Monday, 30 September 2013

A Disappointing View of Childhood

Who remembers reading Ballet Shoes, White Boots, Curtain Up, The Painted Garden, The Circus is coming, and all those other wonderful Noel Streatfeild books? I still read them with as much enjoyment as I did when I was a child, but I’ve never got round to trying any of her adult fiction. So, when I saw A Vicarage Family (A Biography of Myself, it says on the front), I had to have it. This is a Fontana Lion published in 1984), so I imagine it’s aimed at children, and it’s written in the third person singular, which makes it read like a novel, especially as names have been changed. Noel Streatfeild herself becomes Victoria Strangeway, the middle sister of three girls, the plain one, the non-conformist rebel who is always in trouble.

The sisters, their brother Dick, and their cousin John (who spent much of his time living with them) seem to have had a very odd upbringing indeed. Their vicar father was very austere, unconcerned with home comforts or what he considered to be fripperies – I get the impression that more uncomfortable things were, the better he liked it. Perhaps he felt it proved how strong his faith was. He had a strong sense of duty and responsibility to his parishioners, and very strict standards, not just for himself, but for the children as well, and there were punishments for quite minor transgressions. In many ways his wife seems to have been as unworldly as he was, caring nothing for her appearance, or the importance of creating a beautiful home. A lot of the time she appears quite cold and hard-hearted, but has obviously been traumatised by the death of a child, at a point before this memoir starts. Despite all this the children are obviously loved, and they adore their parents, especially their father.

Religion obviously permeates every aspect of their lives. The only person I can think of whose childhood is in any way similar is Jeanette Winterson. Just as she produced craft work based on stories from the Bible, so Victoria/Noel, her sisters Isobel and Louise, brother Dick and cousin John, name their rocking Nebuchadnezzar!

Adherence to their father’s religious principles causes social problems and makes them feel people will laugh and ostracise them for being different. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy when they attend a children’s party during Lent, when they are only allowed to eat bread and butter. At the party they find the bread and butter is liberally sprinkled with hundreds and thousands; so, not wishing to appear rude, Vicky and her older sister Isobel eat it… lots of it! And their younger sister Louise succumbs to a sugar rose from the cake, then acts as if she’s committed a mortal sin, though I’m not sure if she really feels contrition, or is just play-acting, enjoying the drama, and looking for sympathy. Back home they confess to having broken their Lenten fast, and have to do penance by reading the first nine verses of Matthew IV, where the Devil tempts Jesus during his fast in the desert.

And their mismatched outworn, outgrown, clothes cause the girls just as much anguish. Isobel wears cast-offs from a cousin whose wealthy mother has exquisite taste – but what suits the cousin doesn’t necessarily suit Isobel. And the copies of her clothes, made up by a local dressmaker using cheap material, are a disaster. But neither the girl’s mother nor their father can see anything wrong with their clothes.

We follow the family through their move to Eastbourne, accompany them on holidays, trips to relatives, and school, and we get to meet their family, friends, servants, and the stalwart Miss Herbert, who is part governess, part nanny, part maid, part vicar’s secretary, and part home help.
Noel Streatfeild
Actually, I found this slightly disappointing. Like Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places, it offers glimpses into a bygone way of life (Streatfeild was born in 1895, and her memoir takes us up to the death of Cousin John in the early days of WW1). However, unlike Milne she doesn’t provide much insight into the way people felt and thought, and there are no reflections on life, the universe and everything, no sense of an older person coming to terms with their younger self. It’s a much more straight forward narrative, but what does come across – and what I found interesting - is the way Streatfeild’s drew on those childhood experiences for her writing. All those ‘underdog’ children, the plain, gawky girls, the outsiders, who lack feminine wiles, girlish charms and womanly accomplishments obviously have their origin in the young Noel’s childhood and the way she saw herself. They’re rags to riches stories, where a ‘Plain Jane’ child turns out to be the one with talent, or the one who finds true happiness, doing what they want to do.

It would have been nice to see some pictures of Streatfeild and her family, but as changes their names I suppose this was not possible, because it would have revealed their identities. Overall, I was disappointed with this book. I didn’t dislike it, but I felt something was lacking, and couldn’t put my finger on what that something was. I think it has to do with the fact that is not quite an autobiography, and not quite a novel: it falls somewhere between the two, and doesn’t quite come off. 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Short Story Sunday: Wartime Again...

Sunday morning is here again, so I shall try to gather my thoughts and decipher my notes and come up with a few brief comments on some tales from The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Actually, I visited my Younger Daughter in London on Thursday and planned on calling at the shop and treating myself to a couple of volumes when, but I left the address at home! However, I’m planning a mini-tour round the Bloomsbury area on a future visit (I like to have something to look forward to), and I might get Cheerful Weather for a Wedding, and A Writer’s Diary, neither of which is a short story, and that is what this post is supposed to be about. So here goes… Three from the early 1940s…

It All begins Again, by Helen Hull, published in 1941, was not one of my favourites. Set in America (just before the US joined WW2) it centres on Mary Bristol, now in her mid-seventies, widowed, and recovering from illness. Despite having made a decision never to live with any of her children, she agrees to spend the summer with her daughter Vera, son-in-law Clem at their country house. Mary is reluctant to fall in with Vera’s plan, but lacks the strength to offer any opposition.

Vera was like that, insistent and unsubtle in projecting upon someone else the necessity for doing what she herself wished. Mary liked showing her up, and perhaps one reason she didn’t want to live with her daughter was that she knew she’d have to hold her tongue. It was one thing to catch Vera up in an afternoon call, when Vera could take her injured feelings home and forget them in some new scheme. But under one roof!

That doesn’t augur well for the future, does it? A happy family life would not appear to be on the cards at all. And what kind of relationship does Mary have with Vera? What kind of mother likes to show her daughter up?

As news of the war in Europe filters through Mary remembers other times and other conflicts. She recalls her childhood, when he father returned from a Southern jail, sick and shattered by his experiences fighting in the Civil War. She thinks about her husband Will, and Tom, their elder son, who died after WW1, ‘the neat surgery job done on his interior after Verdun being inadequate for many years of service’. And she listens to her grandchildren, Hilda and Bill, both engaged in conflicts with their parents as they try to select their own paths through life and love.

