Monday, 30 April 2012

A Spark Without Sparkle

Well, Muriel Spark Reading Week is over, and it seems the only novel unread and unblogged (which may not be a word, but never mind) is The Mandelbaum Gate, which I did actually pick up at the beginning of the week and start reading, but I gave up because I just couldn’t get on with it. However, in the interests of fair play, I picked it up again last night and have persevered. I did get to the end, but only because I skipped quite large sections, and I can see why it has been languishing on the bookshelf for years, and why I’ve never managed to stick with it in the past – none of which is much of a recommendation.

For a start, it is longer than Spark’s other work – a full-length novel – and her wonderful wit and spikiness is mostly missing. I think her style is best suited to short novellas where the action, such as it is, is very contained. Perhaps it’s difficult to sustain that kind of spare, tight writing over a longer work, or perhaps Spark just wanted to try something a little different. Whatever the reason, if I had read this without knowing who the author was, I would never have guessed it was by Muriel Spark, and it certainly wouldn't be a good choice for  first read.

Anyway, here, as briefly as I can, is a synopsis. Freddy Hamilton, who works for the British Consulate in the Israeli section of Jerusalem, meets teacher Barbara Vaughan, a half-Jewish Catholic convert who wants to embark on a pilgrimage to visit Christian shrines in Jordan, despite the fact that her Jewish blood could put her in danger in Arab territory.
 Barbara disappears, and Freddy loses his memory, and no-one is who they seem to be. There are spies, lies and double dealings everywhere, and nothing can be taken at face value. In fact, duality and the nature of identity are themes running through the book. Jerusalem itself is a divided city; Barbara with her dual heritage of Jew and Gentile must decide her own identity, and many other characters must decide who they are, and where their loyalties lie.

There are various side-plots, which didn’t really add much to the story, and a lot about religion and the nature of faith, which felt preachy – Spark has explored religious issues far more subtly elsewhere. I’ve read quite a number of her other novels and loved them, so this was a huge, huge disappointment. It all seemed a bit laboured, and I failed to engage with the characters or care about the plot.

By the way, for those who don’t know (and I didn’t), the Mandelbaum Gate was the checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors in Jerusalem, and was dismantled in 1967, two years after Spark’s novel was published.
The Mandelbaum Gate in 1955
Muriel Spark Reading Week was organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book ( and Harriet at Harriet Devine's Blog ( .  You can see a complete list of linked posts on their blogs. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

Meet The Girls of Slender Means

I did have an older edition of  this,
but I cannot find it, so when I found this
copy in a charity shop, I bought it
because I like the cover illustration,
which is by Leo Duff.
Welcome to the May of Teck Club, once an up-market, many-storied house overlooking Kensington Gardens and the Albert Memorial, but now a kind of hostel for impoverished young women. It’s 1945, in the few short months between VE Day and  VJ Day, but  the club’s occupants are concerned not with war or peace, but with love, money and food.  According to the first of the Rules of Constitution, drawn up way back in the Edwardian period:

The May of Teck Club exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years , who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.

So the scene is set for Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, in a world where ‘all the nice people were poor, and few were nicer, as nice people come, than these girls at Kensington’. Debutantes and vicars’ daughters rub shoulders in their shared lives – and lust after a glamorous Schiaparelli dress, loaned out by its lucky owner  in return for hard-to-come-by luxuries, like soap. Materially, it’s obvious the girls have slender means: they survive on small incomes, hoping to escape their genteel poverty through good marriages. But they have slender means in other ways, for they are spiritually ill equipped to cope with the world and what it has to offer.

There are snapshot portraits of the girls. Beautiful Selina is sleeping with two men, has a string of other followers, and has her heart set on a wealthy marriage.  Joanna, a rector’s daughter, gives elocution lessons and has sublimated her desire for handsome young curates in her passion for poetry – the many literary quotes are one of the great joys of this book. Fat Jane (Spark’s description, not mine) works for a down-at-heel publisher and is considered brainy. Actually, I’ve always felt a degree of kinship with Jane, possibly because, like me, she is on the plump side, so she can never wear the coveted Schiaparelli dress. And she asserts that her work is essentially mental and therefore her brain needs to be fed more than most people’s – which is the best excuse for not dieting I’ve ever come across. Anyway, back to the book. The cast of characters also includes Nicholas, one of the intellectual young men Jane meets through her work, who is intrigued by Joanna, but spends the summer sleeping with Selina.
On the back cover Leo Duff has created this scene of the
Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, which can be
seen from the May of Teck Club
Things fall apart – literally - when an undiscovered bomb explodes in the garden of the club, and a group of the girls are trapped on the top floor, not slender enough to squeeze their way out on to the roof through a slit window in the washroom. According to Spark the maximum size of hips which can be accommodated by the gap is thirty-six and a quarter inches, a measurement which I always feel is satisfyingly precise, even if it is unobtainable. Having escaped, Selina, who is very slender indeed (in body, spirit and pocket) returns to collect the Schiaparelli dress, which does not belong to her, while Joanna calms the terrified girls as she recites the evening psalter of Day 27 of the Anglican order, and continues to do so as the building collapses around her.

