Friday, 24 February 2012

Cupcake heaven - stitched and baked!

And now for something completely different. Cup cakes! I have been making edible and non-edible varieties. The ones intended for consumption came courtesy of a recipe in The Hummingbird Bakery Cake Days: Recipes to make every day special, by Tarek Malouf, which I came across when I visited a friend who had been given a copy for Christmas. It really is a beautifully produced book, with wonderful pictures, and some lovely ideas for cup cakes, muffins, and something called whoopie pies, which I hadn’t encountered before. Conversation came to an end while I copied some of the recipes and sampled her Coca Cola cakes.
My cup cakes - next time I'll use a recipe from an old book.
 Today I finally had a go myself and the cakes are wonderful, but the icing was too runny, so I added more icing sugar, and it ended up much too sweet and not the right texture, so I tried piping it on to the cakes, to see if it improved matters, but it didn’t.  Anyway, I topped them off with carob-coated raisins rather than the suggested Coca Cola sweets, and I am sure they will get eaten. 
The '50s housewife decorating her version of
of cupcakes (from the Good Housekeeping
Cookery Compendium)
And lovely though the Hummingbird book is, some of the recipes look a bit fiddly for what my mother scornfully refers to as  jumped-up fairy cakes, and I haven’t even tried her with whoopie pies, which appear to be a variation of the sponge drops she used to bake for my brother and I, sandwiched together with buttercream or home-made jam.  
Sponge drops : were these an early form
of whoopie pie? (from the Good Housekeeping
Cookery Compendium)
Anyway, I’ve ended up sitting reading the Good Housekeeping Cookery Compendium, published by Waverley in 1954, when my grandmother bought it as a present for Mum, and she gave me when my father died. It may not have the allure of modern celebrity cookbooks, but it’s packed with basic information; fool-proof, fail-safe recipes, and scores of pictures, including some in colour, and it’s one of the books I fall back on time and time again when cooking.  It’s not just the recipes that I find so appealing, but the association with childhood. As I turned the tattered pages today I swear I could smell ginger biscuits baking in the oven, and egg curry on the stove! And it made me recall my very first efforts at cooking, when I was so small I had to stand on a chair to reach the kitchen table – and the evidence of a terrible accident involving an egg can still be seen on the opening pages of the section about small cakes (queen cakes, assorted kisses, honey buns, melting moments and chocolate cakes).
Children's sponge cakes also seem similar to
modern whoopie pies.  (from the Good Housekeeping
Cookery Compendium)
Oddly enough, a pristine copy of the book was recently donated to Oxfam Books and Music, in Lichfield (where, as I’ve said before, I am a volunteer) and I did wonder if it was time to replace the old copy, but it wouldn’t be the same because it wouldn’t have that connection with my past.
A plate full of goodies. Tiny 'bottle-top' muffins, and
colourful cup cakes - actually they look more like those
whoopie pies, which really intrigue me - it's such an odd name.
And talking of Oxfam leads me to the non-edible cupcakes. I have been stitching them in pink and purple felt, as requested by a fellow volunteer who is also busy sewing. Decorated with beads, buttons and embroidery, they will make the window look decorative for International Women’s Day on March 8 – and we also hope to sell a few (they make nice pincushions) and boost Oxfam’s funds.
Balancing act! Put a felt cupcake on a cake case
and it looks quite eye-catching.
The charity aids women all over the globe by helping to improve education and maternity care. It also provides support for women to establish businesses in their community, so they can provide better opportunities for their children – details about the work being undertaken can be found at 

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Robinson Crusoe: dull and unlikable?

Well, I finally finished Robinson Crusoe, and am the first to admit it took me quite a time, partly because I got side-tracked by other books, partly because I found some bits more than a little tedious, and partly because on several occasions I was so exasperated I switched the Kindle off – had I been reading a ‘proper’ book I would have hurled it across the room. I’ll start by saying it was not as I remembered from my childhood: I suspect the version I read then had been extensively abridged, because I don’t recollect it being so religious, and I certainly don’t remember the cannibalistic savages. In addition, there’s a whole heap of stuff that happens before ever Crusoe is shipwrecked, and he doesn’t find Friday (just Friday, not Man Friday) until it’s almost time to be rescued.

It’s one of those novels that seems to have become so much part of our heritage you think you know it, but really what you have is a kind of myth, cobbled together from pictures, films, references to the book, and stories about other castaways. Witten by Daniel Defoe in 1719, it is generally thought to have been inspired by the true story of Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an uninhabited tropical island (at his own request), for more than four years. However, other travellers had also been rescued from deserted islands, so perhaps Defoe’s tale is an amalgam of several survivors.

