It’s that time when people post their top 10 books, films, albums of the year. I even just saw a ‘top 10 best staircases of 2019‘ list, which made me panic and realise I haven’t even got my top 10 best vestibules of 2019 list together yet.
This isn’t a top 10 list. This isn’t even a list of podcasts that changed my life, but as the wonderful Backlisted podcast goes into (I hope temporary) hibernation, here are some wonderful things I discovered, or rediscovered, through listening to the last 108 (count ‘em!) episodes.
I’ve already written about how special Human Voices is for me, with its BBC radio theme and the author’s connection to a school I taught at, but I’ve continued to read her fiction. I think I’ve read about half now, none disappoints. The Beginning of Spring is one of the most astonishing books I have ever read, but the most recent one to come my way, At Freddie’s, is now my favourite, devoured like the best chocolates from the selection box of my Christmas book haul. The four or five pages towards the end about how a relationship unfolds in a Lyons tea room is as perfect a piece of writing as you could ever wish for on love, failure, awkwardness, disappointment, Englishness (or Irishness), London or café etiquette. I know she’s having something of a renaissance, but I am still amazed this Booker Prize-winning author (even though she won for the wrong book) isn’t better-known.
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Speaking of astonishing books, I thought I didn’t like Hilary Mantel. How stupid can one person be? If you, for some reason, think you don’t like her writing, you can’t have read Beyond Black. Breathtaking, I’m still not entirely sure what I make of it, just that I am in awe of it. I think I’ll have to read it again in 2020.
I’d read Bilgewater as a teenager and quite liked it, but here I really discovered that one of the best things about listening to Backlisted is not just the books they feature, but the books they mention in passing and the other books by the same authors that you stumble upon. I really liked the featured book A Long Way from Verona, but it felt a bit similar to Bilgewater. The real discoveries for me were Jane Gardam’s short stories and one other novel in particular: The Queen of the Tambourine. Wikipedia summarises it thus: ‘the novel takes the form of a series of increasingly bizarre letters written by Eliza Peabody, an interfering neighbour and hospice volunteer. The letters are written to Joan who has left her husband and fled the country…’ It’s fantastic, and unlike anything else I’ve read by her – indeed in some ways it reminded me of Beyond Black, a book it predates by some fourteen years. It won the Whitbread Prize in 1991 but it is, I think, largely forgotten and isn’t even the first book most Gardam fans would mention. Highly recommended.
Daphne du Maurier
I had read Jamaica Inn and even her 1973 Brexit novel Rule Britannia and I thought I knew what Daphne du Maurier was about, but the episode on her short stories caused me to buy her Don’t Look Now collection – I’m ashamed to say I’ve never even seen the film, let alone read the story it’s based on. The collection of five stories is superb and surprising, not least the last one, The Breakthrough from 1966, which is science fiction. Who know Daphne du Maurier was the best Doctor Who writer we never had? Set in a disused coastal radar research station, I tweeted that I could imagine it being filmed and set in Orfordness. Then someone pointed out it had been filmed, in 1975 – and (partially at least) set in Orford! (Cue Twilight Zone spooky music). It’s astonishingly faithful to the book, I recommend both. It has something of The Stone Tape and other 1970s TV science fiction about it.
Thanks to Backlisted, there are dozens more wonderful books and authors I’ve discovered (Shirley Jackson, Jean Rhys) or rediscovered (Jacob’s Room – like Bilgewater, an utterly different book now to the one I read as a teenager, Red Shift by Alan Garner – which must be one of the most challenging children’s books ever published, although I think I did, kind of, understand it when I was 12 or 13.)
It’s also changed the way I read books and the kinds of books I look out for as I prowl secondhand shops. I’d like to mention two books I may not have read had it not been for Backlisted. They’ve not been featured, but ought to be.
Return to Yesterday by Ford Madox Ford
Currently, I think, out of print, this 1931 memoir is a joy. (Get on it, Carcanet – I did some work experience with you in around 1986 or 1987, surely that must count for something!) If you have any interest at all in the literary or publishing world of the early 1900s, you will love this. Discover which authors he tries to avoid and not avoid in an around Rye and Winchelsea. Learn some potato husbandry. Hilarious encounters with H G Wells and Henry James. Read how, in fact, it was Ford Madox Ford who wrote all the best bits in Joseph Conrad’s novels! How he tried to get Boots lending libraries closed down because LIBRARIES KILL BOOK SALES! He accuses Anita Loos of plagiarism! (And let’s face it, who hasn’t noticed the stylistic and thematic similarities between The Good Soldier and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?) I’m not entirely sure if he intended this to be funny, but it made me laugh out loud.
Mistress Masham’s Repose by T H White
I somehow thought they’d done T H White on Backlisted, but I seem to have imagined that episode. The Sword in the Stone is rightly lauded, and clearly influenced Harry Potter and more but what about this lesser-known book from 1946?
Again I turn to Wikipedia for a summary: ‘describes the adventures of a girl who discovers a group of Lilliputians, a race of tiny people from Jonathan Swift’s satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels… Maria, a ten-year-old orphaned girl, lives on a derelict family estate, her only companions being a loving family Cook and a retired Professor of Ancient Latin. These two try to protect Maria from her tall, fat, strict Governess, Miss Brown. The Governess makes the child’s life miserable, taking her cue from Maria’s guardian, a Vicar named Mr. Hater. Miss Brown and Mr Hater are conspiring to keep Maria poor and abandoned.’
Ring any bells? Lemony Snicket, I’m looking your way. The book is utterly, utterly bonkers and a joy. Seek it out.
Will I finally read In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses in 2020? I will not. But I’ve even really enjoyed listening episodes on books and writers I know I’ll never read (or unlike those two, books that I don’t even want to have read) because I’ve learned so much. Next year I hope to finish reading Penelope Fitzgerald and more Muriel Spark and more writers mentioned in passing and featured on Backlisted. Hurry back!