Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?
Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.
Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.
We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.
This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.
“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever
Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.
“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis
Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.
“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis
Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.
Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.
We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.
St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.
“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith
- An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
- A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.
- Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
- Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
- A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).
“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau
- Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.
- No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
- People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.
- Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
- Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.
- The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).
- Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.
“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian
What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.
I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.
Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.
I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.
I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.
“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall
General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.
We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?
North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.
The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.
Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!
“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild
Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?
As treats to look forward to after our DIY and moving adventures, we booked ourselves two summer holidays. Next week we’re off to Northern Spain for eight days. Thanks to a Brittany Ferries voucher from a cancelled trip in 2020, it ended up being a really cheap option – but it means I have to go to sea for 20 hours, each way. And I hate boats. My last sea voyage back from France only lasted four hours or so, but I was so sick. This time, I will be packing all the seasickness remedies known to woman. Your ideas are welcome!
I’ve never been to Spain and have lost my kindergarten Spanish beyond the few bits I’ve picked back up from my husband’s Duolingo practice. We’ve had next to no time to plan what we’re going to do while we’re there, but it should be a great place for hiking and wildlife watching, with a more Atlantic than Mediterranean climate. (We’re no beachgoers.)
What I have been planning, of course, is what I’ll read. I asked Twitter for recommendations, and got a couple that I followed up on. My library’s holdings weren’t particularly helpful, but I found a few somewhat appropriate reads: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart, Ordesa by Manuel Vilas, and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Alas that all of these are by men and only two are in translation! For place-specific reading, I’ve supplemented them with Book of Days by Phoebe Power, a book-length poem about the Camino pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, which passes not far from where we’re staying.
I also amassed a bunch of doorstoppers and slightly lighter literary fiction to help the hours at sea pass. See anything you’d particularly recommend? I’ll likely pack all of these and more (‘sensible’ is not a word that can generally be applied to my reading plans or habits!) because we’re taking a car onto the ferry so space/weight is not an issue.
Ironically, I have many more relevant book ideas for our second summer holiday to the Outer Hebrides in late June, but we’re travelling up by train so my book capacity will be minimal! There are loads of novels set on Scottish islands. Here’s what I’m pondering from the library:
Love of Country would be a reread, but is really more for my husband to read. I also fancy a reread of Night Waking by Sarah Moss.
Do you have any trips to look forward to? Will you try for any reading on location?
I’m old-fashioned and still use a desk calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. I also add in notes after the fact to remember births, deaths, elections, and other nationally and internationally important events. A look back through my 2021 “The Reading Woman” calendar reminded me that last January held a bit of snow, a third UK lockdown, an attempted coup at the U.S. capitol, and the inauguration of Joe Biden.
Activities continued online for much of the year:
- 15 music gigs (most of them by The Bookshop Band)
- 11 literary events, including book launches and prize announcements
- 9 book club meetings
- 3 literary festivals
- 2 escape rooms
- 1 progressive dinner
We were lucky enough to manage a short break in Somerset and a wonderful week in Northumberland. In August my mother and stepfather came to stay with us for a week and we showed off our area to them on daytrips.
As we entered the autumn, a few more things returned to in-person:
- 5 music gigs
- 2 book club meetings (not counting a few outdoor socials earlier in the year)
- 1 book launch
- 1 conference
I was also fortunate to get back to the States twice this year, once in May–June for my mother’s wedding and again in December for Christmas.
On this most recent trip I had some fun “life meeting books” moments (the photos of me are by Chris Foster):
- An overnight stay on Chincoteague Island, famous for its semi-wild ponies, prompted me to reread a childhood favorite, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- Driving from my sister’s house to my mother’s new place involves some time on Route 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, through Pennsylvania. Her town even has a tourist attraction called Lincoln Highway Experience that we may check out on a future trip. (The other claims to fame there: it was home to golfer Arnold Palmer and Mister Rogers, and the birthplace of the banana split.)
- At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, we met the original “Dippy” the diplodocus, a book about whom I reviewed for Foreword in 2020.
