Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Summer pleasures

There are few things I like more than a bookshop that sells old Penguins, and in Totnes recently I was delighted to an excellent selection. I came away with the eight books below, though I could have bought more if I hadn't been restricting myself to books I really "needed" (my mother-in-law didn't believe you could need a book, an attitude which did little to build bridges between us!)

I realised a while ago that I didn't possess a single book by P.G. Wodehouse – when I wanted to read one I always got it out of the library. Since these institutions are now "information centres" or some such, and no longer believe in the necessity of books (like my mother-in-law), I can't rely on them any more even for the classics. So I was pleased to find both The Code of the Woosters, containing the saga of the Fink-Nottle/Bassett nuptials and the affair of the cow-creamer, and Summer Lightning, in which Lord Emsworth's prize pig is stolen. To re-read these books is to rediscover a wealth of old friends.

Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head is another old acquaintance; in fact I had to leave another of her books because I couldn't remember if I already had it. It's a long time since I read it, so I can't remember what happens, though I do recall the opening chapter, with its family wrangles over the breakfast table, a typical Compton-Burnett scene.

The Angel in the Corner by Monica Dickens was not a book I remembered reading, though I thought I recognised the story of a young woman who makes a disastrous marriage to escape her domineering mother. Lacking the humour of her more autobiographical work, it makes an interesting, if earnest, contribution to my collection of books about the changes in the role of women since Victorian times.

What's Become of Waring by Anthony Powell is new to me, and promises some insight into that fascinating topic, the literary biography. According to the blurb, the death of travel writer T.T. Waring leads to a search for someone to chronicle his life. From what I know of Powell I imagine that, when it was published in 1932, the parade of putative biographers looked eminently recognisable to the literary establishment, and added bite to its wit. I shan't know who the characters represent, but will enjoy it anyway.

Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels are a recently-discovered delight. I can't tell you how much I love her books, and how I treasure every word. They share Wodehouse's gentle farce with Barbara Pym's excellent women, and I know that in due course every single one I can get hold of will be added to my book shelves, regardless of expense (there are quite a few). In Before Lunch (splendid title!) Thirkell creates an infuriating character to rival some of Miss Austen's, though Mr Middleton is admittedly more endearing than some of hers, and entirely lacks the malice of a Mrs Norris. Nonetheless, you find yourself wondering how his wife can bear him with such patience, and admiring her fortitude, particularly when the friend with whom she can exchange the occasional ruefully-raised eyebrow becomes romantically entangled. Summer Half, the second of her books that I bought, is still to be savoured, when I can bring myself to start it – anticipation is part of the pleasure.

Finally, another unknown, The Midas Consequence by Michael Ayrton, a writer perhaps better-known now for his painting and sculpture than for his books, though I fear most people will ask "who?" Some 20 years ago there was an exhibition of his work at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh; I went with my husband, and we fell so in love with one work that we seriously wondered whether we could sell the car to be able to buy it. Sanity prevailed, but I rather wish we had done so. I shall write about both book and artist later, I think, but in the meantime people might like to follow this link to a quite magnificent portrait of Wyndham Lewis in the Tate Gallery.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym

In this gentle, quiet and elegant book nothing very much happens. Emma Howick, a spinster in her thirties, takes up residence in her mother's Cotswold cottage and, in want of a project, decides to write up her anthropological observations of village life. The main players are the stalwarts of the English village, the doctors and their wives, the rector and his sister, the village ladies. Spice is added by the presence of a food critic, Adam Prince, who is what a friend of mine always refers to as a 'spoiled priest', although in Adam's case it is conversion to Catholicism rather than of faith which has led him out of the priesthood. It is Adam, rather than Tom, the rector, who is at ease with the ladies who make up most of his congregation and who, when Tom's sister Daphne leaves him to share a cottage with a friend, encourages him to seek help from the village. Like everything else in the book the request hardly creates a ripple, provoking only a little mild speculation on the part of the parishioners.

