14 June 2021

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

It's raining at the moment so a blog post will come before the garden.  The dogwoods seem to have survived their brutal pruning to cut out a fungus, the rambling rose on the back fence has made a lot of bees happy with its yearly mass of blooms, and on a whim we've recently added a patio pond.  Water lettuce and hyacinths float on the surface while aquatic forget-me-nots and a cattail have been sunk in planter baskets.  An inexpensive pump keeps the water moving and makes a nice trickling sound that makes reading outside even more relaxing.  I had a moment of worry that Kip would think the new mini-pond was either a large water bowl or a small paddling pool but it seems he couldn't care less - which is a relief.

I'm forever drawn to the human element of stories from England during World War Two.  Whether the war is merely a shadow in the background, an inconvenience to the pantry, or horrifically described in a memoir I find it all very compelling.  When Claire of The Captive Reader wrote about The House Opposite on her blog I ordered a copy right away.  In this book, Noble encompasses the minutiae of people living in the theatre of war, the swiftness with which lives can be changed or lost, and she portrays characters in situations frequently shielded from readers in the 1940s.  When Claire wrote that The House Opposite is one of the best of its kind I wholeheartedly agree. 

Elizabeth Simpson has moved back to her parents' home on Wordsworth Road for the duration of the war.  She is employed as a secretary to Alex Foster, of Foster and Rowland Exporters in Soho Square.  Reminiscent of Mollie Panter-Downes poignant Good Evening, Mrs Craven, Elizabeth is having an affair with Alex, who has a wife and children tucked away in Oxfordshire.  At the end of her workday, Elizabeth places the cover on her typewriter, says good-night to her colleagues and waits for Alex at a sherry bar.   When she's not on air-raid duty, Elizabeth spends evenings at Alex's serviced flat, carefully navigating her way home through the darkness and debris.  Yes, dear Reader, a few silent comments were directed towards Elizabeth at certain moments as I read.  

Living across the road from Elizabeth's family are the Cathcarts, hence 'the house opposite'.  Occasionally Owen slips out of his bedroom window to watch the sky light up or look for shrapnel.  He is months away from being called up but instead of an understandable case of nerves,  Owen wonders if being killed in action wouldn't be for the best.  He adores his older cousin Derek in an all-consuming way that causes him to wonder about his sexuality.  Overhearing Elizabeth refer to him as 'a pansy' only increases his anxiety.

Both the Simpson and Cathcart families bear other secrets and Noble's portrayal of their shame is exquisite and palpable.  When Mrs Simpson has to be roused from a slumber during an air raid and the smell of rum permeates the air every attempt is made to spare her any embarrassment.  Who could fail to sympathize with someone trying to calm their nerves during nightly bombing raids?  During two other moments of caring intervention Mr Simpson shines as a supportive beacon when it was needed.  His kind and patient nature a complete opposite to the atmosphere of war and destruction.

Published in 1943, The House Opposite is a bold novel for some of its topics but the author resists allowing elements of melodrama to spill over the top.  Well, there is one moment when a pregnant woman faints due to her condition, something I have yet to see happen outside of daytime television, but it was necessary in playing the character's hand. 

 The way Barbara Noble brought together several themes on an epic scale in only 222 pages is something of a marvel:  heartbreak, unrequited love, deception, vice, compassion, and the value of having your eye on the long game against a backdrop of war.  Keeping in mind Noble had first-hand experience during the war it's difficult not to read her own thoughts into certain passages.....

Secretly, like the majority, they believed in their hearts (but would not dare to say) that bombs were things that fell on other people.  At the sound of one approaching, their conviction wavered but quickly reasserted itself when the immediate danger passed.  Combined with the feeling that it would be flattering to Hitler to appear over-concerned, it was easy to light yet one more cigarette with a steady hand, pick up the dropped stitch, count the tricks and find the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  In any case supposing, just supposing, that the next bomb was meant for you - well, it was meant.  Then and not before.  Why die before you must?

After only a few pages I found it incomprehensible that this book had been out of print.  Thankfully Dean Street Press have rectified that....long may they continue!

A Child Bomb Victim Receiving Treatment (1944) 
Ethel Léontine Gabain (1883 - 1950)

28 May 2021

The Selected Diaries Project....

The weather isn't being kind this morning; it's only 8C with grey skies and rain pelting the windows.  Until this morning May has been hot and dry, surely safe enough to pot flowers, stake tomatoes and plant sunflower seeds.  We can't seem to resist breaking the rule that says anything can happen before June 1 and Mother Nature has thrown us yet another curve.  As soon as I got home from work last night we pulled pots of flowers and herbs close to the house and my Meyer Lemon trees were brought inside.  We're crossing our fingers for everything else, poor things.

After visiting Monks House in Rodmell in 2019, I ordered a copy of Selected Diaries published by Vintage.  It's a title suggested by Hermione Lee on one of my favourite websites Five Books.  Type anything that interests you into the search engine and someone in the know, related to that field, offers their recommendations.  Be warned - you will spend more time browsing than planned.