In some ways Mary reminded me of Lady Slane in Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, perhaps it’s simply because they are both elderly women who don’t really like their grown-up children much, reflecting on the past. But I didn’t find Mary a very sympathetic character (I think it was that early comment about liking to show her daughter up that put me off), and the tone is darker and bleaker. Mary takes a wider view of humanity than Lady Slane does, and she doesn’t like what she sees. She’s not looking to recapture the girl she once was, or to achieve personal peace, harmony and a balance in life – she’s searching for answers to the chaos around her, and her bitterness and despair shows through. There's a sense of disillusionment here I think.

A land where a man can be free, and his children after him, she thought. Free? We have thought the world was run for us, that we could go on turning always in those narrow, petty, selfish cells. We are losing them again, peace freedom. We had the only as a promise. My father, my sons, and now these children. They have lost them, having no dream to hold them safe, to strive to keep them. They are blind and empty, passionless…

Defeat, by Kay Boyle, was written in the same year as It All begins Again,but  is much more to my taste. We’re in Europe, watching French soldiers making their way home after the fall of France.

They had found their way back from different places, by different means, some on bicycle, some by bus, some over the mountains on foot, coming home to the Alpes-Maritime from Rennes, or from Clermont-Ferrand, or from Lyons, or from any part of France, and looking as incongruous to modern defeat as survivors of the Confederate Army might have looked, transplanted to this year and place (with their spurs still on and their soft-brimmed, dust-whitened hats), limping wanly back, half dazed and not yet having managed to get the story of what happened straight. Only, this time, they were the men of that tragically unarmed and undirected force which had been the French Army once but was no longer, returning to what orators might call reconstruction but which they knew could never be the same.

Isn’t that a haunting scene? And doesn’t it paint the image so clearly? Boyle tells you everything you need to know about the general situation, then moves seamlessly into the way it affects individuals. Here we have two escaping soldiers, who meet with great kindness from a courageous young schoolmistress with French flags and red, white and blue bunting – an act of defiance against the Nazi Occupation. She gives the fresh clothing, and food, and they agree that ‘a country isn’t defeated as long as its women aren’t’. There is more kindness at a farm, where the duo eat bread and soup, and enjoy a glass of red wine before being shown to the attic where they can sleep.

Then, in a small town, on July the Fourteenth - the French national holiday – grim reality intrudes, and you suddenly realise that not all women were as brave as the schoolmistress, and that many people did what they could to survive, even if it meant fraternising with the enemy. After his return home one of the soldiers describes what happened, and is surprisingly charitable as he tries to make sense of events. But he has tears in eyes as he thinks about it.

I loved this story. It was sad and reflective, offering a very personal view of life in France in the early days of Occupation. And I found it especially interesting read alongside Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries, Few Eggs, and No Oranges, and the comments she makes about the Fall of France, and the Vichy Government, and General de Gaulle, and the Occupation. I must find a decent history about war-time France, and try to find out a little more.

Finally, I can’t forget Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Evening, Mrs Craven,  written in 1942, which features in a collection of her short stories published under this title (also produced by Persephone), which I reviewed here, and I think every single one of the tales is an absolute gem: the author’s prose and characterisation are faultless. You can tell I’m a huge fan of Mollie Panter-Downes, and if you read nothing else in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, you should read this one. It is quite, quite perfect. Better still, buy the MPD collection, then you can read them all!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Bookish Gift, all the Way from Australia!

A parcel from Australia!
Woo hoo! The postman arrived a couple of days ago with a package for me, all the way from Australia, and a lovely picture of a possum on the stamp! And inside the padded envelope were two parcels, beautifully wrapped in old maps, with a little note from Pam, who lives in Tasmania, and runs the excellent Travellin’ Penguin blog, where she not only writes about the books she reads, but also about her searches for vintage Penguins, and her travels on her motorbike. I love looking at her photographs and reading about her adventures – finding out about other countries is one of the great joys of blogging, especially as I’m not much of a traveller. I’ve learned more about Australia from Pam and other Aussie bloggers than ever I did at school! 
Books unwrapped... the little dogs on each one are like post-it
notes, perfect to use for notes as you read.
Anyway, one little parcel contained a copy of The Carousel, by Rosamunde Pilcher, whom I’ve never read, but I was the winner in Pam’s prize draw for this book, which was a lovely surprise, because I rarely win anything. She did tell me I was the winner, but I didn't realise she was also sending a 1947 edition The Art of Reading, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, because I had expressed an interest in it. Wasn’t that kind of her? And it was so thoughtful of her to wrap them individually – it was like a birthday or Christmas!

'm looking forward to reading both these, but I resisted the temptation to sratr either of them immediately, because I’m off on a day trip to London to visit my younger daughter, and I’ve slipped the books into my bag so I have things to read on the train there and back, and while I’m hanging around waiting if there are any delays (and there usually are). So thank you Pam for the gift of books!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

An Enchanting Book of Memories

I meant to write this up in advance and schedule it to appear yesterday (oh, how can I begin to describe the delights of the New Laptop, which does all these clever things at the click of a key!). However, I’ve spent too much time in the garden, then flopped out in my armchair too tired to do anything!

So, here we go with another one off the September Book Stack (I’ve been very good so far, sticking to the list, and tying to read one book at a time). Here are my thoughts on The Enchanted Places, the childhood memoirs of Christopher Milne, son of AA Milne – and the original Christopher Robin – and I’m happy to report that it is every bit as enchanting as the title suggests, just as I hoped it would be.

It must be difficult to carve out your own path in life when your father is a much-loved author whose books for children have become classics – especially when the world knows you as the small boy with girlish hair, a smock and sandals pictured in EH Shepard’s drawings. I always assumed that at this period all small boys were dressed like that, but thinking about it now I recall seeing a photo of my father as a small boy (he was born in 1922, two years after Milne, so it’s the same time) and he was wearing baggy trousers which came down to his knees, a jumper best described as elderly, and a pair of big boots (and I mean big). But Dad was brought up in the East End of London, which obviously makes a difference. Were all ‘posh’ boys dressed like the young Milne I wonder?

