Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Still Missing

Alex Selky, going on seven, so eager to grow up, kissed his mother goodbye on their front steps on the hot bright morning of May 15 1980, and marched himself down the street, on his way to the New Boston School of Back Bay, two blocks from his corner. He never arrived at school, and from the moment he turned he corner, he apparently disappeared from the face of the earth.

That, in a nutshell, is the basic story of Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon (published by Persephone), but there's much more to it than that. It explores the effect of Alex's disapearance on his mother Susan, and its impact on her relationships with her ex-husband Graham and his new wife, and on her friends and neighbours – and the way they react. Then there's the effect the case has on Al Menetti, the detective in charge of the case, and his family, as he becomes obsessed with finding the missing boy.

Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Susan in the weeks that followed Alex's disappearnce was that she gradually came to see the world as the police saw it.

As the investigation proceeds old secrets and betrayals are revealed: Susan's best friend once slept with Graham; another friend is a junkie, and a neighbour has been accused of child molestation but never convicted. Her world, hitherto so safe and secure, is torn apart as she learns what paedophiles do to young boys, and her trust in people is broken. At one stage she tells relatives, in confidence, that a new development is expected – but the news is leaked to a paper which jeopardises the inquiry by splashing an untrue story claiming the case is solved.

Events take a bizarre turn when Susan's male cleaner is found to be living under an assumed identity after serving time in jail for raping a young boy, and he is charged with the abduction and murder of her son. Susan is convinced of his innocence, but the Gay Rights movement are wary of supporting his cause in the climate of homophobic hysteria which follows the arrest.

Susan spends her days in a kind of fog, unable to cope with the everyday demands of life, haunted by fear that that when people leave her she wil never seem them again. But she steels herself to cope with reporters, tv preseners, psychics, hoaxers who provide false hope through misinformation, letters from well-wishers, and letters from people who launch personal attacks on her – one even writes that she is glad for what happened because she thinks Susan is a bad mother.

And there are phone calls from parents of other missing children, offering a network of support, but unable to engage with people as they remain locked in their own private grief and horror, retelling their stories over and over again.

The suspicion and fear which arise when Alex vanishes are utterly believable, and the way the community rallies round to help search for him is heart-warming but, sadly, people soon forget and carry on with their lives. No-one quite knows what to say to Susan, or how to treat her – it's not like a death, where there is a body, and people can grieve and move on.

The only person during all those weeks who seemed to preserve a sense of Susan as a normal person was Margaret. She had a knack of being supportive witout passing judgement, sympahetic without being sentimental. She made it clear that laughing once in a while didn't mean giving up one's faith, and if Susan needed to cry, she knew the difference between comforting her and demanding that she stop.

It turns out that Maragret, a neighbour, has been through this herself, for years earlier one of her daughters disappeared and was never found.

Susan never loses her belief that her son is still alive, and throughout the novel we get glimpses of him as she remembers the way he looks, the way he moves, the way he speaks, the things he likes to do, his favourite food...
We've all read newspaper stories about missing children and watched emotional appeals from tearful parents on television, but this novel brings it all to life. I couldn't honestly say I liked it, though I'm not sure why – it's not really my type of book, and I do tend to shy away from contemporary novels, especially if they are too realistic (actually, I'm not sure I can describe a novel published in 1981 as contemporary, but I'm sticking with that terminology).

However, it is beautifully written, in lovely, spare, unsentimental prose, and portrays a shocking event and the difficult (and often controversial) issues that arise with great sensitivity. The characters are sympathetically drawn, and the story unfolds so gradually, with a drip-feed of information, that I actually got a sense of how slowly things move along in a case like this, which was rather refreshing, because often stories involving police investigation hurtle along at an impossibly breakneck speed, with all the action condensed into a few days. But this isn't a conventional crime novel. In fact, I don't know that you could call it a crime novel at all – it's about the effects of a crime rather than the crime itself. It's about loss, and about a mother, and how she feels, and how she copes when the unimaginable becomes a reality and her child disappears.

All I can say is read it, and see what you think.
Endpapers from a ribbed knit fabric made
in the late 1970s from durene, polyester and
silk slub, sprinkled with gold metallic thread.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

More from The Provincial Lady

My copy of Macmillan's 1947 four-in-one
The Provincial Lady doesn't have a dust
jacket, bit would originally have had one
like this.
One of the great joys of volunteering in a charity bookshop is that occasionally - well, fairly frequently if I am to be totally honest - I come across a book I really, really want. In this particular instance the Object of Desire was a volume containing FOUR Provincial Ladies, so how could I resist? (Query: Was it sound financial management to buy this, when I already have the First Diary, even if it is covered in inappropriate Cath Kidston chintz, and The Second, downloaded from Project Gutenberg Australia?)

Actually, I think it was money well spent, because the first PL book is the only one readily available. In addition, I have a wonderful book to lift my spirits, and Oxfam has £4.99, of which 84 per cent will go directly into the pot for emergency response, development work and campaigning for change, while the remainder covers support and running costs, and fundraising costs. Sorry about the plug, but I think it's a point worth making, because there's a general perception that most of the cash donated for charities goes on administration, and while I don't know anything about other organisations, as far as Oxfam is concerned this is simply not true.

