Saturday, April 7, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - March


Though there is mention of many spring flowers, Susan Hill's Norfolk seems decidedly cold in March. She describes the wind thus:
I am not going out again probably until June. The wind is like a razor blade shaving off a layer of skin.
Can't you just feel that wind through her words?

And:
In the end I decided it was far too dangerous to go out. Slates were flying.
At the time of writing the book she has lived in Norfolk for five years. She muses on the notion of one's place.
Funny old county. Norfolk, though as I have only lived here for five years, I suppose that I am not entitled to comment. And I will never feel 'Norfolk' any more than I felt 'Gloucestershire'. What does that mean? It is a sort of patriotism, of the right kind. It is an instinctive rooted-ness in the corner of the country where one first saw the light of day. It is attachment. Love. Yes. But an adopted county can never be the same. I have lived in other counties for far longer than I lived in Yorkshire, where I was born, but they haven't left much trace.
Do you feel this way about where you were born compared to other places you may have lived? I wonder if this is a common feeling throughout the world. Do my American readers feel differently about this subject than my English readers? I wonder if living in a small country makes a difference. Fascinating food for thought.

I live about 8 miles from the house I grew up in. I lived on a street in a town, and now live in the country in another town. I don't look upon the old house as more 'home' than here. But I do look at my childhood hometown as 'my' town. Now this may be because I don't live in town, now. I don't walk the streets, and I don't know that many people here. My house and land here make up my world, whereas when I was a kid and later a young adult, the whole town was mine. As I said, fascinating thoughts.

There is quite a sad bit that Susan Hill shares with the readers of Jacob's Room is Full of Books about the late Duchess of Devonshire. Susan had (has?) a publishing company and
Nearly twenty years ago, I enjoyed thinking up, editing (with Sophy Topley, her younger daughter) and publishing Debo's book, Counting My Chickens. We had massive amounts of fun. ... My small publishing company sold many thousands of that book, and it rode high on the best-seller lists for ages. Her dedication reads 'To the co-editors, with love'. So I must have done something right.
But one day, about a year after it was published, I received a tiny envelope in the post which contained a letter on a tiny sheet of paper. I am not exaggerating. She was given to using very small sheets of headed notepaper inside very small envelopes. In this letter, Debo told me that she had put together a second volume of her pieces - my heart leaped - and that it was to be called Home to Roost. John Murray was to publish it. It was a done deal. 
What I did wrong and why she did not think my small publishing house worthy of her any more, I will never know, because we never communicated again. I was deeply hurt and very upset.
Susan had even "put together and privately printed" a collection of tributes - To Debo, on Her 85th Birthday. From Her Friends. She says that Debo cried when she got her copy.

This was really painful for me to read. But I don't think it is an uncommon experience to have someone suddenly "drop" another person, with no explanation.

She writes about two formerly well-known writers who are not well read today: C.P. Snow and J.B. Priestly. Have you read their books? Susan Hill knew both the men, and says of Priestly:
But I think he would have minded very much that no one much under the age of fifty has read or even heard of him - at least not beyond the brilliant revival of An Inspector Calls which is also a standard GCSE text these days. At least he would have been pleased about that.
It is a melancholy thing to consider once famous writers being forgotten, and how they would feel about it. On the other hand, they might be re-discovered. The British Library Crime Classics publications are bringing back writer after writer that many of us find delightful. And the whole e-books industry has introduced me to many authors I had never heard of. So, perhaps there is hope for Mr. Snow and Mr. Priestly.

Susan Hill tells a very funny story.
Took some books to the charity shop. Included a couple of my own, spare paperbacks.
Nice lady serving. 'Oh, thank you so much. Oh, and a Susan Hill book! She is very popular.'
SH: I'm pleased to hear it.
NLS: Actually - here are two on the shelf that are signed copies. 
SH: Wow!
NLS: Oh yes. (Leans over confidentially.) We can get 10p more for them if they are signed.
A little like being at one's own wake, isn't it?! 

She notes that:
I am certain that writers are formed in part by the books they have read and absorbed and it troubles me that not all writers or aspiring writers are Reading Writers. Increasingly, I meet creative writing students who do not read. They are ignorant of the best. They are often even ignorant of the worst. So how on earth can they want to write themselves? How do they know what it is all about? Read, read, read is the only advice I give, if asked. Read those writers who are better than you or I will ever be. In the end, that is the only way you will learn.
 Susan Hill's March chapter was quite pensive, with many thoughts about writers and reading from the Ladybird books to Robert Lewis Stevenson. I learned a lot and greatly enjoyed her literary month.

30 comments:

  1. I enjoy these posts you do. I don't know that I would read her non-fiction books, but I like that you 'curate' the chapters for us. Funny story about her own books and having them signed. Guess she didn't tell the lady that she was indeed the author. And I can't imagine writing without being an avid reader. Guess it's possible, but still...

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    1. Thank you. It makes me happy that you enjoy them. It was a funny story.

