Saturday, 31 December 2011

Abandoning Baking for Books

Imagine a travelling bookshop: a horse-drawn caravan where the outer walls fold down to reveal shelves lined with books. Imagine the owner: a little man with a red beard, a bald head, and a missionary zeal to bring his own love of reading to American farmers. Now imagine a woman: a large, practical, homely woman, who wants the strange contraption and its even stranger occupant to move off her land as quickly as possible – but ends up buying the whole outfit, and  setting off on an adventure which changes her life.

Parnassus on Wheels, written by Christopher Morley in 1917, is an enchanting novel. It is warm and humorous, and a ‘must’ for anyone who loves books and reading.  Helen McGill has let life pass her by while she acts as housekeeper on the farm she shares with her brother Andrew.  He has become a celebrity author, but ignores the farm and his sister in favour of jaunts to seek material for his writing, so she is less than pleased when bookseller Roger Mifflin, who wants to retire to Brooklyn and write his own book, offers to sell his business to Andrew. Instead, she buys the van and its contents herself, leaving a note for her brother which predates Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine by some 70 years, and is every bit as memorable:

“Dear Andrew, Don’t be thinking I’m crazy. I’ve gone off for an adventure. It just came over me that you’d had all the adventures while I’ve been at home baking bread. Mrs McNally will look after your meal and one of her girls can come over and do the housework. So don’t worry. I’m going off for a little while – a month, maybe – to see some of this happiness and hayseed of yours. It’s what the magazines call the revolt of womanhood. Warm underwear in the cedar chest in the spare room when you need it. With love, Helen.”

Mr Mifflin, known as the Professor, agrees to stay on for a bit to show her the ropes, and together they eventually manage to outwit Andrew, who is determined to force his sister to return home. The book is very short, but packs plenty in: tramps steal the van, along with Bock the dog and Peg the horse (real names Boccaccio and Pegasus); Mr Mifflin is jailed, and Helen is ejected from a hotel. All ends happily however, and Helen finds love and a purpose in life.

The van (the Parnassus of the title) is as delightful as the yellow caravan acquired by Toad in Wind in the Willows, or the more ramshackle affair which features in Ann Scott-Moncreiff’s Auntie Robbo, and the poem painted in red letters on the pale blue bodywork is irresistible:

“Worthy friends, my wain doth hold
Many a book, both new and old;
Books, the truest friend of man,
Fill this rolling caravan.
Books to satisfy all uses,
Golden lyrics of the Muses,
Books on cookery and farming,
Novels passionate and charming,
Every kind for every need
So that he who buys may read.
What libraries can surpass us?
Mifflin’s Travelling Parnassus”

Inside, it has been ‘fixed up...  mighty comfortably’ with a neat little row of pots and dishes above the stove, a chest of drawers, a bed, a small table, a wicker chair, plenty storage space, and a pot geranium. But it’s the books which take centre stage in the novel. For example, Mr Mifflin tells Helen:

“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.” And later he insists: “No creature on earth has a right to think himself a human being, if he doesn’t know at least one good book.”

As far as I’m concerned, this really is one good book, and I’m grateful to Lyn at for bringing it to my attention.  I’d never heard of the author before, but she included it in her Top Ten Books 2011- Fiction and, since I had a Kindle for Christmas, I downloaded a copy from, along with a follow-up, The Haunted Bookshop, and The Friendly Road New Adventures in Contentment by David Grayson, which provided inspiration for Morley.

PS: There is another lovely review of this book at

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Disappointing Read

The Rose of Sebastopol is one of those novels where the idea of the book sounds far more interesting than the book itself turns out to be. Author Katharine McMahon’s notes and website, which describe her inspiration and research, were fascinating – and far more enjoyable than the novel, which failed to live up to my expectations.

