Booksellers, Books, and Dreams

The bearded man sits at his desk against the wall on the left, looking a bit like Uncle Alm himself, as I bring up a copy of Heidi. This will be my last book purchase in England, and I want to take away something I know I’ve loved and will continue to adore. Around him, the rooms are packed to the rafters with used books, bursting with the energy of wanting to be taken away and read; he is the placid core, typing on an ancient desktop computer, somehow making sense of the order or chaos within.

He is quite unlike the bookseller with floppy salt-and-pepper hair who stands under the portico on rainy Tuesdays, watching quietly as the odd browser fingers the spines of the used books laid out on wooden stands. His is a limited collection – but I’ve bought quite a few books from him, the most precious one being a lovely dark green-and-gold copy of Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train. The most nondescript book I bought from him, one last purchase for memory’s sake, was The Bodysurfers. All I recollect is that it has a faded cover and lies deep in one of my several to-read stacks.

***

At The Lantern, a sweet old woman volunteers at the cashier’s desk. Wizened and pushing arthritically at the buttons of a calculator, she asks me to pick a bag from the motley bundle beside her. A younger woman in glasses steps up and helps us pack the books. This is our last visit to the shop, and I have searched painstakingly for the authors I rarely saw on bookshop shelves or in online stores in India. I grin for a while as we walk back, thinking of the Hart Crane, Bryher, and Rumer Godden in my bag. I look forward to the Europe trip we are planning and dream of Paris.

***

I have just finished The Paris Wife, a reasonable page-turner written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Read it if you like the nostalgia of names and places – if you want to be reminded of Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, of the settings and characters of The Sun Also Rises, of grey evenings and endless absinthe drunk in the cafés of Paris. Read it if you want a piece of Hadley, a bit of Hemingway, and the heady delights of jazz and indulgence in post-war Paris. Break your heart over the complicated relationships and the unfaithfulness that hangs heavy over the café tables and in Riviera villas. Don’t expect much in the form of words that seep into your head and emerge deliciously at the least expected moments; for that, you have Fitzgerald. (Incidentally, it is one year since I visited Fitzgerald’s grave in Rockville.)

I have gobbled up books about 1920s Paris over the last year, and have at least three others lined up. The one I’m most looking forward to is Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, for reasons I’m unaware of. I want to pace these Paris books well, though, and I’m taking a break with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a satire on Fleet Street and the English aristocracy. And it is this that has reminded me of booksellers and churchyards in England. Five years on, I look back longingly at the walks down damp, narrow paths, leaves crunching underfoot. I miss the garden gnomes and the painted doors that remained mysteriously shut all the time. As the sun blazes down on Chennai’s sleepy streets where not a breath of wind stirs, I want to be spirited to the Downs, or to the exit of Heathrow or Dulles Airport, stepping into the open for the first time to be confronted by a sharp wind that pierces through my thin coat – utterly unsuited to the season – and chills me to the bone.

Then, when I’m there, I’ll dream of the tropics.

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Hemingway of the Lost Generation

When I chanced upon Tobias Wolff’s Old School at the library, I had no idea that it was going to have a remarkable effect on my reading this year. Emerging from a fog of confused days and nights rolling into one another in the two darkest months of the year, I was more than prepared to be set down firmly on what promises to be a long, rewarding literary trail. I became enamoured of the Lost Generation in the way that I fell for Jack Kerouac, a famous thorn in tradition’s flesh, a few years ago.

I was intrigued when I read of the fascination for Hemingway – almost bordering on worship – among the boys in Wolff’s book, and the incredible manner in which it drove them to uncharacteristic behaviour. While Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, as visiting writers, spurred them on to an extent, the imminent arrival of Hemingway and the opportunity of winning an hour with him drew them out in a wholly different fashion. I knew little of Hemingway’s work or life when I read the book; apart from reading The Old Man and the Sea and the short story The Killers, I had never even attempted to read Hemingway. I put his books on my mental to-read lists, but never came around to actually buying or borrowing any. My interest was piqued by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and I believe it brought me a step closer, but I give most credit to Wolff for making me pick up A Moveable Feast at the library (perhaps you shouldn’t start with the memoirs, but oh well) and I now want to read everything Hemingway ever wrote – even, perhaps, his work on hunting.