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  2. Funnily enough, I am a US reader who was born in VA but when I was two, my family (including my British mother) moved to the UK (London). I spent all but one of the next 12 years living overseas in UK and Europe, never returning to where I was born. I have no affinity to my birthplace, but instead feel as though the London is my home. In fact, though I am in my seventh decade, I still know London better than I do a major city where I worked for almost 30 years before my recent retirement. I've been fortunate enough to return to the UK fairly regularly even though no family remains there now. (As an aside--I still have some of my Ladybird books and bought more back for my children when they were young. Have my Noddy (Enid Blyton) books, too.

    As for Sue Hill's thoughts on (supposed) writers who claim not to read, I agree with her assessment: can't imagine they will ever develop enough skill to know the difference between good writing and schlock.

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    1. Thanks so much for telling me your story. She really writes so lovingly about the Ladybird books, and how they gave very good instruction about all kinds of things. Have you ever gone back to the place you were born? I was born in the next state, maybe 30 miles away, and have spent a fair bit of time there over the years. It's funny but I can find my way around that town even better than in the town I grew up in. I wonder if you would feel that in your birth town.

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  3. March was quite cold here this year as well. Spring flowers and snow... always a bit of an odd combination.

    You're making me want to reread Jacob's Room, Nan. Such a lovely post. I too felt a bit heartbroken about the Deborah Devonshire connection, especially as I've read both books. Had no idea one was published by Susan Hill and the other not. What a sad little story. But you're right, being dropped like that is not uncommon.

    Being attached to one place or another is a difficult one for me. I suppose I am attached to Cornwall, but less so as I get older. I moved away when I was 20 and missed it terribly for years. But like SH I've now lived out of Cornwall much longer than I lived *in* it and it no longer bothers me. To be honest I feel quite attached to Devon. It's 'home' for me now. Possibly because my daughters live here? They both consider themselves to be Devonian even though one was born in Cornwall and the other in what was Avon at the time but has now reverted to Somerset. The grandchildren are genuine Devonians too and that adds to my sense of 'this is home'.

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    1. I loved reading this, Cath. What is it with England changing the names of places? Would it be like the US changing the name of a state? I can't imagine such a thing.

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    2. Not quite as drastic as a state name change in the US I think but it did cause ructions. They also abolished Rutland, the smallest county, and that's now been reinstated. I think they thought Somerset was too big so created a new county by using part of Somerset and the city of Bristol. It was Avon when we lived there in the 70s, not sure how long it's been since they changed it back. But yeah, we're great at fixing things that aren't broken in this country.

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    3. What a very funny last sentence! Thanks so much for the explanation.

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  4. What a wonderful post, Nan! I know you spent time on it and please know it's appreciated. Interesting about how writers can be forgotten in a generation. I wonder how many readers appreciate the books of Barbara Pym - surely one of England's best - to me, at least. Her wit is amazing.
    Have you ever read her? "Excellent Women" is a great start.
    Mary

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    1. Thank you so much for your appreciation. Honestly, I have the best readers. I think BP is another example of a writer who had been forgotten, and then someone wrote about her, and voila she got very popular. I will try and look up who it was who wrote about her. I have read EW, and others. If you go to Authors under the blog header photo, and scroll down, you can click on two book reports I wrote about her work. Back in the days when I had lotsa time. haha.

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  5. Very interesting question about how we feel about where we were born compared to other places. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, lived there until I was 22, and my parents lived there after I left. So I revisited often. I felt strong ties to my family but Alabama doesn't feel like home anymore. But still there is a love of the place, the trees, the green forests. I have been in California since I was 24 and in Santa Barbara since I was 30, so this feels like home. But everyone has different experiences.

    I too am enjoying your posts on Jacob's Room, especially since I don't think I would read it myself.

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    1. Thanks so much for telling me this. It is so interesting. I think the landscape must be really important, at least to some people. I knew a woman from Michigan who, when she first came here felt 'trapped' by the mountains. Whereas, I feel protected by the mountains. I could not live on a flat plain where I could see for miles. I just love hearing about people and their landscapes. I have a blogging friend who left my state for the southwest and she absolutely loves it. I, however would feel like Frankie in Grace and Frankie. She hated the 'heat and snakes.' haha

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  6. ..... and what about Josephine Tey? Only a few, but most of them good 'uns. Morning Nan! Home town? I left my home town at age 28, lived in South Wales for three years (a deeply unhappy time for my hubs and me (loved the people, it was a personal thing). Moved on to London and lived there happily for 25 years before settling here in Dorset for the last 16 years. And I am a lucky one. For me, home is the contents of the box in which you live.Not the look of the building, not the town, not the country the county/state, but what you are surrounded with. That is what makes home for me. I do go back to my home town from time to time as I have friends there, but it has no "pull" for me at all. Still love going up to London, but probably don't want to live there now. It's that old saying: "East, West, Home's Best"!!

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    1. Nice to see you! I think JT has had quite a revival. I read about her quite a lot. And I've read a few myself and liked them immensely.

