We’re now nearly a week into March. The days are getting longer, and signs of spring are everywhere. I’m taking a week off from writing to do some spring cleaning, as we’ve had the builders in at Tottering Towers. Paul and his team have worked wonders, so I’ve got no excuse. Everything has to be sparkling clean before it goes back into our newly-refurbished space.
The trouble is, housework is a never-ending task. I love to see everything clean and tidy, but in an old house with an active family and pets, it never stays that way for long. It’s very dispiriting.
I wrote here about how I’m following Antony Johnston’s methods for creating an organised workspace, and developing efficient working methods. It’s going quite well. Since the 3rd of January I’ve submitted five new pieces of work. I’ve also managed to keep my accounts up to date, and maintain my journal.
I’ve also managed to enjoy some books, although most of that has been done through Audible. Audio books are my secret weapon when it comes to getting the housework done. I put on a book, and lose myself in that. The time flies by!
Right now, during the day I’m absorbing Dr Ian Mortimer’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. It’s absolutely fascinating. Did you know that until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the hour as a measure of time didn’t exist in the form we know it today? During the winter time, hours (as measured out by the chimes of church bells) were twice the length of hours in summertime, as there was calculated to be only half as much light.
In the evenings I’m reading a “real” book: Raymond Blanc’s The Lost Orchard. This is Raymond’s personal exploration of fruit, and his experience of growing and using many different varieties. Much as I love listening to stories during the day, there’s nothing like reading a few pages of this in bed at night before settling down to dream of tarte Maman Blanc, or apple pie…
I love reading, but I don’t get much time to sit down and lose myself in a book. If I’m not writing, I’m either working in the garden or cooking. Then there’s the pesky housework, running errands, and appointments, which eat into my reading time. For all those moments, I turn to my mobile.
I use my phone continuously when I’m not working, although I make no more than a dozen calls a year. The rest of the time I’m using my mobile to listen to documentaries, drama, or audio books.
My smartphone might be the latest technology, but it is part of an ancient tradition. This twenty-first century device answers a demand that echoes across millenia.
Tell me a story!
For centuries we’ve enjoyed the feel, the fragrance, and the experience of reading books. Those are only recent pleasures in the history of storytelling. Thousands of years ago, communication between our distant ancestors would have been limited to “That’s mine!”, “Go away!” or “Look out—wild boar!”.
The genius who first thought to turn news of a grisly border dispute into an adventure story, or created a saga out of the search for new hunting grounds kept audiences spellbound around the campfire.
When these stories began to be written down, the tradition of oral storytelling faded into the background but never disappeared completely. The intimacy between speaker and audience is entirely different from the solitary pleasure of reading. In a family like mine, where one or more members have literacy problems, listening to stories is also an enjoyable way to learn.
When I was growing up, we lived with my grandparents. Both my grandfather and father were bookworms. There was neither money nor space for books in our house. Instead, we had the Daily Express and the Bristol Evening Post delivered daily, and both Dad and Grampy were active members of the local library. The Reader’s Digest arrived every month, until—as the old joke went—we were forced to move house to give them the slip.
My grandfather had been a career soldier. That meant he knew how to pick his battles. My grandmother was very house-proud, so to avoid getting underfoot while our home was being cleaned from top to bottom every day, Grampy would retreat into my playpen and read to me.
I assume he began with all the children’s classics. By the time of my earliest memories he had moved on to much more exotic fare. Two stories I remember from well before I started school were James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. After hearing how noisy toddlers were dealt with on the Native American trail, and how sardine-loving Asmodeus ended up being the “cat” in “catapult”, it’s no wonder I was a quiet child.
On my first day at primary school I was excited to hear there would be storytime every afternoon. The worthy exploits of Ant and Bee came as a terrible anticlimax!
I did enjoy some stories aimed at children. Dad read daily instalments of The Adventures of Rupert Bear to me from the newspaper at bedtime every night. Each Christmas my presents included the annuals of both Rupert, and Carl Giles’s cartoons. The GIles book must have been my father’s gift to himself for having to read all those hours and hours of Rupert to me during the rest of the year.
“Daddy! You’ve turned over two pages! And don’t forget to read the lines under the pictures as well, not just the story!”
It’s a wonder I survived.
