My mother rings. She is reading Jane Austen (again) and would I like to join her (again). My mother reads a lot of Jane Austen – she always did. But her reading habits have changed. Once upon a time she would read (and discuss) Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Walter Scott, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell to name but a few (she always liked the classics best). But these days she finds the plots too complicated, and there are too many characters, and the books are too long. They scramble her brain she says, sadly.
But Jane Austen remains a constant, perhaps because her novels are shorter, with tighter plots, and fewer characters, and Mum knows them so well that I think the printed pages are a kind of aide memoire for the words inside her head, which is why she keeps reading them. Apart from that she mostly reads books from her childhood – Winnie the Pooh, Ballet Shoes, The Railway Children, Milly Molly Mandy, The Secret Garden. Again, these are things she knows almost by heart, and she can remember her mother buying them for her, and connect them with long-ago events. And the same goes for poetry. She reads a lot of poetry, but it has to be the poetry she learned in school when she memorised a poem a week, which adds up to an awful lot of poems. With a book to prompt her she can still recite many of them, as well as great chunks of Shakespeare. However, she can’t tell you what day it is, or what she ate for breakfast.
As her dementia advances her reading matter shrinks, along with the boundaries of her life, but she still gets so much pleasure from books, as long they are very, very familiar, fairly simple, and quite short.
When I visit we chat about books and chant poetry aloud – the strong, rhythmic, rhyming verses that she loves and remembers. Fortified by tea and cake, we read The Highwayman, The Listeners, The Rolling English Road, The Smugglers Song, William Allingham’s The Fairies, part of Hiawatha, some of Wordsworth’s work, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets, Christina Rossetti’s work, a selection of John Masefield, and lots from AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six… the list is endless, and she refers to the words much less than I do. We talk about poets and poetry, discuss highwaymen, smugglers and travelling, and she tells me about her childhood and the distant past.
Sometimes we discuss novels over the phone, and though her reading matter has become more limited she still finds something apposite to say about characters, politics, social issues, how people lived. Again, literature seems to jog her memory and she relates the books and people in them to her own life, however tenuous the connection may be.
Books and poetry are never going to restore my mother to the person she once was, but I’ve been surprised at the positive impact they have had, and how important it is to her, and to the family, that she should continue to read, and to talk about books. And since I love my mother, and I love reading as much as she does, I’m more than happy to join her in reading Jane Austen for the umpteenth time. She says we will begin with Persuasion, because it was Austen’s last book, so I have dug out my copy and started reading, and will report back on our progress as we go along.
Today’s book is The Street, by Ann Petry, chosen because it is set in Harlem, just like The Constant Sinner, and makes an interesting companion piece. As you might expect, some of the themes are very similar: there is crime, prostitution, even murder. But there the similarity ends for this novel, written in 1945 and published the following year, is much bleaker and much more of a political protest. And Petry is a far better writer than West. She doesn’t glamorise the street and its inhabitants: life there is hard. It’s sordid and shabby, and people are downtrodden and disillusioned, with no hope left. Some turn to crime because its the only way they can survive, and it offers a way out of the dirt, the degradation, and the poverty. But they show no mercy to anyone weaker.
The street itself is almost a living entity, as much a character as the people. It’s malevolent, overwhelming and oppressive, grinding the residents down, killing their last vestiges of joy, optimism, pride and independence.
‘There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street… It found every scrap of paper long the street – theatre programmes, announcements of dances and meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that enclosed sandwiches., old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the kerb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street. It even took time to rush into doorways and areas and find chicken bones and pork-chop bones and push them along the kerb.
It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the pavement and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses making it difficult breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins.’
Into the street and the wind walks beautiful Lutie Johnson looking for a flat, and you feel the wind is trying to warn her off, to chase her away. Lutie knows this is not a good place. The flat she takes, like other flats in this house, in this street, is small, dark, dirty, and noisy. and everywhere smells of garbage. Jones, the sinister Superintendent (Supe or Super, as he is known), looks at her with lechery in his heart and mind. Then there is Mrs Hedges, enormously fat, with a bandana around her head, sitting by her window watching the world with her snake eyes. Sharing her flat, acting as her maids, are young girls who are not quite what they seem, for Mrs Hedges is a brothel keeper and, as she tells Lutie, a good-looking black girl can always earn extra money if she is especially nice to a white man.
But Lutie is not interested. She wants a better, safer life for herself and her nine-year-old son Bub, and she aims to raise herself out of poverty by her own honest endeavours. For the moment, this is all can can afford and anything – well, almost anything – is better than life with her drunken father and his current girlfriend.
Lutie once worked as a live-in a maid/housekeeper/cook for the wealthy, white Chandlers, but in her absence her jobless husband acquires another woman. So Lutie takes her son and moves in with her father. She takes a dead-end job, and scrimps and saves so she can learn the skills needed for an office job.
Proud and independent, she vows she will never be defeated and dejected like others in the street for her time with the Chandlers has given a glimpse of a better way of life (she is particularly impressed with their kitchen) and exposed her to new ideas. She has learned that America is the land of the free, and believes that if she works hard and saves her money she can be independent and will be able to move out of the Harlem slum and create a new life with improved opportunities for Bub.
