A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
by the Hon Ticky Dogge-Hare
A few weeks ago, I went to visit my dear friend (and favourite ex), Alexander MacPhail, at his place in the Western Highlands. As luck would have it, I didn’t even have to buy a book for the train journey, because I’d just been to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s annual bunfight; and the thing about attending a big conference full of writers is that people tend to give you books. It was quite thrilling, actually; I felt like a proper literary person. Anyway, being a practical sort, I decided to take the fattest book along with me—it takes all day to get that far North, when you live this far South—and that was The Summer of Living Dangerously.
Well, I started reading when the train pulled out of Bath Spa and finished about half-way up the West Highland Line—you know how some books simply pull you in—and I was still feeling pretty dazed when I stepped off the train at Drumfeannagan and promptly found myself crushed against Alex’s manly chest.
“Darling,” I said in a muffled sort of way, “how lovely to see you again.”
“You too, sweetheart,” he said, and deposited me, breathless, on the platform. “Let me take your bag. Car’s this way.” And he strode off to where his battered Range Rover stood, looking positively stranded against an impossibly rugged backdrop.
“Good trip?” he asked as we drove along the tiny winding road towards the ancestral pile.
“Oh, yes, actually. I read the most terrific novel on the way up. Really brilliant stuff. Romantic comedy, but with this poignant edge—”
“Is that why you’ve got mascara all over your face?”
I cursed and rummaged around for a handkerchief. By the time I’d got the worst off, a harmless-looking old man was wandering along the lane towards us, fishing rod and tackle box in hand. Raising a polite hand to him, Alex went into a long, impassioned speech about fishing rights that lasted until we were almost home. (Don’t ask. I gather it’s all highly problematic.) And then of course he had to show me to my room, via a guided tour of the various decaying, subsiding and otherwise troublesome bits of the house; which gave me a bit of a brainwave, as it happens. But I figured I’d better let him cool down properly before I sprang my (or rather Julie Cohen’s) bloody brilliant idea on him.
Later that evening, when we were chatting over a truly excellent dinner in the great dining room, watched by the portraits of four generations of disapproving MacPhails,* I took my chance.
“Darling,” I said, “you know the book I was reading on the train?”
“Not personally,” he said, and raised an eyebrow. I had a feeling this was going to be tough going.
“Well, it’s interesting,” I said. “It’s about this young woman, Alice, who’s a journalist. And she’s been terribly unhappy writing all kinds of boring stuff about grommets, for technical magazines and such, but then she gets commissioned to write an article about her local stately home.” I dropped in a meaningful sort of pause here, but Alex failed to say “Oh, really?” or “How fascinating.” In fact, he just went on eating venison, the philistine. I suppressed a sigh. “Well, of course, a big house like that is awfully expensive to run—”
“No shit,” said Alex.
“So the lord of the manor comes up with this fantastic scheme to make it more profitable. It’s complete genius. He finds out everything that happened in the house in the summer of 1814—”
“1814? Why 1814?”
“Um, I’m not sure, actually. It was a good year. Anyway, he does all this research, and he hires actors who come in every weekend and re-enact everything that happened during that time. He even plays the role of his own ancestor, so it’s extra authentic. They all have to stay in character the whole time, method acting, sort of thing. Except that then Alice, the heroine, ends up standing in for one of the actors and she impresses the man, James, so much that he creates a role especially for her—”
“And they fall in love and live happily ever after?” Alex grinned at me.
“It’s a bit complicated.” More than complicated, but I didn’t think now was the time to start in about attractive exes and old wounds and so on. “Anyway, I thought it was interesting, the whole historical re-enactment bit. You could do something like that here.”
I didn’t expect Alex to take this too seriously at first but, really, there was no need to be so bloody amused by the whole thing.
“Oh, sweetheart,” he said at length, drying his eyes on his napkin, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this place wasn’t even started until 1870.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be 1814, does it? It could perfectly well be 1870-something, and you could play your great-great-grandfather. You do look a bit like him, you know.”
There was a pause as we both turned to look at Andrew MacPhail—industrialist, philanthropist, Good Egg—who glowered righteously back at us from the far wall.
“I… suppose it could work,” said Alex. “I’d have to grow a badger’s-arse beard, and change my hair. And my height.”
“Oh, darling, nobody cares about details like that. Besides, everyone’s taller these days.”
“Yes, but, Ticky… I’m really quite attached to my right arm.” Of course. The ancestor had lost it in his youth, doing something terribly heroic with heavy machinery, hadn’t he?
“OK, OK, so you don’t have to dress up. But you could still recreate the atmosphere of the time! There’s this fantastic scene in the book where they host this authentic Regency ball—”
“He didn’t allow dancing. That might lead to fornication.”
“Oh,” I said, and went a bit scarlet.
“Look, Ticky,” said Alex kindly, “I do appreciate the thought, and I must say it sounds a brilliant scheme for the right sort of place. And an excellent book, ahem, if you like that kind of thing. But I doubt that your average historical tourist would travel all the way up here for neck-to-ankle wool clothing and wall-to-wall Calvinism when they could be somewhere nice and temperate, dancing the quadrille and flirting. Everyone likes a bit of romance in their lives, don’t they?”
“Yes,” I said. “I rather think they do.”
Headline Review, 512 pp., ISBN: 978-0755350650
* Yes, four. He is a little bit nouveau, is Alex.