A quick update for those of you who love Beryl Bainbridge! Annabel (Gaskella), over at Annabel’s House of Books has now posted links to all the reviews people wrote for Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week. It’s always interesting to read other people’s ideas about authors and books, and there are some lovely reviews which make me want to dash off and Buy More Beryl! So a huge thank you to Annabel for organising the Week, and if you haven’t already seen it, please dash over to her blog and take a look at the wrap-up post.
And, finally, the third Beryl Bainbridge novel. The Dressmaker. Full details of the week, organised by Annabel, can be seen on her blog, Annabel’s House of Books. The link to her first review is here. Here we have 17-year-old Rita, a lonely, old-fashioned girl, brought up by her aunts after the death of her mother. There is Nellie, a dressmaker, rigid in her outlook on life, who raises Rita exactly as she herself was raised, and keeps everything in the house the way it was when her own mother (Rita’s grandmother) was alive, and still follows the code of conduct laid down by her mother. And there is widowed Marge, who smokes, and works in a factory, and likes a good time (when she can get it), and wears unsuitable, rather flamboyant clothes. Her chance of remarrying was wrecked by Nellie and their brother Jack, who is actually Rita’s father, although she calls him Uncle Jack.
Apparently most (if not all) of Bainbridge’s early work was based on her own childhood, and one can only feel sorry for her if her home was as cold and cheerless as Rita’s. As with so much of her work there is no warmth or cheer in this house, no love or human contact. At one point Marge reflects:
“Jack and Nellie had moulded Rita, cramped her development, as surely if they had copied the Chinese, binding the feet of infants to keep them small.”
Small wonder that Rita falls in love with an American soldier (this is World War Two, and the Yanks are camped just down the road). Immature for her age, she is obsessed by Ira, and imagines a future where they will lie side by side as husband and wife (but her imagination doesn’t take her any further than that). All her life she has been waiting for him. He, as everyone else can see, is no good, but she is convinced he must love her, and refuses to take the hint when he tries to drop her. It is heart-breaking to read how she chases him, writes to him, begs and pleads.
In contrast we also follow the fortunes of neighbour Valerie Mander, much-loved daughter of wealthy parents, who is everything Rita is not – good looking, well-dressed, smart, clever, confident, able to take care of herself and is about to become engaged to American Chuck, who is handsome, polite, thoughtful, and well to do (and not at all like Ira). They are a golden couple with, one hopes, a golden future ahead of them.
But we know there is no such happiness for Rita. The story moves inexorably towards the climax, which is both shocking and unexpected, and is precipitated by Marge, which is ironic since she is the aunt who appears to be more loving and sympathetic towards Rita. But Marge knows about men, and Ira, who wants a woman rather than a callow, inexperienced girl, recognises that fact, and it leads to disaster.
The Bottle Factory Outing – this is the second book I read for Beryl Bainbridge Week, and I loved it, but I’m going to try and keep my comments very short, because we are at the end of the week, and I haven’t got much time. And it is a very difficult to write about this book without including spoilers, so anyone who is bothered by that had better stop reading now!
Freda and Brenda share a room in a run-down lodging house in Hope Street, which is a bt of a misnomer really. You’d need to be pretty optimistic about life, the universe and everything to survive here for very long. The two women work in a wine bottling factory, where virtually everyone else is Italian, and they couldn’t be more different.
They met at a butcher’s shop,when Brenda burst into tears as the butcher asks: “Giving the old man a treat are you?” Her husband has left her, she says… so Freda takes her away. But it turns out that Brenda has been economic with with the truth and that she is the one who left, because she couldn’t stand her husband coming home drunk from the Little Legion every night and peeing on the front step..