Anyway, I digress. For a time Christopher Milne, who died in 1996, hated everything to do with Pooh and Christopher Robin, probably because he was teased about it at school,  but he did eventually come to terms with that created image of his boyhood self, and was able to look back fondly on what must, in many ways, have been a magical period.

This book concentrates very much on that part of his life. It does take his story further, but it’s his recollections of the years spent with his nanny (she left when he went to school at the age of nine) that are so enchanting. The family lived in Chelsea, but when Christopher was five his father bought Cotchford Farm for weekends and holidays. It was on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, in Sussex, and the woods and streams and fields became the boy’s playground as he roamed the area playing games with his toys, and this fuelled his father’s creative abilities. There seems to have been some strange kind of symbiotic relationship linking the two worlds of imagination, as Christopher Milne explains.

The young Christopher, with
his bear.
It is difficult to be sure which came first. Did I do something and did my father then write a story around it? Or was it the other way about, and did the story come first? Certainly, my father was on the look-out for ideas; but so was I. He wanted ideas for his stories, I wanted them for my games, and each looked towards the other for inspiration. But in the end it was all the same: the stories became a part of our lives; we lived them, thought them, spoke them. And so, possibly before, but certainly after that particular story, we used to stand on Poohsticks Bridge throwing sticks into the water and watching them float away out of sight until they re-emerged on the other side.

And the artist Ernest Shepard also had a hand in shaping things. He :

… came along, looked at the toy Pooh, read the stories and started drawing; and the Pooh who had been developing under my father’s pen began to develop under Shepard’s pen as well….

Most of the places and creatures in the Pooh stories were based on places were based on places and things that really did exist, and those that were made up blended in seamlessly and became part of the story. Only two characters were created by AA Milne: Rabbit and Owl, but Owl’s home really did exist – it was one of several ‘houses’ Christopher established in the trees around Cotchford. With Eeyore it was the other way round: the donkey was a gloomy-looking soft toy, but his dwelling place was dreamt up by Christopher’s father, inspired perhaps by his bedroom and study (the two darkest, dullest and dingiest rooms at Cotchford) or perhaps, by something deep within his own psyche. Wherever that place was, Christopher does not want to go. Nor does he make any effort to analyse the relationship between his parents, or their relationship with him.

And he has no nostalgia or regret for the past, not even for Pooh and his friends (who can be seen in an American Museum).. He writes:

I like to have around me the things I like today, not the things I once liked many years ago. I don’t want a house to be a museum. When I grew out of my old First Eleven blazer, it was thrown away, not lovingly preserved to remind me of the proud day I won it with a score of thirteen not out. Every child has his Pooh, but one would think it odd if every man still kept his Pooh to remind him of his childhood.

Christopher as an aduklt.
And he adds: 
I wouldn’t like a glass case that said: ‘Here is fame’, and I don’t need a glass to remind me: ‘Here was love’.
Re-reading this, I  feel I have let the Pooh connection dominate, but it dominated (and blighted) Christopher Milne's life. However, the book covers much more that, for he also writes about his time in London, his friends Anne (in the town) and Hannah (in the country), his Nanny, the other servants, and his family life, as well as offering glimpses of his schooldays and later life. It's written by a man who seems to have overcome the problems which arose from his childhood, and was finally able to break free and establish his own path in life, yet was still able to look back with warmth, humour and love.

Friday, 20 September 2013

A Forgotten Novel That's Best Left Undiscovered!

It’s not often I give up on book, but I gave up on Hilaire Belloc’s Mr Petre. Actually, I was going to say I’m sorry to admit I didn’t finish this book, but then I thought why should I feel apologetic – after all, I don’t have to read things I don’t like, or can’t get along with. The days when I had to study books I didn’t enjoy have long since gone (thank goodness), and as far as I’m concerned, reading should be a pleasure, and this one wasn’t. I thought it was a forgotten novel that's best left undiscovered!

The blurb on the inside cover made it sound quite enticing, which shows just how wrong blurb can be (and it says he landed at Southampton, but the novel mentions the coast of Devon, and the Sound, so I assume he docks at Plymouth, but I’ll forgive the blurb write for that). Anyway, our hero arrives back in England, and sets off for London aboard a train feeling an ‘odd sense of freedom’ and ‘unnaturally careless’. But recent events blur and fade…

Then, overwhelmingly, in a flash, the truth broke upon him. He had lost all conception of his past: every image of it. He knew where he was. All about him, the landscape, the type of railway carriage – everything was familiar, but of any name of place or action or movement in connection with himself prior to that sleep nothing whatever remained.

He has no idea who he is, his luggage and despatch box remain unclaimed, and all he has in the world are the clothes he stands up in, £63 in English notes, and a handful of change.  
A taxi takes him the Splendide hotel – because he is obviously a man of taste and money, and en route he decides he is Mr Petre (or possibly Peter), which is something to go on. He is scared of being thought a fool and laughed at if he tells the truth and says lost memory and can’t remember who he is. So he gives this name at the reception desk, and when the clerk asks ‘Mr John K Petre?’ he says yes. And from that point on our Mr Petre is caught up in a whirligig of events over which he has no control, and no understanding. For John K Petre is a millionaire who has money and makes more, and everyone wants to know him, to seek advice, to make their own fortune.

The novel is a satire, targeting financial institutions, and city financiers and bankers and their hangers-on. And therein lies my problem I think, because my mind just shut down when I came to the stuff about investments and such like, and there did seem to be a lot of it. I couldn’t take it in, I didn’t care, and it was boring. I couldn’t even muster enough interest in the characters for them to carry me through: they were dull, flat and boring as well.

So in the end I gave up completely, and struck the book on the pile destined for Oxfam – but not before sneaking a look at the end, to find out what happened to Mr Petre, because I wanted to know if he got his memory back (yes) and whether he really was Mr John K Petre (no, but his name is Peter). He has to battle in the courts to clear himself on a charge of impersonation (he insists he never claimed to be John K Petre the millionaire, everyone just assumed he was) and he does get to live happily after, in his own quiet way.

I think the idea of making your central character an amnesiac is an interesting concept, but it means you never really know enough about him to be able to relate to him, and his character never seems to develop. Even when he regains his memory he remains remarkably colourless.

