urbs in rure: Review of 'Banburgh First' holiday cottages in Northumberland 
Sunday, August 30, 2009, 02:17 PM
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There don’t seem to be many online reviews for Bamburgh First cottages in Northumberland and I couldn’t find an entry for them on tripadvisor – so here’s a review for anyone searching for one on Google ...

We stayed in Oswald Cottage which is part of the ‘Adderstone’ Collection. This group of refurbished cottages is located just off the A1, about four miles from Bamburgh castle. Bamburgh First’s main selling point is its emphasis on stylish, sophisticated interiors and mod cons. (We’ve stayed in some rather dispiriting cottages in the past which have clearly been furnished very cheaply and/or unimaginatively). Oswald Cottage is one of the smaller properties. It has a large open plan living area on the ground floor. This was attractive and comfortable – the children particularly appreciated the large flat screen TV and full Sky package.

The kitchen is modern and well-equipped - the children made full (perhaps excessive) use of the ice maker. All the rooms have bold colour schemes and are decorated with modern paintings and other objets. There was excellent attention to detail throughout – pretty much everything was good quality and well designed. A welcome pack – including delicious jam, biscuits and cake – was included, as well as smart hotel style toiletries. (Generally the atmosphere is more like a boutique hotel than a holiday rental.) The company seemed well run – enquiries were answered quickly and efficiently. The location is convenient for Alnwick, Seahouses and Lindisfarne as well as Banburgh itself. The only slight disadvantage was that the cottages aren’t particularly attractively situated and there is no garden, just a small courtyard where cars are parked.

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Middlemarch and Main Street 
Thursday, August 27, 2009, 08:02 PM
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In a recent post I speculated that Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner might have influenced George Eliot’s depiction of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. I’ve just been reading another American novel which put me in mind of a George Eliot heroine, Dorothea from Middlemarch. But this time the influence – if there was one – went the other way, for the book in question is Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel, Main Street.

The heroine of Main Street is Carol Milford, a lively, intelligent young woman from Minnesota who takes a job in a library in St Paul after graduating from college. She has highbrow tastes and a mildly Bohemian streak, but she’s quite ready to settle down when a pleasant young doctor, Will Kennicott, proposes marriage. He lives in a midwest town called Gopher Prairie, and the rest of the novel (which manages to be intensely absorbing even though not much actually happens in it) charts her growing dissatisfaction with the narrowness and cliquiness of small town life.

In some ways Carol is herself a rather predictable girl but one of her tastes is slightly unusual. When asked by one of her well meaning new neighbours to name her ‘chief artistic interest’, she replies ‘architecture’, and she is full of ideas for improving Gopher Prairie, none of them terribly practical. (Dorothea is of course equally interested in designing better houses for her neighbours' tenants.) Her idealistic enthusiasm, her ardent nature, her beauty, her mild interest in radical ideas (she tries to read Veblen) all align her with Dorothea. She even finds a Ladislaw of her own, a handsome young Swede who ‘shone among the cud-chewing citizens like a visitant from the sun-amber curls, low forehead , fine nose, chin smooth but not raw from Sabbath shaving.’

Of course Carol is not like Dorothea in every respect. She may be intelligent, earnest, keen to help others – and to improve their houses. However she is also rather vain, very interested in clothes, enjoys being the centre of attention, and is married to a youngish doctor rather than to an elderly clergyman. In other words she is as much like Middlemarch’s anti-heroine, Rosamond Vincy, as she is like Dorothea. Carol is all the more convincing – and more human – for not being too perfect and saintly, and Sinclair Lewis manages to make us sympathise with her frustration and boredom at her life in Gopher Prairie, while also allowing us to feel rather sorry for her husband at times - particularly when Carol drags him to see a quadruple bill of experimental drama performed by amateur actors. Although Lewis clearly sympathises with Carol he doesn’t always see things quite her way. His depiction of small town life may be devastatingly satirical at times– but it’s not without warmth.