There is not much evidence that Emma does any actual writing of her observations, which mainly serve to maintain her distance from any kind of emotional life. Her only impulsive gesture is to write to a colleague with whom she has once had a rather lukewarm relationship. Graham, going through a sticky patch in his marriage, arrives rather precipitately in search of consolation but, finding Emma's lack of enthusiasm off-putting, retreats again. Nonetheless, he does make a second attempt, renting a cottage in the village to finish his book. It is clear that, if Emma will even meet him halfway, there will be an affair. Emma's diffidence in the face of such a half-hearted onslaught is delicately and delightfully drawn.

You know that such an English comedy cannot possibly have a tragic ending, but it would be hard to describe it as happy. I shan't say what happens, but rather suggest that in its depiction of small joys, little disappointments and small sadnesses the book is truer to life than most. Certainly it depicts an England largely gone (Tom's deserted medieval village would probably have been turned into a golf course by now) and Pym's characters are unfashionably reserved by modern standards (and none the worse for that), but it offers the quiet pleasure of reading about genuinely likeable people and amusement at their foibles. The poignancy of Daphne's need for retirement to a Greek island is beautifully handled, and almost unbearable:

Daphne realized that she hated flower arranging altogether. Sometimes she hated the church too, wasn't sure that she even believed any more, though of course one didn't talk about that kind of thing. And Christabel G. hadn't told her what she was to do, just snubbed her and left her standing uselessly by a heap of greenery. Into Daphne's mind came yet another Greek vignette, the memory of an old man on the seashore bashing an octopus against a stone...

There are numerous lovely touches: the appropriately named Daphne who yearns for Greece, and her friend Heather, a brisk creature happy to holiday at home on the Cornish coast; the bossy young doctor's wife, Avice, whose name conjures up her sharp tongue, waspish with her mother Magdalen (whose warm and comfortable nature is being firmly suppressed by her son-in-law). There is the old Dr Gellibrand, who has handed all his elderly patients over to his colleague, just as well since the best advice he can offer is to "get yourself a new hat". And at the centre, probably in a dreary frock, is Emma, named to be a romantic heroine and singularly unable to live up to it. Yet her sense of self-deprecation and humour is equal to an Austen heroine, and there is a strong feeling that, out of her observations of village life might come, not a dry academic paper ("Funeral Customs in a Rural Community") but a wry and affectionate novel. Rather like this one.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Hardback vs paperback revisited

It was pleasant to hear Jane from Books, Mud and Compost on the radio yesterday morning, extolling the virtues of hardback books, a subject dear to the heart of us book bloggers and always bound to provoke a range of opinion. Jane likes hardbacks for their durability, she says, as well as because those she bought as a child often contained their original illustrations. I can see her point, but she did say that she had access to good secondhand bookshops while growing up. This is something I didn't have, and jumble sales weren't a common feature, so my books had to be bought new, and we weren't well off. Not surprisingly, in the circumstances, I was a big fan of Puffin Books, and the name of Kaye Webb, their Editor from 1961, was familiar to me from the title page of most books on my shelf. Early Puffins cost a few shillings and, while I couldn't afford one every week, I could save up and get one every couple of months.

The earliest Puffins I have were bought for me, and one of the most precious of those is Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel, the story of Rosemary, who buys a witch's broom for sixpence and finds that it comes complete with cat. When Rosemary is holding the broom, she can hear the cat speak; of course, he is a Royal Cat, and persuades her not only to free him of the spell which binds him, but also to help restore him to his kingdom. Under Carbonel's somewhat irascible direction, Rosemary and her friend John gather the necessary items to break the spell and the book ends with a battle among the rooftops. Rosemary's genteel but impoverished world of make-do and mend was immediately familiar to the child of theatrical people, and I still read it, and the two books which followed, with a sense of being at home.

