27 March 2017

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons

When Pure Juliet was published in 2016, it was surrounded by the faint whiff of a consolation prize for fans.  Apparently found amidst Gibbons' belongings after her death, there is also a train of thought that perhaps the novel wasn't quite up to scratch, or desperately needed revising.  Whatever the case, it's a good thing I don't pay much attention to critics.

'The person described as giving Miss Roberts the creeps proceeded at a swift pace ahead of the two teachers.  She was noticeable for this unusual quickness of movement; for her hair, which was so fair as to look silver in certain lights; and for the expression in her eyes, small and so full of light that their colour was hard to name.'

Juliet Slater has finished school with five A levels in science and maths, but has almost no concept of social graces and no time for relationships.  She is wholly consumed by the reading of textbooks and unravelling the mystery of coincidence.  Juliet's mother, Rose, spends her day making pots of tea, preparing meals and cleaning the house.  George Slater's day is spent driving a train between St Pancras and Standish, picking up a copy of the Evening News on his way to grab a couple of pints before dinner.  The concept of Juliet attending university is seen as a complete waste of time when she could easily start earning money as a secretary.

While there is no obvious label of Juliet being on the autism spectrum, there are all sorts of clues.  The lack of a label also allows the reader to sink into the notion that Juliet simply marches to the beat of her own drum and chooses to sidestep social convention.  I found her fascinating.

A chance encounter (or as Juliet would favour, a coincidence) involving the elderly Miss Adelaide Pennecuick results in an invitation to spend a year at her manor house called Hightower in the countryside.  Echoing an era from the past, Juliet arrives with her suitcase....

  'A long face, irresistibly suggesting that of a sheep, below silver hair, smiled at her from a wheelchair drawn up to an electric fire.  The room was stiflingly hot, in spite of the summer heat outside; the occupant of the chair's skeletal arms were bared to the elbow by a long dress of blue silk.
Juliet went up to her, sank to her knees beside the chair and, putting her arms round the thin old body, lifted her face passively to receive kiss after lingering kiss, while she shut senses against the odour of verbena toilet water and eighty-year-old flesh.'

The image is positively Gothic, isn't it.  But standing in the background are five entertaining Spanish servants from the same family that form a perfect juxtaposition to the dated manor house.  And then there's Addy's nephew, Frank, with a fondness for fays and water-sprites and devoted to the movement called the Association for the Investigation of Edible Grasses.  While a vegan lifestyle is nothing new, I delighted in Stella Gibbons being ahead of her time, because in Frank she has written a vegan warrior equal to any like-minded blogger you could find today.  And I adored Frank for his ability to accept Juliet's differences and support her genius.  He encourages Juliet to consider a place at Cambridge University, and considering her lack of social skills, passing the interview could be one of many roadblocks.

Pure Juliet is pure magic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it; in fact, the ending made my eyes well up.  It wasn't because of any particular event, but that Juliet's character had grabbed my heart.  Pure Juliet is a story that conjures up images of working class England in the seventies, with a sprinkle of the Edwardian era, and a dash of the whimsical Durrells in Corfu.  I highly recommend this as a book to enjoy on the patio this summer or take along on a holiday.  Well done, Stella Gibbons!

Reading at a Table by Pablo Picasso
1934

9 March 2017

Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

Planning my trip across the pond this summer has pulled my attention towards lots of travel books.  I've also signed out Hermione Lee's biography on Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens' wonderful collection of stories and observations in Sketches by Boz.  For anyone interested in reading something by Dickens without his extreme ability to pad out a sentence, this is an excellent starting point.  And another book that has crossed my path before, but I had forgotten about, is Anna Quindlen's Imagined London.

Published in 2004, Imagined London is a non-fiction piece about Anna's discovery of London, first through the stories she read as a child, then in her forties when she visited the city for the first time.  Her experience felt so familiar to mine that it made me laugh.  Both of us stood in amazement at the tomb of Elizabeth I during our first trip to Westminster Abbey.  It's all the wonder of documentaries, stories, and film, and most importantly the woman herself, right there before you.

Anna's book is only 160 pages long but each page will delight the anglophile or anyone planning a trip across the pond.  In the last few paragraphs, Anna perfectly puts into words my fascination with London....

   'For that you must come down to Earth and wander aimlessly.  Maybe just off Sloane Square, or in Cheval Place, or on Burnsall Street, or Elgin Crescent.  Maybe Notting Hill or South Kensington or Bloomsbury.  Finally you will reach it: a house with a handsome gate or a small garden.   Around it, a street or two away, swirls the clamor of one of the busiest cities on Earth.  Inside is - what?  Did a debutante once wait there for her car?  Did a maid slip out to meet her lover?  Did street peddlers sell ribbons here, or fruit and flowers?  Does it stand on the ruins of an older house, or a cow pasture, or even a Roman fort?  Did the bombs shake its foundation and the modern real estate boom triple its value?  Behind every door in London there are stories, behind every one ghosts.  The greatest writers in the history of the written word have given them substance, given them life.   And so we readers walk, and dream, and imagine, in the city where imagination found it's great home.'

2 March 2017

Bond Street Story by Norman Collins

What a week.  I went home from work Monday with barely any voice and glassy eyes.  Once home and changed into appropriate dress for a consumptive patient, Kip proceeded to be sick...and there's no mistaking the fact he has roundworm.  Ick!  The vet's office closed ten minutes earlier (isn't that the way it goes?).  Well, nothing could be done until the morning so I took a cold pill and tried to sleep.  My fantasy of a sick day at home involved copious amounts of tea, books, my Slightly Foxed magazine but instead I dewormed the dog and was on 'worm watch'.  Then, my coughing turned into wheezing and my face felt slightly puffy.  By Wednesday morning my neck was covered in hives.  A quick look at the box of cold pills and symptoms to watch for said it all.  I've never been allergic to anything before...but there wasn't time to worry about that because Kip was busy outside providing a much-needed sample for the vet.  Drop that off, get back home...the kettle has died.

The bright spot over these past few days of first-world problems has been the companionship of perfect bedside reading material in Norman Collins' Bond Street Story.

Rammell's department store is the epicentre for the characters in this book, published in 1958.  The Second World War is only lightly touched upon and there's little mention of austerity.  In fact, at Rammell's department store, with its staff of over one thousand, and too many departments to mention, it's nothing short of a consumer's paradise.

The patriarch of Rammell's is Sir Harry.  At nearly eighty he is 'somewhere in the teenage of his second childhood' and full of ideas, some of which are ridiculous and raise the ire of his son and heir, Eric.  The junior Mr Rammell lives in Eaton Square with his wife, who in my mind closely parallels Hyacinth Bucket in the social climbing department.  As for her appearance, Collins is unforgiving...

'The door had opened by now, and Mrs Rammell was standing there.  She was undeniably a handsome woman.  Tall, fine-limbed, distinguished looking.  But distinctly unrestful.  Too much of the race-horse about her.  Even in the loose bathrobe that she was wearing there was something in the dark observant eye, the distended nostril, that suggested the starting-gate and photo-finishes.'

Their only son, Tony, is twenty-three years old and showing little interest in the position as the next heir apparent to the Rammell dynasty.

Mr Privett and his family live in a modest home on Fewkes Road in Kentish Town.  Husband and wife met while working in their respective departments, but as this is a story of its time, Mrs Privett left work once she had a husband and home to care for.  Their seventeen year old daughter, Irene, is showing signs of stretching her job search to places other than Rammell's which causes no small amount of upset at home.

And then there is Marcia,  the star model for the department store....

'Wherever you looked, she was there.  Superb.  Serene.  Indisputable.  The steeply arched eye-brows.  The long curve of the cheek.  The deep indecipherable eyes.  The wide gentle mouth.  The face smiled imperturbably on the public from all sides.  From boxes of face powder.  From the shiny pages of expensive magazines.  From Mayfair pageant programmes.  From the walls of the Underground platforms.'