Daniel Defoe. The original portrait is in the
 Natioanal Maritime Museum, London.
At any rate, his hero goes off to sea, despite objections from his parents. There’s a shipwreck, but that doesn’t deter him, and he sets off again, but this time he’s captured by pirates, becomes a slave to a Moor, escapes in a small boat and is rescued by a ship bound for Brazil, where he sets up a plantation. Time passes. He goes to sea as part of an expedition to acquire African slaves. If all that sounds exciting, it isn’t, and I nearly gave up, but I persevered. Anyway, now, finally, comes the bit I’d been waiting for: the shipwreck. Everyone dies except Crusoe, who fetches up on island 40 miles out to sea. Being a resourceful sort of fellow, he builds a raft and manages to salvage guns, ammunition, food and all kinds of useful things from the ship before it breaks up completely.

Now begins the fun part. He creates a home for himself, tames goats and a parrot, dries wild grapes to make raisins, and raises rice and barley from chicken feed rescued from the ship. It takes him years and years to produce a decent crop, as he saves the seed from successive harvests to multiply his plants. He learns to make bread, pottery, furniture, a small canoe, a wooden spade, a pipe to smoke, and various other tools, as well as stitching clothes from goatskin, and an umbrella, which I think is very ingenious. Crusoe also reads his Bible and reflects on his life, thanking God for providing him with sustenance and shelter.

Time passes. He discovers cannibals from the mainland visit the island to kill and eat prisoners. At this point I resisted the temptation to throw the Kindle at the wall and merely turned it off.

More time passes. Crusoe has a strange dream where he frees a prisoner who becomes his servant – and the dream comes true when a native prisoner escapes. Crusoe calls the man Friday, teaches him and converts him to Christianity. More time passes. More cannibals arrive, more prisoners escape. One is Friday’s father, the other is Spanish. A cunning plan is hatched to send the two newcomers off to the mainland to bring back shipwrecked Spaniards, build a boat and sail away. Here I lost the plot completely. Had Friday and Crusoe built a boat to get to the mainland? Were they going to build a boat? Or had they got the natives’ boat? Did I miss a vital development in the plot when I turned the Kindle off?

Next thing you know, mutineers arrive to maroon their captain, but in the end they are left behind while the captain, Crusoe and Friday sail for England. But they don’t stay at home. The intrepid duo set off for Crusoe’s Brazilian plantation on a journey which involves them fighting wolves in the Pyrenees...  just don’t ask me how or why.

Gabriel Betteredge, the old family retainer in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (one of my favourite novels) thought Robinson Crusoe the best book ever written and used it as a guide for life, as people once did with the Bible. When anything troubled him he would seek an answer within its pages, and always found something pertinent to his situation.

Personally I would take issue with Betteredge’s view. I know it’s a classic, and I know it’s views on race and religion are very much of its time, and are echoed in other writings of the period, but it’s certainly not a book I would read again. Quite frankly I thought quite a bit of was dull, and I’m not sure that Crusoe is a particularly likeable character – but I guess likeability is not a quality that would enable anyone to survive on their own on a desert island for 28 years. 

Monday, 20 February 2012

A batty but beautiful story

Don’t you just love it when a novel someone has recommended lives up to expectations? ‘Miss Hargreaves’, by Frank Baker, was wonderful. It’s right up there with ‘Parnassus on Wheels’ (Christopher Morley) as one of my unexpected gems. I spotted it whilst browsing in the library (I’d only popped in to take a book back and collect an ‘order’) but I can never resist scanning the shelves. Anyway, when I saw this I thought: “Aha, Simon, at Stuck in a Book, raves about Miss Hargreaves, and usually I like the books he admires, so I shall read it.” And I’m very glad I did, because it's a joy from beginning to end.

 Miss Hargreaves (pronounced Hargrayves) is one of the most incredible creations you are likely to meet in any novel – and I use the word creation quite deliberately. For the narrator, Norman Huntley, is blessed, as he himself admits, with a fertile imagination, and he invents the elderly and eccentric Miss Connie Hargreaves while looking at a particularly bleak Irish church. Fearing a careless remark gives the impression he knew a former vicar, he tells the sexton he knows someone who knew the late cleric. On the spur of the moment he plucks a name out of thin air and invents a history and character to go with it, aided and abetted by his friend Henry Beddow, who embellishes the story with further details. Norman has already admitted to previous problems brought about by similar inventive tales, so we have been warned. And there is a shivery moment when: 

"It seemed to me there was a sort of stirring of air in the church, like – like what? Rather like someone opening a very old umbrella. I looked round sharply, but couldn’t see anything unusual. A ray of feeble sun had broken through the dark clouds and was shining down on the dust in the galleries. I realised I was trembling. Sweating too. No doubt about it. I was precariously poised on the Spur of the Moment. Father’s ancient warning came back to me. No good now, when you’re on the Spur you can’t go back. I wiped my brow with my handkerchief and smiled at the sexton. I knew I was powerless to move except in one direction."

