Thursday, 28 May 2015

A Literary Map of London

Now for something completely different. This literary map of London turned up from one or other of my Facebook friends, and I think it is fantastic, and I love the way it uses names to build up a picture of the city, so I thought I’d share it here – I just hope I don’t run into any copyright problems. According to the blurb on The Independent site I copied it from, the map is ‘both a snapshot of London’s literary history and beautiful in its own right’. I’m sure no one would argue with that.

Apparently, more than 250 novels were ‘mined’ in order to make the Literary London Map, and each name is placed on the part of the city they’re associated with. Initially I thought it was only made with characters from books, but looking closely I spotted Aphra Behn and Ben Jonson, so it seems authors rub shoulders with their creations. If I had cash to spare, which I don’t, I would buy it. As it is I shall content myself with looking at it online and seeing how many names I can find (and how many I know!)

It’s from the Literary London Art Collection, where an explanatory note states:

Literary London is a collection of art celebrating the capital's rich literary heritage. Bringing to life the army of fictional characters who were born here. From the dreamers and dandies to the eerily eccentric and downright dangerous. Not just the living, but also the walking dead. All the winged and many-legged creatures who've been immortalised in the pages of novels. And who continue to inhabit and delight imaginations the world over. The larger than life personalities conceived by an equally eclectic horde of authors obsessed with London's every nook and cranny, its bawdy taverns and refined townhouses, as well as the cities notorious underbelly, its clinks and courts of law.

Literary London is an art collection from Run For The Hills, conceived and created by London-based artist Dex in collaboration with Interior Designer Anna Burles, the duo who produced the map of literary London.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Of Pies and Penguins...

Simple Simon met a Pieman,
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the Pieman,
Let me taste your ware.
Says the Pieman to Simple Simon,
Show me first your penny;
Says Simple Simon to the Pieman,
Indeed I have not any.
Everyone knows the old nursery rhyme, but how many people are aware that hot (and cold) penny pies were a kind of early take-away, or ‘food on the move’, long before the advent of crisps, sandwiches, burgers, chips and so on.  
The ‘itinerant trade in pies is one of the most ancient of the street callings of London’ says Henry Mayhew in Of Street Piemen, which is one of those rather lovely Little Black Classics produced to celebrate Penguin’s 80th birthday (Number 26 if we’re being precise).
Anne Anderson's illustration from an edition of
Mother Goose published in 1926. I like this because
it shows the construction of the hot pie can.
It contains eight extracts from London Labour and the London Poor, an investigation published in the middle of the 19th century, and I thought these pieces were absolutely fascinating, and surprisingly readable. This is the real ‘Dickensian’ London and Mayhew tells it like it is, letting his interviewees speak for themselves, so their voices travel down to us loud and clear. 

I’ve always imagined the pieman with a tray of pies balanced on his head, or slung round his neck, like an illustration in a nursery rhyme book, and some did do this, but according to Mayhew in Of Street Pieman (the collection is named after this piece):  

They go along with their pie-cans on their arms, crying, ‘Pies all ‘ot! Eel, beef, or mutton pies! Penny pies, all ‘ot, all ‘ot!” …. The pies are kept hot by a charcoal fire beneath, and there is a partition in the body of the can to separate the hot and the cold pies. The ‘can’ has two tin drawers, one at the bottom where the hot trays are kept, and above these are the cold pies. As fast as the hot dainties are sold, their place is supplied by the cold from the upper drawer. 

Pies were savoury or sweet (made of fruit in season), and were usually baked by the sellers, about five dozen at a time, with half an ounce of meat in each, which is not a lot – about half a chipolata sausage. 

“People, when I go into houses,’” said one man, “often begin crying ‘Mee-yow,’ or ‘Bow-wow-wow!’ at me, but there’s nothing of that kind now. Meat, you see, is so cheap.” 

The meat came from the same parts that sausage-makers used – the bits known as ‘stickings’. Gravy, kept in an oil-can, was made from a little salt and ‘water browned’ (please don’t ask me how you brown water because I don’t know). Customers poked a hole in their pie and poured the gravy in, just as we might squeeze mustard or tomato ketchup onto food at hot dog stands. 

The Coster Girl and Boy Tossing the Pieman. (Illustration for London Labour
and the London Poor, from
Personally, I think the pies sound most unappetising, particularly the mince-meat ones, which contained apple, sugar, currants and ‘critlings’ - the solid residue left after boiling pig fat in water to make lard. Piemen made their own pastry, but Mayhew doesn’t tell us whether they produced their own lard and critlings. Anyway, back to those mince-meat pies, which also needed ‘a good bit of spice’ to flavour the critlings, and plenty of treacle to make the mince-meat look rich.  

