A New Year Miscellany

From the calendar of the Tres Riches Heures, created for Jean, Duc de Berry. He is shown seated right (in blue) while members of his household exchanges New Year gifts.

Here, to celebrate the New Year, I’ve gathered a few seasonal excerpts for your delectation, fictional and non-fictional. First up is the sumprtuous New Year Feast in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage. (Please note, I abandoned any effort to replicate the line spacing).

The first course comes in to the fanfare and clamour of blasting trumpetshung with trembling banners, then pounding double drums and dinning pipes, weird sounds and wails of such warbled wildness that to hear and feel them made the heart float free.

Flavoursome delicacies of flesh were fetched in and the freshest of foods, so many in fact therewas scarcely space to present the stews or to set the silver bowls on the cloth. Each guest received his share of bread, or meat or broth; a dozen plates per pair – plus beer, or wine, or both!

Bell Ringers by Ryland, Henry (1856-1924); Christopher Wood Gallery, London.

Next is Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors which, I think, is one of the best detective novels ever written. It is New Year’ Eve, and Lord Peter Wimsey is stranded in the village of Fenchurch St Paul, following a car accident. The rector provides shelter, and waxes lyrical about his plans for a nine-hour bell-ringing marathon to welcome the New Year with 15,840 Kent Treble Bob Majors (despite reading the book several times over the years, I still have no idea exactly what this means, so please don’t ask). Anyway, when one of the ringing team falls ill Lord Peter nobly comes to the rescue, and there is the most wonderful onamatapoeic account of the bells ringing out:

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo – tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom – tin tan dan din bim bam bom bo – tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom – tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom – every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again.”

The Vicarage in Winter, Eric Revilious

And here are more bells – real this time – from the Rev Francis Kilvert, writing in his diary on New Year’s Day 1871:

My Mother, Peche and I sat up late last night to watch the old year out and the New Year in. The wind was in the North and the sound of the bells came faintly and muffled over the snow from Chippenham and Kington. We opened the dining room window to ‘loose in’ the sound of the chimes and ‘the New Year’ as they say in Wales. It was bitter cold, but we went to the door, Perch and I, to hear better, I was carrying my travelling clock in my hand and as we stood on the terrace just outside the front door, the little clock struck midnight with its tinkling silvery bell in the keen frost. We thought we could hear three peals of Church bells, Chippenham, St Paul’s, and very faintly Kington. ‘Ring happy bells across the snow.’ (The Rev Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary)

Still in diary mode, let’s have a quiet evening in the company of Gladys Taber, who wrote Stillmeadow Daybook, a year-long account of her life on a Connecticut farm in the 1950s, . I suspect her views on New Year celebrations must have seemed old-fashioned even them but I think she’s absolutely right.

Seeing the new year in seems to involve much paper caps, night clubbing, and hangovers for some people. This is not my idea at all, never was. I wish to start my new year with a few people I dearly love, and in front of an apple wood fire, with bowls of popcorn and apples, and hot buttered rum, and Port Salut cheese and crisp crackers. And playing some good music, and reading aloud some choice bits. And feeling so secure in the fact that beginning a new year is a beginning with the same old friends.

Children Playing by Honor C Appleton.  

And here’s the opening lines from The Months by Sara Coleridge). It’s a very short couplet, but seems to be full of joy, and to capture the excitement of snow falling – justlike Honor Appleton’s painting,

January brings the snow, Makes our feet and fingers glow.

Just as enchanting is New Year arriving, in Alison Uttley’s The Country Child, which I love now as much as I did when I was young.

The New Year hung in the air, hovering with wings outstretched above the farm, carrying joy and sorrow in its feathers, waiting, waiting for the big clock to strike twelve. Dan stood outside with his coat-collar up, shivering in the steely air, staring up at the sky and across the vast dark to the hills. The New Year shook and swooped down as the clock began to strike. Dan opened the door and entered as the last stroke died away, and the year flew in, filling the house at once, from the empty attics to the dairy where the milk froze in the pans.

The New Year hung in the air, hovering with wings outstretched above the farm, carrying joy and sorrow in its feathers, waiting, waiting for the big clock to strike twelve. Dan stood outside with his coat-collar up, shivering in the steely air, staring up at the sky and across the vast dark to the hills. The New Year shook and swooped down as the clock began to strike. Dan opened the door and entered as the last stroke died away, and the year flew in, filling the house at once, from the empty attics to the dairy where the milk froze in the pans.

Finally, there’s the strange landscape in Sylvia Plath’s New Year on Dartmoor – ‘awe full’ rather than awful perhaps. I don’t always like Plath’s work, she’s a little too dark or me, but I think this is wonderful.

This is newness : every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

Ballet Shoes

Well, I was all set to resume normal service (or as normal as it ever gets), when I had to dash off to Mum, because she hurt her shoulder, and was in a great deal of pain, and even more muddled than usual. The carers, who visit her four times a day, are wonderful – we would not manage without them -but she obviously needed some full-time TLC, so I had a lovely (but stressful) week with her, and we looked at old photos, and she talked about her childhood, and we both sat and read, with plenty of breaks for tea and cake!

The cover of Mum’s 1981 Puffin edition fell off, but it looked like this, and she must have acquired it at some stage to replace an earlier version. I like this one because it shows a young girl at the bar, in her practice tunic – and it isn’t pink!

Highlight of the week was Noel Steatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, which we’ve both read and re-read numerous times, even though it’s a children’s book. Mum, who is happiest with old favourites that she knows almost by heart, was nine when this published in 1936, and remembers reading it by the light of the fire and an oil lamp (they had no electricity in their cottage). The print in her old edition is too small for her these days, so I curled up with that after buying her a nice, new copy (with the wonderful original drawings by Streatfeild’s sister Ruth Gervis). It is, as Mum says, a ‘Feel Good’ book, with a Happy Ending, which is what she likes. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes it pretty perfect for the troubled times we are living through – and anything which lifts the spirits has to be a Good Thing.

Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are babies when they are ‘collected’ by Great-Uncle Matthew as he travels the world hunting for fossils (it wouldn’t happen today, observes my mother). Pauline, the eldest, is found floating on a lifebelt when a ship hits an iceberg. Petrova is rescued a couple of years later, because her Russian parents are dead and there is no-one to look after her. And a couple of years after that Gum (Great Uncle Matthew) takes Posy on, as her widowed ballet dancer mother has no time for a baby. The three girls live at Gum’s house in the Cromwell Road where they are cared for by his great-niece Sylvia ( Garnie, short for Guardian), her old nurse Nana, Cook, and Ellen the housemaid.