Author Frank Baker wrote
Miss Hargreaves in 1939
 He becomes obsessed with his creation – who, he claims, writes poetry and travels everywhere with a bath given to her by Rev Archer when they were both Cambridge students. He even sends a letter to the Hereford hotel where he claims she is staying, inviting her to visit his family. Back home in the Thames-side cathedral town of Cornford a mysterious book of poetry (Wayside Bundle) surfaces in his father’s bookshop. It is written by Constance Hargreaves ...

Then Norman receives a letter from the lady. Then she arrives, alighting from the train accompanied by a dog on a purple lead and cockatoo. In addition there’s her bath, two trunks, assorted bags and a harp. As Norman says, I’d better try to try to describe her to you.  

"She was very small, very slight, with a perky, innocent little face and speedwell-blue eyes. Perched on top, right on top, of a hillock of snowy white hair: buttressed behind by a large fan-comb, studded by sequins and masted by long black pins, lay a speckled straw hat. Over a pale pink blouse with a high neck and lace cuffs, she was wearing a heathery tweed jacket; a skirt to match. Round her neck was a silver fur. Resting on one stick, she was holding the other, and the umbrella was on her arm; they were black ebony sticks, with curved Malacca handles."

Norman is proud of himself. He can’t help it. She is perfect. But those black sticks seem faintly menacing, and he is aware there may be trouble ahead – as there is.  Miss Hargreaves may say she abominates fuss, but she’s very autocratic and very unreasonable.  Who else would demand another bed in her room for the dog to sleep on? Or order Norman to buy all the hotel’s vases and smash them, because they offend her sense of beauty? And who else would sit in the Bishop’s throne at the Cathedral (where the clergy do their best to discourage visitors)? She gets Norman into a series of scrapes, and alienates his friends – and all the while she never stops talking, in her shrill imperious voice.

Margaret Rutherford played
Miss Harrgreaves in a
stage play
Gradually she takes on a life of her own, becoming more and more independent of her creator. There’s an almost symbiotic relationship between them and, succubus-like, s as he grows stronger, he grows weaker, unable to control her. He loves her and hates her, and believes she is a monster and must be destroyed. In the end Norman and Henry return to the Irish church to replay the scene where the dreaded Miss Hargreaves was first created. By the end I still wasn't sure if Norman conjured Miss Hargreaves out of nothing, or whether she was a ghost, or whether it was all a strange co-incidence. But then she disappears as mysteriously as she arrives - or does she....

I could go on and on about this gorgeous story with its batty plot and batty characters, including Norman’s delightfully scatty father, who once made up an excuse about an escaped elephant and a dead postman, only to find the incident came true.  And I haven’t said anything about the music, or Miss Hargreaves’ poems which, for some reason made me think of Lewis Carroll. All I will say is that this is a very funny, beautifully written novel, with a dark edge.  And it’s published by The Bloomsbury Group, with a period style design on a lovely blue cover, and an Ex Libris printed on the first page with room for your to write your name.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Rediscovering Maigret

Notre Dame, which has nothing to with the story, but last time
I went  to Paris we ate lunch in a cafe near Shakespeae and Company
and this was the view, and it makes me happy to look at it.
Well, here I am, still in Paris, in spirit, if not in body – but it’s not really the fault of the Hemingways because I had put in a request at the library for any of Simenon’s Maigret books and, just as I was reading The Paris Wife, back came The Hotel Majestic, along with The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. Then, when I went to collect them, I spotted Frank Barker’s Miss Hargreaves, which is fantastic, but I will write about that another day since I am sticking with France for the time being.

It’s a long time since I read a Maigret novel, and I’d forgotten how well Georges Simenon conjures up the sleazy Parisian underworld. Here the blonde, French wife of a wealthy American industrialist is found dead in a locker in the staff cloakroom, down in the basement of an upmarket hotel. She has been strangled, but in her bag is a gun... Investigations reveal she has a past, for before her marriage Mimi was a nightclub dancer and had an affair with the chef who finds the body... Then there is her husband who wants to marry the governess who helps care for the couple’s young son...

Soon, the body of the night porter is discovered: he too has been strangled and stuffed into a locker at the hotel. But never fear, Superintendent Jules Maigret, Head of the Special Squad of the Judicial Police, is on the case, with his pipe, his bowler hat, and his deceptively slow manner, which belies his astonishing powers of observation and deduction. His queries take him from Paris to Cannes as he moves through a world of bars, nightclubs, and the hidden part of hotels where the staff work long, hard hours, unseen by the guests. Among those he questions are the dead woman’s former friends, Gigi, a raddled, drug addicted prostitute, and kind-hearted Charlotte, who has grown too plump to dance and now lives with Prosper Donge, Mimi’s old lover. Donge himself, described by everyone as ‘a good man’, becomes the chief suspect, but Maigret is not convinced and runs into conflict with the magistrate in charge of the case.