Since there were no fridges, and pies could be hanging around for days, and were constantly warmed up, I wonder just how safe they were to eat.   The piemen grumbled to Mayhew about the new penny pie shops taking their trade, and said much of their income now came from ‘Tossing the Pieman’. Customers tossed a coin, and got a pie for free if they won. If they lost the pieman received the penny – and kept his pie.
The two orphaned flower girls whose tale is told elsewhere in the book, didn’t even have a penny to spend on a pie to share between them. They lived on bread and tea, and sometimes ‘a fresh herring of a night’, but were proud to boast they didn’t owe anyone anything, and had never pawned anything – because they had nothing worth pawning. 

The Crippled Bird-Seller: Mayhew’s bird-seller wasn’t crippled,
but he must have looked  a little like this .
 (Illustration for London Labour and the London Poor,
A seller of live birds made a better living, but the description of how birds are caught is quite shocking. It involves a net laid on the ground in fields, and a caged bird singing to lure linnets, sparrows, larks and finches. What did people do with all those birds? Keep them as pets? Or eat them? 

These people struggle to make a living, but they seem happy enough, accept their lot in life, and make the best of what they have. Their livelihoods are precarious, but in their way, they’re entrepreneurs, proud of what they do, beholden to no-one. 

But Mayhew didn’t just interview London’s poor; he also looked at the places where they lived, worked and played. There’s a report, or essay, on the city’s vibrant street markets, another on the Port of London, and a damming account of the bawdy entertainment (and equally bawdy audience) at a ‘penny gaff’, a kind of ‘pop-up’ theatre. 

Eager Reception circa 1850 (round about the time Mayhew took his balloon flight):
A crowd of onlookers greet the arrival of the hot-air balloon 'Crystal Palace'.
(Pic from Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The sights, sounds and smells of a half-hour train journey to Clapham Common (then in the countryside, with a ‘little rustic station’) are recounted with great relish, and there’s an enchanting narrative of a balloon flight high above ‘The Great Metropolis’.  

The houses directly underneath us looked like the tiny wooden things out of a child’s box of toys, and the streets as if they were ruts in the ground: and we could hear the hum of the voices rising from every spot we passed over, faint as the buzzing of so many bees. 

It could have been written today, rather than some 150 years ago – the language, and the thoughts expressed haven’t changed at all. And as he goes ‘sailing along almost among the stars’ taking ‘an angel’s view’ of London, Mayhew reflects on human nature and concludes that it is good to forget ‘the petty jealousies and heart-burnings, small ambition and vain parade of ‘polite’ society and feel, for once, tranquil as a babe in a cot’. 
PS: Blogger has gone doolally on this post, and is doing weird things with the spacing and font, and won't be corrected, so apologies if it looks odd... 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Swans, Snow and a Talking Mole

Edred and Elfrida walking down the street before
their adventures begin.
Oh Lordy, I must be getting old. Or growing up or something. That’s three children’s ‘classics’ I’ve read recently, and I hated all of them, even though they ticked all the right boxes. Which is odd when you consider my weakness for children’s literature.

First up is Edith Nesbit. I’ve always loved The Railway Children, and the Bastable stories, and Five Children and It and its two follow-ups, so I thought I’d love The House of Arden, which just shows how wrong you can be. I know there are lots of people out there who really rate this book, but it didn’t do anything for me, except make me cross. 

Brother and sister Edred and Elfrida Arden live with their aunt, who lets lodgings, which is ‘one of the most unpleasant ways to make a living’. They’ve got no money, their mother is dead, and their father has disappeared on an exploration to South America, accompanied by the aunt’s fiancé. Strange how many children’s books feature absent parents, either one, or the other, or both. Obviously this enables children to go off and have adventures, but I do wonder if there’s some deeper significance. 

Anyway, it turns out that Edred is heir of the Ardens, so they move to their ancestral home, a crumbling castle which luckily includes a habitable (but run-down) house. To restore the fortunes of family and castle Edred and Elfrida must find the Arden treasure, hidden away centuries ago.  
Prisoners in the Tower: Edred meets Sir Walter Raleigh
while they are both imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Helped by pigeons they don garments found in old chests and are transported back in time to periods matching the clothes. And wherever they go in time there are two children who look just like them, and are their ages, with their names, and they become those children. 

