I don’t want to call this a challenge, or even worse a meme (do you remember when we all did those back in the day?), yet I am thinking that this could be a fun exercise if you lovely lot would like to join in. What the funk am I talking about, well you would be right to ask as once more I assume you dear reader/s get updates from me telepathically. Enough waffle Savidge, just get on with it. So as some of you will know I host/co-host a couple of book based banter podcasts; You Wrote The Book, Hear… Read This and The Readers. My normal co-host for the latter, Gav, is having some time off and so I have been joined by the lovely Thomas and seeing as Thomas is in Washington we have been looking at America and the UK, or even America vs. the UK. A fortnight ago we discussed American classics and I came up with the idea of both Thomas and myself creating two separate lists of the ten books that sum up our countries for us and ones we would give to someone if they moved to their country to ‘read up on it’. So I thought you lot might like to join in…
Initially I have to admit that I thought this would be stupidly easy. The British Isles are relatively piddly in comparison to the mammoth size of other countries. I didn’t envy Thomas and his 50 states to cover in ten books. As I thought about it more and more though I suddenly realised it was actually much more of a mission than I had supposed. For a start we had agreed to only have authors from our own counties books. So instantly one of my choices ‘The Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks was discounted, as it is set in Eyam (the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and self sacrifice itself to save others) which is just down the road from my home town in Derbyshire but she is from America. First hurdle.
Second Hurdle. I wanted the book to reflect a current vision of the British Isles, as I went through my shelves I was surprised (especially as I think I don’t like them, clearly I am a liar to myself) how many of the British Isles books I owned were about WWI or WWII. This then meant a book like Sarah Water’s ‘The Night Watch’, which depicts war torn London, was therefore banished. However eventually I got there, though I have since realised I missed Edward Hogan’s bloody brilliant ‘The Human Trace’ out of it, and found my eleven books – yes I cheated a tiny bit with an additional novel, but I made this game up. I wonder if Mr Monopoly ever tried that at Christmas gatherings, anyway here it is with the book title, author, place and mini summary for you…
The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy (London) – Set in Loughborough Junction in South London, this is the tale Robert, owner of a dry cleaners, as he says goodbye to his business and the area he knows. It also looks at the customers who come, from all walks of life, to his shop and the little things they leave behind that they forget yet which tell many a tale.
The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Birmingham) – Frank is a local news presenter and personality. Recently he has become rather obsessed both with the people and the places of his city that others seem to forget. What about all the people with no one to care for them, who die alone and what of the bits of our cities architectural and cultural heritage are we all too quick to gloss over or tear down and cover with something prettier?
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (Norfolk) – Not officially set in Norfolk, that is just my guess, this is the tale of Arthur Kipp as he settles the eerie estate of Eel Marsh House and Alice Drablow. A book which wonderfully conjures the atmosphere of some of Britain’s coastal villages, and the literary heritage of a cracking good ghost story.
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (Edinburgh) – Possibly not the most evocative tale of Scotland but this is something I clearly need to address. This is set during Edinburgh’s famous festival and really brings the hustle and bustle of that place to life as well as being a great crime novel with a very good sense of black humour, you will laugh.
The Long Falling by Keith Ridgway (Northern Ireland) – Grace Quinn is a woman deeply unhappy living in the rural wilds of the North Irish countryside. However after a turn of events (which will make your jaw drop) she heads to Dublin and the home of her son. Ridgway looks at the differences between city life and rural life in Northern Ireland and also the differences between the generations.
The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall (The Lake District) – One of the most ‘earthy’ books I have ever read, yet if you asked me to explain the term ‘earthy’ I would find it very hard to explain. Set in the infamous heat wave of the 1970’s Spencer Little is a stranger who settles in a village in the middle of nowhere, but why? A tale of suspicious townsfolk and one which also lifts the lid on the secrets behind closed doors, especially as the heat makes people do unusual things.
The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough (Wales) – Set in the Welsh Countryside this tells the story of two very different neighbouring farms and the sons of which who make friends. One, Robin, from a hippy family the other, Andrew, from a family so impoverished he is almost feral – why does he choose to sleep with the farm dogs rather than his family?
Agatha Raisin & The Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton (The Cotswolds) – A bit of light relief amongst these books with the no nonsense former PR Director now come amateur sleuth as she moves from London to the idyllic Cotswolds only sometimes people don’t welcome an outsider… Murder and mayhem ensue in the most wry and cosy of mysteries with a thoroughly modern Anti-Marple.
Rough Music by Patrick Gale (Cornwall) – A book that celebrates Cornwall and also a sense of everyone’s nostalgia from younger years. We follow Julian back to a fateful summer holiday in Cornwell which leads to many family secrets being revealed and how we see things differently as adults.
My Policeman by Bethan Roberts (Brighton) – Going back in time a little and looking at the place no deemed the gay capital of England, and a celebrated seaside resort, when it had a much more underground and shady sense of place. We follow Marion and Tom who are both in love with the same man and how society at the time informs their decisions and their lives.
Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Great Britain all over) – My slight cheat as I think this book, which travels all over England and Scotland, really looks at English society from the 80’s which is very similar to today and the real sense of what it is to grow up working class in our country rather than the often emphasised ‘Hampstead’ view.
So there you have it, that is my list of books that encapsulate the British Isles for me. I know that Thomas is working on his list of ten books which as soon as it goes live I will link to, its is now live here. I can say I have read two of them (one a major hit, one a bit of a dud with me) and am really excited about trying all of them. In the meantime you can hear us talking about them on this fortnight’s episode of The Readers.
What do you think of the list? I know it might not be the most conventional but to me it seems the truest for me personally. Which of them have you read? Who fancies giving this a go themselves? I would so, so, so love if some of you did be you in the UK, America, Australia, Japan, Canada, India, France… anywhere, and spread the word. Basically have whirl, over a few days (it took me four) and link back to it here so I can come and have a nosey, go on, you know you want to…