- I also took along a copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon and snapped a photo of it in an appropriately mysterious corner of the museum. Unfortunately, I didn’t get past the first few chapters as this debut novel felt dated and verging on racist.
No matter, though, as I donated it at a Little Free Library.
We sought out a few LFLs on our trip, including that one in a log at Cromwell Valley Park in Maryland, where I picked up a Margot Livesey novel and a couple of travel books. My only other acquisition of the trip was a new paperback of Beneficence by Meredith Hall (author of one of the first books to turn me on to memoirs) from Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland, my college town. No secondhand book shopping opportunities this time, alas; just lots of driving in our rental car to visit disparate friends and relatives. However, this was my early Christmas book haul from my husband before we set off:
Another fun stop during our trip was at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where we admired wreaths made of mostly natural ingredients like fruit.
The big news from my household this winter is that we have bought our first home, right around the corner from where we rent now, and hope to move in within the next couple of months. Our aim is to do all the bare-minimum renovations in 2022, in time to put up a tree in the living room bay window and a homemade wreath on the door for next Christmas!
Despite these glimpses of travels and merriment, Covid still feels all too real. I appreciated these reminders I saw recently, one in Bath and the other at the museum in Pittsburgh (Covid Manifesto by Cauleen Smith, which originated on Instagram).
“We all deserve better than ‘back to normal’.”
Last week we managed a few days’ holiday in Somerset – our first trip away from home in over seven months (the last one was to Hay-on-Wye). Though only an hour and a half from where we live, it felt like a world away. We were very lucky with the weather, too. We wandered the quiet nature reserves of the Avalon Marshes, toured Glastonbury and Wells (the smallest cathedral city in the UK; alas, we missed the limited cathedral opening hours, but had a nice walk around the outside and saw a plaque marking where Elizabeth Goudge lived), and climbed Glastonbury Tor and Ebber Gorge. Not wanting to chance any pubs, we ate daytime meals outdoors at a few cafés and brought posh supermarket takeaways with us to heat up in the Airbnb kitchen for dinners.
(Photos by Chris Foster)
I read from lots of different books on the trip, but my most appropriate selection was Skylarks with Rosie, Stephen Moss’s diary of the coronavirus spring experienced in Somerset. By coincidence, my husband saw Moss (a mentor of his; we’ve met him a number of times before) filming at Ham Wall when he went back there early one morning!
On the last day, we drove back via Bookbarn International, a favourite secondhand bookshop of mine. Below is my book haul from the trip: the top five were from a Little Free Library we found in a bus shelter in the delightfully named town of Queen Camel and the bottom stack was from Bookbarn, which was looking well stocked after the lockdown. I was particularly pleased to find books by Amy Bloom, Sue Miller, and Jane Smiley, authors you don’t come across so often in the UK. Some of the LFL books have rather hideous covers, but it’s the inside that counts, yes?
Overhaul of Previous Trips’ Purchases
This was our seventh trip to Bookbarn since June 2013. I don’t seem to have any photos of that first visit, but for all the rest I have at least one book haul photo.
Simon of Stuck in a Book runs a regular blog feature he calls “The Overhaul,” where he revisits a book haul from some time ago and takes stock of what he’s read, what he still owns, etc. (here’s the most recent one). With his permission, I’m borrowing the title and format to look back at what I’ve bought at Bookbarn over the years and how much I still have left to read.
Date: July 2015
Number of books bought: 8 [the Allen and Cobbett are reference books for my husband]
- Read: 7
- No longer owned: 2 (I resold the Fitzgerald and Levy)
- Remaining unread: 1 (Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz – so I took it with me on the Somerset trip and have read the first 50 pages so far.)
This is a very good showing for me! I suppose I did have nearly six years to get through them all. I’ve done less well on the other years’ hauls…
Date: July 2016
Number of books bought: 10
- Had read already: 1 (Rachman)
- Read since: 4
- No longer owned: 1 (Irving’s early work hasn’t been to my taste, so after my husband read The Water-Method Man, I donated it; its only virtue in my eyes is that the main character is called “Bogus Trumper”)
- Remaining unread: 4 (Chatwin, Coe, McCarthy, O’Hanlon)
Date: December 2016
Number of books bought: 13 (the two pictured at left were from another shop)
- Read: 6
- DNFed and gave away: 3 (Lurie, Smith, Wheen)
- Remaining unread: 4 (Barnes, Ellman biography, Godwin, Mantel)
Date: October 2017 (multiple photos in this post)
Number of books bought: 15
- Read: 5
- Skimmed: 1 (McCarthy)
- DNFed: 1 (McNeillie)
- Remaining unread: 8! (I have a bad habit of letting biographies sit around unread)
Date: February 2020
Number of books bought: 14
- Had read already: 2
- Skimmed: 2
- Started reading but set aside: 2, so…
- Remaining unread: 10!
To encourage myself to get to more of these previous acquisitions, I’ve added six of them to my bedside stack.
We found Hay-on-Wye fairly bustling on an early September weekend. Not all of the bookshops are operational or have reliable opening hours, so we missed our chance to go in a few of them this time. Still, nine was plenty to be getting on with. The castle currently has scaffolding up for necessary renovations, and many eateries were offering little or no indoor table service. Masks are not actually compulsory in Wales, but we wore ours inside shops anyway, and half or more of the other customers and booksellers were doing the same.
Day 1: Drive there; Clock Tower Books, Oxfam, a great haul from the honesty shelves by the Castle (everything’s £1); ice cream cones from Shepherds; dinner at The Globe.
Day 2: A walk up Hay Bluff; roast lunch at the Three Tuns pub; Broad Street Book Centre, Hay Cinema Bookshop.
Day 3: Cinema outdoor area, Booth’s, British Red Cross shop, back to Oxfam, back to Clock Tower Books, Green Ink Booksellers; ice cream cones from Shepherds (again); drive home.
“To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn’t even know to ask for in the first place. … What you mean to find matters less than what you do find.”
~Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins (see below)
I bought 26 books in total (though one is an omnibus, so you could call it 28), at an average spend of £1.81 per volume. (My husband bought 10 nature books. We also found a gift for my father-in-law’s birthday next week – whew!) I’m particularly pleased with the Robertson Davies novels and the memoirs, some of which have been on my wish list for a long time. My interests in animals plus foodie and medical themes come through clearly. Some authors here I’ve never tried but have been meaning to; others are familiar names I was interested to read more by. I only noticed later on that Ghosts, the John Fuller poetry book, is a signed copy.
What I read
From last year’s book haul: The first 30 or so pages in Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. I’ll probably only skim the Spowers travel book (another one I only just noticed is signed). I have to read a different Dunmore first, towards my Women’s Prize reading project, as it’s requested after me at the library, but I’ll try to get to Talking to the Dead before too much longer.
I got through another 90 pages in Mike Parker’s On the Red Hill, about life in the house he and his partner inherited in the Welsh countryside from another gay couple. I also read about half of Tilly and the Lost Fairy Tales, Anna James’s second middle-grade novel about a girl who disappears into books and interacts with the characters, and the remainder of A.N. Wilson’s The Tabitha Stories, a cute chapter book with illustrations about a kitten learning how to be a cat.
Mostly, I focused on rereading the whole of Paul Collins’s memoir Sixpence House. I’ve listed this as one of the landmark books in my life because, as I was getting ready for my year abroad in England in the late summer of 2003, it was one of the books that whetted my appetite for traveling, and particularly for visiting Hay-on-Wye. (We first went in 2004; this was our seventh trip.)
In 2000 Collins moved from San Francisco to Hay with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. His parents were British and he’d enjoyed trips to the Book Town before, so it wasn’t a completely random choice. The place suited his interest in the oddities and obscure figures of literature and history. In fact, he’d just finished writing Banvard’s Folly, a fun book containing 13 profiles of thinkers and inventors whose great ideas flopped. (I should reread it, too.)
As he edits his manuscript and hunts for the perfect cover and title, he is also unexpectedly drawn into working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who was responsible for creating the world’s first book town and crowned himself King of Hay. Booth hired him to sort out the American Studies section – but if you ever went in the pre-2007 Booth’s you’ll know how impossible it would have been to make order out of its chaos. He comes across lots of interesting books time has forgotten, though (I first learned about W.N.P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man from this book; why have I still not read it?!), and muses on counterfeiting, cover designs, bookbinding, and the sadness of the remainders bin.