Anyway, my 'new' 1947 edition of EM Delafield's The Provincial Lady is a faded blue (easy on the eye, but not very photographic) and currently has pride of place on the bookshelf. Published by Macmillan & Co, it contains Diary of a Provincial Lady, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime, with a foreword by Irish writer Kate O'Brien.

I've already written about Diary of a Provincial Lady, so rather than individual posts on each of the other books, here are a few thoughts on the follow-ups.

The Provincial Lady Goes Further is, if anything, even funnier than its predecessor. Our heroine has become a successful author, and is disturbed by the curious behaviour of neighbours who now suspect her of Putting Them into a Book. Despite her new-found literary fame her financial situation is as precarious as ever, but she engages a holiday tutor for the children, takes the family on holiday to France. and acquires a flat in London with the intention of writing uninterrupted by the trials and tribulations of domestic life. However, she's easily distracted and, as usual, nothing in her chaotic life goes according to plan. She remains surprisingly good-humoured as she totters from crisis to crisis, but makes acerbic comments about her friends, family, acquaintances, and people's social pretensions.

It's the throw-away lines I love – non sequiturs on domestic life that get a mention, but are never referred to again. For example:

Cook sends in a message to say that there has been a misfortune with the chops, and shall she make do with a tin of sardines?

What kind of misfortune can occur to chops? Did Helen Wills (the cat) eat them? Did they get dropped? Did Cook burn them? Had they gone off? And what kind of substitute meal could one rustle up at short notice with sardines, which I assume must have been tinned? Alas, we never learn: it's just one of those unaccountable domestic disasters which occur in the best regulated households. It reminded me of the time in my own (unregulated) household when I was in the office on weekend duty, so the Man of House set about cooking fish fingers, mash and beans for The Daughters, only to discover there were no fish fingers. So, with great ingenuity, he tipped beans into a dish, piled mashed potatoes on the top, and told the girls it was Fish Finger Surprise - the surprise being that there were no fish fingers. But they ate every mouthful without complaint as they searched for the missing ingredient, something they rarely did for me!
Pamela Pringle, in an illustration by
Arthur Watts for The Provincial Lady
Goes Further.
Old friends, like Our Vicar's Wife, are still present, but the book is enlivened by the arrival of Pamela Pringle (known to the Provincial Lady many years ago as Pamela Warburton), who is extraordinarily beautiful and rich, has run through a collection of husbands and lovers, but claims never to Lead a Man on, and maintains it is not her fault that men have always gone mad about her.

In The Provincial Lady in America our unnamed heroine's American publishers invite her on a publicity tour, so she sub-lets her London flat and buys new clothes – most of which turn out to be as unsuitable as her existing wardrobe, and which look distinctly crumpled when she unpacks them. She is ill crossing the Atlantic aboard a luxury liner and, as usual, I find myself sympathising with the agonies of a fellow bad traveller:

New remedy for sea-sickness provided by Rose may or may not be responsible for my being still alive, but that is definitely the utmost that can be said for it.

Once in America she is whisked off on a relentless merry-go-round of lectures, social events, and yet more travel. She follows a rigid timetable, and finds there is little time to do the things she wants. She does manage to stand her ground about visiting home of Louisa May Alcott (her own literary heroine), but only through the intervention of an eminent critic. She discovers cocktails, which give her Dutch courage, and finds that Tea Parties are a Feature of Life.

Am by this time becoming accustomed to American version of a tea-party, and encounter cocktails and sandwiches with equanimity, but am much struck by scale on which the entertainment is conducted...

As inept and amenable as ever, she is terrified by American women, and I can't say I blame ber. The ones she meets would scare a saint: they are over-bearing, voluble, energetic, enthusiastic, well dressed, organised, well read, knowledgeable, determined, and will brook no opposition to what they want. The Provincial Lady soon realises that will never take 'no' for answer, that they have their own ideas about what a British author likes and dislikes – and that nothing she does or says will change their minds. But on the whole they are kindly, and very hospitable and, as in the first two books, it's the small incidents which delight, and the descriptions of people and places.

However, there's a change of tone in The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which feels a little more forced and is not as funny as the other books. Apparently, she had decided there would be no more PL books, but her publishers asked her to resurrect the character at the start of WW2, so perhaps that's why it seems to lack sparkle. There's also a poignancy about the book, especially when the Provincial Lady mentions her son Robin (still at school, but almost old enough to be called up) for Delafield's own son, Lionel, was killed in an unexplained accident at an Infantry Training Centre in 1940, the year the book was published.
Robert trying a gas mask on Cook, from an illustration
by Illingworth for The Provincial Lady in America.
It covers the first few months of the conflict, the 'phony war' when little was happening, and many people were convinced that things would somehow be resolved peacefully. Evacuees descend on the village – an event which neither evacuees nor villagers are prepared for – while Robert, our heroine's husband, dispenses gas masks to everyone in his role as ARP organiser for the district.