Another treasure was Finn Family Moomintroll, and I am fascinated by the recent "discovery" of Tove Jansson, a writer whose poignant stories have been with me most of my life. The Moomins and their extended family and friends live in a valley in Finland, and the first of a series of delightful books tells the story of the finding of the Hobgoblin's hat, which has all sorts of amusing – and scary – repercussions. Jansson wasn't afraid to bring more the more difficult emotions to her whimsical stories, and they address loneliness and disappointment, as well as the warmth and comfort of family life.

Sadly the box with my Puffin collection (and most of my other childhood books) seems to have disappeared somewhere between Scotland and Northumberland (perhaps a casualty of a removal van which broke down halfway!) and many precious books are gone. Clearing out my stepbrother's house after his death reinstated a few of the best, notably C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, and it was wonderful to see familiar covers again (I am particularly fond of the Pauline Baynes' illustrations for the Narnia Chronicles). I'm gradually replacing some of the others, and was delighted last year to find a copy of Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White. Like the Andrew Lang stories I wrote about recently, I can't imagine modern children taking instantly to the story of a little girl who finds a settlement of Lilliputians living on an island in the garden. The lonely Maria, convinced that such tiny people must be in need of advice and management, interferes with disastrous results, and the ensuing story is pure delight, and would be enjoyed by anyone who loved The Sword in the Stone, as Maria shares the Wart's qualities of curiosity and contrariness.

That last trait leads me straight to a pair of books: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, which everyone knows, and its lesser-known companion by Noel Streatfeild, The Painted Garden, in which an English child plays Mary in a Hollywood version of the classic. Jane, every bit as plain, disagreeable and contrary as the Mary she plays, and appalled to find herself uprooted from her English home and transported to the USA, makes life a misery for herself and everyone else on set, and her gradual redemption mirrors Mary's in a way I found very satisfying. My copy was enhanced by lovely illustrations by Shirley Hughes.

I can't leave the subject of my childhood paperback buying, without mentioning another publisher, Armada Books. They published the Chalet School Stories on which I was hooked, and, I think, many of the pony books I liked. Best of those was Riding with the Lyntons, by Diana Pullein-Thompson, and the Punchbowl Farm series by Monica Edwards. I don't know who published the latter, but I bought them in paperback, and my friend Anne and I devoured them – for anyone who needs a reminder, Jane lists them all her on website, to which I've added a link on the sidebar, because I quite often pop over their to remind myself about books long forgotten.

This is not the last of childhood reading, by any means: I'm in the middle of compiling a list of 50-children's-books-you-may-have-missed-but-ought-to-read-now. This will have a distinctly British bias, and an arbitrary cut-off date (1975, I think), and will probably be supplemented by a list of books since 1975 (for which I plan to shamelessly rely on recommendations from Ann at Table Talk, who reads far more widely than me!). Such a list is bound to prove controversial, I shall defend it merely by saying it will be my list and, while it may miss many books that are other people's favourites, I hope it will include some gems that people have forgotten. It's fun putting it together, at any rate.

Friday, 9 May 2008

April is the cruellest month

Rocking horse during the shaping stage, photo: Craig Jewell

As regular readers will know, April was pretty stressful time, and it was necessary to admit that I couldn't do everything, however much I wanted to. Work had to be the priority and, despite much gritting of teeth, I ignored everything else and battled on. I did manage to keep up with the Cornflower book club choice, the wonderful Speaking of Love by Angela Young, and to –briefly – make a contribution to the discussion, but otherwise I resolutely turned my back on distraction, so I have masses of catching up to do! I shall have to tackle it very slowly, as I still have work deadlines to meet, but I can allow myself a little time for amusement from now on, as well as for gardening and other diversions.