Renting an apartment above Pembertons, which no longer exists but was at that time the town’s only new bookshop, Collins and his wife look at various properties and fall in love with a former pub. But when the survey comes back, they realize fixing all the damp and rot would nearly double its £125,000 price tag. (That sure looks good these days! The B&B next to the Airbnb flat where we stayed was for sale for over £700,000. Cusop Dingle is full of large, posh houses – Collins’s landlady referred to it as the “Beverly Hills of Hay.”) Buying one of the new-build houses on the edge of town just isn’t their dream.
In the end, after six months or so in Hay, they admit defeat and move back to the States. So in a sense this is – just like Banvard’s Folly, the book being shepherded into publication within it – a book about an experiment that turned out to be a noble failure. It’s warm, funny in a Bryson-esque way, and nostalgic for a place that still exists but a time that never will again. I loved spotting familiar landmarks, even if the shops have changed hands or are no longer there. This was probably my fourth read, but it all still felt fresh. An enduring favorite of mine.
I’d be intrigued to know what Collins would make of Hay 20 years later. In 2000 it had 40 bookshops; now it’s only 12, with online sellers, book-related businesses, and shops further afield pushing the listings in the annual leaflet to 26. Whereas then Collins felt they were the only young family in town, it’s very much a hipster place now and we saw many groups of teens and twentysomethings. A tapas bar, boutique stores, turmeric chai lattes … it’s not just a musty antiquarian book lover’s paradise anymore, and that might sadden some like Collins. Yet gentrification and the Festival may be the only things that have kept the town alive. Richard Booth died last year, but the book town vision should live on.
I miss Hay already. I hate to think of all the time that might pass before I can get there again, and what will (or won’t) have changed by then. A few years can seem to go by in an instant these days. My vow is to go again before I turn 40.
Somehow it’s been nearly 3.5 years since our last trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town of Wales (I wrote about that April 2017 visit here). This coming weekend will be our seventh trip to Hay, one of our favorite places. We’ve booked an Airbnb in nearby English hamlet Cusop Dingle for two nights, so it’s a pretty short break, but longer than the weekend away we managed last month – reduced to only 36 hours by the cat’s poorly timed but ultimately minor one-day illness.
I’ve acquired many, many books from the free mall bookshop over the past year. (It’s now closed permanently, alas.) And I had no shortage of additional incomers during lockdown, via the unofficial Little Free Library I started and orders I placed with independent bookstores and publishers. So you could say I don’t need a book-buying trip to Hay. But 1) it’s never a question of need, is it? and 2) We want to continue to support the town, which will have been hit hard by temporary closures and by its annual literary festival being purely online this year.
I have no particular plans for what to buy this time, so will just see what takes my fancy. There are noticeably fewer bookshops than when we first started visiting Hay in 2004, but among the dozen or so remaining are some truly excellent shops like Addyman Books, the Hay Cinema Bookshop, and Booth’s Bookshop. Our best bargains last time were from the Oxfam charity shop and the honesty shelves around the castle, so those will likely be our first ports of call, and from there we’ll let whimsy be our guide. Saturday and Monday will be for wandering the town and book shopping, while Sunday will include countryside walks around Hay Bluff. We also hope to explore some eatery options we’ve not tried before.
An Overhaul of Last Trip’s Book Purchases
Simon of Stuck in a Book runs a regular blog feature he calls “The Overhaul,” where he revisits a book haul from some time ago and takes stock of what he’s read, what he still owns, etc. (here’s the most recent one). With his permission, I’m borrowing the title and format to look back at what I bought in Hay last time.
Date of haul: April 2017
Number of books bought: 18
Had already read: (3/18)
- How to Age by Anne Karpf
- From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth
- Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds – It’s on my shelf for rereading.
Have read since then: (5/18)
- Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge [resold]
- Fillets of Plaice by Gerald Durrell
- A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay (!)
