This site is dedicated to my grandmother, who ran away from her Norwegian home in 1915 and arrived in England with nothing but a trunk full of books
I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!
I don’t often write Remembrance posts because, rightly or wrongly, I tend to think that it somehow seems wrong to commemorate those who died in WW1 and WW2 while there is still conflict going on all over the world, and mankind doesn’t seem to have learned anything from past. But while I was in Plymouth last month I walked up on the Hoe and came across Wave, the poppy installation at the Naval Memorial, and found it very moving indeed, and it doesn’t glorify or justify war in any way.
The ceramic flowers were originally part of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red display at the Tower of London back in 2014. Created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper it involved a staggering 888,246 blooms, each representing a life lost during the First World War. I saw the original exhibition, which was truly stunning, and the Plymouth display, although considerably smaller, is every bit as breath-taking, and every bit as thought provoking.
The poppies have been placed to form a giant wave, rearing up against the memorial, which was established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Close by is a hut where visitors can leave their memories and thoughts, and there are excellent information boards about the Great War and the work of the CWGC, as well as volunteers who provide guided tours.
The Plymouth display took 8 days to set up, and is one of is one of two sculptures taken from the original installation. It’s already been shown at Southend, Cardiff, Hull and Derby, and other venues are planned, including Stoke. But Plymouth is the only location where the poppies have been placed on a war memorial, which makes it all the more poignant. I gather it is lit by spotlights at night, which makes it look even more spectacular. Wave can be seen until November 19, and if you’re in the Plymouth area it really is worth a visit, and will make you think about the pity and futility of war.
Oops! I had a brainstorm when I mentioned the 1968 Club and forgot to say that I’d also read The Wedding Group, by Elizabeth Taylor, so I’m writing about it now, and will try to squeeze Muriel Spark in before the week ends. Taylor’s writing, like many of her characters, tends to be understated, restrained and gentle. But there’s nothing cosy or comforting about her work; no-one dissects the middle classes quite like her, and she can be every bit as cruel and acerbic as Muriel Spark or Beryl Bainbridge, with a dark edge that is not always apparent at first reading. The Wedding Group isn’t generally regarded as one of her best novels, but I loved it. Like Bainbridge’s Another Part of the Wood, the storyline is slender, and it’s the interplay of emotions between the characters which is important. Again, the characters aren’t necessarily likable, but Taylor writes with a warmth and understanding that Bainbridge lacks.
Quayne is an island of self-sufficiency in a consumer world. It’s a cloistered, quasi-Catholic community created by artist Harry Bretton, commonly known as the Master. He had a period of notoriety when he first produced his paintings of religious scenes peopled by those in his inner circle. Over the years his fame has faded, but he continues to dominate his family, friends and acolytes. He wears a smock, sandals and shepherd’s cloak, talks about humility in art, and humility in life, thinks feminism is an ‘ungainly aberration’, and has opinions on everything. He has established the ‘good life’, with home-grown vegetables, home-baked bread (in vast quantities) and hand-woven clothes. Taylor tells us:
“Here, at Quayne, everything was all of a piece, everyone, everything, fitted into the Master’s scheme; for Harry Bretton had views on every aspect of life, and had, with what seemed to be the greatest of luck, found that all formed part of the whole vision, Here, there was nothing he thought of as spurious, nothing meretricious, nothing counterfeit. All was wholesome, necessary, simple, therefore good and beautiful, too.”
But there is one dissenter among his band of followers: as he himself observes, Cressida, his 18-year-old granddaughter, no longer sings in tune with the family. It’s the swinging sixties, and Cressy doesn’t want to wear home-made sack-like dresses and eat beans (and who can blame her). “She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them,” says Taylor. Cressy leaves home, and gets a job in an antique shop where she lives in a room in the attic.