It’s difficult to go into too much detail without giving the ending away – and that would never do.

Suffice to say that after all the questioning Maigret works out the who and the why, though personally I am positive he identifies the murderer right at the outset (something to do with a shifty look, perhaps). Even at this early stage he may have some inkling of the motive, but he needs to prove his case, so he sets about uncovering the truth. He can give those who don’t know him the impression that he is a bit of a bungler, doing things almost by chance, without any particular purpose, and he was sneaking in vital questions in a casual way long before Columbo got in on the act.“Looking at him, you would have thought he was making an amateurish study of how a grand hotel functions,” writes Simenon at one point. But Maigret is actually very methodical: intuition may play a part in the way he works, but he knows he needs facts to prove a case, and I think he believes the end justifies the means, so if he doesn’t always do things by the book it doesn’t matter. He is utterly ruthless about catching criminals and ensuring they are punished for doing wrong.  

I always imagine Maigret must look like
his creator Georges Simenon - perhaps
 it's the pipe that does it.
Maigret doesn’t immediately strike you as being a clever psychologist, but he is. He understands what makes people tick, likes to see them in their own environment, and is able to predict the way they will behave. At times he is disarmingly simple and friendly – a technique he uses in the hopes that people will let information slip in an unguarded moment. (Columbo does that as well. I’m a big fan of Columbo, in case you hadn’t noticed).

 I really enjoyed this. It’s a pacy read, which keeps you guessing all the way through, and even though I’d seen the TV series with Michael Gambon I still couldn’t work out who dunnit. I would read some more, but I think The Hotel Majestic is the only Maigret book that Staffordshire Libaries have in stock. 

Monday, 13 February 2012

Paris with a Dashing Dish

Ernest, Hadley, and Bumby
Austria, in 1926,
Ernest Hemingway must, I think, have been a bit of a sod. Incredibly charismatic, yes. Talented, yes. But a sod, nevertheless. I base this opinion upon ‘The Paris Wife’, a novel in which author Paula McLain gives voice to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, with whom he lived in Paris during the early 1920s.

Before I proceed any further can I mention that I recently spent quite some time sitting on the floor in the library perusing a very large volume of a Hemingway biography which seemed to support my view, as well as showing just how well researched McLain’s book is.

Anyway, to return to Hadley. Following a childhood accident (she was injured falling from a window) she led a sheltered life under the thumb of her mother who was, at best, over-protective – or, at worst, very controlling. A college course didn’t work out, and Hadley abandoned hopes of becoming a professional pianist because she felt she was not good enough. She nursed her mother through her final illness and, following her death, visited an old friend in Chicago.

There she met Hemingway and the rest, as they say, is history. Hadley, nearing 30, was eight years older than the young writer, but the attraction between them seems to have been instant and irresistible, and they were married less than a year later, in September 1921, despite disapproval from their friends and families.

Ernest Hemingway in
uniform in Milan in 1918.
Here, as another aside, could I say that the young Hemingway was dashingly dishy, which came as something of a surprise since I had only seen photos of him when he was old and grey, and really rather stout. I know, it’s very frivolous of me to comment on such things when I am supposed to be writing a serious review, but in the book, without ever being too explicit, Hadley makes it clear that the physical chemistry between them is a vital part of their relationship, and that he is a good looking man who is attractive to other women, so I think my observation is justified.

In Paris Hadley and Hemingway (I suppose I should call him Ernest, since that is how he is referred to in the novel) live on her legacy and his meagre salary as a journalist. They love and drink and quarrel and love again, and give each other tender nicknames. They become part of a charmed circle of avante-garde writers and artists, including Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.

Their first flat, which echoes with the sound of accordion music, is next to a dance hall, and the cobblestone streets are full of drunks, beggars, tramps and prostitutes. McLain is good on giving a sense of place as she describes cafes, markets, rooftops, the Seine, bare chestnut trees. I loved this little passage:

Fishermen were stringing their lines for gougon and frying them up on the spot. I bought a handful wrapped in newspaper and sat on the wall watching the barges move under Pont Sully. The nest of fish was crisp under a coarse snow of salt and smelled so simple and good I thought they might save my life. Just a little. Just for that moment.

It seems somehow to encapsulate Paris, and Hadley’s time there – for we know the marriage cannot last. And it doesn’t. We follow her and Hemingway as they journey to Italy, Germany, Pamplona (for bull running and bull fights) and Toronto (where their son is born), and watch as Hemingway becomes more successful, quarrels with old friends, acquires new ones, and becomes part of the café society he once despised. Gradually the Hemingways’ marriage falls apart as Ernest embarks on affair with a woman Hadley regards as a friend.