The novel was first published in 1925 (issued by Penguin 1947, number 633), but is set in 1953, which puzzled me – I thought perhaps it was going to turn out to be some kind of time shift story, and that would explain the memory loss, but this wasn’t the case. It’s not a vision of the future, like Brave New World, or Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the world in which it is set is exactly the same as the world which existed in in 1925, with the exception that cars, ships and so on are referred as rotors (Mr Petre – John K, not our Peter – is the Rotor King). This terminology is never explained, so it’s unclear whether Belloc envisaged a completely new method of powering transport, or whether rotor is merely a euphemism for motor, used perhaps to avoid any possibility of litigation.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Garden Gaze: Seeds, Weeds and Smells

Well, it’s September, and  gardens, hedgerows, fields and woods seem to be full of flowers, grasses, trees and bushes, all producing seeds to ensure the survival of the species, so for the this month’s Gardening Gaze I’ve been looking to see what the experts recommend on the subject of Seeds.

First up is William Cobbett, who I’m rather fond of. His life spanned the 18th and 19th centuries (17662-1835) and he was one of these gentlemen of independent means who seem to know everything about everything, are only too willing to pass on reams of good advice to others, which could be regarded as patronising. But he has a sense of humour, and it’s hard to take offence at anyone who recommends growing ‘four feet of good thorn-hedge’ to keep ‘the boldest boy’ away from trees laden with fine, ripe peaches!

Cobbett, who was a farmer, journalist, politician, traveller, and supporter of social reform, wrote several books, including The English Gardener, which was published in 1833 and claims to be ‘A Treatise on the Situation, Soil, Enclosing and Laying-Out, of Kitchen Gardens; on the Management of Hot-Beds and Green-Houses; and on the Propagation and Cultivation of all sorts of Kitchen-Garden Plants, and of Fruit-Trees whether of the Garden or the Orchard’. It is also a Treatise ‘on the Formation of Shrubberies and Flower-Gardens; and on the Propagation and Cultivation of the several shorts of Shrubs of Shrubs and Flowers’.

It is, as you can see, very comprehensive, with clear, concise instructions, and much of the advice he offers still holds good almost 200 years later. Not only that, but the book is surprisingly readable (though having said that I wouldn’t read it all in one go or even from start to finish – it’s one of those tomes that’s much more fun  to dip in and out of when the fancy takes you. Anyway, he has the following to say about Collecting Seeds:

They should stand till perfectly ripe, if possible. They should be cut, or pulled, or gathered, when it is dry; and they should, if possible, be as dry as dry can be before they are threshed out. If, when threshed, any moisture remain about them, they should be placed in the sun, or near a fire in a dry room; and, when quite dry, should be put into bags, and hung up against a very dry wall, or dry boards, where they will by no accident get damp. The best place is some room, or place, where there is, occasionally at least, a fire kept in winter.

Threshing (by which I think he simply means separating the seeds from their husks and any bots of leaf or stem) prevents ‘injury from mice and rats, and from various other enemies, of which, however, the greatest is carelessness’. According to him ‘seeds of many sorts’ will be ‘perfectly good’ kept for 10 or 12 years, but I notice that he admits to always good, new seed alongside the old, as an insurance policy
Canon Ellacombe’s In a Gloucestershire Garden is very different in tone and content. I gather the book, published in 1895, draws together a series of articles he wrote for The Guardian a couple of years earlier, and the Canon is clearly passionate about the garden he created his vicarage near Bristol. However, unlike Cobbett, whose book is very much a ‘how to’ volume , the canon wrote about his own experiences and thoughts in his garden, and it’s a mixture of his observations of nature, bits of science, history, poetry, and so on. I’d never heard of him until I came across this 1986 reprint in a second-hand shop, but I think it’s a gem – it’s another of those books you can dip in and out of when you’re in the mood, and Rev Ellacombe is never preachy or dull: his joy in plants, and the ups and downs of his efforts are delightful, and it’s easy to relate to his feelings. For example, most of us, I’m sure, will sympathise with what he says in his ‘September’ chapter.

In my own garden, for instance, there must be millions of seeds formed, and for the most part ripened every year, and yet, with the exception of such things as groundsel, thistle, and other garden weeds, which seem to have an unbounded power of germination, it is very unusual to find any quantity of seedlings.

Which of us hasn’t moaned about the ease with which weeds spring up, no matter how poor the soil, or how bad the weather, of how often you pull them out – yet the plants you want, upon which your lavish care and affection, fail to thrive.

And the canon also reminds us that a plant is not there for the beauty of its blooms, or its usefulness to mankind. No, he says, ‘the whole life of a plant is directed to the one object of forming seed for the continuance of the life of the plant’ – a fact which is easy to overlook, I think. And he goes on to explain:

…for the sake of the seed only was the flower formed, with calyx, corolla, pistil, stamens, and ovary, with colours and lines and scents to attract insects that would be friendly helps, or it may be with an equally subtle arrangement to ward off others that would be hurtful.

I think he would have enjoyed my final offering for September, Led by the Nose, A Garden of Smells, by Jenny Joseph, who is best known for her poetry (she wrote Warning – the one about growing old disgracefully), but turns out to be a keen gardener. As you might expect from a writer of her calibre, she has a real gift for conjuring the scents of the garden, but she’s also very knowledgeable about plants, and although this is not a gardening manual, she does include lists of what to grow if you want a perfumed garden, so you will know when the various flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables give off their best fragrance, and can plan accordingly.

The book gives a very different, very personal view of gardening, which will make you think about what you want from a garden, and why you plant the things you do. Other people may plant sweet-smelling flowers because they attract bees, butterflies and other wildlife. Joseph plants them for sheer enjoyment, for the sensual pleasure she gets from stepping outside and inhaling the perfumed air, and perhaps more of us should follow her example. She says:

Even the berries and seed heads that do not give off a fragrance (and most fruits do have a scent recall the scents of the flowers they have come from. I am picking off pods and seedheads to dry and store, and as I shove them in my pocket I vow I will go in straightaway and find an envelope or container and write the name of what, where and when.