She has the chance to earn extra money singing in a nightclub for band leader Boots Smith, but nothing is ever finalised, and the cash is never forthcoming. The story gets more complicated, because Jones, the Superintendent at the flats, has initially befriended Bub in the hope that this will endear him to Lutie, but she makes it clear she is not interested, and he is warned off by Mrs Hedges, a friend of Junto, who owns and controls everything in the area and wants to sleep with Lutie… To get his own back, Jones sets Bub up as the fall guy in a scheme to steal letters from tenants in neighbouring blocks, luring the boy with the promise of payment – and Bub, knowing that Lutie needs more money, agrees. He is caught by the police, and Lutie must raise 200 dollars to get him released and keep him out of reform school, so she turns to Boots for help. But she will only get paid if she is nice to Junto – and she won’t sleep with him. Finally, when Boots tries to have his way with she snaps, grabs a candlestick and beats him to death…
The story is told in multiple viewpoints and flashbacks, and there are back stories for many of the characters, so as their pasts are revealed you can understand why they are as they are, even if if you cannot warm to them. Big, fat Mrs Hedges has faced tragedy and destitution with fortitude and courage, and her business may not be legal (or morally acceptable) but she provides a safe home for her girls and ensures they are well fed and well dressed. In many ways she’s as much a victim of life as her girls or Lutie.
Then there’s Jones, the abusive superintendent, who has spent his life in the bowels of ships and buildings, unable to form friendships or relationships with people, but desperately lonely and yearning for a woman. And there is Min, the meek, shapeless woman who lives with Jones and turns to Prophet David for help, though I’m a little unclear whether she wants to him love her or to keep away. At any rate, she recieves a cross to go above the bed (which certainly keeps Jones at bay) and a potion to put in his drink.
And there are the Chandlers, who have their own problems and tragedies, which proves that money can’t buy happiness. And it’s interesting to see how Mrs Chandler’s attitude towards Lutie changes when other people are around – when the two women are alone she is quite friendly, but as soon as people appear the barriers go up and they are employer and employee again.
But the social divide can never be crossed – there’s a gulf between black and white, rich and poor, male and female. The issues that are so much part of Harlem life cannot be overlooked. Towards the end of the novel Petry writes of Lutie:
‘Her thoughts were like a chorus chanting inside her head. The men stood round and the women worked.The men left the women and the women went on working and the kids were left alone. The kids burned lights all night because they were alone in small, dark rooms and they were afraid. Alone. Always alone. They wouldn’t stay in the house after school because they were afraid in the empty, dark, silent rooms. And they should have been playing in wide stretches of green park and instead they were in the street. And the street reached out and sucked them up.’
And she adds:
‘The women work because the white folks give the jobs – washing dishes and clothes and floors and windows. The women work because for years now the white folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough to support their families. And finally it gets to be to be too late for some of them. Even wars don’t change it. The men get out of the habit of working…’
And we know, and she knows, that it’s too late for her, and too late for Bub. There will be no rescue for either of them because they are black and poor, and the system is weighted against them. And it’s such a tragedy, because Lutie is so feisty, and has courage and principles and determination, and she is trying to protect her son and open up a new, better future for him, yet in the end her dreams are shattered and it is she who will be responsible for damaging him beyond repair and ensuring that he will never get that brighter future.
I’d never heard of Ann Petry, but I spotted this Virago edition in Astley Book Farm (the best second-hand book shop I know). Apparently, sales of the novel topped a million and it was the first time a black, female writer achieved success on this scale. She was also the first black, female writer to explore the problems of slum life in a novel. The book was based very much on what she saw during the six years she spent as a reporter in Harlem, and the work she undertook investigating the effects of segregation on children.
If you want to know more about her there’s an interesting (but short) article here and the website also has a video giving a brief history of Harlem, which I found really interesting.
I am SO sorry people. Way back last August I posted a piece in which I volunteered to host Mary Stewart Reading Week to coincide with the centenary of the novelist’s birth on September 17, 1916. I’d acquired a little stack of her novels (from Oxfam – where else!) and I was all set to go. But, as with so many other things last year, it didn’t get done, because I spent so much time with my mother, providing her with a bit of company, chatting about the past, looking at old photos, listening to stories of her childhood, taking her to various appointments, chasing things up and generally sorting things out. Somehow, even when I was at home, I found I was so focussed on her, and so tired (and stressed) that I couldn’t get to grips with much else, though I have just about managed to keep up with my Distant Stitch creative sketchbook course, which has been something of a lifesaver, because however slow I may be I find it so therapeutic to be doing something creative. Now, however, we seem to have the right care package in place, Mum is happy, and I am hoping things really have settled down, so I can relax and try to ‘reclaim’ the activities I enjoy doing.