This was what I really, really hated about this book. I couldn’t get my head round the way they travelled through time taking over other children’s lives, like some kind of cosmic hijackers. It’s Quantum Leap a century earlier, but unlike Dr Sam Baker they not allowed to change history. Personally, I thought it was really spooky. And in case you wonder what happens to the other children (well, I certainly did) they pop off and hang around somewhere else until they can return. And they don’t notice anything is happening because they’re not special like Edred and Elfrida…  

And don’t get me started on the magical talking mole (the White Mouldiwarp from the Badge of Arden). Or the magical clocks which appear, made of daisies and such like. Or the magical swans pulling a magical carriage made of magical snowflakes.

Actually, the magical elements in this book really annoyed me because, on the whole, they’re twee and fluffy and pretty, and pulled out of nowhere, like a rabbit from a hat. Children trapped on top of a tower in a snowstorm? No problem, let’s conjure up a swan drawn snow-carriage to rescue them. Why swans and snow? Because all things white obey the Mouldiwarp. Well that’s OK I suppose, and after all it’s not really so very different from Cinderella going to the ball in a pumpkin coach pulled by mice-horses, and I’ve no problem with that.  
Time traveller: Elfrida in the Georgian era.
So why don’t I like this? I’ve tried to analyse my response, and I’m really not sure, but I think it has to with the fact that I feel magic should be grounded in some kind of reality or mythology, if that makes sense. Authors like Diana Wynne Jones, JRR Tolkien and Ursula le Guin created characters who wield enormous magical powers, which they use only in dire need. There is an emphasis on balance, a sense that there is a cost to be paid for using magic, because it can upset the equilibrium of the world, and have unforeseen consequences. They have a responsibility to use their powers wisely, and they don’t magic something out of nothing, or change the essential nature of something. If they are not to be perverted to the dark good magicians must abide by some kind of rules or guidelines. Even in fairy tales magic can be a dangerous business, and you may not always get what you wish for.  

The final chapter (which involves a lot of magic) is one of the daftest and most unbelievable things I’ve ever read. And there is, of course, a happy ending, which has nothing to do with the treasure, and includes a repetition (or recycling, if I’m being kind) of the most famous lines in The Railway Children, which is sloppy writing, and I would have expected better from Nesbit.  

Actually, this post hasn’t gone in the direction I planned. I was going to write a few concise paragraphs on The House of Arden, and a little bit more on Elizabeth Goudge’s The Runaways, which I also hated, but that will have to wait for another day. And I didn’t mention Richard Arden, a mysterious boy from the past who knows about Edred and Elfrida’s time. However, his tale is revealed in Harding’s Luck, the follow-up to The House of Arden and deserves post of its own.

*The illustrations are by Harold Robert Millar, from the original 1908 edition of the book. 

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Girl in the Dark

Imagine yourself forced to live in total darkness. Not the normal curtains-pulled sort of night-time darkness, but total, impenetrable blackness, so dark that you must feel your way around. That’s what happened to Anna Lindsey (a pseudonym) when she developed a severe sensitivity to all forms of light, natural and artificial. Exposure to light, however small or dim, caused excruciating pain, as if her skin were being burned by a blowtorch.

Girl in the Dark is her account of how life changed. It’s not a misery memoir. Although Lindsey admits she gets depressed – and has even, on occasions, thought of suicide – generally she remains upbeat, and her book is both uplifting and life affirming. She is no longer angry about her condition, and she has stopped seeking reasons or answers. She explains: “‘Why me?’ is the question of an idiot. The sensible person says simply, ‘Why not?’”
Girl In The Dark: Anna Lindsey's beautiful, moving
account of living with a severe sensitivity to light.
As her photosensitivity worsened, her world contracted to a single blacked-out room in the house of her boyfriend (now her husband). “It is extraordinarily difficult to black out a room,” she tells us.  

“First I line the curtains with blackout material, a heavy, plasticky fabric, strange flesh-like magnolia in colour, not actually black. But the light slips in easily, up and over the gap between the rail and the wall, and at the bottom through the loops made by the hanging folds. 

“So I add a blackout roller blind, inside the window alcove. But the light creeps in around the sides, and shimmies through the slit at the top. 

“So I tackle the panes themselves. I cut sheets of cooking foil, press them against the glass, tape them to the window frames. But the foil wrinkles and rips, refuses to lie flat. Gaps persist around the edges, pinpricks and tears across the middle.” 