Like most of us, she doesn’t always get round to it, but she explains:

The seeds and the bulbs we either buy at this time or retrieve from those dug up and saved earlier, give us the promise of scent. It is a forward whiff which is to cross the coming months of dark damp enclosed dulled air, like a ray of light hitting a mirror in a darkened room, and transport the other side of winter, to spring. They hold future scents, literally, in their fabric, as well as in our imagination, September is one of the fulcrums of the year, balancing summer passed with winter to come.

 I loved this book – it was beautifully written, and very inspiring, and I always enjoy gardening books which combine thoughts on the beauty of plans with reflections on Life and the Universe. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Novel on Yellow Paper

The cover shows a detail from Catherine
Carrington, by Dora Carrington.
Novelist and poet Stevie Smith seems to have become a forgotten author, but back in the middle of the last century her spare, wry poems were immensely popular, offering a skewed view of suburban life that questioned our perceptions and made us think about loneliness, death, and the dispossessed. I must admit I have never been a huge fan of her poetry (her language doesn’t sing to me, or if it does I don’t hear it). However, she also wrote three novels, and I’ve just read one of them – Novel on Yellow Paper, which sings out loud and clear, and I loved it. My copy (one of my charity shop finds) was published by Virago in 1983, but they don’t seem to have reprinted it recently, and as far as I am aware no-one else is producing it either, which is a shame. If a modern edition is available, I apologise. If not, can I make a plea for this to be re-issued? Please?!

It has to be one of the most curious novels ever written, and is unlike anything else you are ever likely to read, with the possible exception of Tristram Shandy (actually, I felt quite pleased with myself for thinking this, because I didn’t look at Janet Watts’ introduction until I’d finished the book, when I found she had made a similar statement).

Anyway, it ought to be listed as one of the greatest and most glorious idiosyncratic books in the English language. Its style, story, structure and characters are unique, and it cannot be categorised.  Apparently when Smith tried to get her poems into print in 1935 she was told to go away and write a novel, and this was the result.  It was published the following year, and must have seemed as odd then as it does today, because it breaks with so many literary conventions and traditions.

Trying to describe this book is really, really difficult, because it’s so individual, and so idiosyncratic. There’s no plot or storyline, and it doesn’t slot easily into of the usual pigeon holes, and the central character is hard to pin down as a will o’ the wisp, flitting from thought to thought and scene to scene. Even her name is not her own. Reflecting on it she says:

Did I tell you my name was Pompey Casmilus? Patience I was christened, but later on when I got grown up and out and about in London, I got called Pompey. And it suits me. There’s something meretricious and decayed and I’ll say, I dare say, elegant about Pompey. A broken Roman statue. One of those old Roman boys that lost their investments and went round getting free meals on their dear old friends, that had them round to fill up the gaps, and keep things moving.

She tells us:

There’s not a person nor a thing in this book that ever stepped outside of this book. It’s all just out of my head

Nevertheless, it seems to incorporate elements from Smith’s life, and it’s hard not to view
Stevie Smith.
Pompey as the alter ego not just of Patience, but of Stevie Smith herself, whose real name was Florence Margaret. Pompey, like the author, works as a secretary, writes poetry, and is trying to write a novel – on very yellow paper, so she doesn’t confuse it with letters for her boss, which are typed on blue paper. She also has a ‘Lion Aunt’, just like Smith. And this is her book, in which she describes her thoughts on Life, Love, the Universe and Everything.

She writes about her friends, her family, her employer, current affairs, politics, religion, education and sex. There’s a lot about the situation in Germany, and from her initial comments you might assume that she’s anti-Jewish, but she’s not – she’s vehemently opposed to the Nazis. And there are references to history philosophy, popular culture, music hall songs, poems, classical literature. Pompey/Stevie writes it all down exactly as it pops into her head, and plays with words and language in a way that rivals James Joyce.

Yet her style seems almost ‘naïve’ as she writes so matter of factly about strange events and complex concepts, which gives the book a surreal edge. Barbara Comyns also does this, describing the most bizarre events as if it was all quite normal, so you can find echoes of other books in Smith’s work – or perhaps you find echoes of her book in other people’s work – but taken in its entirety it’s a one-off that can’t be classified.

Smith obviously knows her novel is ‘different’ and that people may not like it, so she has Pompey tell us:
This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came in by the left hand’ she warns. ‘And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone. It was a mistake you made to get this back. You could not know.

Says she’ll try to make it easy to read, as her publisher asks, but finds it difficult.

For this book is the talking voice, that runs on, and the thoughts come, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn their tale.

Oh talking voice that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs?

I feel I really haven’t done justice to Novel on Yellow Paper, but it’s a marvellously written book, which is a wonderful read, and I love it to bits – and I think that ‘talking voice’ deserves to be heard by many more people. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Struggling with a Short Story...

Well, it’s Sunday again – they do seem to roll round very quickly, don’t they? Anyway, that means it’s time for some sort stories, and this week I’m back with my lovely Persephone collection, and a tale called Nine Years is a Long Time, by Norah Hoult.  And oh, how I struggled with this one. I couldn’t engage with it on any level whatsoever, and found it so wearisome I nearly gave up, but I felt I should be able to see a short story through to the end.

A woman is waiting for a man to return. She doesn’t know his name, or what he does, but she knows he comes from Rotherfield, so she refers to him as ‘my Rotherfield friend’ and we learn that she has met him once a month for nine years, regular as clockwork, and that she has received £3 a time for some unspecified service… then nothing. No telegram, no letter, no visit. Is he dead? Ill? Has he lost interest?

He brought a welcome change to her life, she decides. It had been a sort of holiday when she got his wire or letter. Then Mr Scott (she always thinks of her husband this way) knew he’d ‘have to manage everything himself’. She would take a bath, dress with care, add a drop or two of Coty’s Chypre (too expensive for any but special occasions) then off to the lounge of the Queen’s for a light lunch, sitting with well-dressed people, having a drink and a chat and another drink before going to the hotel…  

Now, if he never came to see her again, or if she never saw him again, life would just go on as if it were a wet November all the time.