A Moveable Feast is very sincere in its tone. Hemingway talks of his life in Paris of the 1920s: his friendship with Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald, his devotion to his wife, Hadley, and his ambition to write and be influenced by all that was great and beautiful in the city. James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and Baron von Blixen are briefly mentioned, as are the cafés , walks and bookshops he frequented; he describes ski holidays in Austria with Hadley and their son Bumby, and just as you begin to picture their bliss, he mentions his affair with another woman, which made the whole experience bittersweet for me. All the dissipation and abandon of Paris, then, had come to this and not to joyous, enduring years of writing and friendship. Disillusioning.

While I read, I didn’t realise that Hadley was the first of four wives, and that he had had to divorce her because of his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who eventually became his second wife. I don’t judge Hemingway, but I was saddened to learn that a love that he spoke so achingly and fondly of didn’t last. He rued it himself in very clear terms: “When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” What was it that caused him to be so unhappy in his marriages, and to eventually take his own life? Why was marriage so important to him when he kept falling in and out of love so often – did it need that legal sanction that seemed to stifle him beyond a point?

Hemingway did come across as a very good friend, though. He seemed fiercely protective of Fitzgerald, and had no love lost for Zelda Fitzgerald, who he felt was driving her husband to drink and to lose interest in his work. He valued Pound’s opinions and respected Beach’s generosity and Stein’s authority. However, he did not exactly agree with the epithet of Lost Generation, a génération perdue, one that had served in the war and was now somehow given to dissolution: “I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation?…I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be…”

I can only attempt to piece together from different sources this life that intrigues me so, and I think the best place to start would be from the books of this expatriate circle that thrived in Paris and lived a culturally rich, if troubled, life. I always thought Paris would be an interesting city to visit, but now I have a real reason to see it. Uncannily enough, the signs are right here in Washington, DC, where I’m spending a few months. Pound, the poet with the rakish reputation and questionable political views, spent several years in St Elizabeths Hospital in the city before he was released after frantic lobbying from friends and supporters. Fitzgerald and Zelda lie buried in a churchyard at Rockville, Maryland, about an hour’s train ride away. It also turns out that Fitzgerald was named after Francis Scott Key, a cousin on his father’s side and writer of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, who lived in the wonderfully quaint Georgetown area of DC. And finally, what to me is the most interesting connection – Hadley was educated at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, which receives support from the proceeds of my favourite used book-store in DC. I’ll take these signs with pleasure and use them as an excuse (not that I really need one) to delve further into Hemingway’s books. This circle attracts me in a way that, I regret to say, even the Bloomsbury Group didn’t: I might save that for my later, more mature years.

I’ll leave you now with a picturesque description of Paris and the seasons – Hemingway writing in his typical pared-down style – that rings true in all its glorious simplicity: “With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river. With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only true sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.”

Winter Tales

A spell of winter worth its salt can teach you a lot. For one, it shows you what a good conductor of electricity the human body is: a lesson learnt by the frequent twitchy withdrawal of your hand from a surface as innocuous as a doorknob when you are jolted by a tiny spark of current, eventually leading to a fear of all things metallic. Winter also teaches you patience – through long cold nights, through eager days spent waiting for the snow to fall and then for it to melt.

To my unaccustomed eyes, the first blizzard I ever saw was a marvel. Even as I went about my chores, I kept hovering by the windows last Friday and Saturday to watch the snowflakes careening into one another and floating to the ground, piling up in thick sheets, burying cars and plants. How could there be so much snow? How could it fall for hours on end without a break, the wind growing stronger every hour? It started carpeting our balcony and we looked forward to building a snowman once the worst of the storm was past us. We couldn’t waste this opportunity though, so we wrapped up and went out on the road to feel the snow fall on our faces. I sank calf-deep into a powdery blanket of snow that I didn’t realise was as thick. A few hardy souls went running, loath to give up their exercise even in this unholy weather. Sadly, we weren’t among them: after a few minutes spent pretending that this was a post-apocalyptic world from Cormac McCarthy, we were driven back indoors by the gritty particles that rushed into our eyes and noses.

The snowstorm was exciting while it lasted, but I cannot deny the pleasure that waking up to blue skies gave me after the blizzard ended. The whole event could almost have been a dream – except, when I looked out from my window, the downy snow was beginning to be gathered up into blackened piles, much like the foam floating out of a few of Bangalore’s polluted lakes. This wasn’t a pretty sight.

