6 July 2018

Tell It to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge

One of the display units at the library is all mine for the month of July and I've chosen to work with 'Shorts for Summer' as a theme.  Short stories can be a hard sell but I do my best to convince customers they can be swept away by just a few pages of clever writing.  I checked on my display a couple of days ago and was thrilled to see lots of gaps where books had been the day before. 

I've dipped in and out of Tell It to a Stranger several times over the past few years, revisiting a few of my favourite stories several times.  Last week I read this collection (Persephone Books) from cover to cover and feel it's a shame that Elizabeth Berridge's writing isn't more widely known.  It's time to do my bit to change that!  The stories in Tell It to a Stranger are every bit as good as Rosamond Lehmann's The Gipsy's Baby, published the year before in 1946.  The difference in popularity may be down to Berridge's shying away from publicity whereas Lehmann's personal life and activism created plenty.  I digress.

There are eleven stories in this collection, and whether it's intentional or not, the middle story has left the greatest impression for being so chilling.  Lullaby begins with the wife of an RAF pilot dealing with the pull of her responsibilities at home and being available to her husband while he's on leave.  The draw of an evening out, just the two of them, would be so much fun - but there's the baby to consider.  The opportunity to record her voice on a wax disc gives the couple an idea...record the soothing words used to put their son to sleep and then slip away to enjoy a drink out.  Then the couple push their time limit.  It's impossible to read this story without feeling the creeping niggle of dread.  It still happened to me despite this being my third reading.

Another favourite is Chance Callers, set in the English countryside.  Frank struggles to find his way back to the man he was before the war and the devastating result of being a POW in Siam.  His wife, Beryl craves home ownership but money and opportunities are limited.  When Frank asks her about returning to the town where they previously lived, Beryl relects...

'She could not explain to him the real reason why to go back to the town where they had lived so briefly together would be dreadful to her, a sort of death.  She did not quite know herself.  The peeling, exhortatory posters, the queues, the prefabricated houses planted like sugar boxes amongst the cleared debris had something to do with it - but not all.  In an effort to pin down a fraction of this feeling, she said, her face like a stone, 'I couldn't bear to live in our old street again.  I'd be remembering the Verneys under all those bricks.'

Captain Banks lives on the outskirts of the village in a country manor with a parcel of land.  His invalid brother is under his care, bedridden with what they think to be infantile paralysis.  Desperation and the sentiment of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Frank and Beryl call on Captain Banks to inquire about the possibility of purchasing just enough land to build a small house on.  After a short conversation that leaves Beryl and Frank feeling under the thumb of yet another establishment larger than themselves, they leave with their dignity intact but deflated.  Captain Banks climbs the stairs to his brother's room and finds him lying in an odd position.  He quickly realizes that his brother has died while he's been engaged in pointless conversation with strangers.  Contemplating his family's history, his own past and what lies ahead, the Captain contemplates the point of going on.  This is domestic fiction written with a pen in one hand and a hammer in the other.

My top pick from this collection is The Prisoner.  Miss Everton, nearing fifty years old, sees lorries approach her cottage....

   'It was a frosty morning when the German prisoners first came to dig drainage ditches in the fields that lay beyond Miss Everton's garden walls.  She was out with her dog in the chill air by the beech trees when two large lorries roared up past her across the grass and she had a glimpse of alien faces, of packed cardboard figures, cold and raw-looking.'

A man looking too young to be in charge of prisoners approaches and asks if there's a water tap they could have access to.  Restlessly, Miss Everton goes about her day while listening for the click of the garden gate as the men come and go.  Having the Germans in close proximity reminds her of  time spent with her brother and his studies in Bonn, when Germany brought more pleasant thoughts to mind..

Eventually, a young prisoner named Erich, asks Miss Everton if she would like to trade some of her coffee ration for their tea.  It's the beginning of a friendship, the inevitable that so often follows when two people from different backgrounds come together through kindness and caring.  This is the type of short story you wish could go on for another hundred pages.

I've shared three snippets from this poignant collection of stories from the 1940s, hopefully enough to tempt more readers towards Elizabeth Berridge's work.  Tell It to a Stranger is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II fiction, as well as fans of Mollie Panter-Downes' Good Evening, Mrs Craven.

Contemplation by Francis Edwin Hodge 

24 June 2018

The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly

A few weeks ago, an adventure in sofa shopping coincided with a book sale at the Oakville Public Library.  A better way to prime the mind for looking at fabric swatches I can't imagine.  The books at the sale are sold for $1.50 per pound, which keeps you guessing as to how much the total will be once your stack hits the scale bit it's usually less than expected.  On this visit, I came away with only five books, but one that will be a favourite of the year.

Raised in a passionately religious family near Birminham, the Garmans had an unusually laid-back approach towards discipline for the turn of the nineteenth century.  Walter Garman was the local doctor as well as being involved in the church.  Their mother, Marjorie, loved Beethoven, reading and the natural world.  All of the Garman's nine children were strikingly exotic looking, with a few of the girls being compared to Cleopatra, down to their prominent cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.

Kathleen Garman

While young, the siblings grew up in idyllic circumstances with picnics, holidays at the shore, education and servants.   Their parents were lenient when it came to matters of childhood tomfoolery, but morality was a different matter.  When Mr Garman caught Mary and Kathleen reading Madame Bovary, he swiftly summoned the rest of the children to the nursery so they could watch as the book was thrown into the fire.

The outbreak of the First World War drew many of the young men away from the village.  When Walter Garman expressed his hope that the older girls would eventually marry into the clergy, Mary and Kathleen were having none of it.  Without very much thought as to how they would cope, the young women packed up what they could carry and ran away to London.

Without means, Kathleen worked as an artist's model and helped with the horses that pulled the Harrod's carriage.  Mary drove a delivery van for Lyons' Corner Houses.  A small allowance was soon granted by their father but the young women were admirably resourceful when it came to  getting by.  Once introduced into the society of Bohemian London,  and as regulars at CafĂ© Royal it wasn't long before they were in the company of Roger Fry, Wyndham Lewis, E M Forster and Lytton Strachey.  The sisters were eventually able to afford a small flat in Regent Square on the edge of Bloomsbury.  

The trajectory of the young women's lives makes for incredibly riveting reading.  At a time when women were considered to be prostitutes for being outside without a hat, the Garman sisters wore their hair long and flowing.  Their clothing was bohemian and full of colour; they favoured the look of dark kohl accentuating their eyes.  Shortly after becoming the muse of sculptor Jacob Epstein, Kathleen became his lover.  His wife seemed to accept his various affairs, even raising his daughter by another woman as her own, but she was intensely jealous of his latest muse.  Summoning Kathleen to her home on Guildford Street, Epstein's wife drew a pistol and shot her rival.  In an attempt to quash any scandal, Mrs Epstein then proceeded to invite Kathleen (once she had recovered) to join her in an open taxi through Hyde Park...which Kathleen accepted.

The biographies of Kathleen's siblings are equally fascinating and have gone a long way to pique my interest in this Bohemian circle of family and their counterparts.  I was also fascinated by the Garman's determination to live their lives as they pleased despite what anyone thought.  Which is not to say there weren't recriminations.  Lorna had her first child at seventeen, then, while still married, had a long-term relationship with Laurie Lee (he lived in a trailer near Lorna's home).  In fact, the lovers had a daughter, Yasmin, who was graciously raised by Lorna's husband as his own.  Lorna's much-revered blue-eyed gaze was eventually turned by the artist Lucien Freud, leading Laurie Lee to the brink of suicide.

Lorna Garman with Lucien Freud

There were times when I wondered where the money to survive was coming from, but perhaps such details were politely overlooked in letters and other communications.  Writing articles or producing art on lazy days in sunny gardens would scarcely pay the bills that came about through moving house, feeding and clothing children or setting off to join the Civil War in Spain.  But through their many adventures, the Garmans always seemed to scrape by.  Financial matters and household responsibilities lagged far behind artistic pursuits, reading, letter writing, or political conversation.  Mary, Kathleen and Lorna didn't seem to be weighed down by the portrayal of an ideal wife or mother during the 1920s or 30s. 

   'Like her mother, Kathleen serenely avoided housework.  She never took to blacking grates and Liquid Gumption, and is remembered as doing the washing-up with her coat on, as if to escape it as soon as she could.  'I never saw my mother in an apron,' says Kitty.  'She didn't even know what over gloves were for.'  

The Rare and the Beautiful
is a must read for anyone interested in the social history of women during the interwar period and beyond.  As much as I find the nuances in domestic fiction to be endearing and educational, I was enthralled with these young women who grabbed life with both hands.  The Garman sisters ventured forth despite risk, indulged their curious minds, toyed with convention, and apologies were rare.  Fabulous right to the very end....

'Lorna was a guest at the wedding, and all eyes followed her instead of the bride, as she had doubtless intended.  To the few who didn't come under her spell, she seemed cold, manipulative.  Her gift for intuition could be perceived as witch-like.'

As Cressida Connolly describes the end of each Garman's life, I couldn't help but think of all they had seen and done.  Weaving through the lives of well-known members of London's cultural, artistic and political landscape, I find it hard to believe their story is not more widely known. 

As I wrote earlier, this book will rate as one of my favourites of the year!

Kathleen Garman

7 June 2018

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

We're in the middle of a minor war zone of our own at the moment.  Removing all of the carpet to make way for new flooring sounded easy peasy...at the time.  And moving every piece of furniture shouldn't be a big deal for two able-bodied adults.  Five bookcases neatly lined with books looks lovely...those same books scattered in piles and boxes is a bit of a mess.  But a nice mess.  What choice do we have but to just get on with things!  A sentiment perfectly timed with the Blitz Spirit of this wonderful new book set during World War II.

My good friend Mary, at Mrs Miniver's Daughter, sent me the link to Dear Mrs Bird last winter.  Soon after that, the book was mentioned on a podcast.  Learning there had been a seven-way bidding war between publishing companies was all I needed to know before promptly placing a book order.  Congratulations to Picador for coming out on top. 

Just about everyone in the blogsphere knows the synopsis of this book, but just in case someone has been on a long break without social media....

'When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst.  I'd had rather a cheerful day so far despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I'd managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew.'

Twenty-two year old Emmeline Lake lives with her best friend, Bunty, in an attic flat in London.  Since childhood, Emmeline has dreamed of a career in journalism.  With the war on, her dream now centres around becoming a War Correspondent.  An advertisement for a Junior connected with The London Evening Chronicle sets Emmeline's heart racing....but she's failed to read the ad carefully.  After landing the position and packing in a perfectly respectable job, Emmeline is left embarrassed when she realizes her new job will be sorting through the incoming mail for Mrs Henrietta Bird, an Agony Aunt.  A more delightful caricature of the uptight tweed persona would be hard to find....

'The desk was almost entirely bare, apart from an untouched ink blotter edged with green leather, a telephone, and a large framed photograph of Mrs Bird in front of an ornamental lake.  Dressed informally in a thick woollen getup and leather gloves, she was surrounded by a large group of gun dogs, all of whom were gazing up at her with quite fanatical devotion.' 

Soon realizing that Mrs Bird's stubborn refusal to entertain any Unpleasantness from letter writers seeking advice, Emmeline grabs an opportunity.  Secreting letters from young ladies who have fallen in love with European soldiers, women tempted to have an affair, or the lonely, Emmeline writes back under the guise of Mrs Bird.  It's not all that difficult as Mrs Bird finds all sorts of excuses to leave the office early, my favourite being the Cat Evaculation Meeting.

The first person narrative is key in making the reader identify with Emmeline's struggle with the morals and ethics of impersonating her senior at work.  But with each passing night of the Blitz and the thought that each day might be her last, Emmeline feels she has nothing to lose. 

Dear Mrs Bird is not a book to be pigeon-holed.  There was a moment when, after a few pages of jolly hockey sticks-type linguistics I wondered if I had bought something perhaps too sickly sweet.  But then the story deals with heartbreak, the horrors involving London's Fire Service, smashed windows, craters in the road, and the 'crump' of German bombs exploding in the distance.  Pearce's  description of ghost-like citizens, covered in the dust from the bombed out ruins of their own homes paints a devastatingly real picture.  And then, in stiff-upper lip fashion,  she would make me laugh...

   'Bunty, who I knew had been practising looking casual, was in the living room, standing with one hand on the mantelpiece while staring into mid-distance.  she looked as if she was modelling a pattern for Vogue.'
I loved my time spent reading Dear Mrs Bird, coincidentally while listening to 1940s swing which is my background music of choice while at home.  Sprinkled with nuggets of social history I enjoyed the mention of knitting patterns, herring pie, paste sandwiches, and wartime rations, and the peripheral characters are fantastically well-drawn.  Also, the author's message of the importance of women being confident and in control of their circumstance was hit home in one of my favourite lines....

'Granny didn't spend half her life chaining herself to railings for today's woman to moon around waiting for some chap to look after her.'

The rights to this story have been sold, so stay tuned for the television program....I can't wait!

27 May 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Oh the joy of a second-hand bookshop, in close proximity to a university, once a term is complete.  And so there we were, a couple of weeks ago, browsing the shelves of BMV Books on Bloor, stuffed with required reading that had been swiftly sold off.  There were at least sixteen copies of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in three different editions creating a visual banner screaming 'Read Me!'.

My impression of this story was formed by the images usually associated with it...a teacher surrounded by her pupils.  I was expecting childhood hijinks admonished by stern words from a Scottish authoritarian who would shape the young ladies into stellar examples of womanhood.  This feeble theory of alchemy couldn't have been more wrong.

   'By the time they were sixteen, and had reached the fourth forn, and loitered beyond the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox regime, they remained unmistakably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking.'

The Marcia Blaine School for Girls employs Miss Brodie to educate young girls of an impressionable age.  The world is full of mystery to eleven year old children during the 1930s, so they are in thrall to their teacher.  Miss Brodie's tales of romance with a soldier who died in Flanders Fields during the Great War, religion, art and politics (particularly Fascism) are conducted in court-like sessions.  Books are placed at the ready in preparation of a surprise visit by the school's headmistress, Miss MacKay, who would like Miss Brodie to resign in favour of a 'progressive' school.

At the beginning, I felt Miss Brodie's adoration by her pupils was understandable, but as the girls grew into their teen years the situation became more sinister.  Miss Brodie covets the adoration of those who are easily manipulated.  When she slyly plants the idea that one student, being the sort who is 'full of sex', is capable of an affair, my image of Miss Brodie was turned upside down.  In an arrangement that would be something of an affair by proxy, as Miss Brodie considers Mr Lloyd to be the love of her life, Jean Brodie also sets up another young pupil to report back any news surrounding any trysts.

The term 'prime' is applied many times by Miss Brodie and, through imitation, by her pupils.  I can only imagine the meaning intended is that you are at the top of your game, and a dangerous game is being played by Miss Brodie.  But then there comes a fall when Miss Brodie is betrayed.

I have to admit that early in the book I wondered what all the fuss was about.  Why was this seemingly benign story so highly esteemed?  Then the realization that Miss Jean Brodie could be economical with the truth and capable of manipulating those under her care sank in.  I was gripped.  And steering girls in their middle teen years toward sex and collusion is only part of the horror, another student eager to please Miss Brodie joins the conflict of the Spanish Civil War with devastating consequences.   

Muriel Spark has accomplished much in what is barely more than a novella, and left me just a tiny bit unsettled.  Read it!

Poise by John Duncan Fergusson (1874 - 1961)