Anyway, here is a quick piece about Mary Stewart, who was enormously popular for most of the last half of the 20th Century. I thought there was less enthusiasm for her work these days, but her books are still published, so I guess I’m wrong. I admit I didn’t know much about her, but I did a bit of research, so there is a potted biography in my previous post, along with a little bit about her writing. In an effort to get back in to the swing of things I’ve done brief reviews about two re=reads – Touch Not The Cat, which I first read many years ago (long before computers and blogging), and Thornyhold, which I read a couple of years back, but never wrote about.
I have read a couple of her other titles, but I’m not writing about them today, and her brilliant retelling of the Arthurian legends is in a class apart, and deserves a post of its own. As far as the two books mentioned here are concerned, they’re not ‘great literature’ but they are very well crafted, undemanding ‘comfort reads’ – and sometimes that’s exactly what I want!
Touch Not the Cat is, I think, is a classic Stewart tale of ‘romantic suspense’. It’s a love
story, but woven in with that is a thriller, with a mystery
which must be solved before the past can be laid to rest, leaving our hero and heroine free to start their new life together. And on top of all that it’s a supernatural tale.
The plot is a little tricky to explain, but I’ll try to keep it simple. Bryony Ashley returns to her ancestral home after receiving a telepathic message from the man she calls her lover (although she does not know who he is) saying her father has died from injuries received in a hit and run accident. Before dying he uttered a mysterious warning, and as Bryony struggles to discover its meaning she begins to wonder if her father’s death is the accident it appears to be – or are dark forces at work, and was he murdered…
To make matters worse, precious items have disappeared from the house, vital parish registers are missing, a shadowy figure stalks the area, and there is the enigma of the family crest and motto to be puzzled out – involving a maze and the words Touch Not The Cat.
And Bryony is also desperate to find the identity of her telepathic ‘lover’, with whom she has been mentally linked since childhood, and he can hear her as clearly as she hears him. She is convinced her destiny lies with this man, but all she knows is that he must be a family member for, according to legend, the ‘sight’ is a ‘gift’ bestowed on some family members down through the generations. The obvious answer is that the unknown man must be one of her cousins – but the more you see of twins James and Emory, the more you hope it isn’t one of them, because they are so very unpleasant.
The intriguing history of an older love affair involving a long-ago Ashley ancestor plays out alongside Bryony’s story, and there are all kinds of twists and turns in the plot as hidden secrets are revealed, including a clandestine marriage (which explains the identity of the telepathic lover), and events move rapidly towards the cataclysmic climax of the novel (for which the word melodrama might have been coined). Before the requisite happy ending can take place there is a storm, a flood, attempted murder, and the speed of events in this grand finale just takes your breath away.
Re-reading this after so many years, I found that I hadn’t remembered the characters very clearly, or the plot. What had stuck in my mind were the descriptions of Ashley Court, the crumbling old manor house in the Malvern Hills, with its moat, the overgrown garden and maze, and the beautiful old summer house.
Thornyhold has one of the greatest openings I’ve ever read:
I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out. She dwindled from a potential Morgan le Fay into an English vicar’s wife, and ran the parish, as one could in those days – more than half a century ago – with an iron hand disguised by no glove at all.
but I’m not sure the rest of the novel quite lives up to it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely, magical, feel-good novel, and I enjoyed it very much, but I thought the end petered out a bit, and it could have done with a bit more ‘bite’, and there were times when I was reminded of Cold Comfort Farm, and consequently almost decided this was a spoof on idyllic rural romances!
Our narrator is Gilly (Geillis) Ramsey a lonely, unloved child, who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. The one bright spot is a meeting with Cousin Geillis, whose view of life is, to say the least, quite unusual. Years later Cousin Geillis leaves her home to Gilly. Beautiful though it is, the old house has a slightly spooky feel, and the local villagers are all (well, almost all) a little peculiar. And it seems Cousin Geillis was pretty odd as well, for the villagers believe she was a white witch – and Gilly may have inherited her powers.
Gradually, Gilly begins to gain confidence, to find her place in the world, and to know what she wants from life. But her happiness is threatened by the ‘bad’ witch of the village, who covets the man she loves, and Gilly must choose whether to use the power of magic with its dark spells and nightmare dreams, or to rejoice in the ‘sane and daylight world’ of reality and common sense.
Gilly is an engaging heroine, but for me Thornyhold itself takes centre stage. The shabby, dusty old house and its neglected gardens are like a world apart, protected on three sides by woodland, and on the fourth by river, and I liked its sense of history and continuity, and the way that old values still hold sway.
Bonjour mes amis! It’s Paris in July again, thanks to Tamara at Thyme for Tea, who has been running her annual glorification of all things French for seven years, and I’m always amazed at how many different books, films, foods and songs people come up with. I love to see their contributions and, since there is no chance of me making it across the Channel for a holiday, I tend to view this as a kind of ‘virtual trip’ that is not as good as the real thing (obviously) but is, nevertheless, interesting and enjoyable.
I had stuff all planned out, and was going to a post a week but, once again, life has got in the way so I’m late to the party, but I’ve time to get some reviews done before the end of the month.. Originally I aimed to write about The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George, because I’d read reviews which made it sound sound delightful and charming. Books and Paris. What’s not to like, I thought. Quite a lot as it turned out. However, since this is supposed to be a celebration of Paris, all I will say is that it was like drowning in marshmallow. Initially I gave up at around chapter 15, but I did go back and struggle through the rest of it, and wished I hadn’t.