Set in the time of the Crimean War, it tells the story of Mariella Lingwood who leads a sheltered, comfortable, conventional life in her luxurious, middle class home, and spends her time doing needlework for her mother’s good works – the latest of which is a charitable venture to provide a home for needy, retired governesses. She is engaged to her cousin Henry, a rising young surgeon who lived with the family for a time following the death of his mother, but life becomes more complicated with the appearance of Mariella’s childhood friend, beautiful, high spirited, independent Rosa (another cousin).  Henry and Rosa both head for the Crimea to care for wounded soldiers, while Mariella stays at home and keeps a war scrapbook.

But her neat ordered life is turned upside down when Henry is sent to Italy to recover from ‘fever,’ and what appears to be a mental breakdown. Mariella sets off to nurse him back to health, but is shocked when her delirious fiancĂ© thinks she is Rosa, with whom he has become obsessed. Later he begs her to find Rosa, who has disappeared. At this point I rather hoped Mariella would push him off his sick bed and kick him where it hurts. But no, after a little persuasion from her maid Nora (who previously served Rosa’s family), she does as he asks and sets off for the war-torn Crimea, accompanied by Nora.

I failed to warm to Mariella, but she is not nearly as wimpish as she appears at the outset, for she copes admirably with the vicissitudes of the journey, and with the hardships and dangers of life on the battlefield. Not only does she prove to be a capable and competent assistant in a hospital, but she also puts her expertise as a needlewoman to good use by washing and repairing soldiers’ uniforms, and even finds a love interest along the way.

I did wonder whether it was possible for a couple of women to turn up in the middle of the war and wander around the area as Mariella and Nora do, and I was curious about the presence of officers’ wives, and the social events that take place, like teas and riding. Somehow it all seemed very unlikely, but when I carried out my own research I found that was exactly what happened.  Indeed, the reality sounds even more far-fetched, and one military wife (Mrs Henry Duberley) kept a journal of the ‘Russian War’ in which she describes attending horse races, theatrical performances, musical events – and even trips to the front to watch the fighting!

In the same way, McMahon’s descriptions of conditions in the camps and hospitals, the dreadful injuries and widespread sickness (cholera was rife), are horrific but appear to fall well short of contemporary reports.  The novel raises questions about the right to fight, and touches on other topical issues, like paedophilia, sexual identity, medical advances, and women’s pace in society.

The Rose of Sebastopol sounded so interesting that I really wanted to like it, and was disappointed that I didn’t. The characters remained flat, the novel never really came to life, and I was irritated by the way the narrative jumped around in time and place in a way which didn’t always add to the story. 

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Bittersweet Tales of WW2

Good Evening, Mrs Craven, by Mollie Panter-Downes, has to be one of my ‘best reads’ of 2011. Here are 21 short stories set in the Second World War, about the people who didn’t fight, the non-combatants, who kept the home fires burning and, despite the war - or, perhaps, because of it - tried to maintain a degree of normality.

Panter-Downes wrote about the world she knew: middle class women and the impact of the war on their lives.  Such men as there are seem to be guilty and slightly defensive about their presence in this predominantly female world, and their intrusion is somehow shockingly alien. They are anxious to preserve male superiority, and imply their work, whether in the forces or as a civilian, is of overriding importance and cannot be understood by wives, girlfriends, lovers, but they never reveal exactly what it is that they do. However, we know it is the women and their ‘work’ getting to grips with the problems of everyday life which is of real importance.

They cope with missing men, food shortages, lack of domestic help and the disruption caused by evacuees and long-stay guests, still keeping up appearances, and observing the social niceties of life, however insignificant they may seem. These are gentle, bittersweet stories, where not a lot happens. There is no real action, and no overwhelming emotion or feeling. People deal with the situations and conditions they find themselves in, no matter how different to their previous experience this may be. But they remain reserved, never revealing their true feelings to others, never opening up, never connecting, so there are missed opportunities and lives which could be charged, but never are.