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  7. I very much enjoy C P Snow's Strangers and Brothers book series...visit here with you often and always enjoy it. Thank you

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    1. Thanks for telling me you like his work. Susan Hill spent quite a few pages talking about him. And I'm so happy you enjoy it here. I have wonderful readers.

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  8. I was so attached to my "hometown" in San Diego (Del Mar), but going back now is so sad and disappointing. It's grown into a very wealthy beach community and is no longer the quiet, quaint little beach town I remember. Lincoln (NE) became my new hometown and after living there for over 20 years, it was very comfortable and familiar. But my heart is near the ocean and mountains and Depoe Bay is becoming my new hometown. Ah, the story of friends suddenly dropping out of one's life for no apparent reason is a familiar story to me. I've given up trying to understand and to find then answer as to why it happens.

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    1. I thought she was so honest to talk about it. You could tell that even after all these years, it was still raw. I'm so happy about your new hometown. I knew the plains weren't your natural place.

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  9. How lovely that you're reading this month by month. I haven't got this one yet - I have read Howard's End is on the Landing but she was awfully sniffy about people who keep their books in order, which annoyed me!

    I was born and grew up in Kent but don't feel particularly linked to there. I came to Birmingham for university, stayed a while after then came back here after a few years in London and count it as my home, and myself as an adopted Brummie. But I also feel very at home by the sea. Weirdly, I feel most at home and linked to some places in Tunisia - but then I have a Spanish great-great-grandfather so feel there might be some blood connection there.

    I and friends read Barbara Pym like MAD by the way and there is a monthly conference in the US!

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    1. I loved your story. Thank you for telling me. There are two wonderful books set in Birmingham that I read, and I wonder if you have. Park Life, and Deeds Not Words both by Katharine D'Souza. When I just looked her up I saw there is a new one called No Place, about feeling at home in a place! Amazing. I loved the two books I read. Made me wish I were in Birmingham!

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    2. Oh - wonderful! Katharine is a friend of mine! No Place is absolutely brilliant, a fantastic read and I highly recommend it. How on earth did you come across her books? You might also like Clare Morrall, who also writes beautifully about our city.

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    3. Wow! Your friend! How cool is that?!! I so love her writing. I will buy No Place immediately! Here is where I first read of her work. https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/park-life-katherine-dsouza-2012/ I wrote about it here: https://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2014/03/february-reading.html (you have to scroll down a bit) I think I had a book by her about colors - people seeing in colors. I don't think I finished it. Why? I have read two by Catherine O'Flynn that I loved. Thank you for coming back to read the comment, and leave another note.

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    4. Ohhhhh that makes sense - Ali is one of my closest friends and a friend of Katharine's too! I'll go and read your review. Catherine O'Flynn is very nice and good, too.

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    5. Man, B. is THE place to live!

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  10. I read through Susan Hill's March chapter quickly so I appreciate your recapping some of her stories for us here. I was born in the mountains of Virginia and I still refer to that as home, even though I haven't lived there since I was 24, but I still have family there and return multiple times a year. I've lived in Louisiana since 1982 and in one sense, it's home because of my husband, my house, and my friends but it's still not HOME. You can take the girl out of the mountains but you can't take the mountains out of the girl. I feel my blood pressure lowering once I see the Appalachians. That said, I probably wouldn't move back to my hometown. I live in a diverse, liberal neighborhood in Louisiana, and that doesn't describe SW Virginia.

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    1. What a delight reading about the place you were born and where you live now. The last sentence rather says it all, doesn't it. I feel the same about the mountains. When I travel to the lower part of the state, and then come home, I breathe again when I see the mountains. And I'm not a hiker or snowboarder. I just love living in the mountains. Do you know When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant?

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  11. I wasn't familiar with the children's book, When I Was Young in the Mountains. I just looked it up. Too bad I wasn't aware of it. I could have gotten it for my "mountain niece and nephew." My mom could have read it to them and compared it to her upbringing, which was similar--and the paternal grandfather of this niece and nephew was really born back in the holler. My sister attended family reunions since she was married where the oldest aunt of her husband still had an outhouse.

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    1. A friend of my daughter's when she was growing up had an outhouse. But it was more of an alternative, hippie choice not a way of life. You will love the book. Well worth owning. I love Cynthia Rylant.

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  12. Lovely review, Nan, that I'm coming to far too late. I loved the excerpts you picked out, and it makes me want to re-read. And I also am really interested about your comments on where one was raised. I spent 7 years in Merseyside (which I feel no attachment to at all), then the rest of my childhood in Worcestershire. And yet it is somehow Somerset, where my parents now live and I have never lived 'full-time', that feels like home. Perhaps because both sides of my family are from there? Or perhaps because Worcestershire is a very passing-through county, whereas Somerset people seldom seem to leave.

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    1. So nice to see you! Thanks for coming by. I love what you wrote about place, especially that last sentence. "passing-through county" doesn't feel like a place where one could feel rooted, does it? Brilliant of you to think of that. I know so little about England's counties. I really must spend some time learning about them. Will start with Somerset. I love the idea of a place people don't leave.

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