My mother was a ferocious businesswoman who could calculate any sum, percentage, or yield in her head with amazing speed. In contrast, her reading skills were poor. In order to spot local opportunities she relied on my father reading to her from the newspaper. Once, someone she was keen to impress lent her a copy ofElephant Billby Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Williams. It was the only time I ever saw her with a book in her hands. She struggled with it for a few minutes, then told me to read the book and tell her the story. An audio version would have been perfect in that situation. By the way, if you can get your hands on a copy of Elephant Bill , it’s a great read.
I wrote here abou beginning Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. I’ve finished listening to the twenty-hour long audiobook now, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. If only my teachers at school had combined the talents of Fraser and the Audible version’s narrator Eleanor Bron, I would have managed better than a grade “D” in history!
I found only slight disadvantages to the audiobook version. Some of the phrases in French weren’t provided with a translation. That was annoying, as it pulled me out of the story. Had I been reading a physical book, I could have tapped the words straight into Google translate. With the audio version, no sooner had they been spoken than they disappeared into the air.
That was only a small irritation, as was Antonia Fraser’s constant overuse of the word nevertheless. If I had been reading a physical book I probably wouldn’t have noticed. However, Eleanor Bron must have tired of reading the word early on. She often gave a slight but significant pause before saying it yet again (three times in as many sentences, in one particularly annoying example).
The spoken word has a strength which can’t be contained within the covers of a book. Hearing a text get the human treatment can help with understanding. Listening allows people to enjoy the experience of reading when it isn’t possible to hold a book, or see the text. On the other hand, there’s a particular pleasure in opening the cover of a book and turning pages, inhaling its individual perfume, and enjoying the words at your own pace. Audiobooks will never replace that.
Which do you prefer—a book in your hand, or a word in your ear?
I’m working on a short story at the moment. While I’m writing fiction, I read only nonfiction so I can concentrate on my own plot and characters rather than getting distracted by those of someone else.
The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston encouraged me to guard my writing time. Now I restrict non-writing activities to the afternoons (you can read more about that here). It means I can schedule some reading time every day, and call it research.
I’ve read two books in this way so far this year. As I’m a very slow reader, this is a record and proves the value of The Organised Writer‘s system. True Countryman, by David Cole, is a biography of Tewkesbury author John Moore. A Pocketful of Acorns is a collection of Moore’s articles about country life during the first half of the twentieth century.
You can find out more about both books by clicking on the Amazon links on this page, although my copies came direct from the John Moore Museum shop in Tewkesbury. That meant they were cheaper. Your local library may be able to order the books for you, which would be even better.
John Moore was very much a writer of his time. Some of his comments about his fellow human beings are hair-raising, but his observations of the natural world are faultless, detailed, and absorbing. I particularly loved the way he wrote about his cats. Candy, Duffy, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest all have individual personalities.
For anyone writing fiction set during or around the Second World War, the work of John Moore gives an insight into life and attitudes in a small country town at the time.
I love listening to audio books when I’m doing housework or out in the garden. When it comes to Spring cleaning, I don’t know what I’d do without Audible. At the moment, I’m listening to Marie Antoinetteby Antonia Fraser. It’s fascinating. Crammed with all sorts of details about life in the French court, it quotes a wealth of contemporary sources. If you fancy writing a story set in late eighteenth-century France, this would be great background reading.
Although I’ve only just started Marie Antoinette, it sounds as though she was a lovely girl. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much of an attention span. Combined with an education which concentrated on making her the perfect product for the marriage market, this meant she was graceful, charming…and not too brilliant when it came to literacy.
I couldn’t help thinking that the way Marie Antoinette was on intimate display for much of her life—stripped naked by other aristocrats each morning to be dressed like a human Barbie doll—has a parallel with the lives of celebrities and influencers today. Today, selfies take the place of Grand Toilettes.
In the days before the French Revolution, the difference between rich and poor was enormous. Rising prices today are making life harder, while people who are only famous for being photogenic frolic all over Instagram and reality TV shows. It makes you think.
The works of John Moore are good primary research sources for everyday life in rural England during the twentieth century. Antonia Fraser’s work interprets primary material from the eighteenth century, and also provides a wealth of sources for further study. Both are invaluable as background reading for writers.
Is there a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, that has really helped you understand a period in history?
Remember how exciting it was when Father Christmas left you a new book under the Christmas tree?
If you love to read and you’re a generous soul who likes to give to charity, visit the Children in Read website. Each year Paddy Heron organises an online auction where readers can support the BBC’s Children in Need charity. Bid for a book, and the money goes straight to charity.
Visit the Children in Read site — it’s a great place to pick up Christmas presents, while at the same time making a difference to children’s lives.