Clas­sic hits

Over the re­mains of sum­mer days, our colum­nist sug­gests re­vis­it­ing some literary greats.

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Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins’ list of books to re-visit

The other day an old friend took one of those phone calls from his doc­tor that no one wants to re­ceive: “I’m ad­mit­ting you to hos­pi­tal.” Af­ter pack­ing a bag for a brief stay, it oc­curred to him that he needed a book. He had been sort­ing out old books, long in stor­age, and grabbed the first de­cent read on the top of the pile, threw it in his bag and headed out the door. The book was The Foun­tain­head (1943) by Ayn Rand, some­thing we both read as teenagers, adored and, back then, dis­cussed at length. It still pro­vides oc­ca­sional con­ver­sa­tional ref­er­ences. The next day, he sent a text: “Could you bring read­ing ma­te­rial? Any­thing light.” I turned up at the hos­pi­tal with a bag full of David Sedaris and Ben­jamin Law. When I asked about The Foun­tain­head, he looked a lit­tle guilty as he said, “It’s bloody aw­ful.” I’m a big fan of re-read­ing books and re-watch­ing movies, but there are some you just can’t go back to. I sus­pect Ayn Rand’s black-and-white view of the world suits the teenage mind but less so those of us who have since re­alised we are not a unique, supremely tal­ented ge­nius liv­ing on a moral plane well above the heads of the com­mon folk. Ar­chi­tects will al­ways love this book but the smart ones read it while they’re young and then move on. Sum­mer is the time for read­ing. Book sales go nuts in De­cem­ber – and here’s hop­ing there are one or two new ti­tles in your Christ­mas sack this year. But once you’ve read those and are on the hunt for more, con­sider re-read­ing. Some of the best books for a fresh take are those in which houses are ma­jor char­ac­ters – they can be re-imag­ined slightly dif­fer­ently as your ideas about de­sign ma­ture. No spoiler alerts – here’s a list of clas­sics I as­sume you’ve read (or at least seen the movie) and which lie around the house, the bach, the farm, in grand­par­ents’ book­cases, op-shop or the lo­cal li­brary. Great Ex­pec­ta­tions (1861), by Charles Dick­ens Satis House has ev­ery­thing you might want in a great mid-Vic­to­rian do-up, if only old Miss Haver­sham would move on. You might have to get com­mer­cial clean­ers in – but the world is your oys­ter. Re­becca (1938), by Daphne du Mau­rier The un­named sec­ond Mrs de Winter moves into Man­der­ley, the haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful house where she fails to fol­low the car­di­nal rule of a sec­ond wife – re­dec­o­rate com­pletely – with dire con­se­quences. The Cas­tle of Oranto (1764), by Ho­race Walpole Okay, this clas­sic Gothic hor­ror isn’t ly­ing around in most baches. It was writ­ten by Walpole af­ter he dreamed about com­ing down the stair­case at Straw­berry Hill, his house in Twick­en­ham, London, to find a gi­ant sev­ered hand in the en­trance hall – the story un­folds from there. When I vis­ited Straw­berry Hill I mar­velled at its tiny stair­case and lit­tle re­cep­tion hall, but mostly at Walpole’s fevered imag­i­na­tion. Gone with the Wind (1936), by Mar­garet Mitchell For­get Scar­lett O’Hara and Rhett But­ler, the real star here is Tara, the south­ern plan­ta­tion house. The best scene is when Scar­lett makes a dress from the cur­tains. On a wet day at the bach you can while away the time fig­ur­ing just how you’d turn those cur­tains into a dress to wear for a life-chang­ing busi­ness meet­ing – all good fun. The Age of In­no­cence (1920), by Edith Whar­ton I never tire of Whar­ton. In this, the au­thor il­lus­trates the wealth of the Julius Beau­forts through their ball­room “used for no other pur­pose, and left for three-hun­dred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shut­tered dark­ness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a cor­ner and its chan­de­lier in a bag”, un­til, of course, they give a ball. Her books are full of acute de­scrip­tions of dé­cor and spa­ces as be­fits the au­thor of The Dec­o­ra­tion of Houses (1897). The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald When talk­ing about mega-man­sions, Gatsby had the best. Fitzgerald clev­erly un­der-de­scribes it, leav­ing your imag­i­na­tion to go wild. Baz Luhrmann did it pretty well on film but try the book first. The Eus­tace Di­a­monds (1871), by Anthony Trol­lope One of the Pal­liser nov­els, it’s ideal if, like many con­tem­po­rary readers, you pre­fer a se­ries. How­ever, Game of Thrones fans be­ware – there’s not a hairy, un­washed, princeling to be seen, just some care­fully clipped mous­taches and won­der­fully de­tailed in­te­ri­ors. Also try The Small House at Alling­ton (1864) from the Chron­i­cles of Barset­shire se­ries. Brideshead Re­vis­ited (1945), by Eve­lyn Waugh When I first read this I was quite con­vinced that Brideshead was mine and we’d sim­ply and cru­elly been sep­a­rated at birth – such are the evo­ca­tions of clothes, food and in­te­ri­ors. A re­cent visit to Cas­tle Howard in York­shire, where both tele­vi­sion se­ries (ex­cel­lent) and film (abysmal) were shot, sim­ply con­firmed what I’ve al­ways sus­pected – I had come home. One lunchtime this sum­mer, make a sor­rel omelette like the one Charles Ry­der or­ders for Rex Mot­tram in a London restau­rant – they’re heaven. Re­mains of the Day (1987), by Kazuo Ishig­uro Dar­ling­ton Hall is a late en­trant into the cat­e­gory of stately home fic­tion – but when did the No­ble Prize for Lit­er­a­ture last go to some­one whose book you’d want to read at the beach? I’ve been re­minded to men­tion the New Zealan­ders – and our best writer of fic­tional in­te­ri­ors is Shonagh Koea. The ti­tles say it all: Stay­ing Home and Be­ing Rot­ten (1992), The Wed­ding at Bueno-Vista (1996) and the un­for­get­table Yet An­other Ghastly Christ­mas (2003). The last one makes a great cover to hide be­hind when you want to get your point across to the rel­lies this sum­mer break. Happy read­ing.

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