Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Yesterday evening I tried out a new book club. One of the volunteers I work with in the store runs a group and has been encouraging me to join. The book choice was very tempting. The group reads around a theme, four books in total, and the theme at the moment is collectors. The previous book was The Hare With Amber Eyes and this time it was The Conjuror’s Bird by Martin Davies.

I’ve always been wary of joining reading groups because I figure no one really wants a lecturer in literature at them, much as I wished I’d never agreed to cook dinner for one of Mister Litlove’s colleagues, when I found out his wife was a professional chef. But if I kept quiet, nobody need ever know what my job had once been. And on the whole I carried it off okay. When one of the members started complaining about the way that some people read far too much into books, I promise there was not a peep out of me. Alas, I may have ruined this self-restraint later in the evening, when I suddenly found myself in the middle of an impassioned speech about George Sand. I’m not even quite sure how it happened, you know, these things just sneak up on a person. But I thought oops! and applied the internal brakes. Lord it’s hard pretending to be normal, when you’ve been an academic for many years.

The book was charming, and we all agreed we’d enjoyed reading it. The Conjuror’s Bird is a dual narrative, one part set in the present day, as John Fitzgerald (known as Fitz) tries to hunt down The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, a unique specimen of an extinct bird that had been given to the great 18th century naturalist, Joseph Banks, and is now a curiosity worth a great deal of money to the right collector. The other half of the narrative takes place between 1768 and 1774, gradually unfolding the history of what happened to Banks, the bird and the equally mysterious woman in his life. This is a beautifully organised time shift narrative, with two strong storylines. In the present day, Fitz is trying to shake off the weight of the past, a broken attachment to the beautiful Gabby, who is also on the hunt for the bird, and the shadow of his grandfather, whose search for a rare African peacock ended in disaster. In the historical narrative the naturalist Banks meets and befriends a young woman in his home village with a prodigious talent for draughtsmanship. Her father has caused much scandal, though, and she is condemned to the margins of society. Banks’ passion for her will nearly ruin his career. Anyway, good book, not one of the standout greats, but well worth a read.

So, I left the party about ten o’clock, tired because I don’t do much socialising in the evening, but feeling the evening had gone okay. The group had met in a town called St. Ives, about twenty minutes west of Cambridge on the A14. This is a horrendous road. Just in the past couple of days we’ve had two big crashes on it; a lorry veered across the central reservation, taking out the caravan on the back of a car (which was lucky) and then there’d been a multiple pile-up. There aren’t very many main roads out our way – a big network of tiny ones joining up a scattering of villages, and then the A14, which is ridiculously busy in consequence. It was late, though, and the roads were quiet. As I came to the slip road, I noticed it was closed. This was a nuisance as there was no alternative at that point but to rejoin the A14 headed west, travelling in completely the opposite direction to my home. So, I came off at the next junction, thinking to rejoin the other carriageway, but once again it was closed. I was forced back onto the main road. And at the next junction, same story.

By now I was beginning to wake up from the state of autopilot I’d been driving in and was wondering what the hell was going on. I was at Huntingdon, the next big town along and significantly further from my house, still headed in completely the wrong direction. I stopped at a garage to ask for directions, and the young man there suggested I take a road south, which would eventually lead me back to Cambridge. At the time this seemed crazy, as I live north of Cambridge and would effectively be driving around three sides of a big square. Surely the next slip road would be open? Ignoring the guy’s advice, I rejoined the A14. Then looming up ahead was an information screen – it turned out that it wasn’t just the slip roads that were closed. A long section of the motorway east had been sealed off for the night. Goodness knows why or what for; I never saw any construction workers on it. But it meant that there was no way I was headed east on the A14 that night. I could have burst into tears out of sheer frustration. It was late, I was tired, and I was having visions of spending the night at the wheel, stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare in which I could not get my car pointed in the right direction.

It seemed ludicrous to have spent the evening discussing explorers circumnavigating the globe and penetrating the Belgian Congo, and then not be able to find my own way home. I pulled off the main road at Brampton, a suburb of Huntingdon, and found that by great good fortune I had a map in the car. My spirits rose: there was a way to get north of the A14 and then head west. It’s funny, I have a mind that retains the names of characters I read in books years ago, but I have a lot of trouble fixing journeys in it. I figured I could check the map as I went along, only this didn’t turn out to be possible. Driving strange roads in the dark, I noticed stopping places once I’d gone past them. But I finally made my way back to St Ives, an hour after I’d left it. Then I launched myself onto the network of small roads, just looking out for names I recognised. About half eleven I entered my own village, with a sort of ‘Darling, I’ll never leave you again’ feeling. And then oh miracles, my own home, my beloved men folk! I even felt fond of the cat (who’d been sick on a pile of my French novels earlier in the week, putting him well out of my graces). I fell on their collective necks with exquisite relief.

‘This is not a good way to persuade you to go out more,’ mused Mister Litlove.

And indeed, part of me thinks E M Forster had it quite right when he decided never to set foot beyond the precincts of Cambridge. Reading about explorers was fine; having to be intrepid late at night, not so great.




15 thoughts on “Long Day’s Journey Into Night

  1. Your description of the ride home reminded me of numerous nightmares I’ve actually had. You seemed to handle the situation without the panic I might have felt, which would have made it worse, or the sense of unreality and trying to figure out how to wake myself up. I love this sentence:

    It seemed ludicrous to have spent the evening discussing explorers circumnavigating the globe and penetrating the Belgian Congo, and then not be able to find my own way home.

    You are such a good story-teller, building the tension, then releasing it with humor and the wonderful description of typical cat shenanigans. Who cares about the book with such a great story like that? I hope it doesn’t give me another nightmare. It was scarier than that ghost story you recently reviewed.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the book part of the evening! We also had a terrible time getting home but made it in the end thanks to the trusty road atlas.
    P.S Your self-restraint was impressive…(& the George Sand info was really interesting)

  3. Oh my, what a journey! I have a horrible fear of being lost on the roadways. Being unable to get to your own home by any familiar route must have been ridiculously frustrating, especially in the dark. Just reading the narrative made me anxious…so glad it ended well!

    I’m happy the book club turned out well, too. I tend to shy away from book clubs because it’s much harder for me to organize my thoughts about books in order to speak them out loud as opposed to putting them on paper. I did attend a group a few months ago, and was surprised how well it turned out. I even managed to say a few fairly intelligent things!

  4. I too do not go out much in the evenings so I really sympathise — what a journey! As for your experience of being a lit lecturer in a reading group — I also have that problem. I’ve joined a very nice group in Oxford and mostly manage to be just one of the crowd but gave them a rather startling lecture on Thomas Hardy’s novel not long ago — luckily they took it very well. I read this book a while ago and remember enjoying it.

  5. Lol. So funny. I’ve heard stories like this… and the shutting down of the streets at night. Made my boyfriend miss the ferry back to France the last time he was in St.Ives. I find British roads ghastly. Still I can’t help thinking you were sort of glad…what a good excuse for staying in. 🙂 I’m a lot like that. Even a missed tram on the way back will be the best of excuses to not go out too often.
    I always think it would be nice to join a book club but then I start to imagine the details… I’d have to be the one choosing the books. I never noticed but think I have a few books on collectors.
    The roads around Paris are also nightmarish. I remember circling around Paris for over an hour and end up be at the starting point.

  6. What an adventure! I’m glad you found your way home, at one point of your post I thought you would end up in a hotel or trying to negotiate sleeping on your host’s sofa, which is not a good way to ingratiate yourself with near strangers, even in a friendly book club.

  7. “Lord it’s hard pretending to be normal, when you’ve been an academic for many years.”

    Oh this made me laugh! You had quite the adventure getting home but you handled it well and made it home safe and sound! Who needs a GPS system when you have a good map in your car? My husband is not good at navigating even in a city we’ve lived in for going on 17 years. He will sometimes get himself lost and then call me so I can navigate him to his destination.

  8. I was at university in Cambridge and my mum lived in St Ives many years later and I entirely share your horror of the A14. A Dual Carriageway Deathtrap. Still, I applaud your spirit in joining bookclubs. I am too grouchy to share or suffer fools gladly. The one bookclub I did try was one in which we each wholeheartedly despised one another’s choices. That said, I remember each of those books I ‘hated’ very clearly while other more comfortable reads have merged into oblivion. Perhaps its just the challenge that I hate.

  9. And I’m complaining about the road work and constructions in our city… yours are much harder to navigate looks like. I can empathize, it’s dark, and you’re tired, and you’re far away from home. Hope that would not change your mind about joining book groups in the future. BTW, that’s an apt title for your post. And yes, the sentence that Stephanie caught, I found that amusing too.