She drifts into marriage with journalist David (who she first met when he wrote a feature on life at Quayne), they move into a damp, cold dilapidated cottage, and produce a baby son. David is smitten by Cressy’s other-worldly charms, her gallantry in starting a new life, and her joy and enthusiasm embracing her new world – she loves popular culture, television, junk food and trashy, throw-away possessions. However, her isolated upbringing means she is an innocent cast adrift in an environment she doesn’t understand, and married life is not what she expects. She’s no good at cooking or housework, is nervous of the baby (who cries constantly and is sick a lot), and is lonely, for David commutes to London every day and often stays overnight, allegedly with a photographer friend because it’s so late he can’t get home, but in reality visiting Nell, his former girlfriend who is now his mistress. And his mother Midge is a force to be reckoned with, although she masks her true intentions under a guise of helpfulness.
Midge is another lonely woman. She is desperately, desperately lonely since her husband walked out and her elder sons moved away. Now she lives her life for and through David, and has re-invented herself to become the perfect housewife and companion, caring for him so well that, hopefully, he will never leave. She is devastated by his marriage, but lays her plans carefully. On the face of it she is kind and supportive, but there’s a brilliant moment when Taylor describes how Midge stops her car to give Cressy a lift: “Oh, you are the most thoughtful woman I ever knew,” Cressy said, getting in. Indeed, Midge did have a great number of thoughts. Few could have more.”
Midge’s help highlights the difference between her own well-ordered home and the chaos at the cottage, and the more she does the less able Cressy becomes. Her moment of of rebellion is diminished as Midge becomes more powerful, and she loses herself, unable to fight back because she doesn’t even realise that a war of wills is under way. And just as the young couple are thinking of fulfilling their dream and escaping to London there is a mysterious burglary… there are no fingerprints or other evidence… but Midge’s diamond earrings have been stolen… so David and Cressy cannot leave her…
Despite this crisis the novel ends on an upbeat note, and one can only hope that David and Cressy finally find happiness and make a life for themselves, though neither of them is very good at looking after themselves, let alone others.
There’s a host of other characters brought to life with deftness and humour. People speak in clichés which convey new, hidden meanings, and Taylor is a master of elusion, obscuring certain facts, just as people do in real life, but somehow this lack of precision serves to make things clearer. What she doesn’t say is as important was what she does, and she tells us exactly what we need to know, no more, and no less, and in so doing rapidly establishes personality. For example, there’s Mrs Brindle, the gossipy charwoman who works for Quayne and Midge, and can’t help overhearing what she shouldn’t know and having heard can’t forget!
And there’s the beautiful, sophisticated brother and sister who run the antique shop and are strangely close. One wonders what is going on there, nut nothing explicit is ever revealed, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions.
Then there is David’s father, old before his time, with a quaint, old-fashioned turn of phrase. Just like Midge (who he is ‘keeping in gin’) he seems to have created a version of himself that may or may not be real (which of us ever knows who a person truly is).and this may account for the fact that he looks and sounds like an actor playing part – even his bald head looks like a wig. David’s conversations with his father are very funny, but there are some heart-stoppingly sad moments.
And, of course, there is the community at Quayne, which finds itself under threat as new houses invade the surrounding woodland, and Cousin Pet falls prey to an older man and gives birth, much to Harry’s delight since he needs a model for his Madonna and Child! Apart from Harry, who dominates the group, the most memorable character is their tame priest Father Daughtry, who likes ‘fillums’ and alcohol. Mostly the family and their hangers-on are meek, mild, and very quiet – years of living with Harry have ground them into submission, though you can see that Cressy’s father must once have been more lively than he is now. And there’s a poignant moment when she realises that if she had been a better daughter then unemotional Rose might have been a better mother.
The novel is very much about loneliness, and people’s response to it, and the way they cope – they may live together, and there are ties that bind them to others, but somehow they still lead solitary lives and never form trusting, sharing relationships.
PS: You can see what everyone else at the 1968 Club has been reading by clicking here.
