2 June 2014

Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

The cover art by Pep Montserrat on my Vintage edition is so absolutely charming that it stopped me in my tracks at the bookshop.  Flipping through the pages some favourite keywords jumped out...Hampstead, tea room and Waterlow Park come to mind.  Looking for a light and happy read after von Arnim's Vera, which is very much the opposite, I didn't bother tucking Here Be Dragons away for another day but got stuck in straight away.

Nell Sely, with her poker-straight hair, pale skin, and hand-knit grey socks, lives in a fairly large house in Hampstead with her parents, Anna and Martin.  Since her father lost his faith and abandoned his occupation as a vicar they have relied on the goodwill of Lady Fairfax, his sister.  Aunt Peggy, as she is also known, isn't the sort of 'Lady' to lounge on large pillows in a country pile, she is far too busy being a celebrity on television.  If you are forming the image of a group of eccentrics then full marks and hats off.  Oh, and I almost forgot about grey-haired Miss Lister and her fat marmalade cat who live in a cottage at the end of the garden.

Despite the fact there is barely any money coming into the house, Nell, has to convince her parents that it would be a good idea to pursue employment.  A recommendation (and new pair of proper stockings) courtesy of Lady Fairfax and Nell is earning £5 a week as a secretary for Akkro Products.  To paint a picture of the 'Ladies Cloakroom'...

'There she found three thin, pale girls, with hair dressed like South Sea Islanders (Old Style), banging powder puffs against their faces in front of a large, bright mirror.  Over the two pink washing basins, the chromium taps which gushed splendidly hot water, the machine providing a fresh paper towel for each arrival, the the device for doling out liquid soap, there hovered a dry, sour, rotting eighteenth-century smell which had lived for two hundred years in the walls and under the floor.'

Enter her bohemian cousin, John Gaunt, who puts the bug in Nell's ear that a good waitress at a decent establishment could earn as much as £16...including tips, that is.  Wandering into a quaint tea room in Hampstead called The Primula, Nell quickly arranges a trial period during the weekend just to try things on for size.  Despite the chaos and tired feet she quite likes it and in no time at all Lady Fairfax pays a visit...

'Was that your boss?  The shingled one who peeped round the curtain?  She looks a typical nice spinster.  Why do they invariably take to keeping tea-shops?'

Wrong thing to say to a niece about her future dream of ownership...ouch!  Mixed in with the allure of chintz and china there is also a message of staying true to yourself and the sometimes hard-to-reach reward of being responsible.  The crowd of bohemians connected with John constantly drifting from coffee bar to wine bar, sleeping wherever a friend will have them, have to face reality at some point.

Stella Gibbons is an author I have been a bit indifferent about.  She doesn't automatically spring to mind when recommending authors from her circle of contemporaries but this novel has stepped her up a notch for me.  I loved the descriptions of Hampstead's High Street, the Heath, Highgate cemetery, Swain's Lane and the wide range of characters.  Here Be Dragons would be a terrific summer read on the patio or for anyone stuck in bed with a cold.  A word of warning though, being a book of its day there are some passages that mention the number of black people riding the tube and immigrants from Jamaica - just in case you're inclined to gift this to someone.

Now if only I could convince myself that Cold Comfort Farm will be as much fun...

10 comments:

  1. Okay, I absolutely HAVE to buy that. It sounds wonderful.

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    1. You won't be sorry, Kate! It was like taking a little walk-about Hampstead every afternoon.

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  2. This sounds wonderful, Darlene! I have two of these lovely Vintage reprints on my bookshelf and really need to get around to reading them. This sounds better than the ones I've got though! Book jealousy!

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    1. Vintage does such a nice job. Every now and then I get the urge to buy their edition of I Capture the Castle, just for the cover. The one on my shelf is the movie edition...ugh. Anyway, how you manage to get any time to read for pleasure these days is beyond me!

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  3. you have pushed this particular book right up my wishlist .Cold Comfort farm is fun of a different kind, and maybe a little less you. I'd be more inclined to steer you towards The Rich House ...

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    1. Just placed an order with TBD for a copy of The Rich House! Thanks SO much for knowing my reading tastes and steering me in the right direction, Jane. I'll keep you posted...

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  4. I''d read this book just for its cover, and even though I remember not liking C.C.F. (book or movie) much at all.

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    1. You too?! Personally, my first impression is that it's quite 'northern' and as good as I am at regional humour CCF is going to be beyond me. Which is not to say I won't challenge myself one day!

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  5. This is waiting patiently on my TBR shelf, Darlene, so it's great to know it's one to look forward to. I was also ambivalent about CCF, which was my first Gibbons. It was only after reading some of her later novels (esp. the WWII ones--Jane is right, The Rich House is lovely) that I re-read CCF and really enjoyed it.

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    1. Well I have placed an order to buy a copy of The Rich House and I can't wait now! If you don't enjoy Here Be Dragons, Scott, then I will eat a hat...or something along those lines. Our mutual friend, Simon, wasn't quite as keen so I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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