When I was young and naive, and a novice journalist, I wrote an article in a woman’s magazine which began:’ I got most of my education under the bed-clothes’, and went on to discuss children’s reading. Some wag must have been reading his wife’s copy, and the clipping appeared on the office notice-board amid crude male guffaws. Thank you chaps, I got the message! Not a quick learner, but I got there in the end!
Reading under the bed – clothes was the refuge of a child who was sent to bed at seven o clock every night, and allowed to read for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! When I got older, and had more homework bed was set back to seven thirty, but the fifteen minute reading restriction still applied. Only a non-reader could have stipulated this ridiculous time limit, so under the bed clothes it was. When I had no torch I knelt for hours, freezing in my night clothes squinting to read by the crack of light under the door from the hall light.
Occasionally I tried the loo or the bathroom, but this was risky, as books aren’t easily hidden by a skinny child under a thin nightie. When I was fourteen I picked up Jane Eyre in the library. It exploded into my consciousness. I felt dazed and obsessed by the strange, compelling self-centred story. I could think of nothing else. I read it over and over again. I read it under the desk at school, in the bus and on the train, and of course, in bed.
Once the parents had gone to bed, I switched my light on with impunity, and read until I had finished Jane Eyre, and then started ‘Villette’, by which time it was heading for five o clock in the morning. Since I had to get up at six to cook my breakfast and catch the school bus at seven am, it seemed safer to stay awake, and soldier on. And having done it once, and finding it was possible to keep going without sleep, I quite often sacrificed my sleep for a good book after that.
Boarding school was tricky, but once again, there was always the bathroom. When I left home and became my own master, reading in bed became one of my favourite pastimes. Mostly literature and poetry in those palmy days. And usually then I had a bowl of apples to munch meditatively as the hours went by, or better still, a bar of chocolate. Sometimes decadence overcame me and I had a glass of lemonade. Marriage and motherhood dished all that of course, and reading in bed became a distant remembered pleasure.
But in the last few years since my husband’s snores have become so loud they wake me even when I’m sleeping in another room, we’ve taken a page out of the Royal Family’s domestic habits, and now sleep in separate rooms. This means I can read without disturbing him, and I’ve raised this noble pastime to a fine art.
Usually three books go to bed with me… something that I call mental knitting, a relaxing series like Georgette Heyer, (a much under-rated, very funny, witty and clever writer) or other light-hearted books like the hilarious Adrian Mole Diaries, or ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’. Georgette Heyer is sort of Jane Austen lite – but the blessed Jane is also a regular companion, along with the Thomas Hardy’s, George Eliot’s, Anthony Trollope’s, to re-read for the sheer pleasure of enjoying their writing again. In theory too, because I know the story, I kid myself I won’t be tempted to read too late. But that is a false premise. And as CS Lewis said, ‘I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.’
And then there’s the third category – those which are on the go, sometimes a new novel – Barbara Kingsilver at the moment, but not many of those – a biography, a history, a diary. And for real relaxation I sink into nature journals, often a classic like Flora Thompson’s: ‘Lark Rise at Candleford’ … Annie Dillard, Henry Beston or Ronald Lockley… mostly accounts of gentle, unpolluted country life.
But reading in bed isn’t just books. The bed matters too… preferably by the window… in summer with cool white linen- cotton blend sheets that have a silky feel, in winter comforting coloured flannelette to match the duvet. Pillows – plenty of them, to lean back on and others to support the elbows. Electric blanket a must in cold weather… I use it a bit like the hot tap in the bath… whenever it seems a bit chill, I switch it on until the bed is like toast again, and then prudently switch off again until the next time.
In summer, there’s the bliss of going to bed in day-light, knowing you have hours in front of you before dusk creeps up, before finally switching on the light. In winter, lamps on, curtains pulled, wood fire still burning in the sitting room to keep the house warm for when I emerge to make a cup of tea. And the bed, pyjamas warmed under the bed clothes on the electric blanket, cosy sheets and pillow slips, red mohair rug edged with wine-red satin, and a stash of peppermints to slowly chew as I turn the pages. No sounds, just the murmur of the soft sea, a distant owl, and occasionally a scuffle on the roof as a possum scrambles across. The sound of rain on the roof is good too.
The art of reading in bed is a silent, sybaritic, solitary joy and has nothing to do with going to sleep. It has everything to do with the pleasure of reading, frequently to the detriment of sleep. So I have to confess, in the words of L.M.Montgomery that : ‘I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.’
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Running out of inspiration, I took an organic free range chicken out of the deep freeze, and after de-frosting it slowly in the fridge for two days, stuffed it with a pierced lemon and put it on to steam. After an hour and three quarters, I placed around it in the steamer, new potatoes, carrots, leeks, small onions and parsnips.
When the chicken is ready so are the vegetables. I usually make a parsley sauce to serve with this, but didn’t feel like a heavy floury sauce, so instead chopped garlic cloves very finely, sauted them in butter, and added a vegetarian oxo cube and cream. I boiled and stirred until it was thickened, and added lots of chopped parsley. It turned out rather well. The bonus of steaming is a wonderful chicken stock, as the chicken juices drip into the boiling water beneath the steamer. More on that next time!
Food for Thought
Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to re-tell it, to re-think it, deconstruct it, joke about it and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
Sir Salman Rushdie – famous Indian writer, educated in England, lives in America, and winner of many prizes and honours.