Once the fancy department store clothes and make-up come off, Marcia goes home to her spartan flat.  Mind you, it's off Sloane Square.  It's not quite the life she sees for herself so when Mr Bulping, a chief buyer, shows an interest in her, she is mildly entertained.  But soon she's repulsed by his pawing, slurpy kisses, and sweaty brow.  Who wouldn't be?

Mr Privett from Kentish Town has a longtime friend in Mr Gus Bloot.  Their relationship is a touching one, more so since Gus's wife died and left him quite alone in a rooming house with only his prized budgies for company.  But that's about to change with the appearance of Hetty as he sinks into the sound of her voice....

'...still warm and caressing even when sending casuals and other wartime shop crawlers away from the shop totally unserved.  Or the perfume that she used - a thick musky scent that conjured up visions of palm trees and bright moonlight and scorching sun.  Or her hair - jet black and worn long, wound round the top of her head in a braid as thick as a ship's hawser.'

Hetty, from Finsbury Park, is the complete opposite of Gus's dearly departed Emmie and the poor fellow is losing sleep over what to do next.

Norman Collins shines brighter than anyone I can think of when it comes to creating characters and weaving them all together to create a story as closely woven as any fabric.  His dry wit and pin-sharp observations are irresistible and often hilarious....

'The film itself  the wildly popular one - was rather sad, Irene thought.  It was set in the Canabière district of Marseilles.  And it was all about a deaf and dumb girl who murdered her illegitamate baby when it tuned out to be blind like her lover.  But the photography, everyone agreed, was of of this world.  It was shot mostly at night.  Or in the rain.  With only the outlines of things showing.  These, however, were enough.  Rubbish bins, urinoirs, public wash-houses, seweres, horse-abbattoirs - they were all there.  In short, the film had Cannes Festival Award written all over it.'

For anyone who has read London Belongs to Me and wanted the story to go on and on despite its doorstop heft, a treat awaits you in Bond Street Story.  And speaking of treats, a cosy English novel that ticks a plethora of boxes would not be complete without the lusty description of a good tea.

'As soon as the room was to rights again, Mr Privett went through into the scullery and put on the kettle.  Then he arranged the tea tray with the cups and saucers.  And, going over to the cupboard he took out the large circular cake tin with the portrait of Queen Mary on the lid.  It was the remains of a chocolate cake that was inside.  Thick chocolate on top.  Then broad veins of brown sponge with white cream running thickly across it.  It looked rich and geologic.  Mr Privett cut two generous slices and put them on a plate beside the empty teapot.  Even so he was sorry that it was chocolate.  Fruit cake, he knew, was what Mr Bloot preferred.  Cut from the solid block.  The dark kind with preserved cherries in it.  Marzipan icing on the top if you like.  Even shredded coconut.  But definitely fruit.  And preferably cherry.'

Absolutely wonderful!

23 February 2017

Edward Bawden's London by Peyton Skipwith & Brian Webb


The world of Tirzah Garwood and the artists of Great Bardfield have stayed with me since finishing her compelling autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield.  As luck would have it, I own a book featuring some of Edward Bawden's work so off the shelves it came.

'It is unlikely that Bawden's parents ever took him to London, so he had had little or no experience of city life when he enrolled, as a distinctly gauche student, at the Royal College of Art in September 22.  On his first day he met and formed an enduring friendship with another 19-year-old, Eric Ravilious.  Like Bawden, Ravilious, who was also destined for the Design School, was a scholarship boy, having won a bursary from Eastbourne School of Art.  The two young men were diametrically different in character: Bawden was taciturn, monosyllabic and unsociable, while Ravilious was gregarious, fun-loving and outgoing - an attraction of opposites.'

This biography and collection of sketches, posters and paintings make a very nice companion piece to Tirzah's book.

 Painting of Bawden in his studio by Eric Ravilious
1930

With a trip to London on the horizon, I looked on my shelves for a book that drops me right onto Piccadilly...minus the diesel fumes.  Bond Street Story by Norman Collins is fitting the bill nicely.  It has all the depth and richness of London Belongs to Me but instead of a boarding house as the central location, this book features Rammell's, a bustling department store.  It's wonderful, but a bit of a struggle not to visualize scenes from Are You Being Served?.