The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
You gotta be bonkers not to love Barbara Pym’s novels. Her acme was a 1950s suburban or neo-rural setting where The Archers doesn’t quite meet James Bond, coz you don’t get the offstage milking of cows, and if the tea is stirred, well it’s never shaken. The stories thrive off crinoline and a matching cruet set, cups of tea always, gallons of the stuff, but also sheer delight; they offer welcome shelter from today’s boorish age.
So here I identify as a spinster, a bit starchy coz am a clergyman’s daughter, rather prone to fantastical romance, though I sort of get my end away with an anthropologist before the book closes (though it’s the church pew that moves, course, not the earth): a reading from the opening page of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, narrated by its heroine, Mildred Lathbury. (The text is below.) I don’t identify that well, have to say, hence the tea spilt in the saucer (note that the cup and saucer don’t match, the real Mildred would never have allowed that, not for guests anyway), my cacophonous spoon tapping, the pub patois at the end, the hairy, unkempt fingers, the size 12 denture mark on the lemon drizzle cake, though I did shave this morning coz probably Marlon Brando’d have done that (it’s called method acting, though bugger the bit about tidying the kitchen).
Excellent Women is Pym’s second novel published. It’s a gentle, parochial version of the Keystone Cops: no truncheon or police car siren of course, but a true comedy of manners that revolves around mistake, mishap and flaw.
All her novels are stocked in the Beatnik, laid out like pots of jam at the church summer fete. If you don’t like her style, well all I can say is Divine retribution will come your way: it’s very likely that the doily napkins in your kitchen pantry will flutter at night – they must exist, they’re probably for sale next to the pudding basins in Boswell’s – and they’ll put a dead fly in the jam you spread on your scone. Or I will…
And what a wonderful glimpse into Mildred’s persona in this passage:
“I must have dropped off to sleep at this point, for the next thing I knew was that I had been woken up by the sound of the front door banging. I switched on the light and saw that it was ten minutes to one. I hoped the Napiers were not going to keep late hours and have noisy parties. Perhaps I was getting spinsterish and ‘set’ in my ways, but I was irritated at being woken. I stretched out my hand towards the little bookshelf where I kept cookery and devotional books, the most comforting bedside reading. My hand might have chosen Religio Medici, but I was rather glad that it had picked out Chinese Cookery and I was soon soothed into drowsiness.”
– from Excellent Women