Cook shows a slight inclination towards coyness when Robert adjusts one on her head with stout crosspiece, and replies from within, when questioned, that It'll do nicely, sir, thank you. (Voice sounds very hollow and sepulchral.)

Robert still dissatisfied and tells me that Cook's nose is in quite the wrong place, and he always thought it would be, and that what she needs is a large size.

The Provincial Lady moves to London, hoping to put her literary skills to good use with the Ministry of Information. But, like everyone else, she finds herself 'Standing By' and volunteers in the WVS canteen at an underground ARP station. A whole host of new people are introduced, but I felt there was an element of cruelty in some of her descriptions, turning them into caricatures rather than characters. The Commandant is a grotesque re-incarnation of Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot in The War Workers, and the portrayal of Granny Bo Peep tips over the edge of comedy into unkindness. There's a darker edge here, a tenseness, with people deprived of concrete information trying to sift rumour from from reality as they wait to see what will happen.

But Delafield is still witty, still able to poke fun at social pretensions, and still recognises that it's the small every-day things that people worry about, rather than major issues, and can still be very funny. 

I have yet to find a copy of 'The Provincial Lady in Russia' (also published as 'Straw Without Bricks: I visit the Soviets') which Delafield wrote after visiting the USSR.

PS: If there's anyone out there who wants a hardback Virago Anniversary edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, I have one going spare, and I don't want anything for it (unless postage is exorbitant!).  It's in really good condition, apart from a small patch of missing surface on one page of Jilly Cooper's introduction - it looks as if something sticky got pulled off the paper. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road, past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him.

Mrs Palfrey (first name Laura, though no-one, least of all her creator, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor, would dream of calling her this) is the widow of a colonial administrator who, like her new home, has seen better days.

She and her husband spent much of their married life out east before retiring to the south coast, but now she has moved into a room at the Claremont. The taxi-driver's reaction tells you everything you need to know about the establishment, for he does not know it – and there are few places unknown to a London cabbie. Just as Mrs Palfrey never reached the top levels of colonial society, so the Claremont has never become one of the best hotels. And, just like her, the hotel is surviving on an ever-dwindling income.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is set in the 1960s, when many elderly, middle class men and women lived out their final years in the shabby, genteel surroundings of second-rate hotels - think of 'Fawlty Towers' where Basil would never have kept his head above water without payments from the forgetful Major and the two dotty spinster ladies. These were people who once had servants to do their cooking and cleaning, but now found themselves in reduced circumstances. The the prospect of hotel life, where regular meals were provided and there was no housework or gardening to be done, must have seemed alluring. After all, it was cheaper and easier than struggling to cope in one's own home – and far less lonely. What happened to them, I wonder? These days, I suppose, they would buy into care packages enabling them to remain in their own homes, living on microwave meals, or perhaps move into sheltered accommodation, or even a care home.

John Cleese may see the funny side of the 'resident guests', but Elizabeth Taylor's view of their situation is far sadder and more perceptive. There are comic touches here as well, but it's often the kind of dark humour which could almost have come from someone like Beryl Bainbridge. Speaking about the Claremont Mrs Palfrey says 'we aren't allowed to die here' which made me laugh, but it was a very uneasy laugh. 'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont' may be a social satire on the pretensions of middle class society, and the way we treat our old people, but it also calls into question our own response, as readers, to questions about aging and death. It's easy to laugh at Mrs Palfrey and her fellow residents, and that's just what the hotel's transitory guests do – but as the laugh they shift in their seats and avert their eyes, uncomfortable at this unwanted reminder of what lies ahead.

This year marks the centenary
of the birth of novelist
 Elizabeth Taylor.
As Mrs Palfrey slowly gets to know fellow residents,she strikes up an unlikely friendship with aspiring author Ludo Myers, who tells people he works at Harrods – by which he means he sits and writes his novel in the warmth of the banking hall! In the Claremont visits from relatives (especially personable young men) bestow status and add interest to the dull monotony of the days, so Ludo agrees to impersonate Mrs Palfrey's grandson, who works nearby at the British Museum, but shows little inclination to visit her. When he does finally call on her, he has to be hustled out of the way...

Not a lot happens, so if you like all-action, plot driven adventure stories this is not the novel for you. Like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor makes no direct mention of major political issues of the period, focusing on people and their lives, concentrating on small, everyday things. And she does it brilliantly. She is a genius at portraying characters in very few words, a great exponent of the art of showing, rather than telling, using beautifully nuanced observations on social conventions and interplay between people to make her point.

Despite the fact that the blogosphere has been celebrating her centenary, I seem to have left it until the very end of the year before discovering Elizabeth Taylor, so I can look forward to reading the rest of her novels in the months ahead. Sadly, they don't appear to be available at my library, and I rarely see them in charity shops, but I've got 'The Sleeping Beauty', 'A View of the Harbour' and 'Angel' to be going on with while I search for the others!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

In Which I am Sent to Coventry...