Leaving the marital home must have been one of the few occasions that Brenda makes a decision and initiates any kind of action. Despite her respectable background (private school, music lessons) she is, as Freda says, a born victim. She has stringy red hair, a thin face and short-sighted blue eyes, and thinks all the men are after her. And so they are, despite her unprepossessing appearance and lack of backbone. Perhaps it’s her acquiescence they like. She wouldn’t say boo to goose. She doesn’t like chaos, or being the centre of attraction, or making a fuss, or upsetting people, or hurting their feelings – so she ends up doing and saying things she doesn’t want. But for all that she’s a realist, and doesn’t harbour any illusions about life has to offer. “She felt it was unwise to see things as other than they were,” Bainbridge tells us.
Freda, on the other hand, is a fantasist who refuses to see life as it is. Freda has a smooth, white skin, shining yellow hair, big blue eyes with curved lashes, and a rosy mouth. She sounds like a beautiful china doll, so it comes as a bit of surprise when you read on and find that:
“She was five foot ten in height, twenty-six years old, and she weighed sixteen stone. All her life she had cherished the hope that one day she would become part of a community , a family. She wanted to be adored and protected, she wanted to be called little one.”
Freda is in love with Vittorio, trainee manager and nephew of factory owner Mr Paganotti, and is convinced he reciprocates her feelings. But he has his eye on a nice, quiet, Italian girl, and is scared of Freda, whose personality is as overbearing as her figure – she is very assertive (some might say aggressive). And things come to a head when she organises a staff Outing so she and Vittorio can get to know each other better.
What follows is positively farcical, but the humour is very dark indeed. Nothing goes right on the day of the Outing. The van booked to transport people to a stately home in the country doesn’t turn up, so most of the staff are sent home. The favoured few set off in two cars, and end up at what I think must be Windsor Great Park – and Freda ends up dead (sorry about the spoiler). No-one wants to involve the police, so they take the body home and pickle it in brandy in a wine cask.
One of the party confesses to being responsible for her death, but questions remain. Is he really responsible? Was it an accident? Was it murder? Was he following orders? Or covering up for someone else?
We’re in classic Bainbridge territory, with two wildly disparate (and rather unlikable) protagonists, and a cast of others who are just as separated from society, including a randy Italian, a drunken Irishman, Brenda’s mad mother-in-law, who appears at the house in Hope Street flourishing a gun. As ever, none of these people listen to each other or make any kind of emotional connection. They are like trains running on single tracks which never converge, although they do occasionally cross each other.
Beryl Bainbridge Week was otganised by Annabel, at Annabel’s House of Books, and her first post of the week is here.
I wrote this earlier in the week, for Beryl Bainbridge Week, which is hosted by Annabel at Annabel’s House of Books. and went off to my elder daughter’s for a few days, expecting to be able to neaten this up and add a bit more. I had stuff in draft, and copied into Google docs so I could use my tablet, but I can’t have done it right, because WordPress wouldn’t let me do anything, which means I am a bit late, but it is the 19th, and the week ends today, so I’m just in time. And I’ve got part-written posts for two other. Beryl Bainbridge books which I will try and post later this evening.
I don’t want to the Beryl’s week, because I love her work. I love her spikiness, the pared back prose, the dark humour, the acerbic wit, and the way her characters never quite seem to engage with each other. And there are few writers who can match her when it comes to portraying the small details of social class that might easily go unnoticed. So I’m posting this now, and hope that is OK
So here we are, my thoughts on A Quiet Life, where the sense of disassociation is very strong. Even the landscape seems alienated, with grim houses and a bleak beach. And the period is equally isolated – late 1940s, after the war, but well before any benefits of peace have arrived, so it’s neither one nor the other. However, the novel opens 25 years later, as brother and sister Alan and Madge meet for the first time in 15 years, following the death of their mother. Madge, never one to observe the social niceties of life, is late. Alan (as ever) is anxious and disgruntled. The tone is set from the outset:
“Madge hadn’t even bothered to turn up the funeral. Instead she had sent that distasteful letter written on thin toilet paper, from some town in France, suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve ‘Rest in Peace’ on the Tombstone.”