Tapping away.. Some of the junior class, in their romper suits, learning to
tap dance. (Illustration for Ballet Shoes by Ruth Gervis)

The years pass, Gum fails to return from his travels, and the money is running out, so Garnie takes in lodgers – and the girls’ lives change forever. Retired teachers Dr Jakes and Dr Smith (the ‘lady doctors’) provide lessons, while dance teacher Miss Theo Dane  arranges for them to attend the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training free of charge. Pauline turns out to be a talented actress, while Posy has the potential to be an outstanding ballet dancer. Petrova is a competent dancer, but hates the stage, and is only interested in engines, cars and planes. She is befriended by Mr Simpson, the third lodger, whose fascination with all things mechanical matches her own, and he lets her help at his garage (in case you wonder, he has a wife, but she doesn’t do or say a lot, although she seems happy to help with picnics and treats for the girls).

Petrova, in what are described as jeans – but I think we would call them dungarees.
(Illustration by Ruth Gervis)

Central to the book is the dance and stage school run by Madame Fidolia, once a world-famous ballerina in Tsarist Russia. Streatfeild gives us some lovely accounts of the school, the lessons, performances and auditions. The girls are anxious to contribute to the household’s shaky finances, but in order to work on stage (from the age of 12) they must undergo the trauma of applying to London County Council for licences, and there are strict conditions governing hours of work, and the amount of time that must be spent on their normal education. At 14, children could leave school for full time work, which seems incredibly young.

The book also has some fabulous descriptions of clothes – their ordinary garments, the outfits required by the dance and stage school, the struggle to find something suitable for auditions, and the garments worn for performances.

(Illustration by Ruth Gervis)

The list of stage school clothes includes: ‘rompers, two each, black-patent ankle strap shoes, and white tarlatan dresss,  two each, with white sandal shoes, and white knickers, two pairs, all frills’, all made by Nana apart, of course, from the shoes. In addition they must each two double-breasted, high-collared, black sateen ‘overalls’ – a kind of belted shirt, adapted from a Russian design. And on top of all that, they also needed two rough face-towels, clearly marked.

For Pauline’s first audition, for Alice in Wonderland, the girls borrow £5 from Mr Simpson for a black chiffon velvet dress with white collar and cuffs (from Harrods), because her old velvet is too tight and darned on the elbow, her kilted skirt and jumper is not suitable, and she cannot wear her white organdie dress with a blue ribbon at 11 o’clock on a November morning! She is very good, and gets the part – but knows the dress, and her blond hair and pretty face carried her through at the expense of fellow pupil Winifred, who is the best all-round student the school has ever had, but is plain and badly dressed.

Mum loves the details of clothes and ballet costumes: they spark memories of things she made for me when I was a child, and the ballet outfits she ran up on her Singer sewing machine for my weekly lessons, summer shows and pantomimes. There were short, blue cotton tunics, with matching knickers (with elastic round the legs – very handy for storing a hankie!), and white tutus, with tight-fitting satin bodices, and yards and yards and yards of layered, gathered net forming a ‘sticky-outy’ short skirt. And for performances on stage she made wings and head dresses from wire coat hangers and tinsel. and brightly coloured net, chiffon or taffeta skirts that tied over the tutu, and little, elasticated puff sleeves in the same materials, that we pushed to the top of our arms, and they were horribly scratchy and itchy, and made my arms red and sore! According to Mum. most of the fabrics were a nightmare to stitch, because they were slippery, and some frayed really, really badly, but she enjoyed making them – and I loved wearing them, even though they weren’t always very comfortable! We ended up looking through a box of old photos, which was a nice way to round things off.

Christmas is coming! Pauline, Petrova and Posy making paper chains for the festive season.

Having got a little side-tracked, I suppose I should really return to Pauline, Petrova and Posy. Alongside their academic lessons and stage work they learn that having a name with no family can be an adventure. They can make of the name – and their lives – anything they want. They also learn that freedom and independence carry responsibility. That may make them sound priggish, but they’re not – they can be as naughty and stroppy as any other children. Streatfeild is, as ever, really good at expressing what it feels like to be a child. She leaves us with a lovely, happy ending, but I shall leave you with a bit of a cliff-hanger. Even with help from the boarders, there is no longer enough cash, so Garnie is forced to sell the house… At the same time Posy is offered a place to train with the great ballet master Manoff, in Czechoslovakia, but where will they get the money from, and who will go with her to look after her? Will Petrova ever make her dream come true and learn to fly a plane? Will Pauline sign a lucrative Hollywood contract, or pursue her ambition to be a serious stage actress? And what about Gum? What has happened to him, and where is he…

The 1956 Children’s Club!

I joined The 1956 Book Club just before it closes, so rather than reading something new (which would take time),I’m focusing on books I’ve read in the past. Today, I’m taking a quick look at three children’s stories, all published in 1956.

First up is The Fairy Doll, by Rumer Godden, which I read as a child and thought was truly magical – and I still do! Each Christmas, Fairy Doll is taken from her box, unwrapped, and carefully placed on the top of the tree. We know exactly what she looks like.”She was six inches high and dressed in a white gauze dress with beads that sparkled; she had silver wings, and a narrow silver crown on her dark hair, with a glass dewdrop in front that sparkled too; in one of her hands she had a silver wand, and on her feet were silver shoes – not painted, stitched,” Godden tells us. Our own Christmas Fairy was pink and gold, with fair hair and painted shoes – how I envied Godden’s family for their doll with stitched footwear.

One day the fairy falls from the tree and lands by Elizabeth, the smallest, youngest child, who is always being teased because she gets things wrong, and breaks things, and drops things and can’t ride a bicycle. Great Grandmother gives the doll to Elizabeth, telling her: “I was just going to say you needed a good fairy.”

And it seems Fairy Doll does have magical powers, for she helps Elizabeth find the courage and confidence to succeed with all the things she thought she couldn’t do, and to find her place in the world. It’s a very short, very sweet tale, which captures the joys and fears of childhood without being patronising or sentimental. And it has a lovely, happy ending – I’m a real sucker for a happy ending!

And there’s another happy ending for the lovable dogs in Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmations, though there are trials and tribulations to be overcome before pets and humans reach that point. If you only know this from the Disney cartoon, then please, please read the book, because it’s just brilliant. I’m sure most people know the story, but basically nice, kind, decent Mr and Mrs Dearly and their Dalmatian dogs Pongo and Missis, are devastated when their 15 puppies are stolen by Mrs Dearly’s old school friend Cruella de Vil, who is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and is collecting Dalmatian pups to make a fur coat… So the dogs set off to rescue their puppies, aided by a nation-wide canine network (the Twilight Barking).

