A classic, updated and re-imagined for our situation.

This post carries an apology, in the first place to Thomas Hardy, and in the second to fans of his writing.

I deliver it with an excuse, and lay the blame for these trespasses on a much loved classic to two fellow bloggers: Ola, at Re-enchant Of The World, drew my attention to the ‘What my favourite characters would be doing in lockdown’ tag, and Chris, at Calmgrove, ‘updated’ some classic titles. When I admired them, he challenged me to create one of my own, and add a review.

Instead, I present an extract from: Fear of the Maddening Crowds, by Thomas Hiding.

Chapter one: Description of Gabriel Oak – An Incident.

The singular winning thing about Gabriel Oak, historian, was his enthusiasm. It had been the defeat of all his students, even the most resistant, throughout his twenty years teaching at the local Further Education college.

He was a man of average looks, not generally drawing notice, when walking into a room. For work he wore neat, but plain, clothes, carelessly chosen from the middle-ranges of his local Marks & Spencer department, and on first sight, particularly when seen at a distance, was often assumed to be ten years older than his actual age.

But many of those who experienced his lectures on The Children’s Crusades of 1212, or The Role of Women in The Rise of Nazi Germany, found it a trans-formative experience. Then, his blue eyes took on a warm lustre, the animation of his features could raise the senses, and his voice assumed a new and confiding pitch. In short he grew taller, straighter, and more charismatic. He glowed with an enthusiasm that sent many a pulse racing. More than one student left his classroom dazzled.

Gabriel had risen, gradually, to become head of the history department, and was assumed by many to be comfortably in place for the step-up to Education Programme Co-ordinator. His had been a steady career, once he’d found the bottom rung to it.

When he left school at sixteen, Gabriel’s one GCSE had launched him only as far as assistant janitor in a printers. It was there, though, that boredom had driven him to browse through some of the remaindered stock during his breaks. Had there been anyone else of his own age in the building, he might have found other ways to amuse himself. Instead, he stumbled upon a History of Constantinople.

After that, his ears were open and his mind receptive when, first, evening classes were mention, later, the Open University, and finally, teacher training. It was, his mother said after his graduation ceremony, what she had always known he was capable of, if only he’d listened more at school.

Becoming Head of Department made Gabriel responsible for three other tutors. The college was not so very big, after all. More importantly, it promoted him to an office all on his own.

Room 101a was significantly smaller than the large, shared history office. His desk took up most of the space, though it was only just big enough for the large desk-top computer. But it was his alone. He could heap books and papers on the floor, and shut his door on distractions. There was no one to note how much work he did, or when. If the sun shone, he was free to lean back on his chair until his head rested on the bookshelves, and bask.

His eyelids were closed, and he was not quite snoring, on the bright mid-March afternoon when Bathsheba Everdine discovered him. She paused on the threshold, rearranging the heap of plastic encased essay papers that were trying to escape what had been a firm grasp, until she opened the door, and took in the sunlit vision before her.

Quite how long she had stood there, Gabriel never knew. Room 101a was at the dead-end of a corridor, far from the bustle of tutorials and meetings.

When he opened his eyes and saw her, he sat straighter, and said, ‘Yes?’ in a way that assumed she had just stepped through the door.

‘I’ve brought your essays,’ Bathsheba said, offering the slippery heap, and looking round for a space to place them.

Gabriel frowned. ‘My what?’

Bathsheba said, ‘It looks like you’ll have plenty of work to do during lock-down, anyway. We’re just sorting out the archived ones for you now, I’ll be back up with them in a jiffy.’

Gabriel frowned. ‘A jiffy? Yes, umm, look, ah… I’m sorry, what’s your name?’

‘I’m Bathsheba,’ said Bathsheba. She grinned. ‘I know, it’s my gran’s fault.’ She held out the heap of papers, again, fumbling them slightly, as they began to slide. ‘I’m covering for a maternity leave,’ she said, ‘at least that was the pre-covid plan. Who knows what happens now.’

‘Okay, right,’ said Gabriel, ‘Bathsheba. I’m not expecting any marking…’

‘Really?’ Bathsheba looked down at the top paper. ‘Not even on global heat, and latitudinal variations in energy?’

‘No. I’m…’

‘They said you might try to avoid them.’

‘They’re not mine.’

‘They’ve got your name on: George Heart, room 201.’