However, being cooped up at home meant extra reading time. I read Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters and resumed The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I’d somehow abandoned midway (I cannot imagine why). One thing led to another, and having finished the book last night, I’m prepared to pay Neil Gaiman the high honour of likening his writing to Ruskin Bond’s. Few people understand little boys and girls who spend their childhood with their noses buried in books and write about them so compellingly.

Though my bedside table was already tottering under the weight of unread books, I decided to take myself off to the library for a while. Clearly, I didn’t really need to borrow any more, but I also panic often about a certain mood seizing me and not having something to match it. I wanted the comfort of stacked bookshelves around me. I walked gingerly on the slippery pavements, the melting snow now running in rivulets down them. It wasn’t always unsightly though; it looked invitingly pristine under the trees, a ray of sunshine glinting off its surface through the branches. It reminded me of a certain RK Narayan sentence that I think of whenever I’m attracted by something shiny: “The morning sun came through a glass tile and touched with radiance the little heap of uppumav on his plate-a piece of green chilli and some globules of oil made the stuff sparkle, catching Jagan’s eye insistently for a moment, making him wonder if he had made some strange edible gem-set for his son rather than merely frying semolina and spicing it.” (This is an excerpt from The Vendor of Sweets.)

This little moment made up for the heaps of slushy snow piled up on the roads. I didn’t think of them as “sinister” at all, an adjective I’d used when describing how I felt about melting snow to a Canadian professor at university, leaving him bemused. That, and the red “Open” sign in the library window, took the edge off any vestiges of irritation that might have been simmering deep inside. That my favourite librarian wasn’t at the counter didn’t bother me. I returned my books to the fresh-faced young man who was there instead, and asked him where the graphic novels were.

“Traffic novels?”

Graphic novels.” (Gr-ah-phic. I wasn’t going to change the way I pronounced it.)

“Graphic novels. Oh. Okay. For…adults?”

He clearly likened graphic novels to something out of Vatsyayana.

“Yes.” The tetchiness was returning. But he didn’t ask for my ID and thankfully guided me to the right shelf, where I spent a leisurely ten minutes choosing two books, then went around the other shelves, hoping to be surprised. I agonised over Somerset Maugham and Tobias Wolff, picking the latter in the end. I set off homewards recharged, a filled backpack on my shoulders, the nippy wind nibbling at my nose and ears even as the sun began rapidly dipping into the horizon. I was at peace with the world. A cosy home, a bedside table stacked high with books, the prospect of hot chocolate with marshmallows and cookies to ease the march into February: what else can one ask for?

Home

One of the things I missed most while in the US was having a supermarket around the corner. Walking for twenty minutes each way just to buy a loaf of bread or a bag of raisin chocolates was never fun, because it wasn’t even a pleasant walk. You just crossed junction after junction, waiting impatiently for the pedestrian sign to come on, reading the names on the grey or brown buildings. This was nothing like walking through the South Downs, where you marvelled at the rolling hills that blended almost seamlessly with the horizon, or like the short trip to the local supermarket in India, where you were preoccupied with glaring at the motorists who dared to climb on to the pavement while riding in the wrong direction. And once in the store, you tried to figure out which Alka Yagnik song was playing in the background, because the shop assistants had this annoying habit of picking out the most obscure pieces from the 90s – which, despite my thorough exposure to Bollywood in 90s Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, I had no knowledge of.

Not having tasted butterscotch ice cream for three months – it seems surprisingly elusive outside India – I was determined to get some before the rain started. Yes, Bangalore. Chennai has rain in the evening too. I don’t know if this is a regular occurrence or a welcome-home present, but I am quite prepared to gloat over it while it lasts. If there is no electricity at your place and you are fanning yourself, staring bemusedly at your phone with the charge rapidly dwindling, know that I am sitting by an open window with the fragrance of damp earth floating in, mingling with incense and a negligibly faint chemical odour.

It is good to be back in India and not have to bemoan the absence of decent sambar powder at the lone Indian store. My trip was only three months long, and while I enjoyed being in the US, I must say very honestly that I liked living in England better. This probably has to do with the diet of English writing I grew up on, the constant exposure to cricket, and the fascination with the English “accent”. Would I have perceived the US differently had it been the first country I visited abroad, had I stayed in a part of the country with more access to nature, hills and the sea? Maybe. I feel a marked difference in the way I absorb things now than I did five years ago, probably because I pay more attention to politics than I used to. However, this is a subject that I will deal with separately, especially because of some important incidents that took place during my stay in the US.

