The best books (and films, tv, songs, whatever) are often the ones you can connect with. The ones where you understand what the characters are going through because you’ve been there. I mean, maybe not quite in the same way – I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice but I don’t live in Regency England and I’ve never been proposed to by Mr Darcy: but I have experienced the cut and thrust of family life and none of us are immune to judging people based on first impressions. I do enjoy books which seem to be totally beyond my own world but, in the middle of the dystopias and post-apocalypses I love, the part of the story I really want to read is human experience – the reaction of people like me to situations totally unlike anything I’ve ever been through.
The main character in Lost for Words, Loveday Cardew, is nothing like me. She’s tattooed, uncomfortable in social situations, writes poetry and spent most of her childhood in care but she is very much like me because she is a bookseller. A real bookseller. Not just someone who works in a bookshop – she’s the real thing. It is a bit self-indulgent but I absolutely loved the parts of this book where the bookshop, its customers and Loveday’s feeling for books are described. I may even have done the odd little fist-pump and shouted out ‘yesssss!’ with a sense of total understanding. However, I would imagine that you don’t need to be a bookseller to sympathise with Loveday’s position. She is trying her hardest to live a quiet life: she works in a second-hand bookshop in York (where I lived for 3 years in my student days), has a reasonably good relationship with her eccentric boss and tries to avoid much contact with almost everyone else. She feels she is not worth other people’s effort, unless they are looking for an obscure or hard to find book, and she certainly is not looking for love.
This was an unusual bit of chick-lit. Yes, it was about a young woman and her relationships but it was about quite a lot more. It looks at Loveday’s difficult past and her gradual acceptance of her future: she is a central character in a chick-lit novel that we could all find something in common with if we are honest – awkward, often grumpy and unreasonable. I really liked her. If you like something more than just romance in your chick-lit then maybe Loveday’s story is one for you.
Last year I read Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, his tale of how he walked the Pennine Way (well, most of it) the wrong way round (North to South as opposed to the usual direction). I enjoyed its blend of humour, travel writing and description of the trials of a modern-day troubadour, paying his way on the journey by passing a sock round at poetry readings each night. It was particularly interesting to me as I have done bookstalls at a couple of poetry reading events with the author – he is widely read and even shows up on school syllabuses – so I could amuse myself by trying to read it in Armitage’s actual accent in my head. (This did work fairly well, but he does have quite a soothing tone of voice so I did drop off occasionally when reading in bed….). I even tried to persuade my other half to read it – he is a Yorkshireman, enjoys long walks and poetry; what could go wrong? Oddly, he didn’t enjoy it at all. I was informed that the author had lost his respect for getting lost almost at the beginning of his walk despite having a map and compass unused at the bottom of his pack. Also there wasn’t enough poetry in it.
Well, fair enough. We can’t all enjoy the same stuff. But he’s wrong about the poetry…
So, Simon (the poet, not my other half, Rob – keep up…) has been at it again. This time he writes about walking part of the South West Coast Path, still giving readings each night and still relying on the hospitality of strangers. And for this walk he has a very expensive hat and a holly stick – well, for most of the journey, anyway. What is the same though is the humour and the poetry.
Now, don’t assume that this means there are sonnets and odes dropped in all over the place. This is more in the nature of stealth poetry – the descriptions of scenery, weather, other walkers and the natural world in particular are not just written in everyday language. Coleridge once described poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’ and that seems to be what we have here. The language is, on the whole, nothing that is hard to understand or obscure but it is wonderfully evocative of the sights and sounds which the poet experiences. And it’s still frequently very funny.
I may try to convince Rob to give Simon Armitage another go – but this time I may get him to read some of the actual poetry first (maybe his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight would be a good place to start – we’ve got history with that poem).