That one sentence tells you lots about the people involved in this tale. There’s Madge, who flouts convention, is very outspoken and doesn’t mind what people think. And there’s Alan (throughout the novel we see things from his point of view), who is conventional, strait-laced, and worries a lot about doing the right thing and what the neighbours will say. And then there are their warring parents.
Seeing Madge disturbs Alan, and makes him think of the past, which he doesn’t enjoy. In his opinion she hasn’t moved on and accepted the present.”She didn’t rearrange her face the way Joan had managed to do over the years, the way he had,” he thinks. And with that we’re back in post-war Liverpool, looking at their dysfunctional childhood, and pondering how the same events produce two people with such divergent views of the past and such differing strategies for coping with life.
The novel covers a few months leading up to the father’s death, Themes of perception and the nature of memory run through the novel. Just as Madge and Alan see the past from different perspectives, so each of their parents can give a different account of their tortured marriage. Is there a right or wrong way to view these things I wonder? And is anyone ever a reliable witness of their own past, I wonder? Or anyone else’s, come to that?
Alan is 17 and he wants a quiet life. He’s not a loner – he has friends. and even acquires a girlfriend. But he’s built a kind of shell around himself as protection from the quarrels and shouting at home. His own emotions become deadened as he tries to take no notice of what is happening around him, and ensures that others take no notice of him. Yet at the same time he craves affection, and wants recognition for the fact that he is good and causes no trouble. He goes to youth club, and church, and rides his bike; anything to get out of the house, which is as cold and cheerless as the relationship between his parents.
Madge, two years younger, is equally anxious to escape, and sneaks off, barefoot, to be with a German prisoner of war, much to her brother’s horror. Actually, he’s shocked by her behaviour generally. She doesn’t suppress what is happening at home – I think her only way of coping is to acknowledge the situation, and to be outrageous, to shock and embarrass. Unlike Alan, she doesn’t mind what other people think. She’s noisy where he is quiet, extrovert where he is introvert, very independent and more aware of people’s feelings.
In their own ways both youngsters are trying to come to terms with their parents’ animosity towards each other.It is one toxic marriage, and the couple are so wrapped up in their own hatred and misery they haven’t the energy or the inclination to provide anything remotely resembling a loving parental relationship with their children, or to take any interest in their emotional well-being. You wonder how such a disparate couple ever met (on a No 22 tram, apparently), and what drew them together.
The family once lived in a big house, with a maid, but the father (a businessman, though the exact nature of his business is never disclosed) lost his money, and now they live in genteel semi-detached poverty. However, they still have a car and Alan attends a private school (albeit a third rate one), but puts him a cut above the grammar school boys, so his girlfriend’s mother regards him as a good catch.
The father not well educated, and is fussy, controlling and frighteningly bad tempered. He thinks his wife (Connie) is having an affair with one of his friends – but she spends every evening reading in the railway station waiting room. She’s better educated, and from a higher social class, but everything seems to be for show: they live in the cramped kitchen, because the lounge reserved for visitors.
And when it comes to visitors there’s a hilarious description of a Sunday afternoon tea when Connie’s parents and the father’s sister (aunt Nora) visit. People talk, but no-one listens, and everyone seems to be having a lone conversation, so the things they say bear no relation to what anyone else says or the questions they’ve been asked. It’s quite surreal really, and very funny, but sad at the same time.
This week’s Saturday Snapshot photos were taken during a recent visit to Worcester Cathedral, and show the tomb of King John – think Robin Hood (only that turns out to be just a story), Magna Carta, and Crown Jewels lost in the Wash.
These days there’s a tendency for historians to take a revisionist view of the past, so figures once considered bad turn out out to be good (and vice versa). King John, however, remains an unreconstructed villain. He had few supporters in his own time, and the general view of him as a thoroughly bad lot and very unpleasant person has stayed largely unaltered in the 800 years since his death.
I’ve always been interested in him because when I was a child we lived at Egham, and that’s where Runnymede is – the meadow by the River Thames where Magna Carta was sealed on June 15, 1215.