At this point I realised my suspicions about the exact nature of the service she provided were quite correct. Our lady is on the game, and her Rotherfield friend is her only client, and has been for a long time, although she once had many more gentlemen friends. But it all seems very normal, mundane almost, and she approaches sex much as she does any other domestic activity, and enjoys a nice cup of tea afterwards! She even discusses the situation with her husband (who is unemployed) in much the same way that other women might talk about problems at the factory, or the shop, or the office. Mrs Scott is very matter of fact about things. She will miss the £3 a month, and her husband will have to go without tobacco.
I imagine Mrs Scott a bit like this Beryl Cook woman,
but in 1940s clothes, with red hair. A rather sad figure really,
 but still liking a good time 
Her chances of finding another ‘friend’ are not good. She’s getting older, putting on weight, wears too much rouge and make up, and too much henna on her hair. She’s too conspicuous says her critical daughter, with all the confidence of youth on her side.

There is no resolution here, no happy ending. At the end of the tale there is still no news from the mysterious Rotherfield friend, and life goes on in its usual fashion.

The Test, by Angelica Gibbs, is very different, which is just as well really! Published in 1940 (two years after the last tale) it’s a very short story about the nature of prejudice, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Marian has a college degree, and has held a driving licence for three years, but must take another in the state where she now works, so she can take her employer’s children to school and bring them home again. She’s already failed one test, and her employer accompanies her.

“It’s probably better to have someone a little older with you,” Mrs Ericson said as Marian slipped into the driver’s seat beside her. “Perhaps last time your cousin Bill made you nervous, talking too much on the way.”

But Marian knows only too well what went wrong last time, and she fears the ordeal that lies ahead. It doesn’t matter how well she drives, the inspector will fail her – because she is coloured. And that’s the exactly what happens. The inspector is outrageously offensive – he made my blood boil with his crass remarks and behaviour. He calls Marian Mandy-Lou, talks about picaninnies, and treats her like dirt, as if she belongs to some lesser species.

Eventually she loses her temper (frankly, I think she should have gone the whole hog and smacked him in the mouth), and he makes four random crosses on her application form.

It would be nice to think that we’ve learned something over the last 70 years, and that people no longer treat others like this in America, or anywhere else. But sadly, prejudice still exists, and all kinds of people are victimised all over the world, because of their ethnicity, or their religion, or sexuality, so we don’t seem to have learned anything at all.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Bombs, Boats, and Daffodils...

War Messages: Endpapers in Persephone's Few Eggs and No Oranges
are from a design called London Wall, printed from a fragment of
 rayon  headscard produced by Jacqmar Ltd c.1942.
For those of us born after the Second World War it’s hard to imagine what life must have been like during the six grim years of conflict. History books give the facts, but can be awfully dry, while films and novels tell the story from a particular perspective but rarely give the bigger picture or small details of everyday life. My mother and her friends provide lively images of the war as it touched them, snapshots almost, of events and people who have long gone. Mum remembers her school days when she was the first local girl to attend the London school which moved to her area, and one of her neighbours (who is slightly older) recollects her time as a Land Girl when she drove tractors, operated farm machinery, repaired all things mechanical and was ‘as good as any man’.

However, it’s difficult to know how people actually felt, and I’ve always found that trying to visualise what happened is a bit like trying to do a jig-saw where some of the pieces are missing, and there is no picture to help. But Vere Hodgson manages to fill some of the gaps, and present a portrait of the times which combines lots of different views and is one of the most comprehensive accounts I’ve come across.

Her war diary, Few Eggs and No Oranges (written at the time and edited later), is riveting stuff but, as regular readers will know, I decided on a ‘slow read’ to give myself time to reflect on it. You can see my initial thoughts here and this month I’m looking at the period between January and June 1941. What strikes me most about the entries for these months is the contrast between horror and destruction of the Blitz, and the way Hodgson (and everyone else) was able to find pleasure in the small things of life – a sunny day, flowers in the park, ‘heavenly’ trees. Perhaps the horrors of war, and the uncertainty of life, made these things even more important, providing a touch of beauty and calm amidst the ugliness and chaos of war, boosting people’s spirits and somehow contributing to the symbol of ‘Britishness’ they were trying to defend. 
Anti-aircraft guns pictured in Hyde Park by an official War
Office in photographer in 1939. (Pic courtesy of Wikipedia)
The catalogue of disaster in London, where Hodgson lived and worked, goes on and on, as houses, shops, offices, churches and all kinds of other places are flattened by Nazi bombs. Night after night she hears the ‘thrum’ of enemy planes and noise from anti-aircraft guns, along with terrific bangs and the sound of falling masonry. She sees fires in the distance, as the glow of flames and smoke lights up the sky. On one occasion she feels the house ‘sway like a popular tree’. She relates other people’s experiences, like the woman in a café where the cups and saucers dance and rattle on the tables as a bomb falls nearby, and everyone calmly carries on eating their meal. Or the lady fire-watcher who declares that during one raid she saw’ the two walls of the corridor almost meet – and then the house right itself’.

Hodgson is endlessly interested in what is happening, not just in London, but elsewhere in Britain. She notes reports that pour in from Swansea, Cardiff, the south coast ports, Clydeside, Merseyside, Coventry… it’s hard to grasp the scale of the damage and the loss of life. I found her description of damage caused to places I know the most moving. After visiting her mother in Birmingham for Easter (in April 1941), she writes:

At Snow Hill we were aghast to find the platform an awful mess. A bomb had fallen direct on it – the whole place was all churned up. Fortunately not on the line, but they were mending the platform for us to get out. I was met, and heard the story of the big raid. An awful night! Bombs and landmines everywhere. The Great Western Arcade had looked pretty bad before; but now it was a ruin.
Workmen clearing a platform at Snow Hill after Birmingham
was bombed on the night of April 10, 1941.  This is what Vere
Hodgson saw as she arrived in the morning.
(http://www.warwickshire railways.comdd caption)
The gas main in Victoria Square had been struck and the flames, still burning when she passed by, had reached as high as the top of the Council House. The General Hospital had to be evacuated, there were delayed action bombs in the grounds of the university, and about two thirds of the city centre was destroyed. She adds:

Midland Arcade a ruin in all directions. Round to the Bull Ring. Worcester Street closed for a delayed action bomb. Many firemen still playing hoses on the smoking ruins. St Martin’s Church had a good slice off. We had seen enough. We realised there was plenty more.