Two posts for the price of one today! This is loosely connected to the 1968 Club because Stuck in a Book Simon has reviewed the autobiography of Frank Baker, who wrote the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Miss Hargreaves, and when I came across this picture quite a while ago it reminded me of her. So I wrote this post, then thought I was being silly, and it’s been languishing in the drafts ever since. But today it seems kind of apposite…
Look! It’s Miss Hargreaves! Only it isn’t, of course. It’s Canadian artist Emily Carr.
Don’t you think she (the lady on the right) looks a bit like the central figure in Frank Baker’s book of the same name? For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s one of the best novels ever (read about it here). Basically, it tells the story of Norman, who invents the elderly and eccentric Miss Constance Hargreaves (pronounced Hargrayves), and is more than a little taken aback when she comes to life and visits him! She alights from the train accompanied by a dog on a purple lead and a cockatoo, as well as a bath, two trunks, assorted bags and a harp.
She was very small, very slight, with a perky, innocent little face and speedwell-blue eyes. Perched on top, right on top, of a hillock of snowy white hair: buttressed behind by a large fan-comb, studded by sequins and masted by long black pins, lay a speckled straw hat. Over a pale pink blouse with a high neck and lace cuffs, she was wearing a heathery tweed jacket; a skirt to match. Round her neck was a silver fur. Resting on one stick, she was holding the other, and the umbrella was on her arm; they were black ebony sticks, with curved Malacca handles.
The sticks are missing, and the dog, and the bath, but there’s something about the expression and stance of the artist that reminds me of Miss Hargreaves – perhaps it’s all that luggage, but I do think it somehow captures her spirit. They’re both pleased with themselves, and with life in general, I think. I imagine Miss Hargreaves looking very like this, and the luggage, the bird, and the big, black umbrella are just as I imagine them because, although Baker’s book was published in 1940, the events described happened a decade previously, when elderly ladies like Miss Hargreaves were still rather Edwardian Edwardian in appearance and outlook.
The picture (which should, apparently, be referred to as a cartoon), was painted by Emily Carr (1871-1945) to illustrate her account of her time in Paris, but I’ve no idea what it is called. She travelled to the city in 1910, at the age of 38, to study ‘the New Art’, and was accompanied by her sister (the rather drooping figure on the left), their trunks, and an ill-humoured parrot called Rebecca. The picture and information were featured on Parisian Fields, which is one of my favourite not-about-books-blogs. Canadians Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie are lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in Paris, and their love for the city shines through. Their posts are quirky, well written, and beautifully illustrated with their own photographs, as well as old postcards and pictures. Their historical research is excellent, and they’re attracted by things off the usual tourist trail, like street lights, seats, doorways and adverts.
You’ll find masses of information about Emily Carr on their site, but I’m sure they won’t mind if I tell you that the picture was shown at an exhibition, Sister and I: From Victoria to London (Royal British Columbia Museum, 2011).
Emily Carr’s time in Paris seems to have marked a pivotal point in her career. She’s known as a post-impressionist and modernist, and her bold, brightly coloured work celebrates Canadian wildlife and the native people. This picture, with its detail and muted colours, is very different to the bold, bright paintings she is best known for.
Right. It’s 1968 so I can party along with everyone else at the ‘club’ organised by Simon over at Stuck in a Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. The dedicated duo have been working their way through the decades, celebrating books issued in 1924, 1938, 1947 and 1951, and for each of those years there are novels I know and love – but I have failed to join in because Life, The Universe and Everything got in the way!
This time around I was determined to make an effort, but when I looked at the list my heart sank because I’ve read virtually none of the fiction titles, with the exception of Tigers are Better Looking, a collection of short stories by Jean Rhys (which I mentioned here), and Christa Wolf’s wonderful novel The Quest for Christa T, which I planned to re-read, to refresh my memory But, alas, I but couldn’t find it, so I put Plan B into operation and bought Muriel Spark’s The Public Image and Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge, and read them last week, while I was cat and rabbit sitting for my elder daughter.