I have to say that the tomb is not as grand as I expected, but I guess that’s because it’s got a little worn over the centuries. Originally, I think it would have been painted with bright colours and would have shone with gold. However, some of the gilding is still there, and there are red and gold shield-like plaques showing the royal lions of England, so you get a sense of what it must have been like, and you know the body of a king is buried here.
The tomb is in front of the High Altar, and there some excellent information plaques in the cathedral, but I am a little confused as to which bits were installed when. There must have been an earlier tomb, because the effigy and a new sarcophagus were ordered by John’s son Henry III in 1232, but it was opened in 1529 when, according to the cathedral website, the box part was added (there is a stone coffin inside it). And it was opened again in 1797 for an ‘antiquarian study’ of the body, which sounds grisly. On that occasion someone took a thumb bone and two teeth from the body. I saw the teeth at Worcester Museum, and was surprised at how large they were, and how yellow, but I couldn’t get a picture. Like I just said, grisly!
Anyway, I digress. On his tomb King John is shown carrying a drawn sword which apparently, is very unusual, since swords on tombs are normally sheathed. And the tip of the sword is in the mouth of an animal at the the king’s feet. Now I thought this was a dog, but when I got home I watched a repeat of the BBC programme The Last Journey of the Magna Carta King (first broadcast last year), and the experts on that said it’s a lion, which is not common on tombs, and they got terribly excited, and said it’s all very symbolic, and I just wish I had taken a few notes so I could understand what they were talking about!
And there’s more symbolism at the other end of the tomb, because there’s a small carved head on each side of John’s crowned head. And I must be some kind of Philistine, because as I looked at them all I could think of was Zaphod Beeblebrox! If you’ve never come across him, he’s the former President of the Universe in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy, and he has two heads…
Anyway, I digress (again). One of the little heads at John’s side is St Wulfstan, and the other is St Oswald, but I have no idea which is which. They look as if they are perched on John’s shoulders, so their heads are taller than him, although they are smaller. I’m not sure if saints take precedence over kings, which puts them on a higher level than John, or whether they are simply offering protection as they gaze down from heaven. Personally I find them a bit spooky, but there we are. Everyone has different tastes. Apparently Wulfstan and Oswald were John’s favourite saints, with major shrines in Worcester, which may explain why he chose to be buried there.
John died unexpectedly, and was buried in a hurry. Events during the final few days of his life seem confusing. By October 1516 civil war had broken out and the rebel barons, who held huge swathes of the country, had invited Louis of France to take the throne of England. John marched east towards rebel strongholds in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but was taken ill, probably with dysentery. As his condition worsened he turned towards Nottinghamshire, taking a longer, safer route, while his baggage train – reputedly carrying royal treasure which included the crown jewels – followed a shorter route across the treacherous sands of the Wash… And I’m sure you all know what happened next…
Precise details are unclear, but men, animals, wagons and treasure all disappeared, sucked beneath the quicksand, or swept away by the incoming tide. The exact location of the disaster remains a mystery, and no-one has ever found any trace of the lost treasure.
John travelled as far as Newark, where he died on October 18 or 19 (accounts vary). Shortly before his death he dictated a brief will, which is kept in the library at Worcester Cathedral. It’s the oldest royal will will to survive in its original form, and is kept in the cathedral library. In it John outlined the way his kingdom should be ruled during his son’s minority (Henry was just nine years old when John died), and stated: “I will that my body be buried in the church of St. Mary and St. Wulfstan of Worcester”.
According to the cathedral information boards John died in agony, and his servants ran away, taking everything they could carry. Next day the monk John de Savigny found John’s naked, unguarded body covered with a cloth. He prayed for the dead king, and dressed him in what came to hand. A troop of mercenaries took the body to Worcester, but the king’s heart was buried at Croxton. Soon after his death rumours circulated claiming that he had either been poisoned, or had died of a ‘surfeit of peaches’ (I have no idea what constitutes a surfeit when it comes to peaches, but I dare say eating too many of them could make you very ill indeed). However, modern historians believe he died of dysentery.