Somehow Hadley is out of tune with the independent Bright Young Things and Bohemian women of the ’twenties. She is actually a very engaging heroine. She is bright, lively, intelligent, naïve, loves music, dotes on her little boy, and cares little about her appearance or what she wears.  She sees herself as a kind of helpmeet, doing all she can to ensure Hemingway is happy and able to work, for she believes in his genius. I think she is totally besotted by him and sees him as a scared boy hidden beneath the macho male who likes to be in control, and loves sport and courting danger – she wants to reassure that scared boy and keep him safe from harm. And she wants him to be happy, even if it means losing him.  I liked her, and I was glad she eventually remarried and found peace and happiness.

There are a few chapters written from Hemingway’s perspective, but I find it difficult to decide if he was scarred by his experiences as an ambulance driver during the First World War, when he was seriously wounded  after just a couple of months, or whether he was shaped by his family (with whom he seems to have been at odds). Or perhaps that’s way the way he was, and there was no reason.

It’s not easy writing a fictional account of people and events from the recent past, because so much has already been written, and so much information is available, but McLain has used the existing data and spun a new tale, filled with emotional intensity, that throws fresh light on Hemingway and places his first wife in the spotlight.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Handkerchiefs at the Ready for a Sad Tale

I always think it is so wonderful when you find a book you love, then read another by the same author and love it just as much. After all, it doesn’t always follow that you enjoy everything a novelist has written, so I was delighted to find On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry, was every bit as good as The Secret Scripture. It centres on 89-year-old Lilly Bere, who tells the story of her life, while mourning the suicide of her grandson. Like Roseanne, in Secret Scripture, Lilly is not political, but her story has its origins in the turmoil surrounding the creation of the Irish Free State: Barry’s writing is infused with the tragic history of a divided nation.    

Lilly’s mother dies giving birth to her, so the girl is raised by her elder sisters and her father, a high ranking policeman in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. As a teenager she falls in love with Tadg, a member of the ‘Black and Tans’, the British Army unit recruited to suppress the men and women who fought for Irish independence. Consequently the couple are regarded as traitors to the new Ireland, and their lives are at risk, so they flee to America to start a new life under a new name.

Sebastian Barry
They are followed by a vengeful killer who guns Tadg down, and Lilly is left alone in a strange land, cut off from her family, and with no friends. She flees again, and is rescued by Cassie, who finds her a job and a place to live. For years Lilly lives in fear, waiting for the killer to find her, but gradually she creates another life for herself and falls in love with Joe. But Joe has a secret he cannot reveal to the world, and abandons her when she becomes pregnant, so once again Lilly is forced to rebuild her life.

Her story is played out against a background of war and assassination. War and conflict are continuing themes. The men in her life are all damaged by war. Her brother Willie Dunne, a volunteer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is killed in the First World War, although his visits home show that the real him has disappeared long before his death. Apparently, he is the main character in Barry’s earlier novel, A Long Long Way, which I have yet to read. Then there is Lilly’s son, changed for ever by his service in Vietnam, who opts out of ‘normal’ society, unable to cope with the demands of everyday life. And, finally, there is the grandson she has brought up, scarred by the terrible things he saw during the Gulf War.

Barry really gets into mind of his chief protagonist, exploring love, life, death, grief, friendship, revenge, compassion and identity, all with deftest of touches – especially the denouement, when the boundaries between enmity and friendship become so blurred. He is a wonderful story teller, who writes in faultless prose. When writing about The Secret Scripture I said:  “It is a wonderful read that could only have been written by an Irishman. The lovely, lyrical language sings with an Irish lilt, following the cadences of speech in the author’s native land.”  I think that applies just as much to On Canaan’s Side.

In the notes I scribbled while I was reading I was struck by the number of references to birds, and reflecting on that now I wonder whether this was down to chance, or whether they represent a kind of freedom the characters never achieve. By the way, I would defy anyone to read this without crying. Keep a handkerchief  to hand (I still use proper cotton hankies, but you are welcome to use tissues if you prefer), because parts of it are very, very sad, and the depth of Lilly’s grief – for her grandson and her past - is very, very great.
This post is published as part of  the Irish Reading Challenge 2012.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Remarkable Creatures