There is the eponymous Mrs Craven, cool, calm and collected, who has provided solace for her married lover for many years, but is not to know of his fate during the war, and Ruth, who faces her husband’s departure for battle with courage and fortitude, but cries when a mix-up delays him and she must go through the leave-taking again, and Mrs Ramsay, yearning for the quiet, well-ordered life she led before visitors fleeing London took over her home.

Panter-Downes is a detached observer, with a humorous, slightly ironic tone. She sees what is happening, and records it, but doesn’t judge or interpret: it’s for the reader to do that. As an author, she felt she couldn’t invent and saw herself first and foremost as a journalist - she lived and worked in England, but wrote for The New Yorker, which published these stories between 1939 and 1944.

By the way, the cover of the Persephone edition I borrowed from the library deserves a mention, because it is every bit as good as those early Virago covers, where carefully chosen paintings enhanced the books. This picture shows part of The Queue at the Fish Shop, by Evelyn Dunbar (courtesy of The Imperial War Mueum) and perfectly matches the text. Dunbar painted women and their role during WW2, and was the only female artist paid by the War Artists Advisory Committee. 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas comes to Narnia

It's Christmas Eve, which is why the blog is red, and I'm celebrating with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis, in an old Puffin edition with illustrations by Pauline Baynes.

The children hear the sound of tinkling bells...
“It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were  far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on  him. He was a huge man, in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foaming waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sot only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But you when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funy and jolly. But now that the children stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so real, that thye all became quite still.  They felt very glad, but also solemn.

‘I’ve come at last,’ said he. ‘She has kept me out for a log time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.’"

Friday, 23 December 2011

Celebrating Christmas

No list of Christmas books and readings could be complete without something from the Bible - after all, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. So here is the opening passage from St Luke's Gospel, and to go with it here's a painting, the Adoration of the Magi, by Gerard van Honthorst.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

An Astounding Christmas Truce

At Christmas 1914 many of the troops fighting in the First World War - British, German, French and Belgian - spontaneously stopped fighting and held a truce. All the way along the Western Front men celebrated Christmas, singing songs to each other across the trenches, exchanging food, drink, cigarettes, cigars and even the buttons, badges and belts from their uniforms.

They met in No Man's Land, collected wounded soldiers, and even held joint burial services for the dead. According to Christmas Truce, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, one British soldier wrote home saying: "Just you think, that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before!!It was astounding!"

The authors also quote a German soldier, who related: "When morning came everyone climbed out of their trenches. Both sides shook hands with each other, briefly made peace and exchanged gifts. We were given corned beef, tea and cigarettes, etc, which the English had in plenty. They for their part were made about our cigars."

The book is a moving testimonial to the goodwill and understanding that existed between ordinary men, and one can't help wondering whether the slaughter of the war could have been avoided if negotiations had been left to them, rather than to the politicians and generals.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Grumpy Old Man with an Unusual Job

I have found myself a new role – as a volunteer in a charity bookshop, which is about as perfect as things can get. I was browsing there a couple of weeks ago and suddenly realised the lady behind the counter was an old friend I hadn’t seen for many years, and the next thing I  knew I was signed up as a volunteer! 

Today was my first stint as a helper, and I had a wonderful morning there, learning how to price the books up, how to ‘code’ them, and how to use the till. The last time I used a till I was a Saturday girl in an old-fashioned ironmongers, the till had keys which had to be pressed down (like a typewriter), and we had to add up the customers’ purchases and work out the change.  Fortunately, modern technology makes life much easier for those of us with wobbly maths, and the other volunteers and the customers were all so lovely that it didn’t seem like work at all. I enjoyed myself tremendously, and got very excited when I made my first sale and, as an added bonus, I bought a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, which I have always wanted to read.

Anyway, today’s selection for the Advent Bookfest is someone who is not nearly as charming as the people I met today – in fact, he could be considered to be bloomin’ bad-tempered. Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, in the book of the same name, is a wonderful creation, grumpy and grouchy, he moans and groans about everything and everyone. He’s got no helpers, and no wife, and he lives in an ordinary, old-fashioned house, with stabling for the reindeer at the back. He’d have us think he hates his job, but it soon becomes apparent that he takes great pride in making sure every present is delivered, on time, to the right person.