‘All the 200s are up there,’ said Gabriel, pointing at his ceiling. ‘This is floor is the100s.’

Bathsheba’s eyes opened wide. ‘Oh, what a fool,’ she said, turning to back out of the room. ‘You must think I can’t even read,’ she said, turning to look at the door, and as she did so, the heap of papers slipping from her grasp. ‘Oh.’

Gabriel knelt down beside her and began to help gather pages. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘this door doesn’t have a number. Some say it’s a space that shouldn’t exist, that it’s like history, both a truth and untruth at the same time.’

Bathsheba leaned back on her heels and studied him, her mouth curving into a wide smile. ‘Don’t you like history, then?’

‘Love it,’ he said. ‘Bloody love it, Bathsheba of the oath.’

Side by side they gathered the scattered pages from under the desk and chair. ‘I don’t suppose we should even be this close, really,’ said Bathsheba, ‘who knows what the risks are…’

Am I an audio-book-person?

I must thank Ola, at Re-enchantment Of The World, for the hint that even though libraries are closed to foot traffic, we can still borrow audio downloads, onto our phones. The carrot she tempted me with was her review of The Hazel Wood, a fantasy novel by Melissa Albert. It was on our library site, too. So, that was where I started.

It’s a young-adult novel, and I’ve enjoyed a few of those, even though it’s a while since I fitted that age-group. This one had good characterisations, and some interesting twists and turns.

As I like BBC Radios 4 and 4-Extra, I assumed that I would find audio books an easy listen. I hadn’t factored in that most books featured on the radio are abridged, or that I’m a fast silent reader. How stupid am I, not to have expected that having a book read to me, by someone who takes care with the words, is a much slower process?

So my main feeling, as I reached the end of The Hazel Wood, was that it was very long. Was it? I checked Amazon. At 365 pages it isn’t out of the way huge. My summer read-along commitment, The Mysteries of Udolpho, is 632 pages of small font.

I decided that one book did not constitute a trial, so, when insomnia had me trawling my bookshelves for something soporific, I went back to Borrow Box and browsed the catalogue. I don’t remember what search terms I used, but I found Georgette Heyer, in the Crime section.

Her regency romances had whiled away many babysitting evenings, during my teenage years, and recent revisits to a few of the familiar titles hadn’t disappointed. They’re not great literature, but they had engaging characters and some neatly turned plots with safe outcomes. In my experience, this is a good formula for a written lullaby.

Another attraction was that Heyer books are short. Popular novels written in the middle part of the twentieth century are often around 230 pages.

Ulli Birve, the reader, had a pleasant voice. But oh, dear, what was she saying?

It was apparent to Miss Fawcett within one minute of her arrival at the Grange that her host was not in the best of tempers. He met her in the hall, not, she believed, of design, and favoured her with a nod. “It’s you, is it?” he said ungraciously. “Somewhat unexpected, this visit, I must say. Hope you had a good journey.”

The Unfinished Clue did not have the lively, economical, and witty, voice of the regency romances. It was more like a masterclass in clunky writing.

Miss Fawcett was a young lady not easily discouraged. Moreover, she had been General Sir Arthur Billington-Smith’s sister-in-law for five years, and cherished no illusions about him. She shook him briskly by the hand, and replied with perfect equanimity: “You know quite well it’s impossible to have a good journey on this rotten line, Arthur…”

Was it because I was listening that this clumsy piece of exposition hit me so hard? Worse, was I going to let it keep me awake?

It was 3 a.m., and I wanted to sleep. Who was I to be critical?

I made some mental adjustments. Ulli Birve’s voice was so comfortable that I could allow the content to drift past me. I dozed off with the headphones on, around about the end of Chapter Two.

I don’t want to write negative reviews of writing. The next day, I listened to the rest of the novel. I missed the sense of joy I’d found in the regency romances. This one included cliche characters and situations, a thin plot, some obvious pairings, and casual racism.

I’ve not given up on the audio books. I’m enjoying Bridget Jones’s Baby: The Diaries, by Helen Fielding, read by Samantha Bond, though it is, perhaps, too humorous to be an antidote for insomnia.