Both authors are known for their sharp wit, their ability to put uncomfortable relationships under the microscope, and their dark humour. And Another Part of the Wood is very dark indeed. Here we have a disparate group of people staying in ramshackle huts in an isolated Welsh wood where facilities are pretty basic. And in this wild setting the thin veneer of civilisation peels away from the enclosed group and human failings are exposed – spite, cruelty, selfishness, carelessness, neglect, self-delusion…
They are damaged people whose behaviour damages others, and none of them is likable, but for once this doesn’t matter; it’s the interplay between the characters that’s important, and the tension this creates, and it means there are no heroes or villains, just people. From the outset there’s a sense of impending doom and disaster as normal life is thrown into chaos, but there’s no redemption or resolution as the story makes its way to a shocking – and very abrupt – end.
As a kind of suburban satire it’s sometimes compared to Mike Leigh’s black comedy Abigail’s Party, but I think it’s more like Nuts in May, though maybe the setting which brought that to mind. In Bainbridge’s tale the holiday-makers are staying at Nant MacFarley Camp, so named by the owner’s son George MacFarley. Local resident Willie , who looks after the ‘estate’ when the family are absent, calls it the Glen, while George’s mother refers to it as The Family Resting Ground (because it’s a ‘haven to which they could retreat when the demands of city life became overwhelming). And his friend Balfour thinks of it as the Labour Camp, because there’s so much work to do.
George is a giant of a man who had a solitary childhood and is now a solitary man who seldom speaks and is obsessed with the Holocaust. He’s also strangely concerned for the welfare of Balfour, who is a tool turner in a factory (working with a machine, not with his hands) but spends much of his spare time helping George and running a boys’ club which provides lads with visits to the camp. Poor Balfour doesn’t have a lot going for him: he’s got no self-confidence, is shy, spotty, stutters, and suffers from some unspecified illness which causes him to have funny turns.
Also staying at the camp are George’s friend Joseph, with his young son Roland, his girl-friend Dottie, and Kidney, a grossly overweight youth who obviously has what we would now call learning difficulties. The exact nature of his condition is never explained. All we know is that he takes three tablets to sedate him, and that Joseph maintains there is nothing wrong with him and all he needs is diet and exercise – but, quickly loses interest in his protégé. And he shows an equal lack of interest in Dottie or his son – he doesn’t even know if the boy is 7 or 8. Poor Roland has to sleep in the barn and is generally left to his own devices.
Last to arrive are Lionel and his wife May, one of the most ill-matched couples I’ve ever encountered. Lionel’s obsession is the war, which he appears to have enjoyed (despite being shot in the buttock), and he’s very possessive and protective of his wife, who he always calls ‘Sweetheart’ – but he doesn’t make love to her. Instead he reads her stories… A vicious, spiteful bottle blonde, she is older than she would care to admit, thinks her husband is a fool – and has no qualms about telling him so. She hates everything about Lionel, especially his small moustache, his bald head, his big belly, and the fact that he never calls her by her name: yet at the same time he makes her feel safe and protected.
You wonder how of these people ever came to be together, because none of them are able to connect with others. They are all self-obsessed, selfish and unreliable in the way they view themselves and others. Lionel, for example, ‘had no notion of himself before 1939’ and ‘couldn’t be sure that his memories were exact’.
Thinking about the others, Balfour, who has odd moment s of clear-sightedness, says: “They didn’t really feel they belonged to anyone any more.” But he is just isolated and emotionally stunted, and when tragedy strikes he feels nothing, and knows he will only be able to respond when he sees his mother’s reaction to the event.
Another part of the wood was Bainbridge’s second novel but already her style was established. In her 1981 revision she cut her pared back writing even further, which may account for the sense of dislocation and alienation. It’s sly, funny, dark and tragic, and haven’t done it justice, but I’ll definitely read it again.
PS: You can see what everyone else has been reading by clicking here.
