The Scary Bitches Book and Baking Club

So, I was out for lunch with friends last weekend, just after running my first 10k and shortly after driving my car into the back of a van on the way. It was a busy day. The 10k sucked but I made it, no one was hurt in the accident and no real damage done to either vehicle. On to lunch, which was at the fabulous Seven Stars in Dinton and over the breaded camembert we fell to discussing whether or not I should start a book club in the village.

The back story is that, having lived here for a couple of years, I still don’t know anyone in the village. This is due to me not having kids or a dog or going to church, and the village not having a pub or a shop. I found out there’s a book club and asked to join, but they’re already over-subscribed and there’s a waiting list. The friendly book club member suggested I could start a second book club by advertising in the parish newsletter.

S said ‘You should totally do that and I’d join and you could bake as well!’

I’m considering the idea, but a book club isn’t just a matter of getting a few people together to discuss books. It has to be the right people, talking about the right books at the right level for the right amount of time. It is not pouring a mahoosive glass of Chardonnay and regaling everyone with what little Crispin got up at his private day nursery and then explaining that you didn’t make it to the end of the 250 page pot boiler but you’re definitely going to soon, so ‘No spoilers, m’kay?!’

Most of the right book club people I know selfishly stayed behind in America when I moved back to England, but apparently there’s this thing you can do called ‘meeting new people’. Sounds weird and suspicious to me and I’m not clear on the vetting process. Of course, you can’t just accept anyone to join a book club, but what level of interview is considered appropriate? Multipage questionnaire, or is it ok to send a SurveyMonkey link? Is it de rigeur or faux pas to request that submissions be accompanied by a photo of the bookshelves and a copy of the TBR list?

Vexing questions indeed. Meanwhile, at least we have a book club name, and some rules:

  1. Read the book, bitch.
  2. Have a fucking opinion.

I’m not sure this will go down well with the parish newsletter.

In search of tea

Can one get nostalgic for a past one hasn’t experienced? I expect there’s a German word for it.  I know the pre and post war periods weren’t really romantic, but I’ve read a couple of historical novels in succession. This has made me think how lovely it would be to live in a little flat in Bloomsbury, earning a living from doing a bit of typing, and then toasting crumpets over the fire for tea.

Or, one could run up to London for a treat, properly dressed in gloves and a hat, and pop to one’s marvelous little dressmaker for a fitting. I expect some charming chap would take one for lunch before going back to his office. So you’d have time for afternoon tea with a friend, before changing for cocktails, dinner and dancing at the latest club. Oh, you must have heard about it, darling, everyone’s going there.

I always think the Lyons Corner House sounded like a wonderful institution, the perfect place to collapse and unburden oneself of the string-tied parcels. Always somewhere to get tea and a bun for a few shillings, and I bet the waitress brought more hot water as a matter of course. I’m sure it wasn’t always very good tea and that the buns weren’t always very fresh, but at least it was table service and you could sit down.

That’s what London needs, I think. After a few hours pottering around on Saturday, I had my one small bag of purchases, a new book and tired feet. Obscurely feeling that if I drifted off the main highway, I might find a proper tea room, or at least a Pret with some empty seats, I carried on walking. The vision in my head was for just such a welcoming establishment as I imagine Lyons to have been. I wasn’t looking for the full on three tier cake stand and silver teapot experience, just somewhere that might do a decent cuppa.

No such luck, of course, and I ended up in one branch of an indistinguishable coffee chain, but which at least had a spare table and a friendly barista. I paid the best part of a fiver for one teabag in a pot, and a muffin that I watched being taken out of the plastic wrapping. Either it wasn’t baked on premises, or they take food hygiene very seriously indeed. The cafe was thriving, though: people meeting to chat, some taking a break from shopping, someone else reading and taking notes. I was left undisturbed for an hour while I read.

Was Lyons the mediocre, oh it’ll do option of its day?

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

This is another book I was introduced to by Short Stories Aloud, and I bothered to get this one signed. Antonia Honeywell was charming and seemed genuinely excited to be at the event, meeting readers and introducing her first novel. And so she should be, because it’s very good and I look forward to the next one.

(Also, what kind of great name is Antonia Honeywell? It would be a waste of it not to be some kind of artist.)

The Ship is set in a future that doesn’t necessarily seem so terribly far away.  Economies, countries, law and order have collapsed, leaving Anna, Paul and their daughter Lalage (Lally) living mostly in their London flat where they are safe(ish) from the want and disorder of the streets. But the situation is getting worse: the homeless who’ve created a tent city in the park are bombed; citizens have to register and re-register their identity cards, the only fragile marker of legitimacy, to get food and stay alive. Lally remembers birthday meals that have shrunk from roast chicken to, finally, a shared tin of spaghetti hoops.

While the world continues to spiral, Paul has been preparing for his family’s survival by acquiring, resourcing and peopling the ship. It’s a huge liner, and he has hand-picked 500 people to live on it, along with all the food, clothes, amenities, games, activities they might want for a long future ahead. The new community has been living in a holding pen for years, because Anna refuses to leave while she continues to hope that in fact life in London will improve. Finally, a crisis is provoked and Paul sets in motion the departure of the ship, sailing off into a new way of living for all aboard.

He’s built a utopia for Lally, but as he is hailed as the Father for his special, saved few, Lally alone remains ungrateful. Despite the evident vast size of the ship, it’s claustrophobic (although as I’ve always thought a cruise ship would be hell on toast, that could just be me). Lally’s companions eagerly turn their backs on both their varied, haunted pasts and the horrors of the news, to focus on a now that they’ve been convinced is their destination. They have certainty: that they can do meaningful work in keeping the ship running, the children educated, the food cooked. Their needs are met, from football to pianos to embroidery silks.  Lally alone continues to question and to search for a direction, for both the ship and herself. The only flaw in Paul’s plan to protect and educate his daughter is Lally herself.  With a ship full of people willing to love her, she won’t let herself be loved.

It’s a deft and though provoking novel, asking big questions: is ease and certainty for a few worth the loss to the many? Should, or can, someone be happy in a constrained, finite present with no thought to the future? Paul is a convincing, charismatic figure but he may be peddling no more than bread and circuses, and it’s not enough for Lally. In the end, she makes a different choice, for life rather than what she thinks of as a living death.