It may sound daft, but it’s an utterly enchanting book, which will have you sitting on the edge of your seat and biting your nails as you urge the four-legged heroes on! As a rule I don’t like books about animals, but I make an exception for this (along with Wind in the Willows and Watership Down).

Finally, there’s The Last Battle, by CS Lewis, which brings the Narnia Chronicles to an end. I adore the others, especially The Silver Chair, but I’ve always had problems with his one – I sometimes wonder if my response would be different if I’d had a religious upbringing. As a child, I knew a lot about Karl Marx, the history of the Labour Party and the development of Trades Unions, but very little (if anything!) about Christian theology. Consequently, I suspect that the books being Christian allegories passed me by.

I’ve always found it tricky to get my head round the fact they are all killed in train accident, and up joyfully alive in the ‘real’ world, of which our world is nothing more than a shadow – a Platonic concept which doesn’t necessarily spring to mind when considering Christianity.

And I’ve always been horrified by the portrayal of the older Susan, so we only see her through the eyes of the characters as they explain her absence. Susan is no longer a Friend of Narnia, regards their previous adventures as games, and is only interested in lipsticks, nylons and invitations. Re-reading it after a gap of I don’t know how many years (I never read it to my daughters, though they loved the others), I’ve decided that the lipsticks and nylons are just window dressing, and the important thing is Susan’s loss of faith. She no longer believes in Aslan and Narnia, and that’s why she can’t be ‘saved’ with the others.

And on this quick re-read I felt more strongly than ever that neither the writing nor the storyline are as good as the other six. I am sure many people will disagree, but I think that here Lewis let his message override everything else – I feel the same way about Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.

The 1956 Club is organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and you will find more information on their websites, together with posts from other participants,

The Lonely Londoners

Penguin edition of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners

OK, this is cheating really, because it’s a review I wrote way back in 2012, but I haven’t felt much like writing over the last few months, and have found it hard to concentrate on anything, but I suddenly realised I’d forgotten this week is The 1956 Book Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and I’d like to join in if I can. Who knows,it may be the prompt I need to get the blog up and running again.

Anyway, here goes!

On a grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all, but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

The ‘fellar’ is Henry Oliver, nicknamed Sir Galahad, who has no luggage, and is clad only in a light tropical suit – but claims he doesn’t feel the cold. He’s one of characters who drift through The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon, talking of home while they look for a room to live, a job, food, drink, and women.   I spotted this slender book in the tiny classics section at my local library, picked it up to have a browse (I’d never heard of the author before), and was intrigued. It’s difficult to know how to describe it it, because you can’t categorise it. The characters are wonderfully drawn, but there’s no plot, and it doesn’t seem like a novel in the conventional sense. Although various incidents are described, it’s not really picaresque, and it’s not quite stream of consciousness either. However, one thing is certain, I thought it was one of the most poetic pieces of writing I’ve come across. It’s written in a kind of Creole, or patois, following the rhythms of Caribbean speech, but is easy to follow (unlike the speech patterns of the slaves in Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’, which I found stilted).   This was written in 1956, eight years after the first Jamaican passengers disembarked from the Windrush. The author, who was born in Trinidad, was a journalist, novelist and poet, who became known as the founding father of modern black writing in London. Here he tells the tale of the early immigrants, lured to the Mother Land by the promise of a better life. There’s no back story to their lives, and no resolution for the future: they arrive, they dream of home, they stay. Selvon never judges his characters, and neither should we: they simply are, and it is not up to us to think they should be other than they are.   London is an unreal city (shades of TS Eliot here I think) where Moses, a veteran black Londoner, shows newcomers how to survive in this alien environment. He is the central figure, and we see life largely through his eyes.  

‘The only thing,’ Galahad say when they was in the tube going to the Water, ‘is that I find when talk smoke coming out of my mouth.’ ‘Is so, it is in this country,’ Moses say. ‘Sometimes the words freeze and you have to melt it to hear the talk.’   That last sentence is wonderful, and the men, and their friends, certainly encounter some frozen words in a land where there is no heat from the sun, and where people are suspicious of these newcomers. Racism is already a very real threat, and Galahad makes an impassioned plea for tolerance, that recalls Shylock’s speech in A Merchant of Venice.   Lord, what it is we want that the white people and them find it so hard to give? A little work, a little food, a little place to sleep. We not asking for the sun, or the moon. We only want to get by, we don’t even want to get on.   Galahad, a sharp dresser, with an eye for a pretty woman, finds that when things are going well, life is good.   This is London, this is the life Oh Lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world.  

But life can be hard and cruel. One cold winter’s day, when he has no money and no food, he kills a pigeon, and shares a meal with Moses. Elsewhere, one of their friends traps gulls to cook and eat.   At times there’s an almost Biblical feel to the language and action, for Moses, Galahad, Cap, Harris, Bart and Tolroy (and his large extended family who join him in England, uninvited) are exiles in a strange land, cast adrift from all that they know and understand. The men support each other. They chat and spin tales, and quarrel, and fight, and chat some more. The years pass, and though they still talk of returning home they know, and so do we, that even if they could afford it they wouldn’t go because, for all its faults, they have fallen in love with London.

What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else? What it is that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything – sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. Why it is, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the government, say all kind of things about this and that, why it is, that in the end, everybody cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?

Agatha in Mesopotamia

51cLgdgyOeLMore Agatha Christie – not fiction this time, but her recollections of the time she spent in Mesopotamia with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowen. I spotted Come, Tell Me How You Live whilst browsing the internet, and it conjured up memories of long-ago history lessons when we learned about Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, home of the Sumerians with their mysterious cuneiform writing, and their great epic poem,The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s earliest literary/religious texts.  I wasn’t even sure what replaced Mesopotamia, but I gather it covered most of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait, as well as parts of Syria and Turkey.

Agatha first visited the area in 1930, when she was invited to join Leonard Woolley and his wife on a dig at Ur. Within months, she married his assistant Max Mallowan, and worked alongside him on five excavations in the years before the outbreak of war. She was obviously fascinated by the region, its people, and its history. Early on she tells us she is often asked how she lived in Mesopotamia, and she responds:

“It is the question, too, that Archaeology asks of the Past—Come, tell me how you lived? And with picks and spades and baskets we find the answer. ‘These were our cooking pots.’ ‘In this big silo we kept our grain.’ ‘With these bone needles we sewed our clothes.’ ‘These were our houses, this our bathroom, here our system of sanitation!’ ‘Here, in this pot, are the gold earrings of my daughter’s dowry.’ ‘Here, in this little jar, is my make-up.’ ‘All these cook-pots are of a very common type. You’ll find them by the hundred. We get them from the Potter at the corner. Woolworth’s, did you say? Is that what you call him in your time?’

