THE Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, and his old friend Dr Pendrill are enthusiastic afficionados of detective novels. Each week they order six books from the library, which are delivered in a wooden crate tied with string. I love that detail, but did libraries really do this I wonder? And was it a public library, or one of those private lending libraries which were so popular in the first half of the last century? Anyway, they read the books, discuss every detail, and are not averse to offering advice on how the fictional sleuth should have handled the case (all of which must leave them very little time for work). So when a neighbour is shot dead during a violent thunderstorm, the duo decide to try their hand at a spot of real-life investigation…
The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude (one of those wonderful British Library Crime Classics) was a real page-turner, from begining to end, and I had absolutely no idea who the murderer was, so the reveal came as a huge surprise – if there were any obvious pointers along the way, I missed them! There is a clue, which seems unimportant, and its meaning gradually becomes apparent to the vicar thanks to his knowledge of local people and past events, but I don’t think ayone else could possibly have made sense of it.
The dead man is ill-tempered Julius Tregarthan, a retired magistrate disliked by everybody. He is so unpopular that despite the dearth of clues, there are suspects aplenty. His niece Ruth has quarrelled with him, and her boyfriend Ronald Hardy, an author with bad nerves, has also fallen out with Tregarthan. Then there is poacher Ned Salter who has vowed vengeance on Tregarthan for sentencing him to three months in jail, leaving his family homeless and penniless. And what about Cowper, the gardener and odd job man, and his housekeeper wife, who seem to be hiding something. Even the local nurse comes under scrutiny when her footprints are found on the clifftop path near Tregarthan’s home.
As so often happens in these Golden Age murder mysteries, everyone is behaving strangely, and no-one is telling the exact truth, so Inspector Bigswell, who is in charge of the investigation, has a tough job ahead of him as he finds himself ‘up against a first-class mystery’. No detail is too small as he tries to make sense of the discrepancies in the case – puzzling footprints, a missing gun, curtains that were were open when they should have been c;losed (or have I got that the wrong way round?). Then the writer Ronald Hardy (Ruth’s boyfriend) disappears… The plot twists and turns, and every time the inspector thinks he’s finally cracked it, he hits another dead end. It’s the vicar who finds the solution, using logic to prove what his knowledge of his parishioners has led him to suspect.
I enjoyed this – John Bude is a clever storyteller who creates credible characters, and crafts plots which keep you reading. His sense of place is excellent, and I love the details of everyday life – things that were normal when the book was written in 1935, but have now passed into history, Take that crate of books for example:
“With a leisurely hand, as if wishing to prolonging the pleasure of anticipation, the Vicar cut the string with which th crate was tied, and prised up the lid. Nestling deep in a padding of brown paper were two neat piles of vividly coloured books.”
Doreen, by Barbara Noble, tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who is evacuated from a London slum during WW2, and cared for by a well-to-do couple in the country. In the few short months she is there, she is torn between love of this new life, offering undreamed-of opportunities, and love of her mother and the old, known world. The pull between ‘Mum’ and ‘Them’ is emphasised by the way her name is pronounced: she is Doreen at home, and Doreen in the country. The adults on each side of the divide, believe their way will be best for Doreen – but ultimately they all acknowledge that she fulfills an emotional need in their own lives. And if she stays in the country and learns to ‘better’ herself, will it equip her to cope with life when she returns to the East End?
I bought it because I was curious to see the ‘other side’ of evacuation. My mother was brought up on a kind of smallholding, in a small town near London, and an entire school was moved to the area to escape the bombs in the East End. Like many others, her family took in evacuees, and Mum, who was 12 when war broke out, attended their school, staying until she was 16 (instead of leaving at 14 as she would have done at the local school). Because they were so close to London, sometimes the evacuees’ mothers visited, and sometimes the girls would catch a train to Waterloo to spend a weekend with their loved ones, taking Mum with them. Like Doreen, she found cconflict between two very different worlds, but in her case it was London and the people she met there who opened her eyes to new things and new ideas.
Anyway, back to Doreen. She and her mother, Mrs Rawlings, live in two rooms at the top of a dilapidated house, with a shared gas stove and sink on the landing. Doreen is small, pale, polite and well spoken, but very quiet – rather an insignificent child. However, when she smiles (which isn’t often), her face comes alive. Her mother, an office cleaner, is large, dour and joyless, but she doesn’t have much to be joyful about. The one bright thing in her life is her daugher, and she loves her fiercely – so much so that she cannot bear to send Doreen away when the school is evacuated. No other arrangemts for Doreen’s education seem to have been made, and she spends her time time alone in the flat, accompanying her mother to work, or playing with a friend who has also remained in London. I’m not sure I like Mrs Rawlings much, but I had to admire her because life has dealt her a rough hand, but nevertheles she’s proud and independent, and loves her daughter, and works hard scratching a living for the two of them as best she can.