- The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson
- Cats in May by Doreen Tovey
BUT also read from my hubby’s pile (not pictured):
- Sold for a Farthing by Clare Kipps
- All the Presidents’ Pastries by Roland Mesnier
- Second Nature by Michael Pollan
- A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
- Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee [resold]
- We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – Might try this one again another time.
- Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott [given away]
Resold unread: (1/18)
- Family and Friends by Anita Brookner – I’d added it to the Oxfam pile to make up a 5 for £1 stack, but then didn’t enjoy Booker winner Hotel du Lac enough to try another by Brookner.
Total still unread: 6
Total no longer owned: 4
This is not too bad a showing overall, though it does reveal my habit of buying books and letting them sit around for years unread. (Surely I’m not alone in this?!)
The six purchases still to read are two cat-themed anthologies for reading piecemeal, plus these four – two fiction and two non-:
- Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore
- Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller
- Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres
- A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks by Rory Spowers
To force myself to get to them, these are the four I’ve packed for reading in the car and while in Hay. I’m also bringing, to read on location: 1) On the Red Hill by Mike Parker, a Wainwright Prize-shortlisted memoir about life in the Welsh countryside (I’m about 40 pages into it already); and 2) Sixpence House, which I’ve read several times before and consider among my absolute favorite books; it’s Paul Collins’s memoir about finding a temporary home and work among the bookshops of Hay.
I’ll be back on Tuesday with this year’s book haul plus photos and notes on how we found the town this time around. (But first, Six Degrees of Separation will post on Saturday while I’m away.)
We fancied a short break before term starts (my husband is a teaching associate in university-level biology), so booked a cheap Airbnb room in Bridport for a couple of nights and headed to Dorset on Wednesday, stopping at the Thomas Hardy birthplace cottage on the way down and returning on Friday via Max Gate, the home he designed on the outskirts of Dorchester.
I’d been to both before, but over 15 years ago. In the summer of 2004, at the end of my study abroad year, I used a travel grant from my college to spend a week in Dorset and Nottinghamshire, researching the sense of place in the works of Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. I marvel at my bravery now: barely out of my teens, there I was traveling alone by train and bus to places I’d never been before, finding my own B&B accommodation, and taking long countryside walks to arrive at many sites on foot.
I found that much had changed in 15 years. The main difference is that both properties have now been given the full National Trust treatment, with an offsite visitor centre and café down the lane from Hardy’s Cottage, and the upper floors of Max Gate now open to the public after the end of private tenancies in 2011.* This could be perceived as a good thing or a bad thing: Everything is more commercial and geared towards tourists, yes, but also better looked after and more inviting thanks to visitor income and knowledgeable volunteers. Fifteen years ago I remember the two sites being virtually deserted, with the cottage’s garden under black plastic and awaiting a complete replanting. Now it’s flourishing with flowers and vegetables.
*In 2004 only a few ground-floor rooms were open to the public. I happened to spot in the visitor’s book that novelist Vikram Seth had signed in just before me. When I made the caretakers aware of this, they expressed admiration for his work and offered him an exclusive look at the study where Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I got to tag along! The story is less impressive since it’s been a standard part of the house tour for eight years now, but I still consider it a minor claim to fame.
The thatched cottage doesn’t possess anything that belonged to the Hardy family, but is decorated in a period style that’s true to its mid-1800s origin. Hardy was born here and remained until his early thirties, completing an architecture apprenticeship and writing his first few books, including Under the Greenwood Tree. Even if you’re not particularly familiar with or fond of Hardy’s work, I’d recommend an afternoon at the cottage for a glimpse of how simple folk lived in that time. With wood smoke spooling out of the chimney and live music emanating from the door – there are two old fiddles in the sitting room that guests are invited to play – it was a perfectly atmospheric visit.
