Well, here we all are. Confined to quarters. Recluses, by order of HM Government. No Mass, no pub, no meals out, no sports matches, no public gatherings. The Sealed Knot return to barracks and summer fete committees draw stumps. West London will no longer have to endure its annual invasion by Oxbridge hearties for the Boat Race, and for once Glastonbury in late June will be a haven of tranquillity.
Goodness only knows how long this will last. So what should we do with all this enforced semi-captivity? POWs could at least work on tunnels, or brush up on their German, or forge identity papers. If you prefer to settle down with a book after your permitted daily ration of exercise, what should be on your pile? I am determined to revisit some serious works, like Peter J Williams’s excellent apologetic Can We Trust The Gospels? and Pope Benedict’s Jesus trilogy, but I expect that a lot of my reading will be on the lighter side.
The obvious choice for pure escapism at this difficult time is PG Wodehouse. I came late to Plum, but now ensure that I read two or three of his books every year, in order to maintain mental equanimity and a cheery outlook on life. The supreme works, of course, are the Jeeves and Wooster series, and the Blandings saga. Right Ho, Jeeves and Summer Lightning (a Blandings Castle book) are excellent starting points for the above. The Inimitable Jeeves is a fine short story collection, containing one of the undoubted masterpieces of the Wodehousian canon, “The Great Sermon Handicap”, but almost everything he wrote – and he wrote a great deal – is worth at least some of your time.
There is no one to touch Wodehouse for comic writing in English. The set pieces are magnificent; Gussie Fink-Nottle’s prize-giving speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School still leaves me weak with laughter. There are superb lines on every page. Of Roderick Spode, the aspiring Dictator with a sideline in designing ladies’ underclothes, Wodehouse writes, “It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.” In one of the Psmith stories, a derelict cottage is described thus: “A depressing musty scent pervaded the place, as if a cheese had recently died there in painful circumstances”.
I strongly suspect Wodehouse of having read Jerome K Jerome, an earlier humorist known for the sublimely funny Three Men in a Boat and its fine sequel Three Men on the Bummel. He was surely an influence, consciously or not, on AG Macdonell’s brilliant interwar satire England, Their England, justly famed for its hilarious cricket match.
Away from pure comedy – though still very much in the realm of light reading – I discovered last year James Herriot’s vet books. Herriot worked as a vet in rural Yorkshire for 50 years, starting just before the Second World War, and recorded his experiences in a series of delightful episodic memoirs. He largely avoided sentimentality, and combined a dry wit and a keen eye for the ridiculous and eccentric with a generosity in recording the lives of the Dalesmen, who were often strange and difficult, though warm and hospitable. The seven books, starting with If Only They Could Talk, are based on real events and people, although many of the tales have clearly grown a little in the telling. There are several ongoing story threads: his relationship with his wife, the eccentricities and oddities of his irascible but kindly boss Siegfried Farnon, and the intermittent presence of Siegfried’s unreliable but good-natured brother Tristan.
If a long stretch of confinement is making you dream of wide open spaces, then you should consider a wonderful book I read a couple of years back, Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe by Nicholas Crane. Over 18 months, the author walked all the way from Finisterre in north-west Spain, once the end of the known world (hence the name), to Istanbul, following some of Europe’s great mountain ranges – the Cantabrians, the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Carpathians.
Crane is an engaging companion, observant and curious, and has the travel-writer’s instinct for finding local colour. His tremendous and occasionally perilous adventure calls to mind the classic works of so-called “tramping” literature, including the book I am currently reading, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s marvellous and lyrical A Time Of Gifts, the first in a trilogy. Leigh Fermor also made his way across Europe on foot with a view to reaching Istanbul, but did so in the early 1930s rather than the early 1990s, and started from the Netherlands instead of Spain, traversing the Rhineland and Bavaria before following a somewhat similar route to Crane’s.
It does not perhaps belong in quite the same category as Crane and Leigh Fermor, but Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods also records a talented writer’s impressions of a long journey on foot, this time a hike through the beautiful Appalachian mountains of the eastern United States. It should certainly be a powerful antidote to coronavirus cabin fever, a condition which I am sure good books will do a lot to ameliorate.