Briggs’ illustrations are magical, and it’s sheer genius to ignore the conventional image of  Father Christmas as a jolly man, living at the North Pole, with a host of elvish helpers. Instead Briggs makes him a lonely, curmudgeonly old man, leading a relatively normal life – apart from his rather unusual job.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Radio, Poetry - and Christmas!

Forget Christmas for a moment, and consider instead the lovely bookish week that lies ahead on BBC Radio.  There are some real treats in store on Radio 4, starting with Mark Forsyth's The Etymologicon, which is being featured on Book of the Week. This takes a look at the hidden connections between words and is on my To Be Read list, so I'm looking forward to listening. Next up are two old favourites: a serialisation of AS Byatt’s Possession is the latest Women's Hour Drama, while Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is the Book at Bedtime.  Each episode of each book is aired for just 15 minutes, but all three programmes have an excellent track record for their productions, and usually provide 15 minutes of quality time - and the lovely thing about radio is that unlike film and television it leaves your image of characters and places intact.

On Tuesday and Wednesday Black Hearts in Battersea, Joan Aiken's classic tale for children, has been adapted into a two-part Afternoon Play, while the offering on Friday afternoon is Christmas Eve, based on a Gogol  story where a witch teams up with the Devil to steal the moon and stars, and I still have to catch up on Sunday’s Classic SerialGargantua and Pantagruel, by Rabelais.

Apart from drama, Michael Rosen is back with a new series of Word of Mouth, scrutinising words and the way we use them, and in Cat Women of the Moon writer Susan Hall is exploring the treatment of sex in science fiction, while over on Radio 3 throughout the week there is The Essay: The Writer's Dickens

Meanwhile, since UA Fanthorpe is a poet of whom I am particularly fond, and I enjoyed listening to UA Fanthorpe's Christmas Card Poems on Sunday, today’s Advent window opens on to one of her poems, taken fromUA Fanthorpe Collected Poems 1978-2003, published by Peterloo Poets:


This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven. 

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Journey of the Magi

I seem to be all behind hand with the Advent Bookfest. having missed day yesterday, but I have a poem for you today - TS Eliot's Journey of the Magi, and if you go to you can hear him reciting it on an old and rather crackly radio recording.

I love the way Eliot makes the journey of the Three Kings sound so real, and the way little things foreshadow what is to come, like the men at the inn door 'dicing for pieces of silver', referencing the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas, and the Roman soldiers who gambled for Jesus' robe.

And if that makes it sound grim, it isn't. It's a poem about rebirth and redemption, and an affirmation of Eliot's own growing faith.

Journey of the Magi 

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. 

From Collected Poems 1909-1926, TS Eliot, published by Faber and Faber, 1963.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christmas Comfort with Mr Pickwick

Christmas Eve at Mr Wardle's, by
Hablot Knight Browne,
known as Phiz.

How can I have got this far through December without mentioning Charles Dickens? Dickens loved Christmas, and as the 200th anniversary of his birth approaches our image of the traditional, family festival is still shaped by his writings.

So here’s a passage from The Pickwick Papers or, to give it the original title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members. Mr Pickwick is attending the Christmas Eve festivities at Mr Wardle’s:

“It was a pleasant thing to see Mr. Pickwick in the centre of the group, now pulled this way, and then that, and first kissed on the chin, and then on the nose, and then on the spectacles, and to hear the peals of laughter which were raised on every side; but it was a still more pleasant thing to see Mr. Pickwick, blinded shortly afterwards with a silk handkerchief, falling up against the wall, and scrambling into corners, and going through all the mysteries of blind-man's buff, with the utmost relish for the game, until at last he caught one of the poor relations, and then had to evade the blind-man himself, which he did with a nimbleness and agility that elicited the admiration and applause of all beholders. The poor relations caught the people who they thought would like it, and, when the game flagged, got caught themselves. When they all tired of blind-man's buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.
 “'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.””