Meanwhile, my Cosy Crime novel experience has left me with some questions:

  1. Is it acceptable that The Unfinished Clue is still available for loan?
    1. Don’t novels like this belong in the archives, as part of our historical record, rather than offered for circulation?
  2. The Borrow Box catalogue is quite small, and several of the alternative Cosy Fictions were already out on loan. Doesn’t this mean that borrowers are being put in situations where they will borrow books they might not otherwise choose?
    1. Isn’t it even more important that the decisions about what is included are vetted for content, and levels of potential offense?

Beginning the Mysteries of Udolpho read-along

As soon as I saw Cleo’s invitation, on Classical Carousel, to dedicate a month to reading Ann Radcliffe’s famous novel, I knew I was fated to join in. After all, not only have I got two identical copies on my shelves (certainly bought with the best of intentions, but who could say when?), in classes, I’m frequently given to quoting quotes about the importance of Radcliff to later writers. It is clearly about time I stopped having to admit that I’ve no right to express my own opinions on that.

So, I have begun. My first thought? It’s an awfully big novel, arguably a worthy doorstop for breezy days. It’s certainly been doing sterling work as a paperweight.

“No! Stop this sacrilege: this procrastinating! Get to the first page, why don’t you?”

Okay, so I didn’t say all that to myself out loud, but there was an internal monologue happening, along those lines, for around two days before I settled to the task. Which suggests the book is a hard read.

It’s not. There is, perhaps, more description than the writing I normally aim for, but I like a reading challenge, and variety. So I took another day to work through the first two pages, acclimatizing myself to the period and the locality.

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St Aubert. From its windows were seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony, stretching along the river, gay with luxuriant woods and vines, and a plantation of olives.

How idyllic it is. What a joy to travel to such a place at any time, but especially now, when ‘real’ travel is a fantasy.

The first paragraph is a geographical orientation. Nowadays, we might think of it as a camera, panning round. To the south are the Pyrenees, described in rugged detail, to the north and east, are plains, while in the west is the Bay of Biscay.

Only then do we move in closer, joining M. St Aubert, his wife, and his daughter. We see the environment through their movements, and thoughts. Their lives happen at a gentle pace, and that’s how the reading feels: I’m drawn on, and into the layers of landscape.

There are momentous incidents, and the novel (the story) is driving forwards, but at walking pace (might I say isolation-pace?), and so far, with modesty and restraint. I’m only 50 pages in, and have yet to experience any sensation stronger than mild curiosity. No doubt I’m being lulled into a false sense of security, but actually, I wouldn’t mind if my reading continued in this gentle vein of wandering along the thyme, balm, lavender and basil scented pathways.

So far, this is an undemanding novel. I’m engaged by the characters, and the journey they’ve now embarked on. I know that they’ll be there, readily accessible and familiar, even if I miss reading of them for a day. Which I have, several times.

The challenge will be, whether I can reach page 632 before end of the month. It all depends, I imagine, on whether I become thrilled (which I think is a suitably dated expression) by developments or anticipation. Though I’m hoping for some inappropriate chuckling too.

Nature notes.

In contrast to the general locked-down trend, we’ve spent less time, not more, on gardening lately. We decided to focus on vegetables, and have allowed the flowers, shrubs and hedges to do their own thing.

I’ve heard garden designers say that nature doesn’t have colour clashes, or create disharmony. They clearly haven’t seen our spotted laurel. Earlier in the year it was a lovely splash of green above the snowdrops and daffodils.

Bulbs, of course, are the perfect garden inhabitants, so uncomplaining, and polite. For a few weeks, they’re bursting with joy, and brightness. After that, they quietly fade into the background. They’ll put up with a lot of neglect. But in fictional terms, that makes them passive garden characters. They need a heroic gardener to step in and prune back the big bullies who would otherwise crowd them out, and take control.

Enter me, (tadah) with my trusty secateurs. Within an hour, the offending spotty villain has been calmed, and controlled. No story here, folks, nothing to see.

Except, as I step back to view my handiwork, I can’t help but notice the rest of the border. Up close, it’s clear that my actions have only presented a flash of the whole story. That verdant greenery we’ve been admiring from the kitchen window, is undergoing an invasion. There are as many weeds trespassing as there are lawful inhabitants.

The intruders are vigorous, heavy with young seed. Antagonists like these need an active, focused protagonist, willing to expend muscle, sweat and time: someone driven by the desire to win.

I’m already thinking about making dinner, and spending the evening with my feet up. ‘MaƱana,’ is what I’m thinking. I repeat it throughout the evening.