Edited, 5.20pm: Realised The Last Journey of the Magna Carta King is on BBC iPlayer, so I watched it again. Apparently the lion on the tomb represents the World, and the damaged sword is the king’s power (it hasn’t been broken by time, but was made like that), and the two things together represent the king dealing with a world in rebellion.Sometimes I wonder if people read too much into things…
*Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mommy. Click on the link to see pictures from other participants.
Viragos are addictive. I’m talking (mainly) about the old green-spined VMCs with reproductions of paintings on the front covers. They are so alluring I cannot resist them, and wherever I go I end up scouring second-hand book stores and charity shops in search of treasures. Fortunately, the Man of the House is never averse to browsing book shelves, but he occasionally wonders if I should work my way through a list of Viragos I Haven’t Got, ordering them online, possibly on a weekly basis. I do order online, when there’s a title I’m desperate to read, but it’s the thrill of the hunt I love, and the random nature of the finds.
I’m really pleased with these two Miles Franklins. I’ve got a more recent edition of My Brilliant Career, which is one of my favourite books, but I prefer the cover on this. That’s the danger with becoming obsessive about Viragos: you end up buying books that you already have.
And you end up buying books that you’ve read but didn’t really like. Precious Bane is an example. The words ‘purple prose’ spring to mind when I think of Mary Webb, and I’ve always found it difficult to understand why she was so popular. But I’m happy to give her another go. Edith Wharton’s style is as far from Mary Webb as you could get, but both these novels centre on women on the margins of society.
Virago produced quite of lot of themed anthologies, with excerpts from women writers. The ones on gardening and travellers are brilliant, and the one on convent girls is interesting, so I got these.
This one I have never come across before. It is, apparently, the story of Vita Sackville-West’smother and grandmother. Her grandmother, Josefa (known as Pepita), was the half-gypsy daughter of a Spanish pedlar who sold old clothes and became the mistress of an English nobleman. Her illegitimate daughter Victoria was something of a social outcast, but married her cousin and was in charge of one of the great houses in England. It sounds as if the lives of both women were as colourful and unconventional as Vita’s own life, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.
Then there’s these two, which fell off the stack and aren’t in the main photo. Ena Chamberlain’s 29 Inman Road is another book I’ve never encountered before. It’s an autobiography of her childhood in London during the 1920s, and it interests me because my father grew up in London during the same period. I’ve already got several novels by Kate O’Brien but, I am ashamed to admit, haven’t read any of them, and I feel very guilty. To be honest, if I didn’t buy any more books, and I only read Viragos, they would keep me going for months and months.
Has anyone read any of these? And does anyone else find themselves collecting books, even if they already have that book, or don’t like the author?
I’ve had a busy week and forgot about sorting out a Saturday Snapshot, and now I’m off to see my younger daughter. So, to keep things going (after all, I’ve only just got started again), here’s a quick post with a picture I took of Tamworth Castle back in March, when the trees were still bare. Everything is very lush and green now. I love our castle, which is very small, but very beautiful, and I take lots of photographs of it, from different viewpoints, and different angles, because it looks different depending on the light, the weather. and the time of day, and it seems to change colours in a really magical way.
*Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mommy. Click on the link to see pictures from other participants.
Author Christopher Fowler left a lovely comment on my post about The Water Room, the second novel in his Bryant and May series! I was so surprised and delighted, firstly that he even saw it (and seemed to like it), and secondly that he took the time to respond. I’ve always been fascinated by London’s hidden waterways – the rivers which once ran above ground, but became so polluted they were covered over and channeled underground. I love to think of them, not lost, but still there beneath our feet in a different form. It was one of the things which made me decide to read , and since UA Fanthorpe’s Rising Damp is one of my favourite poems, and the thoughts expressed there are not too dissimilar to the the themes on Fowler’s novel,I thought I’d have a poetry day, and post it here, to read alongside the book.It strikes me that they make very good companion pieces.
