Last week was #LoveParks week, an initiative by Keep Britain Tidy to show a bit of love for parks and green spaces across the country. As I’d been out and about taking #LoveParks pictures for the Friends of Crumpsall Park all week, I thought I’d turn my attention to my favourite literary green spaces on this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. You can listen again to show on the player below, but as promised here are details of the books I discussed. Let me know if I missed any!
Quite a lot of my lists include a title by one of the Queens of Crime, and this one’s no different. Rendell’s book tells the seemingly unconnected stories of Mary Jago, Hob and Bean – three people whose lives revolve around Regent’s Park and its environs. Mary is a young woman who has left her abusive partner and is housesitting for an elderly couple at the edge of the park; Hob is a drug addict who beats people up to get his next fix; Bean is an old ‘upper servant’ type, who walks dogs for rich people in and around the park. When the body of a homeless man is found impaled on the park gates, a murder investigation is launched – but more will be revealed than just the murderer. The lives of the various characters we encounter may well be more deeply connected than we (or they) realize.
Not only is this a classic Rendell mystery – with detailed and compelling characters, and an incredibly evocative sense of place – but it’s also a great place to start a tour of literary parks. Here, the park is a place where disparate lives overlap, and where disconnected stories find a place of connection – even if only for a moment.
Although the show mainly focused on municipal and urban parks, I thought it was only right to have one title that features a different kind of green space – the country park estate. And as the new ten pound note featuring Jane Austen has just been unveiled, it seemed fitting that I included Austen’s novel on my list.
Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, who moves to the eponymous estate when she is ten years old. Fanny’s mother is struggling to cope with her large brood of children, and so sends her daughter to live with her sister and brother-in-law at Mansfield. Fanny is forced to negotiate new relationships with her cousins – Edmund, Julia, Maria and Tom – but is treated as a poor relation by their aunt Mrs Norris, and experiences a coolly distant relationship with her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram. When Fanny is seventeen, society at Mansfield is turned upside-down by the arrival of head-turning siblings Henry and Mary Crawford, and Georgian shenanigans ensue.
Mansfield Park is not always considered Austen’s best book – and it’s certainly not the most popular of her novels. Part of the issue lies with the heroine: Fanny Price is a very different type of character to Lizzie Bennett or Elinor Dashwood. The heroine’s rather priggish morality is a central focus, and the novel’s ending leaves some readers cold. Nevertheless, there is plenty of biting satire throughout the book, and it does have a bit more of an edge than Austen’s other novels.
I guess for people my age, this one is a bit of a given! Beresford’s classic children’s novel introduces us to the little rodent/bear-like creatures that live on Wimbledon Common, collecting up the rubbish left by humans and putting it to good use. As well as The Wombles, Beresford also wrote The Wandering Wombles (1970), The Wombles at Work (1973), The Invisible Womble and Other Stories (1973), The Wombles to the Rescue (1974) and The Wombles Go Round the World (1976). The books introduced us to Great Uncle Bulgaria, Tobermory, Orinoco, Bungo, Tomsk, Wellington and Madame Cholet (familiar to viewers of the TV show), but also Miss Adelaide (who wasn’t included on the show) and Alderney (who wasn’t in the original series, but appeared in the 90s reboot when people wrongly assumed she was a new character).
It probably goes without saying that The Wombles was adapted into a BBC stop motion animated series in 1973-75, narrated by Bernard Cribbens. There was a ‘new’ version made in 1998-99, but the less said about that the better.
I’ve mentioned a couple of Barker’s novels on the show before, so it was great to be able to include one of her books on today’s list. Small Holdings is the perfect choice for a show devoted to municipal parks, as the plot revolves around the intricacies and eccentricities of urban park management.
The novel takes place in a council-owned park whose maintenance has been privatized. An odd little group of people – Doug, Phil, Ray and Nancy – has formed a partnership to bid for the maintenance contract. When the novel begins, this contract is up for renewal, and we follow the tensions the characters face as their group unravels under the pressure of the upcoming meeting. And by ‘odd’, I do mean ‘odd’. And by ‘unravels’, I really do mean ‘unravels’. Barker’s book has been described as a ‘comedy of errors’, but it’s much more unhinged and absurd than that. The characters are bizarre and unsettling; the situations they face are discomforting and often violent. You’re never really rooting for anyone as such – not even Phil, the introverted and unfortunate narrator – but the story is utterly compelling. Like a lot of Barker’s work, Small Holdings takes the mundane minutiae of an unlikely fictional setting, and turns it into a drama of human absurdity that is difficult to put down.
I’ve included Clarke’s debut YA novel on my list, despite the fact that only a small portion of the novel’s action takes place in a park. The scenes that take place in the park are so significant to the set-up of the book’s plot that I thought it warranted a place of the list. Additionally, Clarke’s book offers an unflinching and realistic depiction of how teenagers view and use parks, so I thought it made for an interesting contrast to some of the other books I featured.
Entangled is the story of Grace Carlyle, a troubled seventeen-year-old who has decided to commit suicide. She goes to the local park, but is interrupted in her plans by the arrival of a young man called Ethan. As she waits for Ethan to leave, Grace drinks heavily and eventually passes out. When she comes to, she’s locked in a white room… and Ethan is her jailor. With only a stack of paper and pens to distract her, Grace begins to write an account of her life and the events that led to her decision to kill herself in the park. This seems to be something Ethan wants her to do… but who is he? and why is he holding her prisoner? Clarke’s novel pulls no punches in its depiction of teen life – there’s underage drinking, sex and self-harm – but it’s also one of the most painfully realistic portrayals of teenage mental health (in my experience) out there. Entangled is a dazzling book, and a definite recommendation – and not just for the park scenes!
I thought I’d end with a very recent publication, but one that brings us full circle in a way. Chabouté’s acclaimed graphic novel was first published in French in 2012, under the title Un peu de bois et d’acier [A Little Bit of Wood and Steel]. An English-language edition was published by Faber and Faber this month, entitled The Park Bench.
And that’s what the book is about. A simple park bench. In a series of black-and-white panels, Chabouté charts the various anonymous people who use, interact with, claim and even deface this little bit of wood and steel over the course of days, weeks and seasons. There’s a skateboarder doing stunts across it, a baby toddling its first steps, pensioners sharing a cake together, and a man trying to read as a stranger strums blissfully on his guitar. No background or explanation is offered for these vignettes, but Chabouté’s images give us just enough detail to imagine the ‘characters’ and the circumstances that might have brought them to this particular bench at this particular time. I started the show by talking about the way Rendell’s novel uses Regent’s Park as the locus around which disparate characters’ stories revolve, and so it seems fitting to end with a book that’s a real celebration of the ways in which a park (and its bench) can be the stage for the ‘choreography of life’. It’s an absolutely charming book, and the perfect way to end my #LoveParks literary list. If you’re interested, Un peu de bois et d’acier was also adapted into a short film by Sandgate Productions in 2014.
To find out more about all of these books, and about my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show here: