A Nightmare on Wheels

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Finally the grass has returned to Hoxton Square, and we’ve been taking our sandwiches into the sunshine for lunch. We’ve got our fingers crossed for a long, hot summer, but should that fail to materialise we’re recommending a visit to Michael Jenkins’s A House in Flanders as a back-up this month. With him you can escape to the golden summer of a 14-year-old boy sent to France in the school holidays.

The Summer issue has now arrived, its cover bearing a beautiful illustration by Emily Sutton (it could be a strong contender for the next tea towel design). It’s full of articles which will whet your appetite for a summer of reading. We’ve also recently published three more paperbacks, as well as the 22nd Slightly Foxed Edition, Richard Hillyer’s Country Boy, which comes dressed in the shades of a wild orchard, all apple green and poppy red.

Our 10th birthday and 40th issue are steadily approaching and we’ll soon be letting you know how we intend to celebrate them. Until then, you can catch up with us at several literary events over the summer, and of course there’s our Readers’ Day to look forward to on 9 November. Speakers will include Quentin Blake, Ronald Blythe, Usrula Buchan, Sue Gee and Sara Wheeler. You’ll find more details below. For now, though, we leave you with P.D. James, Michael Jenkins and the panther.

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‘There are some books, not necessarily the longest, in which the author’s intention is so perfectly realized, a seminal experience of life so beautifully recorded that the book becomes a small icon to be treasured not only on the shelf of a personal library, but in the mind. A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins is such a book.

In essentials this is a memoir: shortly after the Second World War, Michael, a 14-year-old boy, intelligent, sensitive and solitary, is sent by his parents to spend his summer holiday with a French family in a large house on the edge of the great Flanders plain. It is a true story told, not contemporaneously by the boy himself, but by the man he became. We have therefore not only the immediacy and freshness of a boy’s reaction to this new world, but the resonance of an adult sensitivity to pain; the abandonment of love, the unborn child who might have been, the detritus of war and German occupation, the struggle to maintain a large family house and the way of life it enshrines while knowing that, for a new generation, such security and values could be seen as a prison rather than a refuge.’ P.D. James

In the following extract from A House in Flanders, Tante Yvonne decides that it is time for Michael to visit ‘the panther’.

IX Agathe

‘It is time’, said Tante Yvonne to me one evening, ‘that you visited the panther. Do you not agree, Thérèse?’‘Most certainly. It is important to cultivate the mind,’ responded Thérèse with a twinkle in her eye. ‘I will send her a message suggesting that she issues an invitation to tea. That is the hour she likes to receive callers.’The panther was, Yvonne explained to me, Agathe Chaillot who lived alone in the largest house on the main street of the village. Some years ago she had for no particular reason taken to her bed and liked to spend her days reading, or supposedly writing memoirs which in Yvonne’s view were unlikely ever to find their way on to the printed page.‘She will tell you about her life and incidentally no doubt a great deal about ours,’ said Yvonne. ‘Don’t believe everything you hear; and don’t let her give you more books than you can carry away,’ she added.On the chosen day I pulled the bell handle of an imposing house whose windows fronted directly on to the narrow main street. The door was opened by a tiny maid of indeterminate age who eyed me suspiciously before allowing me inside. But she appeared to be expecting me, acknowledging my presence without speaking a word before she left me standing in a hall panelled in heavily varnished wood and almost devoid of light. The air had the heavy, fusty smell with a distinct element of mothballs that I had come recently to associate with the hermetically sealed doors and windows inside which French people apparently preferred to live. Silently, the maid reappeared at the top of the stairs, and with a curt nod invited me to follow her.I was shown into a large, sunny room with a huge bed standing along the windows at the far end. The woman who was leaning against an array of pillows, from which emanated a strong scent of lavender, seemed to me unnaturally thin and frail even for her considerable age: I noticed her smooth, almost transparent skin, her sunken cheeks and her sharp, humorous eyes. She had neat white hair and looked poised and elegant, but there was a feline air about her movements which no doubt accounted for her sobriquet.‘Now find a chair and tell me how everyone is below,’ said Madame Chaillot when I had shaken the skeletal hand she extended to me. ‘Of course I keep an eye on you all, as you can observe.’ She noticed with amusement my surprise as, approaching the window, I found that I could see beyond the massive village wall at the end of the garden and down to the roof of the house which looked as if it was anchored to the edge of the plain. It was a spectacular view, almost vertiginous, as if you were looking out over a vast expanse of ocean from the mast of a ship . . .

. . . I looked round the room. Bookshelves lined one of the walls, and were crammed with volumes in all shapes and sizes. In a corner stood a desk liberally strewn with papers, while a fire flickered in the large hearth, despite the warmth of the afternoon. Following my glance, the panther drew back her lips again in what I realised was the nearest she could come to a smile.‘Now tell me what you are reading. What amuses someone of your age these days?’I replied that I was making progress with The Three Musketeers, a volume which Tante Alice had picked out of the library for me and which I was, in truth, finding rather heavy-going.

Madame Chaillot snorted.‘Rubbish. We must begin to awaken your sensibilities with some real literature. You are old enough now for the greatest romantic tale of this century.’ She guided me along the shelves until I found a well-thumbed, slim volume in a torn cover, which proved to be Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier.‘You will, I hope, never forget that I introduced you to this wonderful story. But I will say no more; bring it back when you have read it and tell me what you think.’

Extracted from A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins


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