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Shakespeare and Company

I was going to post a piece about about Dickens for my Advent Bookfest, but instead here's a small tribute to George Whitman, owner of the legendary Shakespeare and Company, who has died at the age of 98.

Here's a picture of the bookshop that I took when my mother and I visited Paris earlier in the year. It is a fabulous place, where you can browse for hours, and no-one disturbs you, and we had lunch at a cafe just a few yards along the road, where we sat in the sunshine, looking at the Seine and Notre Dame, while talking about books and bookshops.

To start with, Whitman's shop was called Le Mistral, but was renamed in 1964 following the death of Sylvia Beach, who owned the original Shakespeare  and Company, which was famed in the 1920s, '30s and '40s as a meeting place for English speaking authors like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway (who wrote about in A Moveable Feast). 

Like her, Whitman turned his shop in to a focal point for authors and poets, even providing food and beds for young, struggling writers. It sells new and used books, as well as running a library, and holds regular events, including readings, book discussions, film showings and musical performances.

Long may it continue - and may independent bookshops in this country thrive in similar fashion.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Merry Christmas - in Nine Languages!

Gledelig Jul! That’s Norwegian for Merry Christmas, and it seems an apt way to start a festive post, since the blog is dedicated to the memory of my Grandmother, who ran away from her home in Norway way back in 1915, and arrived in England with nothing but a trunk full of books. And no, I don’t speak the language - I gleaned the greeting from the pages of Ladybird's Christmas Customs, which shows you how to say A Merry Christmas in nine different languages.

The book, just £1.20 when I bought it for my elder daughter in 1988, is an invaluable aid to the festive season, for it tells you almost  everything you need to know about Christmas. Take the tree, for example. These days Prince Albert is usually credited with introducing the custom, but apparently in the 16th century religious reformer Martin Luther took a fir tree indoors and decorated it with candles to show his children how beautiful the stars were as he walked through the forest.

There is, of course, a brief account of the Christmas story, and details about Santa Claus, but in addition this slender volume is packed with information on all kinds of traditions. Read this and you can find out about cribs, crackers, candles and cards, as well as discovering myths and legends about the Glastonbury Thorn and the poinsettia, the history of the Yule log, and traditional Christmas food.

In the section on decorations you can even find instructions for making your own kissing bunch from a framework of hoops covered with greenery (shades of Blue Peter here I think), and there are also details about traditions associated  with Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year and Twelfth Night.

Pages are decorated with brightly coloured borders of ribbon and holly, as well as loads of cheerful , modern illustrations, and a few older pictures to how things were in the past – bringing home the Yule log, stirring the Christmas pudding, and so on. It doesn’t go into anything in great depth, but it’s as much part of  Christmas as the traditions it describes.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Year's Midnight

This portrait of Donne was painted
around 1595, by an unknown artist,
and is in National Portrait Gallery.

Given the date (December 13), there is only one possible choice that could be made for today – John Donne’s A Nocturnall upon St Lucie's Day, Being the shortest day. When he wrote it, possibly in 1627, the old Julian calendar was still in use, and St Lucy’s Day was indeed the shortest day of the year. It is thought that Donne wrote the poem after the death of his daughter, Lucy.

Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th'hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr'd; yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar'd with mee, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
He ruin'd mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to ought else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death, (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
Were I a man, that I were one,
I needs must know; I should preferre,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; All, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
At this time to the Goat is runne
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.

Monday, 12 December 2011

A Perfect Christmas Read

Well, it’s December 12 and there’s another 12 days to go until Christmas Day, and so far my books have included children’s classics, poems, a Stuart recipe and a Medieval. Coming up are some more children’s tales, John Donne, TS Eliot, Dickens, and a Bible reading. But what we need is some fun – and what could be more fun than a romantic novel. And the romantic novel selected for your delectation is Twelve Days of Christmas, by Trisha Ashley.