She’s not bothered about palaces and kings. Her interest is in the lives of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, and the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets, and I can relate to that – take me to a stately home or castle, and I head for the kitchens and servants’ quarters! I would have liked to see far more about the history of Mesopotamia and the archaeological finds that were unearthed (many of them photographed, cleaned and labelled by Agatha). When she writes about the past and the relics left behind, her interest and curiosity shines through:

I pick up one find on the slopes of Tell Baindar. It appears to be a small shell, but on examining it I see that it is actually made of clay and has traces of paint on it. It intrigues me, and I speculate vainly on who made it and why. Did it adorn a building, or a cosmetic box, or a dish? It is a sea shell. Who thought or knew of the sea here so far inland all those thousands of years ago? What pride of imagination and craftsmanship went into the making of it?

Just think what she could have done if she’d turned her hand to historical novels rather than crime stories!. What she does give us is a lively account of  her day-to-day life.

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Max Mallowen, Agatha Christie and Leonard Woolley on a dig in Mesopotamia.

To begin at the beginning, her picture of shopping for clothes and other supplies is an absolute hoot. She is humiliated to discover she is viewed as OS (Outsize) and is shunted around various departments – Cruising, Tropical, and ‘suitable wear for our Empire Builders’. it reminded me a little of poor old William Boot, in Scoop, kitting himself out for Africa, the main difference being that Agatha is obviously very practical. She wants comfortable, washable, lightweight garments (including a felt hat which won’t come off). She also buys pencils, and several fountain and stylographic pens – in the desert apparently, pens either spout ink over everything, or refuse to work at all.  And watches are equally temperamental, plus they get lost, or broken, so she buys lots of those too. 

I feel it’s worth reproducing her comments on archaeologists, books and suitcases – remember, Kindles hadn’t been invented!

One thing can safely be said about an archaeological packing. It consists mainly of books. What books to take, what books can be taken, what books there are room for, what books can (with agony!) be left behind. I am firmly convinced that all archaeologists pack in the following manner: They decide on the maximum number of suitcases that a long-suffering Wagon Lit Company will permit them to take. They then fill these suitcases to the brim with books. They then, reluctantly, take out a few books, and fill in the space thus obtained with shirt, pyjamas, socks, etc.

Finally they are off: a train from Victoria, and a boat across the Channel to Calais where they board the Simplon Orient Express and are transported all the way across Europe to Stamboul, and then on to Alep and Beyrout by local trains. I love Agatha’s descriptions of train journeys. Somehow she captures the excitement of rail travel – the oddities of fellow passengers, the railway staff and customs officials (she fears her tin of bug powder makes them think she is drug smuggler). Then there the platform clocks with conflicting times, perplexing currencies, smoke from the engine and the motion of train:

I like its tempo, which, starting Allegro con furore, swaying and rattling and hurling one from side to side in its mad haste to leave Calais and the Occident, gradually slows down in a rallentando as it proceeds eastwards till it becomes definitely legato.

There is no railway beyond Beyrout so Agatha and Max acquire a cook, a chauffeur, a second-hand lorry with ‘optimistic’ bodywork and an old taxi to take them, their luggage, and supplies to their destination, along with the expedition architect, and the foreman. Again, I really liked Agatha’s travel writing:

Yesterday we were travelling within the confines of civilization. Today, abruptly, we leave civilization behind. Within an hour or two there is no green to be seen anywhere. Everything is brown sandy waste. {…} There is something frightening, and yet fascinating, about this vast world denuded of vegetation. It is not flat like the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, you climb up and down. It feels a little as though you had become a grain of sand among the sand-castles you built on the beach as a child.

They head out into the wilderness, collecting sherds of pottery and searching for a mound (or ‘tell’) which could be suitable for excavation. And that’s not the end of the story, because once a site is earmarked, permits have to be obtained. supplies and equipment provided, local men employed, and somewhere found to live. In the 1930s Syria was still ruled by the French, and throughout their time in the East  dealings with officials, at the bank, and elsewhere, are long and complicate – in fact, nothing ever seems to be straight forward.

But Agatha doesn’t seem to mind roughing it when she has to, and is unfazed by odd food or idiosyncratic plumbing and sanitation – but is less sanguine about bugs and beasties! There are some lovely descriptions of the landscape – I think she really loved Mesopotamia and, in an odd sort of way, I think she loved the people as well. However, she is very much a product of her time and class, and she and Max are very patronising, and very paternalistic towards the Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turks and Yezidi ‘devil-worshippers’, treating their work-force much as they would a group of squabbling children, who are very likable, but very naughty, and very stupid. I would have to say they’re also pretty disparaging about the other Europeans they meet and work with. I think there was a tendency for the English to regard all foreigners as dirty, lazy, sly, and ignorant!

But other nations seem just as bad.  There’s no consideration for local people and their customs and beliefs, and no attempt to improve their living conditions or provide education, or health care or anything like that. I guess the English (and the French) were not prepared to acknowledge that this was not actually their country. I was horrified at the way the archaeologists lease a group of houses while their own (much posher) home is being built, and seem to think it’s no business of their’s what happens to the 11 families who live there. 

Notwithstanding that, I enjoyed the book – it gave me a different view of Agatha Christie, as well as providing a glimpse of life in a culture that has vanished.

Murder in Mesopotamia, featuring Hercule Poirot, must have been inspired by Christie’s time in Mesopotamia.



Gosh, where do I start on this one? First, a huge thank you to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for introducing me to Nikolai Gogol, who I thought would be ‘difficult’ and well outside my usual comfort zone, but turned out to be enormously enjoyable and very accessible. The five short stories gathered together in And the Earth Will Sit On the Moon, from Pushkin Press, were just WONDERFUL. Gogol can be funny, sad, satirical, witty, lyrical… . The book kept me laughing and crying on a slow-moving train to Newcastle – my fellow passengers must have thought I was mad! We passed through mile after mile of flooded countryside, with water stretching as far as the eye could see, on either side of the track, and I heaved a sigh of relief on arrival at my destination an hour later than scheduled, after a journey that lasted more than four hours! In the circumstances I needed some pretty spectacular writing to hold my attention, and Gogol delivered in bucketloads. He is one the most extraordinary authors I have ever read. I shall try and write a little bit about each story, but I love them so much I’m not sure I can do them justice.

