Consumed (2014): Harry Wallop

★★★

How We Buy Class in Modern Britain

Harry Wallop is well-placed to write about class. The cousin of the Earl of Portsmouth, he went to private school, learned from a young age how to tip a gamekeeper, and went on holidays with his nanny until his parents felt he was old enough to appreciate travelling abroad. But in recent years he has moved away from the world in which he grew up: he now lives in Islington and works as a journalist and television presenter (which is essentially just a different kind of social elite). Class is something that, we’ve been told, many times, is no longer relevant in the modern world, but anyone who lives in Britain knows this isn’t true. In this book, Wallop argues (and I agree) that the great post-war age of social mobility is over. Class is becoming more entrenched and more subtle than ever. He describes the new social tribes of modern Britain, and how they are defined not so much by birth but by lifestyle and consumer choices. It’s a lively and engaging book – albeit full of sweeping generalisations (but that’s the point of any work of classification) – and extremely British. The shades of nuance described here will be difficult for foreigners to pick up, and rightly so (you would be forgiven for exclaiming, on numerous occasions, “But why is that even a thing?!”), but I imagine that native Brits will feel shimmers of recognition. You might come to Wallop’s book for an accessible discussion of how class continues to shape modern society – but you stay because you want to find out which of his categories you fit into. Reading this book is, in itself, an act of class anxiety.

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The Fetch (1991): Robert Holdstock

★★★½

So far, I’ve only read one book by Robert Holdstock: Mythago Wood, an utterly captivating tale of mythic power and ancient legends, closely bound to the English landscape. The Fetch turned up in a second-hand bookshop some months after I’d finished Mythago Wood and, although I was keen to explore more of Holdstock’s imaginative world, it didn’t take me long to realise that The Fetch is a very different kettle of fish. I’ve never actually read any Dennis Wheatley, but I suspect this has a similar flavour to his books; I’m reminded, too, of those horror films in which wholesome families are gradually reduced to primeval terror. Yet this isn’t an outright horror novel: if it were, I wouldn’t have read it. In some ways it’s a classic Holdstock story, a tale of the past weaving itself into the present and breaking through in unexpected ways, a tale of treasures and quests and miracles – but one underlaid with the slow, inescapable thrum of something nasty in the woodshed.

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An Academic Question (1986): Barbara Pym

★★½

I enjoyed Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women so much that perhaps it’s inevitable I’d feel underwhelmed when I picked up another of her books. Having said that, there does seem to be something objectively thin about this novel of mild academic skulduggery and frustrated marriage in a provincial university. Our narrator is Caro Grimstone, a young woman of good family who has somehow found herself married with a four-year-old daughter. Seeking for a way to occupy her time (since her anthropologist husband doesn’t seem to need her to type or index his books – the usual role of an academic wife), Caro drifts into helping at a local nursing home. Here, while reading to a retired missionary, who jealousy guards his field-notes from his African sojourn, she realises that she may be able to be of use to Alan in another way – but at what cost?

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Skin (2019): Liam Brown

★★

For weeks, it was all anybody spoke about. The virus had spread from the Philippines to Indonesia. Then from Malaysia to Thailand. Then to China. India. Russia. New cases were appearing by the day, with no sign of stopping. The death toll doubling by the hour. Then the minute. Pretty soon we lost count. It was simply millions.‘ Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin presents us with a world that must have seemed unlikely at the time of writing, but which now has striking similarities with everyday experience. In a dystopian near-future, a virus has decimated the world population. People are confined within their homes to protect them from the disease, connected to the outside world only by video calls and the internet, sinking into the mental blur of long-term isolation. Yet this isn’t the worst thing, for Brown’s virus takes a particularly cruel form. Spread by human contact, through breath or microscopic flakes of skin, it requires the members of a household to quarantine themselves separately. All human contact is out. Food is delivered by the government. Life has become a solo experience. This is the ‘new normal’. But, five years into lockdown, an English woman called Angela makes a shocking discovery which leads (or should have lead) her to question everything she has been told.

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Cold Comfort Farm (1932): Stella Gibbons

★★★½

OK, here’s the thing. I didn’t love Cold Comfort Farm as much as I expected to. I’ve a feeling it might be one of those books that I’ve read ‘too late’: that I’d have gelled with it much more readily if I’d read it as a teenager or young adult. Or maybe I was just in the wrong mood. As it is, I enjoyed it but found it a little too self-indulgent and showily clever. Our heroine is Flora Poste, who has been expensively educated to ‘possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living‘. When her parents die, leaving her with a hundred pounds a year, she decides to impose herself on relatives rather than finding a job in London. From the shortlist, she selects the Starkadder family, descendants of her mother’s sister Ada, who live on a remote farm in Sussex. Flora is prepared for rustic simplicity. But even she is startled by the raw and elemental roughness she finds among her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. With her neat and organised mind, Flora sees very clearly that the Starkadders must be taken in hand and improved, for their own contentment and her own comfort. A challenge lies ahead, to be sure, but nothing can stand up to Flora Poste once she’s set her mind to something.

