In the first of an occasional series, members of the AG team talk about the books they love and are currently reading
When we are not producing excellent magazines and doing some gardening, the AG staff can think of nothing better than settling down with a good book, listening to music or watching television to take our minds off the world outside.
And you’ll be pleased to know that we don’t just read gardening books! This blog post is the first of a series of ‘Desert Island Lockdown favourites’ – reading material, music, television, films, food, flower, artwork and locations are just some of the topics we will be covering over the coming weeks.
We are kicking things off with books, either our favourite reads or what we are reading at the moment. We hope you enjoy our choices and would love to hear yours too. Contact us at email@example.com
The Third policeman by Flann O’Brien
This is the story of a murder, actually two murders, but you don’t know about the second until the end of the book. It is not a murder mystery because the first murder isn’t a mystery and the second comes too late to be a mystery.
This is a comedy, a tragedy, and kaleidoscope of beautifully-written nonsense worthy of Lewis Carroll, Joyce and Kafka combined. Set on a farm in Ireland, our hero is a one-legged (the other is wooden) student of the obscure philosopher De Selby. On the death of his parents he inherits the family farm, which includes a pub and it’s manager John Divney. Our hero spends all his time in the study of De Selby, leaving Divney to run the business.
Just as he has finished his definitive critique of De Selby’s work, he discovers Diveny has squandered away the family business and they are broke. Desperate to find the money to publish his book, our hero and Diveny hatch a plan to rob an old miser called Mathers who lives on a remote farm with a stack of money hidden under the floorboards in a black box. A plan is executed and then the story gets seriously surreal.
There are times when reality is stranger than fiction. The Third Policemen is now regarded as a modern classic and O’Brien’s greatest work. Indeed it is believed by many to be one of the great works of literature and O’Brien to be a superior writer to his friend and fellow countryman James Joyce. However, just like the hero of the story, O’Brien was unable to get the book published in his lifetime.
He tried throughout 1939-40, but was constantly rejected. He told friends that the manuscript had been lost, but unbeknown to everyone it sat on top of the sideboard in his dinning room where he ate lunch every day. And there it stayed until his death in 1966 when it was discovered and finally published in 1967 to great and continuing acclaim.
This book is too beautifully written, funny and insanely intelligent for me to adequately describe. However, I would recommend you read it with an Irish accent.
Garry Coward-Williams, editor
The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I’m a complete magpie when it comes to reading matter, picking up and stashing anything that catches my eye. As a result our bookshelves are lined with everything from Star Wars film manuals to medieval history, thrillers, horror, science fiction, historical fiction, gardening books (obviously!) and comfort reading,
Most of the books that come into the ‘comfort’ category are well-thumbed and dog-earred because I turn to them time and again, like old friends, in times of need.
Right now I’m craving Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, five wonderful books detailing the lives of the middle class Cazalet family from the summer before the Second World War to the mid-1950s.
At its centre are the clan’s imperious patriarch and matriarch The Brig and Duchy, their sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert, daughter Rachel, and their spouses, lovers, friends and staff. From the second generation come their many children and this is where Howard succeeds best, I think. The way the younger characters observe the world and make their way through it is often hilarious, sometimes poignant and occasionally heartbreaking .
The Chronicles weave a rich and evocative thread through the messy, complicated, often mundane business of life, love, betrayal, loss, wartime and the pain of wrong love and fractured friendships. If this makes them sound like typically soft and cloying rom-com/Aga saga reading don’t worry, the stories often have a hard edge that cuts through any saccharine nonsense.
From the opening page of the first novel The Light Years, the Cazalets become your family, your friends, and finishing the final page of the last book, All Change, will leave you bereft and wanting more.
I’m currently reading the incomparable Wilding by Isabella Tree, a wonderful memoir of how the author and her husband returned the barren land around their family estate back to a thriving, nature-rich ecosystem.
Another recommendation is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Duerr, a beautiful, mystic wartime tale of a blind French girl and the German orphan boy who enters her world.
Ruth Hayes, gardening editor
The Kraken Wakes By John Wyndham
I’m not a fan of science fiction, but while watching an episode of Coronation Street last year – I’m a great fan of Coronation Street and EastEnders – I heard someone mention The Midwich Cuckoos. I’m sure it was the character played by Maureen Lipman, but that’s by the by.
Anyway, I looked it up and discovered that it was a book by John Wyndham. I’d heard of the author, as he wrote The Day of the Triffids, so I thought I’d see what it was about. So I bought it, read it – and loved it.