The story is told in flashbacks, largely through the eyes of Jane, who is now working as a columnist, and we learn that following the tragedy Nicholas was converted, became a Brother and a missionary, and has been martyred in Haiti. The reasons for his conversion are never clear, and may have their seeds in a period well before the disaster. Rarly on the novel Rudi, one of Jane’s less reputable literary friends, predicts that Nicholas will finish up as a reactionary Catholic, and also reveals that Nicholas has already flirted with Jesuit philosophy. Nicholas remembers crossing himself, involuntarily, when Selina reappears with the dress, and there is a suggestion that the gesture is in superstitious relief that she is safe. There’s also a theory that Joanna’s example sparked the conversion – but Jane could be closest to the truth when she recollects that a note in Nicholas’ manuscript says ‘a vision of evil may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good’.

Muriel Spark was a Catholic convert, and beneath the dark wit and humour many of her novels deal with religion, and the nature of good and evil, and The Girls of Slender Means is no exception.

If you want to know more about Muriel Spark and her work, Simon at Stuck in a Book ( and Harriet at Harriet Devine's Blog ( are hosting a Muriel Spark Reading Week.

Monday, 23 April 2012

A Devilish Visit to Peckham Rye

The photo on the front of my 1966 Penguin
 edition of The Ballad of Peckham Rye
is by Robert Croxford.

Dougal Douglas was born with horns on his head, like a goat, but they fell off in a fight – or maybe they were surgically removed. You never know if Dougal is telling the truth, but he definitely has has two small lumps which can be felt through his curly hair, exactly where horns should be. He has a gleaming, sinister smile and a crooked shoulder, and takes a gleefully malicious delight in turning people's lives upside down. He may not be actively responsible for the chaos and confusion that trails in his wake, but he seems to act as a catalyst, bringing out the worst in the people he meets, before moving on to wreak havoc in other communities.

I read The Ballad of Peckham Rye when I was at school (but not for school, if you see what I mean), attracted by the title and the cover - a photograph of a man wearing a smiling devil's mask, complete with horns, as he peers over the shoulder of a marble angel. It was the first Muriel Spark novel that I came across, as well as being one of the first contemporary novels I encountered (until then most of my reading was classics based). More than that, it was written by a modern woman, and opened up a whole new world in my reading life. I loved the spare quality of the writing, the wry humour, the subversive feel of the book, and the fact that there were no heroes and heroines in the conventional sense, just ordinary men and women going about their everyday lives, completely unprepared for the advent of Dougal Douglas and the devastation that accompanies him.

Since then my admiration of Spark grows with each novel I read, and I return, periodically, to the world of Peckham Rye. It's a while since my last visit, but now seems a good time as Simon at Stuck in a Book ( and Harriet at Harriet Devine's Blog ( are hosting a Muriel Spark Reading Week.

The book opens with an account of Humphrey Place jilting Dixie, his bride-to-be, as they kneel at the altar.

The vicar said to Humphrey, 'Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?'
'No,' Humphrey said, 'to be quite frank I won't.'
He got to his feet and walked straight up the aisle. The guests in the pews rustled as if they were all women. Humphrey got to the door, into his Fiat, and drove off by himself to Folkstone. It was there they had planned to have their honeymoon.

This is only the second page of my battered 1966 Penguin edition, but I'm already hooked. I particularly like the way the guests rustle – it's such a small, but telling detail. And, intriguingly, although we haven't yet met Dougal we know that people think he is to blame for the wedding fiasco, that he has given Humphrey 'disgusting ideas', and that Dixie has never liked him.

At this point it occurs to me that Peckham Rye is where ten-year-old Blake saw angels in a tree 'bespangling every bough like stars', a heavenly vision which contrasts with the devilish doings of
Spark's dark tale. For Dougal is no ordinary rogue. He is, as we are frequently told, 'different', and various characters describe him as 'inhuman' and 'unnatural', or even 'a diabolical agent, if not in fact the Devil'. Dougal himself insists: “I'm only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.” But maybe he's just joking – as I said before, it's hard to know if he's telling the truth.

However, from the moment we meet him we are aware of his almost supernatural powers. When interviewed for a job he

... leaned forward and put all his energy into his appearance; he dwelt with a dark glow on Mr Druce, he raised his right shoulder, which was already highly crooked by nature, and leaned on his elbow with a becoming twist of the body. Dougal put Mr Druce through the process of his smile, which was wide and full of white young teeth; he made movements with the alarming bones of his hands. Mr Druce could not keep his eyes off Dougal, as Dougal perceived...

The visionary poet William Blake, seen here
in a portrait by Thomas Phillips, saw angels
at Peckham Rye - a far cry from Muriel Spark's
devilish visitor.
There he is, dark, devilish, skeletal, mesmeric, otherworldly, steering the interview the way he wants it to go, changing his shape from the stillness of a monkey puzzle tree to a professor, to a television presenter and then, finally, a man of vision with a deformed shoulder. It's the first indication of how devious and manipulative he can be, making himself whatever he considers will best please others, while suiting his own mysterious purposes. The textile company employs him in an unspecified role, but the exact nature of his work doesn't matter, as he spends most of his time out of the office conducting human research. Not content with that, he talks himself into a similar job at a rival firm, where he insists on carrying out industrial research in the local community. In addition, he's creatively engaged in ghost-writing an autobiography for an ageing singer and actress.

He attracts and repels in equal measure. Characters who tearfully bare their souls to him find that far from finding solace or resolution, their lives fall apart as their true natures are revealed, with terrible consequences, ranging from mental breakdown to murder. Those who don't succumb to Dougal's peculiar charm may keep their souls, but they are still in jeopardy as they rifle through his rented room searching for clues to discover who and what he is.

The only person who knows the answer is Nelly, the down and out who 'has lapsed from her native religion on religious grounds' and now stands on the pavement shouting shouting Biblical slogans at the passers-by - but her warning about Dougal comes too late:

The words of the double- tongued are as if they were harmless, but they reach even to the inner part of the bowels. Praise be to the Lord, who distinguishes our cause and delivers us from the unjust and deceitful man.”

I love the way the dark, fantastical elements of the story sit alongside the humdrum, everyday activities, and Spark's ability to raise questions about Christianity, the class system, and the moral code of the day so quietly you hardly notice what she's doing. But there is a lot of humour here as well, often based on her observations of people's behaviour, like the moment when Dixie's mother tells her husband (Dixie's stepfather): “Turn on that wireless. If we're going to have a row I'm not letting the neighbours get to know.” And poor Mr Weedin gets little sympathy when he admits that sometimes he thinks he is going to have a breakdown. “It would not be severe in your case,”Dougal said. “It is at its worse when a man is a skyscraper. But you're only a nice wee bungalow.” If that's not one of the greatest put-downs ever I don't know what is.

Anyway, I've rattled on quite long enough, and the only other thing I can say is please read the book.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Ninepins - a Tale about Mothers and Daughters

I loved Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton, so I was delighted when she sent me a copy of her new novel, Ninepins (published by Sandstone Press), which is very different, but very enjoyable – and far more thought provoking. Set in the Cambridge Fens, it revolves around problems of family life and relationships between mothers and daughters, exploring the difficulties of when and how to give a child more independence, and looking at the way people deal with love, friendship, trust and betrayals. The novel also touches on some serious issues, like bullying, truanting, shoplifting, and the stress faced by children who must care for parents.

If this makes it sound like a grim and bleak 'true' saga, fear not: the story is not driven by issues, but by people, and Thornton creates her characters with warmth and a light touch. She is excellent at showing relationships and describing the small details of everyday life, so you really care what happens. And her sense of place is as strong as ever – in Tapestry she made me feel as if I was in France. Here she make me sense the vast emptiness of the lonely, water-logged Cambridgeshire Fens.

The man-made landscape is mysterious, both threatening and threatened, as fragile as the people. And Ninepins, the house, is equally strange. The name has nothing to do with the ancient game, but is a corruption of nine pence, for it was once a toll house, by a bridge across the water, and nine pence was the cost of the crossing. Again there’s a sense of threat, recalling old myth of Charon ferrying souls to the Underworld – but here the characters must leave their pasts behind and accept the present before they can cross to the future.

Laura Blackwood lives in isolated Ninepins with her 12-year-old daughter Beth, and on the face of it her life is pretty good. Divorced, she is friendly with her ex-husband, whose chaotic lifestyle, with his new wife and their three loud, noisy sons is a complete contrast to her own, and her academic work involves her researching woodland management in the light of environmental and climate changes.

But Laura is a bit of a control freak. Cool, calm, collected, good at everything, she likes things to be in perfect order, neat, clean and tidy. More vulnerable than she appears, she is doing her best to cope with Beth’s asthma, and the problems the girl encounters at her new school. However, she cannot let go. She wants to protect her daughter, and keep her safe, so cannot accept that quiet, shy, biddable Beth is growing up and needs her own space and must make her own decisions, even if she gets hurt in the process.

Beth herself resents being treated as child and the restrictions imposed by her condition. She views her mother's concerns as interference, and contrasts Laura's behaviour against the fun she has during visits to her father. Wanting her independence, she makes new, undesirable friends and, to Laura's horror, she is in trouble in and out of school. Children push the boundaries, and in doing so often reject old friends and activities, just as Beth does, and I thought Thornton handled the situation very sensitively, letting us see the situation from the viewpoint of mother and daughter, as the trust between them breaks down. Those of us who have dealt with a stroppy teenager - or can remember being one - will recognise the truth of the portrait drawn by Thornton, and hope that Laura and Beth understand how much love there is between them, and manage to establish some kind of compromise.

Into their lives comes Willow, who has been in care after setting fire to an empty garage. Willow, aged 17, has never seen the tree that bears her name, and has no family or friends, except Marianne, her severely bi-polar mother, and Vince, her social worker.  She becomes a lodger  in the old old pump house at Ninepins, which has been converted into a small home.

As Beth struggles to find her feet at secondary school, Willow's fragmented past starts to surface. She is self- contained, controlled, secretive and distrustful... with good reason it seems, for she has had a strange childhood, where she never felt safe and, in a reversal of the usual child/parent role, she was always protective of he mother. And as Laura fights the growing attraction between her and Vince, she wonders if he has told her all there is to know about Willow, or whether there are still secrets. Is the girl a dangerous fire raiser, a threat to Laura's home and daughter – or is she a just a vulnerable teenager who needs love and the chance of a normal family life?

Tension builds, with an added sense of unease following the appearance of Willow's hippyish mother when she walks out of the hospital unit where she is being treated. I won’t reveal what happens, but Laura, Beth and Willow come though flood and fire, a kind of cleansing and cathartic process before all ends happily.  

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Machines and Murder Mysteries

Another trip to Paris in the company of Chief Superintendent Maigret and an English honeymoon with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane offered unexpected reading joys when I popped into the library to take some books back. Having tried (and failed) to find anything by Georges Simenon (with the exception of The Hotel Majestic, reviewed here), I was staggered to spot a copy of Maigret and the Ghost on the ‘Returned Books’ shelves. And there, alongside it, was a copy of Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. So I pounced on them, and put them in the magical machine which is supposed to check books in and out. But nothing happened. Nix. Nada. Zilch. Fortunately we still have real people working as librarians, as well the machines, so I appealed for help, only to be told the books did not actually come from Tamworth... For one terrible moment I thought I would have to leave empty-handed, but it turned out there was no problem and once the assistant had fiddled around on the computer back I went to the machine, scanned in the card and books – and hey presto, the books are mine for the next few weeks.

Back home of course, I had to read them immediately, ignoring the Books in Progress and Ninepins, the latest novel from Rosy Thornton (sorry Rosy – you’re next, I promise!)

The Simenon, as ever, was wonderful. In this one Inspector Lognon – known as Grumpy to his colleagues – is shot in the street outside the apartment of a beautiful young woman where, apparently, he has spent the night. Before losing consciousness the wounded detective whispers the word ‘ghost’. By the time Chief Superintendent Maigret appears on the scene the beautiful young woman has disappeared, and no-one knows if Lognon was working on a case...

On the other side of the street is the home of wealthy art wealthy art collector Norris Jonker and his glamorous wife Mirella, but routine questioning convinces Maigret that the couple are not what they seem, and that the facts gathered so far may also have another interpretation. As usual the chief superintendent uncovers the truth in his usual methodical way, painstakingly fitting the pieces of the jigsaw together, aided by a dose of intuition based on his vast knowledge of people and they way behave and react, especially when under pressure. He himself remains cool, calm and polite, supervising his team as they check out every lead and examine every detail, however small and unimportant it may be – and he refuses to let himself be rattled or pushed around by people with money or position.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that his wife plays a larger role in this novel, providing help for the injured policeman’s carping, hypochondriac wife, and collecting vital information as she does so. All in all this was a really satisfying read.

Busman’s Holiday was excellent – it is the final, and I think, the best of the books featuring crime novelist Harriet Vane. I've written about Lord Peter Wimsey before in a review of The Nine Tailors (here), which I enjoyed immensely - but I always prefer the stories with Harriet Vane.  Here, she and Lord Peter are finally married and set off for their honeymoon at Talboys, a beautiful old house in the village where Harriet lived as a child. The sleuthing aristocrat has bought the house for her as a wedding gift and they decide to spend a quiet honeymoon there, away from the prying eyes of the press. But nothing goes as planned: when they arrive (accompanied by the incomparable Bunter and crates of vintage port), the house is shut up and the owner, who has told no-one of the sale, has disappeared... then he turns up dead, in the cellar, and the newly-weds find themselves in the spotlight as a murder investigation gets under way.

The dead man turns out to have been a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and trying to establish how he died and who killed him proves extraordinarily complicated as the plot twists and turns, and there are plenty of suspects, including the dead man’s niece, a policeman who was being blackmailed by the victim, and a gardener who was owed money by the dead man but has a cast-iron alibi.

Peter and Harriet set about solving the crime, aided and abetted by police inspector Kirk, who is as fond of literary quotes and allusions as the couple themselves, and there is a cast of local ‘characters’ with the most wonderfully apt names - the sweep is Mr Puffett, the niece is Miss Twitterton, which tells you exactly what she is like.

This novel is particularly interesting because it opens with a series of letters and diary entries from those who know Peter and Harriet, giving their view of the couple and the marriage, and it ends with an exploration of the effects of bringing a killer to justice. We see Lord Peter tortured by the knowledge that by catching the murderer he himself must carry responsibility for man’s death, and that knowledge is difficult to cope with. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

What Were Your Favourite Childhood Books?

Can you name at least one book that you read as a child (ie 11 or under) that still exists in your memory as a perfect story?  That was the challenge issued to me by my friend Phillipa Ashley (a prize-winning novelist - you'll find her at back in June 2010 when I'd only just writing on my other blog and, since I'm  in reflective mood and having a lazy sort of day, I thought I'd revisit this post. My main difficulty then (and now) is that I can never whittle favourite books down to  single title, and any list is always difficult to draw up because so much depends on my mood at the time of compilation,  as well as the memories, locations, people, events and so on evoked by the book . Looking at the list I put together on my other blog almost two years ago, there's not a lot I would change - unless I add even more books!
Anyway, here is my slightly amended and far from perfect record of some much-loved childhood volumes. The first book I ever had was AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young, bought for me when I was less than a year old, packed with stories, all in rhyme, and all just as perfect now as they were then. I can still recite many of them by heart, and I still make up my own tales about the King who liked a little bit of butter on his bread, or James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree’s mother, just as I did when I was young – although in some cases my perspective has shifted with the passing of the years. And, of course, there was Winnie the Pooh, and Piglet, and Owl, and Eeyore, who I still love.

Then there was Adventures of Mr Pip, about a strange goblinish little man, who loved the colour red, and was always getting into trouble. I remember one incident where he was invited to dinner with a friend, but the friend was some kind of lizard or frog or toad (or maybe a chameleon) so the dinner was flies, and he went home hungry. An Internet search revealed that this was written by Francis Barrie Flint but I could discover nothing else. The pictures stick in my mind because it was illustrated in colour, which must have been unusual at the time. Perhaps that is why I loved it so much.

Delightful illustrations by Margaret Tempest were an integral part of Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books, and of Joyce Lankester Brisley’s line drawings for her Milly Molly Mandy stories, which entranced me then and now. Even in my childhood they must have presented an old-fashioned and simplistic view of life, but that is what makes them so alluring. It’s a portrait of a nice, safe, secure world, where nothing really bad ever happens.
Already familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, at my aunt’s I read his Sylvie and Bruno tales, and when we visited my father’s parents I always sat with an old set of children’s encyclopedias (Newnes Pictorial Knowledge), which I think belonged to mt father and aunt when they were young. They had brown covers, with gold writing on the front, and seemed huge. The marvellous thing about them was that alongside the educational articles each volume had a series of stories on different themes – King Arthur, the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, Robin Hood.
On a similar note, I have treasured copies of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen. To this day I am still gripped by the magic of the Arthurian legends and I adore myths and folk tales, whether they are children’s versions, centuries-old recitations or modern interpretations.
Kipling remains a favourite - The Jungle Book, The Tale of Rikki-tikki-tavi, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rewards and Fairies and, best of all, the Just So Stories, especially The Elephant’s Child. Who could resist the lure of the great grey greasy Limpopopo river, all set about with fever trees, where the Elephant’s Child, filled with ’satiable curtiosity discovers what the Crocodile eats for dinner – and gains a trunk in the process. Absolute perfection! Perfection is also achieved by JRR Tolkien with The Hobbit, which would definitely be on my desert island list, should I ever be asked to produce one. I was first introduced to Bilbo Baggins at primary school, and in my mind his voice is an echo of the teacher who read to us – slightly northern and a little gruff, but kindly. If forced to choose one book, this would almost certainly be it.

There were more magical adventures in John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, as well as CS Lewis’ Narnia series, all of which I read again, and again and again. The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, is one of the most enchanting stories I have ever encountered, and I love to think of them living alongside us, hidden from view in a secret, miniature world, making use of all the items we discard or lose.
Secrets and hidden lives also feature in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I return to time after time. However, much as I yearn for happy endings, the older I get, the more irritated I become by the sickly sweet finale. 
The Family from One End Street, by Eve Garnett, was a world away from Mary Lennox's life, and although it was very funny it showed how tough life could be in London's East End. In addition there was Worzel Gummidge, by Barbara Euphan Todd, were also much-loved favourites, together with anything by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes, White Boots, The Painted Garden) or Edith Nesbit (The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It).

There was The Swish of the Curtain, by Pamela Brown, about a group of children who set up their own theatre company; Auntie Robbo, by Ann Scott Moncreiff, about an exceedingly idiosyncratic old lady who travels the Scottish highlands with her nephew and a group of other children, and Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, which taught me more about the American Revolution than any history book. 
And how could I forget Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth or James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O – this last, set in a land where the letter ‘O’ is banned, is a must for anyone who loves words.
I loved Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine books; Arthur Ransome's Swallow and Amazons; Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer; and Huckleberry Finn,  and Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Treasure Island. However, our edition of Treasure Island had the most terrifyingly scary pictures drawn (though I only realised this much, much later) by Mervyn Peake. For some reason I found his portrayal of Blind Pew the most disturbing, and those   strangely haunting, macabre illustrations are still the stuff of nightmares.  I cried over Nancy's death in  Dickens' Oliver Twist ; and Beth's death in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women - but feisty Jo March became one of my all-time heroines. There were more tears in What Katy Did, by Susan Coolidge and Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter; and even Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows had its poignant moments alongside the laughter. 

The  list of favourite childhood book is endless, and there are others that read when I was older, and many modern stories and picture books that I discovered when my daughters were small, but my literary tastes must have been formed at a very young age (or perhaps I am a very undaventurous reader) because I still love these these books, and they're the still the ones I return to time and time again. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Chained Books - Power or Protection?

"In most old libraries the books are chained to the shelves to prevent them from being damaged by people. In the Library of Unseen University, it's more or less the other way around." So says novelist Terry Pratchett in Sourcery, and I’m inclined to think if it’s good enough for Discworld, then it’s good enough for us.

However, I suspect custodians of the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral would not subscribe to Pratchett’s reasoning - although I half expected a large, orange orang utan to swing in to view, eating a banana and shouting 'Ook'.  Anyway,  conventional wisdom would have us believe books were chained to prevent them being stolen. But after seeing them I’m puzzled. Many of the books are enormous – they are so large and heavy, often with covers of wood and leather, that it would be difficult heaving them down from the shelf, let alone carrying them any distance. Plus, I would have thought their sheer size would have meant a thief would be spotted fairly quickly – you certainly couldn’t stroll out with a book stuffed under your cotte.

I know books were scarce and valuable, but these volumes are not the kind of thing that could be easily flogged in a tavern or market and, since few people could read, they would only have been of value to monks, clergymen and scholars. All in all I can’t understand why anyone would have wanted to steal books, especially when you consider the draconian punishments imposed on wrong-doers.

So, was chaining books really the most widespread and effective security system in European libraries from the middle ages through to the 18th century? Or have we all missed the point and was the object of the exercise not prevention of theft, but a show of wealth and a demonstration of power? That thought takes me back to Patchett again, for according to him: “Books contain knowledge, and knowledge equals power, which according to the laws of physics can be converted to energy and matter, so the Library contains an extremely large mass that can distort time and space.” Forget about the distortion of time and space, but I think he’s right about knowledge and power.

Whatever the reason, Hereford’s 17th century chained library is fantastic, and is well worth the entrance fee. It’s housed in a new building (alongside the famous Mappa Mundi) and is an amazing place, very quiet, very peaceful, with centuries-old books stored in tall wooden cabinets, each with its ledge where books can be rested as they are read, still chained securely to their protective rail. These days, of course, common visitors like me cannot lift the books down, although I believe they are available (by request) to scholars, and there are smaller, thinner facsimiles in an excellent exhibition in a separate room.

The first thing you notice is that the books are stored upright, the wrong way round compared to modern custom – the spines are at the back of the shelves, where they cannot be seen, and it is the page edges which face you. Each book has a metal chain, attached to the front edge of the cover with a hasp, with a ring at the other end slotted over a metal rod which runs the width of the cabinet. The books can be lifted down and read, but the chain cannot be removed unless everything is unlocked.

Books are stored alphabetically, and at the end of each cabinet are index boards listing the contents. The bookcases and chains date from around 1611, but many of the volumes stored here are far older – the cathedral has had a library for 900 years or more, and contains hand-written illuminated manuscripts, as well as early printed works. The oldest book in the collection is the Hereford Gospels, created in the 8th century, at the same time as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The exhibition on the library was fascinating, with information about the way vellum was produced and manuscripts produced, as well as details about the development of printing and the way books have been stored over the years. And there were two fabulous book trunks, which bowled me over. One, beautifully carved, had three locks, and the key for each was kept by different people, so no-one could access it on their own. The other was plainer, with a huge iron ring at each end, to hold a sturdy wooden pole, so the chest could be carried along when high-ranking clergymen went on their travels – I wonder what they would have thought about modern, light-weight E-readers!

The guides manning the library and the exhibition were really helpful and informative (as was the man who told us about the Mappa Mundi), and we also enjoyed wandering around the rest of the cathedral, before treating ourselves to coffee and home-made cake in the cathedral café. A perfect day!

By the way, photography is banned in the library, so the pictures are from the guide book, Rare Treasures of Hereford Cathedral, Mappa Mundi, the Chained Library and Magna Carta, which is available from the Cathdredal Bookshop.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Brontes Went to Woolworths

The lovely Bloombsury edition
I  borrowed from the library. 
As children, the Brontes wrote about their imaginary worlds of Gondal and Angria, enacting the stories and playing the parts of the characters they created. The adult Brontes make brief, ghostly appearances in The Brontes Went to Woolworths, by Rachel Ferguson, and their spirit pervades this strange novel about a family who keep the real world at bay by creating a fantasy land, inhabited by invented people.

It may sound similar to Frank Baker’s ‘Miss Hargreaves’, where Norman makes up a story about an eccentric, elderly spinster and is horrified when she comes to life ( But this is different. Mrs Carne and her daughters - journalist Deirdre, drama student Katrine, and Sheil, who is still in the schoolroom with a governess - spin intricately detailed stories about real people, making it difficult to determine what (or who) is real and what is pretence. Then, when one of their characters dies, and they actually meet another, reality intrudes on their imaginary world.
Anne,  Emily and Charlotte painted by their
brother Branwell.He took himsel out of the
picture, but the ghost image can still be seen.
One of their favourite fabrications is Toddy, or Judge Todddington, who they encounter (at a distance), when Mrs Carne is called for jury service. She never sits through a case, spending the week in reserve, but Deirdre, who narrates most of the novel, attends court and becomes obsessed with the elderly judge. “From that moment I think, he owned, occupied and paid taxes on our imagination,” she says. She collects photos of the judge, researches his life, tracks down people who know him, walks past his house, looks through his windows, and tells stories to the rest of the family.

After meeting him she tells us: “Toddy, from negative, had turned into a print, and inevitably during our half-hour together he had spoken out of character, and shown himself to be possessed of his own personality as against the semi-fit that we had allocated him. I had expected this, but the little shocks were no less real.” Fortunately, from her point of view, the judge and his wife join the game and even close ranks with the family to maintain the fantasy and protect Sheil from hurtful reality.

Author Rachel Ferguson may have used
her knowledge of the theatre -  she was
 an actor and drama critic - when writing the book.
Intellectually and socially snobbish, the women are waspishly sharp, very intelligent, and rather Bohemian, giving the impression they have come down in the world since the father died. Despite Deirdre’s work and Katrine’s theatrical studies, they seem cut off from outside world, hiding behind self-imposed barriers, with few friends – they don't relate to others and are quick to make fun of people they regard as lesser mortals, like the governesses, or Deirdre’s editor. They delight in the pretence of talking to strangers as if they know them, and enjoy comic, mock Shakespearean speech among themselves, that others can't understand.

Strangely, the girls don’t play conventional games, don’t believe in fairies or Father Christmas, and don’t like Peter Pan or dolls (with exception of plain Ironface, who ran off and married a French aristocrat, but returns to offer observations on life). Similarly, they have scrapped the usual ‘fairytale nonsense-literature’ for Sheil’s toy theatre, and instead stage their own pantomimes with ‘genuine illusions’, for ‘charities’, like the Tabbies’ Protection Union (with offices in Great Cream Street). Presumably, all this indicates that they want to concoct their own fancies, rather than relying on the dreams of others.
The Woolwoths store in Wavertree Road, Liverpool, pictured
in 1931. 
The photo, commisioned by FW Woolworthe and Co Ltd
 can be seen at, .
But there is a darker side to all this whimsy. The obsessive nature of the family’s interest in their chosen subjects (for Toddy is not the only one) is deeply disturbing. “We learn everything there is to learn about people we love,” explains Deirdre. In this day and age it would probably land them in court on a charge of stalking, while their habit of inviting these imaginary ‘friends’ to dinner, and ensuring the ‘guests’ send presents for birthdays and Christmas would almost certainly result in some lengthy counselling sessions.

It’s never clear why they go to such lengths to transform living people into imaginary characters. I assume they are unable to deal with the father’s death (indeed, at one point Deirdre wishes Toddy was her father), but the fantasy goes beyond that: they have retreated into the refuge of a made-up world, unable to cope with actuality. 
Window display in Woolworth's store, London Road, 
Liverpool, in 1931, the year The Brontes Went to 
Woolworths was published. 
And what about poor Agatha Martin, the first governess, who obviously feels threatened by the Carnes, and is desperate to shock Sheil out of her make-believe world, yet has a pretty shaky grip reality herself. She fantasises about a curate whose unsatisfactory letters are brotherly and matter-of-fact – so she's written love letters from him to herself, and is as obsessive about him as the sisters are about Toddy and all their other creations.

The three sisters and their mother live in an enclosed world in which they play an elaborate game with rules of their own devising that few others can understand. It raises issues about the way we treat life and death, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the differences between illusion and reality. But they never break free: as the novel progresses they don’t grow, or learn, or change – which makes me wonder what kind of novel might have emerged if Ferguson had allowed the judge and his wife to reject the peculiar saga played out by the Carnes.

On a second reading I noticed how many references to the Brontes are scattered throughout the book – even the family’s name owes a debt to Brontes because, apparently, Maria Branwell's mother was a Carne. And, of course, there is the imaginary trip to Woolworths which, claims Deirdre, Charlotte described as ‘a queer shop, much favoured with their custom by a class which I do not think to be our own’.
A Tenniel drawing of Humpty Dumpty - does Lewis Carroll's 'Alice
Through the Looking  Glass' offers clues about Rachel Ferguson's novel?
 Theatrical references abound (even the court can be seen as a performance where the judge plays a role) and there’s a quote from Lewis Carroll’s looking glass world: “How right was Humpty Dumpty to abuse words and then pay them on a Saturday night! It was a really magnificent gesture, and one which slaves to split-infinitives would do well to copy.” Perhaps that choice from an author whose work abounds with puzzles about illusion and reality, and the real meaning of things, offers a clue to the way we should look at Ferguson’s novel. Perhaps life, like words, can be shaped to make what we want, and we can take control by abusing the conventional view of reality and forging a new version of the world for ourselves. Or perhaps the whole novel is a fairy tale, or a dream, and not to be taken seriously at all.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

April in Ledbury with Browning

I have been staying with my mother for a week, in Ledbury, which seems to be something of a black hole as far as the Internet is concerned – a lot of the time it seems impossible to get online at all, and when you it keeps disappearing, for no apparent reason, so I eventually gave up trying to write anything for the blog, although I did manage to post the occasional comment on other people’s blogs.

Anyway, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent her childhood at Hope End, her family’s 500-acre estate which stood just outside the town. Long after they moved away she eloped with the poet Robert Browning who, like Dickens, was born in 1812, and whose birthday I share (May 7, but, obviously, I am not quite that old, even if there are days when I feel like it ).  The couple lived in Italy, and, should you wonder, there is a point to my ramblings, because it is April – a little colder and greyer than the April depicted in Browning’s poem, Home Thoughts from Abroad (written in Italy), but since I am now back home and reconnected with the Internet, I thought I would celebrate by sharing the poem with you.

Oh, To be in England
Now that April 's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—
That 's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning