Contributor: Claire Richards
“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” — W. Somerset Maugham
“I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go into the library and read a good book.” — Groucho Marx
I’ve always found comfort and escape in reading. Like Lucy Mangan, whose Bookworm was cathartic, I spent much of my childhood with ‘my nose in a book’. My sporty family despaired. Why on earth would I want to idle hours away in a corner, ruining my eyes? I read anything and everything: stories set in boarding schools or fantasy lands, about tomboys, good girls, plucky boys or ponies. I, a cowardly child, became them all. I was Enid Blyton’s George shinning up a rope and Julian daringly confronting the villain.
Last April, soon after the start of lockdown, I injured my back. ‘Keep on the move,’ my doctor advised, so friends suggested I try audiobooks… What a revelation! What a snob I’d been about how I ‘read’. How much I’d missed! The first book I listened to – recommended by an admirably wise and intelligent woman – was Robert Harris’s Conclave. Narrated by Roy McMillan with exactly the right tone and pace, I was riveted.
I always feel better after delving into Jane Austen’s world, so next I (re)turned to Mansfield Park. I hadn’t bargained on the power of Juliet Stevenson’s narration to create a whole new hierarchy of detail. In Fanny’s censorious judgement of Mary to Edmund, say, is Austen revealing more than Fanny’s ‘good worth’? After all, doesn’t Fanny want Edmund for herself? Confined by our own lockdown, surely we can understand Maria’s desire to escape Sotherton by climbing over that iron gate. Yet, although beguiling, her antics ultimately destroy Maria, whilst cautious Fanny’s need for safety brings happiness close to home.
Still, with Edmund settling for a woman he doesn’t love passionately, something was missing. So I turned to Persuasion. How had I never realised it’s Austen’s most romantic text? Anne’s rivals for Wentworth’s affection, albeit younger, are not in her league for looks or intelligence. For Anne, who doesn’t have her eye on a Pemberley, true love conquers all – time, separation, misunderstanding, even understandings; genuine kindness, patience and loyalty prevail. And for us, separated now from those we love, isn’t that what we, too, hope for, what we always hope for?
I’ve long been drawn to the sense of closure in thrillers and detective stories, something even more appealing in these uncertain times. I listened to Sisters (Michelle Frances), reassured that the sisters eventually come together in a satisfying epilogue after the real criminal meets her end. I loved The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Its retirement village setting adds poignancy, partly because the talent and valuable experience of ‘the elderly’ can be celebrated, but also because the pandemic has so cruelly targeted them. ‘There are people here who could take you apart and put you back together again,’ declares former trade union leader Ron somewhat melodramatically, but he makes the point. As Captain Sir Tom Moore proved, we need them. Let us not underestimate them.
And films and television? Have they provided the refuge I’ve found in a ‘good book’? As always, it depends on the text. Channel 4’s series It’s a Sin by Russell T Davies was shocking and heart-wrenchingly tragic in its portrayal of the homophobia and cruel loss of life to the plague of AIDS in the 1980s. Through the power of its drama, there is a message that desperately needs to be heard now more than ever.
And then there was Life on Mars, recommended by a dear friend and creator of this blog. Isolated and alienated from those he loves, the hero, Sam, finds himself in a dystopian world of violence, sexism, homophobia and racism, a 1970s cop show world where ‘doing things by the book’ is scorned. Like many a dystopia, we see aspects of it today. Sam navigates his world with compassion and often a quiet and understated determination. Ultimately, the power of human connection and love has the last word. We can but hope…