The story is simply told. Widowed Holly Brown has been brought up by her grandmother, a Strange Baptist (is there really such a sect, I wonder), who doesn’t do Christmas. So when Holly gets married she does the whole thing in a big way: food, decorations, gifts. Then her husband drowns while trying to rescue a dog that’s fallen through the ice, and her grandmother dies, whispering the name of a mystery man: Ned Martland. Holly quits her job with a restaurant and works for an agency, cooking for house parties. Before you know, it’s Christmas again and she’s asked to house-sit up on the East Lancashire moors, for sculptor Jude Martland...

She's looking forward to a period of solitude, but when she arrives there’s an elderly aunt and uncle and various other relatives to be cared for, as well as a dog, a horse, a goat, and a stroppy teenage girl.  Snow sets in and everyone is marooned in the house, including Coco, a brainless model who was once engaged to Jude but ran off with his brother; the brother, who is anxious to escape Coco’s clutches; a stranded traveller, and Jude himself, who turns up unexpectedly. Are you with me so far?

While the action romps along in the style of a French farce, Jude proves to be a hero much in the mould of Edward Rochester: dark, rugged (but not handsome), taciturn, bad-tempered. He and Holly, who is well able to stand up for herself, are soon a loggerheads, despite the obvious attraction between them, and the dramatic tension begins to mount.

Holly agrees to stay until the Twelfth Nights revels are over. Meanwhile, she spends her spare time reading the journal written by her grandmother (remember her?) and trying to piece together the story of a lost love and her family’s connection with the Martlands, which may threaten her burgeoning relationship with Jude. 

Secrets are revealed, misunderstandings resolved and, needless to say, all ends happily. This is a really enjoyable feel-good novel, just perfect for the Christmas season. It’s well-paced, warm, funny, and the characters are always believable, however outrageous their behaviour. Twelve Days of Christmas may not be 'great literature', but it is nicely written, easy to read,  and perfect for curling up by the fire on a cold winter night. There are even some recipes at the back, for a Wassail Punch, Revel Cakes, and Ginger and Spice Christmas Tree Biscuits, which are very nice indeed. Read and enjoy – preferably with a glass of wine and a biscuit.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Country Child's Christmas

I’m celebrating Day 11 of the Advent Bookfest with a 1952 Faber and Faber edition of Alison Uttley’s The Country Child, illustrated with woodblock engravings by CF Tunnicliffe. Uttley is probably best known for her children’s books, especially the Little Grey Rabbit stories with their beautiful pictures painted by Margaret Tempest, so I’ve included one, because I can't resist it - here's Little Grey Rabbit and Hare, by the fire, which is decorated for Christmas.

The country customs described in these books were still in practice in the author’s childhood, which she recalled in a fictionalised account in The Country Child. Like Uttley herself, Susan Garland lives in an isolated Derbyshire farm - every day she walks four miles to school and four miles back, living a life that must have seemed quaint and old fashioned to many of the girls she knew, and the book is a treasure trove of information about a way of life long gone, seen through the eyes of a lonely, imaginative girl.

Uttley’s description of the preparations for Christmas, and the celebrations on the big day itself are enchanting. The house is full of food, enough to see the family and farm workers through the whole winter. Bacon and hams hang from the kitchen ceiling; apples and onions have been stored, and there are pickles and spices, jams, plum puddings, wine, mince pies and Christmas cheeses with sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ – all home-made, of course.