  10. Sorry to hear about the horrendous journey home, but glad that you got there! We have a lecturer in our book club and she doesn’t have your restraint: over the years, we have learnt crafty ways to circumvent her orations. One of the things we do when she gets going is to start quiet conversations amongst ourselves, until she realises she is orating to the walls.

  11. Lilian – thank you! It’s the saving grace of bad experiences, that they make the best anecdotes! 🙂

    Squirrel – it occured to me that I could easily have got panicky if I let myself – one thing that actually helped was that I was too tired to be bothered! It uses up a lot of energy, panic, and I just didn’t have any to spare. Your comments about this being a scary story made me laugh (and the compliment was one I’ll cherish) – it is the real life things like getting lost that are so much scarier than the idea of ghosts, no? 🙂

    Ms Thrifty! – how nice to have you visit and thank you for inviting me. The book group part of the evening was a pleasure. I did wonder how you managed on your journey home, and I’m sorry that you got caught up in the road closures too (although you reassure me that I wasn’t being abjectly stupid!). And thank you for being so nice about George Sand. The desire to impart information isn’t always pretty!

    Becca – bless you! It can be really hard to get thoughts together on something as elusive as books. I’ve had masses of practice, and still sometimes I feel I’m just not nailing what I want to say. I’m really glad you enjoyed your book group, as feeling safe and confident helps enormously with speaking up.

    David – lol!! Love it! You’re so right – that should be a category all on its own.

    Harriet – oh you make me feel so much better to know it’s not just me who suddenly comes out with these things! How that old habit dies hard. And yes, this was a lovely book (rather lost in the other details). We all enjoyed it a great deal.

    Caroline – once in my life I did the peripherique – never again. Sheer terror. But yes, the roads around here and the A14 in particular can be a nightmare. I loathe traffic jams (more than getting lost!) and often that seems to me more than reason enough not to bother with a journey. The blogworld is a good place for those of us who like collective reading but aren’t so sure about book clubs – the right degree of separation between participants in virtual space, I think!

    Smithereens – lol! Too funny! And you know at one point I was wondering if I’d have to sleep in the car that night. Then I told myself not to be so ridiculous…. but I’ll bet the A14 has caused a lot of people to camp out, for one reason or another.

    Stefanie – lol! I considered calling the men at home, but I didn’t want to worry them and I felt sure that any directions they gave me would be so complicated that I would NEVER hold them in my head. Bookman does make me laugh though. I fear that my technophobia would get the better of me with GPS, and I’d be in the even worse position of having one and not knowing how to make it give me an alternative route! Very glad to make you laugh, though. Mister Litlove laughed, but hollowly, because he knows it’s true….

    Sandra – how funny! It must be a variation on the line that happiness has no story, that hated books are the ones we recall. I’ve been wary of book clubs for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because I’m terrified I’ll go into autopilot and start teaching people, and they would find it worse than if I’d just said idiotic things. There’s not much to choose between a fool and an academic, in the sense that extremes meet in space. 🙂 You are so right about the A14.

    Arti – I’m sure I’ll go to this one again some time – not least because the venue changes with every meeting! I found it funny how riled I was by the roadworks, when really it wasn’t such a huge problem. But there it is – being tired, being alone, late at night, getting confused, these things ramp up the level of stress!

    Charlotte – lol! And quite right, too. I remember one lecturer staring in complete incomprehension at a student and saying ‘I don’t know how anyone could fail to be fascinated by the Italian renaissance.’ The words formed in crystal clarity in my head: Please do not ever let me get to that state.

  12. Late-night driving adventures are no fun at all! Staying at home on the couch reading has tons of appeal — I say as I’m comfortably at home on a Saturday evening! I’m glad the meeting itself went well.

  13. I’m not very social either, especially if it meant going through a huge hassle to get home. I’m sorry it turned out to be such an ordeal (Kafkaesque is right!), but I have to admit I had a chuckle out of your story. Naughty cat! Mine has on occasion honed her claws on a stack of books I stupidly left sitting on the floor. An act which does nothing to endear her to me. Glad to hear you liked the book, though, as I have a copy of it myself. I suspect when I finally pull it out to read it your post will be in mind when I crack it open. 🙂

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