The next morning I’m conscientiously standing at the window, pulling on my gardening gloves and thinking about the importance of timing, when a movement catches my eye. Are there more birds in our wildish garden this year, or is it just that we’ve taken more notice? I don’t think we’re the only people who’ve asked that, over the last two months.

Maybe we’ve recently been more diligent about topping up the feeders, and our guests can feel confident about the quality of our hospitality. Though one at least, it seems, is now opting for self-service. There, on the weeds I’d planned to remove, is a Goldfinch, pulling out a beak-full of fluffy seeds.

Now that’s what I call an active character. Nothing distracts this bird from the job in hand, not even me, opening the window to snap some photos. There is a determination, a drive, that I can’t seem to emulate. If only I’d introduced the Goldfinch to you earlier it could be the protagonist, but it’s too late. Besides, I’m confident that we’re viewing those seeding heads from different perspectives.

So this isn’t that simple kind of story, where a character is presented with a problem, that they then solve. Unless, of course, I’m still not viewing this situation from the correct perspective. Could it be that the key character in this is bigger than me, or the bird, and has only been mentioned indirectly?

Recognising the end point when telling a story can be tricky. I’m convinced enough to put my gloves back on the shelf, and settle down to admire the blackbirds, feasting on the Juneberries, the wood-pigeon swooping in to the big seed-dispenser, and the spotted woodpecker attacking the peanut feeder.

My reading: science, fiction and structure.

The trick with reading short stories, I think, is not to rush from one to another without taking a breather between. The best of them should be given time to soak into the thought-stream.

Of course, it’s not always possible to guess in advance whether a new story deserves to be given the kind of attention that implies. When I picked a 2007 anthology of Science Fiction off the dustier of my shelves I had no memory of where it had come from, and I don’t read enough of the genre to recognise even the name of the editor, let alone any of the twelve chosen authors.

My choosing it at that moment was motivated by tidiness. In the last few weeks I’ve built up a sizable heap of discards for the charity shop. Judging by the recent turn-around in my reading to acquiring ratio, there’s a possibility that I might have shelf-room for all of my books, soon. I can’t think when that last happened.

I know, this approach is far from the usual driving spirit for someone in search of entertainment. But, actually, in using this strategy, I’m drawing from a history of good luck, or maybe serendipity. Some of the best films, plays, radio shows and reading experiences I’ve enjoyed, have been due to happenstance, rather than research.

Now you might argue that since The Best of 2007… was on my shelf, I must, at some point, have thought it would be worth reading. Actually, a substantial number of my TBR books have been gifts. I swop a fair few volumes with friends, family and neighbours. Sometimes these are because we know each other’s reading habits and expect them to be entertained, other times because we’ve struggled through them, or even, given up, and would like a second opinion. And then there are the books that have been orphaned. My shelves are, it seems, viewed as a safe place: a book haven.

Please note that word ‘seems’. Despite the evidence of my wall spaces, I can be a ruthless reader. Maybe it’s easier to hand the final disposal of a book over to someone else.

To get back to, Science Fiction: The Best of The Year, 2007, I still don’t know why I had it, but I do have a few thoughts about why it languished on my shelves for several years.

  1. It’s a thickish book, with only twelve stories inside. I thought they’d be long, and was not sure I’d have the stamina for so much science.
  2. I don’t like the cover illustration.
    • It’s predominantly red: not one of my favourite colours.
      • There’s an illustration of a space vehicle, and an astronaut. I always expect ‘hard’ sci-fi when I see a plot that looks like it relies on technology.
        • ‘Hard’ sci-fi is something I’m happy to watch, but too lazy to read. It so often requires the learning of lots of new terms and theories. That might be acceptable in real life, but not for short-fiction.

If only I had opened it earlier. Point number 1, is qualified by the discovery that although there are 372 pages, they’re printed on thicker paper than I expected. The font is a good size, and the lines or print are well spaced.

Point number 2, well I hardly thought about the cover, once I had started the stories, and although there was ‘hard’ science in some, it was not delivered in dense blocks. Rounded characters led me into scenarios that explored themes on a human level. They raised universal questions about how we exist, or interact, and explored the strengths and weaknesses of our natures, without lecturing or grandstanding.

As always, with my reading, I’ve learned something more than I expected. Why should we take a breather, between reading short stories? Because it supplies a space for our minds to pick up all the nuances of a well delivered finish.