A view of the Cathedral showing the back of the building with
the zig-zag walls. . .
Well, the rain has stopped (although more is forecast), and the floods have drained away, but by yesterday it was bitterly cold, the water-logged land had turned to ice, and there was a thick frost covering rooftops, cars, trees and grass. So, to cheer ourselves up, a friend and I headed off to Coventry, which has quite a good shopping centre – not as big and varied as Birmingham, but not nearly as crowded, which is a huge bonus at this time of year!
. . . And part of the front. 
It ended up being the sort of day which provides food for body and soul, because we enjoyed a spot of retail therapy, treated ourselves to coffee and cake, and wandered around Coventry's fantastic modern Cathedral, which celebrates its golden anniversary this year. It stands alongside the bombed-out ruins of its predecessor, and is one of the most moving places I've been to. So, since Christmas is on the way, with its message of peace and hope, and since the main theme of the cathedral is peace and reconciliation, I took some photos there for today's Saturday Snapshot.
Sections of the outer wall of the old Cathedral
still stand, and when the sun shines through
the empty window there's a certain beauty.
Coventry, famed for its engineering industries, suffered terrible damage during WW2. The old Cathedral was gutted in an air raid on 14 November 1940: only the Gothic tower, the outer wall, and some broken pillars and arcades survived. But it wasn't the only casualty. That night two thirds of the city centre buildings were destroyed, along with 4,000 homes. Around 600 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Rescue work was hampered by the scale of the devastation. Water, gas and electricity supplies were knocked out early in the evening; police and fire HQs were hit; roads were impassable, and the hospital damaged.
This is the original Charred Cross,
with the Cross of Nails in its centre.
However, in the immediate aftermath of the raid, two charred oak beams which once held up the roof of St Michael's were bound together to form a cross. Another was created with three twisted nails salvaged from the wreckage, and a stone altar was made out of rubble. Services were held amidst the ruins, and it was agreed that the Cathedral would rise again, as a symbol of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and as a sign of hope and forgiveness in a time of war.

The scheme also came to represent the regrowth of the city, but it was ten years before the dream started to take shape, and at least that long again before work was complete. Architect Basil Spence won a design competition, but his vision was hugely controversial, for instead of reproducing the ornate Medieval edifice, he opted for a simpler and starker building, with clean-cut geometric lines. And instead of rebuilding on the old site, he placed his new Cathedral at the side of the ruins, clad the exterior in local red sandstone to match the remains, and linked old and new with a porch that pulls them into a unified whole.
The Jacob Epstein statue shows
St Michael poised in victory
above the defeated Devil.
Perched on the wall, looking at the empty windows and shattered stonework of the old Cathedral, is Jacob Epstein's wonderful sculpture of St Michael defeating the Devil. Somehow the bronze looks as if it is floating in the air, and I always think that at any moment St Michael might step lightly down to earth to see what is happening in the world today.

I'm not usually a fan of mid-20th century architecture, but I think Coventry Cathedral is an absolute triumph. The blend of ancient and modern works incredibly well, while the concrete interior uses traditional Christian themes and symbols in the most awe-inspiring way . The whole thing takes your breath away.
The Baptistery Window, designed by John Piper,
symbolises the glory of God flooding into the world.
 You walk inside, and stop, stunned by a huge, abstract, stained glass window. Designed by John Piper, it stretches from floor to ceiling, and light pours through the golden yellow sunburst at the centre, surrounded by rich reds, blues and greens. It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and as you look and gasp in wonder and amazement, you realise there other abstract glass panels, five on each side, all equally vibrant and colourful, each set into a zig-zag angle of the walls, each rising tall and thin, like a kind of spire, from the floor to the vaulted ceiling.
The great West Screen. The darker areas of
glass are the ruined walls of the old Cathedral. 
And there is the stupendous West Screen, a great glass wall, looking out on to the ruins, which seem to form part of the design. I can't even begin to describe how wonderful it is, but I'll try. It is engraved with angels, prophets and saints, some standing in rectangular 'homes' formed by the grid which holds the glass in place, others flying across the surface. If you look hard you can find St Michael doing battle again, this time with a dragon. The window reminds me of the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, which is covered in stone figures, and I think it's a nice link with the past, because Lichfield and Coventry were once part of the same bishopric.
In this close-up you can see some of the engraved figures,
and the turreted edge of part of an old wall.
Light from the screen and windows is directed towards the High Altar and the tapestry behind it. Christ in Majesty was designed by artist Graham Sutherland and is (according to the Cathedral's information booklet), the size of a tennis court. It was woven in France, took 10 years to complete, and you could write a book on its symbolism. But the same could be said for almost every object inside the Cathedral. Everything seems to be a work of art, and everything seems to have a meaning.
The Graham Sutherland tapestry is an
incredible piece of work.
Even if you are not religious, you should visit Coventry Cathedral. It is unlike any other cathedral I've seen, but it is beautiful and awe-inspiring, and the juxtaposition of the modern building against the Medieval ruins is very, very moving, as is the fact that this grew out of the devastation of WW2, and that the church community and the people of Coventry found it in their hearts to forgive, and to move on. Not only that, but a Community of the Cross of the Nails has been established in a bid to establish peace between nations through communication and understanding.