The Nose, the first tale in the collection, is positively surreal – magic realism perhaps, long before the term was even coined (it was published in 1832). We are in St Petersburg and barber Ivan Yakovlevich finds a nose inside a fresh-baked loaf of bread. And not just any old nose – it’s the nose belonging to Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, whom he shaves every Wednesday and Sunday. Yakovlevich, a great drinker, fears he might have sliced the nose off without noticing, so he wraps it up and throws it in the river…

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Kovalyov realises his nose is missing! Gogol tells us: “Kovalyov was a Collegiate Assessor of the Caucasian variety. He had held this rank for only two years, which was why he couldn’t forget it for a single minute; and to give himself an air of greater nobility and gravity, he would never refer to himself as Collegiate Assessor, but always as Major.” And he adds: “So now the reader can judge for himself the state that this Major must have been in when, in the place of his moderate and not unattractive nose, he saw an idiotic space that was flat and smooth.” Then, in front of a ‘certain house’ an ‘inexplicable phenomenon’ occurs right before his eyes.

A carriage drew up before the front entrance, its doors opened and, ducking his head, a gentleman in uniform sprang out of it and ran up the steps. Picture Kovalyov’s horror and sheer astonishment when he realized that this was his very own nose! The world seemed to turn upside down at the sight of this extraordinary spectacle. He felt he could barely stay on his feet but he resolved, come what may, to wait until the gentleman returned to the carriage; he was shaking feverishly. Two minutes later the nose did indeed come back out. His uniform boasted gold embroidery and a tall standing collar; he was wearing suede trousers, with a sword down one side. One could infer from his plumed hat that he held the rank of State Counsellor. Indeed, everything suggested that he was off to pay someone a visit. 

I won’t reveal the ending, but what follows is very, very funny, and very, very silly, as Kovalyov and his run-away nose become the talk of the city, and people flock to areas where the nose has (allegedly) been sighted.

Diary of a Madman is about a clerk who thinks he’s the King of Spain and is locked in an asylum. It’s quite heart-rending as you watch his disintegration from someone who is a little odd (well, more than a little if I am honest) into full-scale madness. It’s not as harrowing as it sounds – there is a lot of humour – but I wondered how much it reflects Gogol’s own struggles with mental illness, especially at the end, when in a brief moment of lucidity he realises he is ill and appeals to his mother for help: “Sweet mother, save your poor son! Shed a tear on his sick head! See how they torment him! Press your poor fatherless child to your breast! The world has no place for him! Everyone chases him away! Sweet mother! Pity your sick child!”

The Overcoat – this is the one that made me cry. Here we learn that:

…in a certain Department there served a certain clerk, a clerk whom nobody could describe as especially remarkable, who was a bit short, a bit pocked, a bit carroty and even, by the looks of him, a bit blind, with a widow’s peak, wrinkles on both cheeks, and a general complexion that was positively haemorrhoidal… Well, he had the Petersburg climate to thank for all that.

Known as Acacky Acackyevich, he is a lowly clerk, who copies documents and has little money and no friends or family. He never stops to think about his clothes, but eventually his old overcoat can no longer be repaired – the fabric is so worn that the air passes right through it. So he scrimps and saves to pay Petrovich the tailor to make another. The new coat is a thing of beauty and, for a brief moment, it changes Acacky Acackyevich’s life, but his new-found joy is not to last…

Old-World Landowners is a charming, nostalgic look at the past, and is beautifully written – a kind of prose poem to a vanished way of life. Gogol ‘recollects’ Afanasy Ivanovich Tovstogub and Pulkheria Ivanovna, his wife, telling us about the couple, their home, their friends, and their their servants. I’m not sure if this couple actually existed, or whether they; are composites of people he knew, but the story is told with great warmth and love, with lots of detail about the small, everyday things that others might overlook and think too unimportant to mention. Take doors for example:

But the most remarkable thing in the house was the sounds of the doors. From first light, their singing filled the home. I cannot say what caused them to sing—perhaps it was the hinges that had rusted through, or perhaps the workman who made them had hidden some secret mechanism inside them—but every door, remarkably enough, had its own special voice: the bedroom door sang in the thinnest of sopranos, the door to the dining room was a hoarse bass, while the one in the outer room produced a strange half-chatter, half-groan so that, if you listened attentively, you would be sure to make out the words “Help, I’m freezing!”

Finally, there is The Carriage. A cavalry regiment arrives in a small, quiet town, bringing noise, colour and excitement. There is much feasting (and drinking) and at one event the General shows off his beautiful horse. Chertokutsky, a local landowner, not to be outdone, boasts about his expensive carriage which, he says, is as a light as a feather. “When you sit down in it, Your Excellency, it’s as though, if I may be so bold, as though you are being rocked in the cradle by your nanny!”And, he adds, it’s so roomy it will hold ten bottles of rum and twenty pounds of tobacco, and the pockets could accommodate an entire ox!

You’d think that last statement might alert the regimental officers to the fact that that the landowner may have been a little economical with the truth, but they accept an offer to have lunch at his home the following day and take a look at this non-existent wonder of transportation!

As a rule I feel that not having studied literature at degree level has freed me to read what I want when I want, and to form my own opinions. But there are times when I regret my lack of knowledge, and this is one of them. I would love to know more about Gogol (there must be a good biography somewhere), and I want to know how he fits into the literary canon, in Russia, and in the wider world. Somehow, almost 200 years after these stories were written, he seems very modern, and as far as I can see nothing quite like them had been written before, and it was a long time before anything quite like them did appear. 

Where did these stories spring from? Were they purely imaginary? Products of his own fragile mental state? Re-tellings of old folk tales? A means of highlighting the hypocrisy of pompous petty bureaucrats? I thought his writing seemed closer to oral traditions – his voice comes across very clearly, and he speaks directly to his readers – I could almost feel him pausing as he awaits our response! I may be way off the mark, but I’m sure authors like Mikhail Bulgarov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter and Isabel Allende must have been influenced by  Gogol. 

*I wrote this a couple of weeks back, after I’d been to visit my younger daughter, and before I stayed with my mother, and I thought I’d scheduled it to appear, but obviously not!

Murder in the Mill-Race

Murder at the Mill-Race

Doctor Raymond Ferens, his health ruined by his wartime experiences, and his wife Anne move to Milham in the Moor, an isolated village high on Exmoor. It seems idyllic, but soon they find themselves caught up in a murder mystery when Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found drowned in the mill stream. Villagers, who generally regard Sister Monica as ‘a wonder’ claim she must have come over dizzy and fallen off the bridge. But Sgt Peel (from the nearby town of Milham  Prior) is not so sure. He is suspicious because there has been another unexplained drowning (of a maid from the children’s home) in the same place. And there are puzzling aspects to the case. So Scotland Yard is drafted in to help, in the shape of Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves.

