Ukraine

Dear readers, I haven’t reviewed a Victorian Novel for a while, so I wanted to explain my reasons. I have just relocated to Ukraine and I’m now teaching at an international school in Kiev. As a result there are lots of challenges taking up my creative energy: a new language and alphabet to fathom, school policies and procedures to digest, and of course a super little class to get to know!

I’m living on the 15th floor of a tower block in the city. It’s certainly taking some getting used to, as I have a big problem with heights. Nevertheless, I have an excellent view to compensate. Here is my room with a view:

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The school is located in a beautiful setting and I feel very blessed indeed. Here is a photo of me relaxing at lunch time:

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And lastly, here are my gorgeous little monsters on their first day back at school, and indeed on my first day teaching them last week. They are wonderful, creative kids, and I’m really looking forward to spending the year getting to know them all!

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Books that really distressed me…

If, like me, you’re rather sensitive and have an overactive imagination then I wouldn’t recommend the following books for light bedtime reading. I was so distressed after reading them, that after each case, I frantically dug out my collection of dusty Victorian novels, and held a special ‘Anthony Trollope’ readathon just to bring my anxiety levels down. This of course is not meant as a criticism of the books, or indeed of their respective literary merits – it’s just a record of three books that distressed me to no end.

First up is…

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1965), by Yukio Mishima

This novel follows the life of the teenager, Noboru, who hangs out a bunch of troubled thirteen year old boys. They form a volatile gang and have many debates about nihilistic philosophy. As they grow in confidence they also start rejecting conventional morality. Knowing they can’t be held criminally responsible (apparently under Japanese law you have to be fourteen) they push the boundaries and decide to ritually mutilate a live kitten. They eventually smash his brains out on the ceiling! If this wasn’t distressing enough, they also hatch a plan to lure a sailor called Ryuji to their den ‘on the pretense of wanting to hear some of his sea stories’. Blissfully unaware, his tea is drugged, and as has passes out, they pulverise him too.  This novel distressed me on so many levels.

Next we have …

Death in Venice (1912), by Thomas Mann

I’m a primary school teacher… need I elaborate why this book deeply troubled me? I understand it was ‘ruinous inward passion’, but it distressed me nevertheless.

And last, but definitely not least…

The Judge’s House (1891), from Dracula’s Guest, by Bram Stoker

This is a creepy tale of a skeptical maths student who moves into a house said to be haunted by a deranged judge who handed out the death sentence with relish. While studying late at night, Malcolm, is frequently disturbed by a giant rat with ‘evil, menacing’ eyes that sits in a high-backed oak chair. One night he notices a rope hanging from the great alarm bell on the roof, and sees the giant rat climbing down. There is an old portrait of the aforementioned judge near the rope, and when he looks closely at his face, he notices the judge’s evil eyes are the same as the giant rats!

When he turns around it is not the rat sitting in the high-backed chair, but the judge in his scarlet robes [reading this my blood literally went cold, and I had goose pimples all over my arms. I did not for one moment suspect the judge to be the rat!]. With a cruel smile on his face the judge puts his black cap on, and ties a noose with the end of the rope. Malcolm passes out in fright and the noose is placed over his neck. The judge then kicks away the chair, and poor Malcolm is left swinging. This of course makes the bell toll, and when the villagers come to enquire, they find the lifeless Malcolm, and on the portrait … a malignant smile on the judge’s face!

My Books and My Views on Books

Admittedly I stole these questions from another website, but I thought they might be fun to answer!

What book is on your bedside table right now?
I’m working in Ukraine so I don’t have a massive pile of books on my bedside table, but I do have my trusty Kindle with me. I’m currently reading The Cloven Foot (1879) by E. M. Braddon, and dipping in and out of an unpublished novel written by my colleague, Mark, called Chase Adler.

What was the last really great book you read?
The last really, really great book I read was during the Summer whilst I was back at my family home in England. It was called the Crofton Boys (1841), by Harriet Martineau. I bought the 1841 first edition on abebooks and I was very excited about the tactile experience of reading it in its original format. Because I have to read my books on a Kindle while I’m away, I like to indulge in good quality Victorian originals when I can. There’s something quite wonderful about reading and holding a book that’s over 150 years old. Oh, and I also read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst this summer. It was absolutely amazing!