I needed an antidote, so I turned to Jean Rhys who, thank goodness, is neither charming, nor delightful, and exactly suited my mood at that point (I’m a contrary creature, and much as I love her work there are times when I require cheerfulness, and on those occasions she simply will not do). Anyway, if you’re looking for happy endings you won’t find them here. In fact you won’t find happy anything in her work – it is unremittingly bleak. But no-one portrays seedy, Bohemian Paris quite like Rhys, and seedy, Bohemian Paris is exactly what you get in a selection of short stories from The Left Bank (subtitled Sketches and Studies of present-day Bohemian Paris). Her first published work, it was issued in 1927, with 22 short stories, of which nine appear in Tigers are Better-Looking, a later collection which also includes a selection of her other short stories.
I’ve concentrated on some of the tales from The Left Bank which appear in my 1982 Penguin edition of Tigers are Better-Looking. The book also has part of the original preface by Ford Maddox Ford – who gave Rhys her nom de plume (she was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams), launched her literary career, and had a corrosively torturous affair with her (which they both wrote about). Describing her work as ‘very good’, he says her business is with ‘passion, hardship, emotions’ and explains that ‘these sketches begin exactly where they should and end exactly when their job is done’.
I think that’s spot on, especially the last comment. These slender stories are almost snapshots, where events have coalesced at a particular point in time, and Rhys’s pared down writing means there is never a word too many. Come to that there is never a word too few either. There is no back story, and no future – just the grim present, with barely enough information to form a picture of what is happening. And Rhys never judges: she offers neither praise nor censure. Her characters are as they are, and you must accept them that way, however uneasy it may make you feel.
She writes mostly (but not always) about women. They are outsiders, not quite accepted by society, down on their luck, living in cheap hotels or the equivalent of boarding or lodging houses. They are blown hither and thither by the winds of fate, desperately searching for love. Mostly they have no inner resources or strength, no will of their own – they can’t take positive action to change their life, they need a man who who will look after them, tell them what to do, make them feel loved, cared for, needed. Yet the men they meet are no good. They are rotters, on the make, equally adrift in a world they cannot understand. We know know it, and so do the women. Despite everything, on the whole Rhys’ women are survivors, even when they hit rock bottom. In an odd way they are curiously naive, never quite losing hope that something will turn up, while at the same time being honest and clear-sighted enough to know it won’t. And there are odd glimpses of beauty, and you get the feeling that tough though things may be, these women have lived life to the full, and would not have things any different. Like Edith Piaf, they have no regrets.
A handful of the tales are set elsewhere, but they are still peopled with Bohemian drifters, and have that unmistakable ‘left-bank’ feel. Like the women of Paris, alcohol gets these women through their days, and Veronal gets them through the nights. (Veronal was a widely available barbiturate sleeping powder).
One of the few women who makes her own way in life is Miss Bruce, who we meet in Illusion. Tall, thin, and quite old, with large hands, bones and feet and a ‘gentlemanly’ manner, she’s an Englishwoman living and working as an artist in Montparnasse (with limited success). She always wears a neat serge dress in summer, and a neat tweed suit in winter, both outfits completed with low-heeled brown shoes and cotton stockings. And for special occasions she has a black gown of crepe de chine, ‘just well enough cut’.
But her hidden secret is revealed when she is rushed to hospital and the narrator goes with concierge to collect a nightgown, comb and other necessities for the sick woman. They open the door of the plain, sturdy, utilitarian wardrobe and the drab room gives way to ‘a glow of colour, a riot of soft silks… everything that one did not expect. There are cosmetics, perfumes and the most beautiful clothes imaginable – but Miss Bruce has never been seen wearing any of them. Your heart goes out to this plain, sensible, elderly woman who craved a little beauty in her life.
“In the middle, hanging in the place of honour, was an evening dress of a very beautiful shade of old gold; near it another of flame colour; of two black dresses the one was touched with silver, the other with a jaunty embroidery of emerald and blue. There were a black and white check with a jaunty belt, a flowered crepe de chine – positively flowered! – then a carnival costume complete with mask, then a huddle, a positive huddle of all colours, of all stuffs.”
There are more clothes in Mannequin we meet Anna on her first day working as a model for fashion house, where she is to wear the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. At the moment she is wearing the black cotton, chemise-like garment of the mannequin off duty, and she wouldn’t be out of place as a modern super-model:
“… the garment that she wore was very short, sleeveless, displaying her rose-coloured stockings to the knees. Her hair was flamingly and honestly red; her eyes, which were very gentle in expression, brown and heavily shadowed with kohl; her face small and pale under its professional rouge. She was fragile, like a delicate child, her arms pathetically thin. It was to her legs that she owed this dazzling, this incredible opportunity.”
The salon where buyers view the clothes (and the girls who wear them) is sumptuous in white and gold, but elsewhere is dingy. And the glamorous ‘goddess-like’models, with their ‘sensual, blatant charms, and their painted faces’ are envied by the the saleswomen, the dresser, and the sewing girls. But, like the decorated public salon, it’s all artifice. Anna spends an hour putting her make-up on, an hour being draped in a dress. One of the saleswomen pinches her, and she and the other mannequins seem perpetually bored, though they complain they are tired and the work is hard.
Anna tells herself she can’t stick it, but we know she can and she will. She will do this until she loses her figure and her looks, and faces an uncertain future. But, for the moment, she is happy, and walks into the ‘great, maddening city’ clad in a beautifully cut tailor-made and beret. I am not sure what a ‘tailor-made’ is – a suit, or a coat perhaps? Obviously something stylish though.
Actually, looking at what I’ve written so far, this post has changed direction again, because it’s much more about clothes than it should be! This was a re-read, and I’d never noticed before how important clothes in Jean Rhys’ work, and it’s sent me scuttling off to look at some of her other books again. Personally I blame Moira at Clothes in Books, which is one of my favourite blogs, for making me obsessive about clothes.
I’ll just mention one more tale, La Grosse Fifi, and yes, I am going to mention clothes again – Paris is famed for its fashion industry, after all. Here we’re in the Riviera. Roseau has no money, no man, no close friends. She’s bruised by life, tired and depressed. She’s befriend by Fifi, a wealthy older woman with a toy boy in tow. This Fifi.
“… she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with with a rakish, sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast…
“Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled , patent leather shoes.”
Her night attire is just as outrageous. “She was wonderfully garbed in a transparent nightgown of a vivid rose colour trimmed with yellow lace.” But the effect is spoiled by a dirty dressing gown, with the sleeves tied around her neck. Can’t you just visualise her? She sounds grotesque, but she has a heart of gold, and is as needy for love as anyone else – but there is a cruel fate in store for her.
Bother. Trying to change appearance, and I’ve lost the links. Configure links, it said. So I clicked on it. And they’ve vanished! Aha, found them. Right at the bottom. How do I get them back to the side I wonder?
People may have noticed that after a prolonged absence I created a new blog here on WordPress, wrote a couple of posts, and promptly relapsed back into silence. The reason? My mother has been ill, and I have been with her for weeks and weeks, without access to the internet. Hopefully, she is on the mend, but it made us realise she is ‘no spring chicken’, as she herself reluctantly admits – she is 89 this year, but on good days she insists she feels 19 inside! I wish she lived nearer, then I could pop in each day, but she doesn’t, and I can’t, and my brother is even further away, so we now have carers popping in twice a day to lend a hand and check that Mum is OK.
Friends and family have been fantastically supportive, and I was fortunate to get a couple of breaks: on separate occasions my brother and my elder daughter each held the fort so I could return home for a few days. Luckily, my stint as a full-time carer has been short, and I’m picking up the threads of everyday life again, but the experience has left me full of admiration for anyone who cares for a loved one on a long-term basis – they deserve far more help and support than they get, at a far earlier stage.
It was a very worrying time, and dealing with various health and social service authorities became enormously frustrating, but in the end it was the small things that got to me, and the fact that I felt terribly isolated. It sounds very petty to complain, but Mum has no computer, and when it comes to linking in to any kind of modern communications technology the part of Herefordshire where she lives seems to be in something of a black hole. It’s always been a problem when I visit Mum, but it’s more noticeable over a longer period, because there appears to be no reliable ‘hotspot’ that you can link a laptop to, and the mobile phone reception is terrible – there were days when I couldn’t get a signal at all. Even the landline connection is dodgy (though that may be due to Mum’s phone).
I kept thinking how people living in far-flung corners of the world, miles and miles from centres of civilisation, all have access to computer and mobile phones. And what about astronaut Tim Peake, up above in the Earth in the Space Station? He comes across loud and clear when he sends his messages! If he can do it, why not Herefordshire? On the plus side, it gives me an excuse (not that I really need one) to use a picture of the wonderful Tim Peake, who is one of my heroes.
While I was with Mum, various people I spoke to all moaned about how awful communications are (there is no decent broad apparently), and on my return home I caught a news item which confirmed that the county is one of the worst areas in the country, and is unlikely to improve any time in the near future.
However, it did make me reflect on how much life has changed since my childhood, and how everyone (even technophobes like me) has become reliant on ‘instant’ communication, and the immediacy of accessing information. When I was a child people kept in touch by letter (my mother still does), with the odd phone call when necessary. We were one of the few houses in the street with a phone, and in emergencies other people used to knock on our door and ask if they could ring the doctor or whoever, rather than running to the public phone box round the corner. We had a ‘party line’, which meant we somehow shared it with another house – I’m not sure exactly how this worked, because I think we each had our own number, but it meant we couldn’t use the phone if they were on it, and vice versa. And if they were using their phone you could hear their conversation if you picked up our phone. We used to replace the receiver very quickly, because it would have been very rude to listen in, but we did occasionally hear some very odd snippets of conversation!
Remembering that made me think of Gladys Taber’s comments on using a telephone in the Stillmeadow Daybook. I was introduced to this lovely volume by Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm when she followed Gladys over the course of a year, using excerpts from the book to highlight the author’s thoughts on life. And she had very definite thoughts about telephones:
Well, much has been written about the country telephone. Ours rings apparently without reason, and with nobody on the other end. If we try to call anyone, we get five people in odd places who are justly annoyed at being summoned when we do not want to talk to them anyway. If I get called to the phone, I always hear another conversation going on, and I get so bemused listening to that that I never hear my own.
After being on a nine-party line for years, we graduated to a two-party line. We felt elated, but it was a short-time elation. For now we only have a sort of dual conversation with the other party on at the same time. And if I get on, as I rarely do, I always hear this clear clipped voice saying, ‘is this the New York Medical Center?’
Gladys may have been writing about her life in rural America, but it certainly echoes my experiences in a small English town.
Anyway, I came back from Mum’s feeling grateful for all the things I have – family, friends, house and so on. And it seemed to me that somehow, when communications were less frequent, we had more time for each other, and still managed to keep in touch with people when it really mattered, and to show how much we cared. And I thought it would be nice to try and start writing letters on a more regular basis, to my mother, my brother, my daughters, and my friends, just to show I’m thinking of them.
Well, I seem to have had another of those huge gaps when I haven’t written anything for ages and, as usual, I can’t offer any explanation, except life got in the way. I think for months and months I concentrated so bard on losing weight for our Elder Daughter’s wedding, that I didn’t have any energy for anything else! Anyway, the Wedding has been and gone, and just before that we had Younger Daughter’s Graduation (her second!), and before that was New Year, and Christmas, and all sorts of other things.
Now, since this blog is supposed to be about books, I’m catching up on the few books I’ve read during the last few months – and I’ve moved to WordPress, because I’ve always struggled with Blogger, especially when it comes to uploading photos, and it seems a good time to make a fresh start.
My new ‘home’ is a bit of a Work in Progress at the moment while I decide exactly what I want it to look like, and what format it will take. Books, of course, will still loom large, but I want to include a bit more on Life in General, incorporating some of the things I used to wrote about in my original blog (http://chriscross53.blogspot.co.uk/), like walking, places I visited, local history, and things that please me. Quite apart from my struggles with Blogger, I think both the old blogs – and me – got a little tired and jaded, so by rolling them in together I’m hoping to come up with something brighter.
And there are few technical glitches I need to sort out. I’ve imported all my Book Trunk archives, but those old categories will have to go – there are far too many of them, and they’re very unwieldy. Then I need to work out whether I can transfer the links to my favourite bloggers, or whether it’s easier to set them up again, and if so, how!
It’s been a while since I wrote anything here, but I seem to have been busy doing all sorts of other things, and never did get round to post reviews on some of the bools I read for All Virago, All August. My track record on joining in challenges and read-alongs is not very good I’m afraid – I always seem to fall by the wayside. However, that doesn’t deter me and, like many other bloggers, I can’t resist The 1924 Club, jointly organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.
They want us all to spend a week in October reviewing books published in 1924, and they say we can include posts which have already appeared, as well as ‘new’ reads. My first reaction was one of sheer horror, because I cannot recollect when any of the books I’ve read were written or published. But when I looked at some of the suggested titles, and the ideas listed by other bloggers, I realised I’ve already written about some books from 1924 (Pink Sugar, by O Douglas, for example). And a quick rootle through the shelves revealed Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street (which I’ve read) along with The Rector’s Daughter, by FM Mayor (which I haven’t) and Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph (ditto). So I should have something to write about between October 19 and 31, which is when The 1924 Club takes place.
The idea, according to Simon and Karen, is to get everyone reading from a particular year. “It could have been many different years, really,” explains Simon on his blog. “But 1924 seemed to have a lot of significant works published, as well as generally being an interesting time. If the project is a success, we can repeat it in the future with other years.”
You’ll find all the details you need at Simon and Karen’s blogs (just click on the links above). They will issue posts so you can link your reviews, and a final round-up, so each participant can see what everyone else has read.
On the theory that example is better than precept, I went out yesterday to rake leaves. This is a job that must be done slowly, in a reflective mood. Also, one must first find the rake. I found it, final, under the pile of leaves raked up last weekend, so the visiting small cousins would have a place in which to practice standing on their hands.
Next, one must lean on the rake handle, admiring the scenery, the magnitude of leaf-fall and one’s own courage, the sunny autumn day, and life in general.
November in the garden can be damp, dull and drear, but I love the way that in Rural Free, A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living, author Rachel Peden manages to link the life of the tree with her own life as a farmer’s wife in Indiana, and how she turns what could be a boring, repetitive task into a meditation, moving from past to present to future, reaching the conclusion that perhaps, after all, she and the tree have both left their mark in their world.
Lovely leaves – at the moment they’re covering much of the Castle Grounds in Tamworth.
I think Rachel is quite right, with her reflections, and found myself thinking along similar lines when I walked in the Castle Grounds earlier this week. There were great drifts of leaves piles up under trees, and in the little, corners where no-one goes, and ridges and furrows of them along the edges of the paths, and a scattering of raggedy yellows, browns and reds blowing across the lawns. It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze, and leaves were falling from the trees like great golden snowflakes and slowly floating to the ground, which was quite magical, and I stood and watched, and thought about how the trees have changed over the year, from the bare branches outlines against the sky and the snow at the start of the year, through the green haze of spring to the lush growth of summer – and now they are returning to that earlier, dormant state. Rachel goes on to explain:
While my leaf mountain grew, I thought over some of the summer’s events that occurred while those trees were growing old. A tree’s fiscal year begins with the separation of one crop of leaves from its branches, where already by that time the tight, pale-brown knobs of next year’s leaves are formed, to swell and shrink all winter, according to the fluctuations of temperature and moisture.
Raking up long swaths I reflect that the tree works all year to produce this annual accomplishment, for me to scoop up and carry to the midden behind the barn, where leaves will grow soggy and disintegrate. For the tree, leaves are like my daily chores, of meals, bed-making, floor-sweeping, laundry, which take perpetual energy and leave no record.
This started out as a Garden Gaze piece, looking to see what gardening gurus think we should be doing this month, but I seem to have been led astray (up the garden path, perhaps). Rachel’s book is not about gardening – it’s about her life in general, and was published in 1961, arising out of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the 1950s, and it’s an absolute joy. I discovered it through Nan atLetters from a Hill Farm, (thank you Nan!) and it is an absolute joy. Similar in tone and outlook isStill Meadow Daybook, byGladys Taber, who also wrote press articles about her life on a Connecticut farm at a similar period. Nan spent a year exploring the women’s lives and writing, and you can find her postshere– do pop over and take a look.
Unlike Rachel, Gladys has no gardening advice to offer this month, but she gives us this wonderful view of the countryside:
After the leaves come down, the countryside has an open look. New vistas appear, hills unseen when summer’s wealth of green is spread, now stand, blue and hazy, in the distance. In the cropped fields the browns and copper and smoky tan make a smoky symphony, not as dramatic as the blaze of October, but lovely to look at.
Autumn colour featureslarge in a piece by Katherine Swift, whois entranced by the view from her window – her account of the glorious trees she can see reads like a description of bonfire night. Her trees send up ‘incendiary’ rockets of scarlet and gold, they they flush, darken, fizz and collapse ‘into glowing embers’, until they’re finally extinguished by wind and snow. However, she has some sound (and reassuring) advice about bulbs inThe Morville Year, telling us:
And there is still time to plant those bulbs. I have often been reduced to planting bulbs at Christmas or even on New Year’s Day, and they seem to come to no harm. There is even an argument deliberately delaying planting now that our autumns and early winters are so mild and wet. According to tulip-grower Steve Thompson, tulips will not start to make roots until the soil temperature drops below 520F(110C), so if planted too early, the argument goes, they will sit dormant in wet soil, at the mercy of slugs and susceptible to diseases.
Don’t worry, she says. Chill out. I find this cheering. Even the Provincial Lady is ahead of me when it comes to bulbs – remember how Lady Boxe chastised her for planting indoor bulbs late? But the PL got them into pots on November 7, whereas mine are still reclining (minus soil) in old plastic dishes in the Futility Room. Note to Self, as the PL would say, Must Plant Bulbs.
I thought I’d left it too late to plant bulbs, but according to Katherine Swift I should still be OK, so I’m going to stick them in pots tomorrow…
Finally, I can’t resist Karel Capekwaxing lyrical inThe Gardener’s Year, about the joys of digging and the right kind of soil… my grandfather would have enjoyed this, he was a great believer in the importance of digging.
Getting dug in: An illustration from The Gardener’s Year by Capek’s brother Josef.
Yes, in November the soil should be turned over and loosened: to lift it with a full spade gives you a feeling as appetizing and gratifying as if you lifted food with a full ladle, with a full spoon. A good soil, like good food, must not be either too fat, or heavy, or cold, or wet, or dry, or greasy, or hard, or gritty, or raw; it ought to be like bread, like gingerbread, like a cake, like leavened dough; it should crumble, but not break into lumps; under the spade it ought to crack, but not to squelch; it must not make slabs, or blocks, or honeycombs, or dumplings; but, when you turn it over with a full spade, it ought to breathe with pleasure and fall into a fine and puffy tilth. That is a tasty and edible soil, cultured and noble, deep and moist, permeable, breathing and soft – in short, a good soil is like good people, and as is well known there is nothing better in this vale of tears.