It’s a poem to be chanted aloud, and I love the way her list of forgotten rivers sounds like some kind of spell, and the words have an almost hypnotic quality, like you find with football results, or the shipping forecast. And I love her use of words, and the way they echo each other, and the links with old myths about life, death and renewal, and the way these waters can reflect our own lives.
At our feet they lie low,
The little ferment underground
Rivers of London
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
Whose names are disfigured,
These are the Magogs that chewed the day
To the basin that London nestle in.
These are the currents that chiselled the city,
That washed the clothes and turned the mills,
Where children drank and salmon swam
And wells were holy.
They have gone under
Boxed, like the magician’s assistant.
Buried alive in earth.
Forgotten, like the dead.
They return spectrally after heavy rain,
Confounding suburban gardens. They infiltrate
Chronic bronchitis statistics. A silken
Slur haunts dwellings by shrouded
Watercourses and is taken
For the footing of the dead.
Being of our world, they will return
(Westbourne, cages at Sloane Square,
Will jack from his box).
Will deluge cellars, detonate manholes,
Plant effluent on our faces,
Sink the city.
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
It is the other rivers that lie
Lower, that touch us only in dreams
That never surface. We feel their tug
As a dowsers rod bends to the source below.
Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx.
And, since I seem to have a bit of a theme going on, here’s a link to Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, which I reviewed way back in July 2011, but it’s a book that’s always worth reading again because it’s packed with fascinating information about the hidden London that lies beneath our feet, and if you’ve never read it you should!
Recently The Man of the House and I treated ourselves to a last-minute break in Great Yarmouth, to celebrate our birthdays (just three days apart!). We had a lovely, relaxing time, and I had planned to re-read David Copperfield, because of Mr Peggotty’s home on the beach, or Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, since it’s set in The Fens which is, roughly speaking, the same part of the country, and I like to find books with links to places I visit. However, what I ended up reading was The Water Room, by Christopher Fowler, which has no connection whatsoever with Norfolk, or anywhere else in that area, but was absolutely brilliant.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of crime fiction – I don’t like graphic descriptions of dead bodies or deep psychological insights into the minds of criminals. But this isn’t like that at all (although I’m not sure I would describe it as ‘cosy’ either), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Water Room is the second in Fowler’s series about aging detectives Bryant and May (and yes, if you look at his website the names were taken from the matches). The duo, long past retirement age, are the mainstay of London’s Peculiar Crime Unit – and if there isn’t a real police department of that name there jolly well should be! The basic premise seems to be that Bryant and May are Golden Age detectives working in the modern world, but I suspect the pair of them would always have been considered unconventional, even during their early days with the Met in WW2. Actually, I have to admit I’ve never been quite sure what constitutes a Golden Age crime novel, but my TBR pile includes Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, and I’m hoping that will enlighten me (when I eventually get round to reading it).
Anyway, in The Water Room Arthur Bryant and John May get involved when an old friend finds his elderly, reclusive sister dead on a chair in her basement bathroom. Initially all appears normal, but her throat is full of river water. Then Kallie, the new owner of the house, is disturbed by plagues of tiny spiders; she hears the sound of rushing water in the basement, and mysterious damp patches keep appearing and disappearing. There are two more deaths as the long, hot summer is succeeded by the wettest autumn on record. The menacing sense of unease grows as the rain keeps falling, and below ground hidden waters are rising where Balaclava Street crosses the old Fleet River…
As Bryant and May struggle to find the triple killer and prevent another death, they have
another mystery to solve. Why is an old acquaintance
helping a shady Egyptian ‘businessman’ gain access to underground tunnels and waterways which are closed to the general public? Is it possible the cases could be linked? And will the detective duo find the answers before they run out of time, for they have been ordered to drop these unauthorised investigations and concentrate on more important official cases.