At last, a Tracy Chevalier novel that I enjoyed! As a rule I like the idea of her books far more than I like the books themselves – for some reason I always fail to connect with them. But Remarkable Creatures was brilliant. It’s about fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who were friends in real life, just as they are in the novel. And here is a picture of an ammonite my elder daughter found on a Somerset beach - she cracked open a stone, found the fossil within, and gave it to me, and it is one of the nicest and most specialpresents I have ever had. 
Anyway, Chevalier’s tale alternates between the two women, with each one narrating events from different viewpoint: where their stories overlap you gain a rounder and fuller picture of what happens, and how they think and feel.
Each has a very clearly defined character and ‘voice’. Mary’s chapters, as befits a poor, working class girl, are in less educated language, very different to Elizabeth’s sections, where the language and vocabulary are those of an educated, middle class woman. And they are both as remarkable as the creatures they seek: they are curious to know what fossils are, and where they came from, and are dismissive about the explanations in vogue at the time – they realise, for example, that ammonites cannot possibly be snakes that curl up when they die. They study their fossils in a scientific way, making notes on their observations; questioning accepted beliefs, and applying their knowledge as they try to draw conclusions and make their own deductions.

The wonder of finding a fossil – the remains of a creature so old it has never, ever been seen by mankind, even when it was alive - comes across very clearly, as does the actual process of hunting for ‘curies’, or curiosities, which was cold, dirty, wet and, on occasions, very dangerous. Chevalier also highlights the hardship of Mary’s life. For some reason I had always imagined her as the daughter of a learned clergyman, but that is very far from the truth. Her father was a not terribly successful cabinet maker (apparently, on a visit to Lyme, Jane Austen visited his workshop, but refused to buy anything because he charged too much) and the family eked out a living selling fossils to tourists.

In the book we see how Mary found the first complete ichthyosaur, which she initially thought was some kind of crocodile, and the first plesiosaur, and there’s an added resonance because we know that her findings and observations helped change people’s understanding of prehistoric times, even if her work wasn’t always fully acknowledged during her life.
A portrait of Mary Anning 
with her dog Tray, once 
owned by her brother, 
 hangs in the  Natural 
History Museum.
Mary and Elizabeth, and their obsessive interest in fossils, really came to life, and the other characters were equally well depicted – Mary’s mother and brother, Elizabeth’s sisters, and the various ‘gentlemen scholars’ who visit Lyme all spring off the pages. The action is slow moving, but in a novel where fossils take centre stage that’s hardly surprising, and there were some lovely, gentle touches of humour, as well as a meticulously detailed account of everyday life in the early 18th century.

Somehow, I feel as if I haven’t done justice to this novel, but I really enjoyed it, and  was sorry when it came to an end. It sent me off finding out more about Mary, Elizabeth and fossils in general, which was fascinating. Perhaps The Man of the House would like to take us to Lyme in the Campervan, so I could search for ‘curies’, walk on the Cobb, and re-read Remarkable Creatures, Persuasion, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Haunted by Disappointment

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley, was one of the most delightful novels I’ve read, so I had high hopes for the follow-up, The Haunted Bookshop, but it failed to live up to expectations, and I was really disappointed.

Since this is a post about a book about a second-hand  bookshop,
here is a picture of me in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops,
G&J Chesters, at Polesworth.
In this book (downloaded free from Project Gutenberg, which is a wonderful resource) Roger Mifflin and Helen have settled down to married life in a second-hand bookshop which seem to be open almost all hours. They live ‘above the shop’ and have just taken on an assistant – the beautiful Titania Chapman, daughter of a millionaire businessman and booklover who wants her to learn a proper job.

At this point advertising whizzkid Aubrey Gilbert appears on the scene and, very predictably, falls in love with Titania. Here the story starts to get complicated: there’s a missing book (Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, in case you’re interested), which mysteriously turns up rebound; a sinister chemist, and a chef who is obviously not what he seems.

Aubrey (is anyone still called Aubrey I wonder? I shouldn’t think many people were named Aubrey even in 1919 when this was written) determined to unravel the puzzle and protect Titania, he becomes embroiled in chases and fights as he is pursued and attacked by unknown villains. At one stage he even suspects Roger of being involved. There’s a bomb, an explosion, and a German plot to assassinate the American president, but eventually the villainous spies get their come-uppance, and everyone else, presumably, gets to live happily ever after.

If it all sounds a bit far-fetched, that’s because it is.

And Roger’s lovely comments about books, which were peppered throughout Parnassus on Wheels, have become much lengthier discourses, often with other bibliophiles, and seem much more forced. So there we are: an interesting read, but not one I would wish to repeat.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A Very Uncommon Queen

This knitted Queen, from 
Knit Your Own Royal
Wedding, by Fiona
Goble, looks such fun
I may make one

Well, it’s the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne, so here are some reading suggestions for those who want to escape the brouhaha which surrounds the event. Firstly there’s Sue Townsend’s ‘The Queen and I’, in which England has become a republic and the royal family has been banished to a grotty council estate. I am not a huge fan of Townsend (I’m always inclined to think one reading of any of her work is enough) but she is very funny, and this would be a good antidote to the current monarchy mania – although I think the ending is a bit of a let-down, and I most certainly would not have written it like that.

