Last March I started writing a list of the books I’d read. I thought as a blog exercise I’d review last year’s list each month and contrast it with this year’s, and see if there was anything that stuck in my brain. So, here goes:
Sadly for my grand project, March was a bit thin – only ‘Life in a Cold Climate’, a biography of Nancy Mitford by Laura Thompson. And to tell the truth, I can’t remember anything much about it except that when Nancy in her sixties was asked – apropos of mini-skirts – whether she would rather be fashionable but ridiculous, or unfashionable, she replied ‘Ridiculous, of course!’
This March, funnily enough, I’ve read about another Mitford sister. The book was ‘Wait for Me!’, memoirs of Deborah Devonshire, the youngest of the family, who is now 90. It was interesting up to a point…and the point is, I supp0se, that this Mitford girl, unlike Nancy and Jessica, is just so NICE that she doesn’t say anything really horrid about anyone and consequently the book is just a bit…well, dull. Which is an awful thing to say about someone who sounds so good and kind and…no other word for it! – nice. Sometime or other last year I did read the letters between her and the travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor, and there you could sense the fun and drollery that all her friends raved about, but she was (and is) no writer.
I read ‘A Family and a Fortune’ by Ivy Compton Burnett. Her novels were described in the back-cover blurb as a cross between Jane Austen and Greek tragedy. Yes, is all I can say. Compton-Burnett was a great favourite of my mother; she had all her novels, and this was one of four or five that I kept back when I sold off her library. Reading my mother’s favourite books has been a lovely way of feeling close to her now that she is gone, but I think Compton-Burnett is a novelist too far. A claustrophobic Edwardian family and endless conversation. The blurb described this as her ‘kindliest’ book, and if that is so, then the others must be quite poisonous. Which is, perhaps, an insight into my mother. Immensely warm, kind and accepting, a natural teacher, and a lover of cats, Ida Rintoul Outhwaite’s fairy pictures, whimsical china ornaments and children’s picture books, she who also read (and collected) crime novels by the hundreds. Something like twenty boxes of crime and detection went off to Paradise Bookshop in Daylesford after she died, and a half dozen or so to Book Heaven in Campbell’s Creek…
Looking back over the year’s list, I can see that I left out one of the mainstays of my reading; the cookery book. I borrow them from the library and sometimes, if they’re compelling enough, read them like novels, and I feel a little like Mildred, the main character in Barbara Pym’s ‘Excellent Women’, who always had cookery books (and poetry) beside her bed to cheer her up or distract her from worries. Sometimes I have poetry, too, but cookery books are a much more reliable pleasure.
This month’s is Nigella Lawson’s new one, ‘Kitchen’. Is it because she confesses, straight out, to being greedy that I like her books so much? Not only greedy, but lazy and clumsy as well, so her recipes are all very achievable – not too many knife skills – and even if they’re time-consuming, they are also usually mindlessly soothing. I like her camp sensibility, her tumbling breathless prose and her bosomy (she looks as if she had spent hours in the Voluptutron*) brunette beauty in a world of highly touted (eg, Jennifer Aniston) bony blondes. I also like the way she links cooking to earliest family memories. Not ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’; not even, really, recipes, but ways of putting tastes and flavours together that are bred in the bone. So when I read about the way her instinct for cooking was formed from her mother, I respond with my own autobiographical segue to food memories of Dad. Baconized Egg for breakfast, just for the two of us, after we’d gone collecting driftwood for the fire on the cold wintry beach when all the others slept in; Life -Preserving (or was it Life-Giving?) Soup when you were sick; soft-boiled eggs and soldiers; a mixture of dates and peanuts put through the meat mincer and coming out in long delicious worms; sardines and tomatoes and cheese on toast… The opposite of the misery memoir, mine could be called ‘Food of a Happy Childhood’.