Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford friend Harold Acton, immortalised as Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, once bumped into the wife of John Beazley, a lecturer in ancient Greek pottery, while she was exercising their pet goose in Christ Church’s Tom Quad. Hopping over the bird, Acton intuitively doffed his hat. Here, Marie Beazley declared, was ‘a true gentleman’. Mrs Beazley was famous in academic circles for her unpredictable remarks.
Anne Tyler’s 24th novel French Braid opens in 2010 in Philadelphia train station. We find the teenage Serena, who has the ‘usual Garrett-family blue’ eyes, with her boyfriend James, waiting for a train back to Baltimore, where they’re at university together. Serena runs into her cousin Nicholas – although she’s not certain it’s him – and doesn’t seem especially keen to speak to him. There’s an awkward meeting; then Serena and James go to catch their train.
Remember ashtrays in cars? Soon cars will themselves become objects of wet-eyed nostalgic reverie. A thrilling era of propelling ourselves, while gassing others, via a series of explosions more or less constrained by gears, steering devices and friction materials, is coming to an end. Enjoy that very loud Porsche while you can. It will soon be illegal.
The great fascination of the car resides not in engineering or technology but in semantics and emotions.
Once upon a time there was a collection of stories that everybody loved. They involved brave heroes such as Perseus and Theseus defeating fearful monsters like Medusa and the Minotaur. Sometimes they used ingenious gadgets to achieve their goals, a bit like James Bond with his exploding pen. Sometimes they were helped by women who took a fancy to them.
Some, like Icarus, failed. Others succeeded but still came to a sticky end – like Oedipus, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx but also killed his dad and married his mum.
If vivid, drily hilarious tales about messy families stuffed with passive aggression and seething resentment are your thing, you will gleefully hoover up Charlotte Mendelson’s riotous, prize-winning novels. These buzzing sagas dissect dysfunctional relationships with spiky wit and remarkable acuity.
The Exhibitionist is as good as any of her previous books. Ray Hanrahan is a failed artist who once glimpsed mild critical approbation before lapsing into obscurity.
Take a walk in the English countryside and you get the impression that little has changed. The churches and farmhouses, the hedgerows and footpaths – much of this has been preserved for centuries. However, as Matthew Green argues in Shadowlands, there is also a history of lost towns and abandoned villages hidden beneath the tranquil surface. His book tells the stories of eight such places, as well as the disasters that led to their disappearance, offering a phantom history of Britain through vanished settlements and forgotten occupants.
Caught outside at the start of a raid in the Belfast Blitz as the incendiary bombs rain down, Audrey looks up at the sky, transfixed by its eerie beauty. She watches ‘the first magnesium flares falling, bursting into incandescent light, hanging there over the city like chandeliers’. It is the sort of thing you never forget, she thinks, ‘not in a lifetime’.
This scene in These Days, by the Northern Irish writer Lucy Caldwell, brilliantly captures familiar territory for anyone who has read about the Blitz.