Last week I received a surprise parcel from Macmillan. I had a suspicion as to what it might be but was completely wrong as it turned out to be a beautiful copy of Matthew Oates’ His Imperial Majesty. My first flick through showed me that it has some gorgeous illustrations but I was somewhat sceptical about the review on the front cover from Patrick Barkham – ‘Monumental, transcendent, hilarious.’ This is a natural history of the Purple Emperor butterfly and it is packed full of fascinating information. How could it possibly also be hilarious?
I had to take this picture on a rainy day when not a butterflywas in sight so I made do with a brooch.
It turns out that it can. I am still only partway through (my Mum who doesn’t normally like reading non-fiction was so taken with this book that she borrowed it to read herself) but there are definitely some very funny moments. I particularly enjoyed the account of a meeting with a walker when the author was lying flat on his back looking for butterflies in the trees above him with binoculars.
I love butterflies. Hacking out on the ponies I often see many of them flitting about the hedgerows and although I can identify very few of them they are wonderful to watch. I even have a sketchbook from when I was eight or nine to which I gave the misleading title of Mostly Butterflies. On looking through it I find that there is precisely one butterfly – apparently a Monarch. A more accurate title would have been Mostly Horses but I was obviously very keen on butterflies at the time – even if it was a short time.
Thank you to Macmillan for the free review copy. I am looking forward to reading the rest of it when I get it back!
A conversation at work about Jane Austen adaptations (I still need to see the new Emma!) led me to re-watch Lost in Austen over the weekend. I haven’t seen it since it first came out but was very happy to find that I still thought it was excellent.
I love that Amanda is so involved in the world of Pride and Prejudice that the people and manners in her real life seem brash and even vulgar by comparison. I too have wished that I could escape to Jane Austen’s world.
It got me thinking though – if I really could change places with someone in a book, who would it be? Of course, Elizabeth Bennet is a good choice and I can definitely see myself in the world of Pride and Prejudice. Betsy Ray would be another – I would so love to spend time in Deep Valley, go to some skating parties and experience Sunday night lunch at the Ray’s house. Perhaps the ultimate though is Anne Shirley. I have wanted to go to Avonlea ever since I first read the book and, of course, Gilbert would be there too.
The only flaw in the plan is that I would have to actually swap places with these characters when what I really want to do is spend time with them. I want to explore Avonlea with Anne and I definitely would love to talk to all three of them – plus so many others. Switching places isn’t the answer. I need a new plan!
Where in literature would you go if you could?
I have been reading Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide with a lovely group of people on Instagram and have been thoroughly enjoying it.
I haven’t read any Christie for a while and it has been years since I read this one. So much so that I genuinely had no idea whodunnit – which makes a nice change for me when I’m re-reading a book. This was a good one too – a long list of suspects who all seemed pretty plausible. Early on I did single out the love interests and write them off as suspects but then I remembered that Christie is not Ngaio Marsh or Georgette Heyer. Anyone could have done it – including either or even both of the love interests – so they went back on the list.
In the end, I only guessed a few pages before the reveal which is always satisfying. I like to be able to work out the solution before the detective but it’s not so great when you work out the murderer right at the beginning of the book!
It was a lot of fun reading this with the others. There are always so many things which come up in the chats that I just don’t notice for myself when I’m reading and it is lovely to share my ideas with other people. We might not be able to have in person book clubs at the moment but this is just as good (especially as my book club would never read a lot of the books I would like to choose!).
In our continuing efforts to make our weekends different to the rest of the week, we have taken a picnic lunch out to the field almost every Sunday since lockdown started. Our first one made me feel like Judy from Daddy-Long-Legs. Like Judy and Jervis, we carried a table out to sit under the trees.
Our next attempt was right in the midst of my Swallows and Amazons re-read and so I was much more ambitious. I called up everything I could remember from the books and all of my old Girl Guide knowledge to build a campfire and cook our lunch over that. I was quite proud of my success – and also surprised about how relatively easy it was. We repeated the exercise on another Sunday and it is such a fun way to cook lunch, even if you do end up smelling strongly of smoke!
I even did some rummaging and found the flag I made when I was first reading Swallows and Amazons as a child. You can’t really tell but it is a sparrowhawk flag made to look like Swallow’s and I was very proud of it. It made our picnic feel like a proper camp too.