It's three years or so since I last visited, and an £8 entry fee has now been introduced. I have mixed feelings about places of worship doing this, because whilst accepting that cash is needed for maintenance and restoration, I feel they should be accessible and free.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice's blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at

Monday, 26 November 2012

Sighting the Whales

A print version of the book, published
by Sort Of Books.
According to the Oxford Dictionary a sightline (or sight-line, or even sight line) is a 'straight line extending from the eye of a spectator to an object or area being watched ', but in Sightlines, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie takes a look at landscapes many of us would not normally see. This isn't a book, of poetry, but but her language and thoughts are those of a poet, and her vision remains clear as she looks at hidden places, exploring nature, and man's place within it, reflecting and connecting on what she finds,

Her journey takes her to the strangely beautiful world inside the human body, viewed through a pathologist's microscope; bird communities on isolated Scottish islands, and a ruined chapel on an island named for a saint who lived so long ago that only his name and the stones remain. She visits the site of a vanished Neolithic henge, has an encounter with icebergs, and gets to stay on St Kilda, where life was so harsh people finally abandoned it. She makes her way deep into a Spanish cave system to view prehistoric wall paintings, sees the mysterious Northern Lights and watches the moon turn to a dusky red globe hanging in the sky during an eclipse,

And then there are the whales. It's the whales that dominate, alive and dead, and her her words do more to drive home the terrible fate of these creatures at the hands of mankind then any new programme or learned paper from campaigners could ever do.

St Brendan and his monks moored at an island,
lit a fire - and the island (which was really a
whale) sank! I'm not sure who would have
been more shocked, the monks or the whale.
Whales have always fascinated me. As a child my imagination was captured by exotic tales of Sinbad and St Brendan, who both set up camp on islands that turned out to be whales – imagine the shock of waking up one morning to find the 'land' is moving! And then there was Kipling's 'How the Whale Got His Throat' in which, O Best Beloved, a Mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity is eaten by a whale and dances hornpipes where he shouldn't, so the whale lets him go, but not before he turns his raft and suspenders into a grating in the whale's throat, to prevent men and large fish being swallowed. 

Over the years since then I've come across a host of other stories and poems about whales (Ted Hughes' 'How the Whale Became' is brilliant). I've watched them in various David Attenborough programmes, and worried about their dwindling numbers. And, of course, I've listened to the wonderful Judy Collins singing 'Farewell to Tarwathie', a traditional whaling folk song, accompanied by the sounds of spine-tingling whale-song.

Jamie's description of the whale skeletons on display in Bergen's Natural History Museum is hauntingly beautiful.

The Hvalsalen. Whale Hall. What else could it be called? They were all there, such a roster of whales – the baleen whales, sei and humpback, right, fin and minke whales – even the blue whale, and the toothed whales, too, sperm and bottlenose, narwhal and beluga, and the Sowerby's beaked whale, and, affixed to the walls, dolphins, almost dainty in comparison; the killer whale and the bottlenose.

Such bones as I never saw, hanging above my head.

There are twenty-four of them packed together (like blackbirds in a pie, I thought as I read), held together with metal, suspended from the ceiling on iron chains. Dusty, dirty, brown with age, they seem to have a life of their own, and oil still seeps from the bones more than a century after they were slaughtered and stripped of fat and flesh. To start with Jamie is mystified by the distinctive smell, but eventually identifies it as that of her childhood wax crayons which, it transpires, were probably made of whale oil.

A whale skeleton at the Hvalsalen. The website is at

On a central pillar, neatly painted in Norwegian and English, were the words “Do not touch the animals", but it was a bit late for that. The whalers' harpoons had got them; the flensing iron.

But despite the weight of bones, the effect of the Hvalsalen was dreamlike. The vast structures didn't seem to offer any reproach. Rather, they drew you in. Undisturbed for a century, they had colluded to create a place of silence and memory. A vast statement of fact: "Whales is what we were. This is what we are. Spend a little time here and you too feel how it is to be a huge mammal of the seas, to require the sea to hold you, to grow so big at the ocean's hospitality."

When she returns and helps a specialist conservation team clean the skeletons, she is amazed at the transformation. Handling the bones of a right whale (so called because it was the right whale to kill), she muses:

It was astonishingly light – it seemed to radiate such a thick yellow light. The word that came to mind was 'buttery'. The bones, I mean.

The presence of all those whale bones gets under her skin, and I understand why. The conservators have never seen live whales, but Jamie has, and the magic of these giant marine mammals shines through her writing.

She describes a sighting of five killer whales viewed from the rocky cliffs of an islet where she is studying a gannetry. The whales appear as a dark pencil line on the horizon, but at closer quarters they are immeasurably huge. They blow, and roll, and disappear, and rise again, water spilling off the side of their broad backs. Like inanimate icebergs, the living whales 'revealed only as much of themselves as was necessary; much more of their bodies remained concealed from his under the sea's surface, even when they blew'.

