Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 25 May 2020

Reading in strange times: Oxfordshire, Shetland or Bloomsbury?

You might wonder what the connection is between these three very different settings for novels. They are completely different in genre and atmosphere, but I chose them randomly as my latest reading during this period of isolation from ‘normal’ life and found that they helped me to escape from all the uncertainty. We have all been advised to take time to enjoy doing things that would not usually be possible to do because of the busy distractions of everyday life. I usually read a lot more than many people and always have done. Now I am retired, I have even more time to get through a range of books, sometimes favouring authors that I know and love, and at other times trying out new stuff. Even so, it is difficult to select from the thousands of possibilities on our bookshelves. Should I reread something that I once enjoyed or would that be a waste of my increasingly limited time?

This current situation isn’t quite the same as having enforced reading time due to illness or convalescence, partly because then there is usually an end in sight. Even so, I have made bad choices in those circumstances when I have enthusiastically selected a book and then felt stuck with it. It wouldn’t be a problem now because I live in a house stuffed to the brim with thousands of books. Forty six years ago I didn’t have that many and so took ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy in my essentials bag when I went into hospital to have my first baby. I can remember it staying on my bedside table for ten days with minimal attention. I was so pleased to borrow some magazines from the woman next to me.

‘The Shooting Party’ by Isabel Colegate is one that has been staring at me from the bookshelves for ages but until now, it has never made it to the pile of books beside my bed . It has been suggested that this novel, set in 1913 Oxfordshire, was an inspiration for the TV costume drama series ‘Downton Abbey’. I have never watched that but can see why it was so popular with the careful attention to period detail and the complex characterisation. I know that this world depicts privilege and elitisim and that the novel forensically examines the unfairness of the class system, but nevertheless,  I felt comfortable watching the well told story unfold. I guess it must be something to do with a fascination for the stuffy but rather pleasant world of country houses made familiar by Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, P.G.Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and so many more great writers. Being locked down in this fictional house would be very claustrophobic but very civilized with beautiful interiors and reliable three course meals with plenty of alcohol.

‘Wild Fire’ by Ann Cleeves wasn’t quite so cosy other than that it was a different kind of familiar territory – I really rate the Shetland series of crime novels by this author. This time a young nanny’s body is found hanging in the barn of a recently arrived English family. Rumours of her affair with the husband of the family begin to spread like wild fire and DI Jimmy Perez has to solve a disturbingly complex puzzle. I am pretty sure that I am unlikely to ever visit the beautiful Shetland Islands, never mind live there, although Cleeves makes the place sound bleak but stunning. I am not sure that the very closed and suspicious fictional community would willingly help out any incomers in times of trouble.

But anything written by Noel Streatfeild  is my ‘go to’ world when I am feeling unwell or anxious and ‘Ballet Shoes’ is by far the best. Like Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote the introduction to my beautiful Folio edition illustrated by Inga Moore, I loved reading it when I was a ten year old wannabe ballerina.

The modern fairy tale gives us three likeable orphans who have each been’ collected’ by Gum (aka Great Uncle Matthew) when travelling the world searching for fossils. In storybook world, there is no problem about this elderly eccentric bachelor deciding to adopt them and then to leave them living with his grown up niece and her capable Nanny while he disappears for further exploration.  And so the three adopted sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy begin their more domestic adventures in the grand but rather run down house in Cromwell Road in London. They go on regular walks to the park and to The Victoria and Albert Museum, but life is a bit dull and predictable. That is until everything changes and they begin their time at The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training in Bloomsbury. The fees for this wonderful place are conveniently waived by Madame Fidelia who is the employer of Theo, one of the several lodgers who have joined the household to provide an income. Their little world is considerably expanded and I enjoyed reading again about how they cope in very different ways with learning new and often difficult skills. Unsurprisingly, Posy clearly has an extraordinary natural talent for dancing, her natural mother was a ballerina and she arrived as a baby at the house accompanied by a pair of beautiful ballet shoes.   But it isn’t an easy life for any of them and they all have to work very hard to be successful. Gum has been abroad for several years and money is rather tight,. Despite this, nothing is too much of a problem and with the help of the various lodgers the children not only get a good rounded education, but lots of other interesting opportunities along the way.

I’m not sure that I would want to live in either of the first two book worlds as both seemed to be pretty stressful. But why did I stick with them during a time when my concentration is so poor and fleeting? Perhaps it was because I knew that I could escape if I needed to and that they made my own life seem remarkably relaxed and unproblematic. But even as an adult, I was charmed by the idea of living in the friendly Bloomsbury household of ‘Ballet Shoes’ which would have coped magnificently with lockdown I am sure.  


Karen Argent

May 2020