Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat

Mutt, by Paul Galdone

I was thinking that my reading for the Canadian Book Challenge wasn’t going to progress much during my lengthy absence from home – for instance, I feel it would be cheating to count any John Buchan writing not set in Canada – but I was only able to carry a limited number of books on the train, and choices had to be made. So I was pleased to rediscover a stalwart of the Canadian canon, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, on the dining table from at least two visits ago (in my parents’ house books and newspapers adorn every possible surface, in piles); I think my mother found it in the charity shop, and she can’t resist anything with a dog in the title.

The Dog in question is Mutt, accidentally acquired by the Mowat family during a search for a hunting dog. Passed off to hunting friends as a “Prince Albert Retriever”, Mutt is initially a disaster in the field, but gradually begins to acquire his own methods, eventually becoming legendary as a dog who can retrieve even out of season. The learning process is full of incident – Mutt is enthusiastic about chasing cows – and difficulty, as Saskatoon is on the dry side for duck hunting, and Mutt’s methods eccentric: he doesn’t always wait for ducks to be shot, but retrieves a swimming bird from underneath. He’s an avid cat chaser, too, and from an early start with ladders, becomes a sure-footed mountaineer, although none of the family share his interest, and are usually to be found waiting impatiently at the foot of the precipice, anxious to continue their holiday:
This mountain climbing passion was an infernal nuisance to the rest of us, for he would sneak away whenever we stopped, and would appear high on the face of some sheer cliff, working his way steadily upward, and deaf to our commands that he return to us.
Mutt is not the only animal to share the Mowat home; the young Farley’s early interest in nature leads to an extensive collection of creatures which share his bedroom (owing to some misplaced advice by his amateur naturalist uncle that the way to learn about animals is to live with them). Two horned owls prove even more of a terror to the local cat population than Mutt.

As a British child I grew up on the writing of Gerald Durrell (there’s a feel of My Family and Other Animals to The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be – the same harassed mother and neighbours, for a start); I would have loved this book then, and would have gone on to read others by the author (and still will, I hope). I gather there is some question of the authenticity of his writing on both animal and human inhabitants of the Arctic – reading this memoir, I must admit to having doubted the total veracity of some events, but this book at least is none the worse for that. And all narrators are to some extent unreliable.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A delightful new acquaintance

Searching our library catalogue for the next Cornflower book group read, I failed to find what I was looking for, but spotted Elizabeth Jenkins' memoir, The View from Downshire Hill. Well, I thought . . . why not have a little background about this author, who is completely new to me. It arrived this week and at bedtime last night I picked it up for a quick browse. I reluctantly stopped reading two delightful hours later. Elizabeth Jenkins is witty, but self-deprecating, with the occasional touch of asperity (as in her comments on the designer, Erno Goldfinger, whose views on London’s elegant Georgian houses she rightly disapproved of.

Here she is, early on, talking about her brief time as a pupil at the Modern School, Letchworth:
By this time it was felt at home that I was not really benefiting by the school’s advantages, so I was taken away at the end of my second term. This was not the last of my contacts with [the headmistress] Miss Cartwright, however. When my first novel was published she very kindly wrote to me, congratulating me on getting my work published and adding that she was sure I would not write for ‘self-glorification’. I replied as politely as I was able, but her letter raised a curious point: how does one write for ‘self-glorification’? If I knew, I would be at it all the time. I dare say many of us would.
Her book is not an autobiography, but a collection of reminiscences and observations about things, and people, from her life that she regards as being of interest. On leaving Newnham College Cambridge (where she once invited Edith Sitwell to be a speaker and wanted to ask her to wear all of her distinctive wardrobe) she moved to Bloomsbury, where she was taken up, and then rather painfully dropped, by the Woolfs, took tea with the Stracheys, and worked on her first novel and her biography of Lady Caroline Lamb in the Reading Room of the British Museum.

Her interest in London’s Georgian architecture is evident from the outset: during the war she worked first at 1 Montague Place, next to the British Museum, where she enjoyed exploring rooms left unused; later she worked for the famous translator of Japanese poetry, Arthur Waley at the Ministry of Information in what is now the University of London's Senate House. By this time her father had bought her a house at Downshire Hill, where she lived until old age and infirmity necessitated the move to a flat. Like Denis Severs later at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfield, she furnished her house as well as she could afford, replacing the Edwardian furniture her father originally provided with late Georgian, as early Georgian to match the house with its elegant Gothic-arched window panes (you can just see them on the book's cover), was beyond her means.

Elizabeth Jenkins is a delightful writer, her prose elegant yet conversational and her comments on her own writing shrewd and insightful. I am very pleased to have made her acquaintance. My copy of The Tortoise and the Hare awaits my return from London.