Photo of killer whales courtesy of Robert Pittman at 
Wikimedia Commons.
Months later on the remote, uninhabited isle of Rona, she sees the same group and watches the reactions of birds and seals under threat. But although the five whales watch, and circle the area, they swim off and the seals are left alive and unharmed.

As I read I thought about my Norwegian grandmother, born in 1888 in Kragero, a small town on the edge of a fjord. There was a brother who was lost at sea, and her father owned a fishing fleet, and I believe his father was also a fisherman, so I found myself wondering if they, or any of their family and friends were involved in the whaling industry. I would so love to see whales but, sadly, I am a disgrace to my sea-faring ancestors, for although I love to be beside water, I am always exceedingly ill on boats, even with the aid of prescription travel tablets, wristbands, and a 24-hour fast prior to sailing, so I guess whale watching is not a sensible option. Instead I will content myself with reading about them and looking at their bones.

Jamie is intrigued by the bones. She found her own whale vertebra on the turf of a Hebridean island, just up from the shore, and visited museums as well as towns with whalebone arches, including Whitby. The jawbone arch she looked at there is a recent installation, donated by Alaska in 2003, and it's the previous one I remember, it's surface crumbling and pitted with age. 

She also called into the museum run by the Literary and Philosophical Society, which still has exhibits housed in old wood and glass cabinets, and is one of the best museums I've ever been to, with a mesmerising collection of memorabilia from the old whaling captains and their crewmen.

William Scoresby Jnr. 
There Jamie looked the life of Whitby's best-known whaler, William Scoresby Jnr, who studied snowflakes in the Arctic, conducted magnetic experiments to improve the compass, and surveyed the coast of Greenland, naming the inlets and headlands after his friends and family. In the museum you can see his delicate sketches and water colours of the places he called at, and the plants and wildlife he saw – but he also returned home with barrels full of bone and blubber. He was obviously cultured and clever, yet he made his living by slaughtering whales in the most brutal fashion imaginable (there's a graphic description of the killing and processing of a whale in Carol Birch's 'Jamrach's Menagerie') Until Jamie reminded me I had forgotten that Scoresby eventually left the sea to become a clergyman, but somehow I doubt he concerned himself with the fate of the whales.

By the way, his father William Scoresby Snr, whom Jamie doesn't mention, invented the crow's nest, which gave sailors a clear sightline from sea to land (when there was any to see), which takes me back to the title, and set me thinking about the word sight, which can be used for the action of looking at something, and for the thing being looked at. I know the grammar is a bit wonky there, but what I am trying to say is that there is a strange kind of duality there, and there are sights for us to see in unlikely places, if we only know where to look, and Jamie does her best to make us see them. 

Overall, the image I was left with was her thoughts on the Aurora Borealis.

Once upon a time whaling ships had come to these latitudes, with orders to return heavy with oil and baleen. Now the aurora alters into long trailing verticals, and it makes me think of baleen. Sifting, Sifting what? Stars, souls, particles.You could fancy the northern lights were a great whale whose jaws our ship were entering.

The book held me spellbound, and I ended up by checking out the Bergen museum, and finding more information about whales and whalers, and writing much more about them I intended. I think I got slightly obsessed by the subject, but there is a lot more to book than that.

This is Kipling's own illustration for 'How the Whale got his Throat',
which I include because it was one of my first introductions to whales,
 and everyone should read 'The Just So Stories'. Kipling's caption says:
 "This is the picture of the Whale swallowing the Mariner with his
infinite-resource-and-sagacity, and the raft and the jack-knife
 and his suspenders, which you must not forget."
I have to say a big thank you to Lynne at dovegreyreader, who wrote a wonderful review of this book, which is much more sensible than mine (you'll find it herewhich I remembered when I saw the Kindle version of the book on offer at a bargain price, so I bought it. Now I can look forward to reading 'Findings' and I need to get a book of Jamie's poetry!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Autumn Floods