Murder at the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery, by ECR Lorac, is one of those lovely British Library Crime Classics, with an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, who edits the series, and has a very nice blog here. I’d never been a huge fan of crime fiction until I discovered these BLCC ‘Golden Age’ murder mysteries, and I think I’ve loved all the ones I’ve read. There’s not too much blood and gore, which is what puts me off many modern crime novels, which sometimes seem almost to be a celebration  of violence. These bygone authors (who were immensely popular in their day), produced well crafted tales, with believable characters, and their detectives (policemen as well as amateur sleuths) rely on their brains (rather than intuition) to unravel the clues, which is something I always appreciate. And their portrayal of the life and times they write about is nearly always brilliant – Golden Age crime writers are really good on domestic detail the social set-up, and the way people respond to events, and that’s especially true in this book.

Anyway, I digress. Our Scotland Yard detectives quickly discover that Sister Monica (or Miss Monica Emily Torrington, as she should really be known) was neither as wonderful nor as well-liked as people would have them believe. A post mortem reveals traces of alcohol in her blood, yet she was a strict tee-totaller, and her secret savings amount to far more than her meagre wage – so where does the money come from? But no-one is willing to admit any fault in Sister Monica. And if they have their suspicions about the identity of the killer and the reason for the murder they’re not admitting that either. Lorac tells us:

“Never make trouble in the village,” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbour’s sins and shortcomings, but you should never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.”

Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves pursue their inquiries kindly, but firmly, and are quite prepared to undertake practical investigations to prove their suspicions – unwittingly aided by Dr Ferens and land agent John Sanderson, who carry out their own experiment in a bid to discover what really happened.

Gradually a clearer picture emerges of Miss Torrington, who adopted the title ‘Sister’, along with an air of religious humility, and a ‘long dark cloak and veil  which hospital nurses had worn as uniform in the early nineteen hundreds’. A capable nurse, she managed the children’s home efficiently and economically for almost 30 years, and while the youngsters in her care were not loved, they were not ill-treated. But by the time Raymond Ferens and his wife meet her she is ‘ageing, domineering, narrow-minded’ and has been in the job too long. Miss Braithwaite, one of the few people to speak out against Sister Monica, tells the police:

She was one of those women who cover a mean and assertive mind with a cloak of humility, and there was something abnormal about her, almost pathological. Also, she was malicious gossip, an eavesdropper  and a raker-up of other people’s secrets.”

There’s a host of believable characters, and I like the way you get a glimpse of their personalities, as well as a descriptions of their physical appearance, each of them a power within their own own sphere, like Mrs Yeo who runs the Post Office, the village shop, the WI, the Mothers’ Union, and all the other ‘worthy efforts’. But the social niceties of the village hierarchy must always be observed – it would take a brave person to treat Lady Ridding as a social equal! On the whole I rather like Lady Ridding, whose aristocratic charm hides a shrewd business brain, and I love the way the London detectives remain polite, but steadfastly refuse to be influenced by her social standing! However, she is chairman of the committee which runs the children’s home, and I couldn’t quite understand why she closed her eyes to Sister Monica’s oddities.

There is quite a bit of dialect in this novel, which I don’t always like, but here it somehow rings true, isn’t patronising, and seems in keeping – as I was reading I could hear that lovely slow, soft-spoken Devonshire burr. And I liked the way Milham in the Moor ‘ten miles from anywhere and nothing but the moor beyond, all the way to sea’ was as much a character as the people – there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape, and I can see how its isolation could make villagers band together against outsiders.

Overall I really enjoyed this, and I didn’t guess who the killer was – but then, as I’ve said before, I very rarely do. My main quibble is that we kept being told that some women go a bit peculiar as they get older, especially when they’ve been in a position of power for a long time, and they become very dominating, and Sister Monica is one of these. She was certainly very unpleasant, and the more we found out about her, the more unpleasant she became, and I know this was published in 1952, and you have to put things in perspective, but it’s a spurious argument.

Why is it that women in positions of authority, like hospital matrons, headmistresses, chairwomen of committees and so on, are so frequently portrayed as power-crazed, domineering harpies, who should be retired, or removed from their positions? But men’s right to abuse their position, or hang on to power when their abilities are no longer up to it is rarely questioned. Sorry about the rant. I could go on about this for a lot longer, but it didn’t actually spoil my enjoyment of the book – I just felt I had to say something!

Miss Carter and the Ifrit

Miss Carter and the IfritTo look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster. That she wore her undistinguished clothes well, had a warm, human smile, was fond of the theatre and had never occasioned anyone a moment’s trouble or worry, were minor virtues which had never got her very far.

Georgina herself now accepted her state and age without apparent hatred or remorse; in fact she assured herself she was rather glad to be approaching fifty. It was, she felt, a comfortable age, an age past expectation, hope or surprise. Nothing very shattering, nothing very devastating could happen to one after that age. It was a placid, safe harbour. One could indeed then spend the rest of one’s life fairly comfortably with a job in the Censorship for the duration, a smallish private income (which, unfortunately, tended to get smaller) and a flat in an old-fashioned block in St. John’s Wood, untroubled and untormented by any violent emotion or gross physical change. 

Miss Carter and the Ifrit, by Susan Alice Kerby seems to be very popular at the moment, and I can see why – because it is utterly delightful. It’s another of those forgotten books brought back to life by Dean Street Press under the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint and it’s an absolute winner. 

It is a bleak and chilly November day and Miss Carter has been without heat for a fortnight when she spots a man selling wooden blocks in the street below her flat… So she buys load. That evening she enjoys an egg (a fresh one!) that a friend has given her, and sits by her blazing fire knitting socks for her nephew before settling down to read a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope. She adds a block of wood to the fire and:

The next thing she knew was that there was a loud explosion. The room seemed filled with smoke. The floor rocked. She was hurled from her chair. Her last thought before losing consciousness was: “I didn’t hear the warning—”

When she comes to everything is normal, but there is a strong smell of sulphur in the air, and…

…there on the floor, protruding from the far side of the tallboy, were what appeared to be a pair of slippers. They were large, they were red, they were leather, they were obviously masculine—and they had curiously pointed toes that curled back over what might or might not be an instep, depending upon whether the slippers were occupied or not.

She discovers the slippers are occupied, by a ‘very large, very dark man’.

His clothes were quite extraordinary. He wore a pair of curious green breeches, full at the top and narrowing down to fit tightly over his calves. His wide cut coat was high buttoned and made of heavy ruby red satin, embroidered embroidered with strange designs in gold and silver thread. On his head was an elaborate coral coloured turban ornamented with a bright bejewelled feather.

This must be Sinbad, in a CH Ward illustration, but I think Abu Shihab (aka Joe) would have been dressed a little like this, and I love his red shoes and the turban with it’s curved feather. I found it at Pook Press, which is a lovely site.