Afterwards, we headed to Portland, an isthmus extending from the south coast near Weymouth and known for its stone. It’s the setting of The Well-Beloved, which Hardy issued in serial form in 1892 and revised in 1897 for its book publication. Jocelyn Pierston, a sculptor whose fame is growing in London, returns to “the Isle of Slingers” (Hardy gave all his English locales made-up names) for a visit and runs into Avice Caro, a childhood friend. On a whim, he asks her to marry him. Before long, though, following a steamy (for Victorian literature, anyway) scene under an upturned boat during a storm, he transfers his affections to Miss Bencomb, the daughter of his father’s rival stone merchant. The fickle young man soon issues a second marriage proposal. I read the first 30 pages, but that was enough for me.
[I failed on classics or doorstoppers this month, alas, so look out for these monthly features to return in October. I did start The Warden by Anthony Trollope, my first of his works since Phineas Finn in 2005, with the best of intentions, and initially enjoyed the style – partway between Dickens and Hardy, and much less verbose than Trollope usually is. However, I got bogged down in the financial details of Septimus Harding’s supposed ripping-off of the 12 old peasants who live in the local hospital (as in a rest center for the aged and infirm, like the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester). He never should have had his comfortable £800 a year, it seems. His son-in-law, the archdeacon Dr. Grantly, and his would-be son-in-law, gadfly John Bold, take opposing sides as Harding looks to the legal and religious authorities for advice. I read the first 125 pages but only briefly skimmed the rest. Given how much longer the other five volumes are, I doubt I’ll ever read the rest of the Barchester Chronicles.]
My other appropriate reading of the trip was Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, in which Claudia Hampton, a popular historian now on her deathbed, excavates the layers of her personal past and dwells on the subjectivity of history and memory. She grew up in Dorset and mentions ammonites and rock strata, which we encountered on our beach walks.
Bridport isn’t so well known, but we thought it a lovely place, full of pleasant cafés, pubs and charity shops. It also has an independent bookshop and two secondhand ones, and we had an excellent meal of dumplings and noodle bowls at the English/Asian fusion restaurant Dorshi. It’s tucked away down an alley, but well worth a special trip. Our other special experience of the trip was a tour of Dorset Nectar, a small, family-run organic cider farm just outside of Bridport, which included a tasting of their 10+ delicious ciders. We had splendid late-summer weather for our three days away, too – we really couldn’t have asked for better.
The wedding of a college friend – who I calculated I’ve known at least half my life – was the excuse we needed to book a trip back to the States for the last two weeks of May. Along with the classy nuptials in the Fell’s Point area of Baltimore, we enjoyed a day’s sightseeing in Philadelphia, a couple of outings to watch birds and other wildlife on Cape May (a migration hotspot in New Jersey), two meet-ups with other friends, and plenty of relaxation time with my mom and sister, including a Memorial Day picnic at my mom’s retirement community and a tour of Antietam Battlefield. It was much hotter than anticipated, including some days in the high 80s or even 90s, and the hayfever, ticks and mosquitoes were bad, too, but we survived.
While back in Maryland I continued the intermittent downsizing process I’ve been going through for a while now. After being on the market for nearly a year, my family home finally sold and went to closing while we were over there. So that provided a scrap of closure, but my current estrangement from my father (we don’t even know where he’s living) means there’s a lot of continuing uncertainty.
In any case, I managed to reduce the number of boxes I’m storing with my sister from 29 to 20 by recycling lots of my old schoolwork, consolidating my mementos, reselling one box of books and donating another, donating a box of figurines and decorative bottles to a thrift store, displaying some at my mom’s place, giving away a few trinkets to a friend’s kids, and packing a bunch of stuff – photo albums and decorations as well as 64 books – in our various suitcases and hand luggage to take back to the UK.
And I also acquired more books, of course! A whopping 46 of these were free: eight review copies were waiting for me at my mom’s place; three were from the outdoor free bin at 2nd & Charles, a secondhand bookstore; one was found in a Little Free Library near our friends’ place in New Jersey (Emerald City by Jennifer Egan, not pictured); and the rest were from The Book Thing of Baltimore, a legendary volunteer-run free bookshop. I mostly raided the biography section for an excellent selection of women’s life writing; the fiction is unalphabetized so harder to find anything in, but I picked up a few novels, too. My only purchases were new (remainder) copies of one novel and one memoir from Dollar Tree. Total book spending on the trip: just $2.12.