Waiting for the bus that took us to the Indian store every week, I watched a building under construction grow rapidly. I felt the last vestiges of winter dissolve indiscernibly into summer, that much-beloved season of spring shying away from an appearance. I saw the parades of Memorial Day and the spectacular fireworks of the Fourth of July, with the red eyes of the Washington Monument glowing in the dusk. I learnt to admire Thomas Jefferson and question the naming of highways after Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, both heroes of the Confederate side in the Civil War.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the vast, complex country that the US is, despite its relatively recent origins. Conversations with Americans and immigrants take you deeper into the mystery, instead of clearing your doubts. Race, religion, colour, and political affiliation are not always postcolonial preoccupations. The pursuit of self-serving interests and the presumptuousness of politicians don’t necessarily help matters. Make no mistake, I appreciated free access to the library and the Smithsonian museums, the clean roads, and the convenient public transport. However, in my view, the US is far from being that perfect home many people seem to aspire towards. In terms of long-term opportunities and the chance to make a visible difference, India is not a less exciting place to be in. What it lacks is discipline, and this is the thing that drives so many of us away.

Nostalgia by the Potomac

“It’s just water!” a teenaged boy calls to his friends, as they step reluctantly out of the shelter of a clothing store on to the pavement. Everybody seems utterly unprepared for this cloudburst; the weatherman predicted a sunny day, and has hardly been wrong in these two-and-a-half weeks.

We first saw the violet-grey clouds approach as we sat in the overgrown garden of the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in Washington, DC. It was built in 1765 as a two-room cottage, and two floors were later added to it to accommodate three bedrooms and a decent-sized dining room, the way it has been preserved today. Old houses in strange places tend to be disconcerting, and this was no different. A slightly sagging bed, children’s playthings on the floor, and blackened utensils around the hearth quite created pictures in your head. You could see the African maid stirring a broth in the large cauldron, while the lady of the house, Cassandra Chew, entertained guests in the parlour. Aproned children spilled the sticks out of the little case upstairs, and a gardener toiled outside to provide vegetables for the family’s meals. Are they still around, and do they miss being here?

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We loitered in the garden for a bit, admiring the flowers and the rich greenery: for a largely commercial area, this well looked after house is an absolute delight. This is about as English as you can imagine, a far cry from the official starkness of the Federal Triangle.

***

Georgetown is like a slice of Europe in America. The grey pavements lined by red brick structures, many of which seem to date back to the nineteenth century, are heavily reminiscent of the Lanes in Brighton: not quite so quaint or eclectic, but endowed with character in their own way.

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Brightonian?

We head, perhaps in the way of most tourists, to Georgetown Cupcakes. Now this is a Wimbledonish experience, because you have to queue for half-an-hour before you can enter the shop and be bewildered by an array of colourfully iced cupcakes. Our selection goes from four to six, and we carry our pink box like two happy children to the banks of the Potomac.

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The Potomac river separates the town of Rosslyn in Virginia from Georgetown. So, when on the waterfront, you arrive fresh from the joys of a quaint little town to a contemporary glass-and-concrete skyline, relieved by a lush island on the river. We watch boats bob by. People lie on the grass and go jogging beside the adjacent Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A board tells us that this was once a busy thoroughfare for goods carriers, and that this posh shopping district was once, in fact, an industrial area. The blue skies on this placid evening were probably once filled with smoke, and the buildings housing designer wear home to gaunt clerks poring over ledgers.

We eat a cupcake apiece as we watch massive white pillows of clouds mass overhead, almost seeming to drop on the top of the bridge across the river. This town was once the home of a few Native American tribes. In the span of a few centuries, it has changed unimaginably, witnessing various wars and upheavals before being absorbed into the capital of this powerful country. Plaques commemorate a Masonic Lodge, the Star-Spangled Banner, the flourishing of a port town, all clear evidence of a colonial past. Conquest isn’t always fair, and I do not condone the displacement of the Native people, but the growth of America has been nothing short of marvellous. As somebody ignorant of the intricacies of American history, I’m very intrigued about the stories every inch of this area seems to have to tell.