If you could meet one author (living or dead), who would it be and what would you ask them?
I read mostly Victorian novels so it’s impossible to meet my favourite authors. But if I did have a time machine I’d like to drink tea with Anthony Trollope, and ask if he agreed with my university thesis, which was a psychological and biographical critical study of father-son relationships in his novels. I do however have one favourite living author: Alan Hollinghurst. I absolutely love his books and I have all five of them signed. When I met Sir Andrew Motion, our excellent former poet laureate back in 2010, I amused my professors immensely by quizzing Sir Andrew about Alan Hollinghurst who was his roommate at university!

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelf?
I have an ever growing collection of pre-Tom Brown public school stories on my shelf. They are all first editions.

How do you organise your personal library?
I have a very simple organisational scheme. My signed poetry books are all lined up alphabetically by author on three shelves above my cupboard. My collection of Pre-Tom Brown novels are shelved in date order, and my other books are just stacked where ever I place them. I also have a pile of ‘to read’ books – on the righthand side of my desk, and a large collection of miscellaneous biographical books, which keep getting boxed when I go off abroad.

What book have you always meant to read but not got to yet?
I’ve always wanted to read ‘Lord of the Flies’ as the author William Golding was a teacher at our local grammar school during the 1940s and 50s. In the way of classics, I’ve never got around to reading Don Quixote by Cervantes, or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugh, although I’d really like to read them both. Actually, I have a nice little paperback copy of The Hunchback with me in case my Kindle ever goes up the spout!

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel like you should have liked but didn’t?
We had to read a lot of American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, etc, which I didn’t enjoy really … and a whole bunch of books using stream of consciousness techniques, which I didn’t enjoy either. To this day I still don’t understand what Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is all about. A lot of my uni chums couldn’t get into the classics we had to study, so each to their own, I guess. I read all of Jane Austen’s work when I was a student, and nearly 30 of Trollope’s novels, and I loved every one of them!

What kind of stories are you drawn to?
I like bildungsroman novels best of all. I really enjoyed the Jeremy books by Hugh Walpole: Jeremy, Jeremy and Hamlet, and Jeremy at Crale – they were really interesting and insightful books seen from the perspective of Jeremy and his dog! This is also why I like ‘school stories’ so much, especially the ones that chart many years. I also have an obsession with religious novels and books about clergy. Again, Anthony Trollope and Hugh Walpole hit the spot there.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
The Holy Bible of course!

What do you plan to read next?
I’d like to read more of Mrs. Henry Wood’s books, and also the six books in the ‘Carlingford series’ by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant. I am also probably going to give the Northanger Abbey ‘Gothic Books’ a bash this year.

Where the Ragged Robins Grow

Where the Ragged Robins Grow – Reflections on my Village

The village where I grew up lies in a valley on Salisbury plain at grid reference SU175435.  Originally a handful of farms and thatched cottages on the gravels beside the river Avon, Bulford village probably derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon Bultesford or ‘the ford where the ragged robins grow’. There hasn’t been a ford in the village for several centuries now but you can still find the pink ragged robins growing in the field opposite the church.

It’s not unfair to say that one could drive through Bulford without it leaving a lasting impression. If you entered the village via Durrington, you would pass a flint fronted manor on your right, with mullioned windows and four even gables, and on your left a medieval church with a squat south tower and a pyramid roof. An attractive village certainly, but it’s only when you’ve lived somewhere that you learn what a place really means to a community, how each field and copse has its own name, and its own folk stories and traditions.

Kent Ryden in his book Mapping the Invisible Landscape explains how ‘sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines’. This is how I feel about Bulford. I don’t mean a sense of place like being part of the gang that loitered outside the chip shop or a member of the local scouts (although I admit to both) but belonging to a community that has lived here since at least the Neolithic period.

As a child I used to be the crucifer at our parish church, St Leonards. Built in the twelfth century, the church originally belonged to Amesbury Abbey, and thanks to the learned scholars of the abbey, its history has been well documented. I dressed in a blue cassock with a white collar, and served there on Sundays during Communion. What I recall, and even before I fully understood the significance and importance of the liturgy, was feeling a part of something ancient and wonderful. I’d sit in the chancel listening to the sacred rituals and watch the sunlight filter through the single ogee-headed windows. There were also these beautiful fifteenth century wall paintings on the north, east and west walls of the nave. One was a painting of St Christopher wading through the water with an infant Jesus on his shoulders. Above the wall painting was the Royal Coat of Arms with the motto ‘fear God and honour the king,’ an interesting quote from the First Epistle of St Peter’s (2:17), and a powerful symbol of church and state which has probably hung in the same spot since the Restoration. The church was rich with this sort of workmanship, and it had a profound effect on me. It was evidence that people had been worshipping here for nearly a thousand years.