What I Read:
Two that I’d already started but finished on the plane ride over:
- The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: (As featured in my spring reading list.) “Love and flowers, death and flowers.” Poetic writing about small-town Minnesota life, a tense relationship with her late mother, and her late father’s flower shop.
- The Girls by Lori Lansens: I love reading about sister relationships, and the Darlen girls’ situation is an extreme case of love and jealousy given that they literally can’t get away from each other. Not as good as the two other conjoined-twin novels I’ve read, Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, but I would read more from Lansens, a solid Oprah Book Club sort of author.
Three review books that will be featuring here in the near future:
- Goulash by Brian Kimberling
- Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal
A few quick reads:
- A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir by Sandra Gail Lambert: (A proof copy passed on by an online book reviewing friend.) A memoir in 29 essays about living with the effects of severe polio. Most of the pieces were previously published in literary magazines. While not all are specifically about the author’s disability, the challenges of life in a wheelchair seep in whether she’s writing about managing a feminist bookstore or going on camping and kayaking adventures in Florida’s swamps. I was reminded at times of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
- No Happy Endings: A Memoir by Nora McInerny: (Borrowed from my sister.) I didn’t appreciate this as much as the author’s first memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh, though it’s in the same style: lots of short, witty but bittersweet essays reflecting on life’s losses. Within a year of being widowed by cancer, she met a new partner and soon was – surprise! – pregnant with his baby. Together they formed a blended family of four children ranging from 0 to 15 and two wounded adults. McInerny also writes about her newfound spirituality and feminism. The problem with the essay format is that she cycles through aspects of the same stories multiple times.
- Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey: (Free from 2nd & Charles.) Trethewey writes beautifully disciplined verse about her mixed-race upbringing in Mississippi, her mother’s death and the South’s legacy of racial injustice. She occasionally rhymes, but more often employs forms that involve repeated lines or words. The title sequence concerns a black Civil War regiment in Louisiana. Two favorites from this Pulitzer-winning collection by a former U.S. poet laureate were “Letter” and “Miscegenation”; stand-out passages include “In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm” (from “Pilgrimage”) and “I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime // of me — mulatto, half-breed” (from “South”).
I also read the first half or more of: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, my June book club book; Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, a journalist’s travelogue of his foodie journeys with René Redzepi of Noma fame, coming out in July; and the brand-new novel In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow – these last two are for upcoming BookBrowse reviews.
But the book I was most smug to have on my reading list for the trip was the recent novel Cape May by Chip Cheek. What could be more perfect for reading on location? I asked myself. Unfortunately, it stood out for the wrong reasons. In October 1957 a young pair of virgins, Effie and Henry, travel from Georgia to New Jersey for an off-season honeymoon in her uncle’s vacation home. They’re happy enough with each other but underwhelmed with the place (strangely, this matched my experience of Cape May), and even consider going home early until they fall in with Clara, a friend of Effie’s cousin; Clara’s lover, Max; and Max’s younger sister, Alma. Effie and Henry join the others for nightly drunken revelry.
[SPOILERS!] As the weeks pass Effie, ill and dejected, almost seems to disappear as Cheek delves into Henry’s besotted shenanigans, described in unnecessarily explicit sexual detail. When Effie makes a bid or two for her own sexual freedom late on, it only emphasizes the injustice of spending so much time foregrounding Henry’s perspective. Despite the strength of the period atmosphere and seaside location, this ends up being dull and dated. If you’re after a typically ‘trashy’ beach read and don’t mind lots of sex scenes, you may get on with it better than I did.
Vineland, New Jersey was on the way from our friends’ house to Cape May, so we stopped to take my proof copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered to its spiritual home. Alas, Vineland is an utterly boring small American town. However, Mary Treat at least appears on a painted mural on a building on the main street. The Historical Society, where Kingsolver did her research, was closed, but we photographed the outside.
What’s the last book you read ‘on location’? Did it work out well for you?
“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”
When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.
Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.
Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.
I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.
For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.
Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!
Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.
*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.
What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.
I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:
“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”
The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.
The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.
If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.