28 July 2020

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton

The months of summer are flying by, aren't they.  Our flowerbeds went from being coaxed along with compost, to crying out for weeding and staking within a couple of very hot weeks.  Watching three pots of tomatoes grow larger every day has been fun; there's a beefsteak tomato on one vine that's looking like a Fall Fair prizewinner, if only there could be a Fall Fair.

Have I ever mentioned my lemon tree, set outside during a late snowfall because it had a stubborn case of spider mites?  Ignored and bound for a bag of garden waste, not only is it now sprouting loads of new leaves -  it's lush and vibrant! 

I'm still away from the library on Declared Emergency Leave due to the pandemic.  The silver lining has been spending as much time in the garden as I want to, properly tending to each plant, bed or pot.  Enjoying the jasmine and honeysuckle while I'm watering.  A large clump of black-eyed Susan beside the patio have started to blossom.  They're the showstopper once the hydrangeas look tired; a sign we're approaching the midway point of summer.  But let's not think  about that quite yet.....on to Craven House.

 'A sweep was crying in a strained and inconsolable manner from some street far away; little boys and girls were making their way, less unwillingly than with vagrant buoyancy, to school; a maid dashed out to post a letter, and remained talking to a lady at the top of her basement steps.  In addition to which the sound of the Southam Green High Road, a quarter of a mile distant, and the sound of all London behind it, beat faintly yet incessantly, like the roar of a waveless sea, upon the inured ears of the inhabitants.  Such noises, nevertheless, were unable to disturb the lazy peace manifest in Keymar Gardens.  They served, rather, to emphasise the hush.'

Miss Bertha Hatt generates a respectable income by opening her home to several paying guests .  Mr and Mrs Spicer have been friends of Miss Hatt long before they became lodgers, Mrs Nixon and her daughter Elsie are more recent guests.  A widower, Major Wildman, and his young son take up two rooms.  Eventually Mrs Hoare arrives, also in need of a room and almost never failed to make me laugh every time she appeared.  Two ironically named servants - Miss Custard and Miss Potter - round out the cast very nicely with Mac, the sixty-eight year old parrot of doubtful gender as the cherry on top.

The story begins in 1911 and moves through the following fifteen years with much of the focus on Master Wildman and Elsie.  Very little is mentioned about The Great War.  The scope of this book centres around the house on Southam Green High Road and the people in it.  As you would expect from a novel written in the 1920s there's a veneer of formality in the way everyone conducts themselves in front of one another.  But oh the dramatic effect of someone being summoned to their room and the moments leading up to a door being opened, then quietly shut.  You can feel the tension rise with each tread of the stairs as someone makes their way to what we know to be an imminent confrontation.  And despite the air of privacy that is rigidly implied, there are two instances when a member of the household knocks on the door of a room in order to save someone from certain harm.  All very tactfully executed to save the blushes of those concerned, of course. 

Only twenty-one years old when he wrote Craven House, Patrick Hamilton showed incredible insight into the world of infidelity and brutishly cruel parenting.   Unfortunately, Mr Spicer's fondness for drinking far too much is a trait Hamilton would eventually succumb to.  But on a more cheerful topic,  when Miss Hatt says she would go herself and bring back the fish I can't help but think Hamilton must have read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, published only the year before. 

The novel I was expecting involved spinsters of varying characteristics, the waft of lavender, and tea with biscuits served morning, noon and night with a thick layer of gossip.  For the life of me I have no idea where such a notion came from, but this book is most definitely not that.  Craven House is a slightly kinder and gentler version of The Slaves of Solitude, published twenty-one years later.   Which, I have to say was too bold on the verbal venom and reeked of rum for my liking but I must go back and read it again with a braver resolve. 

The brilliant way in which Patrick Hamilton wrote scenes with palpable atmosphere, vivid imagery and knowing glances, it's easy to understand how his work led to his becoming a successful playwright.  Sadly, difficult marriages, being horribly injured when struck by a car, and becoming disillusioned by politics became intertwined with an alcohol addiction.  He died in 1962 ,at only fifty-eight of cirrhosis of the liver.

23 June 2020

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A few weeks ago Notes from a Small Island was mentioned during an episode of Daisy Buchanan's wonderful podcast You're Booked.  Daisy and her guest were discussing books they turn to as reliable comfort reads.   This same book was mentioned again, less than a week later, on Book Snob's blog.  I can't tell you how many times Bryson's travel memoir has crossed the desk at the library without a second glance, but suddenly I found myself in the midst of a severe case of FOMO. 

If a holiday in England isn't in the cards for me this year, the next best thing is to read about someone else's travels to my favourite destination of choice.  Within a few days I found a copy in a second-hand shop that was allowing three customers in at a time.  Decades of circulation experience at the library has taught me a thing or two.  For instance, I know when a book has been resting on a wet tummy in the bath.  Forensically speaking, the wavy water-damaged pages on the bottom of the book, mostly in the middle, are a dead give-away.  So it was a wide swerve on the second-hand copy, but within days I was able to buy a copy at our newly reopened bookstore!

'My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais.'

Experiencing some difficulty in finding a room for his first night, modern readers will instantly appreciate what the internet has achieved for adventure seekers, holiday makers or people relocating to distant cities.  The lack of internet technology or cell phone usage adds a layer of charm that dates this book somewhat, but Bryson's muddling through makes for good stories.

After five months of travelling, Bryson was a day away from arriving at Heathrow for a flight back to the States to continue his university studies.  A last minute job offer at a local hospital changed the course of his future when he met the woman who would later become his wife, while working a shift.  Fast forward twenty years and a family, the author was busy preparing to relocate everyone to the States.  But not before embarking on a tour of Britain that would last seven weeks and result in a bestselling book.

By the the tenth or eleventh page I had already laughed out loud a few times and recognized a couple of sentiments.  From the stern B&B owner with a strong resolve about bathroom hygiene to a British fondness for what Americans would consider underwhelming nibbles, Bryson hit the mark.   

   'It's the most extraordinary thing.  They actually like their pleasures small.  That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats - teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys - are so cautiously flavourful.  They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.

But beware, there are comic barbs to many of Bryson's observations that can sting a bit.  It's obvious he loves Britain and most of its citizens but his humour can run to the loutish every now and then.  

Bill Bryson has made me curious about visiting Salisbury, and I had no idea there are hedgerows still in existence that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Describing the friendly way people living in the Yorkshire Dales will let themselves into your home without knocking first (I'm sure he's making some sweeping generalizations) has made me keen to visit.  And can it be true that Blackpool served up the equivalent of forty acres of potatoes each day in chips during the 90s?!  But when Bryson is annoyed regarding a particular service, or what he perceives to be an excessive cost for an item, he doesn't come across as very patient or understanding.  My hope is that this is just a case of dramatic license in storytelling....or that Bryson has mellowed since the mid-nineties.

I spent most of the time reading Notes from a Small Island on the patio while landscapers sawed, shovelled, and bulldozed their way through a neighbour's back garden; a project that's been going on for weeks.  With so much stone cutting going on it would appear they're on their way to having their very own cathedral just behind the pool.  So was I happy to have a book that could distract me from all of the noise and dust?  Absolutely! 

View over Burnsall

9 June 2020

Starlight by Stella Gibbons

It's nice to be back here after several weeks of reading The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel.  Deciding to forego any note taking, I thoroughly enjoyed a lazy immersion into Thomas Cromwell's world of privilege, mindful dialogue and keeping on the right side of King Henry VIII.  Why would anyone strive to catch the attention of a King or Queen in any court?  Give me a small cottage as far away as possible and one or two loyal friends.  

The garden beds at home are popping with the glow of newly emerging hosta and Annabelle hydrangea.  Flowers for the pots haven't always been easy to come by.  Stock supplies aren't as plentiful as they've been in the past but it's an opportunity to try something a little different in plantings.  The find of the season was jasmine.  Ever since a flood of that sweet flower engulfed me in front of Keats House in Hampstead a few years ago, I've wanted a plant of my own in the worst way.  Jasmine is hardy to zone 7, unfortunately we're zone 5 so the affair with my two vines will be short, but oh so wonderful.

But, on with Stella Gibbons.  For me, she's an obvious choice for a good read that takes me to a feel good reading place.  Not a sappy or syrupy place, just somewhere I am sure to find interesting characters I will actually care about, copious cups of tea, both city and country landscapes, and a situation that needs resolving.  Starlight has a synopsis that is completely bonkers but Stella Gibbons' talent for writing and quality storytelling had me completely invested.

   'Dust, grease, dimness.  Yet the room was cosy.  Thin red curtains kept out the foggy night at the square window, and Gladys, the one who went out to work every day, knew that, from outside, they made a faint but heartening ruby glow; the little, old broken gas-fire burned with an opulent roasting flame.  It ate shillings, fair ate them, was the sisters' verdict, but what could you do?'

Gladys and Annie Barnes are sisters in their seventies, living in a tired cottage in Highgate.  Also living at Rose Cottage, in the loft, is Mr Fisher, a former teacher, who makes small dolls from bits of straw.  The sisters are not entirely sure if he's peddling or begging while wandering the Heath most days, but they do know he's what people would consider 'odd'.  The fact that he changes his name each month goes a long way to cement the sentiment.

Of the two sisters, it's Gladys who sees to the general running of things.  Having worked in service spanning the years before and after both wars, and now in a family run Greek café, she is very much a doer.  Annie, on the other hand, spends much of each day enveloped in layers of jumpers, scarves and coats while lying in bed.  She suffers from an ailment that seems to centre around anxiety.

Also in the cast of characters is a Vicar.  Mr Geddes considers bringing his mother in to work as a daily at the Rectory as he is tired of Mrs Hemmings cooking and sour face (not very Christian, is it).

   'Would it be shockingly selfish to bring his mother down from Harrogate to look after him?  She had only been released from the tyranny of many stone-floored, rambling, draughty, mousey vicarages three years ago, and the hotel was warm, pretty and comfortable.

Working alongside the Vicar is Reverend Corliss, a young bachelor recently graduated from ecclesiastical college.  Life in the parish is rather routine until Rose Cottage is sold to a suspicious-looking 'rackman', Mr Pearson.

Mr Fisher, Gladys and Annie are terrified of being evicted, but their fears are dampened when they learn that Mr Pearson means to renovate the cottage and move his wife into one of the rooms.  So, what's this all about, they wonder?  Mrs Pearson, at first glance, seems to be a respectable woman but a very colourful past slowly emerges including no small amount of criminality lurking in the background.  They have acquaintances who run a small hotel in a bombed out area off Warren Street.  It's all edging towards a place that's slightly dark for a novel set in Highgate with two spinsters and a retired teacher featured prominently.

There's also a subplot involving the Pearsons' twenty-two year old daughter, Peggy.  There is heartbreak in the young woman's recent past, something that involves a man and a riding school in Sussex.  Desperate for some space and freedom from parental inquisition, Peggy takes a position looking after Mrs Corbett's dogs and to occasionally be available to 'hand out' during gatherings at her employer's impressive home.  Mrs Corbett has a son in his forties....and let me just say, for a woman who doesn't like creepy things, she's not looking closely enough at a few personality traits of her offspring.

Somehow Gibbons manages to layer elements of post-war England with gangland dealings, and contrast religion with psychic phenomena with complete success.  On the surface it could all seem a bit cosy but don't get too comfortable.  If you're a fan of The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns you'll find further entertainment with a copy of Starlight.  Is this the best book I'll read this year?  No, but it was exactly the sort of story I was looking for at the time.

Stella Gibbons has been a tonic during these days of lockdown limbo.  So much so, I've ordered two more.

A Spiritualistic Séance by Kunnas Väinö (1896 - 1929)

18 May 2020

Rocks and Roses....

Only three hundred more pages until I finish The Mirror and the Light.  Jumping in at book three of this trilogy hasn't been a problem at all.  Come to think of it, I missed the first sixty years of The Archers and was able to sort out everyone in no time at all.  In any case, Mantel's book is both compelling and cosy; perfect reading for a frustratingly chilly and very wet Spring.

Painting rocks has been a popular way to pass the time during lockdown so I made one that was appropriately themed.  It works fabulously well as a paperweight while reading during a breezy afternoon on the patio.  When it isn't raining, of course.