at any time of stress or transition I revert to factory settings and disappear into a book. and I’m not talking Iain Banks, at this particular moment.

the following books are literary versions of a cup of warm milk. top tip, blog reader: do not Google images for ‘hot milk’. apparently there is a subset of humankind who particularly appreciate images of heavily pregnant women in scanty underwear. ha ha ha. in my pregnancies I would have needed Jerry Cottle’s largest tent to meet those criteria. oh, and you would have required a new arm to replace the one of yours I had torn off in my hormonal fury at the mere suggestion of such a thing…where was I? oh yes…

I was thinking up this post on my run this morning. the fact that I can write reviews for these books without picking them up tells you something about how many times I have read the following:

anything at all by Elizabeth Goudge. ideally in a 1940’s hardback copy with original dust jacket, complete with reviews by such bygone newspapers as ‘The Methodist Recorder’. this is what my copy of ‘A City of Bells’ looks like:

I am particularly fond of this story because it is set in the town of Torminster, which is based upon a real-life English cathedral town which I know well. its hero is a soldier returning wounded from the Boer War, who finds new hope (and love, of course) in his new career as bookshop keeper. in the process he also acquires an adopted daughter, Henrietta, and son, Hugh Anthony. I feel about bookshops in much the same way as Holly Golightly felt about Tiffany’s. especially second-hand bookshops. there are several I know where I would be quite happy to have my ashes scattered in due course – and where a little more dust would go quite unremarked…

here’s an extract (obviously I have retrieved the book now!) about Henrietta:

‘And the essence of Henrietta was a dreamer of dreams. Her mind was not enquiring, like Hugh Anthony’s, but it was intensely appreciative. She noticed that certain things were lovely and she stored them in her memory, taking them out later and fastening them together to make a dream, as a woman will embroider a posy of flowers with coloured silks. Later on in her life, when she grew up, she realised that dreams cannot be hoarded selfishly in the mind, lying piled one upon the other, getting dog-eared and faded, but must be generously spilt out into the world, and she learnt how to paint her dreams with a brush on canvas so that other people say them too… But Henrietta the famous artist was still far in the future, her powers guessed at by no one except Gabriel Ferranti, the man who had lived in the house with the green door.’

ah yes. Gabriel Ferranti. although her books are full of glowing depictions of the England she loved, Goudge also includes the darker side of people’s lives – despair, ugliness, cruelty and ignorance – but they dwell alongside characters of ineffable goodness, like Grandfather:

‘The curves of his person did not suggest either indolence or laziness, they suggested rather a tolerant mind and a large heart, and his round, rosy face bore the unmistakable stamp of personal control and austerity, a stamp that is like clarity in the atmosphere, a thing that you cannot describe but only rejoice in.’

‘The Once and Future King’ by T H White (not to be confused with E B White!)

my copy of this book has my maiden name written inside it in girlish writing, so has been with me on all my travels for the last thirty years. if you haven’t read it, you cannot perhaps conceive a version of the story of King Arthur and his court that brings them vividly to life as flawed human beings, rather than glove puppets of good and evil. it is the book upon which the 1963 animated film, The Sword in the Stone, was based.

Here he is on Lancelot:

‘If it is difficult to explain about Guenever’s love for two men at the same time, it is almost impossible to explain about Lancelot. At least it would be impossible nowadays, when everybody is so free from superstitions and prejudice that it is only necessary for all of us to do as we please. Why did not Lancelot make love to Guenever, or run away with his hero’s wife altogether, as any enlightened man would do today?…..

….firstly, his Church, in which he had been brought up, directly forbade him to seduce his best friend’s wife….

….Another stumbling block to doing as he pleased was the very idea of chivalry or civilisation which Arthur had first invented and then introduced into his own young mind…

…finally, there was the impediment of his nature. In the secret parts of his peculiar brain, those unhappy and inextricable tangles which he felt at the roots, the boy was disabled by something which we cannot explain. He could not have explained either, and it is all too long ago. He loved Arthur and he loved Guenever and he hated himself. The best knight of the world: everybody envied the self-esteem which must surely be his. But Lancelot never believed he was good or nice. Under the grotesque, magnificent shell with a face like Quasimodo’s, there was shame and self-loathing which had been planted there when he was tiny, by something which it is now too late to trace. It is so fatally easy to make young children believe they are horrible.’

I chose that last extract because after having this book in my life for so long, and knowing little about the author, have just read in the Wikipedia entry for him that T H White was the son of a alcoholic father and an ’emotionally frigid’ mother, and that he never formed relationships, had no life partner, and drank heavily himself in his later years. so, so sad. bloody, bloody booze.

moving swiftly back to cosy, now, with:

The Gentle Art of Domesticity, by Jane Brocket

and the sugar levels soaring here, both literally and figuratively. Jane extols the ‘gentle arts’ of baking, sewing, knitting, gardening and quilting. I found her blog first – this book, based on her blog, came out in 2007 which seems a lifetime ago – and I was delighted by her portrayals of colour and pattern. the book is a procession of short essays and vibrant photographs, recipes and musings:

here she is talking about her quilts:

‘When I started making my quilts I had several objectives in mind. One was to play with fabrics, patterns and colours. The other was to quilt comfort. I’ve been asked what I do with all my quilts and the answer is: use them. They are on beds, chairs and settees. We throw them over sick children, cold feet and empty spaces. The children lie on them, my husband uses them as extra pillows, and the hamster is cuddled in his very own Hamster Quilt. And there is no sight lovelier and more gratifying than a child reading a book under a home-made quilt, cosy and oblivious to the world.’

so, I am wrapping myself in the familiar and comfortable, like a child under a quilt. and tonight thanks to the inspiration of the internet there may even be some warm milk flavoured with cardamom and honey….

sweet dreams, sober friends! 91 days to go.

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