His name is Abu Shiháb, and he is an Ifrit (a being a bit like a Genie) who was imprisoned in a tree thousands of years ago. Now Miss Carter has freed him and he is her devoted slave. Miss Carter (Georgina) is not sure whether he is a criminal, a spy, or a madman – or whether it is she herself who is mad, or ill. Despite her misgivings, she lets him stay, and calls him Joe, after Stalin (the book is set during the final months of the war, when Stalin was still regarded as a benevolent ally), and an odd kind of relationship relationship develops, with neither of them understanding the world the other has come from. 

If you read and loved the Arabian Nights when you were a child, then you will love this, and will be familiar with the Ifrit’s magical powers and his style of speech. I think Miss Carter’s childhood reading must have been much more practical and prosaic than mine, because she is completely bemused when he addresses her as ‘princess, who is as lovely as the young moon’, or ‘Mistress of the Secrets of Sulayman’, or ‘moonflower’. She has trouble explaining that we don’t have slaves in England, but she appreciates the benefits provided by his supernatural powers. Take this for example:

And the tray was burdened with curiously shaped, vividly coloured dishes, and these dishes were filled with strange and wonderful fruits and sweetmeats. There were pomegranates, glowing like pale garnets in a deep blue bowl. Frilled by green leaves and on a flat yellow dish was a bunch of black grapes powdered with silver, each grape perfect and the size of a small plum. Warm, brown dates contrasted with fat bright oranges. Purple figs and smooth-skinned apricots made a pyramid on a base of emerald green glass. Flat sugared cakes and squares of a substance resembling Turkish Delight spilled out of oval shaped turquoise boxes. Small stemmed dishes held in their chalices mounds of sorbet which gave off a faint lemony perfume. There were several long throated flagons of emerald glass set in frames of beaten silver, with goblets to match.

Isn’t that just wonderful? It’s as good as Christina Rossetti (think of all those luscious fruits in The Goblin Market) or Keats ( the feast that Porphyro prepares for Madeline).

There are misunderstandings and complications with friends and work colleagues when she is distracted by Joe – fortunately he can vanish when required, but Georgina finds it increasingly hard to explain the luxuries she acquires! People are aware that exotic cakes and posh frocks are unavailable because of rationing, so they are bound to wonder how she gets these things.

As the story progresses she and Joe both change. He becomes more and more human, determined to use his powers for the good of mankind – he even tries to intervene in the war, but finds Hitler protected by an Ifrit even more powerful than himself. And he turns Georgina’s life around, so in an odd way she becomes more human too. She admits she has never really ‘lived’, sleepwalking through life, never doing what she really wanted to. Now, instead of just existing, she enjoys life. She has a new-found confidence, and when she dons a couture dress a surprisingly attractive woman is revealed. She even goes travelling with Joe (flying without a plane!), and has a ‘chance’ meeting with the man she loved when she was young, at which point you can see that this fairy tale story will have the requisite happy ending – thanks in no small part to Joe.

I loved this. The contrast between the richness Joe brings to Georgina’s life and the bleakness and deprivation of war-torn Britain must have made it very appealing at the time it was published, and I think it retains it charm, and still has something relevant to say about fear, and freedom, and finding yourself. It’s beautifully written, the characters are well drawn  and believable, and the story was wonderful. It’s tender, sweet and funny, a light-hearted, enchanting fantasy that is grounded in the real world in way that makes it very, very credible. 

More Miss Marple (Take Two)

A Murder is announced

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

This, as I’m sure many of you will know, is the opening of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced’, and you will deduce, quite rightly, that I am still reading my way through the Queen of Crime’s best-known works. This small paragraph in the local paper is the only warning that Chipping Cleghorn residents receive before their lives are turned upside down by a series of vicious murders, and everyone comes under suspicion. But on this particular Friday morning at the end of October they have no inkling of what is to come. Mystified and intrigued by the little notice in the Gazette, they turn up at Little Paddocks, expecting to take part in some kind of murder game.

They are welcomed by Miss Letitia Blacklock Aunt Letty), who lives at the house with her old schoolfriend Dora Bunner (Bunny); Mitzi, a foreign refugee who acts as her cook/housekeeper, and her young cousins Patrick and Julia, neither of whom seem to take life seriously. The household also includes Phillipa Haymes, a widow with a small son, who works as a gardener on a nearby estate. The guests assemble, comment on the central heating and the chrysanthemums, and dutifully drink the bad sherry. Everyone avoids mentioning the murder – except Mrs Harmon, the Vicar’s wife (known as Bunch) who asks when the murder will begin! As they stand around wondering what will happen, the lights go out…

Then, with a crash, the door swung open. A powerful flashlight played rapidly round the room. A man’s hoarse nasal voice, reminiscent to all of pleasant afternoons at the cinema, directed the company crisply to:

Stick ’em up! ‘Stick ’em up, I tell you!’ the voice barked. Delightedly, hands were raised willingly above heads. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ breathed a female voice. ‘I’m so thrilled.’ And then, unexpectedly, a revolver spoke. It spoke twice. The ping of two bullets shattered the complacency of the room. Suddenly the game was no longer a game. Somebody screamed … The figure in the doorway whirled suddenly round, it seemed to hesitate, a third shot rang out, it crumpled and then it crashed to the ground. The flashlight dropped and went out. There was darkness once again.

Lighters and candles are produced and the dead body of a masked gunman is discovered lying dead in hall. Miss Blacklock is bleeding copiously, but she says it is a mere nick, caused a bullet grazing her ear as it whizzed past and hit the wall. Everyone else is shaken, but  unharmed. though Mitzi has hysterics and won’t stop screaming, and poor Bunny has what the Victorians would have called the vapours.

Ursula Howells
Ursula Howells as Letitia Blacklock in the BBC dramatisation of the book.

Police are called, and Inspector Craddock arrives to investigate what seems to be a hold-up, where the gunman either killed himself by accident, or committed suicide.  Blacklock.

The young man is recognised as Rudi Scherz, who worked in Switzerland where Miss Blacklock stayed during the war, with her sister Charlotte (Lottie, who is now dead), and she had recently rejected his plea for financial help. The Inspector continues his inquiries, but is not getting very far, because nothing makes sense, when – fortunately for him – he meets Miss Marple, who is staying at the Royal Spa Hotel, Medenham Wells, where the dead man worked, and he altered her cheque. I thought it was interesting that Christie gives us quite a detailed picture of Miss Marple – I don’t remember this from the other books. and she is not as Craddock (or I for that matter) expected.

She was far more benignant than he had imagined and a good deal older. She seemed indeed very old. She had snow-white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes, and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby’s shawl.

