Au reservoir, how tarsome.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Every other term or so at University, my mother would fly in from Belgium bearing gin, duty free Marlboro, tins and tins of sardines and eye make-up remover. Somehow, this was always exactly what I needed and I would take a train from Durham to Newcastle to meet her and get the loot. This had the dual advantage of keeping her away from the shocking pigsties I inhabited (knowing she'd do tidying and washing and uncover god only knows what under the silt of squalour) and the awful possibility that I might have to introduce her to any boys whose names escaped me (or more likely, those whom my name escaped).

Anyway, we also used to go to the huge bookshop near Grey's Monument. My mother has always encouraged us to read widely and voraciously, replacing Enid Blyton with Jane Austen early on, a literary sleight of hand for which I will always be grateful. Browsing round, I'd give her edited highlights of my debauched existence; she no doubt reading between the lines and shuddering. A constant theme was how much work I had to do, having stupidly agreed to read dull and difficult modern languages instead of wonderful, fascinating English Lit. So it was probably out of guilt and a desire to provide some light relief that she suggested I try the EF Benson Mapp and Lucia series. It became a lovely tradition; every other term we'd meet up, catch up and go and choose another book and somehow I still have them all.

One chapter and I was hooked for life. Almost 25 years on, they are as fresh to me as a not-so-young mummy as they were to a cosmopolitan-if-not-sophisticated 18-year old. They chart the rises and falls and rises again of Elizabeth Mapp and her arch-rival Lucia. Set in English towns in the 1920s, these six little books have travelled a long life with me. Their sherbert-coloured spines are soft and frayed; the elegant line drawings on the front faded by desert suns. The inhabitants therein are as familiar as my own family; their petty jealousies, triumphs, pranks, plots and scheming a constant backdrop to my years in exile. I travelled with the social climbing mayoress, quaint lesbian painters, patriotically-divided padre and card-playing, gin-swilling major for decades.

Lucia, for whom we named our graceful Weimeraner, is best friends with Georgie, confirmed bachelor and collector and fervent polisher of bibelots. They mess about on the piano swooning at Mozart and pretend to speak Italian to each other; both pissing off and making jealous the bossy, dumpy Elizabeth. Their adventures are secondary - what I love is the dangerous stilletto-like writing; the spare cruelty with which Benson sketches and dispatches pretensions and snobbery.

Our Lucia, like EF Benson's, is haughty and of impeccable lineage. Watching her stalk her prey with elegant, single-minded ruthlessness is like seeing a character come to life. We were going to get a small, yappy West Highland terrier and call her Mapp. She, like her literary namesake, wouldn't have stood a chance.

If you can't be arsed to turn pages (and God knows we all have those days), watch the stories on dvd. I think the Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne triumvirate is as close to heaven-on-a-freezing-February-afternoon as you can get. Large gin and sardines-on-toast and you're there.


  1. Ooh lovely. Am as you know currently on a book hunt. I whiled away so many hours as a girl reading Georgette Heyer, I have nothing but love for English literature, real or faux. Which is the first one? I must read them in order.

  2. Queen Lucia, though I started with Lucia in London with no ill effects.

  3. Fabulous.. thank you...Will get the DVD for me and the books for daughter who I am delighted to say, takes up her place in Durham University in September. One proud mother. And yes, will probably meet her in Newcastle too, as I KNOW for sure that her room will be a complete pigsty!

  4. I remember that lovely bookshop near the monument...happy days.

  5. SE - oh, the lucky girl! She will have a wonderful time - it's a beautiful town in the most stunning part of the country. Am quite faint with envy..!

    Trish - I have a feeling it was a Waterstones but might have made that up. Huge and old-fashioned though and I remember going there as a very small girl too.

  6. Wonderful stories. As you probably know, they're set in Rye in East Sussex, where EF Benson served as mayor in the '30s. Incidentally, Henry James also lived in the town.

  7. I think the bookshop was called Mawson Swan and Morgan.......Happy reading xxx

  8. Hello, stumbled in to your blog from who knows where! Terrific posting. LPC dear, you are in for a treat. I adore these books, one of which made me laugh out loud so hysterically and often on a long plane ride that I alienated almost all of the other passengers in the cabin, and inspired several to buy the books and read them. A "scream" as they say...

    He's no swami, he's a curry chef!


  9. In 1977 my Southampton (New York) neighbor came tripping throught the privet around noon dressed in his Japanese kimono carrying his usual morning glass of vodka calling my name and "ooh hoo, ooh hoo." I hid. He left "Queen Lucia" on my back stoop. I think of dear Jim everytime I think of Lucia or E.F. Benson and have almost forgiven myself for hiding that day. Friend of Tilling.

  10. Ah, you brought back memories of my time studying 'wonderful, fascinating' English Lit at Newcastle, many years ago. I was a lazy cow and picked mostly poetry options, and mostly imagist poets at that, so I didn't have to read too many words. Which is how these wonderful-sounding books have passed me by. PS Your mother sounds marvellous.

  11. Sir F-F - yes, made a pilgimage years ago and stayed at the Mermaid Inn. Hijusly over-rated, but the town was stunning. Do you know it?

    Anon - yes, that rings a bell. Thank you!

    Reggie D - a fellow pusher - you are so very welcome!

    Sandy - am beyond jealous - my neighbours thunder rather than trip and are more
    barbour than kimono-swathed... So pleased to meet you!

    Milady Waving - wonder if we overlapped? The books certainly weren't on any reading list I saw, and whatever you say it can't have been as dull as wot I done.
    Yes, marvellous is certainly one way of looking at it..!!

  12. Being a mere American, in whom one can have only the lowliest of expectations, I am familiar with Lucia because an American friend sent me the DVD collection one year for Christmas. (She speaks impeccable French, but we always say au reservoir to each other and then double-up laughing.)

    I loved every second of it. Perhaps I should now go the literary route, what do you think?


  13. Turn the page? Reminds me of that Oscar Wilde joke. Anyway, I quit smoking because I couldn't get B&H Golds in the states.

    These DVDs look wonderful and since I'm a Septic and can't do an English accent in my head, they will have to suffice.

  14. Yes and I only play the slow movement of the Moonlight Sonata then close the piano lid with a gentle sigh.

  15. Tish - au contraire, my expectations of Americans are of the very highest! I think whatever route you take, it'll be a hoot.

    Tintin - I'm an all-round Abercrombie but luckily not a total germoline so you'll always have a warm (non-B&H) welcome round these parts.

    Lucille - perfect. And I hope you are working on the wistful far-away look as you do it!

  16. I only know Rye as a visitor. Lovely place.

    If you like shellfish, get down there now - Rye bay scallops are in season. You can get them fresh off the boat.

  17. You have peeked my curiousity, I am off to find these works!

  18. I stumbled upon an omnibus edition of these at that 2nd hand book stall on Brigade Road (Select Books, I think it's called) in Bangalore and loved them for this image they conjured up of a time that was simple and guiltless. Of course, the realist in me knows that it was a conjuring act after all, but in the same vein as the world that PGW created of clueless peers and their even more clueless sons.

  19. Love the books, and the remarkably good and accurate TV series. But still baffled by your comment about gin and sardines on toast. Surely the toast will end up very soggy?

    Also still a little worried by Mr Benson's 'tarsome'. Did he mean tiresome?

  20. PS I have the books, but I also recently got the Kindle complete edition which was only 97p!!!!


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