Campus/academic novels

I’ve always been drawn to campus novels, ever since reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’ during the summer of ’86 before I went to Lancaster University. I know Brideshead is not technically a campus or academic novel, but the most vivid part for many people, including myself, is the Oxford section where Charles meets Sebastian. So romantic and sweet and full of adolescent yearning.

In my first year as an English undergrad we studied post-war novels which included David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go and Kinsgley Amis’ Lucky Jim. These were perfect choices for this time of my life – funny, clever, satirical, experimental. And I found one of my favourite genres. I love that David Lodge was Professor of English at Birmingham at that time (aka Rummidge). It all felt connected.

Now, as DS1 prepares to go to SOAS, and as I await the publication of my third novel in a month’s time, I see more connections. Bright Stars could be called a campus novel in that it is partly set at Lancaster University in the 80s (yes, it is fiction, really). And Lancaster University is most definitely a campus, stuck on a hill off the M6, three miles from town. Thinking about Bright Stars and my experiences of academic life, I have been drawn back to the campus novel. Here’s my top ten.

1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954). Still makes me laugh. A comic book is so rare and this one is full of charm and embarrassment and is quintessentially British.

2. Nice Work by David Lodge (1988).


I could have chosen any one of Lodge’s books but I went for Nice Work partly because of the TV adaptation and Warren Clarke’s portrayal of Vic Wilcox. A changing places of industry and university with a nod to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

3. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson. This is the third of Atkinson’s novels and fantastic reading for anyone who has ever studied Creative Writing.

4. Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. Fabulous coming-of-age novel with more than a nod to television which is always fine by me. Funny and poignant.

5. Less than Angels by Barbara Pym. I could have chosen several of Miss Pym’s novels but went for this one, about anthropologists. Brilliant observations. Classic Pym.

6. Possession by AS Byatt. Not technically a campus novel but certainly set in an academic world. Multi-layered using different narrative devices.

7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Just because.

8. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury. A contemporary of David Lodge and also a fine example of the narrative technique of staying on the surface. Cutting satire of 70s academia.

9. Mary Swann by Carol Shields. Thought I should cross the pond, to Canada. I read this last year for the first time and was hooked. Such a clever use of subtle satire.

10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. And south to the USA. A stunning portrayal of a post-grad love triangle, including a vivid account of the effects of bi-polar disorder. Wonderful characterisation.

I could add many more. What would be in your list?


Top Ten Costume Dramas

I was blown away by the BBC’s adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations – even my husband watched it, enthralled, and he never watches anything with even a hint of a toga or a bonnet. Beautifully shot, stunning cinemaphotography of the Fens, blissful acting – especially Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham. And you’ve got to love Ray Winstone – there’s something about that gravelly voice of his that makes him compelling, whatever character he takes on. And he was a complex Magwitch.

This is the first Beeb costume drama I have enjoyed in a while. It did something exciting and contemporary with a novel that was always meant to be popular and current. (And what a stunning Pip, both man and boy.)






So this got me thinking about previous costume dramas that have stood the test of time, or just stayed with me over the years.

Our Friends in the North  This definitely counts as ‘costume’ and was definitely dramatic. Who can forget Geordie walking away across the Tyne Bridge to Don’t Look Back in Anger? It caught such a chunk of Brisith culture, not just Northern, from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. It was big in every sense of the word. (And a future James Bond and Doctor Who in the cast.)

Pride and Prejudice – lots of bonnets, but brilliantly strong female characters that brought a whole new fanbase to Jane Austen (and Colin Firth).






The Camomile Lawn – So stylish and gorgeous… and a bit naughty

 The Duchess of Duke Street – I remember this rags-to-riches story from childhood, watching it religiously with my mum.








Also, When the Boat Comes In.








And then later, as a teenager, I moved on to Tenko, still watching it with my mum every week and learning about the horrors of POW camps in WW2.






But the greatest ever costume drama, the one I can never forget and have watched over and over on video and DVD and never tire of, as it is so faithful to the book, is of course … Granada’s Brideshead Revisited.

If you’ve never watched it, put aside many hours, and do it. Or read Evelyn Waugh’s sumptuous novel. You’ll never forget it.

Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s iconic ruby slippers are being auctioned in LA later this year at a guide price of $2-$3 m. Slightly more than my fluffy slippers from M&S.

This got me thinking about the things I have in my home that are worth anything – of celebrity value. I’ve got a stone from Southfork Ranch that my brother brought back for me from a trip to Dallas circa 1982. I have a signed photo of Slade given to me by my Uncle Dick after he bumped into them in a Brummie hotel at the height of their long-haired pop stardom.

And I have a first ever edition of Smash Hits magazine – though I’ve vandalised it with stickers (remember the ones you used to buy from WH Smiths with chewing gum – the best!).

That’s about it.

I don’t think I’ll be getting rich anytime soon.

But if money were no object, what would I buy? A first edition of Brideshead Revisited? The Delorean from Back to the Future? Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Fred Astaire’s tap shoes? Jacqueline du Pre’s cello?

What piece of memorabilia would you like to get your hands on?

This is the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night…

Films of Books

Back along I put up a post on Songs about Books. With the final H.P. film opening tomorrow and my oldest right now in the charity shops of Teignmouth looking for an appropriate Potteresque oufit, I thought this would be a good time to blog about films adapted from books. Especially having watched the BBC adaptation of Sarah Water’s brilliant novel, The Night Watch on Tuesday evening. (Still on iplayer if you missed it.) I thought the one-off drama handled the backwards time frame brilliantly and, despite some changes to characters, it was faithful to the novel, capturing the immediacy and fragility of life and love in wartime.

One of my favourite recent books is One Day by David Nicholls, another novel with an unusual time frame as it follows its two main characters over two decades, with the action taking place on only one day, July 15th, throughout these years. A will-they-won’t-they story line but ultimately a beautiful, poignant love story with two memorable characters.

One Day is released at the end of August with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in the lead roles and, having read interviews about the upcoming film, it seems both of them know how serious it is to get these characters right as they will be accountable to over one million readers. A heavy burden to carry.

Probably my favourite ever screen adaptation is Brideshead Revisited, not the film as there’s far too much to cover in two hours, but the Granada production of 1981. I missed it the first time round but when it was repeated throughout the summer of 1986, I was hooked. It was the perfect television series for me as I was waiting for my A level results and then waiting to go up to university – not Oxford, but Lancaster. The music, by Geoffrey Burgon, captured the essence of the novel and has stayed with me through the years as has the magnificent cast which included Olivier and Gielgud as the two fathers.

As the countdown begins in earnest to the launch of my debut novel The Generation Game, I can’t help but daydream as to who would play my main character, Philippa… But for now,  I will happily leave her to the reader’s imagination…