When I was a child and we caught the train to Waterloo you could still see war-damaged buildings alongside the railway line. There were gaps in rows of houses filled with rubble where wild flowers bloomed, and dirty, fading scraps of wallpaper and paint still adhering to broken walls, while the ragged remnants of curtains flapped around vanished windows. Over the years we watched tall flats rise up, and the street scene changed. But somehow, when I moved to the Midlands I failed to connect those views of London with Birmingham, and although I knew the city was badly bombed, I never realised the full extent of the damage.  It may sound naïve, but I just assumed that all the newer buildings were the result of modern development, road schemes, and so on, and never questioned why they were needed. I had no idea that so much of central Birmingham had to be rebuilt – in fact, after reading Hodgson’s diary I’m surprised that so many historic buildings survived.

There, I got side-tracked, just as I always do, but I’m sure Vere Hodgson would not have minded – she was a great one for meandering from topic to topic. In her diary she maintains a sense of humour and remains cheerful, continuing with everyday life as best she can, and enjoying the small pleasures that come her way, and everyone else was doing exactly the same.

On a sunny day crowds bask on the grass in the park, or relax in chairs, unbothered by the fact that there are unexploded bombs just a few yards away. Her joy in such scenes is unexpected, almost shocking, and the juxtaposition of the ordinary against the extraordinary throws the hellish happenings of the Blitz into even sharper relief. 
Daffodil: Was it a s symbol of defiance and resistance in the
dark days of  World War Two?
On April 20, for example, she tells us about a raid and, but goes on to describe the thundery weather, adding:  

Walked in the Park – all lovely and green. The daffodils were lifting their great horns proudly, in spite of the storm; a great white magnolia tree was out.

Whether she intended the image to be metaphor for the desperate situation of those days I don’t know, but the daffodils seemed to be raising their trumpets, defying a storm in the natural world, just as Londoners were defying Hitler's man-mind storm of the war.

A week later (April 27) I liked the following entry:

Saw the guns in Hyde Park for the first time. Sun came out and the Serpentine looked lovely. The weeping willows are all yellow green and their graceful light branches trailed down to the water. Many people were boating. Chestnut trees were well on.

Again, it’s the picture of normal life alongside the paraphernalia of war which is so touching, that makes you stop and think. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

A Little List of Books....

I’ve now finished the ‘treat’ books which I bought courtesy of my mother, and I’m  delighted to say there wasn’t a dud among them – I loved them all. Actually, when I say I’ve completed them, I’m lying, because I’ve got two Works in Progress where I opted for slow reads: Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries, Few Oranges and No Eggs, and the Short Stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner. As a rule I’m a fairly fast reader (I want to know what happens, so I have to reach the end quickly, then I can go back and take my time with a re-read!). But Hodgson’s book is such a chunkster, and so packed with information and observations that it lends itself to a more leisurely approach, which gives me time to take everything in, and to think about what life must have been like, and to look things up, and find other books from the same period. And short stories, I’ve decided, should be read one (or possibly two) at a time, rather than racing through an entire book in one fell swoop, which means my brain gets overloaded, and I cannot appreciate the individual tales because they all get jumbled up together! I am sure I never used to have problems like that – it must be a side effect of old age and decrepitude!

Anyway, I’ve got a little list of the new batch of books collected from charity shops over the summer, and I’m looking forward to making a start on them. They are mainly ‘old’ books – vintage Penguins and VMCs predominate, and there is only one live author among them. What does that say about me I wonder? Sometimes I think I should read more modern fiction, but why change the habits of a lifetime!

First is Novel on Yellow Paper by poet Stevie Smith, which I’m reading at the moment, and enjoying immensely. It is one of the most extraordinary novels I’’ve ever come across, which will make writing about it quite a challenge, but I’m hoping to put up a post next week, however inadequate my thoughts may seem.

Next is another novel from another poet: Mr Petre, by Hilaire Belloc, who is known mainly for his Cautionary Tales (remember Matilda, who told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes, or Henry King, whose chief defect was chewing little bits of string). I knew he wrote more serious poetry, but hadn’t realised he was a prolific author, who also produced novels, travel books, political essays and all sorts of other things. This particular book is a very shabby old Penguin (number 633, with a dancing bird on the front) and I have no idea what to expect. According to the blurb on the inside cover:

Mr Petre was undoubtedly a financial magnate at whose name the stock markets of the world wobbled. And the Englishman in American clothes, who had landed at Southampton from New York was undoubtedly Mr Petre. Indeed, it was the only thing about which he has no doubt, that his name was Petre. Otherwise his memory was a blank.

Anyway, we shall see what I make of it. If I hate it, I’ll give it to Oxfam!

And I have another Penguin, though this one was published a little later – it’s a 1979 edition of The Enchanted Places, by Christopher Milne, and I have every hope that it will prove to be as enchanting as the title, and as pleasurable to read as the stories about Pooh and Christopher Rob written by his father, AA Milne. I’ve read reviews by other bloggers who adored this, but cannot remember who they were - Simon T at Stuck in a Book perhaps, or Claire at The Captive Reader. So, since I cannot refer you to a sensible writer, I shall have to quote from the Blurb on the Back, which states:
With deftness and artistry Milne has drawn a memorable portrait of his father, and an evocative reconstruction of a happy childhood in London and Sussex. It is a story told with humour and modesty.

And, while mooching around in a charity shop in Barnstaple I unearthed another autobiography, by author Noel Streatfeild. A Vicarage Family looks to be a gentle, nostalgic stroll through her Edwardian childhood, and I’m curious to see how it influenced her writing. I’ve yet to read any of her adult fiction, but I’ve read and loved many of her children’s stories, and would like to know more about her.

Hunt the Slipper by Violet Trefusis sounds very different. She and Streatfeild were born a year apart, yet their lives and writing are worlds apart. All I know about Trefusis is that she was the daughter of Alice Keppel (the mistress of Edward VII) and that she was the lover of Vita Sackville-West – didn’t they actually elope together at some point? And I seem to remember reading that their affair and its aftermath inspired Virginia Woolf to write Orlando. Anyway, once again my lack of knowledge means I’ll have to fall back on the Book Blurb for information:

Nigel Benson is a 49-year-old sybarite, living in comfort with his sister Molly in their gracious country house near Bath, occasionally indulging in the odd love affair. One day he visits his neighbour Sir Anthony Crome where he meets Caroline, young, restless, fascinating – and Sir Anthony’s new wife. They meet again in Paris, fall passionately in love, and their exquisite game begins!

