Holiday Diary II


Mr Litlove sets off bright and early from our hilltop retreat for his workshop in the valley and texts me later to say that he didn’t have to touch the pedals of his bike until he was halfway there. I have brought my laptop with me and a half-finished essay on Henry Miller. As ever, after a few days away from work, I am longing to get back to it. I launch myself at Henry with an enthusiasm the poor man rarely received in life.

Here’s the thing about writing on Henry Miller: his book, Tropic of Cancer, has a dreadful reputation because it contains descriptions of women rightly described as offensive. But here’s the point: they are placed in the mouths of male characters who are lazy, feckless moral cowards, incapable of holding down a proper relationship. And I have to say that they are also funny. Yes, I have been a card-carrying feminist all my life, but I don’t find it a problem to laugh at their antics. All this gender policing seems to me to be a bit scary sometimes. It makes us precious, unable to laugh at ourselves, quick to offence. I think it’s the men who are the butt of the joke in Miller’s book; they’re the real idiots. So what’s it better to teach people to do: read the words, register disrespect, react outraged because disrespect is always wrong, or: read the words, take in the context, understand the deeper meaning of the story?

My immediate problem is how to make it clear that there is more to Henry Miller than the one-dimensional smutty writer label he gets stuck with, and more to Tropic of Cancer than a book that pokes fun at women (which I don’t actually think it does). How to do this without being preachy or defensive or anything else that will stop people from working out a subtle truth that is harder to deal with than a black and white easy certainty?

By four my head is dizzy with words and I tell myself I should go out and walk again. I walk through a little wooded dell and out onto a road that borders a harvested field, rolls of hay looking like curled pats of butter, and just beyond it, the start of the golf course. But walking on my own I feel ridiculously exposed. Silly. Aimless. I feel as if any moment one of the cars passing by will pull up alongside me, and the window will descend and a voice ask: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ And I will have no other reply than: ‘I have no idea!’ To the consternation of a passing cyclist I do a u-turn in the road and head back, uphill all the way. By the time I reach the steep ascent into the hamlet I am thinking that on my hands and knees would actually be a perfectly appropriate way to proceed. When I collapse into the cool sanctuary of the sitting room, my shirt is stuck to my back and tendrils of hair to my neck, and I think: people do that for fun?



Mr Litlove is so keen that he is up and out in order to be there when the workshop doors open at 8am. He is working with a professional furniture maker, Chris, and two other apparently generic men named Steve and Dave. Oh, hello feminists! Rather than get mad at Henry, how about making something out of wood? There’s a male enclave that hasn’t been hit by equality yet. I finish the essay on Henry in about an hour and, as is my usual practice, spend the rest of the day rewriting that ending.

I had resigned myself to being stuck all week up the top of the hill, as we had come in Mr Litlove’s car which is much bigger than mine and I hardly ever drive it. However, when Mr Litlove returned yesterday, he threw such decisions into chaos.

‘I thought you might like to know there’s a bookshop in Ilkley,’ he told me.

‘A book shop?’

‘Yes, it’s called “Just Books”.’

I thought about this.

‘Maybe if you turned the car around so it’s pointing downhill, I could drive it.’

So at half four I find myself gingerly creeping down the road into the town. The heat is sizzling and when I park the car in a mercifully flat and empty car park flooded with hard, white sunshine, I feel like a steak on a griddle pan. ‘Just Books’ is easy to find. It’s only a remainder bookshop but the stock isn’t bad and the prices are cheap. I come away with four new books for £10. I also go to the chemist as I’ve forgotten to bring moisturising lotion and buy a cocoa butter based cream that will leave me smelling as sickly sweet as the inside of a tin of soft-centred chocolates.

Then I go and stand on the shady side of the street and wait. Of course he comes from a different angle to the one I’m expecting, my white knight atop his bicycle. Mr Litlove slews round in a wide arc and hops off at my feet. ‘I see you found the bookshop,’ he says, nodding at my carrier bag. It is still so odd, this being just the two of us again, without our son. I can’t figure out how old we are, because it’s possible we’re back in our early twenties and all that parenting was just a complicated dream.

We pack his bike into the back of the car and head up another perilous road to the top of the moor. We have come to find a well-known pub, The Cow and Calf, so named for the strangely shaped outcrops of rock that face it. It is blissfully cool up this high, but the rocks look like nothing more than large lumps of rock, and I am forced to conclude that the pub was named something quite different until a group of revellers staggered out at closing time one night and had an epiphany.


And Still More To Come!


29 thoughts on “Holiday Diary II

  1. Ah, wood – I remember getting *very* stroppy at school because I was not allowed to do Woodwork! But I’m glad you found a bookstore. My 3 offspring are all grown up and (nearly) gone – but it still feels odd if just OH and I go out. Parenthood brainwashes you somewhat….

    • Doesn’t it brainwash you! And I feel like I have all this love that I don’t know what to do with… Oh well, I expect I’ll adjust. I love that you wanted to do woodwork. I had to do it and was absolutely appalling – everything I nailed or sawed or stuck had to be done again by my saintly teacher. He never told me off – he was very patient! — but I leave the woodwork to Mr L. 🙂

    • I think I do, too. I agree though – decidedly odd! I felt the whole time like I’d mislaid something, or as if there was something I really should be doing but had forgotten about. I think our son liked having the house to himself, though, and was a bit sorry we had to come back!

      • I find it hard to accept the fact that a family argument doesn’t escalate without the daughters stoking the fire.
        Off to Mallorca at the end of August again a deux.

  2. Loving your holiday diary! I completely relate to how walking alone somehow feels aimless and exposed, especially in new places. I look forward to the day when my husband and I will travel/holiday alone (not that I want to rush my kids on, but he is my favourite travel companion).

    • Oh thank you for the solidarity! I’m so glad it’s not just me. You might steal the odd weekend away with your husband if you can – it’s such a lovely treat in the midst of full on parenting!

  3. Tropic of Cancer, now that’s a book title I remember from when I was 16 and reading everything I could get my hands on. And of course this was enticing because it was said to be ‘dirty’. But I couldn’t tell you a thing about it now.
    As for the wood work – there seem to be loads of women who want to do carpentry but get put off by the blokish atmophere in the classes. Much as men would if they went to a sewing class I suppose.

    • Ah the culture of a workplace is so often the culprit for all sorts of social crimes, isn’t it? I’m impressed you read Tropic of Cancer at 16. I was in my late 30s when I first read it. I had expected not to enjoy it, but once it gets going, it’s funny and sad and perceptive in a disturbing way, but by current graphic standards, really not that dirty.

  4. Of course now you’ve got me wondering about an author that was totally not on my to-be-read list. The sordid side of his writing puts me off but I am curious about his writing life and I’m sure you’ve got some very interesting things to say about him. As for your holiday, I was imagining how different it must be without your son. I’m sure you appreciate the free time but it must still feel odd that he’s not there. I was also thinking a picture or two of your holidays would be great but your descriptions conjure up the scene perfectly so we don’t actually need them.

    • Aw bless you, that’s such a nice thing to say. I’ve been meaning to put photos in, in fact, but we hadn’t downloaded them from Mr L’s phone. I got a couple in the next post! As for Henry Miller, I wouldn’t say read him now, because you need patience for the first 40 pages or so. But in 5 years time you might like to pick him up – there are psychological truths of an uncomfortable kind that would interest you, I think.

  5. So how does Mr. Litlove do riding his bike back up to the Hamlet? Not as easy as going down I expect. I suppose you have to have a few too many pints for the rocks to look like a cow and calf. But yay! A book shop. Amazing how readers manage to find one wherever they spend their holiday. You’d think they followed us around or something.

    • Lol! I do wish bookshops followed me around – there’s a superpower I hadn’t thought to ask for, but I like it! 🙂 As for Mr L., he arrived back up at our eyrie VERY hot and sweaty and out of puff! I told him there was absolutely no shame in having to walk the last quarter of a mile – it was almost vertical!

  6. We’re just back from Jersey, and with the exception of a Christian bookshop, as far as we could find, there was just a Waterstones and Ottokars in St Helier on the island – how I’d have liked to come across a lovely little second hand book shop…
    On the subject of wood, last month we had a demonstration of chain-saw carving at the all boys school where I work. The carver was a woman, she was fascinating to watch, and the end results – a bench with animal ends will have pride of place in our grounds.

    • Okay, I’ve noted that – Channel Islands not a prime holiday location for me! 🙂 No, seriously, I could live without a bookshop. Well, maybe. For a little while. And how fantastic that your chain-saw carving artist was a woman! There really are so very, very few women working with wood.

  7. I am enjoying your Holiday Diary very much. Thanks for taking your readers along with you! So pleased you also found a book store. What did you buy?

    I remember being very afraid of Tropic of Cancer, worried it would be too difficult. With the exception of a couple of unintelligible (to me at least) stream-of-consciousness like moments, I actually found it very funny and entertaining. I don’t remember any offensive descriptions of women, so I must have taken it all with a grain of salt.

    • Hurray, I’m so glad you liked Tropic of Cancer. I think it’s hilarious and am delighted you did, too. I was going to take a photo of my new books, but haven’t had a chance yet – there were two crime novels, Mr Fox by Helen Oyemi and The Golden Hour by William Nicholson (I think that’s the title – am too lazy to check!). I was very pleased. 🙂

  8. Interesting… imagine it’s women having a bonding time doing woodwork and the men looking for bookstores. But it’s all fine too that you get to enjoy a hilltop experience. I’m glad there’s a bookstore nearby though and that it has lots of bargains. Enjoy your reads and have a good retreat. 😉

    • Ha, yes, I’m trying to think if I know any men who would search for bookstores, and I can think of a few academics, but they are few and far between! Bargains are always good, and I thought the selection was really very good. You know ‘retreat’ is a very good word for my week away – it did feel like that! 🙂

    • Ingrid – it does feel odd! It’s because so many years pass and you become so thoroughly accustomed to family life. What it feels is very, very quiet. On the down side, it’s sort of empty, on the plus side, it’s amazingly restful. Your partner even looks different because you are seeing them as themselves again, not as part of a team. I miss my son a lot at the moment, and feel like I have all this love I don’t know what to do with, but I do appreciate the time and spaciousness. Like so much to do with families, it’s just different all the time, different pros and cons, very rarely pure delight.

  9. I am having so much fun reading your holiday journal. You are doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing. An English cottage in a small, quaint village sounds wonderful. Hopefully the weather will grow a little cooler and more comfortable. But to me the whole thing sounds dreamy.

    • Oh Grad, that’s so nice that you would like this sort of holiday. It’s very restful, and the area we were in was very pretty. It never got cooler, which was a bit of a shame (though I know I shouldn’t complain, we so rarely get it this hot!), but it was a very good peaceful holiday.

  10. Miaow from your feline friend in London. The two “Tropics” books by Miller are, I would agree, misunderstood and underrated these days. Eagerly awaiting your essay!

    • Aha, the cat returns! I’ve been wondering where you are! I’m so glad you like Miller. I actually sent you a copy of the essay by email attachment, but I’ve changed it since, in fact, so if you’re interested, don’t bother with the one I’ve sent but let me know and I’ll pass on the newer version.

  11. We spent a week at the beach with both grown children, and it was interesting to relate to each other as adults, although there were moments when each of us relapsed into the old parent/child dynamic, especially when tired. I’m glad to hear that there are good things about being suddenly a couple again, because that’s coming right up at the end of August.

  12. I love reading about your holiday adventures! And I think it is too cool that you and Mr Litlove feel like you’ve gone back to life before (though certainly with lots of knowledge under your belts)–that sounds quite nice to me. I think I am living your vacation vicariously. I am very curious to read your essay on Henry Miller–I expect my own ideas are based on misinformation and a good essayist will give an even handed view of the author, which I totally expect you will do! Maybe there will be a resurgence of interest even!

    • Henry Miller’s a funny one. I wouldn’t put him high on my mental list for you, just cos I think there are lots of authors you would like better. I’m sure you could appreciate him, though, if you wanted to. His trilogy about his life up until he left America, The Rosy Crucifixion, is a much ‘easier’ as in less controversial read than Tropic of Cancer, yet T of C is the one people hear about, I suppose precisely because of the controversy. He had a wonderfully car-crash life, though, which was the thing I got curious about (really, my curiosity is shocking; this is what lies behind the impulse to biography! snooping!). I must say I do like having more life back now my son is older. Those early years, well, they are quite an experience, but completely exhausting. I do get a lot more read these days! 🙂

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