Talking of marathons (Persephone in the last post), Radio 4 Extra has been re-running the BBC’s 1981 edition of Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm, and the four one-hour episodes are still available – you can catch them here, but you need to be quick, because there’s just one day left to hear the first episode, although the others are available for a little longer (but not much).
I like to save up radio episodes and listen to the entire production in one fell swoop if I can or, failing that, over two or three consecutive days (I don’t like waiting to hear what happens). Anyway, Gibbons’ novel is one of the funniest I’ve ever read, and this dramatisation really captures the tone of the book, and I enjoyed it immensely, all the more so as I recently read Mary Webb’s The Golden Arrow and, as I’m sure everyone knows, CCF is a parody of Webb’s melodramatic works of rural mysticism.
The drama is produced by Elizabeth Proud, who also puts in a creditable performance as the author herself and, thankfully, it follows the novel fairly closely (with the addition of a kind of introduction by the author to explain the connection with Mary Webb). Orphaned Flora Poste, possessor of £100 a year and ‘every art and grace save that of earning her own living’, takes herself off to her peculiar Starkadder relatives at run-down Cold Comfort Farm. There, amidst the dirt and grime she discovers hidden mysteries. What is the wrong done to her father by sorrowful Aunt Judith’s man? And what was the ‘something nasty’ that Great Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed long, long ago? Alas, we never learn the answers…
And she gets to know her relatives, who are perfectly portrayed in this radio adaptation. Farmer Amos is a sanctimonious religious fanatic who preaches about sin and damnation, and leads his congregation in ‘the quivering’. Pin-up Seth hates farming and is obsessed by the ‘talkies’, while Elfine, who is obsessed with the son of a wealthy landowner, wears home-spun clothes, writes poetry and wanders the fields communing with nature. And there is Urk, who is obsessed with Elfine (and water voles). And let’s not forget the hired girl Meriam, daughter of Mrs Beetle the cleaner, and mother of four children because she cannot help herself when the sukebind is in bloom… They all sound exactly as I imagined they would, and the over-the-top country speech (Gibbons mocked the efforts of novelists who wrote phonetically in an effort to reproduce dialects) worked well against Flora’s cut-glass accents.
Flora, a thoroughly modern young lady (by the standards of 1932 when the novel was published), likes everything to be neat, clean, tidy and well organised, So she decides to reform her cousins, do away with the family’s sorrows and curses, and banish mud, grime and ignorance. Nature, as she observes, is all very well in her place but she must not be allowed to make things untidy…
For all her dainty ways Flora brooks no opposition to her plans, and brings order out of chaos, setting various Starkadders on exactly the right path in life. Even Great Aunt Ada Doom, who rules the farm with a rod of iron and refuses to let anyone leave (because ‘there’s always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort’) succumbs to her charms.
Listening to the radio version I was surprised at how well it brought out certain aspects of the book – the accents, the language, and all the made-up words, which are one of the delights of the book. And how crisp and polite Flora is, maintaining the decorum and conversation of the society she is used to, treating the Starkadders like children who need to be educated and shown a better way of life – she reminded me of those wonderful Joyce Grenfell ‘nursery’ monologues! I thought the whole cast were brilliant, especially Patricia Gallimore as Flora Poste, the inimitable Miriam Margoleys as Mrs Beetle, and Fabia Drake as Aunt Ada Doom.
I would find my copy of the book… but I’m staying at my elder daughter’s… so I’ll have to wait for a re-read until I get home.
Oh joy! The latest Persephone Biannually has dropped through the letterbox, complete with a bookmark for The Journey Home by Malachi Whitaker, whom I have never read, but this edition includes her short story Smoke of the Tide, so I can give her a try! And there are all sorts of other articles, including one on Guard Your Daughters and its author Diana Tutton. Persephone remains one of my favourite publishers, and the bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street is always worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything, though personally I don’t think it’s possible to come away empty-handed. On my last visit a few weeks ago I gave up all pretence of succumbing to temptation on the spur of the moment, and went armed with a list. But I was very restrained and only bought three titles – Minnie’s Room, Tea With Mr Rochester and Greengates. Then, when I was at my mother’s last week I found a copy of the Persephone edition of Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple, in a charity bookshop for just £1! I queried the price, because it’s worth more, and it’s in pristine condition although, alas, there is no bookmark… still, you can’t have everything. Anyway, I’m half-way through Someone at a Distance, which is very good indeed, and I’m planning a bit of a Persephone marathon at the moment fortified, as I always say, by tea and cake!