I then found out that Wyndham had written The Kraken Wakes, so I bought that. The book is an apocalyptic science fiction novel first published in 1953.
It’s about how mankind responds to the threat of its own extinction and what it does in order to survive. It starts with fireballs appearing out of the sky and landing in the oceans, ships subsequently disappearing and the discovery of aliens that have landed via these fireballs and set up home underwater. Sea levels rise as the aliens melt the polar ice caps resulting in social collapse.
Who’d have though Coronation Street would lead me to the work of a renowned science-fiction writer – and I’d be reading about the terrifying consequences of a threat to the world at this time…
Lesley Upton, features editor
Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman
We can all learn a lot from the movies of our youth: that’s the message of this fantastically constructed book, a quintessential love letter to a time that some might say taste forgot. The Eighties gets a lot of flack, but what Guardian writer Freeman sets out here is a manifesto for positive living predicated on a ‘golden age of cinema’ for dorks and dreamers.
It’s a celebration of a halcyon age filled with cinematic gems wherein impressionable kids could learn vital lessons about universal themes: friendship, integrity, equality and individuality. Embracing a wealth of cult and mainstream classics, this is a witty, well-researched series of essays that reflect on how key movie creations with spirited heroes and anti-heroes, from engaging everyman Ferris Bueller to the anarchic Ghostbusters, have shaped our psyches.
There are stellar nuggets of movie gossip here as well, like the friction caused by the revised ending of Pretty in Pink, and how Denholm Elliot took on the role of lovable butler Coleman in Trading Places because original choice Ronnie Barker never wanted to work more than 25 miles from home.
Freeman explores the impact of a ridiculous rollcall of comedic and dramatic talent, all with a lightness of touch and conversational gusto that feels like hanging out with a chum who just happens to be a movie buff. With gorgeous insights from the likes of John Landis, Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Molly Ringwald, this is truly instructive reading for modern times.
It’s also a lovely reminder of the power of nostalgia – to say nothing of the humour and heart that can get us through crazy days like these, and give us fresh perspectives on ourselves and our lockdown buddies. In the words of time-hopping metalhead slackers Bill and Ted: ‘Be excellent to each other’.
Janey Goulding, assistant editor
Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols
If you are green-fingered, love cats and are amused by eccentricity then you will enjoy this book.
Merry Hall is an entertaining and charming story, written in the 1950s, about the author’s love for his new garden and pets.
The book describes his move to his much longed-for property, a Georgian manor house, and its acres of garden and enviable veg patch. The retained gardener Oldfield plays a leading role despite being a man of few words, his wisdom can be relied upon even if he is set in his ways.
Nichols regularly spurns the attentions of his annoying neighbours, who including Rose the flower arranger and Miss Emily, a friend of the previous owner. Nichols fears the pair just want to get their hands on his vegetables and has witty and quite strong opinions about the pair, so be prepared for that.
Mixed in with the narrative is plenty of practical advice about growing shrubs and bulbs, all of which is quite interesting some 60 years later.
This very special book was introduced to me by my late grandma Anne Spouge who read the book at least 10 times and used to quote from it regularly. Merry Hall has become a family favourite and now several members have their own copy.
Once started it’s one of those books that you can’t put down, in fact, I need to dust it off and read it again.
Some readers may be familiar with another of the author’s works called Down the Garden Path … which will be next on my reading list.
Wendy Humphries, letters editor
We are here for you
Although many people are coping well with self-isolation, others are really struggling and feeling completely forgotten and alone.
Here at AG we are doing our best to keep connected to our readers though the magazine, this website and also through social media.
Our gardening ‘agony uncle’ John Negus is also still working hard. Send him your problems and questions, with pictures if you can, and he will get back to you with an answer withing 24 hours, as he has been doing for decades. Contact him using the AG email address at firstname.lastname@example.org
We already have thriving Facebook page but are also on Twitter and Instagram. These sites are a brilliant way of chatting to people, sharing news, information, pictures and just saying hello – we will get back to you as soon as we can.
Best of all, as gardeners are generally lovely folk, more interested in plants, hedgehogs, tea and cake than political shenanigans and point-scoring, so the chat is friendly and welcoming.
So please drop by, follow us, ‘like’ our posts and say hello – the Instagram feed is in it’s really early days so the quicker we can get that going with your help and support, the better!
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And while you’re there, give someone you know or love a call. They might be feeling low and lonely and hearing from you will make their day. Happy gardening!