But appearances are deceptive and Miss Marple, as we ll know, is very shrewd. She agrees, the case doesn’t make sense: Rudi Scherz is a petty thief and swindler, who might not look you straight in the eye, but would never stage an armed hold-up. It’s out of character. Someone must have put him up to it, she says, and suggests Inspector Craddock speaks to to the waitresss, who is obviously worried because she served Miss Marple a kipper for breakfast, instead of herring! Miss Marple is a noticing sort of person, who notices the little things, and it’s always the little things that matter – the little things that don’t quite fit the normal pattern. She also points out that residents who told the inspector what they saw didn’t actually see anything, because it was dark, and they were blinded by the light of the torch. And she suggests it’s possible that someone is trying to kill Miss Blacklock. But who would benefit from her death?

Zoe Wannamaker
Zoe Wannamaker as Letitia Blacklock in the ITV production. (Pic from Zoe Wannamer site)

It turns out that Letitia Blacklock could soon be a very rich woman. She was once secretary to millionaire financier Randall Goedler. He left his fortune to his wife, who is dying, and after her death Miss Blacklock will inherit. But if she dies before the wife, everything will go to Pip and Emma, the twin children of Goedler’s estranged sister, only no-one knows where they are are or what they look like… Could they be responsible? And could they, or their mother, or all three of them, be hidden in Chipping Cleghorn under other names? Could they even be living at Little Paddocks with Miss Blacklock?

Miss Marple moves out of the hotel and into the Vicarage (she is friends with the Vicar’s wife’s parents) and embarks on her own investigations. No-one, she says, will suspect a nosey old lady of sleuthing – in fact, they will think it odd if she doesn’t ask questions. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous things become. Two more Chipping Cleghorn residents are killed, and Miss Marple goes missing before the final piece of the jigsaw is fitted into place and the murderer unmasked.

I don’t remember reading this one before, although I knew the story – but even so, Christie had me turning page after page (assuming one can turn a page on Kindle) to discover who the killer was. As I’ve said before, she’s not called the Queen of Crime for nothing!  One thing that did strike me in this novel was the sense that Miss Marple is getting older, and the fabric of society in small communities like Chipping Cleghorn is changing. At one point, while talking to Inspector Craddock, she says:

All that helps, doesn’t it?’ ‘Helps?’ said the Inspector, rather stupidly. ‘Helps to find out if people are who they say they are,’ said Miss Marple. She went on: ‘Because that’s what’s worrying you, isn’t it?

And it’s that problem of identity, and whether people really are who they say they are, that lies at the heart of this mystery and is key to the behaviour of more than one character. The killer turns out to be a very unlikely person – but the clues are there if you care care to look.

My First Georgette Heyer Romance!

s-l640 Pan
How times have changed… These days the word ‘gay’ has a different meaning, and a new paperback would cost a lot more than two shillings and sixpence!

I doubt that Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer will ever feature on a list of the world’s greatest novels, but it is the greatest fun – and I suspect the same could be said for most (if not all) her novels. Here we are in Georgian England and beautiful Cleone refuses Philip Jettan’s  offer of marriage (despite the fact that she loves him) because he is a ‘country bumpkin’. So love-lorn Philip, dejected by rejection, takes himself off to Paris to learn the requisite social skills. He returns home fashionably dressed, able to fight a duel or write a poem with equal ease. But his new look fails to please Cleone, who discovers she prefers the old Philip after all…

Dazedly she stared at him, from the powdered curls of his wig to the diamond buckles on his shoes. Philip! Philip! Philip in stiff silks and laces! Philip patched and painted! Philip with jewels scattered about his person, and polished nails! Was she dreaming? This foppish gentleman her blunt Philip? It was incredible, impossible! What was he saying now?

And later we are told:

Scalding tears dropped on to Cleone’s pillow that night. Philip had returned, indifferent, blasé, even scornful! Philip who had once loved her so dearly, Philip who had once been so strong and masterful, was now a dainty, affected Court gallant.

But Philip has a determined set to his chin and a glint in his eye which belie his languid demeanour and witty (but meaningless) repartee, and we know he is determined to get his way… Needless to say, there is happy ending, just as I knew there would be – this is a romance after all!

0099474433 Cornerstone
A recent (and possibly more tasteful) cover.

I’ve read several Heyer novels now (this was the first) and they seem to follow a pattern – boy and girl meet, deny the attraction between them, but eventually overcome all obstacles and embark on what one hopes will be a happily married life. They are predictable, the characters are engaging without any great depth, and the writing may not be outstanding, but it’s not bad. The plots are tightly constructed, the action romps along at a tremendous pace, and she makes you care about her characters, so you want to keep reading and find out what happens to them. I think she has a lot of similarities with Mary Stewart, and I’m not sure with either of them what the secret of their success is, because when you analyse their work it would be easy to think they’re not really that good. I wouldn’t  want to read them all the time – but they can both tell a rattling good story, and their work is enormously enjoyable.

One of Heyer’s great strengths is her attention to period detail – she was famed for her research and built up a collection of books, documents and letters from the Georgian era. Her portrayal of life would be appear to be as accurate as anything you’ll find in a ‘proper’ history book . Every now and again you come across something and think surely they never said (or did) that… And you look it up and find she;s absolutely right. And her descriptions of clothes are second to none, especially when it comes to the garments worn by fashionable men, who were prepared to undergo a little discomfort for the sake of their appearance. Here’s Philip being transformed into a fashionable dandy:

But the supreme torture was to come. He discovered that it required the united energies of the three men to coax him into his coat. When at last it was on he assured them it would split across the shoulders if he so much as moved a finger.’

Here he is again, reflecting on his appearance:

But Philip said never a word. He stared and stared again at his reflection. He could not believe that it was himself. He saw a tall, slight figure dressed in a pale blue satin coat, and white small-clothes, flowered waistcoat, and gold-clocked stockings. High red-heeled shoes, diamond-buckled, were on his feet, lace foamed over his hands and at his neck, while a white wig, marvellously curled and powdered, replaced his shorn locks.’

And there is another reference to his ‘startlingly clocked legs’ being clad in stockings with pink humming birds on. It turns out that a ‘clock’ was the highly decorative embroidery going up stockings on the ankle and side of  the leg.  Philip’s stockings would have been made of silk. If I knew more about historic costume, I could probably date the setting of the book. I’d always thought of Heyer as being the Queen of Regency romance, but as far as I can see from her description of Philip’s clothes and behaviour, and his clothes, it has to be early 18th century.

Knitted pink silk stockings with dark green clock and gusset.(Pic from All Things Georgian, courtesy of Victoria and Albert  Museum)

*The book, originally titled The Transformation of Philip Jettan, was  published by Mills and Boon in 1923. Then William Heinemann republished it in 1930 as Powder and Patch.