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