Better still is Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’, which I wrote about on my other site when I first started blogging.  At the centre of this novel (or perhaps I should say novella, since it is very short) is the Queen, older, wiser and more human – albeit more selfish – than she appears in Bennett’s ‘A Question of Attribution’. Here, in pursuit of barking corgis, she stumbles upon a mobile library van which calls at Buckingham Palace once a week, and consequently discovers the joys of reading. Her first book, by Ivy Compton-Burnett, is selected because she made the author a dame.  “Yes, I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head,” she recalls.

Aided and abetted by kitchen boy Norman, Her Majesty becomes an obsessive reader, and begins to resent time spent on official engagements, although travel can be put to good use: in a state coach she waves with one hand while holding a book with the other, hidden from view – reminding me of the days when I wedged a book beneath the lid of a school desk. I rejoiced as ER enjoyed my own favourites and, spurred on by her enthusiasm, vowed to extend my own reading and try something new (though I have to admit I still haven’t got round to trying Proust).

The Queen soon realises what many of us already know, that ‘novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies. And that reading leads to more reading as you chase allusions, check out facts, hunt for answers and search for truths. Her staff may wonder if she is going senile, but she has a sharp wit.  “A book is a device to ignite the imagination,” she tells a footman who tries to tell her a missing book has been confiscated by security and may have been exploded. And when her private secretary suggests she would better to stick with reading briefings, she says – with some asperity – that briefing is not reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point” she adds. “Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject. Reading opens it up.”

Her Majesty is, says Bennett, strangely democratic and approaches books ‘without prejudice’. They are ‘uncharted country’, so initially she makes no distinctions, and she likes the fact that ‘all readers are equal, herself included. Gradually she begins to discriminate, She develop eclectic tastes, writes notes on what she reads, and takes to discussing books with the people she meets – to the horror of her staff, who disapprove of her hobby. They search for a way to stop her reading, but the solution disturbs them even more, for the Queen decides she will devote the rest of her life writing…

Alan Bennett
If you’ve never read this, please, please, remedy the omission as soon as possible.  It’s a delight from beginning to end, literate, understated, quintessentially English, and beautifully written and constructed. Bennett always manages to use the perfect word in exactly the right place, and this is full of his usual wry, detached observations of the minutia of everyday life and human behaviour.

And if the real Queen does not resemble the character portrayed by Bennett, then she should try a little harder to match the image – his creation is up there with the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. Childish of me I know, but I really do want her to exist.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Snow Fall

The snow has almost gone, but it looked so pretty while it was here that I couldn't resist posting Robert Bridges' poem, 'London Snow', because I always think it really captures the silent way snow falls in the night, and the wonder of the morning when you wake and everything is transformed. And, since I'm not in London, here is a photo I took of Tamworth Castle in the snow, and another of the river.

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
      Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
      Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
      All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
      And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marveled - marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
      The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
      Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
      Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
      With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
      When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
      For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
      But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Why Didn't I Like This Book?

I do not like thee Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell.

As far as I’m concerned this traditional children's rhyme sums up the way I feel about ‘Brooklyn’, by Colm Toibin. It's what  Frances at recently referred to as ‘The Almost Liked’.  The writing is fine, the story is fine, the characters are fine – but it didn’t do anything for me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why not. It wasn’t even that I hated the book. I didn’t. I just failed to engage with it on any emotional level whatsoever.

Eilis Lacey is unable to get a job in the small Irish town where she lives, so her elder sister, Rose, arranges for her to emigrate to Brooklyn, where she works in a department store and rents a room at Mrs Kehoe’s.  The local priest finds a remedy for her homesickness b y enrolling her in evening classes for book keeping and accountancy, and slowly she gets to know her landlady, fellow lodgers and work colleagues, but she makes no close friends until she meets Tony, an Italian plumber, at a dance in the parish hall, and he falls in love with her.

Gradually she find a new life away from her mother and sister, and her memories of  Ireland begin to fade. Then Rose dies and Eilis returns to Ireland to visit her mother – but before she leaves she agrees to marry Tony, in secret. For some unknown reason she never tells her mother and friends about Tony or her marriage, and as an attraction grows between her and pub landlord Jim Farrell her time in America takes on the quality of a dream. Jim wants her to get engaged to him, Rose’s boss wants to offer her a job, her mother wants her to remain, and she leaves Tony’s letters unopened.

It seems Eilis could have everything she ever wanted if she stays in Ireland, but she is forced to make a decision and go back to Tony and America when a town busybody reveals that she is Mrs Kehoe’s cousin, and she knows all about Eilis...