The house has been cleaned until everything gleams and is festooned with holly, boughs of fir and ivy berries, dipped in the red raddle left over from sheep marking.  
“In the middle of the kitchen ceiling there hung the kissing bunch, the best and brightest of holly, made in the shape of a large ball which dangled from the hook. Silver and gilt drops, crimson bells, blue glass trumpets, bright oranges and red polished apples, peeped and glittered through the glossy leaves. Little flags of all nations, but chiefly Turkish for some unknown reason, stuck out like quills on a hedgehog. The lamp hung near, and every little berry, every leaf, every pretty ball and apple had a tiny yellow flame reflected in its heart.“Twisted candles hung down, yellow, red, and blue, unlighted but gay, and on either side was a string of paper lanterns.”
If you enjoy Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, another fictionalised account of a country childhood at the end of the 19th century, then I am sure you will love The Country Child, with its detailed observations of nature and weather, the descriptions of people who worked and visited the farm, and the events that Uttley remembered – Christmas, Easter, Harvest, her first day at school and a visit to the circus.

Uttley, born Alice Taylor in 1884, studied physics at Manchester University and became a teacher. She only started writing to support herself and her son following the suicide of her husband, who suffered mental illness after serving in WWI. She died in 1976. To find out more about her, look at the Alison Uttley Society website

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Green Knight

This illustration, taken from a Medieval manuscript, is on
the front cover of  an old Penguin edition of Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight.

Day Ten, and I’ve travelled back in time to 14th century, and the tale of Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight, written by an unknown poet around 1360. King Arthur and his court are holding their Christmas feast at Camelot when a strange knight – a green giant – appears and challenges one of the knights to decapitate him – but in return the knight must visit him for the blow to be returned. Sir Gawayne accepts the challenge, and much of the poem describes his adventures, but it opens with the great Christmas Feast, and the shock arrival of the Green Knight.
This always me wish I’d studied Middle English. Actually, it’s not that difficult to get the gist of what is being said, but I am sure I would appreciate it far better if my knowledge were greater. As it is, I have to make do with modern translations. Ideally I would like the Simon Armitage version, but somewhere I have an old Penguin edition, as well as the Tolkien. However,, despite my recent reorganisation of the bookshelves, I could not find either, so I’ve had to resort to Project Gutenberg (again) where there are several versions.

Anyway, here is the bit where the Green Knight arrives at court:

“So, as I said, the great doors opened wide.
In rushed a blast of winter from outside, 
And with it, galloping on the empty air, 
A great green giant on a great green mare Plunged like a tempest-cleaving thunderbolt, And struck four-footed, with an earthquake's jolt,
Plump on the hearthstone.
There the uncouth wight 
Sat greenly laughing at the strange affright That paled all cheeks and opened wide all eyes; Till after the first shock of quick surprise 
The people circled round him, still in awe, And circling stared; and this is what they saw: 
Cassock and hood and hose, of plushy sheen Like close-cut grass upon a bowling-green, Covered his stature, from his verdant toes To the green brows that topped his emerald nose. 
His beard was glossy, like unripened corn; His eyes shot sparklets like the polar morn. 
But like in hue unto that deep-sea green Wherewith must shine those gems of ray serene 
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear. 
Green was his raiment, green his monstrous mare. 
He rode unarmed, uncorsleted, unshielded, 
Except that in his huge right hand he wielded A frightful battle-axe, with blade as green
As coppery rust;—but the long edge shone keen.”

Friday, 9 December 2011

All the Christmases are One

One of  Edward Ardizzone's illustrations
for  A Child's Christmas in Wales.

Day Nine of the advent Bookfest, and it’s Dylan Thomas, with A Child’s Christmas in Wales, an amalgam of all the Christmases you’ve ever known, a magical mix of myth and reality. As he says: 
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 
Who hasn’t felt like that when trying to capture the memory of a Christmas past? And what about this paragraph, which couldn’t possibly be written by anyone other than Thomas:
“All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.” 
Dylan Thomas
There’s so much to choose from here: the snow, the presents (useful and useless), the postmen the relatives, the food, the music, the games, the cats, a fire...