Reading suffered, too, of course, since most nights I was so tired I fell asleep before I got to bed. My mainstay was Lark Rise to Candleford, since I could read a page before my eyes closed without having to worry about remembering the plot! I went back to it, frustrated by how little the television adaptation had to do with the book, and warmed all over again to the matter-of-factness of Thompson's comments on the vicissitudes, as well as the joys, of a bygone rural life. I also read the second of the splendid Green Knowe series – I can't think why I didn't read these as a child, I was aware of them, and also remember a BBC series. They are proving to be a great pleasure - atmospheric, imaginative stories of the adventures of the children who lived over the centuries in an ancient, moated manor house (the real house is at Hemmingford Grey in Cambridgeshire). They are the sort of books that make me wish for a grandchild to read them to. A rocking horse features in the stories and, since my father used to make them, I chose this picture of a horse in construction - not one of his, I'm afraid.

  • Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson – re-read
  • Speaking of Love by Angela Young
  • Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie
  • The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr
  • Treasure at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston

Monday, 5 May 2008

Chronicles of Pantouflia by Andrew Lang

I grew up with these two stories, Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo, but I mislaid my copy and this was the first time I have read them for well over 20 years. My edition is an old one, dating back to 1943, and with the original illustrations, which I like very much. The picture here is of King Prigio flying to the moon.
Although they were written in the 30s, the style is Victorian, and very much "after" Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring - we are actually told that Prigio's family is descended from the characters in that book, and this is one of the ways in which Lang creates the atmosphere of history for children, rather than fiction. He also footnotes particular terms, and comments on the motives and behaviour of his characters. There is a supposed dryness to the style, in keeping with the writing of history, but since the events are frequently farcical, the characters endowed with suitably human flaws and the story romps along at a brisk pace, the overall tone is more one of subdued hilarity.
In Prince Prigio, the usual fairytale catastrophe is compounded by the Queen's refusal to believe in fairies, with the result that none of the fairies are invited to the christening. Most of the fairies – who all turn up, though the Queen denies that she can see them – are forgiving, and make the traditional kind of gift, but one wishes him "too clever", so that he grows into the kind of boy who infuriates everyone. His father, desperate to get rid of him, decrees that the heir to the throne will be the one of his sons who can perform the task of killing the legendary Firedrake, but the prince, as much of a rationalist as his mother, refuses to go on the grounds that the beast doesn't exist. So his younger brothers Enrico and Alphonso each set off in turn to be incinerated.
How Prigio is eventually persuaded to tackle the Firedrake is the meat of the first story, while in the second, his son, the heroic and dashing Prince Ricardo, must learn to settle down and recognise the value of both people and talents that he takes for granted. I was pleased to find that my childhood pleasure in the stories remains undiminished: I enjoy the humour, I still admire Princess Jacqueline, who plays a major part in the saving of Prince Ricardo, and I still feel rather sorry for the Firedrake. I'm not sure that I would rush to recommend them for children, unless they had already enjoyed Lang's various Fairy Books (Blue, Violet etc), but they might still give a good deal of pleasure if read out loud. I'll end with an extract, so that people can judge for themselves:
"It is an awkward brute to tackle, " the king said, "but you are the oldest, my lad; go where glory awaits you! Put on your armour, and be off with you!"
This the king said, hoping that either the Firedrake would roast Prince Prigio alive (which he could easily do, as I have said; for he is all over as hot as a red-hot poker), or that, if the prince succeeded, at least his country would be freed from the monster.
But the prince, who was lying on the sofa doing sums in compound division, for fun, said in the politest way:
"Thanks to the education your majesty has given me, I have learned that the Firedrake, like the siren, the fairy, and so forth, is a fabulous animal which does not exist. But even granting, for the sake of argument, that there is a Firedrake, your majesty is well aware that there is no kind of use in sending me. It is always the eldest son who goes out first, and comes to grief on these occasions, and it is always the third son who succeeds. Send Alphonso" (this was the youngest brother) "and he will do the trick at once. At least, if he fails, it will be most unusual, and Enrico can try his luck."