Although several readers have noticed the resemblances between Carol’s story and that of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I was surprised to find (following a quick trawl through google and google books) few references to the affinities between Main Street and Middlemarch. There are also interesting comparisons to be made between Main Street and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room which paints a similar (though more depressing and less tolerant) portrait of a clever woman who is stifled by marriage to a doctor and by small town American life.

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Review of Yelloh! Village campsite: Le Soleil Vivarais  
Wednesday, August 5, 2009, 01:35 PM
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We’d enjoyed last year’s stay at Sunelia’s Le Col Vert campsite very much, and decided to go for a similar holiday this year, a week at Yelloh! Village’s ‘Soleil Vivarais’ in the Ardèche. This is a large and fairly upmarket site with good facilities. The Ardèche river runs through the campsite which means there are lots of opportunities for kayaking, etc.

We chose a River Cottage for six people (there were only four of us but our children had pleaded for separate rooms). This was situated near the reception area, shop and restaurant and was modern, bright and well equipped – it also had a pleasant verandah with a table and chairs for al fresco meals. The cost was 1064 Euros for the week – not cheap (particularly with the pound so low) but because of the activities and facilities laid on you end up spending less on other things than you do in a cottage or hotel.

Everything was very well run. The reception staff speak excellent English and were welcoming and helpful. In fact nearly all the staff – waiters etc - speak some English although most of the foreign tourists were Dutch (also a few Germans, Belgians and plenty of French).

The site itself is pleasant – there are plenty of trees for shade and the landscape of the Ardèche is very picturesque. But it is quite a built up campsite – the mobile homes are fairly closely packed together. This didn’t bother me personally but if you want to feel close to nature then maybe this site isn’t for you. And in some ways I found the environment less charming than the lakes and pines of last year’s campsite in the South West.

But I don’t want to put people off because this really was an excellent site, particularly for families. There are two swimming pools – a ‘grownup’ one and a more child friendly option with little bridges and mini waterfalls. No fancy flumes though. The shop is very useful and well stocked – you can buy freshly baked croissants and baguettes in the morning – and English newspapers.

We particularly liked the restaurant – it has a large, covered outside area which is very pleasant. There is an impressive pizza oven (which the children took full advantage of) but also a choice of more sophisticated, but not too expensive, dishes – whole squid, duck magret and bass for example. There was also a very tempting ice cream menu – responsible for general family weight gain. The local wines were cheap and good. The only problem was that service could be a bit slow on busy nights. There is also a snack bar on the other side of the campsite for lighter/cheaper meals.
There was masses of entertainment on offer – full use is made of the outdoor stage where different shows/discos were put on most nights. But nothing went on too late. There was also a kids’ club but our children opted out of this.

We didn’t make too many trips – it was very hot so more tempting to laze about near the chalet. But we did visit some very pretty local towns (buying food at the markets for lunch) and the countryside in the Ardèche is spectacular.

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Holiday Reading 2009 
Tuesday, August 4, 2009, 12:01 PM
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The Meaning of Night

I bought this neo-Victorian thriller because a couple of people had said how much they enjoyed it and the cover reviews were equally enthusiastic. On the plus side it was certainly a page turner and Michael Cox has created an intriguingly ambiguous protagonist, the brooding Edward Glyver, obsessed with his lost inheritance. But the mechanics of the story were terribly clunky in places – journals and documents falling into Edward’s hands at opportune moments for example – and while the writing at its best was effectively atmospheric there were some pedestrian passages and too many obtrusive references to contemporary (Victorian) culture. Overall perfectly fine – but not a patch on Fingersmith or The Quincunx. 7/10