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Johnny and the Dead (1993): Terry Pratchett

★★★

Johnny Maxwell: Book 2

It was just a matter of time. I wrote a few days ago that we’ve been exploring some of our local cemeteries during the lockdown, piecing together the stories of the families buried there, and judging people on the quality of their gravestone poetry. Inevitably, this reminded me of one of my few childhood books that I brought with me to London: Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Dead, which I promptly unearthed (‘exhumed’?) from my bookshelves. I don’t remember the circumstances of this purchase – I never read the other Johnny Maxwell books and this was long before I started reading Discworld – but my parents got it right. There’s something ineffably British about Pratchett’s story of a young lad who realises to his alarm that he can see dead people in the local Victorian cemetery. And, as he’s apparently the only one who can talk to them, he feels that he’s the one who has to break the news. Because the town council has decided that the cemetery is no longer relevant, and has decided to sell it off to a glossy modern company for a glossy progressive modern office block. Needless to say, the dead are not happy…

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The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes (2018): Ruth Hogan

★★★

Masha has been trapped in the past for twelve years, ever since her young son toddled away from her and drowned in a tragic accident. When she goes to the lido every morning, it isn’t to swim, to make her body strong, but to force herself underwater and to stay to the very point of drowning, so that she can understand what he would have felt. When she visits her loyal, supportive friends – playing the part of a functioning grown-up – everyone knows that there are some subjects which must be avoided. One of the few ways that Masha finds peace is in her daily walk through the rambling local cemetery, with her lolloping dog Haizum, where she conjures up fanciful histories for the people whose graves she passes. And it’s here, in the cemetery, that she encounters an eccentric old woman who, quite unexpectedly, opens Masha’s eyes to the possibility of joy. This is a heartwarming tale of old friends, new friends and new starts, which sometimes strays dangerously close to being mawkish, but might well leave a tear in your eye.

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Stanley and Elsie (2019): Nicola Upson

★★★★

Two years ago, on a hot summer’s day, I went to Cookham in search of Stanley Spencer. Nestled around a high street, the village is small and probably rather peaceful under normal circumstances, but I’d managed to turn up on the weekend of Rock the Moor, a festival which had taken over the meadows down by the river. As I studied the pictures in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a converted chapel at the far end of the village, my contemplation was underlaid by the distant, persistent throb of drums. It was all rather wonderful, in its own bizarre way. Stanley Spencer is an artist I don’t know well, but I like what I’ve seen of his work. It has the kind of robustness, the rounded simplicity and simplified geometric flair, that I find in the works of other British artists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and which always appeals to me (think Laura Knight; Augustus John; or, in a slightly later period, the young Lucian Freud). It was inevitable that this novel would capture my attention, but I came to it with caution: all too often, art-historical novels disappoint. But not this one. In simple but evocative prose, Upson unfolds the story of the Spencer family and their maid Elsie Munday, in a story that spans thirty years and offers an absorbing insight into one of the most tumultuous and bizarre artistic marriages of the 20th century. Fascinating and beautifully researched.

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The Colour of Murder (1957): Julian Symons

★★★

My next book in the British Library Crime Classics series takes an unusual approach to narrative. The first half is a first-person account, presented as a psychologist’s record of sessions held with the speaker, a young man named John Wilkins. About halfway through the book, we find out that there has been a murder – but it would be a spoiler to say, right now, who’s been killed, or who is the suspect. During the second half, we follow the action in court, watching prosecution and defence in action, we try to understand exactly what happened on the beach at Brighton that dark summer night, and whether the accused truly is guilty. As a murder mystery it isn’t entirely satisfying – there’s very little sense of catharsis to be had – but it’s fascinating as a social history. Reading it so soon after The Fortnight in September, I found myself drawing lots of parallels between the modest lives of the Stevens family in the 1930s and that of John Wilkins in the 1950s: a world of humble jobs, social striving, and frustration, which hasn’t changed as much in twenty years as you might expect. However, while the Stevens family ultimately find joy and hope in their lives, Wilkins feels consistently hard-done-by: a man whose search for self-fulfilment leads to a tragic outcome.

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The Fortnight in September (1931): R.C. Sherriff

★★★★

A few days ago, The Guardian published an article in which authors recommended uplifting books to brighten our spirits. Kazuo Ishiguro’s choice was The Fortnight in September (1931), about a London family’s annual holiday at the seaside in Bognor Regis. I bought it there and then, and have been happily absorbed in it ever since. It’s hard to describe exactly why it’s so absorbing, because very little happens – it’s a simple little book, but simplicity is a large part of its appeal. It takes you back to a less complicated age, when you had one holiday a year, and all excitement, hope and expectation centred on those two weeks at the sea. You probably went to the same place every year, and there were boarding houses and sandcastles; strolls along the promenades; mornings swimming in the sea; bathing huts; arcade games; the band playing on the pier. It conjures up the golden age of the British seaside town, and the sheer pleasure of being on holiday and getting away from it all. So roll up your trouser-legs, grab your bucket and spade and join me for a heartwarming piece of escapism.

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