Having eaten lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoons just sitting with tea and books. It is the most restful way to spend a day and I always ended up feeling incredibly calm and peaceful. I shall be sorry to lose these days as I return to work but am determined to find some way to fit them into my life anyway.
At the moment I should be spending two weeks in the Hebrides. I love spending time in Scotland and was very much looking forward to the trip but I have been determined to make the best of the time and try to make this fortnight feel different to the rest of this time at home.
I started by wanting to read books set in the right area. I had intended to take Dorothy L Sayers’ Five Red Herrings with me as it is set near where I was due to be staying. It is several years since I read it last but I have always remembered it as one of my favourites in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I had forgotten how complicated it is though – this time around I had a terrible time keeping all of the various alibis and timelines in my head!
I intended to read more books set in Scotland but have ended up reading whatever happened to take my fancy. Apart from Five Red Herrings I have been trying to restrict myself to my TBR shelf which is once again getting out of hand. I was hoping that the lockdown would help me burn through it a bit but I’ve spent a lot of time seeking comfort by re-reading old favourites. I also know that there are a whole load of brand new books I will buy as soon as I’m back in a bookshop. I have a list.
For my ‘holiday’ fortnight I have been just browsing the shelf and taking whatever I happen to feel like reading that day. The result has been quite eclectic – so far I’ve had Backstage with Peggy by Doris A Pocock, The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer, October Man by Ben Aaronovitch, The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury and I’ve just moved on to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I am currently feeling the call of L M Montgomery though and I may soon have to abandon the TBR for her.
So far this week has been even more laid back than last week and I have spent many happy hours outside with my book and a cup of tea. We have been getting quite inventive with the places we choose to sit – much use has been made of the ponies’ fields – in order to make this fortnight feel a little different. It is working though – is really does feel like a holiday.
The lockdown is certainly creating a great deal of creativity when it comes to meeting up. I have recorded music with my choir and have regular orchestra and ballet rehearsals over Zoom. It has been fun to see everyone and to have a bit of structure in the week.
My favourite discovery so far though has been the rise of online literary festivals. I love book festivals but I can’t usually get to many of them so the idea of having them come to me is just wonderful. Obviously it’s not the same as getting to go to them but it is far better than nothing.
The online Hay Festival is coming up at the end of this week and I have booked my place at a whole load of the talks. I am going to be in front of a screen for an awful lot of time next week!
First though, Chawton House had their own lockdown festival this past weekend. Apparently they’ve been wanting to do a festival for a while and the lockdown pushed them into putting something together. I have to say that if they do manage to have an actual in person festival I will be doing my very best to get there. Even if they don’t, I have realised that I need to visit – the only time I’ve been to the house was for the AGM of the Jane Austen Society so I didn’t get to see very much of it (I have made a proper visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum but I would love to see that again as well).
I have had a lovely weekend watching the talks and feeling very intellectual for doing so. It was so interesting to see a bit of behind the scenes of the house and to learn more not just about the people who lived there but also about some related books – like The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner which is out next week and sounds great. I also had a brilliant time playing with some found poetry using lines from poems in the house.
I have come away with a renewed enthusiasm for 18th and 19th century writers and a list of new to me authors to try. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of George Sand but not Jane West or Jane Porter and I certainly haven’t read any of them. They are firmly on my list now though and I am very keen to read them soon. It is such a great feeling!
The festival is obviously over now but some of the talks are still available on the Chawton House youtube channel. If you can I would highly recommend you have a watch!
I know that many people were struggling to read at the beginning of the lockdown but that wasn’t a problem I had. All I wanted to do was devour books all day long. However, as the weeks have gone on I’ve found that my reading rate has slowed down considerably. I couldn’t really understand it as I was fairly sure that I was spending the same amount of time reading. Having said that, I have also been keeping myself very busy with other things such as chores outside, painting and crochet – things I never normally make the time to do.
My reading had definitely slowed down though and in the end I decided it must be because of my reading choices – I was steadily reading my way through the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. I absolutely love these books but I do have to admit that they are very gentle stories and not action packed – they are not the kind of fast-paced book which forces you to keep reading so you know what happens next. They very much allow you to take your time and luxuriate in them.
