27 March 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1590 - 1676

Anne Clifford was born at Skipton Castle during the reign of Elizabeth I.  From the age of 60 until her death at 86, she spent her time rebuilding churches and castles in Cumbria.  Her descendant Vita Sackville-West was the editor of her remarkably rich and informative diaries.  The first of the entries below was written when Anne was 13.

July 1603
Upon the 25th of July the King and Queen were crowned at Westminster, my Father and Mother both attended in their robes, my Aunt of Bath and my Uncle Russell, which solemn sight my Mother would not let me see because the plague was hot in London, therefore I continued at Norbury, where my cousin did so feed me with breakfasts and pear pies and such things, as shortly after I fell into sickness.

June 1617
The 6th after supper we went in the coach to Goodwife Syslies and ate so much cheese there that it made me sick.


Portrait of Lady Anne Clifford by William Larkin
National Portrait Gallery

21 March 2015

The Angel in the Corner by Monica Dickens

The first few paragraphs of The Angel in the Corner are set in a cosy nursery; tea is about to be served and a coal fire glows in the fireplace. A flowered china clock strikes the half-hour.  So far, so lovely, so I paid my dollar and was happy to have a book with such cosy atmosphere on the shelf.  Well, as it turns out, this book is not that...not by a long shot.  Damn you, Monica Dickens.

Within a few pages Virginia's mother and father have gone their separate ways in post-war London and the house with the cosy nursery is long gone.  As the editor of Lady Beautiful Virginia's mother can afford both a lovely flat in a Bloomsbury mews and her fondness for Dior.  But...

'On Helen's side, their equality was tainted with rivalry.  At forty-eight, she though she was better looking than Virginia was at twenty.  As an unattached woman, she considered herself still in the running for any men who came along, even if they were nearer her daughter's age than her own.'

When a single young neighbour, who also happens to be a doctor, shows an interest in Virginia her mother insinuates herself.  When Virginia signs up for writing classes at Latimer College, Helen is crystal clear that it doesn't mean a job for her daughter at the plush surroundings of Lady Beautiful.  

While at a small gathering with friends in Chelsea, Virginia meets Joe Colonna.  From that day, as the two form a relationship, a hellish routine of abuse and placating begins.  Through it all, Virginia remains hopeful, optimistic, and full of tenacity as Joe breaks promises, belittles, drinks to excess, and bruises her.  Usually such a scenario would frustrate me no end but I found myself as invested in this story as Virginia was in her marriage.  Did she want to prove her mother wrong?  Was another broken marriage in her life out of the question?  Was Joe a replacement for the father she hadn't seen since she was twelve?  There were other avenues to take, means of escape, people she could turn to.  At one point Virginia does return to the house from her childhood...

'Virginia went slowly down the steps, and stood in the muddy garden, looking at the house.  The windows were closed and dirty, and all the curtains were gone.  She could see into the front room, which had once been her nursery, it was bare, and the fireplace was full of rubbish and sweepings.'

Far from the cosy nursery scene at the beginning of the book.  And then it gets worse.

Published in 1956 The Angel in the Corner is a no holds barred exploration of mental and physical abuse as well as ignorance, complacency, and shortfalls within some support systems.  There is a reward to be had though for wading through the discourse and I was cheered by the ending.  Definitely not a gentle read but thoroughly engrossing.

Bloomsbury Mews Cosmopolitan

20 March 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


Fruit, like vegetables, was distributed according to supply, but was so scarce that an hour's queuing for a pound of cooking apples was thought to be worthwhile.  For many people fresh fruit became a luxurious memory.  Once again it was a matter of growing your own or making the most of what you could get.  One Hampstead woman with four small children and not enough money to make ends meet remembers:  'Our blackcurrant bush was a treasure.  We used to have a few - about five each - for lunch sometimes, and collect blackberries on the Heath for fruit pies, and with the glut of plums we could make puddings that even our billeted refugees liked.'  A Manchester housewife remembers one of the rare arrivals of oranges: 'Somehow, some oranges arrived and I carefully cut the rinds and sugared them and made strips of sweets, quite a delicacy, and later a friend with whom we had shared them, asked us to tea and produced jellies in little cups from a packet she had kept as a treat.  We made a bit of jam by going out of the city to pick blackberries and we had gooseberries in the garden, and also a few apple trees.'
  One lady remembers to her astonishment watching a monkey toying with a banana at the zoo.  She hovered, filled with moral righteousness,outraged complaints on the tip of her tongue, only to realise the animal had been given a potato wrapped in a more seductive skin.  Another family who managed to get hold of a banana, after showing it to everyone and meticulously sharing it out, could not bear to part with the skin.  They arranged it on the pavement and watched, from behind their curtains, the reactions of passers-by.

Bombers and Mash

The Queue at the Fish Shop by Evelyn Dunbar
Imperial War Museum

15 March 2015

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

There's the joy of reading a good book and then there's the joy of anxiously anticipating the arrival of a favoured author's latest work, hot off the press.  I bought a copy of The Evening Chorus last weekend and read it over the next few nights.  Helen would be reading from her book at the City Hall branch of the Toronto Public Library on Thursday and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take part.  With a heavy heart I turned the last page and told my husband it was my favourite book of the year.  To which he replied 'it's only March'.  Mark my words.

Helen Humphreys reads from 'The Evening Chorus'

The story begins in 1940 with James Hunter being plucked from a frigid English Channel by German soldiers after the crash of his Wellington fighter plane.  Taken to a prisoner of war camp he soon figures out there are two prevalent ways of thinking.... escape or create an occupation to bide the time.  James is soon captivated by a pair of Redstarts building a nest high in the trees just outside the prison's perimeter.  Logging the birds activity in a notebook it doesn't take long before James is known as Birdman.  He also writes letters to his wife, Rose, but avoids revealing too many details to protect her from the harshness of his surroundings.

Rose is ten years younger than James, a new bride, and patrols the nearby cottages for signs of blackout violations after dark.  Each day is much like the one before, just as it is for James, but Rose has a secret.

The Evening Chorus is a story about love and loss during the war but the collapsed buildings, air raid shelters, and sirens blaring almost every night in London seem a world away from Ashdown Forest.  A bit of a misnomer since King Henry VIII cleared the area to build his navy but it's very much a haven for woodland flowers and Rose's companion, an energetic dog named Harris.

With Helen

Helen Humphreys has an incredible talent for taking the reader on an epic adventure in a paradoxically succinct style.  For that reason I don't think it would be fair to share more than I already have.  What I will say though, there are aspects of The Evening Chorus that remind me of Rose Macaulay's wartime short story Miss Anstruther's Letters.  Something precious can vanish in a heartbeat; you can go on searching for it to the point of obsession or move on.

A beautiful book, a wonderful story, and an author who is far too humble about her ability to captivate a reader.  Thank you, Helen!