Then the brief lull of the ‘Phoney War’ comes to an end, the bombs start falling, and as the unrelenting terror of the Blitz continues, night after night, Mrs Rawlings realises that London is no longer a safe place for her young daughter. One morning a secretary in the offices spots her crying, and comes to the rescue. It is agreed that Doreen will stay with Miss Osborne’s brother Geoffrey and his wife Francie, who cannot have a child of their own. It seems to be an ideal solution: Doreen adjusts surpisingly quickly, does well at school and makes friends. The Osbornes love her, and she loves them – and therein lies part of the problem, because her mother regards the Osbornes as a threat to her own relationship with the child, and fears Doreen will get ideas above her station.
Things take a turn for the worse when Doreen’s soldier father (who abandoned his wife and child years before) appears on the scene, decides her new life is ‘not suitable’ and takes her away, followed by the frantic Osbornes who rush to London to tell Mrs Rawlings what hs happened.. There are some some graphic accounts accounts of war-torn London. with people packed into tube stations during air raids, and the incomprehensible scale of the damage above ground. The couple take a taxi across London, and find their route blocked by a trestle barrier. “Behind the barrier, a giant with a giant bag of grey dust had apparently emptied the contents all over the houses on either side, Tiles, glass and miscellaneous rubbish choked the surface of the road, and further down, the inevitable gap, broken tooth in ruined mouth, showed where the bomb had landed,” Noble writes.
There are other disturbing images of the devastation, like the burned-out warehouse where Doreen and her mother used to shelter in a basement during air raids – now nothing is left but the ‘menacing’ girders. However, what stayed in my mind was the empty window in Doreen’s home there has been no glass for three or four months, Mrs Rawlings reveals, in flat, matter-of-fact tones, She doesn’t explain any further, but it’s implicitly understood that replacing the glass is pointless, because it will only be shattered by falling bombs again, and again, and again.
But what really shocked me was the belief of Doreen’s parents that everyone knows their place and must accept their lot. They don’t want Doreen to be better educated and better informed, with the chance of a better life. Mr Rawlings tells his estranged wife: “You’d have done better sending her away to people of her own station.” And Mrs Rawlings is of the same mind. “She’s got to live the life she was born to,” she says. “The war won’t last for ever, but I’ll never be able to do much more for her than what I do now. She’ll have to face up to that.”
I guess their attitude was typical of the time, just as no-one asks Doreen what she wants to do. The only person who considers the girl’s thoughts about her future is Mr Osborne’s sister. “It was on the tip of Helen’s tongue to ask her if she wanted to go back, but she decided that this was an injudicious question, whatever the reply, and she said nothing,.”
I really enjoyed this book, and the way the author reveals the back stories of characters, so you can see how their experiences shaped them into the people they are now. She’s very good at getting inside people’s heads and giving different points of view – the child Doreen, the Osbornes, Mrs Rawlings. The dilemma of Doreen’s future is not something easily resolved: you know the outcome will bring heartache for someone, and I felt so much for the characters I couldn’t say whether the final decision was right or wrong.
As a book lover and Oxfam book shop volunteer, how could I not love Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford. Originally published in 1933, it was reissued last year as a Handheld Classic, when a lot of bloggers wrote some very nice things about it, and I can see why. The novel, written as a series of letters, memos, and telegrams, centres on Hilary Fane, who is spending a year in London earning her own living before returning to Edinburgh to marry surgeon Basil.
Hilary is lovely: warm, caring, funny, intelligent, and very feisty. She has a quirky sense of humour, and a keen appreciation of people’s oddities and foibles – I think she would find Elizabeth Bennett a kindred spirit! At this point, I will state loudly and clearly that I cannot for the life of me understand how she came to be hooked up with Basil, who is everything she is not. We never actually meet him, and don’t see his letters, so we only get to know him from Hilary’s replies, but he comes across as being dour, selfish, controlling, and very conscious of his position on society. He’s given to saying ‘I told you so’ when things go wrong, but never, ever congratulates Hilary on her successes, or offers her any encouragment, (Spoiler Alert: As the story progresses, and the relationship breaks down, her letters to Basil get shorter and shorter, and she tells him less and less).
Anyway, Hilary finds life very different to anything she has known before. She comes from a cultured, educated, middle class family, holds a degree, and has been a teacher and a librarian – none of which qualifies her for employment in London. Her first interview is for a job in Corsets, where she is told she could have ‘quite a success with the Stout Gents’ Belting’ – but she is expected to pay £30 for the priviledge of selling these garments! Next she tries for work with ‘a purveyor of Psycho-therapy’ who is wearing a Biblical bath-robe and ‘contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it’. She beats a hasty exit without discovering what her duties would have been!