 The bench , trees and lamp show where the bank usually is.
I seem to have had one of those weeks where I haven't really felt like doing much, and curling up with a book seemed much the best option to pass the time, so I haven't got round to writing anything for several days. But I stirred myself into activity this morning, wrapped up warmly in my new winter coat (an early Christmas pressie from my wonderful daughters) and was out bright and early - by which I mean I was bright, but the weather wasn't. It wasn't raining, but it was very dull and foggy, although it cleared by the time I walked down to the Castle Grounds to look at the floods. The light wasn't good, but I've taken some pictures for this week's  Saturday Snapshot to give you an idea what it looked like.
This shot, taken from a bridge, gives some idea of the extent
of the flooding.
The Anker had burst its banks, and there was no way I could walk alongside the river, like I do normally, but I went as far as I could, and gazed at the transformed landscape. Really the river isn't all that wide, but the land on either side is very flat, and very low lying, so there are always floods when the weather is bad - and today was as bad as I've ever seen it. Grassland looked like a marsh, while trees were growing out of the water, and the the benches along the bank had almost disappeared. 
This beautiful flowers were growing on the unsubmerged part of the
bank, and brought a welcome touch of colour to a bleak day.
It looked spectacular, and the force of the water swirling and rushing along in the main course of the river was frightening. The water was a kind of chocolate brown, with trails of creamy coloured, frothy bubbles on the top, and I could hear it burbling and gurgling.
This may look like a river, or pool...
Normally there are dozens of ducks, geese and swans there, as well as coots and moorhens, but today most of them had vanished. There were a pair of swans swimming in the calmer water, above a footpath, and a few mallards and moorhens a bit further off - too far away to get a clear picture, and I certainly wasn't going to risk splashing through the flood water, although it didn't look very deep at that point. And six geese (just like in the song, but they were not a-laying) stood on a patch of bank that was still above water, peering at the torrent in a rather bewildered fashion, as if they were wondering what happened to their normal environment.
....but it's really a footpath!
The town centre is slightly higher, and doesn't flood. I had a good browse and, still on a watery theme, found  two beautiful shells in a charity shop, and snaffled them up so I can hold them against my ear and listen to the sea.
Trees growing in the water!
I got back home just before the rain set in, and have been sitting reading Alice Oswald's 'Dart', because I love her work, and this poem about the River Dart, in Devon, may be about a different river, but somehow it seemed to suit the occasion. 
This is grassland - honestly - and normally you can walk
across it without wearing wellies!
For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice's blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Lolly Willowes

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel, is a quite extraordinary story of a woman who sells her soul to the Devil and finds her true self by becoming a witch. Let me start by saying that Laura Willowes – the Lolly of the title – may confound your expectations of witchery. She wouldn't dream of riding a broomstick, and she has no intention of casting spells, for good or for bad. Laura doesn't want to help, or to be helped. She just wants to be herself, to think her own thoughts, make her own decisions, and live her own life.

When her father dies Laura moves in with passionless, duty-bound Henry (the younger of her two brothers), his wife Caroline and their two daughters. Laura has some reservations about her future: But in London there would be no greenhouse with a glossy tank, and no apple room, and no potting-shed, earthy and warm, with bunches of poppy heads hanging from the ceiling, and sunflower seeds in a wooden box, and bulbs in their paper bags, and hanks of tarred string, and lavender drying on a tea-tray.”

However, she remains passive about the move, with no will of her own. “And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of family property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best,” Townsend Warner tells us. Over the next 20 years Laura loses her name and her identity. She becomes Aunt Lolly, a dull, sensible, conventional woman, always ready to help when needed. But there are inklings that all is not quite as it seems, for each autumn she feels oddly uneasy and sometimes, while visiting old, forgotten corners of London she feels she is missing something important, and a secret is about to be revealed.

Then she walks into a small greengrocery shop and everything changes. “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like a load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her gingers seeking the rounded ovals of fruit among the rounded ovals of leaves.”

The chrysanthemums she buys smell of the dark, rustling woods, like the wood which haunts her imagination each autumn, and on discovering they come from the Chilterns she buys a map and guide book and informs her horrified family that she is moving to the village of Great Mop.

Once there she feels at one with the landscape, with nature and the passing seasons. But she senses a hidden secret just beyond her grasp. However, her new-found freedom and her joy in life are threatened by the arrival of Titus (the son of her other brother). She wants rid of him at any cost, and her anguished plea for help is answered – by Satan.

The novel starts as something of a social satire, a comedy of manners. “The Willoweses were a conservative family and kept to old-fashioned ways,” writes Townsend Warner, adding: “Finding that well-chosen wood and well-chosen wine improved with keeping, they believed the same law applied to well-chosen ways.”

But beneath that humorous veneer lies something much sharper and darker. I found it utterly un-put-downable, but I wouldn't describe it as charming, delightful, or whimsical. There's a kind of wildness here, something untamed and uncontrollable, and it must have seemed very subversive when it was published in 1926, demanding a life of their own for women, and portraying the Devil almost as a force for good.

When he appears, Townsend Warner's Satan may look like a dishevelled gamekeeper, but he seems to have more in common with ancient pagan gods than he does with the conventional Christian view of the Devil. He is a hunter who collects souls not because he's evil, malicious, or even mischievous, , but because he can. He doesn't want to control people, or lead them into bad ways. Once he knows he has their soul he is happy to leave them alone, to let them do, say and think what they want. He confers a glorious kind of freedom on people, which enables Laura to finally be completely true to herself, and do exactly as she pleases.
Sylvia Townsend Warner
And when she meets Satan she is confident enough to launch into the most amazing, impassioned speech, in which she rails against the way women are treated. There is nothing for women, she says, except 'subjugation and plaiting their hair'. Men talk, while women listen and become dull. Women do. “If they could be passive and unnoticed it wouldn't matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed,” she explains. “And think, Satan, what a compliment you pay her, pursuing her soul, lying in wait for it, following it through all its windings, crafty and patient and secret like a gentleman out killing tigers. Her soul – when no one else would give a look at her body even.”