The idea of having Virginia Woolf's diaries edited down to a single book was appealing but when it arrived I was so disappointed by the very small print.  It was set aside.  But that feeling would creep in every now and then, the thought avid readers with a few unread books on the shelf have, of being struck by lightening and leaving a good read behind.  The only thing to do was just get on with it.  A sunny patio makes all the difference so my goal is to read this collection of entries before being driven back inside to lamp light.    

Content-wise I could easily rip through all 503 pages but suspect the development of an eye twitch would begin by the halfway point.  Breaking this collection into thirds is probably the wisest plan, so rather than one overall review I am noting a few details from 1915 to 1923 that I found interesting for one reason or another....

The shop women are often very charming, in spite of their serpentine coils of black hair.  Then I had tea, and rambled down to Charing Cross in the dark, making up phrases and incidents to write about.  Which is, I expect, the way one gets killed.  (February 1915)

A day of fog in patches.  Last night the worst fog they say for thirty years, and old gents who escaped the raid walked in numbers over the edge of platforms and were crushed.  A cook stepped into the Thames, people walked by rapping our railings to keep the road.  (February 1918)

Monday was as usual a day for London and tea at the Club.  I was so foolish as to fritter three shillings - one and sixpence on the blue penholder with which I write, and when I don't write, suck; one and sixpence on paper, at a grossly extravagant shop in Pall Mall.  I justified these extravagances by the fact that you can get into the National Gallery for nothing.  (July 1918)

I had tea at Gordon Square; then dinner at the Isola Bella; talk with Clive and Duncan, Clive insisting that Eliot dislikes me, and further trying to convince us that Nessa, Roger, himself, Lytton and I are the most hated people in London; superficial, haughty, and giving ourselves airs - that, I think, is the verdict against the ladies.  I admit I hate not to be liked.  (April 1919)

There is little ceremony or precision at Monks House.  It is an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors, on one side fronting the street of Rodmell, and wood-boarded on that side, though the street of Rodmell is at our end little more than a cart track running out on to the flat of the water meadows.  (July 1919)

Oh the servants!  Oh the reviewing!  Nelly has vacillated between tears and laughter, life and death for the past ten days; can't feel an ache anywhere without sending for me or L. to assure her that aches are not certainly fatal.  Then she cries.  Never, never, never will she get over it, she says.  The doctor comes.  Innumerable pills and draughts consumed.  Sweats, sleepless nights, recur.  And nothing the matter save what one of us would call an upset inside and take a pill for.  This drives us to accept invitations, since if anyone comes here, the atmosphere lowers.  (July 1920)

To  change the subject, Rose Macaulay dined here last week - something like a lean sheepdog in appearance - harum scarum - humble - too much of a professional, yet just on the intellectual side of the border.  Might be religious though: mystical perhaps.  Not at all dominating or impressive, I daresay she observes more than one thinks for.  Clear pale mystical eyes.  A kind of faded moon of beauty: oh and badly dressed.  (February 1921)

I see I have said nothing about our day in London - Dr Sainsbury, Dr Fergusson, and the semi-legal discussion over my body, which ended in a bottle of quinine pills, and a box of lozenges, and a brush to varnish my throat with.  Influenza and pneumonia germs, perhaps, says Sainsbury, very softly, wisely, and with extreme deliberation.  "Equanimity - practice equanimity Mrs Woolf" he said, as I left; an unnecessary interview from my point of view; but we were forced into it by one step after another on the part of the bacteriologists.  I take my temperature no more till October 1st.  (August 1922)

Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide: the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side - something like that; and to be more close to the fact than Jacob; but I think Jacob was a necessary step, for me, in working free.  (October 1922)

My diaries project next picks up in 1923, shortly after Virginia becomes acquainted with Vita Sackville-West.

Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monks House, Rodmell

10 May 2021

In the Kitchen: Essays on food and life - Various

"What's for dinner?" is bound to be asked by someone at work after 3 pm and usually that someone is  me.  Last week that particular question morphed into a conversation about condiments, specifically ketchup.  Our supervisor arrived at the meeting and offered her thoughts....she's not a fan.  At our house we go through it at a shocking rate but I blame lockdown and Friday night fish & chip suppers.  I digress.  At any rate, this charming collection of essays had me placing an order the moment I saw it.

A total of thirteen essays have been grouped into three categories: Coming to the Kitchen, Reading and Writing in the Kitchen, and Beyond the Kitchen, each flowing easily from one to the next.  As someone who finds the mention of a gas-ring in a story the height of kitchen drama pleasure, the first paragraph delightfully begins....

Gasfire cookers are not just heavy, they're awkward.  This one was a smooth, white box with nothing for us to hold onto except the sharp bottom edges.  It was an ordeal getting it up the stairs to our flat, our inability to cooperate exposed by a kitchen appliance.

In her essay A Life in Cookers Rachel Roddy writes about the many stoves that have occupied homes she has lived in.  A simple concept and yet utterly fascinating.  There was a even a moment in Rachel's history of stoves when my heart sank.  Her family moved from a home that had a red Aga into a new home with a Hotpoint.  Well, you just can't compare the two when it comes to character, can you.

Another essay that rated highly is Ella Risbridger's Cupboard Love about our level of intimacy based on how comfortable we are in someone's kitchen.  Knowing which cupboard door leads to the tea cups signals a relaxed visit with a close friend.  And they'll know how you like your tea without asking.

The stand-out essay because it felt tailormade for its subject matter is Brain Work by Laura Freeman, and now I have to track down a copy of her book The Reading Cure.  

Along the way I have become nosy about, if not downright obsessed by, what it is that writers eat.

Freeman goes on to share an entry from Barbara Pym's diary in which she notes drinks and a meal as she finished her novel Less Than Angels.  I can't remember the last time a cup of Nescafe crossed my path but it makes a comforting change from lengthy and comical Starbucks orders.  I laughed at Alan Bennett's petits fours of vitamins that accompany his healthy lunch, and was revolted by Lee Child's diet of cigarettes and coffee.  Thankfully the thought of a smoky lunch quickly wafted away with an entry from Virginia Woolf...

Words, words & now roast beef & apple tart....(30 October 1938)

Freeman then draws attention to Martin Amis's description of his writing day.  If he is lucky a cup of tea turns up.  The author ponders who is responsible for delivering these well-timed cups of tea as if by magic?  And better still, were female authors presented with cups of tea when they needed a lift or were they left to make their own. 

Shopping, preparing and enjoying food is universal and I've enjoyed expanding my food repertoire into other cultures.  Yemisi Aribisala's essay points out the differences food culture can create in relationships when the will to reach beyond your norm is weak at best.  In love with a young white man of British heritage, their ideas around entertaining were extreme opposites.  His parents were mortified that she would help herself to half a quiche in their fridge that was meant for lunch.  He was angry when her friend tucked half a loaf of bread from their kitchen, under her arm to take home.  Nigerians, as Yemisi tells him, would never insult their guests by imposing limits on guest lists or food.  Their relationship was doomed.

Daisy Johnson's essay Ritial about making pizza with family gathered in the kitchen on Christmas Eve was the reason we had pizza for lunch last Friday.

A lovely collection that pleased beyond my expectation and for anyone interested in a bookish gift for a friend, look no further.  

30 April 2021

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The timeframe of various lockdowns and openings have become a blur, but a month or so ago we visited A Different Drummer bookshop when doing so was possible.  I chose a copy of Quartet in Autumn Barbara Pym, We Are Michael Field by Emma Donoghue and Elmet because of the statement on the cover that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2017.  And, let's be honest, an added attraction was that it had been discounted as a last copy.  The blurb evoked a level of earthiness with a whisper of something dark.  I will just say that it has been years since I found a book so compelling and frightening.

Daniel and Cathy are siblings living what seems to be an idyllic life in rural Yorkshire.  Nestled deep in the forest their new home takes shape, emerging from the clay with materials they glean from the land.  The teens watch fox and hare, learn to hunt, how to carve arrows and use a bow, and play with two new puppies.  Daniel is the younger of the two with little promise of ever growing into the giant of a man his father is.  Cathy is sinewy but strong with a watchfulness that is hypervigilant to danger. 

Associations with the traveller community come with prejudice so when Cathy defends herself against an attack of bullying, the teacher sides with the boys.  But just to back up for a minute, let me share the exquisite prose to illustrate what is leading up to be a brutish act....

   The salty gusts were hitting hard from over the North Sea.  Cathy's hair, black as Whitby jet, whipped about her as she stood up to face the boys.  The toggles of her coat beat against each other, sounding like the sweet wooden pulse of a marimba being struck by the wind.  I watched her the whole time.  I could not take my eyes off her.  I was ever her witness. 

When Grandma Morley dies, Daddy moves his family to a piece of land that doesn't belong to him.  The whereabouts of Daniel and Cathy's mother are vague but there is a connection between her past, Mr Price and the land. 

Mr Price commands respect in the community through power and fear and his sons are being trained to follow in his footsteps.  The wages Mr Price and his 'associates' pays to factory and farm workers are low while the rent charged to those living in his houses is high.  Mr Price is the sort of man who hires a strong arm to collect monies owing and Daddy has been used in the past, but he is tired of doing another man's bidding.    

There are two fights left in Daddy.  The first is for the community by clawing back some of the control held by Mr Price in a proposed strike action and the withholding of rent.  The second is a bare knuckle fight on a grand scale that will net gamblers a large payoff.   

This story could not be further from the sort of book I normally choose to read.  In fact,  I'm still recovering from the raw brutality of the last dozen or so pages, but the precision and brilliance of the writing is remarkable.  I was particularly struck by the feeling that if you removed all mention of vehicles this novel would feel steeped in the setting of a medieval village.  The issues of land ownership, the protection of family, and the quest for power were as relevant then as they are today.  And as a final thought, the characterization of Cathy will stay with me for a very long time, down to her strength of mind and body.  Any more than that would be a spoiler, I'm afraid. 

A dark but exceptional read that made me very glad it crossed my path.

Bigger Trees Near Warter by David Hockney
(2007)