Disgrace

I’d never read any Coetzee before – and people keep on telling me I should – so I chose Disgrace which won the Booker prize ten years ago. It was absorbing and very skilful, but somehow deeply unlikeable. Lurie, a middle aged academic, is an unappealingly solipsistic hero who loses his job following a rather mindless fling with a student. I found the character of Lucy (his hippie daughter) still more unappealing though, and fully sympathised with Lurie’s irritation with her as the novel’s nasty plot unfolds. The book grated on me so much that, when I returned from holiday, I turned to the most negative Amazon reviews hoping to have my prejudices confirmed. But I found that those who gave it one star ratings tended to do so because they thought Coetzee was too much of a wimpy liberal and had let White South Africans down. I found this bizarre, given that all the male non white characters are presented so negatively – and so remotely. I can see that the book is cleverly ambiguous, allowing the potential for completely divergent readings, and it would thus be an excellent novel to teach. But that’s another reason why I don’t like it – it could almost have been written to be a used as a set text – it generates endless productive seminar questions (what is the significance of the novel’s title? Analyse the function of the opera Lurie is trying to write within the context of the novel as a whole etc etc) in an annoyingly slick way. 7.5/10

The Little Stranger

Like all Waters’ novels this was extremely enjoyable and unfailingly readable. The portrait of a house – and an aristocratic family – in post war decay was effective, and the contrasting figure of the narrator (a doctor from a working class background) made for an interesting dynamic, slightly reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited. In the first half of the novel a more sinister, and indeed spooky, atmosphere builds up gradually, and it seems that the family is being haunted by the ghost of a long dead child. The novel’s greatest fault is its ending which is rather too pat and predictable. 8/10

The Fortune of War

I always enjoy reading Patrick O’Brian on holiday and this is the sixth of his Aubrey-Maturin series. It’s 1812 and England is now at war with America – although both Captain Jack Aubrey and his American adversaries would much rather be fighting the French. An excellent mix of naval battles with the super chivalrous Americans, deadly espionage involving the (effete yet dastardly) French, and romantic intrigue once the dashing Diana Villiers comes back on the scene. 8.5/10

It Can’t Happen Here

The most striking book of the holiday was Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’tHappen Here. I came across a reference to this novel on a website recently and thought it sounded intriguing. Published in 1936, it depicts a near future USA taken over by a fascist leader, the populist Buzz Windrip. The depiction of a regime similar to Nazi Germany yet still unmistakably American – the SS like militia is known as the ‘Minutemen’ – is chillingly effective. Elderly Doremus Jessup is an unlikely activist hero – he’s a rather idle, slightly snobbish journalist who just wants a quiet life. But he is horrified by the new regime’s treatment of women, blacks and Jews, and (eventually) starts to take a stand with dramatic consequences for himself and his family. This isn’t a wonderfully written or artfully constructed novel - but it is a powerful and prescient book which gripped me from start to finish. 9/10


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Demob Happy: Books Overboard 
Thursday, July 16, 2009, 03:59 PM
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As it’s the vacation (just about) and I won’t have to face my colleagues or students for quite a while I thought I’d confess to some great works of literature that I could do without.

I was prompted to think about this by Alex Massie’s recent piece in The Spectator, in which he considers which revered works of literature ‘could safely be ditched without causing too much pain or guilt.’ I like the list from "Second Pass" he links to – I don’t have a problem with Tale of Two Cities but I could certainly live without Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner. As for Lawrence – well, Alex had to teach The Rainbow to undergraduates once and found it so unrelievedly boring he had to stop reading - I gave him a potted summary and I believe the class went well.

So what else would go on my own list? I've never managed to finish anything by Salman Rushdie. I've also never got very far with Moby Dick. I agree with Alex Massie that Zola’s Germinal (which I had to drag myself through for A level) is dreary. I also particularly disliked Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things for some reason. I had to force myself to finish both Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy (though I really enjoyed Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer which is meant to be unreadable). I don’t care for Middlemarch much. I’d be quite happy if I was told I could never read a word by Virginia Woolf again. And I try to avoid King Lear whenever possible.

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