And, she says, a woman will take that chance to stretch her wings and be herself in a dangerous black night because 'it's to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others'. There are no theological arguments here, no thoughts about the nature of good and evil, or life and death, or considerations about the future. What matters is the here and now, and a woman's right to be independent.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Saturday Stitchery!

This week's Saturday Snapshot is a kind of follow-up on Alyce's photos of peacocks last week, because they reminded me that I once did a little peacock embroidery, using blue and green shiny threads, and beads, and a variety of stitches, including eyelet stitch, straight stitch, Rhodes stitch and herringbone. I bought the design and instructions at an embroidery exhibition some years back, and it sat around for a while until I got round to doing it, and it's not all that big - about five inches across. It may not be as spectacular as the real bird, but I had great fun creating my little peacock, because I love messing around with different stitches and threads. Anyway, I hunted it out and took a picture.

And, since Christmas is on the way, I also took photos of some of the seasonal embroideries I have stitched over the years. I never seem to have enough money to have my work framed, so I have dozens of embroideries stashed away in a big plastic box, which is not really the best way to store them, because they get horribly creased, and it seems such a shame not to have them on display. Perhaps I could have a go at framing them myself, but I've always been worried about wrecking them.

The photographs haven't really come out all that well. I think a different camera setting may have helped, or scanning might have produced better results. 

As you can see, I enjoy stitching samplers - I've completed several for other seasons of the year, and a few traditional 'house' designs, and a lot of Noah's Arks (I like Noah, although it's Mrs Noah I always feel sorry for when I think of all the feeding she must have done, and the cleaning and grooming, and mucking out, and trying to keep the peace between all those creatures). 
This Christmas Angel is not my usual style at all. I saw it in a magazine, and it looked so pretty I thought I would have a go, but it drove me demented working on it, and I'm still not happy with it, and I really can't work out why. It's like a book that you don't like, but you can't pinpoint why you don't like it.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice's blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Sometimes, when you love a book, it is quite difficult to write about it, especially when lots of other people have already said lots of terribly clever and erudite things – and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is just such novel. Written by Winifred Watson, it's a charming fairy tale, funny and light-hearted, with a lovely, happy ending that is perfect for this particular tale.

Miss Pettigrew is a dowdy, impoverished, middle-aged spinster, who earns a meagre pittance by working as governess, a job she loathes and is not very good at. But one day the agency muddles two clients, and she finds herself at the luxurious (though ostentatious) flat of Delysia LaFosse, a beautiful, golden-haired actress and nightclub singer who is seeking a maid, and her life is changed for ever.

Down on her luck, and at the end of her tether, Miss Pettigrew has little chance – and little inclination - to explain who she really is. To her surprise, she finds herself called upon to persuade one young man to leave, and to erase all signs that could betray his presence to another young man who is due to arrive. And it turns out that there is yet another young man in Miss LaFosse's colourful life, who is desperately in love with her and would make the perfect husband...

It's all very different to the strait-laced, dull, drab life Miss Pettigrew has known up until now, and she ought to be horrified.

Miss Pettigrew cast a sternly disapproving eye about her, but behind her disapproval stirred a strange sensation of excitement. This was the kind of room in which one did things and strange events occurred and amazing creatures, like her momentary inquisitor, lived vivid, exciting and hazardous lives.

As Miss Pettigrew herself says, this is a place where things happen – and, to her great enjoyment, they happen at a fast and furious pace. Unloved, friendless and lonely, her knowledge of life comes from years watching her employers, and days off watching American movies, but fear and desperation about a bleak future lend her a courage she doesn't normally possess, and she finds herself doing and saying things she would not have dreamed of a few hours earlier.

One of the illustrations by Mary
Thompson, showing Miss Pettigrew
and Delysia LaFosse. I'm sure you
can guess who is who!
In the process she discovers the joys of alcohol, attends a nightclub in borrowed finery, resolves Miss Lafosse's complicated love life, and even acquires a beau of her own. More importantly, in less than 24 hours she learns how to enjoy herself, makes new friends, and gains confidence in her looks and abilities. The world she discovers may be superficial, but it's fun and comfortable, filled with colour and beauty, packed with emotions and sensory experiences.

Miss LaFosse and her Bohemian friends may not be entirely respectable, but they recognise Miss Pettigrew's worth, and accept her for what she is, although they themselves may not be quite what they seem. Miss LaFosse keeps her origins a close-guarded secret; her followers are self-made men, and her friend Edythe Dubarry, owns the best beauty parlour in London and owes her looks partly to her own skill, and partly to the surgeon's art.

The men are handsome, the women are beautiful, and they all dress in the latest, most expensive attire as they move through a glittering world of parties and nightclubs, sipping cocktails, laughing and joking. For Miss Pettigrew, starved of love, affection, beauty and joy, it's like a dream come true, and she cannot believe her luck as she seizes this new life with both hands.

I loved this, and Miss Pettigrew's new-found joy in life was so endearing - it's a nice feel-good novel, with some sparkling dialogue, and some astute comments on human nature and society.