Eventually, with curtains, blind, layer upon layer of foil and tape, and a rolled towel along the crack at the bottom of the door, she has blackness. But even that is not enough. To protect her skin from light rays that cannot be seen, but can still be felt, she must cover herself from head to toe in an assortment of garments, discovering through trial and error that some materials and styles are a more effective barrier than others. 

The room is small, but when she is first in the dark she often gets lost, for ‘the darkness can cause disorientation that is total, and terrifying’. She develops strategies to cope and listens to audio books and Radio 4 – plays, readings, debates, current affairs but, to start with at any rate, not music. At the beginning music ‘unhinges’ her, reminds her of what she has lost. 

And she plays word games in her mind, sometimes on her own, sometimes with visitors. Most tricky is the word grid, five squares by five, forming five letter words down and across - difficult enough when you have pen, paper and light, but well nigh impossible without them.

During the 10-year period covered by the book Lindsey has periods of remission when she is able to emerge from her room and venture to other heavily veiled parts of the house. In semi-darkness she cooks and reads, and is even able to creep outside in the dark. There are some memorable moments, like a night-time walk in the garden in the falling rain. She tells us:

“From the crown of my hat to the toes of my boots, an indescribable thrill runs through me. I stand poised at the edge of the lawn, and my starved senses open to this delicious, half-forgotten joy... 

I let myself be soaked. Like a young plant, I let myself be watered well in. It is as though I am being kissed by the world, welcomed back to life.” 
Roses at Montisfont. (Pic from National Trust website)
And on another occasion Mottisfont, a National Trust property near her home, arranges an extra-late midsummer opening so she and her husband can visit the walled rose garden. As they go through the door the smell ‘wallops’ them in the face. 

“It is as though we have passed from air to some new substance, formed of a thousand interlocking scents that twist languorously about each other, like invisible smoke.” 

It’s a magical interlude and as they leave she says: 

“…on the inside of my eyelids I carry with me the imprint of glorious flowers, and in my nostrils, the ghosts of their perfume.” 

It’s a shadowy sort of existence, and timings become all important during her good spells: her life is ruled by sunsets and sunrises. A photographic light meter helps track the amount of light she can tolerate. For example, f1 is almost dark; f4 is more or less when street lights come on; f8 is the sun just above horizon on a clear day. Light levels at noon are f200 plus, which she cannot cope with. She is, she says, ‘nibbling at the edges of the day’.  

Sadly, these periods of remission are all too brief, and she is always forced to retreat back to the sanctuary of her dark room. She looks back on them, grateful for the respite, but never lets herself hope for more, because she is unsure they will ever be repeated. 

Girl in the Dark is very moving, and very lyrical. Lindsey writes with great warmth and lucidity, and is able to consider her consider her situation and analyse her feelings in way which reveals more general truths about humanity. It made me laugh and cry - moments of high drama and intense sadness and despair are juxtaposed alongside interludes full of joy, and almost farcical episodes, for Lindsey retains her sense of humour, and is well aware how ludicrous her life can seem.  

Reading it took me on an emotional journey which left me exhausted, and I cannot begin to envisage what it must be like for Lindsey to live like this. Yet she seems to have achieved a degree of serenity, a feeling that what will be will be, and she is thankful for small pleasures in life. I was left with the feeling that we should all put a higher value on things we take for granted, like the feel of rain, the smell of a flower, the warmth of the sun – and having enough light to sit and read a book.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Gipsy in the Parlour

In the heat of a spacious August noon, in the great summer of 1870, the three famous Sylvester women waited in their parlour to receive and make welcome the fourth. 

The three famous Sylvester women – Charlotte, Grace and Rachel – are sisters-in-law who married (and tamed) three of the wild Sylvester brothers. They are big and blonde, hard-working and warm-hearted, and they are about to meet the youngest brother’s bride-to-be. But Miss Fanny Davis, is not a bit like them. And her arrival brings discord and change, threatening the happiness and well-being of the farm… 

The Gipsy in the Parlour is written with Margery Sharp’s usual light touch, but I think it’s a little darker than The Nutmeg Tree. The story is related by an unnamed narrator, looking back on her lonely childhood, when she spent idyllic summers with her Sylvester relatives on their Devon farm. The book covers two years of her life, and three visits to the farm. Our narrator is 11 when Fanny Davies comes to wed the youngest brother, and she tells us: 

I marvelled how my uncle Stephen, used to the splendid Sylvester women, could have fallen in love with such a thin, pale, dusky little gypsy. 

Fanny is: 

…small, very slender, rather limply dressed in black or grey, on her head a small black straw hat. There was an air of the town about her; and of something else which, I (coming out from behind my aunts), couldn’t immediately define. 