Sunday morning is here again, so I shall try to gather my thoughts and decipher my notes and come up with a few brief comments on some tales from The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Actually, I visited my Younger Daughter in London on Thursday and planned on calling at the shop and treating myself to a couple of volumes when, but I left the address at home! However, I’m planning a mini-tour round the Bloomsbury area on a future visit (I like to have something to look forward to), and I might get Cheerful Weather for a Wedding, and A Writer’s Diary, neither of which is a short story, and that is what this post is supposed to be about. So here goes… Three from the early 1940s…
It All begins Again, by Helen Hull, published in 1941, was not one of my favourites. Set in America (just before the US joined WW2) it centres on Mary Bristol, now in her mid-seventies, widowed, and recovering from illness. Despite having made a decision never to live with any of her children, she agrees to spend the summer with her daughter Vera, son-in-law Clem at their country house. Mary is reluctant to fall in with Vera’s plan, but lacks the strength to offer any opposition.
Vera was like that, insistent and unsubtle in projecting upon someone else the necessity for doing what she herself wished. Mary liked showing her up, and perhaps one reason she didn’t want to live with her daughter was that she knew she’d have to hold her tongue. It was one thing to catch Vera up in an afternoon call, when Vera could take her injured feelings home and forget them in some new scheme. But under one roof!
That doesn’t augur well for the future, does it? A happy family life would not appear to be on the cards at all. And what kind of relationship does Mary have with Vera? What kind of mother likes to show her daughter up?
As news of the war in Europe filters through Mary remembers other times and other conflicts. She recalls her childhood, when he father returned from a Southern jail, sick and shattered by his experiences fighting in the Civil War. She thinks about her husband Will, and Tom, their elder son, who died after WW1, ‘the neat surgery job done on his interior after Verdun being inadequate for many years of service’. And she listens to her grandchildren, Hilda and Bill, both engaged in conflicts with their parents as they try to select their own paths through life and love.
In some ways Mary reminded me of Lady Slane in Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, perhaps it’s simply because they are both elderly women who don’t really like their grown-up children much, reflecting on the past. But I didn’t find Mary a very sympathetic character (I think it was that early comment about liking to show her daughter up that put me off), and the tone is darker and bleaker. Mary takes a wider view of humanity than Lady Slane does, and she doesn’t like what she sees. She’s not looking to recapture the girl she once was, or to achieve personal peace, harmony and a balance in life – she’s searching for answers to the chaos around her, and her bitterness and despair shows through. There’s a sense of disillusionment here I think.
A land where a man can be free, and his children after him, she thought. Free? We have thought the world was run for us, that we could go on turning always in those narrow, petty, selfish cells. We are losing them again, peace freedom. We had the only as a promise. My father, my sons, and now these children. They have lost them, having no dream to hold them safe, to strive to keep them. They are blind and empty, passionless…
Defeat, by Kay Boyle, was written in the same year as It All begins Again,but is much more to my taste. We’re in Europe, watching French soldiers making their way home after the fall of France.
They had found their way back from different places, by different means, some on bicycle, some by bus, some over the mountains on foot, coming home to the Alpes-Maritime from Rennes, or from Clermont-Ferrand, or from Lyons, or from any part of France, and looking as incongruous to modern defeat as survivors of the Confederate Army might have looked, transplanted to this year and place (with their spurs still on and their soft-brimmed, dust-whitened hats), limping wanly back, half dazed and not yet having managed to get the story of what happened straight. Only, this time, they were the men of that tragically unarmed and undirected force which had been the French Army once but was no longer, returning to what orators might call reconstruction but which they knew could never be the same.
Isn’t that a haunting scene? And doesn’t it paint the image so clearly? Boyle tells you everything you need to know about the general situation, then moves seamlessly into the way it affects individuals. Here we have two escaping soldiers, who meet with great kindness from a courageous young schoolmistress with French flags and red, white and blue bunting – an act of defiance against the Nazi Occupation. She gives the fresh clothing, and food, and they agree that ‘a country isn’t defeated as long as its women aren’t’. There is more kindness at a farm, where the duo eat bread and soup, and enjoy a glass of red wine before being shown to the attic where they can sleep.
Then, in a small town, on July the Fourteenth – the French national holiday – grim reality intrudes, and you suddenly realise that not all women were as brave as the schoolmistress, and that many people did what they could to survive, even if it meant fraternising with the enemy. After his return home one of the soldiers describes what happened, and is surprisingly charitable as he tries to make sense of events. But he has tears in eyes as he thinks about it.
I loved this story. It was sad and reflective, offering a very personal view of life in France in the early days of Occupation. And I found it especially interesting read alongside Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries, Few Eggs, and No Oranges, and the comments she makes about the Fall of France, and the Vichy Government, and General de Gaulle, and the Occupation. I must find a decent history about war-time France, and try to find out a little more.
Finally, I can’t forget Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Evening, Mrs Craven, writtenin 1942, whichfeatures in a collection of her short stories published under this title (also produced by Persephone), which I reviewed here, and I think every single one of the tales is an absolute gem: the author’s prose and characterisation are faultless. You can tell I’m a huge fan of Mollie Panter-Downes, and if you read nothing else in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, you should read this one. It is quite, quite perfect. Better still, buy the MPD collection, then you can read them all!
Diary of a travelling, scooter riding, wildlife rescuing, play reading, socialising penguin who lives in Tasmania and collects vintage Penguin books. See who I am, how to contact me and the list of all the vintage Penguin books I have collected dated 1935-1970. (See links just below.)
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.