Dispatch from Virginia

G.’s office decided that they wanted him in the USA for a few months. I chose to tag along, given that my software engineering degree didn’t come with a free project in the States. So here I am, typing my first dispatch from Arlington, Virginia.

Chennai Airport

G. has a Business Class ticket and we are allowed entry into the lounge with free food and uplifting muzak (I know I’ve nicked this phrase from somewhere, but can’t for the life of me recollect where I first read it), and a mosquito or two, I suspect. The music is punctuated by the sound of people munching on crisps, a wailing baby, and heavy suitcases with worn out wheels being dragged along the polished floor. Punjab and Rajasthan battle it out – on mute – in the IPL. This may not sound genteel enough, but a stone Buddha statue bathed in flowing water sits on the reception desk, dispelling my blasphemous notions.

I naïvely assume that the packed glass room by the gate is a viewing deck; it turns out to be the smoking zone, and if smoking doesn’t kill, suffocation seems very likely to do the honours. Two hours fly by. We watch the match run into the super-over, eat, and repeat the lines in the Lufthansa advertisement to each other. I try to be as level-headed as I can, considering we have a five-hour halt en route in Frankfurt. Germany! I can’t stop thinking of Michael Schumacher and F1.

Frankfurt

The clouds part to reveal neat, manicured fields and small settlements. Are we really in the proximity of a great city? Where are the people? A few skyscrapers appear amidst the forests, looking out on the vast snaking Rhine. Germany!

The woods will have to stand in for the Black Forest for now; the roads will have to pretend they are part of the Hockenheim circuit. All my squinting into the sun doesn’t reveal any Gothic cathedrals or castles, though I do see numerous football fields, justifying the number of Bundesliga stories in the copy of Sport Bild I picked up on the plane, in veneration for the number of times it has supplied quotes from German drivers in English F1 articles.

Velvety hills dot the horizon, sloping gently down to the airport and reminding me very much of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Even though the temperature is 10 degrees C, the sun shines brightly in a pale-blue sky. We wander around the airport, are directed by a very cheerful elderly German lady to our terminal, and promptly sit down after the long walk to the gate mentioned on our boarding passes.

The area fills up with elderly Japanese couples, perhaps part of an organised tour. They take photographs and talk quietly. There seem to be surprisingly few Indians or Americans, considering our destination. G. goes to investigate, and finds out that our gate has been changed and that we have actually been sitting with people bound for Osaka. Another name, another country I want to visit for all the magic Haruki Murakami, Pico Iyer, and my friend A.’s pictures have evoked.

I watch the flight information board. Istanbul, Copenhagen, Split, San Fransisco. How I’d love to use this boarding pass to hop on and hop off planes, dropping into a new city every few days, making a tour of all the racing circuits of Europe.

Virginia

The plane circles over green fields, not quite as manicured as in Germany, but neat nevertheless. Brown cottages with sloping roofs dot the landscape, and a thick bank of clouds appears in the distance, a translucent white sheet falling from it on to the green expanse underneath. It could be rain: we have just emerged out of choppy, opaque grey clouds. Rows of green trees are incongruously broken by others clothed in vivid purple. We have narrowly missed cherry blossom season, but I simply imagine that some of the trees dressed in light, pale whitish-pink are in fact those famed flowers, so popular and elusive.

We step into the open and are greeted by a whoosh of cold wind. This is exactly how I felt at Heathrow, I tell G., standing on the grey pavement, fresh from the tropical humidity of southern India. I love the weather and I can’t wait to explore a brand new country. We are driven at a speed that would almost definitely be fatal in India on roads whose silken curves are a soothing sight for sore eyes. We pass the Pentagon, which I’d prefer to see from the air, given that it is otherwise just a series of low buildings with a vast parking lot. The Washington Monument makes a brief appearance through a line of trees. I want to drive into Washington DC and ask for a job in the corridors of power and intrigue.

Of course I’m greedy: I want to see canyons cut by muddy rivers and the mighty Rockies, drive through barren deserts, visit the Beat haunts, go to the midwestern Prairies (solely for Willa Cather), and walk on the Main Streets of nondescript villages. I want to go on long road trips, like Kerouac and Steinbeck. I want to study indigenous history and revel in the gorgeous names of Nevada, Nebraska and Mississippi.