The plot was nicely paced and dramatic tension was well maintained throughout – it had me gripped from the outset, so much so that I didn’t want to put the book down. And I didn’t spot the killer until the ‘reveal’, although there are clues along the way, if you know where to look. I liked the way the viewpoint changes, from Bryant, to May, to their individual colleagues in the PCU, to Kallie, to other Balaklava Street residents. And the characters are positively Dickensian (actually, I thought the scope of the whole novel, and the descriptions, was very Dickensian). The cast includes artists, academics with dubious pasts, a white witch, a grasping estate agent, a builder who likes his drink, a strange tramp, and a motherly policewoman who looks like a movie sex goddess. Fowler achieves the difficult task of making them larger than life, while keeping them credible. And his London is an entity as alive and vibrant as his people (another parallel with Dickens I think.It’s meant as a compliment. I like Dickens).
However, as you might expect, it’s Bryant and May themselves who take centre stage. They remind me of the old married couples I used to interview for their golden wedding anniversaries, who would tell me they had their ups and downs, but the secret of a happy marriage lay in pulling together. Bryant and May are like that. They don’t always work in harmony, and they’re complete opposites, but their natures and interests complement each other, with each providing something the other lacks Individually neither would be the greatest detective in the world, but together they are a formidable team with an incredibly strong working relationship.
Arthur Bryant is the maverick, the one who flouts rules to get results. He’s a bit of a loner, very curmudgeonly, and manages to upset everyone without really knowing why, so he’s definitely not what you’d call a ‘people person’. But he cares much more about people, and is more understanding about them than you think than you think. And he has a wide circle of acquaintances, all equally odd, who help when needed. He’s no good with modern technology – mobile phones, computers, cars and goodness knows what else go wrong when he uses them. His clothes are old and and shabby, and he wears a trilby hat and smokes a pipe (Fowler’s tribute to Sherlock Holmes perhaps?) And he’s interested in all sorts of arcane and occult information that could throw light on a case.
John May is neater, tidier, much more organised, and more inclined to follow procedures and keep on top of paperwork. He seems to have embraced modern technology – he’s certainly very good with things like computers and mobile phones. On the face of it he’s more likable than Bryant, better able to communicate with people and empathise with them, so they trust him when he’s interviewing them. He’s a dapper dresser (especially for his age), and a bit of a ladies’ man – an ex-lover features in the story. I think he could be quite a charmer if you met him! But I do wonder how much of himself he reveals.
I think Bryant and May are meant to be in their 80s. But whatever their exact age, Fowler never makes them do anything pensioners wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do, and they are convincing oldies. Bryant is hard of hearing and walks with a stick; neither he nor his partner chase criminals through the streets or wrestle villains to the ground. They don’t sound like a dream team of crime fighters. But they are very tenacious, and their mental faculties are unaffected. They make a connection here and cut a link there as they pick their way through through a tangled web of clues, known facts and information that may have a bearing on their investigations – or may turn out to be completely unrelated.
I loved the wealth of detail, about London, its history, its hidden waterways, Greek and Roman myths and ancient Egyptian beliefs. And if you wonder how much of this stuff is true, the author claims that the most bizarre facts are the truest.
Running through everything are themes of water and home, the lost and the found, death and renewal.. There are hidden waters, hidden lives, hidden objects and hidden people. The question of home, and what makes a home, looms large. Bryant and May are moving back into their old offices (a kind of home, now repaired after an explosion); Bryant has left his landlady and moved to a flat; Kallie has bought her first house, and hopes to make it a real home – but her boyfriend dreams of finding himself through travel and runs away from their home. Heather, her brittle friend and neighbour is more concerned about money and appearances, and there are other residents who are equally unable to make the leap from property owner to home owner. Set against them are the homeless: Tate, the mysterious tramp who haunts the gardens of Balaklava Street; the men in the hostel, and the refugees.
The Water Room is a difficult book to review without giving spoilers. In many ways it’s a difficult book to review at all, which is an odd comment to make considering how long this post is. But it’s tricky knowing where to start, or what to say, because it is so well written, and there are so many different layers and threads you could look at, and so many different aspects to be considered. So I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning: it’s not my usual sort of reading, but it’s unexpectedly brilliant , and I loved everything about it – the way it was written, the characters, and the story.