That undefined ‘something else’ is slightly worrying, a hint perhaps that things are not quite right. And what is she doing down by the crab apple tree in the middle of the night? And her voice may be sweet and musical, but it is ‘wooing’, as if casting a spell over her listeners. She certainly bedazzles our narrator, making ‘a ‘little friend’ of her, gaining her trust with sweets and endearments. But she doesn’t take any part in family life, and she doesn’t help around the farm or the house. She does absolutely nothing.  

And when our narrator returns to the following year she learns there has been no wedding, for Fanny has been struck down by a mysterious malady - a ‘decline’, the aunts explain. Our narrator is puzzled by the sudden illness, but says: 

It wasn’t at that time, particularly uncommon. Ladies lay in declines all up and down the country… 

She is relieved to see Fanny doesn’t look ill: 

She had always appeared both weakly and genteel - the two essential conditions one couldn’t go into a decline without. (No common person went into one. Common persons couldn’t afford to. Also, there needed to be a sofa. No sofa, no decline.) 

Was the young narrator perceptive enough (and cynical enough) to make that comment I wonder? Or is it an adult reflection, composed with the benefit of hindsight? Anyway, there is Fanny, firmly ensconced on a new sofa in the parlour, using the lustre-ware from the china cabinet, picking at the daintiest food, her every need attended tot.  The sunny room (the aunts’ pride and joy) is dimmed and silent: even the clock has been stopped, because its chimes’ bruise’ Fanny’s nerves.  And the aunts have curbed their natural ebullience and speak in hushed whispers as they creep about their home. The harmony of the house is broken, the Sylvester women are no longer in total accord with each other, and there is grey in Aunt Charlotte’s hair.  
Back home in London the narrator receives a note from Fanny, with a letter for Cousin Charles (Aunt Charlotte’s estranged son). Believing Fanny is trying to heal the rift, our narrator delivers the letter herself and finds Charlie working as a chucker-out at Jackson’s Economical Saloon. She becomes friendly with his lady friend, Clara Blow, who runs the establishment, and is as big, capable and warm-hearted as the Sylvester women. Charlie, according to Clara, is pining for the farm - but something (or someone) is preventing his return… 

Our narrator, whose experience of life and love is derived largely from romantic novelettes borrowed from the succession of cooks at her parents’ home, decides that Charlie must marry Clara and return to the farm. And she wants to cure Fanny.  

It’s a shame to reveal what happens on the next trip to Devon, but Fanny, as we suspected, has a cunning plan and when this is exposed Aunt Charlotte whisks her off to London for a showdown with Charlie. Actually, whisks is the wrong word, because preparations for the trip take five days. Aunt Charlotte travels with her own food, so the aunts bake pasties and cakes, and she packs eggs and a tea-caddy (for breakfasts) – imagine how a modern hotel if you did that! Then there are her clothes: 

All the flowers were cut from her best bonnet, steamed and re-attached, the strings were treated similarly, also ironed. Her skirt and bodice were sponged with vinegar. Her underlinen required no attention at all, the store was so great and so immaculate we had to pick out the best, two of each, and one dozen cambric handkerchiefs, still bearing her maiden cypher.  

Fanny is not so splendid. She possesses the dress she stands up in, two limp dresses more, and a peacock silk ball-gown. Her underlinen is ‘charitably’ ignored by everyone. She has no mantle, only a shawl, and her black straw hat is too far gone to steam into better shape. 

What Fanny does have is the ability to seize an opportunity, but it’s her manipulative powers which give the novel a dark edge. She rules the household, while seeming to be weak, defenceless and passive, so the aunts must bend their will to her and subdue their real nature. And in an odd way they are complicit in this situation. They are aware of what is happening, but they go along with it. They won’t turn Fanny out or treat her badly because she is Stephen’s betrothed, and they don’t want to bring shame on the Sylvester name. 

I loved this. I like Sharp’s writing style, amusing and light-hearted with (if you’ll excuse the pun) a sharp edge. Her descriptions of people (even the minor characters) are very astute. And while the ultimate outcome may be in little doubt – Aunt Charlotte, after all, is a force to be reckoned with – there’s enough tension to keep you reading to the very last page. All in all it was a very satisfying read.

PS: I'm just wondering I could link this to the Reading England Challenge, over at Behold the Stars. The aim is to travel England reading, and read at least one classic book per however many counties of England you decide to read. I think this counts, since it is set largely in Devon. But to be honest, much as I like Margery Sharp I  don't really think she counts as a classic, so maybe not.