The blurb on the back of Hilary Bailey’s Hannie Richards or The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Wife describes it as a ‘pastiche’ of John Buchan, and I suppose that’s right to some extent, because the connection is clearly visible in our heroine’s name – Hannie Richards/Richard Hannay. And the author subverts the male world of adventure by having a female protagonist who is less interested in righting wrongs than in making money.
Hannie, tall, slender, red-haired, good looking, is married to a gentleman farmer and appears to be the perfect wife and mother, as well having a career which takes her all over the world. But she is leading a double life, for she is really a highly sought after international smuggler, commanding extremely high fees for her services. She’s cool-headed, courageous, well organised – and says her success is down to the fact that people don’t look at women. But she’s completely amoral, with no scruples about the jobs she undertakes. She works for the money, to fund a nice lifestyle, and to keep the farm going, her mother in a nursing home, and her daughters at an expensive school.
She relates her adventures to fellow members of the Hope Club, a women’s version of the ‘grander gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair or Belgravia’. Her successes include finding the evidence for a poor, black family to prove their ownership of a Caribbean island, and rescuing a strange child from war-torn Chad on a secret mission for the Vatican. There is lots of danger, and lots of action – chases, shootings, killings, a volcano…
Despite her own extra-marital exploits (which, apparently, mean nothing), she is devastated to discover her husband has embarked on an affair with their neighbour. So she plans one last job to earn enough money for a new life with her twin daughters, and travels to the Bolivian jungle to acquire a rare plant for a dying millionaire who believes it will cure his cancer. But her luck is running out. She finds herself involved with some particularly vicious villains (there’s a nasty scene where she is raped and beaten which, quite frankly, I thought was unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story), and ends up in a Brazilian jail because someone puts drugs in her luggage.
However, all ends well because her friends at the Hope Club, worried by her disappearance, seek help from a former arms dealer, who turns out to be the mysterious stranger who has aided Hannie the past. He rescues and, naturally, they fall in love and live happily ever after (probably). Oh, and she finally develops a social conscience.
This was one of those books that sounded much more enticing than it turned out to be. It just goes to show that the lovely Virago apple is not always a mark of excellence – I didn’t hat this (it was interesting), but I wouldn’t read this again, and I’m not sure I want to read anything else by Hilary Bailey. Published in 1985, it’s very much of its time, and very much a feminist novel, though there’s nothing wrong with that – my bookshelves are packed with feminist novels that I love. I just didn’t love this one. To start with I thought perhaps it was meant to be a comedy, because the adventures were so ludicrous, but Bailey obviously has a serious message to make, not just about women’s subservient position, but about poor and oppressed people everywhere. And that’s part of the problem I think, because she takes a pop at so many institutions and attitudes – big business, organised religion, patriarchal society – which dilutes what she’s trying to say. And she’s very heavy-handed in the way she says it.
And I didn’t like Hannie or any of the other characters. None of them came to life, and there was a curious lack of emotion, so I never felt I knew what made Hannie tick, although we do learn that she started smuggling when she evaded quarantine laws by bringing a cat back from France for friends of a friend, and she says she didn’t want to be a woman waiting for her husband to come home, hanging about, trying to make ends meet (though her idea of making ends meet is somewhat different to mine). So there you are. Amazing what bored housewives can do when they put their mind to it!
Somewhere in this novel is the germ of an idea about women trying to make it in a man’s world, to support themselves and their families through their own efforts, and to live life on their own terms, whatever the cost. But as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t quite come off.