An unexpected urge to search my bookshelves for old friends has recently taken hold, and I have found myself enthralled. How glad I am that we have, to a large extent, ignored advice from well-wishers to “send all those books you’re never going to read again to Oxfam”. I do agree that at some point in the not very far distant future, we will need to winnow out one or two from the several thousand we have insisted we need, as bookshelves clothe the walls in every room in the house and there is no space left. It is, after all, quite impossible to exist for long without acquiring another new book. A proper book, I mean, made of paper and smelling of printer’s ink. But before that unavoidable cull, it is essential to ensure the treasures remain safe. Hence the return to those extensive shelves, and the rediscovery of old friends.
The most recent is Union Street by Pat Barker: her first, published by Virago in 1982. It is an impressive series of portraits of women living on one street in a Northern British town during the harsh winter of 1973, a time of strikes and unemployment. The first is of an 11-year-old neglected girl, who is raped and then finds her attacker demands her sympathy. Unable to find an outlet for her distress and anger, she takes to roaming the streets at night. We then move o,n from a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant, a loving wife nursing her sick husband, to the matriarch of the street and an ageing prostitute, the only one not seen from her own perspective but through the eyes of a man (rather a disappointment), to the old woman determined not to be moved into a care home. Here the story of the street turns full circle, with the 11-year-old discovering the old woman huddled in newspapers on a bench in the park late at night. For the first time, she empathises with another human being and tries to persuade the old woman that she needs to move somewhere warm or she will die. The old woman is as bloody-minded as the girl, and there is mutual recognition: eventually the girl goes home, leaving the old woman where she has chosen to be, both knowing she will not last till morning. A poignant end to a realistic portrait of lives lived out ‘in quiet desperation’.
Naturally, I then chose to re-read more of Pat Barker’s books: The Regeneration Trilogy and then the Booker Prize-winning novel, Another World. But you can have too much of a good thing – time to move on to another author.
And writing this is taking up good reading time. So more next time…