I must say I found Eilis rather irritating as a central figure and never really felt I knew or understood her. She seems almost to have no will of her own: she goes to America because Rose wants her to, and because she doesn’t want to upset Rose or her mother by showing her true feelings. Similarly, she doesn’t want to upset Tony by rejecting him, so she ends up marrying him, almost by default and, presumably, had she stayed in Ireland and not returned to America she may have married Tony because everyone expected it. Personally, I don’t think she’s in love with either man – she seems to lack passion, and just takes the line of least resistance.

In addition the description of the crossing to America owed a huge debt to Dickens and his ‘American Notes’. Had so little progress been made that in the 1950s, more than a century after Dickens’ made the journey,  trunks still didn’t fit into ships’ cabins?

This novel won the 2009 Costa award, and Toibin is, apparently, regarded as the greatest living Irish writer, but I was bitterly disappointed with it. 

*I posted this for the Irish Reading Challenge 2012 at

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Goats and Cabbages with the 'Real' Robinson Crusoe

Today in1709 Alexander Selkirk – the man regarded as the ‘real’ Robinson Crusoe – was rescued after being marooned on an uninhabited tropical island for more than four years. The journey back to England took another two years, and once there he became something of a celebrity. The story of a barefoot ‘wild man’, clad in goat skins, who had used his ingenuity to survive in a hostile environment, obviously appealed to people’s imagination.

Having looked at some contemporary accounts, I started re-reading Daniel Defoe’s tale, but am not very far into it, so I thought I would write about Selkirk instead. I’d always assumed he was shipwrecked, or marooned by his fellow mariners, but he actually asked to be cast away. Born in 1676, in Lower Largo, Fife, he ran away to sea, became a privateer (basically that’s a pirate) and seized goods from Spanish ships. By September 1704 he was a skilled navigator, holding a position as Sailing Master on the ‘Cinque Ports’. But he fell out with the captain because the ship was leaky. Concerned about its condition, he asked to be put ashore at the next island, and was left on Juan Fernandez, more than 400 miles off the West Coast of Chile, with a few clothes, bedding, a musket and powder, some tools, a Bible and tobacco.

It seems that he thought it would not be long until he was rescued,, but remained there for four years and four months. At one stage Spaniards landed, so he hid fearing they would murder him, or make him a slave. It was not until February 1st, 1709, that two British privateers arrived at the island. Amazingly, their pilot was the pirate, explorer and naturalist William Dampier, who had been with Selkirk’s original expedition and vouched for him.

Selkirk’s story was noted down by Captain Woodes Rogers, who later included details in his book of memoirs, A Cruising Voyage round the World. Describing his first meeting with Selkirk he said: “...our Pinnace return'd from the shore, and brought abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who look'd wilder than the first Owners of them...

“He had with him his Clothes and Bedding, with a Firelock, some Powder, Bullets, and Tobacco, a Hatchet, a Knife, a Kettle, a Bible, some practical Pieces, and his Mathematical Instruments and Books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against Melancholy, and the Terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two Hutts with Piemento Trees, cover'd them with long Grass, and lin'd them with the Skins of Goats, which he kill'd with his Gun...”

Journalist Richard Steele interviewed Selkirk soon after he returned to England, for an article in The Englishman, in which he said: “... the eager Longings for seeing again the Face of Man during the Interval of craving bodily Appetites, were hardly supportable. He grew dejected, languid, and melancholy, scarce able to refrain from doing himself Violence, till by Degrees, by the Force of Reason, and frequent reading of the Scriptures, and turning his Thoughts upon the Study of Navigation, after the Space of eighteen Months, he grew thoroughly reconciled to his Condition.”

Thanks to Rogers and Steele we know quite a bit about what Selkirk’s life was like on the island – how eating turtles made him ill, how he killed goats, how he tamed animals, made clothes, and built a hut.

And Captain Edward Cooke, another mariner from the rescue ships, also mentioned Selkirk in his recollection of his travels, A Voyage to the South Sea, and around the World. He gives a very concise picture of the ‘wild man’, writing: “...he continu'd four Years and four Months, living on Goats and Cabbages that grow on Trees, Turnips, Parsnips, &c. He told us a Spanish Ship or two which touch'd there, had like to have taken him, and fir'd some Shot at him. He was cloath'd in a Goat's Skin jacket, Breeches, and Cap, sew'd together with Thongs of the same. He tam'd some wild Goats and Cats, whereof there are great Numbers.”

I must say that a diet of goats and cabbages sounds singularly unappetising.

Anyway, undeterred by his experience, Selkirk continued to sail as a privateer, and when he died in 1721 was buried at sea, off the west coast of Africa. There is a memorial plaque to him on the island, and a statue at Lower Largo. Fuller versions of contemporary accounts  of Selkirk’s story can be found at