On one of our recent trips between Harrow and Herefordshire, Ann and I stopped off at Ledbury for lunch. Always a pleasure to take a stroll along the familiar lively high street there and pop into a deli or a bric a brac shop. We climbed the few steps into The Horseshoe, a fine old black-and-white pub with its own wood-fired pizza oven and found ourselves, that Monday noonish, not among a scattering of drinkers but among a chattering crowd of crafts-people, knitting away, sewing, quilting.
While we were waiting for our order, we flicked through the Telegraph off the rack and had a chat about what been listening to in the car – Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, a free gift on Audible. We’d both enjoyed the Oxford scenes and admired the telling and the production (Pullman is a superb narrator) and the variety of characters but had grown impatient with the punch ups between the witches and the bears. We agreed that as always with a fantasy, if anything can happen, it will, so it begins to stretch out like French knitting. And we had both got a bit bogged down looking for parallels in the allegory. Who ARE these bears? what IS this blinkin dust? how does this all relate to Paradise Lost? what would a ten year-old get out of this? All the usual stuff. It didn’t stop me being curious enough to want to go on with the rest of the trilogy having downloaded it – but Ann put her foot down. She’d had enough.
A chap on a table nearby who was working on an elaborate tapestry (of an orchid, it turned out, with the canvas pattered like a close-up of an Ordnance Survey map by some computerised process and requiring thousands of stitches – a year’s work at least) segued into the conversation with the graceful ease of somebody who enjoys a chat with strangers – and enthused about the book. He also recommended “The Mysteries of Glass” by Sue Gee. He had spent many years in Oxford as a parson and had recently gone with a book group walking where it’s set – up on to Rushock Hill, along the lane from Bullock’s Mill and to the church at Lyonshall – all of which Ann and I have known for twenty years or more – so I got hold of the book and have enjoyed enormously. Familiarity with the topography – and being taken on an imaginary journey along the high street of Kington in 1860 – are not the only things to enjoy in this powerful book, far from it. It’s remarkably sensuous book, full of bird-sound and animal-calls and the tensions of misty woods; sensitive to the trials of a young curate eager to emulate his dedicated father but stumbling among the pitfalls of jealousy and spite and cruelty and self-disgust because of his yearning for the troubled young wife of a the dry-as-dust vicar who has fallen seriously ill. This book deals with yearning and hypocrisy and wavering faith as Trollope did, but unconstrained by the conventions of his age.
Two serious books asking the big questions. So far I prefer being led to them along paths I’ve trodden myself and in familiar human company rather than in the company of daemons. I feel the imagined numbing cold of an English winter even in the mid-19th century more painfully than I do the Northern snows of Pulman’s metaphysical fiction. Still, I will bone up on Mr P’s dust.