Long ago Boxing Day settled in to a routine; no matter where I was I began reading one of our Christmas present books. There’ve been some great books. Seven years ago we were in Auckland house-sitting the Langley’s place in Epsom. We had lunch with friend Rosemary in Brown’s Bay on the shore at her house with its superb vista of Rangitoto. That morning on the Langley's deck I’d begun reading Philip Temple's 'A Sort of Conscience', the story of the Wakefields who played such a significant part in the early English settlement of New Zealand.
The Wakefields grew up on the lower edge of the genteel class. Their lot with no regular income was a daunting challenge, no welfare state then while the Victorian sense of charity and duty had yet to kick in. I thought it was a magnificent piece of historical research and writing and I understood Temple’s disappointment at missing out at the Montana awards. The book deserved that prize.
Three years ago I began reading Lloyd Jones’ 'Mr Pip'. At the time I burnt through it - a gripping read. This year I’ve been going back and forth between Brian Turner’s poems ‘Just This’ and Louis De Bernieres 'Notwithstanding' a series of interlocking fictions – rather than short stories – about a Surrey village in the 60s and 70s. Idyllic, funny, plaintive, heart-warming, it’s jam-packed with eccentric and idiosyncratic characters who interact and counterpoint each other in a rich tapestry of a vanished way of life. The tales are about a community in a lovingly described landscape.
I fell in love with a picture of England when I read H.V.Morton’s In Search of England. When I visited there was the shock of realisation that reality did not live up to the image. Bernieres restores that image. And his descriptions of adolescence are superb.
In contrast Turner’s poems with their sparseness, love of Central Otago and harsh criticism of contemporary society by their honesty communicate a different approach to humanity's dilemma. Both eschew sentimentality. Both are secure in a heartland, be it in the arid countryside of our southern backcountry or the lush green fields and gray squirrel-infested woods of south England. I’m enjoying both and revelling in their contrast. Unlike 'Mr Pip' which as I say gripped me, with these two books I find myself finishing a poem or a piece and sitting there reflecting about life. Thanks, Father Christmas.