In the thirty years that I lived in Bulford we saw many changes. When I first arrived it boasted a paper mill, a bakery, an antique shop, a vicarage and a post office, but these were all converted into residential properties aptly renamed ‘The Old Bakery’ or ‘The Old Mill’. There was infilling in the old part of the village, and a high volume of new private estates were built in the east and west. We lived in one of the new streets on the eastern side presumably built for the civilians working in the army camp adjacent to our village. Our street was at the very edge of Bulford, and until the 1950s, the Amesbury and Military Camp Light Railway used to run down what is today the middle of our street. Our heavily sloped front gardens were the banks for a small stretch of the railway. This was historically interesting for me, but of course a pain for my father who had to mow the lawns every weekend during the summer.

Behind our street was a long strip of conifer woods and behind this several fields of arable land. There was a track that ran between two of these fields where I regularly liked to walk. About half way down there was a crossroads where the track was dissected by an old Roman road that linked Old Sarum to Mildenhall near Marlborough. Turning right at the cross roads and up a slight gradient I would follow a grassy lane and walk through a tunnel of hawthorn to the main road. Opposite the road to the right of the playing fields are two tumuli where I used to sit and think about the history of my village. These tumuli were excavated in the nineteenth century by ‘barrow-diggers’ or amateur archaeologists from the wealthy upper classes, who made a hobby of destroying historical sites. In the county museum in Devizes are the fruits of their labour. There is a funeral urn, horse and pig bones, fragments of pottery, flint axes, and other evidence there had been Neolithic and Bronze Age people living in my village. There are dozens of tumuli all over Bulford, but I have always preferred the company of these two as they’re on high ground and when I stood on them I had a panoramic view of the village before me.

My brother and I spent many of our afternoons during the summer holidays wading through the Nine Mile River down in the original part of the village where the old thatched cottages formed a line parallel with the river. It has to be said, the Nine Mile River wasn’t much of a river, and neither was it nine miles long. It was named by an unimaginative cartographer who figured the confluence of this river with the River Avon (near the village manor) was nine miles from the city of Salisbury. During the summer the water was rarely deeper than our shins so we could walk through it turning over the rocks, catching bullheads, and collecting things that looked interesting. At one point we had about thirty fragments of clay pipes in our collection and a whole range of Victorian pottery shards that had been tumbled and smoothed by the water. How did they get there? What was their story? I still don’t know much more about them today, but I used to marvel over our findings, and this would add to the exciting and complex sense of place I felt for Bulford.

If you followed the Nine Mile River eastwards towards the military camp, there was a forest where we used to camp as children, and beyond the forest, a field with a collection of beehives and two abandoned cottages. Peering through their Crittall windows was like stepping back in time. The kitchen had a Belfast sink with a wooden drainer, a herringbone wooden floor, and a square carpet with polished edges. And outside in the garden there was a rusting light blue Morris Minor covered with ivy and honeysuckle that grew from a neighbouring fruit patch. Over time the kids from the village broke into the cottages and destroyed everything. This was followed by an arson attack, which led the council to bulldoze the remains, destroying forever that precious and probably unique time-capsule of rural life in 1950s Bulford. I often thought about those two cottages imagining what it was like there before the advent of modern communication, living off the land in that beautiful and secluded part of the village.

In my room I have a pile of old treasure in a box. Not a stash of gold five guinea pieces but something even more special. This box holds the objects I found metal detecting in the field behind out street. There are First World War buttons from army uniforms, the odd bullet case, an Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) badge from the Second World War, and the end of a pistol. I also have a hammered silver long cross penny from the reign of Henry III, a badly worn Charles I shilling, and my favourite, a bronze coin from the reign of Constantine III, who in the fifth century AD declared himself ‘Western Roman Emperor’ in Britain. Coincidently a Roman villa was recently discovered only a few miles from this site. I wonder if there was a connection between that villa and the coin I found?

Metal detecting was a pastime I thoroughly enjoyed, and every year after harvest, when the field had been ploughed, I would methodically walk up and down looking for traces of Bulford’s history. Although most of these items have little monetary value they have been important to my understanding of continuity in Bulford, and like the clay-pipes and the objects from the tumuli they represent snapshots of my village through different periods.