9 January 2019

Miss Buncle's Book by D E Stevenson

My plan to read for hours on end during the Christmas holiday didn`t quite pan out; it never does.  But the trade-off is time spent with friends, spontaneous walks with Kip along scenic paths, shopping for new wines and cheeses to try, and trips to the cinema without a care about the day of the week or even the time of day.  I challenged myself to bake a proper Tarte au Citron for Christmas Eve dinner with friends, any excuse to use my shiny new tart pan.  The part of the recipe that requires you to remove the tart from the oven while there's still a slight wobble to the filling reminded me of Julian Barnes's book The Pedant in the Kitchen.  In it, he makes a very valid point in questioning the vagueness of terms in some recipes.    In my case, just how many ripples of wobble translate into 'slight'?  After severely scrutinizing wobbles at several intervals during its bake, the tart was fabulous.

Miss Buncle's Book was pulled from my shelves because it's known as a first-rate cosy read.  The nightly news can barely squeeze in all the negativity and as of this week I have yet another schedule change at work.  I was looking for a read that would feel like a warm bath and wasn't disappointed.  How could you be with the title of 'Breakfast Rolls' for the first chapter?

  'In the village of Silverstream (which lay further down the valley) the bakery woke up first, for there were the breakfast rolls to be made and baked.  Mrs Goldsmith saw to the details of the bakery herself and prided herself upon the punctuality of her deliveries.'

The village of Silverstream runs like clockwork.  There's a doctor with a young family, a vicar with a large bank account, a busybody and her long-suffering husband, spinsters, bachelors, a lesbian couple, and a retired Colonel, to name a few.  At the centre of it all is Miss Barbara Buncle of Tanglewood Cottage and her loyal housemaid, Dorcas.

A decrease in her dividends during the early 1930s turns Miss Buncle's focus to ways of earning more money.  After ruling out hens or paying guests, Barbara begins writing a novel set in a village under a pen name.  Mr Abbott from the publishing company of ABBOT T & SPICER, eagerly awaits the arrival of this intriguing new author to his London office.  The manuscript of Chronicles of an English Village kept him riveted through the night.  The cigars are laid out, but instead of the anticipated arrival of John Smith, it is a somewhat dowdy woman of middle-age in a forlorn hat.

Instantly beguiling her London publisher, Miss Buncle discusses her reasons for writing the book and runs through its characters.  Mr Abbott is beside himself when he realizes that the citizens of Copperfield and their quirky behaviours are indeed real people.  And I smiled to think of D E Stevenson and the glee she must have taken while writing....

  'Mr Abbott chuckled.  This was a new kind of author.  Of course they all wanted money, everybody did.  Johnson's dictum that nobody but a donkey wrote for anything except money was as true today as it had ever been and always would be, but how few authors owned to the fact so simply?  They either told you that something stronger than themselves compelled them to write, or else that they felt they had a message to give the world.'

Although, despite her father's refusal to provide further education lest she become a Bluestocking, D E Stevenson became an incredibly prolific writer.  In my humble opinion there was at least some level of compulsion with the author when it came to putting pen to paper.  I digress.....

Miss Buncle's Book is packed with moments of mirth, such as Mrs Featherstone Hogg seething with rage at the depiction of herself in Disturber of the Peace, the book's new titleShe buys up an armful of copies so everyone can see for themselves the spiteful light that has been cast by an evil member of their community, not realizing she is contributing to royalties.  Not only that, but going on about 'the wickedness' only serves to pique the interest of the most irregular of readers.

Second to the incandescent frothing of Mrs Featherstone Hogg, I delighted in the antics of Vivan Greensleeves.  She is the sort of woman whose mind ventures to marriage as a means of paying for her rent, dresses and stockings.  In the meantime, Mr Hathaway (the wealthy vicar) is putting into action a plan to live as frugally as possible by giving his savings away.  Oh Vivian....you should have taken a page out of Miss Buncle's book (sorry!) and sought to earn your own money.