It’s a long time since I did any Saturday Snapshots, but I thought I’d start again, so here are my photos of snake’s-head fritillaries, taken at the beginning of May. They are the strangest flowers I have ever seen – that chequerboard pattern on the purple petals is amazing. There were a few white ones, which had similar markings, faintly visible, in a different shade of white, but it doesn’t show in photos. A friend says the delicate, drooping heads and the thin stems make them look like fairy plants. I think she’s right, because they have an other-worldly appearance.
They are, apparently, available as garden plants, but are incredibly rare in the wild because their habitats – traditionally managed hay pastures which flood during the winter – are dying out. Many sites were ploughed and drained during World War Two, so food could be grown. Since then water meadows have been lost and damaged through development, use of pesticides and fertilisers, and changes in farming and land management. Here in Tamworth we are lucky because they grow in two places, but this is the first time I have seen them, and I was really thrilled.
Surprisingly, they were growing quite close to the town centre, the Snow Dome and busy roads, on a patch of land known as Egg Meadow, near the River Anker. Another lady who was admiring them said that as a child she lived nearby. The grassland, called The Meadow, was much larger then, and every spring it was covered in snake’s-head fritillaries. I wish I’d asked more questions and found out when.
With that striking pattern on its six petals the plant is very distinctive. It flowers in April and May (providing pollen for early bees), and is about 12 inches high, with long, narrow leaves that could almost be mistaken for grass, and is a type of lily.
It has all kinds of other names, including chess flower, frog-cup, guinea flower, leper lily, chequered lily, and drooping tulip, but its botanical name is Fritillaria Meleagris. I gather that meleagris means spotted like a guinea fowl! Meleager was a Greek hero who was killed by his mother because he killed his brothers and uncle. Women who loved him wouldn’t stop crying, so the Goddess Artemis turned them into guinea fowl (meleagrides). The spots on the feathers are the women’s tears, and the petals look like the feathers. That’s the story anyway.
According to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the other bit of the name, fritillaria, comes from the Latin for dice-box, and dice-boxes were originally chequered (are such items still available?). But when I looked at John Gerard’s Herball or General Historie of Plants (first published way back in 1597, and great fun to read), I discovered a slightly different meaning. “It hath been called fritillaria of the table or board upon which men plaie at chesse which square checkers the plant doth very much resemble, some thinking it was named fritillus,” he says.
Then I had a browse in Familiar Wild Flowers, written and illustrated by Frederick Edward Hulme at the end of the 19th century and, to my delight, I found this: “… in one of the scientific periodicals we find a writer stating, ‘Found by me abundantly on an island in the Tame, near Tamworth, Staffordshire..'”
I’d love to know his source, but he doesn’t attribute any of his quotes. However, the island (Broad Meadow) is still there (now in Tamworth, not near – the town has grown), is still noted for its snake’s-head fritillaries, and is a nature reserve and Site of Special Biological Importance. The plants in the meadow where I took my photos seem to get overlooked, which is a shame.
Anyway, back to names. I wondered if the snake’s-head fritillary was so called because it had once been used as an antidote for snake bites, but it has no medicinal, culinary or cosmetic value, and was never used for dyeing or anything else. It simply acquired its name because the drooping buds look like snake’s heads! It has, says Hulme, no ‘vertues’ and is therefore a ‘great singularity’. He goes onto tell us: “One of our old authors, in speaking of it, says. ‘Of the facultie of these pleasant floures there is nothing set doune in the ancient or later Writers, but are greatly esteemed for the beautifying of our gardens and the bosoms of the beautifull.”
I’m not too sure about the wisdom of beautifying bosoms with fresh flowers. I think it sounds rather uncomfortable. Would they attract bees and other insects? And would you have to keep them damp so they didn’t wilt? But perhaps we need reminding that some things should be esteemed and enjoyed just because they are beautiful.