I know I’ll be lucky to get even a tiny, tiny fraction of this done. I can’t set limits on my imagination though, especially now when I’m all harebrained with excitement, taking breaks to stand on the balcony and watching the sun struggle through the clouds, cover the brown apartments across the road in an eerie orange light. I almost weep with joy when I realise that I can cross the road without having to break into a run midway, and that cars will wait politely till I have attained the safety of the pavement. I have had my first ice cream soda and am preparing to cook my first meal, after which I will curl up with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a Christian story set in the midwest. America, I look forward to making your acquaintance.

English Enchantment

“Is this a typically English day?” I ask a classmate of mine who has lived in Brighton most of his life. The quest for the perfect example of proper English weather has apparently come to an end, for he replies in the affirmative, and tells me that the weather will probably continue to remain so till March. Splendid, isn’t it, to think of cold, windy days when you can barely manage a decent handshake and your fingers are so numb they constantly long for the comforting contours of a cup of hot coffee, never mind drinking it? The rain begins as I let myself into my room, and dead leaves are being blown off the trees outside my window. They whirl madly on the road before gathering in little heaps. Soon they’ll all be gone (and I can’t help thinking of The Last Leaf, but that’s just me being morbid), and I can imagine the stripped trees now, stark and skeletal on moonlit winter nights. All I ask for now is a bit of snow in December. Could I be living a more enchanted life than this?

On sunshiny days- which are merely bright, but not hot, because the rays rarely manage to make their way down to earth unmolested by cold winds- we walk on the green, verdant slopes around Falmer. It is a Saturday afternoon, and hordes of people, some in blue-and-white striped tees, are walking from Falmer Station to the Amex Stadium for the game between Hull City and Brighton & Hove Albion. We leave ‘civilisation’ behind for the vast, open spaces that are just a short walk away. The grass is thick and manicured (a friend of mine asks if it grows that way- I need to find out if it does), criss-crossed by cobwebs that shimmer brightly as they catch the rays of the sun. In the distance, the hills arc gently against bright, cloudless blue skies, dotted by plump (or traditionally-built, as Alexander McCall Smith might say?) sheep and cattle. Roads cut through the hillsides, not in the rough, autocratic manner that they do back home, searing deep gashes into them and making them bleed, but ribboning smoothly through only where necessary. The occasional glint of glass reveals a car driving into oblivion. Are there any mysteries in these hills? They look harmless: soft, quiet and friendly. Will we stumble upon a hidden spring or a haunted Victorian mansion? The only thing of interest we do find is a memorial pushed back into the woods, dedicated in 1775 to the memory of Frederick Frankland, Esq., by his son and daughter. (The word daughter here probably means daughter-in-law: the inscription bears the names of the son and his wife, and presumably follows pre-Victorian traditions.) Groups of picnickers watch their kids play football; the shadows are beginning to lengthen and some of them are already stowing bikes and prams away into their cars.

Aimless walking brings us to the village of Stanmer. Through a line of trees, we catch a glimpse of a large building; on closer inspection, it turns out to be Stanmer House, once a proper house, now used for functions and open to the public only once a week. We save our investigation for later and move towards the imposing church that has caught our eye. It looks very English, made of grey stone, with a majestic spire spiking into the sky. We have to walk through a graveyard to reach the door of the church, and the inscriptions on the gravestones bear the names of Earls of Chichester and other ‘distinguished’ people. The area around the church is heavily shaded by trees; what would it be like on a rainy day, with the wind howling through the branches and the fragrance of damp earth pervading the air? (I wish I’d brought my MR James along; of course, there’s always Project Gutenberg to fall back on, but without the musty odour of mottled old paper.)

We walk further into the village, past some stables and a bit of pasture-land. One of the horses grazing there approaches the fence, cropping grass eagerly and ignoring his feeding-trough; he looks up momentarily as we pass, then his beautiful brown head dips back earthwards, business beckoning. We pass a tea-room- and now I’m really and truly in Storybook England, where men in tweed suits and women in printed dresses sit at high tea, red brick houses with little white gates and smoking chimneys in the background, their village the nucleus of a wide world that may not even exist for all they care. I think back to Enid Blyton and Peterswood, where my love affair with England began, later kept alive and flourishing with the abetment of the Bronte sisters, PG Wodehouse and George Eliot.

The journey has just begun, and there is plenty to look forward to. I live in a state of eternal anticipation, thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.