This is a charming story that will soothe and amuse, but there's a deeper layer to contemplate.  How do we perceive those around us and how willing are we to accept the scrutiny of others?  I'm quite sure my colleagues think I change into a dressing gown made of fabric from Liberty the very minute I get home.  And that meals are one long cream tea while watching the BBC when I'm not reading English novels.  The reality is, there's no Liberty robe, just dog clothes, but I happily embrace their affectionate jibes.

If you have Miss Buncle's Book on your shelves, reach for it.  I can't think of a better balm against Trump, trade wars and Brexit.

Stella Mary Burdett by Harold Harvey

26 December 2018

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

While shelving a cart of holds at the library a couple of weeks ago, I found one waiting for me.  I looked at the cover (beautiful, by the way!) but had no recollection of placing the hold.  Turning to the first page I read the opening paragraph and instantly wished I could have pulled up a chair and forgot all about work.  Don't you love it when the first page does that?

`There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day`s walk from the source.  There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider, each one had some particular pleasure to offer.  The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of  love.  Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation.  If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot.  The Swan at Radcot had its own specialism.  It was where you went for storytelling.`

The story is set in the late 1800s with a mysterious incident occurring on the evening of the winter solstice.  A man, battered within an inch of his life, walks into The Swan carrying a small child.  Both are soaked through; the little girl has no pulse.  Rita, the village nursemaid, stitches the man`s gaping wound and then goes to examine the corpse of the child.  Her skin is pale, her pupils dilated, she`s not breathing.....and then Rita feels a pulse the throb of a shallow pulse.  It doesn`t make sense.

So begins a fascinating thread of storytelling that kept me turning pages when I should have been doing other things.  I absolutely loved the way Setterfield created her characters, from the strong and wise Rita, a vulnerable Lily who desperately clings to the hope that things will come right one day.  Robert Anderson with his large pockets filled with treats to delight the children and animals he meets along the way.  The best sort of man.  And then there are characters best steered clear of; the sort who take advantage.

This is a book to get lost in; a fusion of Dickens and the Brothers Grimm.  Setterfield`s ability to create a village so clear in my mind  that I could feel the dampness of the ever present river and see the low light of a candlelit pub in the evening makes this such an atmospheric read.  And then there`s her creation of an eerie legend about a man named Quietly who retrieves bodies from the river`s current while weaving his punt back and forth in the night`s mist.  If someone is very lucky, Quietly will see an unfortunate villager back to the safety of the shore before meeting their end in the water.   

The less revealed in this post, the better.  There are so many layers and delightful turns to this story, they`re best waded through in blissful ignorance.  I absolutely loved this book and can`t recommend it highly enough for perfect `cuddle up` reading this winter.  While we were at Ben McNally Books in Toronto the other day, my husband heard a woman ask for a good book to read over Christmas.  The salesperson pointed to Once Upon a River and said `This is the one`.  I couldn`t agree more.

I have no idea who to thank for their review, glowing enough to make me place the hold, but thank you wherever you are!  Now it`s back to Miss Buncle`s Book, rudely set aside because of the looming library due date for this book.

3 December 2018

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

My healthy respect for Virginia Woolf's writing began a few years ago, but her books were at the deep end of the pool, so to speak, and I wasn't sure about the testing the water.  After spending an afternoon at Monk's House in East Sussex while visiting London in 2016, Woolf's writing seemed a little less insurmountable for realizing that she was, after all, human.  A few postcards and a copy of To the Lighthouse were chosen from the souvenir shop and I was delighted when the woman ringing up my purchase asked if I would like the book stamped.  Yes, please!  Being ridiculously precious about the whole thing, the book was popped on the shelf to wait for the right time.  A year and a half later......

Set just prior to the Great War, Mr and Mrs Ramsey have gathered their eight children at their summer home on the Isle of Skye.  Also staying with them are a few friends of various ages and backgrounds.  Charles Tansley, one of Mr Ramsey's philosophy students, is something of a bore, a misogynist, and rather pedantic....