Eventually she is offered a position as a clerk in the book department of Everyman’s Stores in Oxford (Our Business is Your Pleasure, they boast), for the princely sum of £2 10s a week – less 1s 3d for sickness and unemployment. The work is boring (mainly writing labels for parcels of books), and she’s not very good at it. especially when it comes to financial matters. She writes home: “Mr Simpson came up and said that he’d see I wasn’t idle. So after lunch he gave me a list of books that I could type for him. It was nice to get to know their names, wasn’t it? I spent the afternoon over his list. It wasn’t altogether wilful meandering, either. I just couldn’t get the prices to add up right, and whenever I was half-way up the shillings column Miss Hopper sent me to get something for her or a packer brought me back one of my more illegible labels and I had to begin at the bottom again.”
Oh, how I sympathise about those figures! When I was at Oxfam and had to cash up, I could never get the money in the till to match the amount shown on the receipt totals, and I would count, and count, and count, and each time, impossible though it may be, there was different amount!
Hilary’s labels are illegible, she knocks books off tables, and makes bills out wrong but, despite all that, she is promoted after resolving a problem with the headmistress of a posh girls’ school, who has received a copy of Marie Stopes in the monthly parcel of ‘select’ books supposedly suitable for her pupils! Mr Grant, Organising Director is impressed, and believes her talents could be better used elsewhere, so he moves her to the book shop, where she adds up on her fingers, and draws in the sales book… much to the horror of the supervisor.
Mr Grant (who is a bit of a dish) comes to her rescue, and she is transferred to the library, where they do less adding, and asked to look into the system, trace complaints, and draw up plans for improvements. To avoid ill-feeling among the staff, Mr Grant (Michael) steps in again – he oviously appreciates Hilary in a way that Basil does not – and she is appointed assistant to the staff supervisor, a role that suits her perfectly. “It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate.“
And she may be be bad at maths, but Hilary turns out to be surprisingly at budgeting her meagre wages. She moves out of the hotel where she stays when she first arrives in London, rents a basement room for seventeen shillings a week, eats filling food in cheap restaurants, and darns her stockings, like any other working girl. Later, when she gets a wage rise, she’s able to move into a small flat, but there is no money for luxuries, and not much spare time. Writing to Basil, she says: “The worst of earning one’s living, Basil, is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours to Everyman’s, and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”
She has opted to live like this, but she understands that for her colleagues there is no choice. “I can always run away. They – the other people with basements and nine-to-six and two pounds ten a week – can’t”. And she adds: “I know I shan’t spend my life this way. I won’t. But the others, Miss Hopper and Miss Watts and Mildred Lamb, will. And they know it. It’s the only way they can be safe; sure of a place to sleep in, food, and those tidy, monotonous clothes. But they pay so much more for that safety (in things that aren’t money), than the basic two pounds ten a week.”
The book is light-hearted, and is never overtly political, but nevertheless social issues of the day, like unemployment, are implicit in the story, and you realise how difficult life must have been for single, working class women. Everyman’s, generally thought to be based on Selfridge’s, reflects the social order of the day, with its own hierarchy, and separate facilities to keep managers and the managed apart. And neither side is expected to fraternise with customers, so you can imagine how shocked the staff are when Hilary’s wealthy Aunt Bertha sweeps her off for lunch in the customers’ restaurant!
There was so much I loved abut this book, but it’s impossible to mention everything. The descriptions of people, however brief their appearance, really bring them to life – your heart goes out to the older women who ‘go from one dust-bin to another with sacks at this time of day: they lift the lids and finger the muddle inside with grey, careful hands that never miss a bottle or a crust’. It makes you realise what a difference the creation of the welfare state made to people.
Set against that is Hilary’s hilarious account of a performance by the staff drama group, which she sends to Michael (no longer Mr Grant!) because he has broken an ankle and cannot attend. During my time as a local journalist, I covered an awful lot of amateur dramatics, some of which were excellent. But there were many things which could (and did) go wrong, and the book’s authors perfectly capture the atmosphere of these occasions – and the enjoyment and enthusiasm of the watching friends and family.
There are charming illustrations by Ann Stafford, and an excellent inroduction by Kate Macdonald (who founded this independent publisher). She provides a wealth of fascinating information about Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (real names Helen Christina Easson Rees, née Evans and Anne Isabel Stafford Pedler) who wrote some 97 novels, together and independently. Kate also places the novel in the context of its time, with details about life, libraries, social classes, and women’s roles in society.
I bought the Kindle edition because I wanted an immediate read, but I wish I’d bought the book.
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.
To 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.
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.
A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.