But I’ll plump for his description of Christmas dinner and the afternoon, with its blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and the sense of anti-climax that follows when gifts have been opened and the meal eaten. 
For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o'-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.” 
It’s hard to know if this is poem, prose, memoir or short story, but the label doesn’t matter because it is such a wonderful piece of writing. If you’ve never read it, please do – you’ll find it online at

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Mayhem,Murder and Dionysian Frenzies

I know, I promised an Advent Bookfest, and here is a book about mayhem and murder, but I was having an end of year tidy-up in the electronic filing room, when I found a folder full of unpublished and unfinished posts. I’ll start with Donna Tart.  How come I haven’t encountered her work before?  Where have I been that I missed her? I LOVED the way she writes - subject-wise it's not necessarily my usual taste, but I couldn't put this book down. Two nights running I sat in bed reading into the early hours.

The Secret History was erudite, scholarly, steeped in knowledge of the classics and ancient Greek.  By the end I had a list of facts to be checked out and books to be discovered or revisited.  Homer and Marlow have been unearthed and added to the reading pile (at this rate it will soon be as tall as me) while the wish list bears the cryptic notes ‘Jacobean and Greek tragedy’, ‘more Tartts’ and ‘decent atlas’. This is why I read in such a random fashion:  I start one book, and it sends me off in all sorts of other directions (just like The Queen in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader). Usually I have several books on the go at once, so the ‘must haves’, ‘re-reads’ and ‘find-out-mores’ frequently threaten to overwhelm the house, and I find myself shifting stacks of books from place to place, in a mad variation of musical chairs.
Anyway, enough of that – let’s get back to The Secret History. Initially I found it difficult to buy into the Dionysian frenzy, but the story drew me in, step by step, unfolding a tale of horror, but showing how easy murder can be.  Once set on their destructive path Tartt’s elite group of students cannot withdraw, but it is the small irritations presented by their victim that prove the final straw. They are curiously amoral about committing not one, but two murders (the second is a consequence of the first), but the effects of their actions are far reaching, and all are visited by a kind of Nemesis which prevents them reaching their potential.

The climax of the novel is shockingly unexpected, but is the only possible outcome. After that the tale flattens out as the last few pages relate the broken dreams and wasted lives of those who are left. 

On the face of it the narrator, Richard, is the outsider, unable to accept his own dull upbringing, desperate to be accepted by his wealthy, glamorous, clever colleagues, and determined to pursue literary beauty ‘at all costs’. But his new found friends are equally anxious to be part of a surrogate family.  None are exactly what they seem, and all have been scarred by their childhoods: Bunny, whose banking family leave him perpetually short of cash; Francis, wealthy, gay and promiscuous, at war with his socialite mother and her toy-boy second husband; twins Charles and Camilla, oddly close, brought up by relatives after the death of their parents, and Henry, suave, calm and impossibly intelligent. Central to the action, he remains something of an enigma: I found it difficult to tell if he is saint or sinner, manipulator or victim.  Is he what he seems or, like the others, has he created a persona that helps him face the world?

There are echoes of Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited, which also revolves around an outsider seduced by the surface glamour of an elite group where the central character has a fatal flaw, and lives fall apart as the real world intrudes on their enchanted circle. Similar territory is explored in Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons and The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, neither of which I enjoyed.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

King John's Christmas

Two for the price of one today. Since I am in poetic mood, here is AA Milne's King John's Christmas, copied from When We Were Very Young, which is the first book I was ever given, when I was less than a year old.
King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air –
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.

He stayed in every afternoon…
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King John was not a good man,

Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King John was not a good man,

He lived his live aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
Against the chimney stack:
F. Christmas in particular.”
And signed it not “Johannes R.”
But very humbly, “Jack.”

“I want some crackers,

And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man –

He wrote this message out,
And gat him to this room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now!”
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow –
The first I had for years.”

“Forget about the crackers,

And forget the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”
King John was not a good man,

Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King John said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”

“I did want crackers,

And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts!
And, oh! if Father Christmas, had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red,
india-rubber ball!”

King John stood by the window,

And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all …
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!