Serendipity must have been at work here, because the very next book I came across was The Edwardians, by Vita Sackville-West, which I spotted in the shop at our local tip, or Household Waste Recycling Centre as it is now known! I liked All Passion Spent, which focuses on an elderly woman at the end of her life, but here Sackvile-West’s central characters are much, much younger. I’ve done nothing but quote from Blurbs in this post, but until I’ve read the books I can’t say anything else! For what’s worth, this one tells us that:

Sebastian and Violet are siblings, and children of the English aristocracy. Handsome and moody, ay nineteen Sebastian is heir to the vast country estate, Chevron. A deep sense of tradition and love of the English countryside tie him to his inheritance, yet he loathes the glittering cold and extravagant society of which he is part. Viola, at sixteen, is more independent: an unfashionable beauty who scorns every part of her inheritance – most particularly that of womanhood.

Finally, I bought a copy of Things That Are, Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals by Amy Leach, because I picked it up in Waterstones in Birmingham, just to look at it, and ended up sitting on the floor reading it. On the back says: “This is a book about the Universe which begins with swimming salmon and ends with the starry sky.” That’s a pretty good description really, because it’s a series of short essays reflecting on life, the universe and everything, with snippets about nature, history, science, myth, and a host of other things, and as the author ponders them she also thinks about Man and his place in all this. She reminded me of Kathleen Jamie, and I’m enjoying this slender volume very much indeed.

In addition to my ‘new’ books I’m still exploring short stories, and will be posting my thoughts on Sundays (well, most Sundays), and I’ve been looking at Vere Hodgson’s diaries from January to June 1941, and trying to discover a bit more about life on the Home Front. And I’m trawling through my gardening books to discover what I should be doing in the garden – if I can spare the time from reading! All this will probably take me into October, but it’s nice to have a list, even if I don’t stick to it!

What plans does anyone else have for reading in September? Have you got a stash of new books to see you through the autumn, or do you turn to old favourites as the weather grows colder and the dark nights begin to close in?

Monday, 9 September 2013

Greenery Street: A Road with a Life of Its Own

The street consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at a first glance, exactly the same: and a mental picture of it generally includes a large pantechnicon van, backed against the pavement and collecting or discharging household goods. For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing. And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same. It is seen in the arrival of a brand-new perambulator. 

This is Greenery Street, off Paradise Square, in the heart of London. And Greenery Street has a starring role in Denis Mackail’s novel of the same name. For Greenery Street has a life of its own. It lures young couples into its confines, wooing them with its sheer perfection, charming and beguiling them with a vision of domestic bliss. But the dream is shattered by the arrival of children: at this point houses seem to shrink, corridors are narrower, rooms smaller, and there is never enough space… so the happy couple reluctantly move on to a larger, better house, and another set of newly-weds take their place in Greenery Street. 
Walpole Street: The road which inspired Greenery Street
(courtesy of
Apparently, the road was based on Walpole Street, where Mackail lived with his wife Diana when they were first married, and where he was blissfully happy – it was a time he never forgot, and he incorporated elements from it into this novel, which was written in 1925, and is very much of its period. He was the younger brother of Angela Thirkell and, like her, wrote about what he knew. I haven’t read his other novels, but this one seems to be written from the heart, following the first year in the marriage of Ian and Felicity Foster.

The couple are like children let loose in a sweet shop, and their joy at being together in their own home is infectious, as is their delight with each new thing (decorations, possessions, a pet dog). But it’s not quite as sweet and light as the early chapters led me to think. Ian and Felicity struggle to keep their heads above water financially: they start married life owing a huge sum to the builder/decorator for work carried out on the house, and the situation is not improved by Felicity’s inability to understand her accounts book. Given how impecunious they are, it seems extraordinary that they should live in some style, in a five-storey house (including the basement) with two servants (a cook and a housemaid, who seem to live and work in the basement).

They are scared of the servants, who are rude and inefficient, and their neighbours take advantage of them, borrowing things which are never returned. In some ways they remind me of David Copperfield and Dora, and are just as ill-equipped to cope with the demands of adult life. 
But gradually they grow up and take control, and they are able to seize the initiative and avert scandal when Felicity’s sister plans to leave her husband for another man. Hard on the heels of that comes another crisis, as they return to their beloved home, to discover the servants have run away, and there has been a break-in, though one of the policemen at the scene is more than a little dismissive about the incident. “You wouldn’t hardly call it a burglary, not in a house like this,” he tells Ian. The couple are surprisingly resilient about the disaster, a sign perhaps of their growing maturity, and we leave them preparing for the birth of their first child.

I enjoyed Greenery Street. It’s warm and humorous without ever being cruel, a kind of jubilant, joyful  hymn of praise to married life, which nevertheless manages to poke gentle fun at the institution of marriage, home improvements, parenthood, servants, tradesmen, families, and middle class society in general. And I rather like Ian and Felicity, who are a bit dim really, and sometimes irritating, but are quite prepared to admit their faults and beg forgiveness. Once married they find they have to get to know each other – which is often what happens in real life. And, just like real life again, they quarrel about small things of little consequence, then kiss and make-up, so I found myself hoping that their love endures, and that their relationship will grow and develop in the years ahead.

In fact, when it comes to relationships I thought it was fascinating to see how the Fosters’ marriage differs to that of other couples in the novel, such as their neighbours the Lamberts, Felicity’s parents, and her sister Daphne who is married to kindly, generous Bruce, a shy but fabulously wealthy businessman. I would like to have seen more of Daphne, with her odd looks and odder behaviour. She may only have played a small part in the novel, but I thought she was most complex and interesting character, who deserved a book to herself – I ended up writing stories about her inside my head! On the face of it she has everything she could want, but she and her husband don’t seem to be a couple at all, and she can be unexpectedly cynical, as well as revealing moments of deep sadness and unhappiness.
The endpapers and bookmark are from a 1925 block printed
 cretonne by George H Willis for the Silver Studio.