   'She could not help laughing herself sometimes.  She said, the other day, something about 'waves mountains high'.  Yes, said Charles Tansley, it was a little rough.  'Aren't you drenched to the skin?' she had said.  'Damp, not wet through.' said Mr Tansley, pinching his sleeve, feeling his socks.'

Charles Tansley is also quick to share his opinion when it comes to the skill sets of women; he doesn't think they can paint or write.  Which is very interesting as another guest, Lily Brascoe, has made a goal of painting Mrs Ramsay's portrait while on a break from keeping house for her father in Old Brompton Road.  Despite contemplating the downward turns of her own marriage, Mrs Ramsay seeks to play matchmaker between Lily and Mr Bankes, a childless widower just past middle-age.  Another match orchestrated by Mrs Ramsay is between a young couple, Paul and Minta, who seemingly trust the instincts of their hostess enough to go along with the idea.

While many of the characters in To the Lighthouse feel some level of affection for Mrs Ramsay, her husband is cold and distant.

'I am by way of being devoted to her.  Yet now, at this moment her presence meant absolutely nothing to him: her beauty meant nothing to him; her sitting with her little boy at the window - nothing, nothing.  He only wished to be alone and to take up that book.  He felt uncomfortable; he felt treacherous, that he could sit by her side and feel nothing for her.  The truth was that he did not enjoy family life.'

And then, with a skill that sets writers apart, Virginia Woolf begins a pin-point sharp examination and concise volley from Mrs Ramsey....

'I'm so sorry,' said Mrs Ramsay, turning to him at last.  He felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and done dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them.  Yet he must force his feet into them.  He must make himself talk.  Unless he were very careful, she would find out this treachery of his; that he did not care a straw for her, and that would not be at all pleasant, he thought.  So he bent his head courteously in her direction.'

Tragedy and sadness crumbles the traditions of the Ramsey family and their holiday home is left to ruin.  After sitting empty for many years, the housekeeper arrives to give it an airing.  I absolutely loved the description of the beam of light from the Lighthouse casting its eye over the debris left behind and the rat, swallow and thistle that have taken up residence. 

To the Lighthouse is a book to be read very, very slowly.  There were times when I read paragraphs, and sometimes pages, twice because they was so beautiful or thought-provoking.  At other times it was because I had forgotten who was speaking because of Woolf's long sentences where 'She' can suddenly morph into a different person if you're not paying attention.   

So what did I take away from this book?  To the Lighthouse reminded me of Mrs Dalloway for its atmosphere of perception, perspective and Woolf's well-honed art of observation.  There's a myriad of thought and emotion flowing through every character, how much they choose to conceal or convey could change the course of events for better or worse.  It's something we all play at many times throughout our day which makes Virginia Woolf feel both modern, and of her era.  Another interesting aspect is the way in which Woolf portrays married versus single women; there is joy and pitfalls in both camps.  Pressed to choose which book I preferred, Mrs Dalloway edges ahead of this novel but it might have something to do with the smatterings of London porn.  Another possibility is that I found myself paying quite a lot of attention to the writing in To the Lighthouse, so much so that the characters probably suffered for it. 

My next read in Woolf's oeuvre will be Night and Day, but I'll end this post with one last quote from To the Lighthouse simply because it's too lovely not to.....

'For in the rough and tumble of daily life, a sense of repetition - of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.'

Portree, Isle of Skye by Jonathan Wheeler

11 November 2018

The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher

I had no idea who Geoffrey Fletcher was when I found this book at a thrift store last Spring.  The charming ink sketches were a clue that he was both artist and writer.  As it turns out, Fletcher wrote and illustrated a column for the Daily Telegraph from 1962 until 1990.  Wikipedia points out that he focused on such mundane sights as gas lamps, Edwardian tea rooms, and cast-iron lavatories and crumbling terraces.  Mr Fletcher and I would have got on quite well because they are the sorts of things that I linger over too.  If you like social history (and I do!) there`s nary a wall of brick that fails to make me wonder about the person who trowelled the mortar into place those many years ago.

In his introduction, Fletcher writes...

`I should be glad to see London explorers boarding buses (and quite positively the best way to see London is from the top of a bus - the pity is that the old open-topped ones were withdrawn) simply because they like the look of the name on the indicator, and to give the well-known sights, which we all know about, a well-earned rest.`

A selection of Fletcher`s favourite places or observations...

....in Edgeware Road, the old houses have almost gone, but there is a rich supply of delights, architectural and otherwise, as, for instance, Smiths the Butchers, where they take the meat away after the close of the day`s business and sell hot salt beef sandwiches and lemon tea until midnight.

....the gas lamp in Carting Lane, by the side of the Savoy...it`s iron column is hollow to allow for the passage of sewer vapours.

Camden Passage, Islington

....Of all the London cemeteries, Kensal Green, in Paddington, is, I think, the most melancholy.  ....opened in 1833, a product of the movement in favour of something less grotesque and more hygienic than the old churchyards.

....Undertakers` parlours of such Victorian quality must be enjoyed before it is too late.  People stare through the windows of undertakers - at what?  Unless they are connoisseurs of Victoriana there seems to me little beyond the elaboration of terror and a frowsy dread that has no name.


....It is no wonder that Sickert found so much material in Camden Town - those delorous bed-sitters, the damp basement flats where life, seen through lace curtains, is a succession of human feet wearing out the pavement tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  

,,,,Probably the greatest aesthetic pleasure is obtained from the cast-iron urinal at the far end of Cheyne Walk.  This also is lit by a ghostly gas lamp, and behind are the curious assemblage of boats, converted wartime craft, ancient Thames barges, and the like, that house the floating Bohemian population of Chelsea.  This lavatory is also best seen at night and in the autumn, outlined against the plane trees and shining oily river.

....But Gothic architecture, being little understood, produced some weird churches in London and their provinces; `Commissioners` Gothic` the style came to be called.  Nearly all were so utilitarian as to be eminently unromantic, but I have in general a liking for them, especially when, furred with soot in the north of England, they tower over manufacturing town, over the chip and tripe shops and pigeon-haunted backyards.

Star Yard, Holburn

....Off the High Street is one of the most remarkable streets in the East End of London, Albury Street, with its extensive collection of doorways.  Both sides of the street have a succession of early eighteenth-century houses of two or three storeys.

....One of the finest and least-known London pubs is the Crown, Cunningham Place, on the edge of St John`s Wood and the mistressy Maida Vale.  The Crown is magnificently late Victorian, full of old wallpaper and marble, and possessing a billiard room complete in every detail, down to the horsehair seats.  Go there in a straw boater in summertime; smoke a Woodbine, and think about Kitchener.

If the reader was in any doubt about Geoffrey Fletcher`s stance on the future of the landscape of London, he drives it home in his closing paragraph....

`The old London was essentially a domestic city - never a grandiose or bombastic one.  Its architecture was therefore scaled to human proportions.  Of the new London, the London of take-over bids and soul-destroying office blocks, the less said, the better.`

Areas such as Spitalfields, which Fletcher considered long collapsed, are bustling and thriving with independent ventures by hardworking entrepreneurs.  I hope he would be pleased about the transition some neighbourhoods have made from dark and derelict to ones filled with neighbourhood pride.  In any case, I loved reading his thoughts on the parts of London he was passionate about and I`m curious to see if I can spot a few of them during my next trip. I`m no more a fan of glass `beehive` tower blocks than Fletcher was, but there`s usually something close by that is beautiful enough to steal my gaze.  As for eel-pie saloons....some things are best left in the past.

A wonderful read for fans of London, architecture or social history!