Essex. I then moved up to Birmingham, spending Sunday evening to Friday there each week, and returning to Essex for the weekend.

And while starting my teaching career at the university, I immediately began the search for somewhere to live.

Before arriving back in the UK we had already asked different estate agents (realtors) for details of properties close to Birmingham to be sent to my in-laws, and we had several hundred to peruse (and mostly eliminate as being unsuitable or not in the right area). Anyway, to cut a long story short, the house we purchased was, in fact, the very first house that I went to view. It was the Wednesday of my first week at the university. There were no classes, since Wednesday afternoons were turned over to varsity sports. So I headed out to Bromsgrove as being the easiest place to visit, just 13 miles due south of the university on the major arterial A38 road. I looked at three properties that afternoon, but knew immediately that the house we eventually bought was the right one for us.

I phoned Steph that evening, and asked her to come up to Birmingham to view the house. We put in an offer, and after successfully negotiating a mortgage (at 16¾% interest!), moved in during the first week of July. Thirty nine years ago!

And now we are on the move again. Last year, we finally decided it was time to be closer to family since we no longer have any ties in Bromsgrove. Elder daughter Hannah and her family live in Minnesota in the US Midwest. So the USA was out of the question (for several reasons). Our younger daughter Philippa and her family live in Newcastle upon Tyne, some 250 miles northeast from our current home. We bit the bullet last autumn, and even by November had begun to look into the housing market in the Newcastle area.

We put our house on the market in mid-January, and before lockdown in mid-March we’d had about ten or so viewings. But nothing promising. And with the Covid-19 lockdown, all real estate transactions were put on hold. Just before the official lockdown, Steph and I had already decided to self-isolate, being in our early 70s, and not accept any more viewings. However, we did go ahead with one final viewing as we had agreed to it a week earlier.

Then everything went quiet, until a month ago when estate agents were permitted to begin operating again. The folks who had viewed our house just before lockdown asked to return for a second viewing. Although we hadn’t wanted to go ahead with any ‘speculative’ viewings, we thought a second viewing was one we would entertain.

We ‘escaped’ from the house while the prospective buyers looked around, who made some measurements with the builder they had brought along. The outcome? They put in an offer the following morning and, after a counter offer from us and a little negotiation, we accepted their revised offer. So No. 4 is Sold (Subject to Contract). The sale is in the hands of our solicitors, and hopefully we will have exchanged contracts with the buyers before too long and agreed on a completion date.

Hopefully we’ll be on our way to Newcastle before the end of August, and there will be no glitches.

We have already settled on a local company to undertake the removal: quite expensive but actually not as expensive as I feared it might be. Steph and I decided we would do much of the packing ourselves, since this gives a good opportunity of carefully going through all our possessions that we have accumulated over almost 47 years of married life. And decide what has a real sentimental value and we want to take with us, and what not to take.

A couple of days ago, the removals folks delivered a whole stack of collapsed cardboard boxes. I’ve been busy putting these together, and packing books away.

We’ve been quite ruthless, and still have nine or ten boxes of books. I hate disposing of books. Normally we would donate spare books to one of several charity shops. However, considering the Covid-19 crisis and that these shops are only just opening, and have been overwhelmed with donated items as everyone it seems has taken advantage of the lockdown to have a clearout, we’ve reluctantly sent several boxes of books to landfill.

Until recently there was space in my double garage for my car and many other items that were stacked to one side. But we have had a massive clearout here. Some old items have gone to landfill, or recycled in one way or another.

We have been able to gift a whole range of items: loft boarding, paintings, some small items of furniture, and others through a global network known as The Freecycle Network, that originated in Arizona in 2003. We belong to the Bromsgrove group.

It’s simple. You post an OFFER, or request for a WANTED item, and wait for responses to land in your email box. I have been astonished just how quickly some items have been snapped up, sometimes within minutes of posting an offer. It has been gratifying to see items that we no longer need being placed in homes where someone can appreciate them, rather than going to landfill. We still have a three seater leather sofa to get rid of, and a matching armchair. That’s going to be a challenge. But who knows? If someone decides to take them, they’ll need a large truck. Upcycling is the thing!

We don’t have anywhere yet to live in Newcastle. Had there been no pandemic we would have been able to travel to Newcastle and continue our search and viewings for a new home. As it is, we decided weeks ago that we would find a rental property and use that as a base to search for our next home in a more leisurely fashion.

Wish us luck! Newcastle here we come. We look forward to exploring Northumberland, its hills, moors, and superb beaches. Another exciting chapter in our lives is about to open.