Tuesday, 12 May 2020


Long-distance bedtime stories - preferred reading in Johannesburg
Reading aloud has always been one of my great pleasures - from childhood, when I pursued the fleeing members of my family with yet another story I'd just composed myself, through years of reading to my own children, and now the grandchildren. And in a week which has been harder than most, this lovely message came through from my daughter, now reading to her 6 month old son:

'Reading to him is one of my favourite things to do, it feels as much an act of mothering as feeding or changing him, and it makes me think of you and how you read to me until I was at least 10. I hope one day I will have the strength to read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings (complete with voices) to Cian.'

To be truthful, I think it was The Hobbit I read aloud (several times) and not the whole of The Lord of the Rings. There are more than enough voices in The Hobbit to keep a reader on her toes - I still have  memories of a small, critical voice interrupting, 'That's not an orc, that's an elf!'

Good lockdown occupation - and location
Anyway, what better time for reading aloud than right now? And for doing jigsaws, and having the time to catch up with old friends? Thank god for the modern technology that keeps us connected with far-flung family and friends. Last week's highlights were a 40-strong international Zoom to celebrate Councillor Kate's birthday, and a bedtime story for two grandchildren in Johannesburg - and their parents - all tucked up in bed together.

It's also been a great time for listening (preferably while doing a jigsaw) to music, to podcasts, to radio; to the wonderful, much-missed Ulster Orchestra (#UOLetsPlayAtHome) and all the others who have been doing so much to keep us all sane. Suzy Klein's 3-part Tunes for Tyrants on the BBC is also brilliant: a master-class in how to deal with the horrors of history in a civilised, informative and endlessly entertaining way. Charlie and his Orchestra (a Nazi secret propaganda weapon) playing 'Boom! Why did my ship go boom? (Boom diddly boom...') and Irving Berlin's 'Let's Go Slumming' transformed into 'Let's Go Shelling' have to be heard to be believed.

Most of all I'm grateful for books. My darling daughter in London (the one who practises permanent social-media-distancing - you won't find her on Facebook) sent me Neil Gaiman's preferred version of Neverwhere, and nothing could have taken me away from the present more effectively. Now I'm reading Anne Patchett's The Dutch House - an engrossing take on the wicked stepmother story that has me so involved I want to climb into the pages and kill the woman, and it's beautifully written to boot. Incidentally, the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People is, for me, so much better than the book: well worth watching and perfectly cast.)

It's 9 weeks now since we went into lock-down, and what I miss most are my family, my cat, my friends and my hairdresser, in that order. By the time I get back into circulation I'm going to feel (and look) like a creature from another planet: But then, we're all going to look a bit odd, especially the ones who've been cutting their own hair...

In the meantime, I'm grateful for a house full of books, and most especially for all the good wine that Gloom had the presence of mind to stock up on for future celebrations. In view of the prevailing hazards, we can't be sure how many more books and bottles we're going to get through, but we're going to do our level best...

Another bottle gone...

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