It has been wonderful to re-read my way through the series in order (apart from Winter Holiday which I read every Christmas and didn’t want to read again so soon) but I am beginning to feel the need to read something a bit more gripping. Not that I will stop reading Swallows and Amazons – I will just intersperse them a bit with something else. My first choice was Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping – I bought his latest book just before the lockdown started and I’ve been catching up with the series since then. I don’t just enjoy the stories themselves – I love how intellectual the Latin and historical references make me feel!
Channel 4 have recently been doing a Stay at Home Academy in the evenings – Jamie Oliver did a series on cooking in the lockdown, then Kirstie Allsopp had some crafting episodes. This week is Richard and Judy’s turn – I was thrilled to find out that they are presenting ‘Keep Reading and Carry On’.
I have very much enjoyed the first few episodes. Of course, I would love for them to be longer so we could see some more in depth discussions of the books but the fact that there is a whole programme dedicated to books on primetime television is wonderful.
I particularly loved Graham Norton and Louis Theroux’s guest appearances. They both came across as genuinely enthusiastic about the books and I would love to have a bookish chat with either of them.
I have also been loving the bookshelves I have seen in the houses of everyone broadcasting from home. Stephen Fry has a particularly enviable study. However, when I watched the BBC’s Big Night In a couple of weeks ago my favourite background was Jason Manford’s – he had a blank wall behind him with pieces of paper pinned up saying, ‘Bookshelves’. I loved it!
Last week I wrote a whole post about watching the two different versions of Swallows and Amazons. I had actually intended to write an entirely different post – I had been watching the new BBC Malory Towers series and really enjoying it. I needed something to fill the gap when the series finished and remembered enjoying the 1970s Famous Five series as a child. I was given some of the episodes on video when my cousin grew out of them and I watched them over and over again. Now seemed like the perfect time to revisit them.
I was pleased to find that I still very much enjoyed them and was just settling in to watching them when I was inspired to watch the 1990s series alongside them. I completely missed these ones as a child so I was really looking forward to comparing the two.
I have a strong emotional attachment to the series from the 70s but I have to admit that the 90s version holds up very well. It is set in the forties for a start and I much prefer those costumes to those from the seventies. For another, they do in the main seem to be more accurate adaptations of the books. There are a few instances when that is not the case but mostly it is.
However, I am not so fond of how argumentative the children are. They bicker much more than they are shown to do in the books and they are often very aggressive in the way they speak – both to each other and to others. I didn’t really see that it was necessary.
I am very much enjoying both series and am especially glad that I chose to watch them together – it is fun to compare them! I am beginning to be aware though that I will run out of episodes soon. I have no idea what I can use to fill the gap they will leave – any recommendations for similar series would be highly welcome!
Last weekend I finally sat down to watch the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons. This was one of my favourite books growing up and I also loved the 1974 film so I was looking forward to the film with some trepidation but mostly excitement. As soon as it started I was taken back to my childhood. The setting was of course stunning and the costumes were just perfect.
I was not at all prepared for the storyline though. Whilst it was loosely based on the book, the adaptor seems to have felt that the book was far too boring for a modern day audience and that a much more exciting plot needed to be added. For me, Swallows and Amazons is a wonderful, gentle book about a group of children playing make believe and exploring the Lake District. This film did not convey that feeling at all.
Not only that – the children seemed much more argumentative and not nearly as nice to each other as I remembered. In fact, I did immediately start re-reading the book and can confirm that the original children were much friendlier. The film also made them far more incompetent than the book. I didn’t see that it was really necessary for them to lose their entire food supply before they even arrived on the island. Susan is meant to be a pretty decent cook and the idea of cold, miserable, hungry children just seemed odd.
Having said all of that, I think the film itself was actually very good. If I hadn’t grown up loving the books I would have adored the film – my only gripes with it were where they have significantly changed the plot. Which does make me wonder why they had not just written a spy story with their own characters.
The next evening I did go back and watch the 1974 film. It is certainly not as exciting as the new one but it gives me much more of the happy, peaceful feeling of the books. I was very glad to find that I still loved it just as much as I did as a child.